1. If you’re only going to watch one game today, make it the VHS of my family’s 1991 Thanksgiving football game. But if you can’t get your hands on that, settle in for Panthers-Falcons at 4:25.
I won’t believe the Falcons are a non-playoff team until I see it. They had some issues with the transition to Steve Sarkisian early in the year, and at no point has this offense functioned on the kind of level it did a year ago. But the bad breaks they are catching are just absurd. It started with a couple near-misses, then a couple of drops. Then, last week in New Orleans, they failed to score any points from the Saints’ 1-yard line twice, and a Marvin Hall drop turned into the Saints literally pulling an interception out of their ass. (Well, not out of, but pretty close.)
It’s been that kind of year for the Falcons. And when they went to Charlotte in Week 9, they were the better team. The Panthers leaned on a series of gadget plays to move the ball (Statue of Liberty play!) and Matt Ryan just overthrew one open deep shot to Julio Jones, then Jones let a second one bounce off his hands.
The Falcons have stayed relatively healthy this season, their defense is fast, young and still improving, and the offense is oh-so-close on a weekly basis. I think they can make noise in January, if they can figure out a way to not let one get away at home against the Panthers on Sunday.
2a. Speaking of the Panthers . . . this season the MVP “debate” has been an annoying cycle of people touting “contenders” who can’t objectively be selected over Tom Brady, then (as is the current state of discourse in this country) throwing a hissy fit when you point that out. Because somehow it’s disrespectful to suggest someone is merely the second or third or fourth most valuable player in the NFL this season.
Brady is the MVP. Wentz would have been an interesting challenger had he stayed healthy and lit it up down the stretch (he might have even been the frontrunner considering Brady’s shaky game in Miami). But at this point there are no other contenders, because to argue someone is a contender is to suggest that they could win. No such person exists. Some guys would be contenders had Tom Brady never been born. But he was, so they’re not.
Anyway, during this ritual of throwing out names of guys who could finish second in the MVP vote, I’m surprised it hasn’t come around to Cam Newton. We went through a Russell Wilson phase when he was on a hot streak a month ago, and he’s since strung together three horrific performances that, if they had come in September, would have everyone asking What’s wrong with Russell Wilson?
That’s how Newton started 2017, with the Panthers rolling out a new approach on offense, asking Newton to get the ball out of his hands more quickly, and Newton spraying throws all over the field. He still misses the occasional layup that makes Panthers fans throw up a little in their mouths, but Newton has also been asked to carry an offense with no semblance of a running game behind a shaky O-line. He is their rushing offense now. The Panthers have won seven of eight, and during that span Newton has rushed for 484 yards, 16th-most in the NFL during that span, and 6.1 yards per carry despite a lot of those being designed runs rather than chunk runs on scrambles (though he is picking up chunks on those designed runs; four runs of 30-plus yards and two runs of 60-plus yards over the last eight games). And in the meantime, he’s taking care of the ball (three INTs over last eight). He’s a downfield passer operating an offense that has little in the way of downfield weapons. Oh, and before this stretch, when the Panthers still had Kelvin Benjamin, Newton threw for 300-plus yards and three TDs in wins at New England and Detroit. So if we’re suspending disbelief in regards to the MVP conversation by ignoring the existence of Tom Brady, I think Newton has as good an argument as anyone.
2b. All that talk about limiting the hits Cam takes this season, and he’s actually four rushing attempts shy of his career high (132, in 2015). It’s better to burn out than fade away, I suppose.
3a. Swinging back to that Seahawks offense . . . the good news is that they made some history a week ago: Seattle became the third team since 1950 to have more penalty yards than offensive yards in a game and still win. The bad news is that, over the last three games, they rank 32nd in the NFL in total offense (228.7 yards per game, less than the Bryce Petty-led Jets and the Savage/Yates/Heinicke-led Texans). And those numbers were boosted by Russell Wilson Bortlesing Blake Bortles in Bortles’ own backyards (in the Week 14 loss at Jacksonville, Wilson threw three interceptions as Seattle fell behind 27-10 before TD passes of 61 and 74 yards in the final 10 minutes salvaged the stat line).
It’s an alarming turn of events for a few reasons. The Seahawks have an injury or eight on defense. But here’s the main issue: A couple weeks ago my podcast co-host and bunraku omozukai (the book I’m reading with my 5-year-old includes a lot of material on Japanese puppetry) Andy Benoit wrote a piece highlighting the risk of inconsistency when your offense relies on Wilson’s improvisational, out-of-structure playmaking (yes, even when you bake that out-of-structure playmaking into your system, as teams like the Seahawks do). There’s inconsistency, but the last three weeks have been something else. It’s been borderline hopeless for this team to find any kind of offense, sustained or otherwise. And at this point, there’s no Marshawn Lynch to lean on, and the defense isn’t in a position to carry them. They might get to the postseason—it will only take a home win over the Cardinals and the Panthers beating in Atlanta team that finds creative ways to lose games—but to do anything in January Seattle would need Wilson to elevate his game to a level he’s never (and maybe no one’s ever) played at before, at a time when he’s in the worst slump of his career.
3b. A bit of history could be in the works in Seahawks-Cardinals: According to NFLPenalties.com, Germain Ifedi is one flag away from being the first offensive player to draw 20 flags in a season (since 2009, which is as far back as NFLPenalties.com’s database goes). So, have your camera ready for the big moment. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if they had some kind of on-field ceremony to commemorate the milestone, before the flag is sent off to Canton, of course.
4. Have you heard that Dave Gettleman drives a hard bargain? Well, it’s true. Dave Gettleman drives a hard bargain. And the negotiations with Odell Beckham Jr. are going to be the best off-field drama of 2018.
Way back when Ben McAdoo was running this offense, Beckham was indispensable. McAdoo’s offense is iso routes all the time, requiring receivers to win their battles without the help of being schemed open. Beckham was not only capable of winning against double teams, but he required a double on every snap, allowing the rest of the receivers (and they had some awful ones in 2016) to work against single coverage. McAdoo’s system was a complete failure without Beckham; Beckham could have demanded a franchise quarterback contract plus three Hawaiian islands and the Giants would have had to either pay it or tear the whole thing down.
I’m not sure how far they can deviate from McAdoo’s system if they’re sticking with Eli Manning, but they at least have flexibility now. And if they think the history of occasional meltdowns is an issue, a breakup with Beckham might not destroy the foundation of this offense.
Of course, they’re better with Beckham just like any of the 32 teams would be better with Beckham. You could argue that, at the moment, he’s the most desirable non-quarterback in football. Beckham is 25, four years younger than Antonio Brown and nearly four years younger than Julio Jones. He won’t get the biggest contract in the NFL because he doesn’t throw the football, but he should get the biggest ever given to a non-quarterback. It will be a monstrous investment. And, for a team that now seems hyper-sensitive when it comes to locker room chemistry, it might not be an investment they want to make. Unlike a year ago, they now have a choice.
5.Davante Adams got his contract—it’s on the high end but not outrageous (a reported $58 million over four years with $18 million guaranteed)—but I would have been interested to see what kind of interest he would have drawn on the open market.
Adams has come along nicely since his disastrous 2015 season, is still improving, and probably most importantly had Aaron Rodgers advocating for the deal to get done. I’m not sure Adams is the kind of guy who keeps opposing coordinators up at night though (not yet, at least). It’s also a move that will force the team’s hand with Jordy Nelson and/or Randall Cobb.
Green Bay can get out from under either of their deals, which are both entering the final year—according to OverTheCap.com Nelson carries a $12.55 million cap number in 2018, Cobb carries a $12.75 million hit. The Falcons spent a league-high $28.1 million on their receivers in 2017 (Green Bay was second at $27.9, by the way). With the Adams deal, the Packers would be devoting in the neighborhood of $40 million to wide receivers if they keep everyone on the books as is, which is the kind of thing you’d only consider if your three receivers were Antonio Brown, Julio Jones and Odell Beckham Jr.
Nelson will be 33 in May and disappeared after Rodgers’ injury—I’m not sure there would be much of a market for him if he’s cut loose, and the Packers might risk cutting him then re-signing him. But he’s also been Rodgers’ most targeted and most productive receiver over the past two seasons, so is it a risk they can take? As for Cobb, he has been relatively disappointing since his breakout 2014 season, but he’s also a moveable chess piece type in an offense that lacks them (especially since Martellus Bennett skipped town). Adams’ combination of youth and production made him the obvious choice to keep in Green Bay. But they’re going to have to ask one (or both) of their veterans to restructure, and might ultimately have to make a decision on who is expendable.
6a. Good on the Bucs for keeping Dirk Koetter rather than pressing the reset button again. He was originally promoted to keep the offense on track, and while Jameis Winston is still too often willing to try to power the ball through the flesh and bone of opposing defensive backs, the positives still outweigh the negatives. Koetter has him in a good place. Here’s a breakdown of the Bucs’ real problems:
94%: The defensive side of the ball. They had zero pass rush in 2017, and they also couldn’t cover anyone. That’s not an ideal mix, and if ageless CB Brent Grimes retires or signs elsewhere this offseason, it becomes an even bigger issue. The easiest way to fix things would be by adding an impact edge rusher—easier said than done even with a lot of cap space and a high draft pick (unless Demarcus Lawrence hits the market it’s a soft free-agent class and an underwhelming draft class for edge rushers). They could also come up with a more creative solution. Like a more blitz-heavy approach in 2018. It’s not that hard. The Panthers, primarily a four-man pass rush for most of the last decade, went blitz-heavy under new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks this season and didn’t have to blow up the roster or the scheme to do so. Like Carolina, the Bucs have the speed at linebacker to make it work. Or, Tampa could just accept they might be multiple years away from competing in a strong NFC South.
3%: As mentioned above, Winston forcing throws.
2%: The “team out of control” narrative. The Mike Evans cheap shot on Marshon Lattimore was trash, and he had a couple of sideline meltdowns but not anything that doesn’t happen every 12 minutes in Seattle. Winston charging onto the field in protest last week was not a great look, just like it’s not a great look when, oh, Philip Rivers or Tom Brady do something similar. My only real “sideline antics” concern with this team was an injured Winston picked a fight in that Saints game. (I don’t want my quarterback, while not wearing a helmet, getting into it with a guy who is wearing a helmet. Your skull is prone to getting caved in, and if you throw a punch with your dominant hand you’re at risk of breaking a bunch of little, tiny bones. It’s no-win.)
1%: Dirk Koetter probably misses his old glasses.
6b. Looking at the free-agent class of edge rushers, my goodness, send your ideas for exciting new inventions to Demarcus Lawrence, because he is about to come into an obscene amount of money. (Demarcus, if you’re reading this, my invention idea is a Christmas tree that decorates itself—no more gashing your hands on razor-sharp pine needles, no more concussing yourself with falling ornaments, no more shelling out thousands of dollars to “Big Christmas Tree.” And also it has an alarm clock in it.) If Lawrence doesn’t reach the market, teams in need of edge rushing help are looking at rolling the dice on Ziggy Ansah, the most talented edge on the market but a guy who hasn’t produced consistently since 2015. Or go get a 30-year-old Adrian Clayborn, and hope that Chaz Green is willing to tour the NFL as his weekly opponent, Washington Generals-style.
7. Have you leaked to a reporter that you’d rather not play for the Cleveland Browns? Because it seems like that’s the thing to do right now. A few months back there was smoke surrounding USC QB Sam Darnold potentially choosing to stay in school—SCHOOL I tell you!—rather than risk getting picked by Cleveland first overall. (Darnold says that’s not the case, but he should play another year at USC because he’s not ready for the NFL anyway, but that’s a discussion for another time.) And now there are reports that Josh Rosen would rather play for the Giants than the Browns.
And it’s all a bit absurd, because while surely no one is thrilled about ownership in Cleveland (and that’s not changing,) the Browns are teeming with selling points. Perhaps most importantly: They have an offensive line. A good offensive line that, if Joe Thomas is 100% healthy and Shon Coleman continues to develop, could be very good by next fall. You’re not going to get your pretty face smashed in playing behind this line. They have the running game to carry the load early for a young QB. They also have a ton of draft picks and a ton of cap space, and they no longer have Sashi Brown trying to live out his childhood fantasy of owning every pick of a particular NFL draft (I could keep letting the clock expire and then pass myself, I’d rule the world!). John Dorsey can and should be telling any QB prospect who is the least bit hesitant that they will not sit back and trust Josh Gordon and a talented-but-raw Corey Coleman as their only two options at wideout, that they’re going to be in on guys like Sammy Watkins and Jarvis Landry if they’re available. (And they also have a potentially very good pass-catching TE in David Njoku.) And if they do retain Hue Jackson, they just have to give assurances that he will never again run this offense the way he ran it in 2017, but instead dust off his old Bengals playbook. (That’s a tougher sell, I’m not sure what you do about the head coach after what happened to DeShone Kizer.)
But mostly it’s this: The bar is so very low in Cleveland. This franchise has one win in its last 34 games. Josh Rosen, if you win 10 games combined over your first two seasons as the Browns’ quarterback, you will not be criticized and you might even be celebrated. However, if you push Eli Manning out of town and win 10 games over two seasons as the Giants’ quarterback, you’ll be on the back page of the Post with a headline like “Josh Loser.” Or “Butt Rosen.” Or “Josh Diarrhea-osen.” (I’m no good at these, but you get the picture.) And Cleveland is a good city—I don’t write that in a pat-on-the-head kind of way. It’s a good city. You’ll find people and things there that you enjoy, because like all cities they are big and among the many things they have are good things. Too cold? Half the cities in the league are too cold. New York is too cold. (I would know, I work there and therefore live near there, and right now it’s 9 degrees outside. I had to put on pants in my own home. That’s right, it’s too cold to go pants-less in my own home. This is no way to live.) And if you take the Browns to the Super Bowl, you will own that city. You’ll be the new LeBron. If it all goes wrong, whatever. Tim Couch is on TV. So is Brady Quinn. Johnny Manziel just joined the Ti-Cats. You’ll be all right.
8. I know, everyone’s upset about this James Harrison thing, and fine. Tedy Bruschi said on ESPN the other day that he wouldn’t have been caught dead putting on a Steelers jersey if he was in a similar end-of-career situation, and that’s good. It’s cool that there are rivalries and players are invested in the rivalries.
But as for Harrison ruining his Steelers legacy . . . [audible sigh] C’mon. Harrison is a self-made man. He was undrafted, cut, and went to Europe before re-joining the Steelers, then rose from special teams demon (got his first Super Bowl ring in that role) to starting linebacker and then, for a three-year span, was the best edge player in football. His decision to freelance on the last play of the first half in Super Bowl XLIII led to the longest touchdown in SB history, a play without which the Steelers probably don’t get that title. He’s been let go by the Steelers on three different occasions. He’s 39 and might be in the final season of organized football he’ll ever play. Yeah, it would’ve been sweet if the Patriots offered to sign him and he showed up in Foxboro but instead of signing a contract went to the weight room, grabbed a 45-pound plate and threw it like a frisbee through the windshield of Tom Brady’s Saturn, then walked back to Pittsburgh wearing nothing but sweatpants and a scowl. (Don’t worry! In this scenario playing out in our minds Tom Brady wasn’t in the car; he was in the break room microwaving his avocado Hot Pockets at the time and is unharmed and still very handsome.) James Harrison’s legacy as a Pittsburgh Steeler is safely intact.
9. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!
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