Saturday Takeaways: Dolphins Summon FitzMagic in Vegas, Kliff-Kyler Cards Lay an Egg

Also, the fall of Big Ben, the Seahawks get back to basics for Rams rematch, Matthew Stafford’s future, the solution for tanking and more. Plus, musical guest: The Mountain Goats!
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Due to Saturday football, we are once again forced to recreate the unholy union of the weekly preview and review columns. We begin with the Sunday FreakOut: Saturday Edition, reacting and overreacting to everything that happened in the Week 16 Saturday games...

Things That Made Me Giddy

FitzMagic, Defined: In a must-win game, when Tua Tagovailoa’s level of conservative play could only be described as Tyrod-ish, Brian Flores went to the bullpen once again and Fitzpatrick delivered. Fitzpatrick's one mistake was a third-and-goal, four-point misfire to a wide-open Mike Gesicki (Gesicki one-on-one against Johnathan Abram is the kind of matchup an offensive coordinator dreams of but would never dare expect to encounter in reality). But aside from that, the vet was everything you could possibly want him to be.

Darren Waller Is Pretty Close to Unguardable: Because I’m a sportswriter, I can’t help but make this about myself: Two offseasons ago, as former podcast partner and spiritual guru Andy Benoit and I wrung our metaphorical and literal hands over the state of Derek Carr’s weapons, a number of Raiders fans complained about our lack of recognition for ex-Ravens practice squad pickup Darren Waller. And for their input they were subjected to my derisive laughter, Fools, he was on the practice squad for a reason, I would say to myself in the form of an inner monologue (but never aloud because I’m a polite young man). Anyway, Waller has repeatedly been a difference-maker over the past two seasons, and Saturday night, when Vegas had few other options in the passing game, Waller’s ability to beat one-on-one coverage and make plays on the ball was the biggest reason the Raiders were in position to win that game.

Jason Sanders Has the Magic in Him Too: On a day of shaky kicking across the NFL, Sanders once again proved to be an absolute rock for the Dolphins, drilling the 44-yarder to win it.

Robert Saleh vs. Kliff Kingsbury: It was a coaching mismatch for the ages, as Saleh’s unit—so injury-plagued that it featured a seemingly inordinate number of players with numbers in the 60s—took on a Cardinals offense featuring the 2019 draft’s top overall pick, the best receiver in football, a Hall of Fame receiver, and an offensive line fully intact. The result was Saleh’s group thoroughly trouncing Kingsbury’s, especially when it came to solving the Cardinals’ protection rules (every time Arizona slid a protection, the 49ers had a free runner coming at Kyler Murray from the other side). Hopefully, after watching another week of Detroit’s non-competitive defense, Chris Spielman cleansed his palate by watching Saleh’s group, then thoughtfully rubbed his chin and thought about the future.

When the Fake Punt Isn’t a Surprise: The Dolphins knew the Raiders would be on alert for a fake on a fourth-and-1 at midfield, so they added a twist: Look at the unbalanced line, which causes the primarily-special-teams-player-for-a-reason edge guy to lose contain and open the cutback lane for Clayton Fejedelem. That is, as the kids say, good coaching.

Jeff Wilson in Kyle Shanahan’s Scheme: It was another week in which Shanahan simply had his opponent figured out (which seems to be most weeks): 22 rushes for 183 yards for Wilson, as the Niners went for 228 yards and 7.9 per carry (excluding a game-ending kneeldown) on designed runs in Arizona.

49ers Play Spoiler: Like a good organization should.

Bears Fans Love the Packers: Or hate the Titans. Or, if you want to get technical about it, will root for the Packers to win Sunday night so that Green Bay has no playoff-seeding incentive to play for in Week 17, when a Bears victory (assuming they beat the Jaguars on Sunday) would send Chicago to the playoffs.

Regrets

Raiders’ Situational Defense: A lack of talent is the unit’s biggest issue, but goodness, what did Rod Marinelli tell them coming into that final drive? There’s 19 seconds left and the Dolphins had no timeouts working from their own 25, and rookie corner Damon Arnette played that like it was third-and-goal from the 3. Coaching is teaching, and apparently the rookie has not been taught well.

Is This Worthy of a 49-Yard Penalty?: With 150 seconds left in a one-point game with playoff implications for both teams? I trust the rhetorical nature of those questions makes my stance clear...

The Raiders Drawing Miami Offsides Was Also a Blown Call: The motion by fullback Alec Ingold was indeed legal—the twitch that preceded it was not. That was a false start—and a difficult couple minutes for Tony Corrente’s otherwise solid crew.

The Cardinals Have Problems: They just went out against what is essentially the 49ers’ second-string defense and managed 12 points and 4.4 yards per play in a game they needed to have. To call the Cardinals' offense “middling” at this point—despite the fact that they’ve been relatively untouched by injuries this season—would be quite generous. This is a franchise that pulled the plug on Steve Wilks after a single season; considering the obscene investment they’ve made on the offensive side of the ball for their new coach, is there any real justification to stay the course aside from “Welp, can’t pull the plug early on another coach.”

[Exasperated Sigh] Tua… : The Dolphins were short on weapons again, and you wonder what he might become if they surround him with a supporting cast the likes of which Drew Brees has enjoyed in New Orleans. But eight starts into his career his limitations have been on display more than his strengths—he doesn’t have the pure athleticism to create his own time and space, he’s getting better at managing the pocket but it’s not good enough yet, and his arm talent necessarily limits the offense’s play designs (whether they want to get more aggressive or not). Ultimately, I think he’ll be a quality starter as long as he shakes this conservative streak, but he certainly hasn’t been transcendent so far and I’m not sure there’s reason to believe he will be.

Chase Daniel vs. Blaine Gabbert: At some point, the FCC had to step in and pull this off the air. The only explanation is that Gary Pinkel greased some palms in D.C. Follow the money, people.

Robbie Gould: His streak of 31 straight makes from inside 50 crashed and burned in spectacular fashion, as he missed potential game-clinchers from 41, 37 and a PAT in order to keep us glued to our glitchy Amazon Prime feeds. (Actually, my Amazon Prime feed was fine.)

Ryan Succop's Two Missed PATs and a Pulled 42-Yarder Indoors: Well it’s a mess, what a mess. What ya gonna do?

The Lions’ Pick Your Poison Defense: Are you going to throw it against the zone coverage that immediately bails 12 yards behind the sticks? Or are you going to run it against the linebackers who won’t put a hand on your ballcarrier until he’s eight yards downfield? Or are you going to suffer decision paralysis… just like they knew you would. Anyway, one day this approach will work in Detroit.

Can We Get Matthew Stafford a Cart?: Or crutches? Or something? Or is this just an extension of the five-year troll job on Stafford that was the Bob Quinn era in Detroit?

Moments We’ll Tell Our Grandkids About

Ha! Nelson Agholor: His Philadelphia career included a ring (he had nine catches in a Super Bowl win!) but is mostly remembered as a meme for dropping passes. Anyway, he’s having a great bounce-back season in Vegas:

Myles Gaskin (and Two Downfield Blocks) Briefly Saves Boxing Day:

What We’ll Be Talking About This Week

The Bucs Are Totally On Track Now, Right?: Maybe. There’s nothing wrong with a couple of tune-ups heading into the playoffs, but that’s all the Atlanta-Detroit-Atlanta portion of the schedule provides. They won’t see defenses this bad in the postseason because teams with defenses this bad don’t make the postseason (it’s not a coincidence that both those franchises fired their defensive head coaches during the season). The Bucs are 1-4 against teams that are currently “in” the playoff picture, and that moves to 1-5 if the Bears win in Jacksonville on Sunday.

Trade Matthew Stafford This Offseason: If you’re not picking at the top of the draft, Stafford is the one quarterback (potentially) available this offseason who can lift a good team to championship-caliber—much in the same way he just lifted a zero-win team to a team that won some games over the past three seasons. That’s worth a mid- to low-first-round pick. And as for the Lions, the Bob Quinn era left them looking at a multi-year rebuild, one that even in a perfect world won’t be ready to compete until Stafford is likely well into his decline. Unless Stafford insists on staying in Detroit, which is a decision he has the right to make but should be met by an intervention by loved ones, it's time to move on.

Who Starts for the Dolphins in Buffalo?: It has to be the Ryan Fitzpatrick revenge game, right? The gods of the narrative wouldn’t have it any other way. (UPDATE: Tua will be the Dolphins' opener in Week 17.)

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week-16-preview

Now, if you’ll please join me in the amphitheater, we present Football Things, previewing the rest of Week 16…

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1. 2020 Ben Roethlisberger is starting to smell an awful lot like 2015 Peyton Manning, which is a mixture of Aqua Velva, Papa John’s garlic sauce and an alarming lack of arm talent.

You might remember the heady days of late 2015, when Manning was benched in November in favor of Brock Osweiler, before Osweiler’s lack of competence swung the job back to Manning in the third quarter of that regular-season finale. That season, Manning’s arm strength had fallen below requisite levels for an NFL quarterback—ultimately it was a combination of a historically great defense and Jamie Collins’s inability to cover Owen Daniels in the AFC title game (a performance that guaranteed Collins’s fate as a future Detroit Lion) that resulted in the Broncos’ Super Bowl victory.

Fast-forward to 2020 (because nothing of note happened between then and now, except for Ash Ketchum winning that Aloha region Pokémon title). In his prime, Big Ben was arguably the best pure thrower the sport had ever seen; his ability to power the ball downfield accurately from different platforms, often with pass-rushers hanging off his waist and/or legs, was otherworldly. Those throws became less frequent as he entered quarterback middle-age—due to both consequences of the aging process and improved ability to diagnose in the pre-snap phase—and they’ve completely dried up over the past couple seasons. However, Roethlisberger’s arm talent hasn’t sunk to the depths that Manning’s once had. Physically, his struggle to get the ball downfield seems to be rooted in less torque coming from his core—likely the result of knee and back ailments. But, really, the opportunities are being limited by design.

In September, the Steelers unveiled a new motion-heavy, horizontal passing attack that was unlike anything they’d run with Roethlisberger. It worked early in the year when opponents were caught off-guard, but the tape is out there now and no one is getting caught by surprise (see Monday night, when the Bengals safeties were planting a foot at the snap ready to come crashing down on those shallow crossers). The recent play-calling betrays a petrifying fear that Roethlisberger can’t withstand even the slightest bit of contact, and the result is an offense that hasn’t expanded as the seasons has gone on, despite it being a necessity.

If there is so much fear of a Roethlisberger injury, the Steelers could keep him on the bench until their next meaningful game, in the Wild-Card round. But they don’t have even an Osweilerian backup they can turn to (which raises the question of why they didn’t make the minimal spend to address the need last offseason—even if it wasn’t going to be Jameis Winston, a Joe Flacco or even a Geno Smith, both signed for less than $2 million, would have been a fit and an upgrade).

Or perhaps Pittsburgh is looking at the 2015 Broncos’ unlikely path to a championship—a historically great defense simply overwhelming every one of the team’s shortcomings—as the model. That’s a narrow path to victory over four games though. The more logical (and more likely) approach: At some point, they’re going to have to recalibrate the risk/reward of attacking downfield and putting Roethlisberger in harm’s way.

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2. Consider this your semi-annual reminder that the Rams have had their way with the Seahawks the past few years, to the tune of eight wins in their last 11 meetings, a 5-2 record in the Sean McVay era, and comfortable wins in their last two matchups. If not for Greg Zuerlein shanking a 44-yarder as time expired on a Thursday night last season, L.A. would also have wins in all three trips to Seattle under McVay. And consider this a first-time-ever reminder that if the Rams go to Seattle and win on Sunday, they’ll once again control the NFC West and no one will necessarily care that they lost to the Jets (except for Jets fans who root for tanking).

However, this matchup will be different than their first meeting of 2020. Week 10 was the final days of the short-lived “Let Russ Cook” era in Seattle—the Seahawks have called more pass plays than run plays in only one of their five games since that loss (when they were scrambling to play from behind in a loss to the Giants). In that game at SoFi, the Rams all but literally dared Seattle to run the ball on early downs, showing exceedingly light looks on first downs only to have the Seahawks play right into their hands—Seattle backs ran it 13 times for 51 yards in a loss that was far more lopsided than the 23-16 final score would suggest.

Of course, the Seahawks’ backs in that game were Alex Collins and DeeJay Dallas. For the rematch, Chris Carson (10th in the NFL in rushing average, 5.0) and Carlos Hyde will be active, which means the Rams are taking their lives into their hands if they dare Seattle to run it. And coming off an underwhelming performance against the Jets, celebrated first-year defensive coordinator Brandon Staley has a much tougher challenge this time around.

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3. Finally, this will be a weekly reminder from now until the end of time—or at least whenever this column is no longer considered profitable: By implementing the rookie wage scale in conjunction with the draft, the NFL has created a system in which teams are greatly incentivized to lose games. And that flies in the face of the most basic tenet of competitive sports, that every team is trying to win.

In light of this, when the next CBA comes up in 2030 the league must either abolish the rookie wage scale—forcing teams to pay something at least resembling market value for top young talent—or better yet, abolish the draft altogether. With a hard salary cap already in place, teams are unable to stockpile talent. Give rookies the choice of where to sign rather than, for instance, forcing a generational talent to join a dysfunctional and aggressively anti-labor small-market franchise. If players really all want to sign with Kansas City or Miami or Dallas, they’ll be leaving a lot of money on the table. And, as an added bonus, the annual Rookie Signing Night would be the greatest event in the history of televised sports.

As it stands right now, the Jaguars’ (or Jets’) spectacular run of incompetence is going to be rewarded with a franchise quarterback locked into a contract that, for three years, will pay him approximately 25% of his actual market value. Not unlike when the utterly dysfunctional Colts were rewarded with Andrew Luck almost a decade ago. It’s unfair to the player, the league, the fans, and flies in the face of the spirit of competition.

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4. As you might have heard, pretty much everyone with a uniform number in the 80s or the teens for Cleveland is injured or on the COVID list now. NFL, do the right thing and postpone the Browns-Jets game to Week 18 and push the postseason back a week. We'll all live. And, perhaps more importantly, we might have a Trevor Lawrence Tank-a-Thon clincher for the world to see.

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5. Ladies and gentlemen . . . The Mountain Goats! (A little on-the-nose, I know…)

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