- Also, why it’s probably all over for Washington, why it’s ridiculous for John Harbaugh to be on the hot seat, and why the NFL doesn’t escape culpability for the “caravan ad” debacle on Sunday Night Football. Plus, musical guest: The Smashing Pumpkins!
1a. This past week at The MMQB, we rolled out our NFL midseason predictions, seeing as post-Week 9 is the proper time for a midseason package since (a) For it to actually be midseason, every team has to have played eight games, and (b) As the Bible says: “He who unveils an NFL midseason report after Week 8 shall be mocked until the Lord’s voice is hoarse.”
I saw no reason to stray from my preseason Super Bowl prediction of Packers over Patriots. I’m not quite sure what the lemming-like rush away from the Packers is, considering the past two weeks they were arguably a kickoff return fumble away from beating the Rams in L.A. and a running back fumble away from beating the Patriots in Foxboro (not to mention a Clay Matthews roughing the passer call—a call that wouldn’t have been made a few weeks later—from beating the Vikings instead of tying them). That’s a pretty respectable 0-2-1! They lost to D.C. in the muck when Randall Cobb’s fingers stopped working, and they lost in Detroit when Mason Crosby’s legs stopped working.
Aside from the aforementioned tough luck, there are three reasons to be bullish on the Packers: (1) Aaron Rodgers and his increasingly healthy knee. (2) They should be favored in seven of their final eight games, the exception being a Week 12 visit to Minnesota. Other than that, the NFL is making them go to Seattle on a Thursday night because Thursday Night Football is stupid and the league is apparently looking for ways to make it stupider, they host Atlanta, and they travel to Chicago, which could be a tough game if Mitchell Trubisky finds his way between now and then.
And (3) This defense, an Achilles heel the past couple seasons, is trending up. They made the Rams look terrible for a half, which is much more than anyone else has done. They overwhelmed Tom Brady, forcing the Patriots to have to dig into their bag of trick plays to get back on track Sunday night. Mike Pettine has had a great couple of weeks. Our Conor Orr has an SI magazine piece coming out on how defenses are trying to keep pace with new-age offenses (and the piece is going to be awesome, so subscribe to the magazine if you don’t already, sheeple!). Among the revelations is that Pettine’s two years off seem to have been helpful in that regard, as he had some time to visit with college coaches and study how to counter some of the concepts that are becoming more prevalent in the NFL. Plus, they’re young on the back end. Normally that isn’t ideal, but consider this: All the offensive concepts trickling up from the college level? Young guys are better equipped to handle them because that’s what they were facing quite recently. (Plus, Jaire Alexander is awesome and healthy again.)
As for the postseason? Whatever, we’ll breakdown the matchups in two months. But Aaron Rodgers’s only Super Bowl title came after a 10-6, wild-card regular season. So when the Packers are winning Super Bowl LIII, for the sake of everyone else at the party try to look surprised.
1b. If you want to do this thing with a lack of imagination, the Super Bowl favorites are the Saints, Patriots and Rams. The Vikings are a quarter-step behind the favorites. The Chiefs (can you with a Super Bowl with a defense this bad?) and Steelers are a half-step behind the favorites. And the Packers, Eagles, Panthers, Chargers and Falcons are in the darkhorse group. If you’re a fan of one of the 21 other teams, you can find something else to do with your Sundays until next September.
2. Did you like Michael Thomas’s “cell phone” celebration last week? O.K., good. Now let me tell you why you’re terrible.
I don’t mind the premeditation of it all; each player can do his own calculus as to whether it’s worth absorbing the penalty. I’m sure if you scoured the multi-verse you could find a dimensional plane where the Rams took advantage of the improved field position, scored a touchdown, recovered an onside kick, scored another touchdown, won the game and made Mike Francesa vomit profusely. (Don’t worry, people in that dimensional plane vomit all the time, it’s some kind of evolutionary thing.)
The problem is the celebration itself: It’s arguably—arguably—the worst celebration in NFL history. There are celebrations that are a spontaneous outpouring of… I suppose joy and previously bottled-up rage: spiking the ball, whipping it against the wall or into the crowd, etc. There are celebrations that look cool, from the Ickey Shuffle to the Seahawks last week. And there are celebrations that are funny. Like . . . I don’t know, none of them are that funny.
The cell phone celebration doesn’t check any of those boxes. When Joe Horn did it back in 2003, I was still a young person and could therefore mock my social betters. The celebration was, Here’s a piece of technology that’s fairly new that you will all recognize. Hooray! At the time, it was enjoyed almost exclusively by people who used the phrase, “Is that your final answer?” multiple times per day.
And let’s be clear: Being on the phone is usually the least joyous part of anyone’s day. For me, it ranks somewhere between looking for parking at the train station and wiping myself. There are only three types of calls that you receive: (1) A robot call—not a literal robot, that would be awesome—but, you know, one of those recordings that are trying to scam you or sell you something. You hang up immediately. (2) A friend calls, in which case you answer, “A------, just text me.” Or (3) It’s an emergency call, like your mother has crashed her hovercraft and now she needs a ride home. That’s no fun, and also your poor mother! And God help you if you’re the one actually making phone calls.
If Thomas was going to do it right, he should have faux-texted, put something on the screen to show to the camera. Like, “Marcus Peters can’t cover me.” Though, of course, it would have been unclear if that was a text he was sending, or a text he had received from pretty much any receiver who has played against the Rams in 2018.
There is a way Thomas can salvage it. He should make the cell phone celebration part of a series: the mundane moments of everyday life. Hide a toaster in the goal post, a pre-sliced bagel in your pants and make an uninspiring breakfast. Plant your mail carrier in the crowd and pull him or her down to the field and make small talk about the holiday-season workload. Take out a hidden laptop and browse that site where you bulk-purchase irregular white t-shirts. There’s potential there, and it’s the only reason why Thomas gets a passing grade on that celebration: F+.
3. After all that nonsense about Aaron Rodgers and touchdown celebrations, this is actually a perfect time to unveil the second chapter in the critically acclaimed series: “Photos That I Found That I Also Like and the True Stories Behind Them.”
This one is from the last time the Packers and Dolphins met, back in October 2014. Rodgers had just found Andrew Quarless for a go-ahead touchdown with three seconds left. But what I’ll always remember is the celebration: Rodgers, presumably using Ant-Man technology, shrunk himself down by about 50%, then proceeded to punch each and every member of the Miami Dolphins in the crotch.
Reviewing the play-by-play of that game, he was not flagged, which seems like it would have generated more controversy at the time. Because, as the above photo proves, it did happen.
4a. I mentioned this briefly in last week’s Sunday FreakOut: Putting the Ravens’ recent run of mediocrity on John Harbaugh is completely misguided. Baltimore’s (relative) struggles since winning Super Bowl XLVII are the result of having a quarterback on a massive contract who has been thoroughly mediocre.
This is partly on the front office’s decision to keep stringing Flacco along in extension talks despite the fact that they were quite familiar with him by the time the 2012 season started. The Super Bowl victory, and Flacco’s performance that postseason, forced their hand, though the front office also probably didn’t have to lock him into a deal that was unbreakable until the winter of 2019. Thanks to the illogical, anti-labor rookie wage scale, the model across the NFL has been to get a rookie QB locked in on one of those artificially cheap deals. Or pay your star. Flacco’s uneven play (and drop off for a season-and-a-half after the torn ACL in 2015) has meant that the Ravens have been unable to follow either of those models.
You can say it’s the front office’s fault for not getting the deal done before the Super Bowl, then having to overpay after. You can say it’s the quarterback’s fault for not playing up to the deal. But you can’t say it’s on Harbaugh and the coaching staff.
4b. On last week’s Monday Morning NFL Podcast, co-host/aspiring marine biologist Andy Benoit and I discussed this, and Andy mentioned the thinking that after a certain number of years it’s simply time to cycle out a coach and get a new voice in the locker room. After six days to think about it, I still disagree. Thanks to that rookie wage scale which we all hope is at least altered in the next CBA because it’s in no one’s best interest and pushes veterans out of the league prematurely because the young labor is so much cheaper, there’s too much turnover on an NFL roster for a coach’s voice to truly get stale.
5a. I wouldn’t say Brandon Scherff is Travis Frederick because they spell and pronounce their names differently. But their absences for their respective teams will end up having a similar impact.
Scherff has emerged as an All-Pro-caliber guard in Washington. With the team moving from a risk/reward (Kirk Cousins) to an overly conservative one (Alex Smith), it is imperative that the run game dominate. The re-emergence of Adrian Peterson (if you haven’t read Jonathan Jones’s profile on Peterson, shame on you) has played a big role, but it’s the O-line that has kept this offense going.
Washington was already riding something of 2017 Buffalo Bills path to the postseason, and they still have an outside chance if they get the kind of turnover fortune the Bills got a year ago (though you could say that about any middle-of-the-pack team at this point). This downgrade to the run game—Scherff and fellow starting guard Shawn Lauvao are both out for the year—plus Smith’s style of play, and the loss his top deep threat in Paul Richardson, plus a good-but-less-than-dominant defense, make Washington a heavy underdog to get to January.
5b. Among the four points I’ve made over some 30 hours of podcasting this season is that, once they made the investment in Smith, Washington was built to be a front-runner, but largely unable to play from behind. That said, the fact they’ve yet to have a lead change through their eight games is still shocking. And a bit hilarious. And truly terrifying in light of the aforementioned O-line injuries.
6. After Vance Joseph’s dreadful situational decision making cost the Broncos a win over Houston last week, there were a lot of melodramatic “This Is Why Vance Joseph Must Be Fired” type of pieces across this here sports internet. And make no mistake: Joseph had a brutal afternoon last Sunday and deserves the criticism being lobbed his way.
But also keep in mind that decisions like that are approximately 3% of coaching. Everyone knows how Andy Reid is terrible with clock management, because we all grew up playing Madden and clock management is one of those (very few) things that translate from Madden to real-life coaching on a 1:1 basis. But then there’s everything else, from building a playbook, to effectively teaching that playbook, to properly utilizing that playbook as a play-caller, to managing a locker room with a diverse range of personalities, and a million other things that you don’t have to do in Madden and have no idea how to do in real life.
Joseph, of course, is a big question mark in all facets of coaching 24 games into his run in Denver, and the Broncos would likely be justified if they chose to move on. But the reason won't be “that time he was stupidly aggressive at the end of the first half, then stupidly conservative at the end of the game.”
7a. As a kid, I remember the first time I ever saw the clip of Jim Marshall run the wrong way for a safety, and asking my dad: That didn’t really happen, did it? Twenty years from now, you and I will likely be having a similar conversation with a curious child about the Hue Jackson era in Cleveland. On top of the 40-game winning percentage that would disqualify him from any head-coaching job in the pros or college save for Rutgers University, you could take the most memorable moments of his farewell media tour, piece them together and get a Netflix stand-up special (“Hue Jackson: World of Delusion”?). The truly incredible thing about this run of terribleness under Jackson is that the Browns, sitting at 2-6-1, have been quite possibly the luckiest team in the NFL this year.
Because of my social awkwardness and questionable personal hygiene, I spend most of my waking hours with spreadsheets. They’re my best friends. I look at them, laugh with them, love them. Sometimes I print them out and throw a little tea party. My spreadsheet on historical red-zone efficiency was the best man at my wedding. If I had to pick a favorite spreadsheet though, it’s the one labeled “NFL-luck,” in which I track fumble-recovery percentage and opponent field-goal/PAT percentage.
There are things that an NFL team can control, and those two categories are not among them. Fumble recovery is not a skill—every team should hover around 50% for the season. A statement like “This team recovers fumbles because they’re scrappy, they want it more,” is so stupid that it does not fall under First Amendment protection. As for field-goal percentage, blocked kicks can play a role (and, later in the season, weather does), but this time of year I project everyone to be around the league-average for under-50 field goals (currently 88.4%), over-50 field goals (64.8%) and PATs (94.4%).
So I look for teams that have recovered an unusually high rate of fumbles and/or have had opponents miss a lot of kicks. In fumble recoveries, the Rams actually lead the NFL, recovering 80% of fumbles, but they’ve only had 15 fumbles occur in their games. They’ve only picked up 4.5 extra possessions due to fumble recovery luck. The co-leader in that category is the Browns, who have picked up five possessions due to fumble-recovery luck—20 recoveries on 30 fumbles (tied with the Seahawks, who have 16 recoveries on 22 fumbles).
In opponent place-kicking, Cleveland opponents are 13-for-18 from inside 50, 1-for-2 from outside 50 and 25-for-27 on PATs. If opponents were, as expected, converting kicks at the same rate as the rest of the NFL, they’d have 10 more points on the season. Opponents are -10.11 on kicking points compared to the projected number. Only the Lions are -8 are “better” in that category, skewed heavily by the day Mason Crosby forgot how to kick.
I guess this was a really roundabout way of saying—despite the abundance of overtime games suggesting otherwise—the Browns have been really bad this season. They are even worse than you think they are.
7b. If you are the kind person who likes to wager on things like professional sports, keep this in mind: Along with the Browns, the Seahawks (tied for first with +5 possessions on fumble-recovery luck, fourth with 6.62 opponent placekicker points lost, and sixth in net-red zone performance which is always fluky) seem to have gotten quite fortunate so far this season. And if you’re looking for a team that hasn’t caught a break, the Vikings are up there: dead last in fumble recovery luck (-4.5 on the season) and 30th in opponent placekicker luck (+5.91 points).
There won’t be a weekly “politics” component to this column, but thanks to Sunday Night Football here we are again…
I won’t waste too much time running through the myriad problems with what is an undeniably racist advertisement. Citing a single immigrant convicted of horrible crimes—and one who was released by a political operative for the very party that created the ad—is just as absurd as telling my kids to be afraid of the veterans they’ll honor at school on Monday because of what happened in Thousand Oaks. It was intellectually and morally bankrupt, an affront to our democracy and an insult to our intelligence. There’s a conversation to be had about the pros and cons of immigration and to what extent it should be limited; that ad is not part of the conversation.
It was NBC Universal’s decision to approve and air the ad during one of the most-watched programs of the year, and they deserve the brunt of the criticism here. While the NFL doesn’t approve ads for regular-season broadcasts, the league is not without blame here.
The NFL reviews Super Bowl ads and will not approve submissions deemed to be making “political statements.” The league knew Patriots-Packers was one of the most anticipated regular-season matchups in recent memory, and that it would be airing about 36 hours before the polls opened for midterm elections. Considering the avalanche of dopey political ads (I know, “dopey” is redundant) that ran over the previous weeks that show the networks have no shame, it wasn’t difficult to see this coming.
An enormous amount of public money has been diverted to NFL franchises, and the league has a responsibility to—at the very least—do no harm. Having the biggest game of the season become a vehicle for Willie Horton-style, fear-mongering horsecrap falls squarely under “harm.” The NFL has to be better than this.
9. Ladies and gentlemen . . . The Smashing Pumpkins!
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