- Also the Browns keep getting all these fumbles! Carson Wentz vs. the Titans defense no one’s paying attention to but should, the Panthers pick up a quality safety while the Falcons sit around doing nothing and now have to trade for Earl Thomas. Plus, musical guest: Veruca Salt!
1a. I like Joe Tessitore. For one, he was my local sports guy back in the day. For two, he was a guest on friend of the show Jimmy Traina’s most recent SI Media Podcast, for which he gains some clout.
Last Monday night won’t be a career highlight though. Tessitore’s comment, early fourth-quarter of the Steelers’ win in Tampa: “The guy who just carried the ball who’s filling in for him [Le’Veon Bell], the cancer survivor James Conner, he makes $200,000 less in his entire yearly salary than Bell would be making in a single-game paycheck.”
Now, a lot of people took issue with the “cancer survivor” portion of the comment. Rightfully. Otherwise there’d be a “cancer survivors for hire” section of CraigsList, where a small business owner would hire a cancer survivor then use him or her to shame the rest of his staff. Oh, you don’t want to work a 26-hour weekend on your $28,000 annual salary? Well, this guy is doing it, and he’s a cancer survivor!
My bigger issue with the comment is this: James Conner will make $578,000 this season, which is indeed $200,000-plus less than what Le’Veon Bell would make on the franchise tag. However, let me tell you about another second-year back, a young man who also played for that kind of money. The year was 2014, and this gritty gentleman was compensated with $592,3000 over the course of the year (barely more than cancer survivor James Conner!), and that season he set the Pittsburgh Steelers’ franchise record for yards from scrimmage in a season with 2,215. Are you ready to drop your coffee mug in slow-motion for the Usual Suspects-style reveal? No? It’s 2 a.m. and you’re not drinking coffee? Well, pour yourself a cup. Or just hold an empty mug. Ready? O.K., good. Hang on, I’ll fax the reveal to you, just like in the movie. You don’t have a home fax machine? God, you’re a hayseed! Le’Veon Bell. The guy was Le’Veon Bell. The point is, Le’Veon Bell in his second season was far more productive than James Conner will be this season, and he was paid essentially the same amount because the rookie wage-scale is mind-bogglingly dumb.
In the unlikely event Conner even approaches Bell’s value/productivity at any point over his first four seasons, he’ll most likely be screwed in the same manner that Bell has been. So if Bell’s holdout makes teams think twice about the fungiblity of great running backs, that’s absolutely a victory for young guys like Conner, who might one day be offered more than consecutive market-level one-year deals like what Bell was offered.
1b. One more thing on Conner that Booger McFarland brought up Monday night: Let’s back off the “cancer survivor” angle. It’s fantastic that he is. But commentators are treating him the same way I treat my 4-year-old in a wiffelball game. Yeah, we let him have that triple. But if we had the competitiveness of the NFL, someone would have scooped that feeble dribbler and nailed him hard enough on the way to first to leave an oval-shaped welt on his left temple. Conner is a really good football player. Let’s start moving forward with that.
2. This time last week, the Bills were the laughingstock of the NFL. They were 0-2. They had been outscored in a Rutgers-facing-MAC-teams fashion over the season’s first two weeks. A starting cornerback retired at halftime.
Well, who’s laughing now? Anyone who’s seen that delightful John Mulaney in a Netflix special, for one. But, more appropriately for this column, the Buffalo Bills’ players, coaches and front-office staffers.
Let’s talk about one in particular: Sean McDermott. As anyone who’s read this column knows, I’m not much for the lazy, hashtag-chasing, symbolism-substituting-for-depth analysis that plagues… well, pretty much everything in journalism in 2018. McDermott had what turned out to be a singularly terrible moment when he threw Nate Peterman into the fire against the Chargers last November only to have Peterman do everything horrible short of BM in his pants on live television.
I already wrote some 3,000 words before Peterman took over under center last year (and for it, Peter King would have given me the ol’ fork in the eye had he been at the wedding I was attending the night that column went up). In short: I stand by what I wrote that evening. Tyrod Taylor is the kind of guy who would appeal as a starter whose team has an elite supporting cast. The Bills were not that, and starting Taylor against the Chargers was shaping up to be a, say, 31-13 defeat rather than the 54-24 they lost by (basically, still an almost guaranteed loss). Peterman had been impressive against conservative, preseason/late-game shell defenses, which understandably piqued the staff's interest. He was worth a look.
But Peterman’s disastrous debut has come to define McDermott with a large portion of the media, because it’s the only thing they know about McDermott. It overlooks the fact that he took a four-win roster, decimated by years of mismanagement under the previous regime, to the postseason a year ago. And then, after that already shorthanded roster was punched in the collective crotch by the surprise retirements of its best two offensive linemen—Eric Wood and Richie Incognito—McDermott took a team in crisis to Minnesota and metaphorically depantsed a Vikings team that outclassed them in every way. This isn’t the work of a good coach. This is the work of a great coach.
The Bills are a ways away from competing for an AFC crown, especially now that they’re relying on high-risk, high-reward cornerstones on both sides of the ball in Josh Allen and Tremaine Edmunds. There are going to be rough spots this season (probably resuming with Sunday’s visit to Green Bay). And McDermott isn’t a mind-blowing tactician in the mold of Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan. But it’s past time to recognize: There’s not a coach in the league who has gotten more out of his roster over the past 19 games than Sean McDermott.
3. Last week was the first time the Corridor of Woe trio—Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit—won in the same week since the fever dream I had after doing all that peyote. For those of you whose existence is limited to this plane of reality, the last time the Bills, Browns and Lions won on the same week was Week 8 of the 2014 season.
If you’re a Browns fan, go ahead and get excited about Baker Mayfield. Just keep in mind that no one game-plans for an opponent’s backup quarterback (even if that backup quarterback might be far superior to the starter), especially not on a short week. In other words, the Jets were understandably unprepared for Mayfield.
Mayfield was pretty much neck-and-neck with Josh Rosen for “most pro-ready” among this year’s crop of rookie QBs. The next step for his development is seeing some exotic looks, and dealing with NFL defenses that have game-planned specifically to take away the throws he’s most comfortable making. We saw it happen with another pro-ready quarterback—Carson Wentz—two seasons ago when he “slid back” around midseason. It will likely happen to Mayfield, which is yet another reason he should have been on the field when the season opened, progressing as he works through the rough spots. Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is a bright guy (I hear he can do long division without a calculator!), who, despite a lack of talent in his unit, will likely have something in store for Mayfield that the rookie didn’t see a week ago.
All that said, there’s no doubt that, with Mayfield under center, the Browns clearly have more talent than, say, last year’s AFC Wild-Card teams (Tennessee and Buffalo). Now that all of the losing streak silliness is out of the way, and they’re done trying to survive through 60 minutes with a low-risk, low-reward QB, it’s time for the Browns to go out and collect wins. They’re .500 right now, and with Mayfield taking over, postseason should absolutely be a goal for the 2018 Browns.
4. Anyone who reads Football Outsiders’ stuff (you do read Football Outsiders’ stuff, don’t you?) knows that there’s no skill in recovering fumbles; a team can be expected to recover about 50% of the fumbles they have a chance to fall on during the season. You’ll occasionally hear a television commentator, or pundit, or voice in your head refer to a team’s scrappiness or awareness or perhaps powerful magnets as justification for a high rate of fumble recoveries. Or, more likely, you won’t hear a commentator refer to fumble recovery rates at all, ever. Because no one cares.
But three games into the season, the Browns have recovered 12 of the 13 fumbles that have occurred in their games and I haven’t been able to think about anything else. So I broke out some spreadsheets and my trusty Calcucorn to figure out just how weird this is. Going back to 1976: The 2010 New York Jets (70.8%, 34 recoveries of 48 fumbles) had the highest fumble recovery rate over a season, while the decidedly unscrappy 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers had the lowest (7 recoveries on 29 fumbles, 24.1%).
What does it mean? Nothing. Or everything. Realistically, it means the Browns have picked up an extra possession or two in each of their three games this season, which seems significant since they’ve played three close games and only have one loss.
5. Carson Wentz had an opportunity to knock some rust off last week against the Colts, the Eagles escaping with an ugly win thanks to the struggles of Indy’s offense. He’ll likely be sharper this week in Nashville, and he’ll have to be against a Titans defense that’s talented and creative.
No one is paying attention to the Titans because, apparently, there’s little audience demand for an offense led by Blaine Gabbert or Marcus Mariota playing with a broken elbow, that could score up to and including 12 points in any given week. (I blame the millennials.) The defense, however, is getting healthy and looking wonderful. They have the collection of pass-rushers to give opponents fits up front, and they have one of the best cornerback trios in football with Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and now Adoree' Jackson cleared to return from a concussion, plus an elite safety in Kevin Byard. But rather than just line up man-to-man—as they could do and succeed—Mike Vrabel and Dean Pees are mixing in a bunch of zone and with some wild disguises to boot. Wentz is one of the most cerebral quarterbacks in the league (and he’ll get Alshon Jeffery back in the lineup), and he’ll be going up against one of the most cerebral and creative defenses out there right now. That's good TV, you little punks!
6. There are certain life lessons that will forever stick with you, especially when it comes to the life lessons we learn in sports. When my father coached my Little League baseball team*, he spent a portion of one practice emphasizing the importance of hitting the cut-off man. The quote was, “It’s one thing if he [the rightfielder] misses the ball. But if he then tries to throw it all the way to home instead of hitting the cut-off man, now he’s really pulled a boner.” Wise words, indeed. Particularly that choice of words when spoken to a dozen boys ages 10 to 12.
A similar admonishment is in order for the Atlanta Falcons, who—like a tween boy who does not hit the cut-off man—“pulled a boner” of their own when they failed to move on Eric Reid the minute Keanu Neal went down. Or the minute Deion Jones went down. Or the minute Ricardo Allen went down. Reid would have been a near-perfect fit as a big, enforcer-type safety or undersized linkebacker in a scheme similar to the one he played in for Robert Saleh in San Francisco last season. And the only way the fates could have made it more obvious to the Falcons would have been if Reid parachuted into a Falcons practice Fan Man-style.
Instead, Reid lands with a division rival in Carolina who he immediately makes better because of their injury issues at safety. But they didn’t need him nearly as badly considering you can get by with subpar safeties when you have linebackers who run like Luke Kuechly, Shaq Thompson and (soon) Thomas Davis. In the meantime, it looks like the Falcons are rolling with converted slot corner Damontae Kazee and Jordan Richards—who you might remember from his game-long impression of a lopsided electric football figure for the Patriots in Super Bowl LII—as their safeties.
*—My father recently retired (from his paying job, not as a Little League coach, which he retired from long ago), so let's say this whole thing was in his honor. He doesn't read this column anyway, so whatever.
7. The Falcons can, however, make up for the aforementioned boner-pulling by going out and getting Earl Thomas. On one hand, they just gave a (well-deserved) new deal to Ricardo Allen this past summer. But with Allen tearing his Achilles last week, he’ll not only miss the rest of the season but is unlikely to be 100% next season.
Trading and signing Thomas to a new deal would put the team in a pinch in regards to Allen, who’s a better fit at free safety than anyone on the current roster and is probably father away from a full return to form than strong safety Keanu Neal. But the 29-year-old Thomas is a worthwhile investment for another three years—look at how guys like Eric Weddle (33), Devin McCourty (31), and Malcolm Jenkins (30, turning 31 in December) have aged at the safety position. Safeties last, and the ones with elite instincts (like Thomas) can still play at a near-elite level even after they’ve lost a half-step (really, it makes no sense that the Seahawks won’t give him a new deal themselves; I’d take the bet that Thomas will still be a very good-to-excellent player by the end of the 2021 season). Thomas, of course, would also be reuniting with Dan Quinn and Marquand Manuel, and would require virtually no time to acclimate to their Cover-3 based system.
But more importantly, the Falcons are ready to complete for a Super Bowl right now. The offense seems to have solved its red-zone woes, scoring touchdowns on each of their eight red-zone trips since that opening night debacle (they’ve gotten back to the 2016 approach of not force-feeding Julio Jones) and Calvin Ridley is now providing the kind of big-play spark they lacked last season, and really haven’t found outside of the occasional designer deep shot to Julio. The Falcons can get back to the Super Bowl with a decent defense. Bringing in Thomas on the back end would still leave them a little bit vulnerable to the run, but make them elite in the secondary, better than they were even before losing Allen and Neal. That would be more than enough to put them among the top teams in what is an increasingly wide-open NFC. That would be worth a late-first rounder and some cap unpleasantness. Especially after the missed opportunity to add Reid.
8. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Veruca Salt!
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