- Also, the Browns make the right move for the wrong reason, Amari Cooper’s future in Oakland, a look back on Brett Hundley’s cameo in Green Bay and Groundskeeper Willie. Plus, musical guest Elvis Costello!
Apologies in advance: This week’s column is a bit abbreviated. My little sister is getting married this weekend; I normally write on Saturday but I’m told bringing my laptop to the ceremony would be frowned upon. Since my sister is the best sister, I will give her the gift of not writing bad football takes during her nuptials. And the gift of five loose cans of Shasta-brand soft drinks, packed among styrofoam peanuts in a neighbor’s discarded Easter basket. A traditional gift. Because I am the best brother. But this column was written a day early. So if . . . I don't know . . . Tom Brady was arrested for grand theft auto on Saturday evening, sorry it is not mentioned here.
1a. Mike Mitchell has a point (among the many he made this past week, not all of them good). The NFL continues to have a problem with uneven player discipline. However, it all makes sense once you understand fines and suspensions are determined solely by the level of public outcry.
You don’t have to look far to find inconsistencies; for instance, just last week—the very same week that brought us Gronk and JuJu-on-Burfict and Iloka-on-AB—this is Stephone Anthony delivering a hit on Emmanuel Sanders.
This hit was just as egregious as any in Steelers-Bengals, a game that resulted in a suspension for JuJu Smith-Schuster and a hefty fine for George Iloka (whose suspension was overturned on appeal). Anthony wasn’t suspended. He wasn’t even fined. Why? Because the Broncos-Dolphins game was seen only by Guantanamo detainees subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques, so no one among fans and media were talking about it. Thus, the NFL pretended it never happened.
The lack of consistency is why the league has still made no progress in legislating those kinds of hits out of the game, something that should take precedent over the short-term PR game (because it would make the game safer in the long run, and along with that being the right thing to do that’s also the right long-term PR move).
(1b. Sorry to be a narc, Stephone Anthony. It’s not personal. It looked like he felt bad immediately after he made contact with Sanders.)
2. We’re done with the college football season, with the exception of Army-Navy, the playoffs, and the exhibitions sponsored by various interchangeable corporations that exist only to satisfy the urges of degenerate gamblers. So this is as good a time as any to look at the 2018 draft quarterback prospects. Actually, the final week of April is a much better time to look at the 2018 draft quarterback prospects, but we’ve come this far so we might as do it.
As always, a reminder: I don’t fancy myself an expert. So if you disagree with me, that’s fine! All of these gentlemen will have careers that play out; they will throw touchdowns and interceptions, win games and lose games, drink and dance and laugh and love, and nothing you or I write or say will have a bearing on their future successes or failures. I’m writing this purely because I like to predict things. If you want to send me something on Twitter saying I’m a dumb jerk, go for it. (But I probably won’t see it because I’m not on Twitter much. Because 99.99% of Twitter is a breeding ground for mindless tribalism, know-nothing trolling, empty virtue-signaling and shallow, faux-intellectual musings, and without exception every moment you are on there you not only further fracture your ability to think and work with any kind of significant depth, but you lose a small fraction of your humanity. Especially my friend Rob.)
Sam Darnold: I thought Breer relayed a really good point a couple times earlier this year, and I know it’s something I didn’t consider when assessing Deshaun Watson a year ago. Darnold, like Watson, came back to college after a breakout season and discovered that—with a full offseason to prepare for him—opposing defenses were taking away everything he did best. And so there was an adjustment period. I think you’re seeing him come out of that now. Darnold has a little bit of Blake Bortles in that windup—if it were my team, I’d sit him for a year to work out the mechanics rather than throwing him into the fire and watching him keep reverting to bad habits until they’re part of his permanent muscle memory (you know, like what happened with Blake Bortles). But, otherwise, Darnold is the total package. He can play in the pocket, and has the athleticism and shrug-em-off strength and playmaking instincts to extend the down and make out-of-structure plays.
Josh Rosen: The way the ball comes off his hand is the kind of artistic beauty you’d normally only see in The Louvre. He’s not as good once you move him off his spot, but if Rosen is well-protected and can just sit back and sling it, he has a chance to be great, even if he's a bit interception-prone early as he tests the speed of NFL defenders.
The fun part will be the various leaks regarding his personality. For a lot of coaches, he’ll be deemed a little too much of an independent thinker. And I think we all know how he got that way.
Josh Allen: Oh wow, you’re predicting Josh Allen will be a bust? That the guy who was not good in college will not be good in the pros? Well played, Nostradamus.
Prospects aren’t developed in a vacuum. Coaching plays a huge role. Remember how Jared Goff was not good, and then he was really good? That’s coaching! Remember how Tom Brady threw for 30 touchdown passes over the course of his entire collegiate career and then became the greatest quarterback of all time? That, too, is coaching! And some other stuff, but if a quarterback lands with the wrong coach/organization, that’s a problem. And with a prospect like Allen, coaching and development will play a huge role in what he ultimately becomes. He’s a traits guy, and at this point he’s only a traits guy. It’s just the traits—size, arm strength, functional athleticism—are as good as anyone’s.
Allen is a multi-year project. That means a coaching staff is going to have to invest multiple years to develop him, and ownership is going to have to allow that coaching staff to spend the multiple years developing him. Would I draft Allen in the first round? Goodness, no. But I get it. If you push the right buttons you could end up unleashing an All-Pro talent. Maybe there’s an 80% chance he busts, but you’re paying for the ceiling because the ceiling is that high. On the other end of the spectrum, you can always go out and find yourself a Cody Kessler if that’s what floats your boat.
Baker Mayfield: Sure, why not. Everyone’s going a bit overboard with the Russell Wilson/Drew Brees stuff. There’s a reason there are only two good 6-foot QBs in football; it’s hard to play quarterback in the NFL when you’re only 6-foot! Brees is a wizard the way he’s able to slide within the pocket and find throwing lanes. Wilson’s ability to play out of structure and innate instincts as a playmaker make him football’s version of Curly Neal, minus the Scooby-Doo cameos. So to completely discount the fact that Mayfield is short seems foolish. They play a lot more defense in the NFL than they do in the Big 12. Like the Saints have in front of Brees, interior offensive line is going to have to be an emphasis on your roster if Mayfield is your quarterback, and your offensive coordinator is going to have to do some outside-the-box thinking.
The arm is good though. I really enjoyed this deep ball in the Big 12 title game—the footwork could be better, but he’s on the money downfield despite the pressure bearing down on him. (Anyone can make those throws from a clean pocket; arm strength is when you can do it when it’s getting hairy back there.)
I’m not all that concerned about the off-field stuff; y’know, him touching his wiener and whatnot (those wacky millennials) Reports are that Mayfield’s football character is off the charts. Johnny Manziel didn’t fail because he was turdy, he failed because he didn’t want to study a playbook. (The turdishness was just a little added bonus.)
Lamar Jackson: Again, I don’t own a team, and I’ve checked my bank account and unless someone is willing to sell me a franchise in exchange for my pog collection, I won’t be able to purchase a team before next spring’s draft. (After that? We’ll see if my proposal for a pog-based economy makes its way to the right people in Washington; do your thing lobbyists.) But if I did own a team in the next six months, I’d rather have Jackson than Allen (and maybe rather than Mayfield).
If everything goes horribly wrong with Jackson’s development, you can absolutely go back to the drawing board and build complexity into the run game and work your offense that way. So if you already have a strong defense in place, Jackson is high-floor for you as long as you’re willing to get creative. He’s electric with the ball in his hands.
As a passer, he’s not as inaccurate as his detractors claim. He’s not as accurate as his supporters claim. He’s streaky. But everyone can agree: Jackson has improved tremendously as a passer over his three seasons. If he is still this streaky at age 30, he is what he is. But it’s fair to anticipate he will continue to improve, especially if a good QB coach gets a hold of him. And if he gets a good teacher who can get Jackson to a point where he’s consistently reading the field with confidence (comfort with what you’re looking at is a big factor with accuracy), he can be more than accurate enough to thrive in the NFL, especially when you factor in his value in the run game and big arm. Make him watch Russell Wilson 24/7 for a few weeks until he understands he has to slide and protect himself as a runner, and you might have a special player on your hands. Jackson’s long-term outlook will be dependent on landing in the right situation. But, unlike the rest of the guys in this draft class, he has a skill set he can fall back on.
3. Nobody wants to play the Patriots in Foxboro come January. But you know what’s been even worse? Playing the Patriots outside of Foxboro. Over the last two seasons (postseason included), the Patriots are 12-4 with a +12.8 point differential per game at Gillette Stadium. And they’re 15-0 with a +13.7 point differential outside of New England.
On Monday night, they’ll visit the location of their last regular-season road loss: Miami (in the 2015 regular-season finale). And things could get a little more interesting than you’d think. With Rob Gronkowski suspended (and Martellus Bennett already out for the season), they’ll be without that flexible tight end matchup piece. On top of that, it’s a largely meaningless game with a trip to Pittsburgh (on a short week) coming up next Sunday. If there was ever an appropriate time to look ahead, this would be it. So I’m not predicting the double-digit underdog pulling off the upset on Monday night. But let’s just say I’m tempted to consider thinking about making a claim along those lines.
A quick break for a shameless plug: The holidays are coming around, perhaps you have to buy a gift for a child age 8-16. And perhaps that child is a football fan who would like to gain even more knowledge about the book they love. Well, I wrote the Sports Illustrated Kids Football Fanbook just for you. It’s history, it’s strategy, it’s trivia, it’s everything a kid who really wants to know football needs to know. And from the feedback I’m getting, plenty of adults are digging it too. So buy the book, make like Earnest and save Christmas.
4. No one is better than building things than toddlers. Just watch any 2-year-old playing with duplos—he or she will get a third of the way through what they’re building, get frustrated for no particular reason, tear the whole thing apart and then start again from scratch. Then the chili cook-off episode of Paw Patrol comes on the TV and they forget what they were doing in the first place. Efficiency. It’s the same tack the Cleveland Browns are taking to building a champion.
When Sashi Brown first arrived in Cleveland, podcast co-host and amateur lion tamer Andy Benoit and I had a few spirited discussions about it. I was cautiously optimistic. Andy said it would never work; the football side would never get along with the analytics guys. I thought he was clinically insane and told him so: There was no way the Haslams brought in Brown and Hue Jackson without insuring both of them understood and approved of what the approach would be—in short, surely they made sure the two guys from drastically different backgrounds they were hiring were both on the same page going in. It’s just like if I handed you a Polly-O string cheese, I’d assume you’d take the plastic wrapper off of it first rather than eating it along with the cheese, blocking your airway or, at the very least, causing a very uncomfortable bowel movement. It’s common sense.
Yet, here we are—after less than two seasons!—a power struggle and then the reset button again. Though this time around, the Browns might have accidentally done something right. No one seems to have any questions about newly hired GM John Dorsey’s scouting chops; his problem in Kansas City was properly managing the cap. In Cleveland, he’ll be approximately $42 trillion under the cap this winter (or $108 million, according to OverTheCap.com). At least in the short-term, Dorsey couldn’t spend enough to run up against the cap if he tried.
The problem with the Brown regime the past two years is they’ve been so bad on talent evaluation that you might think they were just being ironic. Yes, they passed on Carson Wentz (at the time, as close to a sure thing as you’re going to get coming out of the college game these days) and Deshaun Watson. They also let guys like Alex Mack and Tashaun Gipson walk. (I’ll also continue to throw Terrelle Pryor into that mix; his 2017 would have been much different had he not had to learn a new system with a new quarterback at a crucial juncture in his development as a wide receiver.) They used the savings on Kenny Britt and a second-round pick.
As with the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers and like-minded counterpart Sam Hinkie (perhaps the worst talent evaluator to lead a front office for any professional team across sports), I’m not sure why owners feel the need to hire someone with an MBA if the strategy is, “Let’s be really bad, collect draft picks and save money for a couple years.” You’d get the same results if you fan-sourced all decisions. Or had a particularly smart dog assemble roster (hmmmm, next installment of Air Bud?). But now Cleveland has a good football guy with a lot of resources to work with. That’s not a bad place to be, even if the Browns got there quite by accident.
5. Life is full of disappointments, especially for us 30-somethings who are under 6-foot and would like to dunk on a 10-foot hoop but don’t want to eat right or exercise. Almost as disappointing: watching Derek Carr and Amari Cooper regress individually and as a pair.
Cooper will likely miss a second straight game on Sunday, this one solely because of an ankle injury (last week it was concussion protocol as well). But injuries haven’t been the issue. Even after bulking up this offseason, he’s still struggling to get off press coverage, often relegated to playing the slot so he can get a free release. He doesn’t create separation consistently enough, and he drops way too many passes. That’s the profile of a No. 2 receiver—maybe a high-end No. 2, but not a No. 1.
Which raises the question: What happens with Cooper long-term? They can’t possibly use his fifth-year option. Even with Carr structuring his deal to give the Raiders more flexibility after 2018, $14 million would be an obscene overpay for what they’ve been getting from Cooper.
Carr does like Cooper though, and the Raiders are married to the QB. Does Cooper bet on himself and make 2018 a walk year, or would he be willing to sign something long-term but leaning toward team-friendly? And, if so, what kind of deal would it be? He’s certainly not worthy of DeAndre Hopkins or Alshon Jeffery money. Maybe something along the lines of Pierre Garcon’s deal in San Francisco ($9.5 annual average, $17 million guaranteed), or the contract Doug Baldwin signed before last season ($11.5 million annually, $12 million guaranteed) would be logical starting points. Or, at the rate he is going, those deals might be the ceiling for Cooper.
6. In the season finale of the Brett Hundley Experience, we’ll finally learn who really killed the Packers offense.
All right, it wasn’t that bad. But Hundley was frustratingly uneven over his six starts, especially for a guy who’s been in the league for three seasons. The play-calling didn’t seem to do him a lot of favors, and last week both the game plan and Hundley’s performance suggested that everyone is trying to hang on for dear life until Aaron Rodgers’ return in Week 15. They rolled it back to his first start—everything thrown behind the line of scrimmage, and don’t even think about pulling the trigger on any kind of vertical route; those are only for clearing more space to run. It’s difficult football to watch.
Last week it was all’s well that ends well, an overtime home win over the Bucs. But on this Sunday, playing that conservatively will surely allow the Browns to stick around. And while this is do-or-die for the Packers, it’s the Browns’ Super Bowl. Unless the Steelers end up resting starters for their Week 17 matchup in Pittsburgh, this is Cleveland’s last, best chance to avoid 0-16.
7. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Elvis Costello!
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