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  • Plus, the Saints need to find some big plays again, someone needs to make the Jaguars take Cody Kessler off the field, the Chiefs need to prove they can tackle in Seattle, and the league and union need to give themselves some wiggle room with an archaic drug policy that serves no one. Also, in honor of the Christmas season: a product photo that blew my mind, Christmas episodes to watch, and Rats Off to Ya! Plus, musical guest: The Stink!
By Gary Gramling
December 23, 2018

1a. What the Ravens did to the Chargers on Saturday night was positively super-villainous (because we all love points, we live for points, the Ravens seem to be mostly a bunch of likable guys). Throwing out the blown offensive pass interference call on the Chargers’ second possession (and the ensuing penalty when Keenan Allen didn’t get set because he was still arguing the brutal call), the offensive penalties were almost all forced by Baltimore's defense beating them. L.A. took advantage of the short field after a Kenneth Dixon fumble to open the second half, but you got the feeling that if you gave the Chargers a thousand possessions starting in their own territory against this Ravens defense, they’d score, maybe, three touchdowns?

The Ravens don’t give you many opportunities to beat them deep—they’ve now given up just nine passing plays of 25-plus yards over the past eight games, including zero on Saturday night. When they do give up big plays, it tends to be a quarterback making a superhuman play late in the down (think this Jameis Winston play, or basically everything Patrick Mahomes did two weeks ago). Baltimore is so instinctive, so prepared, so fast and so fundamental that it feels like opposing offenses are playing in three feet of water—sustained drives seem virtually impossible. It’s a mix of young talent with a core of veteran leaders up the middle: C.J. Mosley at linebacker and free-agent steals Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson at the safety spots.

In this 5-1 run to start the Lamar Jackson era, the defense has dominated every opponent, the only difference in the one loss being Mahomes’s ability to do things no other quarterback can. Lamar Jackson has some work to do, but if he can deliver even one big play each week (like he did on Saturday), it seems like that will be more than enough to keep Baltimore in the game against anyone.

1b. I don’t know what the Spanos family’s NFL legacy will ultimately be, but aside from nailing the Anthony Lynn hiring it’s been a rough couple years. You have the disastrous relocation, the embarrassing Joey Bosa negotiations, and the disrespectful decision to move on from Weddle, which has proven to be, shall we say, regrettable.

1c. Just a reminder: The NFL made the Ravens travel cross-country on a short week to play an opponent who had an extra three days’ rest. It was patently unfair, and the Ravens still dominated this game against arguably the hottest team in football.

1d. I’m not one for the on-set post-game interview, but the Weddle family storming the NFL Network set at StubHub and Lamar Jackson playfully covering his ears as they all screamed was positively Christmas-y.

2a. The Titans deserve a ton of credit for getting to nine wins in a year that started with a rash of summer injuries when they were trying to install a new defense, an opening-week injury to their most valuable offensive weapon (Delanie Walker), and sporadic, terrifying Gabbert appearances. January football is a very real possibility, but even if they don’t get there, the arrow is pointing up for this team heading into 2019 (though if that Jurrell Casey injury is serious, that’s a heck of a down note).

2b. Jay Gruden is a shrewd play designer, one of the league’s better in-game play-callers and I while I can think of a few instances in which his team didn’t play well, I can’t think of a game in which they didn’t play hard.

This offseason, the front office hamstrung him by letting his quarterback walk and replacing him with Alex Smith, a great dude but an ultra-conservative passer with a limited ceiling (presumably someone in that front office either made a decision based purely on box-score stats or didn’t realize Smith wasn’t bringing Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill with him). Gruden was forced to patch an offense together with a street free agent at running back and after both starting guards got hurt, then after Smith’s injury had to rotate through a mid-level backup in Colt McCoy, a guy who had no right being in the league in Mark Sanchez, and a mid-level No. 3 in Josh Johnson. Under those circumstances, most teams would have been looking ahead to their top-five pick in the spring rather than hanging around in playoff contention a few days before Christmas. This franchise has a recent history of almost comedic dysfunction, but even they must realize that Gruden is closer to Coach of the Year than a hot seat, right?

3a. Their slate of regular-season road games exhausted, the Saints will probably be in the Superdome until the Super Bowl. Historically in the Payton/Brees era, they’ve been better offensively at home (30.4 points per game) than on the road (25.9), and perhaps returning home after a three-game road trip will cure what ails this offense. But, right now, the lack of big plays is a real concern for the Saints.

Every offensive mind in the NFL outside of Jacksonville understands it’s a league fueled by big plays. Pre-Thanksgiving, New Orleans ranked fourth in the NFL with 2.7 passing plays of 25-plus yards per game. Starting with a covertly underwhelming performance Thanksgiving night against Atlanta (a 31-17 victory that would have gotten awfully hairy if not for three red-zone fumbles by the Falcons), the Saints have had a positively Kessler-esque total of four explosive passing plays over their last four games; they haven’t been that anemic over a four-game stretch since the end of the 2013 season. Michael Thomas is averaging 8.3 yards per catch over those four games—Josh Allen is averaging 8.8 yards per rushing attempt during the same span—and hasn’t scored a touchdown in more than a month. (Which is a shame, because he has so many wonderful touchdown celebrations planned, like maybe he’ll score one and be like, “uh, Got Milk?” and it will thrill all of us because that’s a thing we know and remember.)

The return of Ted Ginn will likely help in that regard, not only giving them a deep threat but opening things up in the deep-intermediate range, the kind of throws that have disappeared during the current slump. Getting blindside protector Terron Armstead back in the lineup should make a difference as well. Unlike the bulk of the Payton/Brees years, New Orleans does have a good enough defense to win games without big performances from the offense (thus the 3-1 record over the last four), but beating three quality opponents in January becomes a dicey proposition without some explosive plays from this offense.

3b. You can see a lack of explosive passing plays in the slumps of a couple other offenses. The Rams, who averaged three per game (second-highest rate in the NFL, over their first 11 games behind only the Chiefs), have a total of three explosive passing plays over the last three games as opponents have begun giving them split-safety looks and the offensive line has (relatively) struggled. The Packers, who were tied for fourth with 2.7 per game through their first 10 games, have a total of three over their last four games as Aaron Rodgers continues to inspire deafening levels of nervous laughter across the state of Wisconsin.

3c. I was just kidding about that “Kessler-esque” comment above. Not because it was mean to Kessler, but because it was mean to Brees and the Saints. We might never again see an NFL team voluntarily play a quarterback that is so incapable of delivering explosive plays while simultaneously having Hue Jackson as his lone endorser. I’m not at all kidding when I write that someone at Park Avenue has to have a lengthy conversation with the Jaguars’ brass that ends with them taking Kessler off the field—they are uncompetitive and dreadfully boring on offense, rolling out a brand of football normally reserved for the fourth quarter of preseason openers. You can’t, in good conscience, charge admission for people to watch this team.

Not that anyone subjected to this travesty needs it put into statistical context, but let’s do it anyway: In 31 offensive possessions spanning Kessler’s three starts, Jacksonville’s offense has produced 21 points, one touchdown drive, and two plays of 25-plus yards—one was a Leonard Fournette run that was followed by a Kessler interception six plays later, the other was a 35-yard pass from Kessler to Keelan Cole after which Kessler lost a fumble two plays later.

4. If there’s one thing the Chiefs wish for more than anything this holiday season, it’s for opposing ballcarriers to fall down when they touch them and also for an RC car. No, wait, a hovercraft.

This K.C. defense isn’t without its charms. Between Chris Jones and Dee Ford they have two budding stars in the pass rush. Justin Houston’s days of Defensive Player of the Year contention are probably over, but he’s still a quality pass rusher and one of the league’s better edge-setters. But the players who man the middle of the field for the Chiefs can’t tackle anyone (or, if they can, they choose not to). The return of Eric Berry might alleviate that to an extent, but the fact is, Anthony Hitchens (who go so much money—good for him and his job isn’t easy—but my goodness the Chiefs gave him more than $20 million guaranteed!) and Reggie Ragland have been pretty bad. Third-round rookie Dorian O’Daniel has flashed, but there doesn’t seem to be much hope of this linebacking group becoming better than, well, “bad” over the next couple seasons.

When Patrick Mahomes is your team’s quarterback your defense need only be serviceable to contend for a Super Bowl. The Chiefs might be able to climb to that level over the next six weeks, and Sunday night in Seattle will be a good measure of how far they’ve come. The Seahawks are running a smashmouth offense straight out of 1994, and their current collection of backs have combined for 85 broken tackles this season (according to Football Outsiders), fourth-most among current RB collections (behind the Chargers, Titans and Giants). If the Chiefs are going to move closer to that No. 1 seed and homefield advantage in the AFC, the defense will have to prove they can get off the field against a power offense like this.

5a. It’s unclear exactly what Josh Gordon did to violate terms of his conditional reinstatement under the league’s drug policy, but if you know his back story you could probably come up with a good hypothesis or two.

The larger issue, though, is that according to the league’s drug policy, it doesn’t necessarily matter what he did or why he did it. Let’s say, hypothetically, that a player already in the league’s substance abuse program was using marijuana to combat mental-health issues. I’m not going to put any wear and tear on my tender fingers putting forth a defense of marijuana use, except to point out that former All-Pro tackle Kyle Turley told Andy Benoit that when he called the NFL Life Line on a night when he was considering suicide, the counselor recommended marijuana.

What this comes back to is the league and the union (which seemingly can’t help but keep shooting itself in the ass) agreed to put a policy in place with the same kind of “mandatory minimum” approach that has been exposed as antiquated, draconian and just objectively bad policy in the criminal justice system.

The league’s policy on recreational drugs exists purely for the purpose of PR—my guess is that most people don’t care if players use drugs recreationally, but there are some who see it as immoral and would turn off the game because of it (and I’m pretty sure there aren’t many folks who think recreational, off-the-field drug use improves the NFL). But in cases (like Gordon’s) in which a player gets a significant suspension for failing a drug test, it can portray a player who partook in an action that is perfectly legal in 10 states as having run a meth lab staffed with kindergartners. It’s bad PR for the league, it’s bad for the player who loses his career, it’s bad policy.

If the NFL really wants to go after recreational drug use that no one would otherwise know about while taking a 1980s after-school-special approach to marijuana, fine. (I mean, it’s objectively stupid, but for the sake of this discussion we’ll set that aside.) What the league should do is determine punishments for failed drug tests on a case-by-case basis—the multi-billion-dollar industry has the resources to do that—using the ladder of disciplinary action (fines, then four-game suspension, then 10-game suspension, then banishment) as a guideline rather than a requirement. Having some wiggle room would come in handy as far as avoiding the absurdity of having to hand down a lifetime ban for doing something that two-thirds of the country thinks should be legal, 14% of adults in the country do, and potentially carries benefits for players dealing with the physical and mental hardships that the sport puts them through.

When it’s time to hammer out the next CBA, throw the drug policy on the pile of policies that hurt the league and the players, right there with the rookie wage scale and the franchise-tag system.

6a. In honor of Christmas’s imminent arrival, I’d like to present the third installment of the critically acclaimed series: “Photos That I Found That I Also Like and the True Stories Behind Them.”

This one is from a couple of weeks back when I was doing some preliminary shopping for my son, who like most boys likes “things that go” and, like his father, doesn’t want to exert himself physically—even in the slightest—to make those things go.

With a search term along the lines of “off-brand power wheels,” I came across this photo for some kind of child’s car.

You probably think I’m going to write something about his outfit, but I’m not—this kid can pull that look off. No, I’d like to point out that, in this clearly photoshopped scene in which they could have dropped him onto any background, they put him in the middle of the street. Surely they’re not implying this children’s vehicle that runs on 12 double-A batteries is street legal, are they? This child has been dropped into a dangerous scenario; they might as well have depicted him submerged in the piranha-infested waters of the Amazon River. It’s a baffling moment in product photography, and ultimately a photo that I found that I also do not like, making it a shocking twist in the finale of our PTIFTIALATTSBT trilogy.

6b. Just a reminder that Christmas falls on Dec. 25 this year, so you have approximately two shopping days left depending on when you’re reading this. And if you’ve already finished your shopping and are rewarding yourself by sitting around and watching TV, here are the special Christmas episodes worth the time for you and your family:

With a toddler: Elmo’s Christmas Countdown, specifically for Jamie Foxx’s mugging during “The Nutcracker Suite.” And also because Sesame Street is awesome, and if it goes too long you can always turn it off as soon as you see Brad Paisley because he’s the second-to-last act but also because not watching Brad Paisley is a good rule of thumb for just about any situation.

With kids: Adventure Time’s two-part Christmas special “Holly Jolly Secrets,” which is as wonderfully layered as any of the show’s episodes (Ice King’s origin story is some combination of confusing, hilarious, heart-wrenching and/or terrifying, depending on your age and familiarity with the show), and packed with hilarious visuals and a couple of great one-liners. And you get John DiMaggio and Tom Kenny doing the voice work, which is always a winner.

No kids around: Tom Goes to the Mayor’s Christmas special “Rats Off to Ya,” which has everything you’d want from an episode of Tim & Eric’s TGTTM except for the “Jefferton Alive!” theme song. Bob Odenkirk (an executive producer on the show) makes one of his 1,000 appearances in the series, and Stephanie Courtney (better known as Flo from the Progressive ads) does both her usual voice work as well as another cameo. Jeff Garlin also steals a scene playing Jefferton’s ultimate super-villain.

7. Ladies and gentlemen . . . The Stink!

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