1. “This is the end, beautiful friend
“This is the end, my only friend, the end
“Of our elaborate plans, the end
“Of everything that stands, the end
“No safety or surprise, the end
“I'll never look into your eyes again”
—Jim Morrison, during an acid trip in the desert, upon seeing a vision of Mike McCarthy sending out the punt team on fourth-and-2 while trailing late in Seattle
With apologies to the deceased Doors frontman, it’s not quite over for Mike McCarthy and the Packers. Green Bay, win or lose at Minnesota, will still be on the fringe of the playoff hunt come Monday morning, in large part because their schedule is so soft down the stretch (home vs. Arizona, Atlanta and Detroit, road at Chicago and N.Y. Jets). A 9-6-1 mark isn’t likely to get in, but there’s a possibility it will be good enough.
As we did a week ago, McCarthy deserves to be mocked for the ultra-conservative decision to punt late in Seattle, the Seahawks clinching the game soon after. But McCarthy also deserves credit for having his team ready to play despite having to travel two time zones on a short week. As podcast co-host and renowned ornithologist Andy Benoit and I discussed on last week’s NFL Deep Dive show, McCarthy hasn’t exactly created a carbon copy of Sean McVay’s offense, but you’ll recognize a lot of the condensed formations and route combinations influenced by what the Rams and 49ers do. Aaron Rodgers left a bunch of third-down throws on the field in Seattle. Though he also made one fantastic and one otherworldly throw for big plays. You get spectacular, transcendent moments, mixed in with confusing, inexplicable lows when Rodgers is your quarterback. It’s like listening to The Mars Volta.
One reason this freak-out narrative started around the Packers was the back-to-back losses they suffered at L.A. and Foxboro, both games they might have won if not for ill-timed fumbles by running backs (and two games the Chiefs also lost, but since K.C.’s matchups at L.A. and New England came five weeks apart there was no narrative about the collapse of the Chiefs). Other than those two games, the Packers lost a game in Detroit when Mason Crosby left 13 points on the field. They lost the aforementioned idiotically scheduled Thursday nighter in Seattle. They lost in Washington when Randall Cobb was mostly unable to catch the ball, and was unable to hold onto the few passes he did grab. And they ended up with a tie instead of a win against the Vikings only because the game was played during the height of the NFL’s “body weight” hysteria (a rule put into place as an absurdly outsized reaction to a single hit on Rodgers). Typically in today’s NFL, there’s little separating 10-6 from 6-10. But the line between 4-5-1 and, say, 7-3, has been an excruciatingly fine one for the 2018 Packers.
And that brings us to the Sunday nighter in Minnesota. This will be Rodgers’ first game in Minnesota since last fall, when his 2017 season essentially ended with a fractured collarbone (followed by a torrent of profanity). Rodgers is rested and healthy, and this is surely a game he wants a little more than just about any one he’s ever played in the regular season. If the Packers steal one in Minnesota, it’s time to reassess just what this team is.
2. As for the Vikings on Sunday night, my goodness John DeFilippo, please utilize some play-action. A year ago, the Vikings ran play-action more frequently than any team in football, and were more effective utilizing it than any team in football (per our friends at Football Outsiders). Kirk Cousins consistently ran one of the most effective play-action passing games in football while in Washington; last season his unit ranked as the NFL’s third-most effective play-action offense.
Yet, so far this season, Minnesota ranks just 25th in play-action frequency (and 14th in yards per play-action play). In last week’s ill-conceived game plan (use tempo against the Bears!) in a loss at Chicago that might have cost them a shot at the division. Kirk Cousins dropped back 49 times—I counted five play-action plays among them (just over 10%, for context, the Steelers have used play-action on a league-low 12% of their plays this season).
And those five plays tended to work. (1) Cousins just overthrew a wide-open Stefon Diggs behind the defense for what would have been a 38-yard touchdown. (2) He hit Adam Thielen for a 12-yard conversion of a second-and-long on an RPO, then (3) found Thielen the next play for 11 yards on a traditional play-action call. (4) Laquon Treadwell was open short on a later play-action but dropped it, and (5) Cousins passed up a chance to scramble for a chunk of yards on a third-and-short, taking a shot at the end zone instead.
Game flow has a lot to do with play-calling, so it’s unreasonable to say the Vikings should always use play-action on a third of their drop-backs. But they have to use it more frequently than they have. Cousins’s first year in Minnesota is looking a lot rockier after last week’s loss; he has always been a guy who needs a little help from the system. The system has to be better on Sunday night.
3a. Recent Thursday games have brought us officiating gaffes from the unwatchable, to the egregious, to, now, the dangerous. The missed call on the helmet-to-helmet hit on Jordan Reed toward the end of Washington-Dallas didn’t swing the outcome of the game. But the fact that occurred in a national game with a huge audience, at a time of heightened concern over player safety, sandwiched by two of the league’s partners airing emotionally devastating pieces on former players battling ALS—FOX had Tim Green, and ol’ friend Peter King had Steve Gleason for NBC—made it a singularly embarrassing moment for the NFL.
The only reasonable explanation for missing that call involves the Mooninites and the Foreigner Belt. [In Ignignokt voice] “Ron Torbert, fill your eyes with... ‘Double Vision’.” (If you don’t get the reference—and if you don’t, for shame—here ya go...)
As for why with the number of unnecessary delays over the course of an NFL game (can’t just have a replay official to move things along when you can cram in a commercial break and air time for the Microsoft Surface!) calls that would help legislate headshots out of the game aren’t reviewable—like they are on the college level—is a mystery. Though it’s more like a mystery in an episode of Matlock, where the answer is incredibly obvious (of course he was framed, every Matlock client was framed): For the NFL, player safety is a much lower priority than revenues, which is why administration of player-safety rules is poorly thought out and therefore often improperly enforced.
3b. Credit to that crew though: They might be unable to recognize what a helmet is, but they were all over the Cowboys for using the novelty oversized Salvation Army kettle as a prop.
I think I speak for everyone when I say I’m sick of the Salvation Army trying to distract attention from the NFL brand. I’m fortunate enough to work in New York, and can therefore spend this time of year pushing bell-ringers to the ground, stealing their kettles and emptying out the contents at 345 Park Avenue where that money belongs. But I urge those in other cities to, at the very least, be prepared to drown out the sound of the bell-ringing by carrying a boombox and a cassette tape of the NFL on FOX theme. I can make a copy for you if you need it—I taped it right off the TV, you just have to press stop when you start to hear the late Pat Summerall’s voice, then rewind back to the beginning and hit play again.
(3c. In all seriousness, there are many reasons to not support the Salvation Army, but they do a lot of good and are at least moving in the right direction in regard to their stances on social issues, even if they’re not moving quite quickly enough. It's an embarassment for the NFL to keep encouraging officials to throw flags as if the kettle was just like any other prop.)
4. It’s a REVENGE GAME in Cin City on Sunday afternoon, when the Cleveland Browns organization looks to get back at Hue Jackson for two-and-a-half years of stolen paychecks and a handful of ruined young players.
If Jackson, who is assisting Marvin Lewis on the defensive side of the ball, is worth anything to the Bengals, this is the week he’ll prove it. Indeed, Jackson was not in on install sessions in Cleveland this summer, but he was a head coach with an offensive background. He must have some insights on Baker Mayfield and Cleveland that the Bengals can use. Plus, new Browns offensive coordinator and Kyle Gass lookalike Freddie Kitchens showed his hand with the smashmouth run game when the Browns beat Atlanta, so the Bengals should be fully prepared for anything Cleveland can throw at them. In other words, if the Bengals defense and Hue Jackson are ever going to get right, this is the week.
5. We teased this defensive draft prospects piece by pointing out Aaron Donald’s game-changing Monday night performance, proof that defensive playermakers still very much matter. As evidenced by the number of goobers who responded to it by saying, there were 105 points scored, there is apparently a misunderstanding about just what happened in that Rams-Chiefs instant classic.
Look back at Super Bowl LII, when the Eagles and Patriots combined for one punt and two turnovers (one on a tipped deep throw that swung field position), but scored “only” 74 points because there was one impact play made by either defense (the Brandon Graham strip-sack). That was a better display of ruthlessly streamlined, unstoppable offensive football than what you saw in L.A., something recognized by every team in the league (well, except the teams that tabbed Tyrod Taylor and Alex Smith as their 2018 opening day starters) and written about by someone my mom describes as “the handsomest boy on the internet” way back before Week 1.
Don’t confuse this with an “actually…” take claiming the Rams and Chiefs offenses aren’t good because they turned it over seven times on Monday. Those offenses are spectacular. But there were three defensive touchdowns, and another short-field TD that came one play after a strip-sack. Defensive plays were responsible for 28 of those 105 points. And considering what the receivers were doing to those hapless secondaries, the lesson of Monday night is that the NFL will soon belong to the aggressors on both sides of the ball. That’s why you need to have offensive playmakers in the passing game, and game-changers in the pass rush. And it’s why teams that can’t tread water at the reactionary positions (offensive line, defensive backfield) are going to become increasingly doomed.
6a. Which brings us to Eagles-Giants, two teams with fatal flaws at the reactionary positions. On one side, you have a Giants team that still can’t pass-protect, but is coming off back-to-back wins thanks to matchups with the two worst pass rushes in football. The Eagles have a pass rush (albeit one that’s not as good as last year’s), but their secondary is banged up to the point that they’re on the verge of running the cast of thirtysomething out there. You know, thirtysomething? The critically acclaimed ABC series from the late 80s? Timothy Busfield? It… it took place in Philadelphia. That’s why it’s referenced here. The point is, the Eagles are hopelessly thin in the secondary, which is proving to be more problematic than replacing their MVP-candidate quarterback was a year ago.
6b. This is my other take on the Eagles.
Maybe they haven’t been showing them on TV as often, or maybe it’s just a function of the Eagles having been favorites in every game this season until last week’s drubbing in New Orleans, but I thought the dog masks were going to be an ongoing thing. Or, maybe it will become a thing again now that everyone has left them for dead. (Those dudes in China are certainly hoping so.)
7. Our Robert Klemko spent the last couple weeks asking some Alabama alums across the league whether the Bama team they played on could have beaten NFL teams. I don’t want to necessarily say their answers were delusional, but at the same time, that is literally the only word to describe them.
For Robert’s next assignment, I was going to have him ask Rutgers alums around the league whether the Scarlet Knights could beat the New Orleans Saints. Or, more specifically, how many extra players would Rutgers need on the field to beat the Saints. Could they, for instance, win if they were allowed to play 14-on-11? Or 11-on-9? Or, is it 11-on-11 but Drew Brees has to throw left-handed? No one on the Saints is allowed to wear shoes? The Saints get two downs to get to the line to gain, but Rutgers gets six? This is the hypothetical matchup America wants to see, right?
8. They were referenced earlier, so why not start your football Sunday with 20-plus minutes of prog rock. Ladies and gentlemen . . . The Mars Volta!
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