Welcome to Week Under Review where we try and make sense of the confounding NFL, introduce ideas and this week—in honor of the first quarter’s conclusion—hand out some hardware…
NFL seasons are always strange and twisty, but not to the extent of this one. Ben Roethlisberger who couldn’t buy an accurate pass in Week 3, smoked the Chiefs for five touchdowns and 300 yards. Last year’s NFC finalists, the Cardinals and Panthers, are 1–3. The Patriots, who had been surviving opposing defenses with random Disney characters under center, were shut out. If you’re looking for some zen and consistency in your life, stay far away from the NFL.
In terms of weirdness, Week 4 only added to the groundwork laid in the NFL’s first three weeks. Everything we thought we knew was just a mirage, like blinking hunches to be tossed in the over-hyped bin alongside the Bucs, Ravens and Carson Palmer, or the under-hyped bin loaded with Falcons, Broncos and … Jeff Fisher? It’s almost post-apocalyptic.
Now that first quarter of this season, or BTB (Before Tom Brady) as I like to call it, is in the books let us reflect on the few things we did learn and cement them quickly with BTB Awards before they too prove to be illusion.
Worst couple: Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano
Sometimes two subpar performers can motivate each other to at least achieve average status. But that’s not the case in Indianapolis where Jim Irsay’s bold decision to keep both his general manager and head coach after last season has backfired big time. Grigson and Pagano have existed in a land of toxicity for years, dating back to when the GM force adn unwanted offensive coordinator (Pep Hamilton) on his coach, and now, the two have collectively reached peak ineptness.
Grigson has made a slew of personnel mistakes, most notably failing to get any semblance of a real offensive line for Andrew Luck, thus stunting the growth of a promising franchise quarterback. Luck has already been sacked 13 times this season, the most of any starting quarterback.
Pagano, for his part, has yet to adjust to his roster limitations. The play-calling has mostly toggled between uninventive and putrid, which was on heightened display during the Colts embarrassing loss to the Jaguars in London. The Colts had staged a nice comeback attempt that was very much still in progress with less than 2:00 in the game. Inexplicably, on a fourth-and-one and the ball game on the line, Frank Gore was on the sideline. Andrew Luck began to scramble, but neglected to take an open lane to the first-down marker, instead throwing to a well-covered Dwayne Allen. Luck’s instincts should have kicked in on the play but Pagano needed a smarter play to run, and more overall urgency for the situation. Now the Colts sit at 1–3, which any Game of Thrones watcher can tell you is approximately the record of poorly arranged marriages.
Most intriguing couple: Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper
Cooper’s fantasy owners have been trying to figure out how Crabtree has become Derek Carr’s preferred receiving option in Oakland. It’s simple: Crabtree has improved in almost every facet of the game: route running, hands and explosiveness after the catch. To date, Crabtree’s 308 receiving yards and four touchdowns put him on pace for a career year.
Sure, Crabtree may be overshadowing Cooper from a fantasy perspective—Cooper has yet to score and was only targeted six times yesterday—but this is hardly the making of a sharp decline from the sophomore receiver. Remember what Cooper did last season? The 1,070 yards and six touchdowns? Cooper is on pace to surpass that yardage number. As teams adjust to Crabtree, Cooper will get plenty of targets.
Oakland is simply melding into one of the most exciting, burgeoning passing attacks in football. Cooper and Crabtree create a complementary, must-watch pair and they’ll only add to the developing lore with the Chargers, Chiefs and Jaguars lurking on the upcoming schedule.
Best display of an old person disrespecting technology: Bill Belichick spiking his Microsoft Surface against the Bills
Belichick doesn’t get rattled easily but the combination of Rex Ryan’s bravado, Ryan’s coaching prowess, and being forced to start a raw rookie quarterback with a bum thumb will do it. Destroying technology is definitely the Patriots Way.
Most unusual trend: Roger Goodell’s ability to breathe
Attempting to remember the last time the league office started a season without some self-inflicted controversy requires some major turning back of the clock. The Ray Rice suspension debacle, Deflategate, the inability to define a catch, the Cowboys’ Greg Hardy experiment, replacement refs and even the clear bag policy have all to some extent illuminated Goodell’s mismanagement, lack of communications or desire for more power. Many of these controversies became the story of the NFL, leaving game action to take second fiddle.
But this season to date has been entirely tame on the controversy scale. The anthem protesting was initiated by a player, not the league, and Goodell’s response to it (“We don’t live in a perfect society. We want players to use their voice.”) was refreshingly modern. The league has loosened its previously uncompromising uniform policies—players were allowed to wear cleats honoring 9/11 in Week 1, Antonio Brown was allowed to honor Arnold Palmer on his cleats in Week 4 and, as reported by SI.com’s Jonathan Jones, the floodgates will open Week 13 when players will be allowed a range of cause-oriented cleats. Things are not perfect, mind you (the new touchback rule has completely backfired) but there has been no sweeping controversy that has superseded the game itself.
Most boring team: Chicago Bears
Jay Cutler. No Jay Cutler. Win. Lose. Yawn. The Bears don’t have the firepower (or inventive playcalling) on offense to break the 20-point barrier; they have almost no playmakers on defense; and it’s hard to see how is laying the bricks for a rebuild.
Biggest conundrum: Showing the anthem protests on broadcasts
During yesterday’s national anthem before the Colts-Jaguars game in London, CBS spanned the field before rapidly cutting away as a camera found a Colts player, cornerback Antonio Cromarite, kneeling with his fist in the air. Some broadcasts have provided visuals of the protesting, while others have shied away. Should networks be showing this form of activism?
I have been vocal in my support of Kaepernick and others expressing their demands for societal justice, and I also strongly believe that anthem protesting has by far been the biggest story of this still-young NFL season. Inherently, it’s very hard to understand why a network would avoid the narrative of a movement that involves so many of its players, is not threatening or harmful to any group, and has somewhat been endorsed by the commissioner.
But I (sort of) understand the argument against—the fear that those against the protesting would find another sport that wraps itself in a cocoon of militaristic patriotism or that this storyline doesn’t neatly enough fit into the NFL’s place as the ultimate escape.
At this stage in the NFL’s history, it’s hard to deny its platform as a cultivator of societal issues. The league itself understands this role hence its propensity to take on a variety of causes. It’s also hard to deny the emphasis the league puts on its optics so the position to decided how much is shown of a fiery divisive movement is not an enviable one.
Funniest words uttered by an official: This Josh Norman penalty
Most missed NFL figure: Mike Tirico
Yes, Tom Brady has been more spokesman than football player this first quarter, and, as evidenced last night, the Steelers could have benefitted from Le’Veon Bell much earlier. But my tears are shed for Mike Tirico who had developed into a mainstay voice of the NFL.
Replacement Sean McDonough is knowledgeable and clearly prepared on the Monday Night Football telecast, but Tirico and Jon Gruden had developed an unmistakable chemistry. Tirico always embraced the fact that Gruden was the star and was so well adept at properly teeing up the former coach. But he also added his own brand of oomph, though storytelling or taking stands like not mentioning the nickname of a certain NFL team. It’s early, but the McDonough-Gruden pairing lacks energy or any semblance of grandiose product.
Coach I most want to have a beer with: Hue Jackson
Actually, I want to buy Hue so many beers and let him throw darts at a map of Cleveland. Poor poor guy.