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  • Also, (as Josh Allen is thrown into the molten hot lava) why the Bills should have just hung on to AJ McCarron, undersized Falcons D gets a tough test against Carolina, why Joe Haden would have come in especially handy against Mahomes, and yeesh what a string of games for Travis Frederick to miss. Plus, musical guest: Led Zeppelin!
By Gary Gramling
September 16, 2018

1. Carson Wentz will be back. It’s unclear exactly when—some time between next week and the time the sun, expanding in the midst of its “Red Giant” phase, evaporates the Earth’s oceans before engulfing the planet whole. Probably closer to the former though.

The reality is that Nick Foles’s last game as the Eagles’ starting quarterback could be Sunday in Tampa, which raises the question: Just what will Foles be worth next offseason? When Foles signed with Philly in March 2017, he was the puppy nobody wanted. Then, it turned out people did want the puppy, to the point that the Browns reportedly offered a second-round pick last offseason. Now, everyone is kind of looking at Foles and wondering—is he an adorable puppy, or is he one of those Argentine ferrets that they take and tease out the fur to make it look like a puppy. (Yes, I’m satisfied with that metaphor. Why do you ask?) Going into Sunday, this is Foles’s game-by-game run as a starter during his second Philadelphia stint:

Week 15 at N.Y. Giants: Fine. He was fine. The Giants’ defense was atrocious that day. Watching their defensive backs match up with Eagles receivers was like watching the interaction between two positively charged atoms. In that the defensive backs were seemingly repelled from the receivers they were supposed to be covering, leaving them wide-open. Such is my fourth grade-level understanding of science.

Week 16 vs. Raiders: Another victory, but this one was dicey. Foles’s performance was captured accurately by his stat line (19-38, 163 yards, TD, INT) against a weak Oakland defense. It was around this time that panic was starting to set in among media and fans—you know, the people whose opinions have virtually no value and absolutely no bearing on what happens on the field.

Week 17 vs. Cowboys: A meaningless game, but another clunker in abbreviated action, leading to the Eagles’ literal underdog status in the postseason despite holding home-field advantage. At this point…

Divisional Round vs. Falcons: It was windy. Lots of wind. The wind can play tricks on the mind. Basically, both offenses were grounded in this one, though the Eagles got it going a bit with the run-pass options (or “RPOs,” for those young people looking to make more efficient use of their time by saving a syllable).

NFC Championship vs. Vikings: Facing arguably football’s best defense, this might have been the best performance from a quarterback last season. Certainly the best of the postseason. Foles threw for 352 yards and three touchdowns, and while some of it came on the continued use of the RPOs, he also made a series of big-time throws late in the down. Basically, if you didn’t know uniform numbers, and didn’t know what Wentz or Foles looked like, and you watched a commercial-free version of the game (available at NFL Game Pass, watch it while enjoying an ice-cold Shasta-brand soft drink) during the hour when your glasses were at LensCrafters, you might have thought Wentz never left.

Super Bowl LII vs. Patriots: He out-scored Tom Brady, won a Super Bowl, and resisted the urge to kiss Papa John in the post-game celebration (the tradition that, somehow, never was), instead opting for his adorable baby. The caveat is that he did it in a game in which the Eagles’ fairly pedestrian passing-game weapons had an edge against the Patriots’ back seven. As you might remember, Bill Belichick had made the surprise decision to bench starting cornerback Malcolm Butler. In order to teach him a lesson. About... something. Staying in school? That part was never really made clear. But if Butler is on the field, and Foles comes up short, perhaps there’s a different narrative surrounding the QB this past offseason.

2018 Season Opener vs. Atlanta: Another win, making Foles a Garoppolo-esque 6-1 as a starter in his second Philly stint (6-0 in meaningful games). This one wasn’t beautiful. Granted, the game was disjointed, with approximately 7,000 penalty flags. Foles was without Alshon Jeffery and Zach Ertz was just keeping the ball in front of him like a good Little League infielder. But he looked a bit like a limited quarterback working with a limited supporting cast.

As my podcast partner and soul mate Andy Benoit pointed out recently: The league is relatively “set” at quarterback right now. When you consider that we’ll likely see at least a QB or two (if not three or four) rise to the first round in the 2019 draft—especially likely because the rookie wage scale is dumb and teams with a rookie QB on a suppressed contract have a significant roster-building advantage—is anyone going to be willing to invest in Foles as more than a bridge guy/high-end backup? He has a mutual option for $20 million, but that’s an exorbitant amount for an Eagles team up against the cap to pay if Wentz is healthy again. At that price, what would the Eagles get in what amounts to a sign-and-trade?

The Browns have been willing to invest in a backup QB. Reportedly, so have the Seahawks, who might have offered a second-rounder for Jacoby Brissett. But if Foles wraps up his run with a forgettable performance in Tampa on Sunday, it would seem a Case Keenum-type deal (starter money but year-to-year) might be his contractual ceiling next offseason. And it’s still unclear who is going to offer it to him.

2. Regarding Le’Veon Bell, I’d like to do a little exercise. So please, take my hand—metaphorically... or literally*—and consider the following conundrum.

Bell has, conservatively, been one of the 20 most valuable non-quarterbacks in football since entering the league in 2013. He’s proven capable of carrying the Steelers’ offense at times as a traditional, power-running big back. He has also been—again, conservatively—one of the three best pass-catching backs in football over his five NFL seasons. For his first four years, he was forced to play on an artificially deflated rookie deal because the league and the union agreed to a terrible idea that ultimately hurts both sides. Bell was so good as a young player that the Steelers gave him a monster workload. And that workload is what is preventing him from collecting the kind of money he earned while playing on the artificially deflated deal his union agreed he’d be forced to take when he was drafted.

So he didn‘t get paid then because he was on his rookie deal. And he doesn‘t get paid now because, while playing on that bargain-basement contract, he took on too much wear and tear. It seems that if you’re an elite running back, you either have to be drafted high (in a league that tacitly admitted its teams are so not good at evaluating talent that they needed the rookie wage scale to protect themselves). Or, like David Johnson, you needed to have suffered a serious injury that cost you the wear and tear of nearly a full season, but one that isn’t debilitating in the long haul. To sum it up: Bell couldn’t get paid as he entered his prime because of the rookie wage scale, and he can‘t get paid during his prime because everyone is afraid it‘s about to end.

Not that Bell is working for peanuts—had he signed his franchise tag before the season, he’d be at $30,582,194 in career earnings by the end of this season. But that’s less than fellow 2013 draftees such as:

• Eric Fisher ($50,492,498), Ziggy Ansah ($48,492,656), Lane Johnson ($44,90,920), DeAndre Hopkins ($44,199,009) Star Lotulelei ($33,461,500) and Kyle Long ($33,251,058), all fine players but none of whom have put together better careers than Bell to this point.

• Terron Armstead ($33,627,276), who’s missed 15 games over the full two seasons since he got his extension.

• Jamie Collins ($30,688,309), whose uneven play got him shipped out of New England, and then landed a lucrative extension with Cleveland as the Browns figured they’d get the best out of him (because, as you know, the Browns get the best out of everyone).

• Bell would also be just ahead of the likes of Alec Ogletree ($29,169,779), who was traded from the Rams to the Giants after a disappointing 2017; Luke Joeckel ($28,889,098), who’s no longer in the NFL; and Justin Pugh ($28,473,935), who just signed a big deal with Arizona after an up-and-down few seasons with the Giants, culminating with a half-season lost to back problems.

If, as some now speculate, Bell is going to sit out half the season with the thought that the lessened workload will be more appealing when he hits the open market next offseason, I’m not sure it’s a particularly wise business move. (Will missing half this season result in a boost larger than $7 million over the life of his next contract? Seems unlikely.) But, if nothing else, good for him for drawing attention to a system that needs to be overhauled for the next CBA.

*—If you would like to literally hold my hand while you read this first note, you know where to find me on a Saturday night: in the Saturn station wagon parked across the street from the Dunking Donuts on Huntington Ave., waiting for them to throw out the leftovers. But if you stop by please keep it down; Jeff still works that shift and he will literally set the contents of the dumpster on fire before I can get to the discarded donuts if he sees me. We did make up after that time I ran over his bike, but he’s had it out for me since I sold him that lawnmower that doesn’t run anymore because I filled the gas tank with Mountain Dew. That’s what “as is” means, Jeff!

3. Jalen Ramsey, as you might know, spent a portion of the offseason projectile-vomiting bad football takes for anyone who put a recorder near his face. Among them was that Rob Gronkowski isn’t as good as you think, apparently because his numbers aren’t as good when he has to face a cornerback.

If the point is Gronkowski is overrated… O.K., whatever, he’s considered the best tight end in NFL history, so he’s not underrated. But the bigger problem with that—again, really bad—take is the fact that when teams consider putting a cornerback on Gronkowski, that is a large part of his value in the first place. When matching up with the Patriots’ personnel, if you’re treating Gronk as a wide receiver and therefore put an extra defensive back on the field, you risk a running play on which Gronkowski takes your extra DB into the locker room and gives him a swirlie a la Sterling Brown a couple years ago. Even if it’s, say, a third-and-long situation, if Gronkowski splits out wide and you have a cornerback follow him out there (and, presumably, it’s a good cornerback), that for years is what opened things up for Edelman/Amendola/James White to feast on linebackers and safeties that can’t cover them. (Andy Benoit is obscenely knowledgeable about football, and if you enjoy football and want to get a better understanding of Gronk’s value from a guy like Bill Belichick, you should read Andy’s Gronkowski profile from two years ago.)

However, between Tashaun Gipson and track-star linebackers Telvin Smith and Myles Jack, the Jaguars have the kind of personnel to neutralize Gronk. And the Patriots, with no Edelman (and, of course, no Amendola) and a shortage of guys on the outside, might not have enough weapons to make up for it if Gronk is contained. And if it goes down that way, look for more bad takes from Ramsey in the post-game. Maybe, like, “Tom Brady... doesn‘t have consonants in his name! Pay attention to me!

4. Don't know what you got till it's gone
Don't know what it is I did so wrong
Now I know what I got
It's just this song
And it ain't easy to get back
Takes so long

—Tom Keifer, front man of 80s glam-rock quartet Cinderella, in ultra-cheesy ballad “Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone),” a song about the band’s decision to trade then-bassist AJ McCarron to Dokken for a conditional sixth-round pick

There’s something to be said for “collecting future assets” (or whatever NBA GMs call tanking these days). A year ago, everyone thought the Browns were nakedly tanking; turns out they were just poorly managed, badly coached, and terrible smelling (in their defense, most football teams—collectively—smell terrible). But as for the 2018 Buffalo Bills…

The reasons for their collapse are obvious. They needed a long-term solution at quarterback and had to spend extra draft capital. They needed to find some answers at linebacker for Sean McDermott’s scheme. They were desperate for playmakers in the passing game. And, most problematically, they needed to rebuild an offensive line after two unexpected retirements (Eric Wood and Richie Incognito) this past offseason.

One year after becoming one of the flukiest playoff teams in NFL history, McDermott and GM Brandon Beane were left with a shell of a roster. They hoped that Nathan Peterman could serve out at least most of the season as a punching bag behind an offensive line that blocks like Jim J. Bullock. (Jim J. Bullock, the regular on Hollywood Squares who was always really difficult for the competitors to read because he was always doing schtick?) The point is: This offensive line is hopelessly unable to protect a quarterback.

Which bring us to Josh Allen, and the question of whether or not to throw him into the fire behind the line. The general consensus is, basically, they can’t put Peterman back out there because the other 52 guys won‘t have it. The problem is that Allen came into the league needing to address dreadfully inconsistent mechanics. Getting blasted within the first second-and-a-half of every play is not a great way to develop consistent mechanics, or avoid the kind of bad habits—drifting, sloppy footwork, looking down at the pass rush because you’re worried about being disemboweled on live television and your grandma is watching this game—that can set a young QB back, sometimes permanently. Conversely, for some guys taking the lumps actually ends up being a plus in their development. But it is undeniably a risk, probably one that the Bills don’t want to take with the gifted but inconsistent passer they just traded up to get.

Which brings us to AJ McCarron, who Buffalo signed to a backup-caliber deal this offseason (just months after the aforementioned Browns tried to trade for McCarron but were foiled when someone in marketing picked up the phone when they were trying to email the deal to the league office, cutting off the 56K modem’s connection and short-circuiting the deal). He was thought to be the bridge guy to Allen, but when Peterman beat him out and the Raiders came offering a fifth-round pick (assets!), Buffalo shipped McCarron off. If he were around, they’d have an option who wasn’t Peterman, and wasn’t the future of the franchise getting his face re-arranged every other play. They could even consider toggling between McCarron and Peterman as they trade off crappy performances.

This is a lost season for the Bills—it was always going to be. But the ability to plug McCarron into the lineup this week, rather than putting Allen’s development at risk, would seem to be preferable to having an extra fifth-round pick.

5. Not that there’s a good time for the Cowboys to be without all-world center Travis Frederick, but tough to think of a worse time than matchups against the Panthers last week and the Giants this week.

The past two seasons, Frederick reach-blocking against Damon Harrison has been epic enough that The Rock should have been hanging off them via green screen in one of last summer’s big-budget action movie-films. Harrison has been as good as anyone against Frederick, and vice versa. But Harrison is the biggest reason why the Cowboys have averaged 115.0 rushing yards per game, 3.93 yards per carry, and 18.8 points per game over four games against the Giants while they averaged 146.6 yards per game, 4.76 yards per carry and 25.0 points per game against everybody else over the past two seasons.

It didn’t take a powerful telescope to figure out that the Cowboys passing game stunk last week. Their receivers/tight ends are the worst in football, and Dak Prescott managed to misfire repeatedly when they actually came open. (In Dak’s defense, it’s a lot of new faces and his security blanket, Jason Witten, is gone. It’s surely difficult for him to trust his new targets will be where he expects them to be, adding a layer of discomfort that you don’t want your quarterback to have.) But that’s how you end up getting held to eight points in an afternoon. The Giants, to be sure, are nowhere near the Panthers on the defensive side of the ball, but they’re similar in that if you’re going to beat them, it’s probably going to be through the air and that doesn’t seem like much of an option for the Cowboys on Sunday night.

6. With Keanu Neal and now Deion Jones out, the Falcons will be leaning on a 210-pound linebacker in Duke Riley and a 180-pound strong safety in Damontae Kazee when they host the Panthers on Sunday.

The game will be a test for a Falcons defense that’s being held together by Paw Patrol band-aids, a unit that has been a relative constant over the shaky 19-game run of offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian (now eight games with 17 or fewer points after Matt Ryan’s discouragingly noodle-armed performance in the opener). But it might be just as telling what the Panthers do offensively. Carolina has gone back to leaning heavily on Cam Newton in the run game, which is fine and will work fine as long as Cam stays healthy. Last week’s win over Dallas featured a lot of zone-read stuff and even a triple-option play, creating Christian McCaffrey’s biggest run of the game. Ultimately, it was Newton leading the team in rushing attempts (13), yards (58) and TDs (1).

The Panthers will likely keep the 11-man approach to the running game, but going up against an undermanned and severely undersized Falcons offense presents an opportunity to get a little bit of a non-Cam rushing attack going, especially on those power plays. They were inconsistent in that area a year ago, even with All-Pro Andrew Norwell (now in Jacksonville as a free agent) paving the way. This time last year Panthers brass was insisting that, despite not looking like an interior runner, McCaffrey’s quick feet, vision and experience running power at Stanford would allow him to thrive in their rushing attack. It didn’t really happen. Sunday is a chance for him and C.J. Anderson to really get it going and establish the Panthers as a more complete rushing offense.

7. I’ll be interested to see how the Steelers go after Patrick Mahomes on Sunday. The Chargers play a fairly straight-forward Cover-3 scheme and try to out-execute opposing offenses. The Chiefs (especially with no Joey Bosa on the other side of the ball) had more than enough talent to handle that last week.

Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler has a little more of a bag of tricks he can pull from, and a good way to get to a young QB like Mahomes is to show him some things he hasn’t seen before. But the Steelers will also be without their top cornerback in Joe Haden. Cameron Sutton was enough of a downgrade on the outside that even Tyrod Taylor was willing to throw at Sutton in a contested catch situation (twice!). With Haden (hamstring) doubtful and Artie Burns (toe) questionable, the thought of Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins lighting Sutton and Coty Sensabaugh on fire (not literally… but maybe literally) could be enough for Butler to hold back and play things more straight up. At that point, it becomes a game for the pass rush to win if you’re Pittsburgh. Or, you can always get the offense putting up 35 or 40 points.

8. It’s a good time to re-read Ben Baskin’s 2017 profile of Josh Gordon. I know everyone wants their favorite team to sign him—understandable, considering he’s one of the five most talented receivers in football—and I’m sure there are a handful of coaches who think they will be the one to fix him because many coaches are delusional in believing that their expertise in coaching also qualifies them as experts in the human psyche. Hopefully there’s another shot for Gordon, but more importantly, hopefully that shot comes in the right place with the right people surrounding him.

9. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Led Zeppelin!

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