- Plus, a little respect for the Detroit Lions, Chargers attendance problems are only going to get worse, and, yeah, some stuff on the Trump comments. Plus, musical guest: Radiohead!
1. Over the course of the long, storied history of this column, I’ve had something of a complicated relationship with Bill O’Brien and the Houston Texans. I’ve mocked them for a refusal to draft a quarterback, I’ve mocked them for signing Brock Osweiler, and then when they were on the verge of a third straight winning season and second straight division title last December I wrote, basically, that I wished O’Brien and GM Rick Smith were my real parents and was roundly mocked by the city of Houston. O’Brien, for his part, has never seen anything I’ve written or heard anything I’ve said and has no idea who I am. So I guess what I’m saying is, it’s been a pretty healthy exchange of ideas.
As you might suspect from the headline of this piece, I am truly concerned about their approach to handling Deshaun Watson. Judging from draft hot-take season, there are quite a few misconceptions about Watson.
First, physically, he’s a good prospect, not a great prospect. His arm falls under “good enough.” As a runner, he’s closer to a bigger, slightly slower version of Tyrod Taylor than he is to generational athletes like Michael Vick or Robert Griffin III. The speed of NFL defenses and dimensions of the field (particularly the narrow hashmarks) make the geometry of the NFL far different from the college game—put simply, there’s much less space to work with out there. It demands quarterbacks win from the pocket. Every once in awhile, a generational athlete comes along who can break that geometry (think Vick and RG3), but that’s probably not Watson. He can, should and will make plays with his legs over the course of his career.
By all accounts, Watson is a leader of men with all the intangibles you want in your franchise quarterback. Could he, like Russell Wilson, defy all the precedents and be a playmaker who then adds traditional pocket passing to his game? Maybe. But remember, Wilson is a physical marvel, 5' 11" but built like a tank. A tank made out of quick-twitch muscle. And, of course, Wilson spent his final college season in a pro-style offense at Wisconsin. Watson’s path to becoming a franchise quarterback seems likely to be a more traditional road considering his lack of experience in a pro-style system.
Which brings us to the second point: Watson was in no way pro-ready coming out of college. Winning a national championship is impressive and suggests that he can handle the big stage of the NFL, which is all very good. But if playing well against Nick Saban’s Alabama teams were a true litmus test for pro-readiness, then we’d be hearing more about 2016 Mr. Irrelevant Chad Kelly (two games against Alabama: 331.5 passing yards/game, six TDs, 0 INTs, a rushing TD and a win in Tuscaloosa), or Auburn-QB-turned-NFL-practice-squad-CB and current free agent Nick Marshall (456 passing yards plus 49 rushing yards in his final Iron Bowl). The fact is, Watson was primarily (though not strictly) a one-read quarterback in college.
So to ask him to immediately run an NFL offense . . . well, let’s put it this way: My 6-year-old daughter started taking piano lessons. Right now, she’s working on Polly Wolly Doodle.* If I put the sheet music to Für Elise in front of her tomorrow, how do you think it would go? (If I could take a moment to steal from my colleague, podcast co-host and contractually obligated best friend Andy Benoit: Consider Carson Wentz last season. He came from an FCS school, but he ran a pro-style offense in college, which, for the sake of extending this tortured metaphor, is kind of like he was playing Für Elise, just at a much slower pace. That’s why, while last year brought growing pains for Wentz, he was able to handle an NFL offense.)
If Darqueze Dennard doesn’t imitate a baby fawn walking for the first time when he was eyeing Watson in the open field last Thursday night, that 49-yard TD scramble to beat the Bengals never happens, and we’re more likely talking about Watson’s disastrous first six quarters in the NFL. (Remember that on the other touchdown drive Watson has led—a pass to DeAndre Hopkins in the Jacksonville loss—a disastrous interception a few plays earlier was erased by a hands-to-the-face penalty that didn’t affect the play.) For those of you who are addicted to numbers on spreadsheets: So far, in their passing grades PFF has Watson just edging out Scott Tolzien for 37th place among 38 qualifiers, and according to Stats Inc. Watson is 3-for-14 on passes thrown 10-plus air yards.
Of course, the last six quarters are now the past. What’s the future? O’Brien’s World of Option Routes offense—which is less like asking a young pianist to play Für Elise and more like sitting her down and saying “play like Keith Jarrett,”—has, by necessity, been toned down. It seems like what they ran in Cincinnati was closer to Clemson than to the Houston Texans. And that can be fine when you’re coming off the bench at halftime, or playing that Thursday nighter, when the opponent has little or no time to prepare for something that isn’t on tape (recall Jacoby Brissett beating Houston on a Thursday night after having only one half of NFL football under his belt). Now Watson is on tape. There is no running game to take the heat off him, because the Texans are running out Nick Martin and four guys who can’t block (a great name for a 60s-era pop-rock quintet, by the way) because they refuse to give in to their B-plus left tackle who clearly has them over a barrel because even a B-plus left tackle is a monstrous upgrade for this O-line. There is no pass protection. It won’t be long until every defense is ready for the DeAndre Hopkins-or-run-like-hell offense.
But, worst of all, running a rudimentary offense is just throwing away an important developmental year for Watson. It’s exactly what you shouldn’t be doing with your developmental quarterback if you feel he’s your quarterback of the future. You can’t simulate the feel of a live game, but that cuts two ways. While it gives your quarterback a taste for the speed and intensity and competitiveness of the NFL, it also hammers home bad habits—physical and mental—making them more deeply ingrained. Because when the proverbial bullets are flying, and you don’t want to embarrass yourself in front of a few million people; you naturally go back to what you feel most comfortable doing. For Watson, that’s the stare-down-one-look-then-make-a-break-for-it approach that worked at Clemson, but will not work in the NFL.
I understand why Watson is under center, though. With the inability of the offensive line to block anyone, he can at least run away from a pass rush, which is more than you can say for Tom Savage’s wooly-mammoth-moving-through-tar-pit mobility. But it raises the question: Why are the Texans only carrying two quarterbacks anyway? If you’re going to scrap your offense for a rudimentary one that emphasizes your quarterback’s runaround skillset, and you want to win games that way without stalling Watson’s development, I know a certain fella looking for work who fits the bill. And if you don’t want him because of this (a 10-Trump rating according to The Football Girl's research!), then RG3 is ready to go. (Or, you can fire up the flux capacitor, go back to last spring and sign Jay Cutler like you should have. Or, as long as you’ve mastered time travel, just go all the way back to 2014 and take Derek Carr with the 33rd pick of the draft.) I know there are challenges developing quarterbacks under the new CBA, but there’s the long list of quarterbacks who redshirted as rookies and beyond (Brady, Rodgers, Brees, Rivers, Romo, etc.) and ultimately were pretty O.K. Is there a plan in place to develop Watson while playing him this early? I don’t know, but I’d think if there was he would have been named the starter coming out of training camp rather than plugged in midway through the season opener in what feels like a panic move. But regardless, from afar, I’d rather have Watson frozen in carbonite for a year than out on the field, solidifying the habits that will ultimately be detrimental.
Of course, take all of this with a grain of salt. I’ve never developed a quarterback in my life. And really, in general, what the hell do I know? (There’s a war on expertise in this country that is prevalent when it comes to both important things and not-important things, like football, where if you have an NFL Game Pass subscription you think you now know more than 70% of the coaches in the league.) Watson is his own man with his own mind and hands and legs and soul; he might be a savant who simply develops differently than those who came before him. Maybe he goes out on Sunday and torches the Patriots in Foxboro. But in five years he’ll be good, or bad, or O.K., and we’ll have our answer as to whether or not I am right to wring my hands. So . . . see you in five years, I guess.
2a. You might have noticed a few paragraphs above, I mentioned the current President of the United States. I’d like to preface this next section by saying: He started it. He’s the one who talked football, so today he’s fair game.
I understand why the NFL and its owners want desperately to be apolitical. They’re a business, they’re trying to make money, and there’s no reason for them to cut off a chunk of their customer base. It’s like, if I owned a restaurant, and I had a really good chef but he insisted on striking up conversations with customers about the problem with mandatory minimum sentences, and even though he’s right, a bunch of customers came to me and said, “I just wanted some focaccia bread, I’m not coming back,” I might have to let that chef go. And then I might get heat from other customers who liked that he was socially active. Of course, I don’t have more money than I could spend in three lifetimes, and in all likelihood my imaginary restaurant wouldn’t have been funded by taxpayer dollars (or tax breaks, or subsidies). So, I think NFL teams have a moral obligation to the communities they play in, especially those communities that paid for their stadiums. I think they’re morally wrong for trying to give the impression that they’re apolitical. But I get the motivation.
That said, President Trump forced ownership’s hand on Thursday night. It’s been heading toward this endgame ever since Kaepernick first began his demonstration last summer, but after Trump’s “Get that son of a bitch off the field comment” it’s at their doorstep. The tacit approval of saying nothing would have spoken volumes. If there is a gray area with Trump, no one has found it—he trolled his way to the presidency, he’s trolling his way through the presidency; he’s a divisive force. Those who are with him are quite vocal. But here’s the thing: While the President is wildly popular with some people, he is wildly unpopular with more people. And he is exceptionally unpopular with young people. In fact, there is pretty much a direct proportion between age and Trump approval; the younger you are, the more likely you are to disapprove of him. So, the President has forced NFL ownership to pick a side. It’s not a particularly brave stance to point out how wholly un-American it is for the head of state to call for peaceful demonstrators to be punished, and it’s out of character for the NFL and so many of its teams to do so. However, logically, if you’re put in a position where you’re going to upset one of two groups—one is a smaller one made up of older people, one is a larger one made up of younger people—it’s pretty clear from a cold-hearted business standpoint which way you have to lean. The NBA made its move. Now, the NFL might have no choice but to follow suit.
I'm skeptical about what the motivations are for some of these teams and owners who are speaking out against Trump’s un-American rhetoric. But sometimes it’s nice when the morally right thing is also the smart business move.
2b. By the way—and sorry to go all off-brand Nate Silver—but to be clear: None of what’s written above is to suggest Trump can’t win a general election in 2020. With aggressive voter suppression underway, it’s more than possible that a sitting GOP president with an approval rating in the 30s can probably still win the electoral college. The calculus of an entertainment product making money is different from that of winning an election.
2c. This is far from the most absurd thing he’s ever done, but I particularly enjoy that Trump pointed out a bunch of NFL owners are his friends before leaving a proverbial flaming bag of poop on their front doors.
2d. For those who have pledged unconditional allegiance to the President, well, he surely has plenty of support around the NFL still. The league is 32 separate organizations and thousands of people. And, as I mentioned earlier, friend of the show Melissa Jacobs over at The Football Girl pulled together a neat list of which of the 32 organizations are most pro-Trump.
Back to football. All football. Well, mostly all football. There's also a stupid jokey video I made . . .
3. The Rams-49ers Thursday night game was a perfect illustration of the difference between what’s good football and what’s entertaining for viewers.
There are plenty of factors contributing to the league’s sagging ratings, but among the biggest is a style of play that—to many—looks stale plus a lack of competitive games. Because of the rise of defenses (particularly the pass rush’s dominance over offensive lines and the bend-don't-break-make-'em-go-80-yards-on-12-plays approach), offenses have become increasingly conservative with an emphasis on avoiding mistakes.
And the highest profile mistakes—turnovers—are often what create the most excitement in a game. There have been three seasons in NFL history in which there were, on average, fewer than three turnovers per game: 2014 (2.96 per game), 2015 (2.91) and 2016 (2.73). Thirty-two games into the 2017 season, we’re at 2.5 turnovers per game; on Thursday night there were four. And two came on the most mundane plays of any game: special teams! A fair-catch turned into a turnover inside the 20 (thanks Tavon Austin!). And then, of course, with five minutes left, an eight-point lead and the ball coming back to them against a 49ers defense that looked like it was auditioning for a spot in the Big 12, the Rams simply had to avoid a turnover. And what happens? Pharoh Cooper takes a kickoff out of the end zone, and around the 25-yard line forgets he is carrying a football. Niners recover! It was all so foolish and so exciting.
If the Rams had two giveaways deep in their own territory against, say, the Falcons or the Patriots or the Chiefs, they’d lose by double-digits and we’d turn the game off midway through the third quarter. But everything is more fun when players do dumb things and logic and efficiency go out the window.
The NFL is often the entertainment equivalent of Lloyd Christmas bringing Mary’s briefcase to the airport lost and found. Or one of Hans Gruber’s henchmen shooting John McClane in the head right after they take the entire Nakatomi Coropration hostage. Or the guys from Dude Where’s My Car? remembing where their car is six minutes into the film. Those would all become terrible movies! (Well, it would be a lateral move for one of them.)
It’s more interesting when the guys getting paid to tackle people don’t tackle people. Or a return man coughs up a fumble rather than taking a knee and sealing the game. Or, really, any time Brian Hoyer drops back; will he put a throw right on one of his receivers, lob a ball into triple coverage, or simply fire a pass that hits a defensive back between the numbers. All three outcomes are equally likely!
And that’s what we got Thursday night. It was bad defense and dumb decisions. And it was fun to watch.
4a. Speaking of things that are fun to watch, but more specifically the opposite of things that are fun to watch: I don’t know if Jaguars-Ravens is going to make anyone in London fall in love with American football.
And that’s not to say it’s going to be a bad game. But you have two teams that want to win by playing great defense and ramming the ball with inside runs. And, more than that, you have two teams who are both capable of doing just that (though the Ravens maybe a little less so with Marshal Yanda out). So it should be an interesting battle of wills.
Aesthetically though . . . I’m not a big MMA fan (it’s just not my bag). I’ll watch it sometimes though, and for me the most entertaining fights are when two goobers come out and throw haymakers and eventually someone connects and then it’s over. Of course, those guys are the worst fighters, and the best fighters seem to be the grapplers who take the fight down do the ground, which is highly effective but, for a casual fan, not at all fun to watch. Basically, that's what Jaguars-Ravens is probably going to be. Although, sprinkle in the underlying terror of a Blake Bortles dropback, and things could get interesting.
5. Over the offseason, I suggested to a handful of orphaned fans (mostly ex-Chargers and Jets fans) to root for the Arizona Cardinals. It might be the last ride for Larry Fitzgerald, Carson Palmer and Bruce Arians, and as far as I know they are good dudes.
But I wish I had suggested the Detroit Lions as an alternative. A lot of us in the media—myself included—have been waiting for the sky to fall on the Lions, but since they returned from that humiliating loss in London back in 2015, they’re 17-9 in regular-season games. They lack a lot of high-Q-rating types, but Matthew Stafford is a stud. And if Ziggy Ansah is back to being healthy (don’t get too giddy over Monday night, he was repeatedly working against Ereck Flowers one-on-one, which is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel while working against Ereck Flowers one-on-one), that’s two superstars. Kenny Golladay is shaping up to be the dynamic downfield threat they needed. Tavon Wilson is out but I’m driving the Miles Killebrew bandwagon. I’m not crazy about their linebackers, and losing Taylor Decker (and replacing him with Greg Robinson) was a shame. But for the most part, they’re good and they’re deep.
I thought the Lions would ultimately be looking up at the Vikings and Packers in the NFC North, but as long as Sam Bradford is out and Aaron Rodgers is surrounded by a bunch of guys on crutches, Detroit could steal the North. And I consider them a legit pick ‘em proposition at home against the Falcons on Sunday.
6a. Folks forget that opposing fans drowning out the home fans was a problem in San Diego too. Still, it’s shaping up to be a season of embarrassment for the Los Angeles Chargers, especially after falling behind in the stacked AFC West. Even with all those visiting fans, they can’t sell out the home opener at a venue more suited to hosting a Hoobastank reunion tour show than an NFL game. What’s gonna happen if they’re sitting at 2-7?
6b. If you’re an elected official in a city or state in which the hometown pro sports team is playing hardball for a publicly financed stadium, please point to the Chargers and say, You want to be like them? Go for it . . .
7. This was actually a vacation week for me (well, a vacation 36 hours), so with the Trump stuff going down I didn't have a chance to finish production on the latest episode of the new hit series all the kids are talking about, “Gameday Evening News Morning Edition.” I do have about 12 episodes scripted and plan on rolling them out weekly at least up until the Very Special Christmas Episode. Special. But for now, what literally none of you asked for: an encore presentation of last week's episode. It’s . . . it’s about food.
8. Ladies and gentlemen, Radiohead! . . .
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