- Also, Mike McCarthy’s chance to shine, the problem with the Browns rebuild, why Cam should play nice with beat reporters, and a bad cartoon. Plus, musical guest, The Stink!
1. After six days of exhaustive research, I can definitively say that Brett Hundley is not Aaron Rodgers. (My first clue was that they spell and pronounce their names differently.) There isn’t a silver lining to the broken-collarbone-shaped cloud hovering over northeast Wisconsin. The Packers will be significantly worse without Rodgers. The goal is to survive and stay in the playoff hunt until he returns, hopefully some time around Festivus.
I have to say, after rewatching Sunday’s game in Minnesota, I was pleasantly surprised by Hundley’s performance. At the risk of making a thousand excuses on his behalf, here are a few of the thousand excuses I have made on his behalf: He was thrust into action mid-game, operating a game plan that wasn’t designed for him, replacing the more irreplaceable player in football, on the road against arguably the NFL’s best defense. But once Hundley settled in, I thought he was fine, the kind of performance where if you squinted you’d think you were watching a starting-caliber QB and far better than his stat line suggests. (I mean, he put up a 39.6 passer rating, so unless upon rewatch I noticed he was trying to eat on a novelty, oversized Charleston Chew mid-play and kept getting nougat all over the ball which then affected his accuracy, he would have been better than his stat line suggests.) So, if you would be so kind, please allow me to do my Andy Benoit impression (and you will allow me, because you didn’t get a chance to review this beforehand and now it’s already published):
• Hundley’s first throw was atrocious, like a Darrell Hammond-caliber impression of Blake Bortles. (And Darrell Hammond is very good at impressions, you know.) Third-and-2, he stared down a receiver in the flat then delivered the ball late. He deserves to feel great shame for that throw.
• The Vikings, until garbage time, put one safety in the box and played single-high in an attempt to stop the run and make Hundley throw the ball outside the numbers. Hundley did, with good zip and shaky but serviceable accuracy overall.
• Hundley made a tremendous back-shoulder throw to Jordy Nelson that should, if nothing else, soothe the jangled nerves of Nelson’s fantasy owners just a bit.
• Scramble Drill 1! I wouldn’t call Hundley’s TD pass to Davante Adams Aaron Rodgers-esque on the scramble drill scale. (To be quite honest, if Adams hadn’t flashed right in front of Hundley’s face, I’m not sure the QB would have spotted him.) But there was plenty to like on that play, with Hundley feeling pressure, not getting too panicky, moving up in the pocket rather than back like some kind of Jared Goff wannabe or scrambling outside, staying ready to throw and then making the play presented to him. Good quarterbacking!
• Scramble Drill 2! This one did look like Aaron Rodgers! On a third-and-4, Hundley escaped right, Jordy Nelson (who had run a crosser) took off downfield, and Hundley threw a laser on the run. Nelson had it in his hands before Harrison Smith ripped it out because Harrison Smith ruins everything and everyone if you're an offensive player on an organized football team.
• Two plays that got away. One was a first-down, play-action deep shot midway through the second quarter, right after the Vikings had scored to take a 14-7 lead. The ball was overthrown by a yard. Then there was the inexcusable Ty Montgomery drop (you’re the one who wants to wear No. 88 like a wide receiver, guy!) on what would have been a touchdown on third-and-goal later in the second quarter. If those two plays go Hundley’s way, we might be whistling a different tune right now. And that tune would probably be “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago, because that’s a great frickin’ song. Too good for Chicago’s catalog, if we’re being honest. (Editor’s note: Gramling clearly knows nothing of Chicago’s catalog. Check out any of their first eight albums, before Terry Kath died, Robert Lamm lost his songwriting chops and Peter Cetera became the de facto frontman.)
• Hundley was completely caught off-guard by a blitzing Harrison Smith twice, like he thought it was backyard football rules and you only get one blitz per game. Smith got there for the sack twice, both on third downs.
• Hundley’s second interception was a one-handed pick by Smith on an utterly doomed third-down play. Hundley’s checkdown never got out of the backfield, he had two receivers running routes against five defensive backs and forced a throw. The pick was no good, but there is not a human being in the world who converts that third down.
• Seriously, if Harrison Smith was never born, Hundley might have led the Packers to a win last Sunday. He made at least four plays that a league-average safety probably doesn’t make. He must’ve haunted Hundley’s dreams all week, like Frankie Kreiger, a wholly original character from the new horror screenplay I’m working on, Upsetting Dreams on Oak Lane. He wears a glove with forks sticking out of it. Interested studio execs can contact me or my agent. Which is also me.
• Green Bay’s screen game was the worst kind of slapstick comedy. Every screen play involved either the blockers not getting out to, well, block anyone, Hundley sailing the pass 14 feet too high, or the back falling down Slipnutz-style. That can’t keep happening.
At no point did Hundley look overwhelmed. He can move, he’s not panicky in the pocket, he keeps his eyes upfield and he has plenty of arm. And, again, this was with a gameplan that wasn’t tailored for him, on the road against a great defense.
It was less than three quarters of football, and he’ll presumably get better. But who knows! He could take the field against the Saints and start the game by taking a snap, sticking the ball down the back of his pants and pretending to poop it out as he devotes himself to a career in physical comedy. And that would be funny the first time, maybe even the second or third time, but by the sixth or seventh time it’d get old.
Hundley is not going to single-handedly win games like Rodgers did. But you’re not being overly optimistic if you’re thinking he’s a guy the Packers can win games with over the next two months.
2. That brings us to Mike McCarthy. As the assembled media learned this week, do not ask him about Colin Kaepernick because he feels fine about Brett Hundley. And don’t ask him what he’s going as for Halloween, because he was gonna go as Batman but it turns out Dom Capers is already going as Batman and now the costumes at Target are picked over and he’s gonna have to go as Green Lantern. (And if you go as Green Lantern, you know you’re gonna get egged.)
McCarthy has a chance to have some fun this week though. In Hundley, he has a quarterback who might not be accurate enough and probably has some limitations reading opposing defenses, but he’s also uniquely skilled, strong-armed has the ability to make plays with his legs. And the latter is what we really didn’t see from Hundley last week. By my count, the Packers half-heartedly showed two zone-read looks with Hundley in Minnesota. They didn’t use him on any designed rollouts. But McCarthy has a chance to present some new and different looks against the Saints.
Remember when Deshaun Watson finally had a chance to fully prepare for an NFL game, when the Texans went to New England in Week 3? They rolled out a bunch of ghost motion on top of more read-option looks and the Patriots defenders were overwhelmed with what they were looking at. Same goes for Tyrod Taylor in the 2015 opener, when Greg Roman had built a bunch of creative, to-that-point-unseen run designs into the game plan and the Bills steamrolled the Colts? Or the when the Patriots took on the Texans on Thursday Night Football last year, Jacoby Brissett’s first start, and they had a bunch of plays that took advantage of Brissett’s mobility (by far his biggest asset at that point) and hammered the Texans 27-0?
McCarthy can add some bells and whistles to this offense (read-options, some more of those RPO slants they always use with Rodgers but didn’t use with Hundley last week) that may or may not work in the long run. But, in the short-term, they’re a way of getting opposing defenses to play on their heels, get a little bit hesitant and open things up for the new quarterback.
3. Andy Benoit had an interesting note in his 10 Things preview for Week 7, about how the Falcons disguised coverages a week ago against the Dolphins, and how it could, at the very least, cause Tom Brady to hesitate for a moment on a handful of plays.
It brings up more memories of Super Bowl LI, when the Falcons had Tom Brady baffled in the first half. Before the Robert Alford pick-six, there was a similar play. Rather than a bunch for the Patriots (like the pick-six), New England is in a 2x2 formation. Watch how Alford, covering Julian Edelman in the left slot, falls off Edelman and passes him on to the lurker, Deion Jones, then Alford is waiting for Brady’s throw intended for Danny Amendola. (And then after that on the video is Alford’s pick-six.)
I believe that’s a wrinkle the Falcons hadn’t shown all season (when they transitioned from a Cover 3 defense to largely man-based). To me, that was the true tragedy for the Falcons last February. They fooled Tom Brady twice in one half, and, of course, ultimately blew a 25-point lead (29-4 if memory serves, I was really just watching for the commercials, shame they gave up those two first-half safeties).
I’m not sure we see anything radically different from Dan Quinn’s unit on Sunday night, but the Falcons do have a chance to knock around Tom Brady with the pass rush, which is the biggest reason they were able to jump out to a lead last February. The Patriots are more vertical this year, they’re worse in pass protection, and the Falcons get Vic Beasley closer to 100% healthy. (And, heck, they knocked Brady around without Beasley doing much of anything eight months ago.)
4. You know why the Browns are 0-6? Lack of heart. They just don’t want it enough. Culture. They have to be more like that guy from the Steve Hanft movie that Beck samples in “Loser.”
All right, they’re bad because they have crummy players. Some of them young and promising, but crummy (especially at quarterback). Which brings us to the core of this whole computer-generated, draft-pick-hoarding rebuild: Can you take a group of young players, break them in on teams that lose 13-plus games every season, and ever turn it around? As we’re reminded of on a weekly basis, the difference between, say, the NFL’s fifth-best team and 25th-best team is razor-thin. If you have Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, or if you have a historically great defense as a whole, you can consistently win. Otherwise . . .
But I think there’s something to be said for the psychological beatdown of getting your butt handed to you on a weekly basis, something that causes players to lose a little bit of that edge, to trust guys around them just a little less than they should (Do Your Job!) and figure out ways to lose games that they should win. It's something that, for the lack of more specific reasoning, makes the core of a franchise rotten. The Browns are going to be really bad this year. They’ll probably be bad next year. They’ve been collecting all these draft picks, stockpiling talented young players, but even if they’re ready to compete for a playoff spot in three years (an optimistic timetable) these guys are going to be coming off their rookie deals. Are they going to flush out large parts of the team when that happens and replace them with more of those stockpiled draft picks? If they do that, will they ever surround their next franchise quarterback with a group of home-grown players who have done anything besides lose a lot of games? And if so, will they ever stop inspiring runs of poorly written rhetorical questions?
Maybe Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen is the next Tom Brady/Aaron Rodgers, they single-handedly lift the franchise and then all this losing is forgotten forever. But, in all likelihood, the next quarterback’s ceiling will fall somewhere on that second tier, someone who needs a strong team around him. And then what do you have? (I ask that rhetorically.)
5. Over the past two years, Los Angeles football teams are 2-11 in Los Angeles, 8-7 everywhere else. Probably cuz the home crowds are too loud.
6. If eHarmony really worked, wouldn’t Dwight Freeney and the Tampa Bay Bucs have gotten together by now? The Bucs are potentially playoff-caliber. They don't have an edge-rushing presence. They have the necessary cap space. And they saw first-hand last year that Freeney still has more than enough left in the tank. The last time we saw Freeney was Super Bowl LI, where he ate Nate Solder’s lunch and his breakfast and his morning snack (Solder had Fruit by the Foot!). Honestly, the Patriots should want to sign him too.
And Dwight, if no one is going to sign you, my offer still stands: Help me rake my leaves next Saturday afternoon, and I’ll pay you $4 and as much Shasta-brand Cola as you can drink (maximum two).
7. I’m not sure what’s going on with Cam Newton skipping all media availability this past week, but what am I supposed to do, wait for facts and clarification before I write about it?
If he is, as many suspect, skipping media availability as a form of protest because of the return of Jourdan Rodrigue to the beat, that’s highly disappointing. All it does is drags the worst moments of two people’s lives back into the spotlight, and restarts the cycle of “Remember that thing he said . . . but remember her tweets . . . but remember that thing he said.”
Nobody likes the mandatory media availabilities. And, yes, 90% of the time they don’t yield anything of value. But they serve a purpose; if you’re a fan, you deserve some level of access that’s not wholly controlled by the team and/or the players itself. There has to be some independent media coverage, otherwise all fans will get is a stream of “Player X is hosting his annual charity golf tournament for the kids each of the next several weekends.”*
As for Newton himself, I wrote about this before Super Bowl 50 when he was complaining about having to repeat himself during all these media sessions: It’s not just you. Every starting quarterback and head coach in the NFL has to go through the weekly press conferences. Some get treated with kid gloves, some do not, but I’m sure it bores everyone to tears just the same. My advice would be to go up there for 15 minutes and give the blandest, most boilerplate answers imaginable. (Honestly, I know he does regular media availabilities, but I can not think of one thing Tom Brady has ever said during any of them.) There’s no point in fighting it, because now the fight against the media availabilities becomes a bigger story than any boilerplate answer you’d give during the media availabilities.
*—To be clear, I think players should talk publicly about their charitable endeavors much more often than they do, including during any media availability; make it your opening statement. However, charity golf tournaments tend to be a woefully inefficient and exceptionally masturbatory way of trying to raise funds.
8. As most of you know, I’ve had a passion for political cartoons ever since I wrote and illustrated my own series of them: The Real Garfield, about how the 20th President of the United States loved increased power of the executive branch and the country’s naval power but hated Mondays. Anyway, this one has been popping up among social-media replies quite a bit lately:
So let’s, for a moment, suspend disbelief and pretend that the vague concept of “politics in football”—which has caused a small fraction of viewers (mostly those willing to deprive themselves of something that gives them joy because they’d rip out their own eyeballs if Rush or Sean or Tomi told them to do it) to stop watching games—is what’s responsible for the ratings drop that threatens to turn a highly conservative multi-billion-dollar business into . . . a highly conservative multi-billion dollar business with a couple thousand fewer dollars. And let’s also overlook the silliness of a political critic aligning himself with a political party so desperately trying to detract attention from a tax plan that will, in the long run, bury the middle class in order to further enrich the country’s obscenely wealthy that they’re now using the same tack that Veronica Mars fans use to try to get that show back on the air as a way to try to draw attention to the demonstrations-during-the-anthem non-controversy. (Sorry, that was quite political, I should have given a disclaimer above. Also, sorry, but Kristen Bell has moved on to bigger things and we have to accept that.)
So aside from all that, my main criticism of the cartoon is, that isn’t how steroids work. If you’ve been injecting them into a ball instead of into your body, you’ve been doing it way wrong. Also, steroid use, while medically dangerous and morally abhorrent in the frame of competitive sports, was never an issue for the NFL. That’s in large part because, unlike Major League Baseball which leans heavily on nostalgia and “innocence of youth” for marketing purposes and broadcasts games with hundreds of close-ups on the faces of the participating players, football has always marketed itself as pseudo-warfare, a violent gladiator sport comprised largely of faceless (almost literally so since players wear helmets and facemasks for safety reasons and because so many players are involved in a play at once the game is by necessity broadcast from a wide angle) competitors. Steroid scandals were never even a blip on the radar for the NFL. And if you're just ripping off the imagery of the "steroids make your testicles shrink" campaign rolled out a few years back, that's not really applicable here from a metaphorical standpoint. If anything, the NFL's ownership finally took something of a stand—one of the most right-wing groups in the nation, comprised of billionaires, essentially told the right-wing President they're tired of his nonsense (again, probably because the President forced them to take sides and they looked at spreadsheets and realized how wildly unpopular he is with folks in demographics that sponsors and potential sponsors are aiming for, then made a logical business decision).
Anyway, come back next week when I finally build up the courage to knock that smug Billy from Family Circus down a few pegs. (How about just doing your homework for once instead of pissing and moaning about it, fella!)
9. Ladies and gentlemen, Gameday 10 Things proudly presents, The Stink! . . .
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