- Also, remembering when Chad Henne was supposed to be Jacksonville’s starter, the Vikings’ bizarre drafting, Mike Vrabel goes to Tennessee, and the solution for the Steelers that is not the dumb ‘fire Tomlin’ stuff. Plus, musical guest Living Colour!
1. The world is just hours away (depending on when you’re reading this) from finding out whether Tom Brady’s right hand was lightly scratched or completely severed earlier this week. Or, who knows, perhaps something in between.
Before we get to the absurd level of secrecy surrounding an injury everyone already knows about, let’s assume Brady is going to be fine on Sunday afternoon and figure out how the AFC title game might be decided. There’s plenty of reason to be bullish on the Jaguars defense, which is the AFC’s best and the NFL’s second best (behind Minnesota). But I’m not sure they’re a great matchup with the Brady/Belichick Patriots.
The NFL season is a process; a unit that’s prone to mistakes in September can iron things out over the ensuing three months (like, for instance, the Patriots defense, which had issues adjusting to the addition of Stephon Gilmore and loss of Dont’a Hightower early on). It’s January, and the Patriots are now operating at peak efficiency on both sides of the ball. Still, even in this state, New England can get got (and they have gotten got). It happens one of two ways:
a) A new wrinkle: New England prepares for opponents better than any team in the league. So, simply, the best way to beat them is by rolling out something you can do well that they couldn’t possibly have prepared for. The Dolphins Wildcat game is the most glaring example. But there was also the 2010 conference semifinals (known as the “divisional playoffs” if you’re someone who likes dumb names of things) against the Jets, when Rex Ryan, under the advice of life coach Jim Leonhard, activated every defensive back east of the Mississippi and put them all on the field in Foxboro, taking away space in the secondary and forcing Brady to pat, pat, pat. The Jets were up 14-3 at halftime before New England knew what hit them, and the Patriots never recovered. There was the first half of Super Bowl LI when the Falcons, who had played straight man or a vanilla Cover-3 all season and relied on out-executing opponents with their speed (and their prolific offense), added that man-lurker wrinkle. To counter the Patriots’ many crossing routes, they played man until a receiver crossed to the lurker, at which point the man defender passed off the receiver to the lurker and became the new lurker. New England had no way of knowing it was coming because the Falcons hadn’t done it all year. Not only was it how the Robert Alford pick-six came about, but Alford almost got Brady on a similar play earlier in the first half (pressure forced Brady’s throw to bounce well short). There was also the Chiefs, who rolled out a bunch of brand new, college-style wrinkles with their offense in the season opener (though they benefited from Hightower’s in-game injury and also had, y’know, six months to prepare).
The problem with this is that the Patriots have seen just about everything at this point, so they won’t be overwhelmed if they need to make in-game adjustments. The Patriots have seen everything in the run game over the past couple years—the Jaguars could go heavy on zone-read or QB power, but that’s highly unlikely to catch the Patriots off-guard considering Blake Bortles’ well-earned reputation for struggling with the forward pass. The Steelers tried to switch things up and play coverage against them in last year’s AFC title game, and it backfired horribly. Jacksonville has gone relatively vanilla and relied on superior talent on defense to beat teams all season, and I’m not sure they’re about to do anything exotic with only a week to prepare.
b) Out-execute the Patriots: The Broncos have done this (though they had a nice approach with defenders dropping into shallow zones, clogging quick-strike throwing lanes). But, really, what you need is an overwhelmingly great pass rush to disrupt Brady. Denver had that. So did Houston, last January. The Jaguars have a good, perhaps very good, pass rush, but branding aside (and “Sacksonville” is very good branding) this pass rush is not in the same class as Denver’s or Houston’s. Jacksonville is great on the back end, which week in week out gives this pass rush an extra tick to get to the quarterback. The throwing windows will be small for Brady, but if he’s on-point he’ll be able to deal with it. Last week, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers made it work downfield play after play (Roethlisberger, by the way, was magnificent for the final three quarters of that game, though no one will ever talk about it because, as the old saying goes, “losing is for losers”). Brady, even if his non-Gronk weapons are not quite what Roethlisberger has to work with, is certainly capable of doing the same.
And, of course, on the other side of the ball, Bortles is going to have to play the game of his life to carve up New England’s bend-don’t-break defense, and the Jaguars might not even give him an opportunity to try. Can Leonard Fournette and a B-plus offensive line steamroll the Patriots? I’d think probably not, but whatever; they’re going to play the game in a little bit and we’ll all find out, so it really doesn’t matter what I think.
2a. Of course, the Jaguars might be able to out-execute this Patriots offense if Brady is adversely affected by an injury that the media has dubbed “Vince Vaughn thumb.” Well, one media member, Jonathan Jones, dubbed it that. So hat tip to Jonathan. But also not a hat tip to Jonathan, because after he texted me that I spent my Friday evening looking at photos of Vince Vaughn’s thumb and, eventually, other celebrity hand deformities when I could have been interacting with my family, or sending a postcard to a friend, or volunteering at a homeless shelter, or staring off into the middle distance, or writing the script for my upcoming pilot Robot Hospital which is about a talking dog who dishes out his own brand of street justice in a town that has a hospital run by robots. Really, literally anything but looking at close-ups of Vince Vaughn’s thumb.
Of course, even after everyone found out his hand was injured, the Patriots had to be all weird about the injury because that’s their shtick. Either Brady is going to be fine. Or he’s going to be slightly less accurate than usual. Or they’re going to play Brian Hoyer. That’s not going to drastically change the Jaguars’ approach, except for the tears of joy they would shed when they thought about Hoyer’s only career postseason start (15-34, 136 yards, four INTs in a 30-0 loss to the Chiefs in Houston).
I’m not sure why the team couldn’t have just come out and said “Brady collided with Rex Burkhead during practice and injured his throwing hand,” if the injury occurred in such an innocuous manner. The only other explanation is, obviously, COVER UP! So let's run with that. Among the ways Brady might have actually injured his hand, in no particular order:
• Some poor schmo accidentally stepped on his hand during stretching.
• Some poor schmo got a little too feisty rushing the passer and Brady hit his hand on a helmet when following through on a throw.
• Brady got upset with sloppy play during a practice and, in frustration, punched something harder than the bones in his hand.
• The team was experimenting with new razor wire helmet buckles to discourage head slaps and cut down on concussions.
• Brady tried to impress people by doing that thing where you put your hand on the table with your fingers spread, take out your pocketknife and stab between your fingers really fast. And then things all went wrong.
• They’ve been LARPing Seinfeld as part of a team-building exercise all season, and Brady insisted on being Costanza. They had gotten to the episode where George is a hand model (always overshadowed by the Puffy Shirt), and someone felt it was important, for the sake of realism, to have the iron actually be on for the final scene.
• Brady got impatient at lunchtime and didn’t give his Hot Pockets proper time to cool off, took a bite and got piping-hot filling all over his throwing hand. I know, I know, that’s Hot Pocket amateur hour and Brady is a pro, but if you’re hungry enough, sometimes you take a chance. As the old saying goes, let the Hot Pocket filling scald where it may.
• Brady tried to loosen things up by playing a practical joke that involved letting a ferret loose in the training room. Except he forgot to feed the ferret for two days, and when he took the ferret out of the cage he said something that the ferret took exception to, and the ferret grabbed a knife and stabbed him in the hand.
• But the most likely explanation: This is all a viral marketing campaign for Under Armour, and if the Patriots win every Dick’s Sporting Goods in the six New England states will sell out of red UA gloves by closing time Sunday night. And they’ll be marketed as “The Official Podium Gloves of Tom Brady.”
2b. Ever since this story broke, all I’ve been able to think about is Brady as Jay Johnston at the end of Mr. Show’s “The Story of Everest,” one of the 17 best comedy sketches to ever air. (It’s worth watching the full seven minutes if you have nothing better to do—and if you’re reading this column, you have nothing better to do—but you have to stick with it to the end.)
2c. I know, I know, some of you are disappointed that all I wrote about Brady's hand is a series of barely passable jokes. But what else is there to say? It's a really dumb, silly thing. The greatest player in the history of the sport, a man who is not just exceptionally athletic and excruciatingly handsome but has also conquered the most clichéd of boyhood dreams by winning five Super Bowls and marrying a supermodel, was just forced to walk around wearing fingered mittens (as I call them) for 90-something consecutive hours to hide an injury that everyone already knows he suffered. What a strange world we inhabit.
3. My close personal friend Rodney Klemko touched on this earlier in the week, but around the office we've all been reminiscing about how Bortles was all but officially benched five months ago. We had a couple people pass through Jacksonville over the summer, and all the whispers were that the bar was incredibly low for Chad Henne to overtake him in the third preseason game. We were already discussing a piece about whether Henne, the last starting quarterback Bill Parcells ever acquired, could be resurrected and game-manage a team to the playoffs.
As we know now, in that third preseason game Henne took the field without pants, instead of relaying play calls proceeded to quietly sob through every huddle, and he audibled to a quick kick to open three of his five drives. After 48 hours of weighing the pros and cons, the Jaguars reluctantly turned back to Bortles.
So I don’t know if it’s a testament to Bortles, or to Nathaniel Hackett and Doug Marrone, or to this Jaguars defense, or to Tom Coughlin, or to a combination of all of them. But it's a testament to someone or something that, when the day is over, no matter what happens, Blake Bortles will be the only quarterback in football to have started 19 games this season.
4. No one’s spitting out their Kombucha upon reading that the two defenses are poised to dominate the opposing offenses in Philadelphia this evening. The Vikings’ O-line cannot block this Eagles defensive line—no chance. And the Eagles might be able to slightly slow the Vikings’ front four, but then you factor in Mike Zimmer’s blitzes and Minnesota’s big advantage against Philly’s outside receivers. And then there’s the thought of Nick Foles trying to carve up the back-end of this Minnesota defense on third downs, which is a recipe for some kind of edible manifestation of regret.
In actuality, this game will probably turn on some kind of weird play: a muffed punt, a deflected ball that turns into a pick-six, an elephant escaping from the Philadelphia Zoo, finding its way into the stadium and, agitated, trampling multiple defenders mid-play, springing a long touchdown.
But if this game is not decided by some weird fluke, it’s going to come down to a quarterback making a play he wasn’t expected to make. And looking at these two quarterbacks, that’s far more likely to come from Case Keenum. The most shocking thing about Keenum’s rise from irrelevant third-stringer to franchise quarterback over the last three months is his knack for making Russell Wilson-lite type plays, ducking out of a sure sack to extend a play, and/or throwing one of those rainbows that should surely be intercepted but instead, 90% of the time, falls into Thielen’s or Diggs’ hands for the third-down conversion. Nick Foles can’t do that. In fact, if the ball isn’t out of Foles’ hand almost immediately, horrible things tend to happen for the Eagles. Keenum is capable of extending a down and making a play late, and that’s a big edge in a game that, really, should be carrying a pick ’em line and an over/under around 12.
5. There has been plenty of discussion over the way the Vikings’ QB situation played out, and plenty more to come over the next two weeks if they win on Sunday, and over the next two months as free agency plays out.
I can’t get over Rick Spielman’s bizarro drafting. The Vikings have been one of those teams thrashing and kicking as they try to find a quarterback, one of only four teams (along with Cleveland, Jacksonville and Tennessee) to take two quarterbacks in the first round over the last seven drafts. And, for all intents and purposes, they spent three first-rounders on quarterbacks during that span, sending one to Philly to get Sam Bradford. And after all that, Keenum ends up being the answer.
But it's bigger than just the QB situation. The number of recent first-round picks by Minnesota who either aren’t with the team (Christian Ponder, 2011; Matt Kalil, 2012; Cordarrelle Patterson, 2013) or have made minimal-to-no impact this season (Sharrif Floyd, 2013; Teddy Bridgewater, 2014; Laquon Treadwell, 2016; the aforementioned 2017 first-rounder they traded for Bradford) is stunning for a team this good. That’s a testament to those late-round picks and UDFAs, and a tremendous job of player development by this coaching staff.
6a. It’s dumb to sit around and grade coaching hires because of the number of variables that affect wins and losses. Fans get all huffy over retread hires despite the fact that five of the last six Super Bowls have been won by retread coaches. Unless your team names a discarded Kleenex as head coach—and the Haslams considered that last cycle—maybe just relax, eat some Froot Loops, watch some cartoons, then tune in next fall and see how it all plays out.
That said, I’m surprised by the hiring of Mike Vrabel in Tennessee (though less surprised since Albert Breer basically said it would happen and explained why on Monday). I thought the Titans would try to chase down that Mariota/delicate genius pairing and go from there. But for Titans fans to be upset because numbers(!) told you Vrabel’s defense was bad last year, his only year as a coordinator . . . c'mon. What are you, a frickin’ robot? Vrabel was responsible for designing that five-across diamond defense in Houston that was going to take the NFL by storm. And then it fell apart because that’s what happens when you lose two of the three players you absolutely can’t afford to lose. (And if you like numbers so much, the Texans defense played four games at full strength this year and held three of those opponents under 300 yards, the exception being the Patriots who went for 396 because Brady made a number of otherworldly throws while getting pile-driven into the Gillette Stadium turf.)
So, the Titans get a good-perhaps-great defensive mind from the Belichick tree and a guy who’s known as a true leader. And, while the offensive coordinator they hire might have a chance to bolt in a couple years if he’s successful, it's an enticing job because whomever takes it will essentially get to run that side of the ball with Vrabel as the head coach, and will have Marcus Mariota and a young, under-construction supporting cast to work with. So was Vrabel a good hire? The answer right now is either yes, no or maybe. I don't know. Neither does anyone else.
6b. I’m not sure if Josh McDaniels was ever interested in the Titans, or vice versa, but I would disagree with anyone arguing Tennessee was a more appealing job than Indianapolis. The Titans were probably a six- or seven-win team in 2017, and caught some breaks in the form of a rash of injuries league-wide en route to a 9-7 finish and a postseason win. On top of that, the Colts are expected to get Andrew Luck back, the Texans will bring back Deshaun Watson and two of the top-10 pass rushers in football (J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus), and the Jaguars have a top-three defense and one glaring weakness on the roster, which they will have a chance to address this offseason. Plus, Marcus Mariota just slid back in his third season. Basically, the Titans could slightly improve in 2018 and still finish under .500.
As for the Colts job, Luck is coming back, and if healthy he’s as close to a sure thing as any young quarterback in football. (Not to mention, a full offseason with Jacoby Brissett makes for a pretty good Plan B.) And, on top of that, there’s an understanding that the rest of the roster is a work in progress. McDaniels (assuming the job is his) will have a year to iron things out without having to worry about unrealistic expectations.
7. The “fire Mike Tomlin” movement is silly. The Steelers are fine. For the next six months, the narrative of “they looked past the Jaguars” will be repeated again and again and again. In reality, the reason they lost last week is that they never figured out how to replace Ryan Shazier. There are literally only two things on their offseason to-do list: Retain Le’Veon Bell, and figure out what to do under the assumption that Shazier isn’t coming back.
For the latter, my humble suggestion is this: I know the Steelers like to stay put on the draft’s first night, take a nap on the war room floor until their pick comes up in the late first, then sort through the prospects that fall to them. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the only time the Steelers made an aggressive move up in the first round since Kevin Colbert joined the franchise in 2000 was in 2003, when they jumped from 27 to 16 to draft Troy Polamalu. I think a similar move is in order this spring, and I think they should make the move from 28 to somewhere around 10 and plug that hole on the defense with Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith. He’s fast and rangy. He's undersized, but so is Shazier. And he is incredibly instinctive. Smith might be the one guy in this draft who most perfectly fills—and likely by the season opener—the one major need Pittsburgh has as they try to get another Super Bowl ring before the Roethlisberger window closes. I’m not saying Smith is going to have an impact like Polamalu, but if you’re reading this in 2032 and Smith has won five Defensive Player of the Year awards in his career, then that’s exactly what I meant.
8. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Living Colour!
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