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  • Also, what was right and what was wrong with that Eagles’ baseball celebration, Aaron Donald vs. Leonard Fournette is shaping up to be epic, and the discussion surrounding the anthem demonstration becomes a parody . . . plus musical guest Japandroids!
By Gary Gramling
October 14, 2017

1a. I worry about Tom Brady sometimes. Is he happy being a five-time Super Bowl champion married to a supermodel worth half-billion dollars? Is he drinking enough water to counteract the power of the Earth’s sun? But mostly, can his 40-year-old body hold up while taking more hits than he ever has in the history of his career?

According to Stats Inc.’s game-charting, Brady has been knocked down 35 times to go along with 16 sacks taken this season. That puts him on pace to take 163 hits this year, which would be 27 more than he’s ever taken in a season. In terms of rate, he’s taking a hit every 4.1 dropbacks (excluding QB scrambles), which would be a career worst.

So, offensive line, right? Sort of. Without a doubt, Nate Solder has been bad this year, and across the line the run blocking has been far better than the pass protection. But the issue goes deeper than that. The Patriots have tweaked their offense this year; they’re going vertical far more often than in the past. Brady’s completions are traveling an average of 7.5 yards downfield at the catch point so far this season, which would be the second-highest depth of his career (he was at 8.2 in 2004). He hasn’t been above even 6.3 in the past decade. The Patriots are going deeper in part because of the absence of Julian Edelman, in part because of the arrival of Brandin Cooks, and in part because sometimes it’s just nice to change things up. But it mitigates one of the advantages of having Tom Brady, which is that he’s so good in the pre-snap phase you don’t need to pass-protect well; the ball is already out before protection can break down. Here’s a chart that I think you can decipher, but if you’re having trouble call me and I’ll walk you through it.

O.K., have you committed the entire chart to memory? Good. I’d like to draw your attention to the year A.D. 2008, which is when Brady tore his ACL in the opener and Matt Cassel took over. With the exception of an injury here or there the Patriots had the same front five from 2007-09 (from left to right: Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Steve Neal, Nick Kaczur). But, as you can see, Cassel took a beating in 08 while Brady was rarely touched in the two seasons sandwiching Casselvania.* That’s because the ball got out of Brady’​s hand so quickly, it didn’​t really matter how good the protection was. In fact, as you might remember, back in 2012 Brady once let four of his linemen leave a Week 16 game in Jacksonville midway through the third quarter because they needed to get their Christmas shopping done. And if you don’t believe that happened, here’s a screenshot that definitively proves that I am not good at Photoshop:

The Patriots could go back to a quicker-strike attack, but it’s not ideal for this group of weapons (to be clear: Cooks is more than just a downfield threat, but he’s at his best as a downfield threat). Their offensive line could pass protect better, but realistically, how much better? They could start keeping a back or tight end in to help more often (they do it rarely), but it’s not really their style.

So Brady is 40, he’s taking a ton of hits, he already has a bum non-throwing shoulder, and he seems likely to keep taking a ton of hits. We’ll see how it plays out, but it seems like a good thing to have Jimmy Garoppolo’s symmetrical face in the bullpen right now.

*—Quick trivia fact: In the six New England states they call that 2008 season “Casselvania,” which was indeed the inspiration for the Nintendo game. Tell that to your friends and insist that it’s true no matter what.

1b. As long as I’m sitting on my ass writing about the Patriots: Their defense is going to keep improving. I still insist that the early-season problems were in part self-inflicted—if you don’t have a dynamic edge rusher on the roster and you don’t blitz a lot, your secondary has to play lights out and there were far too many blown plays.

But they also ran into some difficult teams to prepare for. In the opener, the Chiefs (with an offseason to prepare) ran one of just about every play and formation ever dreamed up in football. The Texans, who had a chance to prep Deshaun Watson in full (plus an extra three days to do so) for the first time before the trip to Foxboro, added a bunch of misdirection and bells and whistles to their system. (Not to mention, Watson made a couple of otherworldly plays out of structure.) As I mentioned last week, Cam Newton had been used on five designed runs through three-and-a-half games in 2017, then was used on five designed runs—resulting in two crucial third-down conversions and later a TD—in the second half alone against the Patriots.

Last Thursday in Tampa, on a short week, was a better indicator of what this defense is. The so-called city fathers will cluck their tongues, stroke their beards, and talk about what’s to be done with this defense? when they reference the 402 yards and three missed field goals the Bucs had in that game. But 229 of those yards came in the fourth quarter, 168 of them while the Patriots held a two-possession lead. Jameis Winston’s accuracy had been erratic all night—the situation called for a lot of soft, safe coverage, giving up yards in exchange for bleeding the clock. Had Nick Folk hit on an earlier field goal making it a one-possession game, New England surely would have played it differently, and likely gotten the win just the same.

It’s another get-right week traveling to East Rutherford, where the Jets and Giants have chosen to not score points because the crowd noise wakes up the neighbors who kept calling the cops on them. The Jets can play defense, but they’re unlikely to throw anything unexpected at the Patriots with their offense. And with Dont’a Hightower back and seemingly being asked to do a little bit of everything, and even without Stephon Gilmore, the Patriots should move one step closer to their 2016 form.

2. It is 3:30 a.m. on a Thursday as I write this, I am in my underwear with Adult Swim on the TV, and a feeling is coming over me that I want to share with the residents of Western Pennsylvania: Ben Roethlisberger is going to be fine, and the Steelers as a whole are going to be fine. Every single one of them.

When you throw five interceptions in a game it’s going to get people’s attention. But, as I pointed out on last week’s podcast and as my podcast co-host and pilates instructor Andy Benoit confirmed this week, none of the five INTs screamed decline! You had two great defensive plays (one of them admittedly on a late, inaccurate throw), a tipped ball, a receiver falling after getting his feet tangled and a forced throw in desperation time. Five! With a couple of breaks it’s a two- or three-INT game, Ben doesn’t go all Surly Duff in the post-game, and we all live our lives without tossing and turning over Ben Roethlisberger.

The retirement talk of last winter bubbled up again; is Ben’s “heart” in it? Is he neglecting film study and spending too much time playing the new, wholly original iPhone game I recently released, Frustrated Avians? Maybe, but it’s not really showing on the field. And his physical skills haven’t diminished. The offensive line has slid back a bit from last year’s elite level, they’re still figuring out the rotation of weapons aside from Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, and—as I mention every week the Steelers have a road game—Roethlisberger always struggles away from Heinz Field, and three of Pittsburgh’s four games before last week’s Jacksonville meltdown were away from home.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Roethlisberger’s struggles continued in Week 6 considering the Steelers have to travel to Kansas City. But I still think Pittsburgh could win this game even with Big Ben still finding his footing (I know, I’m just going to half-heartedly predict a Chiefs loss until it happens, at which point I will gleefully pat myself on the back). The Steelers are much improved on defense—to me they’re a better version of the Washington group that almost knocked off the Chiefs in K.C. two Mondays ago. And the Steelers also have the kind of dominant-at-times run game that can take over against a Chiefs run defense that’s still a relative weakness on this team (100 yards allowed in all five games this season, as well as a 4.65 rushing average). The blueprint that worked in the divisional playoffs last January—lots of defense and Le’Veon Bell (30 carries for 170 yards)—could work again on Sunday.

But as for Roethlisberger long-term: He still has his arm strength, he still has Brown, Bell and a host of dynamic young weapons, he still has one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, and he still has an alarm clock radio that gets AM and FM stations (jazz standards, news-talk radio, adult contemporary, he can wake up to any station format he wants!). Maybe things don’t go well in Kansas City, but come December we’ll all look back and say, pretty much, he’s fine.

3. Aside from having a good cry, there isn’t much the Giants can do at this point. When they have everyone healthy, they’re one of the 10 best teams in football. But the way they’re built, Odell Beckham Jr. is more valuable to them than any non-quarterback is to his team.

Beckham might simply be the most talented non-quarterback in the NFL—you could argue Antonio Brown or Le’Veon Bell, Rob Gronkowski, Julio Jones, Travis Kelce, etc. But the way the Steelers, Patriots and Falcons offenses are designed, they can scheme around the absence of their star. The Giants can’t. Ben McAdoo’s offense relies heavily—almost wholly—on isolation routes, asking receivers to beat the man (or, in Beckham’s case, men) covering them. Beckham is capable of doing that. Brandon Marshall doesn’t separate but can at least make contested catches. Rookie tight end Evan Engram might become a guy who can consistently win his matchups but he isnt a No. 1 option now. And, oh, they can’t run block. At all. So, even if things were otherwise going swimmingly, the Giants were ill-equipped to handle a Beckham injury.

Of course, things are not going swimmingly. They’re going quite drowningly, which is a word I just made up to serve as an antonym for swimmingly. The defense, which stood on its head to make this a playoff team a year ago, has slid back, and now it looks like the Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie situation is the first public sign of mutiny. And, as our Albert Breer wrote earlier this week, it could be traced back to Ben McAdoo’s handling of Beckham and the precedent it set.

I know there have been a lot of people traveling the multiverse, coming back with reports from a dimension in which Tom Coughlin is coaching the Giants to a 4-1 start this season and in which people still say “radical,” but unironically. I’m not sure how Coughlin would have worked out in the long run though. It was under Coughlin that Beckham had the meltdown against Josh Norman two seasons ago, which started the whole “Odell Beckham is a loose cannon, always firing cannonballs everywhere at everything all the time so watch out if you don’t want to get brained by a cannonball there, fella” narrative. I’m not going to say McAdoo handled Beckham well, but it was an exceptionally tough spot. Because of roster problems—missed picks on the offensive line (rhymes with “Derek Schmglowers”) the lack of a dynamic running back and the unthreatening group of receivers complementing Beckham—McAdoo’s system quite literally does not work without Beckham.

So, what now? The 2017 season is surely lost and they’re about to be humiliated on Sunday Night Football in Denver. They have an upcoming decision on Beckham, who is a true franchise player with the potential to be a once-in-a-generation star from a marketing standpoint. Is he too much of a headache? Maybe he would be if you had a system that wasn’t 1,000% reliant on his otherworldly talent. If you’re going to move on from Beckham, you have to move on from McAdoo because his system is hopeless without Beckham. And if you let McAdoo go, are you going to ask Eli Manning, who has been a good quarterback over the last five seasons (I know, I’m a nerd because I didn’t say Eli’s bad), to pick up a new system at age 37? (And wasn’t the whole point of pushing Coughlin out to retain McAdoo that you wanted continuity for your veteran QB?) And, after investing all the money in building an elite defense, are you going to spend the next couple seasons rebuilding under a new coach with a new quarterback who, if acquired with a high 2018 draft pick, is a coin-flip proposition in the long-term and far less likely than that to be as good as Manning in the short-term?

A couple of programming notes . . .

First, I don’t like to brag, but my mom says I’m the handsomest football writer on the internet. Also, the book I wrote for budding football fans, The Football Fanbook, was recently honored as a Junior Library Guild selection. I’ll just cut to the chase and suggest that you buy it for any football fan or aspiring football fan under the age of 18. Younger kids will enjoy it, older kids will enjoy it, they’ll learn a ton about the game that you (I’m assuming you since you’re still here reading this column) and I love, and I think a lot of adults will learn some things they didn’t know.

Second, I will not be writing this week’s Sunday FreakOut. My daughter is the coolest kid I’ve ever known. (She made some playoff picks in this column a couple years ago . . . increasingly bad playoff picks.) I disappear on her for the entire day every Sunday during the fall, so for her birthday I promised we would spend this Sunday doing literally anything she wants. That means I’m not watching football all day and instead we’re going to hunt transients for sport because I said anything. (I kid! It’ll probably be some combination of ice-skating, mini-golf, arcade and playground.) Anyway, Jonathan Jones will be pinch-hitting for me on the FreakOut, so be nice!

Third, I will be taping The MMQB: 10 Things Podcast with co-host and common-law spouse Andy Benoit as usual (after my kids go to bed I’ll be doing a seven-hour cram session via DVR and NFL Game Pass). Subscribe now and the breakdown of all things football Sunday will be in your feed around 7:30 a.m. ET Sunday morning.

Fourth, no Gameday Evening News Morning Edition this week. Sorry, just didn’t have time to tape during the week. However, you can always re-live the magic of Episode I and Episode II. Episode III coming next week. Probably coming next week.

Finally, senior editor Matt Gagne had his last day at The MMQB on Friday; he’s been poached by Men’s Health to be a features editor. Matt and I first met when he was an SI reporter and I was an SI Kids editor, when I roped him into doing a Lawrence Tynes assignment that he didn’t want to do and later admitted he dumped a 3,000-word transcript on me out of spite. (I didn’t pick up on it; I was just happy to get an email from someone that wasn’t offering a great deal on off-brand Viagra.) If not for Matt backing me I never would have had the opportunity to be a part of The MMQB—and I believe Jenny Vrentas and Kalyn Kahler can say the same, so if you like them you can thank Matt. (And them, for being good at what they do.) Anyway, Matt is a highly skilled editor, a wonderful friend and a high-character human being, and I will never forgive Men’s Health for taking him.

4. Like most of you surely are, I’m digging all the over-the-top—or at least compared to recent years over-the-top—touchdown celebrations. I thought the best idea so far was Torrey Smith’s elaborate home-run celebration.

But wait a second . . . LeGarrette and Zach, you’re not in this one! What baseball games have you been watching?

NFL Game Pass

Do you think that, among the four umpires at a major league baseball game, three of them form a balls-and-strikes committee? (I guess you’d have one ump determining whether the ball was over the plate, the other looking at depth and where the pitch was in terms of height when it crossed the plate and a third ump to . . . break a tie?) Or is this baseball’s approach to NBA courtside seats?

Maybe there was a communication problem, which I guess is to be expected since the celebrations are new. But that’s the kind of thing you have to get cleaned up before the postseason, when the celebrations really matter.

5. The Jaguars are fun to watch because they’re really talented on defense. But they’re also fun to watch because they’re running an offense straight out of 1992, ramming Leonard Fournette through the middle of the offensive line. It might not be aesthetically pleasing, but it’s different than what everyone else is doing and therefore interesting.

And it will be especially interesting against the Rams on Sunday. Aaron Donald is often unblockable, and the only time that’s a problem is if there’s some kind of misdirection or when he picks the wrong gap and takes himself out of a play. The Jaguars haven’t shown a whole lot of creativity with what they do in the run game, though they’ll presumably make it a point to go behind Cam Robinson on the left side, typically away from Donald and at Robert Quinn. The absence of center Brandon Linder puts a bit of a damper on this one, but the chance to see Donald go against this Jaguars run game 30-something times is pretty close to must-see TV.

Not really a football note, so feel free to skip ahead to No. 7 if you don’t want to read it

6. Remember those old beer commercials, where people would argue over whether they enjoyed this particular beverage because it was less filling, or because it tastes great. Less Filling! Tastes Great! Less Filling! It was very funny. Well, it was kind of funny, then pretty annoying, then aggressively obnoxious, then funny again in an ironic way. But, mostly, it was absurd, as it was meant to be. I mean, you don’t have to choose whether you like that it’s less filling or that it tastes great. Those are both good things that in no way conflict each other! You can and should like both of them!

Kind of like you can be in favor of racial equality and the courageous men and women who serve in our military. Those things aren’t conflicting, it’s not a one-or-the-other choice. Those are both very good things, and I bet 90% of the human beings in the U.S. support both (not all, but the vast majority). Which is why the current state of the national “discussion” concerning demonstrations during the national anthem before NFL games is so goddam depressing. It is a parody come to life. Racial Equality! Respect the Troops! Racial Equality! You can like both! My God, you should like both! And the only people telling you that you can’t like both are the propagandists for whom getting the bulk of the country addicted to outrage is in their personal interests.

Which brings us to Jerry Jones. It’s unclear why he saw fit to open his mouth last Sunday, just when the controversy-that-never-should-have-been-a-controversy was starting to die down, which is presumably what he would have wanted all along. Albert Breer had a little bit of detail on the meeting Jones had with players this week, and the sense is that Jerry is trying to strike a bargain with his players; if they stand for the anthem, he’ll devote resources to promote players’ causes including social activism initiatives.

And, in theory, that’s good. The ultimate goal of those fighting against racial injustices is to rid the world of social injustices. Of course, we are nowhere near a post-racial society—in fact, if you’re capable of reading this column it will not happen in your lifetime. But progress toward racial equality is a good thing. Of course, players agreeing to give up the right to peacefully protest is a steep price to pay. Jones has considerable wealth and therefore power, and could—again, in theory—make a huge difference for any player’​s cause. But here’​s where it gets dicey: Socially active players are motivated by the desire to do good, give a voice to those who don’t have one and improve the world now and for future generations. Jerry Jones is motivated by money, also money, and the potential to make more money and maybe make a cameo in some crappy show like Entourage along the way. I'm skeptical that there's a potential happy outcome here.

7. If Marcus Mariota is unavailable to play on Monday night, I suggest Jacoby Brissett call all-time quarterback right now. For the good of the game.

8. Ladies and gentlemen, Japandroids! . . .


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