- Also, Saints-Vikings a reason to skip the World Series Sunday night, the Bengals as reverse vampires, and the perfect encapsulation of Thursday Night Football: four minutes of game administration confusion regarding the opening kickoff. Plus, musical guest: The Sound of Urchin!
1. Have you heard, there’s a lot of points being scored in the NFL! It’s in part because of offensive innovations, in part because the league is legislating defense out of the game, and in part because there are a lot of really talented offensive players and not nearly as many talented defensive players.
And with all those points being scored, it’s probably time to reconsider how to close out a game. The old approach had been to get a lead, then bleed the clock with a four-minute drive or two and let the defense handle it. But look at what the offensively spectacular but defensively questionable Chiefs did last Sunday night. Leading by four touchdowns midway through the third quarter, they were aggressively trying to put points on the board in each of their next three drives. Patrick Mahomes had a deep ball intercepted on the first of those drives, and on the second play of the fourth quarter he threw what should have been an easy 35-yard touchdown to a wide-open Tyreek Hill that Hill dropped (they got a TD on that drive anyway). The point is: Rather than going with the “clock is your friend” approach late, Andy Reid decided he’d close out the game by scoring more touchdowns, taking it out of the hands of his at-times-hapless defense.
Conversely, look at what has happened to the defending world champs, who have blown significant second-half leads to the Titans and Panthers—two teams that aren’t exactly equipped to play from behind—this season. The defense is not the same in 2018, with the pass rush looking mortal and the absence of the perennially underappreciated (even for a safety!) Rodney McLeod on the back end. But in blowing a 17-3 lead in the final 20 minutes in Tennessee, they gained a total of 31 yards and three first downs over three drives after stretching it to a two-possession game, then needed to scramble for a late, game-tying field goal. In blowing a 17-point, fourth-quarter lead to the Panthers last week, in two fourth-quarter possessions when they still had the lead the Eagles went for 22 yards and one first down.
There are few teams that can match the Chiefs’ explosiveness, but the Eagles won a Super Bowl last year by piling up big plays, and with Nick Foles under center. Getting the ball downfield on early downs—when those big plays are most often available—is the way they should be trying to close teams out.
In a league in which even the best defenses are limited with what they can do, it’s up to offenses to not only get a lead, but keep it.
2. The Steelers continue to get jerked around by Le’Veon Bell, who will stay home for another week. That’s exactly what the organization deserves for their perverse use of the franchise tag, which has enabled teams to jerk players around for years.
As personal friend of mine Jacob Feldman wrote last winter, the league office originally referred to the franchise tag as “The Elway Rule,” because it was meant to keep only true franchise-defining players—like Elway, who Broncos owner Pat Bowlen feared losing in the early 90s—from changing teams. Of course, the franchise tag was always wholly unnecessary in a league that already has a salary cap to prevent big-market teams from simply outspending small-market teams (and generally suppressing player movement and earning power), but remember, the 90s were a different time, when NFL organizations were still adjusting to the advent of free agency and players were unironically sporting Logo Athletic gear.
Ozzie Newsome tagged guard Wally Williams in 1998, a misappropriation that became increasingly commonplace throughout the league over the next two decades. The franchise tag is now a contradictory loophole that allows front offices to claim a certain player is so valuable that they can’t possibly afford lose him, but… also isn’t valuable enough to give a market-value deal. More than 25 years into modern free agency, the tag is completely unnecessary (if you’re unable to free up enough cap space to retain a superstar player, it’s because of a Kirk Van Houten level of managerial impotence) and patently unfair to players at certain positions thanks to the archaic method of determining position values. Good on Le’Veon Bell for striking back. Hopefully it becomes enough of a trend to deter teams from using the tag similarly.
3. The Packers are young on defense and will probably get better over the next 15 months or so. But the last time we saw our young heroes, they were making C.J. Beathard-Marquise Goodwin-Raheem Mostert look like Montana-Rice-God. And when Green Bay visits the Rams Sunday afternoon, they’ll basically be seeing a similar offense operating on a much higher level with much better talent (than Beathard, Goodwin and Mostert, not Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and any all-knowing deity).
Suffice to say, Aaron Rodgers has his work cut out for him if he’s going to go punch-for-punch with this Rams offense. But it might be more interesting to see how the Rams defense deals with another elite quarterback. This is a unit that allowed 85 points in a three-week span against Philip Rivers-Kirk Cousins-Russell Wilson; the absence of any edge rushers, the middling linebackers and the struggles of Marcus Peters have been well-documented. The defense doesn’t need to be better now, but they need to make some progress before January, when they’ll almost certainly have to beat three offensively adept opponents in order to win a Super Bowl title.
As for Rodgers, with the visit to L.A. this week and Foxboro next, it seems like a perfect setup to fall to a panic-inducing 3-4-1, before ripping off a 7-1 second half of the year to get to the playoffs again. Hopefully, he’s keeping up with his elocution exercises for this year’s remix of the “Relax” sermon.
4. I have very virtually no insight—even less so than usual!—to add on the gem of a Sunday nighter between the Saints and Vikings. Minnesota gets Everson Griffen back to a defense that is trending in the right direction, but is in part trending that way due to back-to-back games against rookie QBs leading weak offenses (the Cardinals and Jets). The Saints will be a good litmus test. As for New Orleans, they got beat by Sam Bradford and Case Keenum last year, now they get Kirk Cousins and a Vikings offense that’s better than it was at any point last year. These are good and interesting things that should keep you from doing anything else on Sunday night. Like watching the World Series like a goober. Or going to church. Night church.
5. The Cincinnati Bengals are a fine team—not world-beaters, but certainly capable of grabbing a playoff spot (even if their red-zone efficiency is very likely to regress to the mean as the year goes on). And they should be happy to get back to a nice, anonymous Sunday afternoon game against the Bucs. That’s because the Marvin Lewis Bengals continue to be horrifically bad in primetime games. By my unofficial count, Sunday night’s loss in Kansas City pushed them to 8-32 in the Marvin Lewis era, and 5-20 in the Andy Dalton era, in primetime games. So…
While reverse vampires can’t be ruled out, also consider that primetime games usually come against good teams, and the Bengals have spent the last few years beating a lot of teams they should beat while struggling against the top of the league. Since Dalton entered the league in 2011, Cincy is 14-29-1 (including 2-8 over the last two seasons, the wins coming over Buffalo and Miami) against teams that made the playoffs in that season, and 4-23-1 (including a 12-game losing streak) against teams that won their division in that season.
6. Have you been enjoying Thursday Night Football? I sure am, and I thought the recent slate of games (Broncos-Cardinals last week, Texans-Dolphins this week, 49ers-Raiders next week) was perfectly encapsulated by the first three minutes and 14 seconds worth of opening kickoff “action” this week, featuring sloppy penalties, frustrated coaches, poor game administration (fun fact: four members of referee Shawn Smith’s crew were seeing an organized football game for the first time!), an inquisitive Brock Osweiler, J.J. Watt almost picking his nose, and overall confusion.
Anticipating that many might not be able to re-live that kind of sustained excitement, I went ahead and created a highlight reel of the TNF opening kickoff in Houston, set once again to the greatest pump-up song of all time: “25 or 6 to 4” by the great Chicago. TNF forever, don’t you dare change a thing, NFL!
7. A programming note for the eight of you who actually take note of bylines: I will not be writing my Sunday afternoon reaction column, The Sunday FreakOut, this week in order to tend to some holiday-related personal business. As my friends and family know, this is that time of year when I bribe and blackmail may way into “borrowing” the excavator from the town’s public works department, then spend 72 consecutive hours purchasing, vacuum-sealing and burying a 10-month supply of candy corn in the woods behind my house before those idiots at Brach’s pull it off the market until next September. Mr. Orr will be your substitute—I expect you to treat him with the same respect with which you treat me.
However I will, as usual, be joining Andy Benoit for The MMQB Monday Morning Podcast, for what we promise will be the spookiest episode of the season! I… I don’t know what that means either.
8. Ladies and gentlemen . . . The Sound of Urchin!
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