Welcome to Week Under Review where we celebrate an unsung team and call out the NFL’s latest hypocrisy, but first, let’s point the lens on Green Bay where things are strange…
I own one of those magnified makeup mirrors, designed to help you apply your eye makeup symmetrically or make sure that you don’t have a wayward dollop of moisturizer on your cheek. But in reality, the mirror’s magnification can be a self-esteem-busting vessel, revealing the horror show of imperfections that come with a day-to-day life of little sleep.
Thanks to the national draw of the Cowboys, Aaron Rodgers and his bygone back shoulder throw were confronted with a similar magnifier in Week 6—and it was ugly.
Rodgers can still throw a strike like no quarterback in NFL history (well, at least I think he can, or maybe that’s just what we’re supposed to say because the reality is too confounding to process), but Rodgers was full of poor decisions and inaccurate throws on Sunday, like this oddity that was ripped out the Blaine-Gabbert-Jay-Cutler-insert-mockworthy-quarterback–here playbook:
Sunday was no anomaly. In fact, Rodgers has only topped a 100.0 passer rating once in the past year. Entering Sunday’s game against Dallas, Rodgers was the least efficient starting quarterback in the league—and even after yesterday’s (somewhat misleading) 73.8% completion percentage, he still toils in the bottom five. His offensive line, which Pro Football Focus has ranked in the top five for most of 2016, provided him plenty of opportunities to scan the field and extend plays. Instead we saw a lot of hesitancy, inaccuracy and general malaise. The difference between mediocre and decent, or great and Hall-of-Fame worthy often hinges on a collection of decisions. Rodgers had options Sunday and took little advantage. Even his post-game excuse bank was uninspiring.
Blaming outside culprits is no longer acceptable in Rodgers’s southern trend. Yes, Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s play-calling is an inventive as the cereal and milk I “cooked for breakfast” this morning. Yes, Jordy Nelson’s ACL may not be 100% healed. And yes, there is that celebrity girlfriend. But these minor obstacles would have little impact on the Aaron Rodgers of two years ago who threw 38 touchdowns to only five interceptions, or last year’s version who gutted out two Hail-Mary wins even as his overall dominance started to wane. This version is a shell of himself, still dangerous because of his inherent tools but no longer fear-inducing.
I honestly have no idea what is happening with Rodgers, but I sincerely hope he comes out of his funk soon. The NFL needs him. Peyton’s gone. Tom Brady will hang ‘em up at soon point soon, as inconceivable as it seems. Conventional wisdom has anointed the 32-year old Rodgers to keep the quarterback era burning bright. Maybe we’ve been spoiled (scratch that: we’ve definitely been spoiled) in becoming so accustomed to a collection of awe-inducing quarterbacks concurrently in their prime. Maybe the reality of Rodgers’s last twelve months is a signal that the era of consistent greatness en masse is over, that we’ll just have to glom on to the latest Dak Prescott or ride the wave when Philip Rivers goes on a hot streak. Or maybe I’m overreacting and Rodgers will be just fine. The Packers are still 3–2, after all. But it doesn’t feel that way anymore. There should be no more r-e-l-a-x-ing. Something is off.
The no-fun factory
This week brought more confusion from a league that prides itself on being an entertainment brand yet wants its players reverting to library mode in the most adrenaline-filled moments of their jobs. Redskins TE Vernon Davis was flagged for an excessive celebration call for mimicking a free throw shot after scoring a touchdown on Sunday (and the penalty led to the NFL’s first kickoff touchdown of the season by the Eagles’ Wendell Smallwood). 49ers running back Carlos Hyde was fined $9,115 for flexing his muscles after a first-down during a Week 5 loss. These are not harmful, hate-filled acts. They are simple displays of individualism amid celebration. Who cares?
Meanwhile, the league continuously pushes the boundaries of its x’s and o’s nuts and bolts. Cheerleaders dot the sidelines performing sexually suggestive dances, while a player scoring a touchdown is penalized for the same action. The NFL is expert at marketing its glitz and fun and boldness, but then expects its players to act like they’re in a monastery. I don’t get this trend at all.
How about them Bills?
Lost in the sea of “Colin Kaepernick is in town and starting” coverage was the continued emergence of a Buffalo team left for dead after Week 2. Remember when coach Rex Ryan was a goner? Well, since offensive coordinator Greg Roman was actually booted, the Bills have quietly won four games in a row—if the season ended today, they would be in the playoffs. LeSean McCoy was incredible on Sunday, scoring three touchdowns on 140 rushing yards, all the while instantly shaking off what looked to many like a potential season-ending knee injury.
McCoy’s heroics aside, this defense continues to coalesce, bringing Buffalo within striking distance of the playoffs. The Bills are up to 20 sacks on the season, one shy of the league lead, and the debut of first-round linebacker Shaq Lawson looms—he’s eligible to practice this week after sitting out with a shoulder injury suffered in May. Meanwhile, aside from upcoming matchups against New England and at Seattle, the Bills schedule is largely winnable.
And if anything should signal that times are changing in Buffalo it’s this: After Sunday’s 45–16 win over San Francisco, Ryan was asked what the Bills’ fourth-straight win meant to him. Old Ryan would have taken the blank easel and filled it with bombastic rhetoric. New Ryan simply and humbly said, “Nothing, man.”
Other thoughts from Sunday
• SI’s Dan Gartland recently spewed his hatred for Tom Brady’s Facebook account. Honestly, I’m starting to agree. The promotional posts are too frequent and the cheesy “TB Times” front pages are too cringeworthy. Tom, you’re a 39-year old man who’s won four Super Bowls and is headed to the Hall of Fame. Is this really necessary?
• Why do Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson still have jobs?
• Welcome to my weekly Frank Gore lovefest. This week, the 33-year old medical ran for 106 yards on 22 carries and is now averaging an impressive 4.3 yards per carry. The most impressive stat of all (and perhaps in all of football): Gore hasn’t missed a start since Oct. 2, 2011—more than five years.
• Let’s make sure Cody Kessler’s impressive performance yesterday (336 yards, two touchdowns, zero turnovers) doesn’t get lost in the mix. Kessler’s decision-making is still a work in progress (and yes, the Browns are 0–6) but the rookie was incredibly resilient Sunday. Entering the game dealing with tragedy (his great-grandmother recently passed away and his brother was hospitalized with a rapid heart beat) not to mention an injured chest he suffered against New England last week, Kessler battled all game while enduring six sacks and numerous other hits. No one considered Kessler NFL-ready to start the season, but the Browns are forcing him to learn quickly, and he’s largely stepped up to the challenge. The day-to-day in Cleveland is murky, but the future is becoming more solidified every week.