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  • Also, the Legion of Boom’s next generation will have to step up, the Tyron Smith injury is an issue in Dallas but the Sean Lee injury is a bigger issue, and the Packers could revive their power run game. Plus, musical guest Rupe Shearns!
By Gary Gramling
November 18, 2017

1. The Buffalo Bills have changed quarterbacks. I have thoughts about that, and I have transferred those thoughts to the printed word. But first, because it all ties in, a quick look at the AFC playoff race.

It is technically true that Buffalo is in a playoff race. If Jerry Jones decided the regular season should end right at this moment, the Bills would be driving south in a convoy of 12-passenger vans, their destination a wild-card game in Jacksonville.

But let’s assume they will indeed complete the regular season as scheduled. If the Patriots fulfill their birthrights as AFC East champions forever, that leaves the Bills (5-4) battling the Titans (6-4) or Jaguars (6-3), Dolphins (4-5), Ravens (4-5) and Raiders (4-5, with Buffalo locked into the tiebreaker) for one of the two wild-card spots. On the surface, the odds seem favorable. The Bills are bad, but so are the Dolphins and Ravens. The Raiders might be a little better than that trio, but the Bills’ victory over Oakland essentially gives them a two-game lead over the Raiders with seven to play. The Bills’ path to the postseason gets tricky when you dive into the schedules:

Titans (6-4): They have an exceedingly easy month coming up: at Indianapolis, home against the Texans, at Arizona and at San Francisco. They’ll be favored in all those games, and even if they slip up they finish with not-easy-but-winnable home games against the Rams and the Jaguars (who they already beat in Jacksonville). Tennessee should get to 10 wins.

Jaguars (6-3): They’re at Cleveland on Sunday and later at San Francisco, and they still have home games against the Colts and Texans left. They’re also likely getting to 10 wins. The AFC South should get two teams into the postseason.

Ravens (4-5): They still get Houston, Indianapolis and Cincinnati at home, plus winnable road games in Green Bay (Sunday) and Cleveland. You’d probably put the win total over/under at 8.5 for Baltimore right now.

Bills (5-4): Let’s be optimistic and say they can get in at 8-8. There’s a 98% chance they’ll be swept by the Patriots and lose at Kansas City, so there’s seven losses. So to have a shot, they need to go 3-1 over the course of a road game against the Chargers, home game against the Colts and a home-and-home against Miami.

Here’s the M. Night Shyamalan twist at the end of this tedious exercise: I was dead the whole time.* Also, none of it matters because the Bills are a bad team. Not in the way the Ravens/Dolphins/Raiders are bad, but truly bad. (O.K., the Dolphins are also truly bad). Consider this: Buffalo currently leads the NFL in turnover differential at +11 through nine games. And, incredibly, they have a point differential in the red (-12).

It cannot be overstated just how atrocious you have to be to pick up an extra possession per game and still get outscored on the season. Over the previous 20 seasons, 41 teams have posted a turnover differential of +1 per game or better over the course of a season. If rabid squirrels gnawed off both your hands, you’d still have enough fingers to count how many of those 41 teams had a negative point differential that season (and you know damn well that not a jury in the world would convict those squirrels).

The Bills are currently on pace to finish the year at +20 in turnover differential. In that 20-year span, 14 teams had done that. The worst point differential among them was the 1999 Chiefs, at +68 (+4.3 per game). The Bills are at -1.3 per game.

Tyrod Taylor certainly thrives in the area of protecting the ball, but the Bills have no logical reason to think they’ll keep forcing turnovers at this rate. Even in Sean McDermott’s zone-heavy system, you either need a monster pass rush and/or especially crafty, ball-hawking defensive backs to pile up turnovers. Jerry Hughes has his moments, but this is largely a toothless pass rush—according to Stats Inc., they rank tied for 28th in pass-rush index (which takes into account sacks, hurries, knockdowns and opposing O-line penalties). They have some nice players in the secondary, but even if you squint none of them look like Ed Reed. This is a group that should expect to get a turnover every week, but not the two per game they’ve been getting. In short: It takes a certain degree of luck to lead the NFL in turnover differential. It takes even more luck than that for this team to be doing it. And even with all that luck, they’re sitting just one game over .500. What they’ve done nine weeks into the season is not sustainable.

*—To be clear, I wasn’t actually dead. But I was really bored running through playoff scenarios and schedule breakdowns of crappy teams.


2a. The information laid out above doesn’t beg any question because the phrase “begs the question” refers to a form of evasion through circular reasoning within the answer to a question and everyone uses the phrase incorrectly and should stop it. However, the information laid out above does raise a question: How much worse does the Tyrod Taylor benching make the 2017 Bills?

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a soft spot for the Bills. I have a few good friends who are Bills fans (hi, friends!) and I’ve watched this franchise (and, by extension, my friends) suffer and stumble aimlessly through the past 17 years. So, in short, I’ve paid more attention to the Bills than a national media member probably should.

I understand why a lot of people like Tyrod Taylor. By all accounts he’s a leader of men, respected and liked by teammates (you can re-visit Jenny Vrentas’s now-28%-sadder profile of Taylor from our “Corridor of Woe” series two seasons ago). He’s exciting—who doesn’t like watching a quarterback who can spin out of trouble and make a play? He doesn’t turn the ball over, which is a really good thing. And if, like most of America, you follow the Buffalo Bills strictly via box scores and fantasy leagues, Taylor’s basic stat line looks just fine.

And overall, he is fine. But Chapter 1 of the book on Taylor over the last three years has always been this: He consistently fails to target open receivers (as my podcast co-host and unlicensed financial advisor Andy Benoit always says, “There is no stat for throws that are open that a quarterback doesn’t make”).

Now, if you’ll allow me to oversimplify here for a moment (and I know you will because this article is already published and I didn’t show it to you beforehand): Abandoning play designs and playing off-schedule isn’t always a huge problem. Aaron Rodgers is the king of out-of-structure playmaking, and Russell Wilson is the prince. (And at this point, Deshaun Watson is, like, the very adorable baby prince.) Rodgers/Wilson miss throws, but when they go into scramble mode they consistently keep their eyes downfield and turn in big plays. For an opposing defensive player, seeing Rodgers or Wilson escape the pocket triggers the same reaction as the brown note. (Sorry if you were eating breakfast while you read this.)

Taylor tends to abandon play designs and pull the ball down. Which is fine, and has value. (And, to be clear, that is not the case on literally every play, which I have to point out because if this was Twitter someone would now post three GIFs of Taylor extending a play and throwing because what can't you prove with GIFs of three random plays, and then we’d all be a little bit dumber for it.) During Taylor’s two-plus seasons as a starter, the Bills are 30th in the NFL in passing plays of 20-plus yards.

With Taylor, you lose a lot of the designed plays, which is a problem not just because of a coach’s ego (though a portion of it is a coach’s ego), but also because your play-caller/play-designer has a strategy to exploit the defensive coordinator’s scheme and strategy. And, as we often forget when we chart individual plays, play-calls are not made in a vacuum. It’s game theory, the end result of an opponent’s tendencies and anticipating how they will react to a certain scenario, and play-calls are often built off previous play-calls. Playing out-of-structure undeniably makes the job of a play-caller more difficult (due to the fact that Taylor is not an aggressive, anticipatory thrower, your play-caller is already working with some limitations.) And, with Taylor, if you fall behind, as Saints DE Cameron Jordan pointed out last week, you’re basically done. Once the threat of the run game is out of the equation, the Bills are too easy to defend.

The end result is something of a conservative offense, one that has to consistently string together shorter and intermediate plays to add up to scoring drives, which is what just about every defense (especially Sean McDermott’s defense) in the league wants to make offenses do. Because it’s very difficult to do.

The positive is that the conservative style leads to fewer turnovers. But, again, the Bills are sitting at just 5-4 despite some very fortunate breaks with turnovers. And as I mentioned earlier this year, there are two teams in NFL history to average less than a turnover per game over the course of a season and finish with a losing record. One of them was the 2016 Bills.

2b. So bad. He’s bad, I’m saying Tyrod Taylor is bad because you’re either good or you’re bad and there is no in-between, right?

The fact is (as mentioned above) Taylor is fine. As with most things in football and in life, Taylor is somewhere between good and bad. But what’s clear is that he doesn’t provide what the Bills need in 2017, and there's no reason to think that will change. I’d like to now unsimplify things. Obviously, the Bills have a thousand problems beyond Tyrod Taylor. In August, Buffalo’s roster was bottom-five in the league. Trading Sammy Watkins and Marcell Dareus didn’t make it better. The offensive line, a relative strength the past two seasons, has slid back significantly. The receiving corps is bad enough that adding Kelvin Benjamin and Deonte Thompson marked significant upgrades because one is big and one is fast (respectively), and they did not have a receiver who was either of those things the first month of the season. The defense went from bend-don’t-break to curl-up-in-the-fetal-position.

Could the Bills have sat back and hoped for another seven week’s worth of good bounces? Sure. And it might have worked out; seven games is a small enough sample size. Instead, they decided they needed to make a significant change. I saw the deliciously snarky I guess it's Tyrod's fault the Saints ran for 298 yards takes that were so clever they could have been right out of a Leno monologue. The fact is, the offense’s 118 net yards over nine drives in the Saints game was just as egregiously bad as the defense's performance. They were both awful. You can’t raze your entire defensive roster midseason. If you want to make the kind of drastic change the Bills needed to make, and you think there’s even a chance you might have an upgrade on your roster, the logical spot is at quarterback.

2c. This likely marks the end of Taylor’s run in Buffalo. Did he get a fair shake? Put it this way: For two seasons he played in an offense customized for him, the complexity built into the running game. And it was O.K., good at times but built to win games in specific ways. His passing game weapons weren’t good enough, but even when he had Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods it wasn’t an explosive passing attack. He was the choice of a defensive head coach. He had two different offensive coordinators in that time, each of whom seem lukewarm-at-best on him.

The new regime brought in a new offensive system, one built around the passing game because, frankly, that’s what the current geometry of the NFL demands for sustainable success. They knew they didn’t have the roster to compete this year. And it was no secret that Taylor wasn’t their choice (even though offensive coordinator Rick Dennison knew Taylor from their time together in Baltimore). It wasn’t the right fit.

Where does that leave Taylor for the future? Well, here’s the wild conjecture you came here for: Despite being the darling of game-charters, there wasn’t a whole lot of interest in Taylor this past offseason. That’s in large part because play-designers and play-callers have a lot of say in who plays quarterback, and in Taylor they see a guy who does some specific things well but comes with limitations and might have reached his ceiling. If Taylor is a starter next year, it will take someone looking at the 2014/15 Bills and saying, That’s what we want. And the kind of team that would want that is one that already has a dominant roster otherwise. A year ago, I would have said Broncos, but their defense is sliding back to the point where I’m not sure they can think that way, and the development (or lack thereof) of Paxton Lynch complicates that potential marriage.

The only obvious answer is Jacksonville. They put themselves right up against the cap with the Marcell Dareus acquisition, so much so that they’ll have some difficult roster decisions to make this offseason. So getting out from under Blake Bortles’ fifth-year option ($19 million) and getting Taylor for maybe 30% less than that would make a lot of sense. They could have some fun with run designs in a Taylor-Leonard Fournette backfield. And even though it would ruin my secret fantasy of the Jaguars taking Lamar Jackson in late-Round 1 and riding a Jackson-Fournette backfield the next five seasons, I will give a Taylor signing my blessing. Other than that, I’d recklessly throw the Ravens out there as a possibility. Taylor was popular in that building, and they need a new offensive identity. Joe Flacco was once a good quarterback. Since tearing his ACL late in 2015, he has not been a good quarterback. But, of course, due to his contract the Ravens can’t move Flacco until after the 2019 season. I’m not sure they have the stomach for a QB competition.

2d. One more thing, which Taylor brought up a few weeks ago: the issue of race. He pointed out that, because he’s an African-American quarterback, he’s held to a different standard (this was a month ago, not in response to the benching). And, big-picture, he’s right. It’s 2017, and to argue that unconscious biases don’t exist would be absurd. We’re well past the “hey Warren Moon, you’ll make a great tight end” days, but race and implicit bias is absolutely still a factor when it comes to assessing quarterbacks (as well as a factor in, y’know, life).

(And, of course, if you want to get at the heart of racial bias when it comes to quarterbacks, I’d suggest backing off the Josh McCown hot takes and looking more at how socioeconomic factors, intertwined as always with the country’s history of systemic racism, combined with the geometric realities of NFL football that demand the sport be played differently than it is at lower levels, work against black quarterbacks. I know, I know, who’s gonna retweet that? Best just crank out a bunch of passer rating and QB Winz stats.)

I like Taylor, I’m hopeful for the Bills, and I’m bummed it didn’t work out. In short, for a flawed team, what Taylor brought wasn’t good enough, and he really hadn’t shown any signs that a drastic improvement was on the way. Are the Bills better off with Nathan Peterman under center? We have no idea yet. But they made the change because they wanted something different. This team was speeding toward the edge of the cliff, and sometimes you just gotta turn the wheel and hope for the best.

2e. So here we are:

I liked Peterman at Pitt, where they ran a lot of the same play-action, bootleg stuff that Dennison will surely use when Peterman makes his first NFL start—in front of tens of mildly interested spectators at StubHub Center—on Sunday. Because of the system he ran at Pitt, Peterman was far closer to pro-ready than most of the QB class of 2017 (he just doesn’t have the same ceiling as the top guys—the Kirk Cousins comparisons are quite generous). He can move. He can throw on the move. He’s good off play-action. He’ll play within the structure of the offense. That’s clearly what the Bills’ coaching staff was looking for.

Dennison surely knows that Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa are going to dunk all over his offensive line on Sunday, and I assume he’s come up with a workaround. As for what Peterman does on the field, we’ll see. This won’t be garbage time against the Saints’ shell defense. He’ll be working with one of the worst supporting casts in football against a quality defense.

Ultimately, Taylor is not the long-term answer in Buffalo. Peterman’s not likely to be the answer either. The only reason that scenario can even be entertained as a possibility is because we have no idea what he is. Is this the right move? I think the more appropriate question is, was there a right move for this team, with these options?


3a. When the season began, there was some question as to who would be the Vikings’ quarterback in 2018: pending (and then-healthy) free agent starter Sam Bradford, injured Teddy Bridgewater, or play Mystery Date next winter and hope you don’t get the dud.

The past week has proven that Bridgewater will almost surely be the choice. On paper, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s offense is a perfect fit for Bridgewater’s skillset (accurate, decisive and athletically nimble, his weakness being below-average arm strength). The stunning part is that, according to Jay Glazer, the Vikings were seriously considering turning the offense over to Bridgewater as soon as Sunday.

It’s been more than 22 months since Bridgewater last took a snap, and at that point Shurmur wasn’t even on the Vikings’ staff. Making the move to Bridgewater now would be aggressive. When you consider how well Case Keenum has played in 2017, it seems unnecessarily bold.

Though maybe this is as much about Keenum as it is about Bridgewater. Keenum’s first five NFL seasons would best be described as subpar with flashes of mediocrity. He’s playing at a much different level right now but, in terms that my fellow rec league basketball chuckers will understand, is this just a heat check for Keenum? The Vikings might realize that they’re playing with house money right now, and they know they might be moving away from Keenum too early, but wouldn’t it be worse if they got out too late?

3b. Also, REVENGE GAME! This is Keenum’s chance to stick it to the Rams for the $4 million they paid him over the past two seasons. They won’t get away with this!

 


4. You do it to yourself, you do / And that’s what really hurts
Is you do it to yourself, just you / You and no one else
You do it to yourself
Thom Yorke

On principle, Jerry Jones is right. Roger Goodell and the folks at Park Avenue do have far too much power, especially when it comes to a system of player discipline seemingly modeled after whomever your favorite third-world totalitarian dictator is. And that is exactly the kind of power Jerry Jones and the other owners wanted him to have. Jones was downright giddy when Goodell—let’s be honest about it regardless of your personal feelings about the Patriots—lost his mind during Deflategate. And he was surely thrilled to have Goodell serve as a heat shield when Jones and the Cowboys were the only team willing to bring Greg Hardy back into the league after this report came out (Goodell, at that point, was doing everything he could to keep Hardy out of the league).

Jones is also right in that there is a small, vocal faction of fans that is very upset with player demonstrations during the playing of the national anthem. And they’re being prodded by the candidate—the guy who built a campaign around a theme of racial divisiveness—Jones helped get elected to the nation’s highest office.

This is the world Jerry Jones created for himself, and these are the mildly ironic consequences of living in it. (It’s like The Monkey's Paw for one-percenters.)


5. Remember in the late 90s when Axl took complete control of Guns N’ Roses and started kicking everyone out until he was the only one left from the Appetite for Destruction lineup? (If memory serves, Conan branded them “Tubby Magoo and Five Guys Who Aren’t Slash.”)

That’s essentially what the Legion of Boom has become, and might be going forward, considering the severity of the Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor injuries. Just Earl Thomas and a bunch of dudes who aren’t Kam or Sherman. There are a couple of familiar faces, like Jeremy Lane (who they tried to trade just a few weeks ago) and Byron Maxwell (who nobody loved after he left Seattle), but L.O.B.’s next generation is cornerbacks Shaquil Griffin and Justin Coleman, along with the Chancellor replacements: Bradley McDougald (short-term) and Delano Hill (long-term).

The Seahawks had moved away from the Cover-3 approach that defined them during their best seasons, in part because the Falcons (who come to Seattle on Monday night) wrecked it when they came to CenturyLink Field last season. Also, their pass rush has not been quite what it used to be since Cliff Avril went down, further discouraging a zone-heavy approach. There might have been some comfort in plugging the new guys into a zone with Earl Thomas in the back, but this defense has to play a lot of man like they have been doing all season.

With Sherman out, Thomas has to play it straight as a free defender. Griffin is good, but no one is going out of their way to avoid throwing at him. For the first time in years, opponents will be feeling giddy when they think about throwing against this defense. And then there’s the psychological aspect to playing without Sherman and, especially, Chancellor. Here’s what Marquand Manuel, Falcons defensive coordinator and former Seahawks assistant, told Robert Klemko about Chancellor last summer:

“He’s the ultimate man’s man. If I could come back and do it again as a player, I would do it like him. Not just the physicality that he brings to the game, but the content of his character. Down in, down out, the integrity. The ugly jobs that no one wants; he takes them. He won’t raise a hand and claim credit for anything. That team is better because of that man. I love every player I get an opportunity to coach, but what he brought to the table probably will resonate with me for the rest of my life. [ . . . ] Not everybody is that mature right away, but he has something that God has given him. His soul is different.”

Hill, a third-round rookie and presumably the heir apparent as that high-hole safety in Seattle, is physical and impressive moving downhill. McDougald can hold his own. But good luck replacing that.

In the short-term, Monday could be a nightmare as the Falcons increasingly show signs of getting it together. And since it will likely take 10 or 11 wins to get to the playoffs in the NFC, Russell Wilson is suddenly going to have to carry an even heavier burden than he was before (when it was just a non-existent run game and no pass protection).


6. Please do not air today’s Cardinals-Texans game in front of your children unless you’ve already given them “the talk” about the dangers of atrocious pocket presence.


7. At some point last Sunday evening, you got the feeling that Chaz Green didn’t want to play football anymore. Adrian Clayborn not only dominated him, but Clayborn didn’t even get excited about it. Green seemed to reach that point where you just starting thinking, There is no salvaging this performance, but I could retire tomorrow and devote my life to eating Doritos and taking naps, and that’s not a bad way to live. On Sunday night, the Cowboys will likely be without Tyron Smith again, meaning some combination of Green and Byron Bell will be on Dak Prescott’s blindside .

Considering Clayborn probably couldn’t make the Eagles’ D-line rotation, the Cowboys know what they’re getting into when they host Philly. I’d imagine it will be a game-plan heavier on those three-tight end sets that they had some success running out of in Atlanta. And everything is going to have to be quick-strike in the passing game. It’s not ideal, but there are workarounds.

What I’d be more worried about (or, at least as worried about) is how this defense holds up without Sean Lee. Lee is as good as the Cowboys’ depth at linebacker is, well, not good. I remember two years ago, leading up to the draft, we were looking into doing a profile on Jaylon Smith, then a top-five talent who had destroyed his knee playing in the Fungible Corporation Bowl That Isn’t a Playoff Game in his final Notre Dame appearance. The feedback we had gotten was that, because of the nerve damage caused by the injury, Smith was firmly a Day 3 pick. It could have been smokescreens, and there were certainly a range of medical opinions, but it felt like a spit-take moment when the Cowboys took Smith 34th overall.

Smith redshirted last year. This year, he hasn’t looked like he’s back to where he was physically at Notre Dame. More troubling, he has looked completely overwhelmed against the run game. The Cowboys haven’t necessarily needed him to perform like a guy you’d take 34th overall, but with Lee out, the Cowboys desperately need Smith and Anthony Hitchens to step up. For the Eagles, there is a flashing neon sign that says “run here” in the middle of the Dallas defense. And if Philly takes it to them on the ground, there will be nowhere for Smith and Hitchens to hide.


8. Once the Browns draft a quarterback with the first or second overall pick this spring, the Chargers should go get DeShone Kizer to be the heir apparent to Philip Rivers. There I said it.

What’s going on in Cleveland has been in no way fair to Kizer from a development standpoint, but the physical tools are there and he’s shown some resiliency in what has become an absolute farce of a season. The Chargers should send Cleveland a fourth-rounder and everybody’s happy.


9. My guess is that, right now, Mike McCarthy likes the idea of putting Jamaal Williams behind fullback Aaron Ripkowski in the backfield, leaning on the power run game and then working the passing game off of that, staying in base personnel and simplifying things for Brett Hundley. But I’d be downright terrified of the thought of C.J. Mosley patrolling the middle of the field with his eyes on Hundley. Ravens-Packers is a make-or-break game for two flawed teams that both have legitimate playoff shots right now.


10. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Rupe Shearns!

 

 

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