1. When facing mortal danger, the Norway lemming doesn’t flee. It screams, shrieks, jumps and bites, and just bounces around like a little psychopath in a literal fight for survival against predators. How tiny are they? I dunno, I’ve never seen a lemming and the extent of my knowledge of Norway is pretty much what I’ve seen on episodes of Okkupert. But I do know everything about the Norway lemming is the complete opposite of the Jacksonville Jaguar.
For all intents and purposes, the Jaguars committed to Blake Bortles at last year’s trade deadline when they hung Marcell Dareus’s albatross of a contract around their collective necks, removing any chance of them getting involved in last offseason’s rather robust quarterback market. Then, by re-working Bortles’s deal last offseason, they made an almost literal two-year commitment to him (according to OverTheCap.com, the Jaguars are already a projected $7 million over the 2019 cap, and cutting Bortles only saves them $4.5 million). Their only alternative is Cody Kessler. But only one person on the planet has ever viewed Kessler as a viable NFL starting quarterback; for anonymity’s sake, we’ll call that person Brue Zackson. Playing Kessler at this point is nothing more than a sad, outright surrender by the Jaguars.
This is a league where a sixth-round pick became the greatest quarterback of all-time, so you have to keep an open mind in that it’s not a literal impossibility that the 6' 1", under-armed Kessler turns into, oh, the next Drew Brees. But it’s far more likely (but, to be clear, still not at all likely) that Bortles turns it around and plays like he did for a stretch late last season, giving the Jaguars something to build off of for 2019. Before they’re undoubtedly disappointed again and find a new quarterback for 2020. The move to Kessler makes no sense in the short term or long term.
2. On the eve of the 2018 season, you had two teams dealing with superstar players looking for long-term deals, and both those teams decided they didn’t want to pay up. The team that probably wasn’t going to do anything of note in 2018, and managed to net two first-round picks for their star, is taking a ton of heat for their decision. Meanwhile, for some reason, the Super Bowl contender that walked away with nothing short-term and long-term is getting a pass.
Jon Gruden has been getting killed for his Sam Hinkie impression (and he’ll have deserved it if he drafts as poorly as Hinkie did, at which point Gruden will be mocked until he’s forced to retreat into his home with only his Super Bowl ring, his $100 million contract and his physically attractive wife, like the loser he is). There was a logic to his actions though: Whether you believe the Raiders could recapture their 2016 form, they were a 10-loss team with Khalil Mack last season, and a subpar defense pretty much every year of Mack’s Raiders career (obviously not Mack’s fault, but it underlines the fact that one non-QB can only make so much of a difference). If the Raiders held onto Mack, they were probably a seven- or eight-win team in 2018, and with Derek Carr already on a big contract they’d be locked into that roster for the next three years or so.
The Steelers wouldn’t award Bell the contract he earned over the first five seasons of his career because they wanted to be able to run him into the ground then discard him. It was a callous, calculated move to burn their star running back. They took the downgrade to James Conner, and as Conner put up box-score stats in a world more obsessed with fantasy football than actual football, the narrative that took hold was that the Steelers didn’t need Bell. Conner, of course, is a good player who has a very bright future, but is not on Bell’s level (not even close in the passing game, where Conner has worked to become solid but Bell essentially served as another wide receiver). But the bigger problem has been ball security. Bell fumbled once every 204 touches for Pittsburgh. Conner is fumbling once every 59 touches this season, and two of his lost fumbles have been as crushing as they were avoidable. In the opener, Conner coughed one up on his own 1-yard line with the Steelers protecting a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Browns scoring on the next play and the game eventually ending in a tie. Last week in Denver, Conner fumbled in the open field at the Broncos’ 23-yard line at the end of the third quarter in a tie game, costing Pittsburgh a scoring chance. The Broncos scored on the ensuing drive, the game’s final points.
There are, obviously, many factors that went into the Browns tie and Broncos loss, but considering Bell is the better all-around player and has a much better track record when it comes to ball security, it’s not a leap to say that Pittsburgh wins both those games with their veteran superstar back in the lineup.
Ultimately, if we travel the multiverse, we’ll find that the Raiders, in the reality where they gave Mack a near-record contract, are sitting around .500 this season with fewer future draft picks and no roster flexibility for upcoming years. The Steelers with Bell, however, are sitting at 9-2 instead of 7-3-1—currently the difference between the 2-seed and the 4-seed in the AFC, with Bell on what would likely amount to a deal that (if we’re using the three-year rule of thumb) runs through the 2020 season, Bell’s age-28 season.
The Steelers still have time to make up ground in the race for homefield advantage in the AFC, including a home date with the Patriots in Week 15, and they’re obviously capable of winning a road game(s) in January. But for all the heat the Raiders are taking for failing to fairly compensate Mack, the Raiders probably weren’t going anywhere this year, and they at least collected some long-term assets. The Steelers’ stubbornness and cheapness in regards to Bell cost them a star player, and could potentially be the difference between hosting the Patriots and/or Chiefs, or a trip to Foxboro and/or Arrowhead in January.
Yes, I’m obsessed with how the Steelers mishandled and mistreated one of their most valuable players (and for those arguing he was out of shape, give him his deal last winter and that's not an issue). But mostly—and this isn’t a defense of Gruden—I’m confused why Gruden gets so much vitriol for throwing a mediocre Raiders team into a full-fledged rebuild while the Steelers have a Super Bowl contender that might be derailed by needless penny-pinching.
3. “Men at some time are masters of their fates
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
“But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
—Cassius to Sean “Brutus” McVay in Julius Caesar, the play William Shakespeare wrote about the 2018 NFC playoff picture. He truly was ahead of his time.
As the NFC hierarchy tightens, the Rams are enjoying an awfully good week. The Thursday night drubbing the Saints took in Dallas puts L.A. back on top of the conference, with a chance to avoid a January trip to New Orleans (or anywhere else, for that matter, until Atlanta). The loss of Cooper Kupp hangs over them—he was a key role player in the passing game and the run game—but the return of Aqib Talib could be big. It’s a cautious optimism, since this is a 32-year-old coming off ankle surgery, but a healthy-ish Talib would address the biggest remaining weakness with this team: cornerbacks who can actually cover. Take care of the Lions in Detroit, then beat the Bears in Chicago and the Eagles at home, and the road to the NFC title goes through Hollywoo.
4a. After back-to-back Thursdays of egregious headshots in full view of officials going uncalled during nationally televised games in Dallas, it’s time to really consider why this keeps happening. And the more I think about it: Maybe, just maybe, the NFL doesn’t employ too many officials who are unable to enforce the most basic player-safety rules. Maybe... the NFL just employs a lot of officials who are bad at anatomy.
Think about it: What’s more likely, the league having at least 14 officials who can’t recognize a blatantly illegal hit to the head? Or, say, Walt Anderson thinking the “head” it’s nestled between your lungs and your colon. (Come to think of it, that would also explain a lot of these roughing the passer calls.)
4b. I ask again: At what point does the NFL decide to scrap one point of Microsoft Surface product placement and streamline the review process so that these kind of hits can be called by a replay official?
5. We’re fairly proud of the Packers coverage we had this week, which hopefully painted a more nuanced picture of how things go rotten for a team. I mean, beyond what you’d get from the usual crowd of faux-analysts* who will never admit they’re wrong no matter how much evidence is piled in front of them. Or taekers who refer to those who report and vet their work by crowdsourcing a network of NFL coaches as “tape-eaters.” Because you’re supposed to inform your work by crowdsourcing users on the platform that helped fuel the rise of neo-Nazism and remains the messaging-vehicle of choice for our dullest and dopiest. (My opinions are informed by the tweets of @farteater69 and that’s the way I likes it!).
Anyway, the Packers are a mess for a bunch of reasons, but a couple of things stood out from our work this week: I’m not sure what the Packers’ solution was once their veteran receivers got hurt. Aaron Rodgers wants to play sandlot style, which pretty much means spread iso routes and veteran receivers who know how to improv with you. (Jazz music. Like that uncreatively named owl on Sesame Street used to play.) With Jordy Nelson gone (and, considering how he looked without Rodgers last year, it was impossible to justify keeping him) and Randall Cobb (and, to a lesser extent, Geronimo Allison) sidelined, there was no choice but to go to a more highly schemed offense with rookies Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown on the field. McCarthy borrowed a bunch of Sean McVay stuff, Rodgers hasn’t looked comfortable with it, throw in a couple of tough losses during a stretch of idiotic scheduling—we’re going to have you crisscross the country to play elite teams, then send you two time zones west to play on three days’ rest (sorry that last part rhymes)—and the “healthy tension” between coach and quarterback is now problematic.
Something has to give here, and it’s not Rodgers. It seems like McCarthy is a lame-duck coach. He’s brought a lot of this on himself—either he couldn’t reign his quarterback in, or his play-calling was miscellaneous and disjointed.
If you want McCarthy fired, above are your reasons. What aren’t good reasons to fire a head coach are the following:
• He didn’t go for it on fourth down when he should have. He should have gone for the fourth down in Seattle! You’re not going to throw out a coach based on a single in-game decision though, because that’s incredibly dumb.
• He went to a jumbo package on fourth-and-short. I’m not sure where this one originated (Twitter, I guess, since that’s where all weird narratives originate). We got a lot of “it’s a 10-man box!!!1!1!!” feedback after Sunday night. But you’re always at a disadvantage in the run game. Even if your quarterback is carrying the ball, you’re trying to block 11 with 10 men. That’s football. I’m no fan of jumbo packages—you create an uncomfortable amount of trash. But the alternatives—misdirection plays, or passing plays—are all-or-none propositions. You can get in a jumbo package, run it poorly and still have a chance to pick up half a yard. Which is why it’s not crazy to use it on fourth-and-half-a-yard. You don’t need a six-yard gain, you’re looking for 18 inches, and you can often do that as long as you’re not caught in the backfield, which is the risk you run with some kind of misdirection. As for throwing it there: The Packers are 4-for-17 over the past three weeks when throwing the ball on third-and-5-or-less. So it’s tough to fall back on “put it in Aaron Rodgers’s hands” with any kind of confidence.
• He didn’t play Aaron Jones enough. I mean, we all play fantasy football, and Aaron Jones is the best runner on the team, and we all want him to be a workhorse back in that offense. But it really doesn’t make a difference. In fact, since Jones’s role was expanded after the bye week, the Packers are 1-4. So you’re missing out on some efficiency by not playing your best players. But it’s also tough for anyone on the outside to criticize a coaching staff that’s working with these players everyday and maybe don’t have full trust that Jones is going to be where he’s supposed to be all the time. But, mostly, this thing that helped your fantasy team probably isn’t helping the Packers all that much.
*—To be clear, I’m also a faux-analyst. But I like to think I am self-aware enough to keep an open mind.
6. Anything involving the resolution of Reuben Foster’s domestic-violence battery charge has to start with the wellbeing of his girlfriend. And she is under no obligation to do anything public in this case. Foster, however, is in a much different spot.
One of the sad truths about this country: People who grow up in abject poverty, like Foster, are rarely presented with a path to any level of success in life. Football was Foster’s chance for a way out. For the NFL, the “right thing” always comes down to cold, often short-sighted public relations calculus. There’s a discussion to be had about what we, the public, should advocate for in light of the role the public’s neglect—through the election of lawmakers and promotion of policies that created the socioeconomic segregation that placed Foster and so many other kids in near-hopeless situations—played in Foster’s development as a human being. Foster is 24 years old, and (considering his personal history) probably not a fully formed adult (his physical appearance notwithstanding). Of course, he still carries a level of personal responsibility, and then there’s the fact that for the past... what is 2018 minus 1776?... that many years, women in this country have been marginalized on a macro level and mistreated on a micro level, and the last thing we need to do is minimize the impact of Foster’s actions.
In short, a lot must happen before anyone can consider letting Foster back into the NFL. Which brings us to Washington, the team that scooped him up off waivers. Foster is an undeniably talented player, and surely there were evaluators around the league who had that initial, kneejerk reaction of, “Ooo! We want that guy!” when he was first let go. But bringing him in involves an awesome amount of responsibility and a clear understanding of what your franchise is taking on.
Time will tell, but the early returns are not good for Washington’s front office. I spent three months or so working with Kalyn Kahler on our Su’a Cravens piece, and I feel like we had a pretty good grip of the Washington front office by the end of it. I honestly think they meant well in the Cravens saga—they got a little petty in the end, but I do believe their intentions were good and they wanted to find help for him. The problem was that they, like pretty much every NFL franchise, are ill-equipped to help these men. And the problem is exacerbated by the fact that NFL coaches and personnel men, who have been wildly successful in their professional careers, think they’re capable of solving these problems when, in fact, they’re not. Not to cherry-pick a single, extreme example, but look at Aaron Hernandez, who Urban Meyer and Bill Belichick, two of the greatest football coaches of all time, thought they could help when what Hernandez needed was far beyond what a football coach could give him. That’s why it’s difficult to find a way to feel good about Washington and Foster.
7a. Every other year, I’m completely stumped during the NFL draft—as in, someone I’ve never heard of gets drafted. Two years ago, that was Seahawks seventh-rounder (pick No. 226) David Moore out of East Central University in Ada, Okla. (Mark Gastineau’s alma mater, y’know). Though, in my defense, seems like Moore hadn’t lived a particularly notable life to that point, according to his Wikipedia page:
Worse, his name is so ordinary that, even after he spent the bulk of last season on the practice squad, I had forgotten who he was when this season started. It seems like every opponent has too. He’s 6' 2", 220 and runs a 4.4 forty. Moore has become a timely big-play weapon for the turn-back-the-clock Seahawks offense, but opponents still seem willing to cover him with a [ahem] cornerback lacking in quality. He lit Teez Tabor on fire a couple of times in the Seahawks’ win in Detroit. He made a few big plays when the Packers tried to cover him with Tony Brown on the outside. And, last week at Carolina (he also beat James Bradberry for a 54-yarder early in the second half, by the way), Moore delivered the play of the game when he ran past an overmatched Corn Elder for a 35-yard TD on a fourth-and-3. Moore has 413 yards on only 37 targets this year. At some point, opponents aren’t going to be able to stick just anyone on him.
7b. I was also shocked to learn that he’s the only David Moore in NFL history. (Partial credit to former Bucs TE Dave Moore, but he went by Dave instead of David. Judging from the lyrics of “These Are the Daves I Know,” I think there’s a differentiation to be made.)
8. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Generator Ohm!
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