Dak Hype Reaches Critical Levels, Back to the Future Part IV: Mularkey’s Revenge, Bengals Fall Apart

Plus, why the Jaguars have to bench Blake Bortles, the obnoxious pessimism of Jets fans, Mike Evans’ short-lived protest and more heading into Week 11
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1a. I think Dak Prescott is the cat’s pajamas, I really do. He’s not only good at football, but he looks like he’s in total control on the field at all times, even during a game’s biggest moments. From what I’ve heard he’s a really good dude. And he’s a handsome fella too, has that leading-man look. Twenty years from now he’s gonna star in a movie in which an aging Dwayne Johnson plays his father.

But my goodness, this MVP talk.

I guess it’s easy to get caught up in the narrative. A year ago this team imploded after Tony Romo went down. It turns out the answer to the Cowboys’ prayers fell into their laps only after they missed on their first two choices on draft weekend (Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook). And it’s the Cowboys! America’s team! It’s all really very, very neat and super cool.

Some would make the argument that Prescott hasn’t accumulated big enough numbers to warrant consideration. I don’t buy that. He’s made big plays when needed (just look at the two third-and-long conversions he made in last week’s win over the Steelers). So no, piling up numbers does not an MVP make. But Prescott can’t be MVP for two reasons: (1) While he’s been unexpectedly good, he hasn’t been one of the 10 best quarterbacks in football this year by any measure outside “QB Wins.” Prescott is complemented by the best supporting cast in football, by a fairly wide margin. When facing the Cowboys, opposing defenses gameplan for the running game first, second and third. Prescott is protected by the best offensive line in football (honestly, the time he has back there is insane!). He has delivered when they’ve needed him to deliver, but those times have been so few and far between. And (2) Prescott has not been one of the top three players on his own unit. The best player on the Cowboys’ offense (and you can make your own determination) has been either Ezekiel Elliott, Travis Frederick or Zack Martin (and that discounts Tyron Smith and Dez Bryant because they missed time with injuries).

The definition of “valuable” in the MVP conversation is open to interpretation. Nobody cares because I don’t have a vote, but I usually ask myself “if you plugged in a league-average starter for PLAYER X, how much worse off would his team be?” And when you strip away the backstory and the rookie status, Prescott isn’t doing anything that a league-average starting player at his position, in his situation, wouldn’t be doing. You can’t say that about Elliott, Frederick or Martin (or, when healthy, Bryant or Smith, or Tom Brady or Matt Ryan or Matthew Stafford or Andrew Luck or Derek Carr or Julio Jones or a host of other players), all of whom are performing exceptionally when compared to others at their position.

Prescott’s season has been more in line with Ben Roethlisberger 2004, or Andy Dalton 2011. That’s something to celebrate! His future is bright! But unless your interpretation of MVP is strictly “the starting quarterback of the team with the league’s best record,” then as it stands at the moment, there’s no MVP argument to be made for Prescott.

1b. Man, what a lame, click-baity lede to this column. Reacting to the click-bait claims of others. Ha! It’s all so very… internetty. Let’s see if we can do better the rest of the way…

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2. No one has been this excited about Exotic Smashmouth since the All-Star tour swung through the Pacific Rim (please provide your own rimshot).

a. The beauty of the Mike Mularkey’s back to the future offense, in four parts:

i. They are leaning on a power running game while defenses across the league have gotten faster but smaller. But you probably already knew that.

ii. They are fantastic in the red zone. Friend of The MMQB Geoff Schwartz has a much better X’s and O’s breakdown than I could possibly provide, but the stat to know: Tennessee’s red-zone TD percentage (76.5%) is the best in the NFL since the Trent Green/Priest Holmes Chiefs of 2003.

iii. Being able to run the ball successfully on early downs opens up so much in the passing game. Because of the run, opponents have to keep their base defense on the field more often than not. And base defense means a more predictable defense for your young quarterback to read. That opens up some easy passing opportunities on first and second down.

iv. Because they get in so many second-and-medium situations (only the Cowboys have more first-down rushing yards in 2016), the entire playbook is at Mularkey’s disposal. Again, opponents more often than not have to keep their base alignment on the field, play-action is still an option, and Marcus Mariota has some wide-open spaces to work with. The Titans are tied for second in the league on conversions of second-and-5 or less.

b. All this said, I’m not sold on Marcus Mariota as a budding star. A quality starter, sure. But Mariota has never seemed particularly comfortable (or adept) at getting the ball downfield with accuracy and velocity when coverage is tight.

It might be a residual consequence of running Oregon’s offense. Because of the Ducks’ turbo-speed tempo and superior talent, defenders were usually curled up in the fetal position, quietly sobbing by the middle of the third quarter. Mariota consistently had enormous windows in which to drop passes, which is probably why he still puts a ton of air under every deep ball he throws (when there’s no defender within 15 yards, you might as well give your receiver as much of a chance as possible). That’s not a problem right now. Look no further than the Titans’ last couple of games to see Mariota connecting on those rainbow throws.

But at some point, perhaps next season when every opponent has had a chance to digest what the Titans are doing, things are going to get tougher. And there will come a day when Mariota has to start connecting on some tougher downfield throws, like all great quarterbacks do. It’s the difference between, say, the greatness of Aaron Rodgers and the goodness of Alex Smith.

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3. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The 0-10 Browns would sit only five games out if the Ravens,
As expected, lose at Dallas this week.

That’s a stanza from an original poem written by me (featuring sampling from a work by William Butler Yeats).

Two months ago it seemed a given that one of the two AFC Wild-Cards would come out of the AFC North, just as it was in the days of my father, and in the days of my father’s father (or every year since 2008, with the exception of 2013). We’re past the midpoint of the season, and only the Ravens, assumed to be the division’s third-best team, is above .500. It’s safe to say that, aside from Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have been the two most disappointing teams of 2016.

In the Steelers’ case, it’s been in part due to their offense’s bizarrely poor play on the road. But on a more consistent basis, it’s been an issue with their young secondary. The two most crucial plays in last week’s home loss to Dallas were Artie Burns getting, one might say, “too thoroughly cooked” by Dez Bryant on a third-and-11, resulting in a 50-yard TD. And then there was second-round safety/slot man Sean Davis grabbing Jason Witten’s facemask on a tackle in the final minute, moving the Cowboys into winning field goal range on their final drive. (Ezekiel Elliott’s game-winning TD run came because the Steelers sold out on the play in an attempt to catch Elliott behind the line and make Dan Bailey’s job a little bit tougher.)

The good news for the Steelers is that young players take time in Keith Butler’s defense, which is why they have rarely relied on rookies in the past. You’d figure Burns and Davis have a chance to be valuable contributors down the line, maybe even later this season.

The Bengals’ issues are a bit more concerning. Their offensive line, a strength of this team for the past five years, has not been good. Have you ever seen this kind of “I’m done with this s---” body language from Andy Dalton in the past?

Of course not. The guy was barely touched over the first five seasons of his career. Part of the problem has been center Russell Bodine and left guard Clint Boling struggling on the interior. A bigger issue is that Andre Smith left as a free agent and Cedric Ogbuehi, drafted 21st overall in 2015 for the very purpose of stepping in for Smith, has been dreadfully bad in his first year as a starter. And things might get worse before they get better. Andrew Whitworth, a rock on this line for the past decade, has continued to be a star this year. That’s good! But he’s a free agent after this season. Jake Fisher, a second-round pick in ’15, has been sprinkled in as a sixth lineman every now and then and doesn’t look like he’s on the verge of being a contributor. Even if Whitworth is retained, he’ll be 35 this December. The laws of… you know, time… and space and whatnot… suggest that he won’t play at an All-Pro level for much longer.

Dalton benefited from one of the best supporting casts in football for many years, but it seems to be crumbling in front of him. He took three sacks on Monday night and is on pace to absorb 50 in a year for the first time in his career. And in Cincinnati, this might be the new normal.

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• MY VOICE IS SURPRISINGLY EFFEMINATE: It’s true, and I cringe every time I hear it on The MMQB 10 Things Podcast! But I still listen every week, because I learn a lot from Andy Benoit, we have some fun and people seem to enjoy it whether they’ve seen all of Sunday’s action or not. So subscribe now, because if we don’t get more listeners Peter King says he’ll break my thumbs.

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4. The Jaguars’ 2016 season passed away peacefully at its home on Sunday after a long, courageous refusal to tackle on defense or execute even the simplest plays on offense. In lieu of flowers, mourners have asked that you please perfect time travel and retrieve Mark Brunell, Jimmy Smith and Tony Boselli from the autumn of 1996.

The Jaguars’ last hope for a run to the top of the crappy AFC South disappeared with Sunday’s home loss to the Texans. So the question becomes: What do they do with Blake Bortles? Or, a more appropriate phrasing: By Lucifer’s beard, why are they still running Blake Bortles out there?!

As I wrote earlier this season, and as anyone with the ability to see or hear or feel or taste knows: Bortles is regressing at an alarming rate. He’s essentially back at the same point he was at when he first stepped off UCF’s campus in the winter of 2014. The misunderstanding is that quarterbacks get better by playing. That’s true if Bortles’ mechanics were tightened up and he showed a full grasp of his offense he’s running and of the defenses he’s seeing.

None of those things apply to Bortles. A quarterback can’t change his mechanics midseason because, once he’s on the field and the adrenaline is flowing and the proverbial bullets are flying and the habits most ingrained in his muscle memory take over, he’ll revert to his old ways. And here’s where it gets dangerous: The more he repeats those bad mechanics, the more ingrained they become. He’s in a hole. Someone has to get him to stop digging. It’s this!…

Benching Bortles would signify that something has gone horribly wrong with their QB of the future. And it has! But it wouldn’t signify that Bortles can’t be saved. The way to save him is to get him off the field and start reprogramming him as soon as possible. Leaving him out there is just playing the PR game with the fans. And honestly, Jaguars fans, considering the expectations coming into the year is 6-10 any more satisfying than 3-13?

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5. I’d like to take a moment to share an embarrassing story from when I was a younger man.

My brother is a long-time Patriots season-ticket holder, and back in 2003 I attended a Patriots-Jets game as a civilian (rather than a proud member of the press). I took a potty break during the fourth quarter with the Pats hammering Gang Green. Joining me in line was a Jets fan, delivering a speech along the lines of, The Patriots are so awesome, the Jets suck, I should just start rooting for your team, etc., etc. For some reason—perhaps because I had grown up alongside so many unnecessarily self-loathing Boston Red Sox fans—it struck me the wrong way. So I told the gentleman something along the lines of, Have a little pride in the team you root for, I grew up watching the Patriots lose 14, 15 games a year before they stumbled onto Tom Brady, you’d just jump back onto the bandwagon later etc. etc. Somehow my pep talk was not received the way I thought it would be, perhaps due to what could be described as the “multiple” beers this other gentlemen and I had combined to consume during the game. Things got heated and we eventually had to be separated by fellow bathroom-goers and sent back to our respective urinals. (I’m not sure it ever would have risen to the level of a physical fight—neither of us would pass the eyeball test as “fighters”—but if it did, considering the setting and the motivations for both sides, it would have gone down as the dumbest fight in NFL stadium bathroom history.)

So I guess the point (besides serving as a confessional) is this: I cringe at the unnecessary pessimism of certain groups of fans, and Jets fans are first and foremost on that list right now.

Sure, there’s reason for some pessimism at the moment. All the “if things break right...” things did break right a year ago, and a team with five- or six-win talent nearly made the playoffs. Those things have not broken right in 2016. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s Mr. Hyde has re-emerged (or would it be Dr. Jekyll? I don’t know the better quarterback is). Geno Smith was perfectly fine as a No. 2 QB, and then he suffered a season-ending knee injury. As expected, neither of the two developmental quarterbacks are ready. This is the kind of risk they ran with the quarterback situation last year too. A year ago it worked. This year it just didn’t.

I’m particularly amused/enraged by the “we coulda drafted Dak” storylines popping up this week. Could you imagine what would’ve happened to Dak Prescott if he were drafted by this team? The Jets would have been blasted for burning a second-round pick on a QB who had been arrested for DUI during the pre-draft process (he was, by the way, found not guilty on all charges two months after the draft, due to invalid breathalyzer results.) And remember all the PFF-fueled criticism of the Christian Hackenberg pick? Guess who else PFF graded as an undrafted free agent. Prescott would have come into camp third on the depth chart and been getting next to no practice reps. He would have been forced into action midseason for a team struggling up front and short on weapons (the exact opposite of his situation in Dallas). In other words, the alternate (or is it parallel?) universe Dak Prescott who was drafted by the Jets is not the Dak Prescott of our world.

The Jets drafted Hackenberg knowing he was likely a multi-year project. They weren’t supposed to need him in 2016, but the quarterback who starred for them a year ago imploded, and then their back-up got hurt. And that’s how it goes sometimes. Todd Bowles is still a good coach. The defense still has some nice pieces. And now the offense needs to be reconstructed a little bit sooner than they thought it would. The 2016 season is a lost cause. The franchise as a whole is not.

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6. Outside of maybe having both arms gnawed off by a pack of feral cats (it happens, look it up), it’s hard to imagine this season going any worse for Alshon Jeffery as he hits free agency. Whatever you think of Jay Cutler, the on-field chemistry between Cutler and Jeffery has been one of the few positives for the Bears over the last couple seasons. Jeffery played the chunk of this season without Cutler, instead being ignored by Brian Hoyer during the Bears’ “whatever you do don’t score more than 17 points” portion of the season. This will be Jeffery’s worst statistical season since his rookie year.

But he is still easily a top-10 talent among NFL receivers, the kind of guy who doesn’t need to be schemed open. It would be hard to imagine there not being a bidding war for him on the open market. And after all, as we saw with Brock Osweiler last offseason, it only takes two to create a bidding war.

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7. So Rob Gronkowski played last Sunday night with a punctured lung. Well, I once played an intramural flag football game with a broken heart. Were my actions any less courageous? Think about it.

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Warning: Stick to Sports-ish moment coming up, so skip ahead to No. 9 if you’re so inclined. (But, c’mon, you’ve made it this far in the column...)

8. “If you choose not to decide/you still have made a choice!”
—Geddy Lee

I don’t subscribe to Rush’s Ayn Rand bullcrap (and apparently neither do they). But I do believe in a person’s right to abstain from participating in an election if they don’t support any candidate.

And I believe in a player’s (or any person’s) right to peacefully protest on behalf of a cause, even if that cause might be at odds with the NFL’s attempt to grow the business through ceremonial “Salute to Service.” I’ve seen “Kaepernick” misspelled enough times in our Talkback inbox and Twitter feeds to know that people have strong feelings when it comes to anthem protests. Some of the criticism rings true (hey, it is often unpleasant when entertainment and politics mix, and if you’re just sitting down to enjoy a football game and forget about life…). And some of it… well… (certainly there is too much nuance and complexity in the world to simply claim “anthem = military personnel” as the only possible interpretation for everyone, everywhere; and even if you ignore the fact that those brave enough to serve in our military are fighting in large part to protect the Constitution—of which the First Amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances”—emphasis mine, not only are respecting a protest and the grievances therein and respecting our military personnel not mutually exclusive, but I personally have never interacted with anyone supporting the protests who doesn’t also respect military personnel. It’s a big country and I’m sure people like that are out there, but I mean, how could a rational person have anything but respect for someone willing to ship off to God know’s where and literally risk his or her life on behalf of millions of strangers? If Stuart Redus broke into my house right now and gave me a swirly, I’d think to myself, Man, what a jerk move… but oh well, he's still a better man than I am.)

Where was I? Right, so Mike Evans. Over the past week, much of the vitriol was redirected toward Mike Evans when he sat during the anthem on Sunday in protest of the election of Donald Trump. Soon after, it came to light that Evans himself didn’t vote, inciting another wave of vitriol.

The thing is, the fact that he didn’t vote doesn’t mean Evans gave up his right to protest. However, the fact that he didn’t vote does make Evans’ protest much more difficult to take seriously. And much easier to mock. (I mean, c’mon guy, you work and live in a swing state and couldn’t be bothered to register there? You obviously didn’t feel that invested in the outcome of this election.) Anyway, he’ll have a chance to get it right in 2020 when Trump runs for re-election against… I dunno, probably that British chef who’s always yelling at people (the one whose promos always used to come up during Fox games).* I assume we’ll continue to mine reality TV programming for our candidates.**

* — Yeah, I know he has a name, but I take personal satisfaction in the fact that I don’t know it, and I don’t want to sully my internet history by looking it up.

** — Yes, he’s British and therefore ineligible for the presidency… for now. But, I mean, if four years ago someone told you a born-on-third billionaire turned reality TV star would ride a populist wave to victory in 2016…

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9. Since Week 6 or so, we’ve had this conversations going around the office, always in hushed tones: Have you seen Joey Bosa? He’s good. Like, really, really good. Andy Benoit went ahead and confirmed what we’ve all been thinking. Then he put it in writing. The headline is a little clickbait-y (hey, it’s the world we live in), but the fact remains: Joey Bosa is really, really good.

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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…

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.