- Also, the Panthers could have easily been doing what Seattle has done, the MNF booth deserves another chance, the Jaguars still need to address what’s rotten in their building, and a heart-warming story about a Vinny Testaverde football card and mom. Plus, musical guest: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!
1a. Before we get into the on-the-field stuff (we don’t really get into that much on-the-field stuff), a quick but helpful clarification for Baker Mayfield, who seems to think folks are upset at his Hue Jackson beef because it was mean. No, no, no, people like me don’t like it because Baker Mayfield is going to be a star, and Hue Jackson is utterly irrelevant.
Take Batman, for instance. He fights The Joker. And Two-Face. Bane, definitely. Sometimes The Riddler. Bizarro Batman, right? Probably? And sometimes Superman. I bet he had his disagreements with Robin too—I’m not sure Robin counts as a “superhero,” but we can all agree that he’s a pretty impressive guy. Do you know who Batman doesn’t fight? Terry Gibbons, who was Bruce Wayne’s incompetent manager at Dairy Queen when he was in high school and mistreated his employees. There are neither graphic novels nor screenplays of any Batman iteration in which The Dark Knight stakes out the Gotham Adult Learning Annex where Gibbons, now a customer-care specialist at a Netscape call center, takes a night class (“Bedazzle Your Irregular T-Shirts”), and once every couple weeks The Caped Crusader gets the drop on his former boss, boxes his ears and kicks him in the crotch, after which Commissioner Gordon has to explain that it’s not a crime for the manager of a fast-food restaurant to demand an at-will employee clean the men’s lavatory multiple times per day, and even if it was the statute of limitations has surely expired.
No, Batman will not fight such a character, no matter how rich a backstory I give him, because no one wants to watch the hero beat up on some poor, helpless sap. Baker Mayfield could not choose a lamer arch nemesis than Hue Jackson. But he has a chance to fire up a promising rivalry in Baltimore on Sunday.
The Browns, of course, have a chance to spoil the Ravens’ postseason plans (if the Steelers beat Cincinnati at home, the Ravens are out with a loss). Mayfield would have to overcome arguably the best defense in football right now (or, at least the best in the AFC), and he’d have to outduel the Heisman-winning first-round rookie on the other side of the field.
The latter is more relevant for the longterm. Right now, the Browns and Ravens are probably better bets for success beyond, say, 2021, than the Steelers (on account of the shaky prospects of a post-Roethlisberger offense) and Bengals (on account of being the Cincinnati Bengals). Mayfield is probably going to be a star. Lamar Jackson has a wider range of potential outcomes in the long-term because he’s such a work-in-progress, but if nothing else he’s a lot of fun to watch. The thought of those two facing each other twice a year for the next decade should warm even your ice-cold heart. It’s a rivalry about the future. And, of course, it’s a rivalry about the past due to Art Modell’s dirtbag move, relocating the Browns to Baltimore back in 1995.
As long as he doesn’t stick his right arm in a wood-chipper—and whose idea was it to keep a wood-chipper in the M&T Bank Stadium visitor’s locker room anyway?—on Sunday, the long-term outlook is bright for Mayfield, win or lose. But a pure spoiler victory in Baltimore would make this rivalry a thing, a much more interesting thing than the rivalry between the rising star quarterback and the unemployable former coach.
1b. Also, Mayfield said, re: Hue Jackson stare downs: “Quite honestly, if you don’t like it, whatever. Football’s not meant to be a soft game. I could care less.” But!, saying you could care less suggests you do care about it.
1d. I should have put a spoiler alert that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Apologies.
2. Drew Brees is just fantastic. It’s a weird anomaly that he hasn’t won an MVP considering he’s been consistently historically great, and had his 2018 performance occurred during the 2017 season he probably would have beaten Tom Brady for the award. But, alas, it is 2018, and as great as Brees has been this season there’s no way to justify voting for him over Patrick Mahomes in the MVP race.
It’s a good time to have the conversation because Brees will likely take something of a breather in Week 17 with the Saints having clinched the NFC’s top seed. If Mahomes throws for 80 yards and seven interceptions in a loss to Oakland on Sunday afternoon, you can disregard all of this. I also don’t want this to be taken as “Mahomes has been so much better than Brees,” because he hasn’t, and it isn’t. But Mahomes has quite clearly been better than Brees, in the same way that if I have five cans of Shasta-brand soft drinks and you have four cans of Shasta-brand soft drinks, I don’t have way more cans of Shasta-brand soft drinks than you, but I objectively have more cans of Shasta-brand soft drinks. Drink Shasta!
The only arguments for Brees over Mahomes in the MVP race seem to be as follows: Brees’s Saints have a better record, Brees has led more come-from-behind wins, and Brees has a better completion percentage and passer rating.
a. Team Records and Come-From-Behind Wins: The closest thing to a two-way quarterback in the NFL is Taysom Hill covering kicks. The effect quarterbacks have on their teams’ defensive performance is minimal. Average field position plays into it, but the Chiefs are actually second in the NFL in opponent averaging starting field position (25.8, the Saints are fourth-best at 26.4). Mahomes had two turnovers returned for touchdowns this season, Brees didn’t have any. You could argue that Brees was slightly more helpful to his team’s defensive performance (from a points allowed standpoint) than Mahomes was. But it’s not even close to closing the gap between the defenses’ performances. The Saints are a top-10 scoring defense this year (tied for eighth at 21.3 points per game), while the Chiefs are 29th (27.9). No one would put the Saints’ 48-40, season-opening loss to Tampa Bay on Brees’s shoulders, so it’s illogical to put the blame for Kansas City’s bottom-five defense on Mahomes.
The Chiefs put up 40, 51 (to be fair, only 37 of those from the offense), 28 and 31 points their four losses. They didn’t put up fewer than 26 points in a game all year. The Saints have been held under 26 points four times this season (by all rights they should have lost to Cleveland in Week 2 but the Browns were still insisting on playing Tyrod Taylor in defiance of all logic) and held under 14 points twice, including a 13-10 loss at Dallas. If the Chiefs and Saints had traded defensive units including coaches last March, what would the teams’ records be?
As for come-from-behind wins, I don’t know what to tell you. That’s not true, I do know what to tell you: Winning a game you were leading the whole way is worth the same as winning a game you trailed in at some point.
b. Cherry-Picking Box Score Stats: Stats are great as long as you understand context. If you think Brees had a better season than Mahomes because of completion percentage (74.4% to 66.4%), then you must also acknowledge Cody Kessler (64.9%) completed a higher percentage of passes this season than Baker Mayfield (64.6%), Aaron Rodgers (62.3%) and Andy Dalton (61.9%) among others. (Kessler, in case you forgot, was the worst starting quarterback of the past decade—more on that later and yes I remember Nate Peterman.) And you must acknowledge that Cam Newton’s 2018 season completion percentage (67.9%) was better than his 2015 MVP year’s (59.8%). Completion percentage isn’t meaningless, but it is an awfully thin slice of evidence in the MVP debate.
If you must cherry-pick a box-score stat (and you shouldn’t, but if you must), go with yards-per-attempt, which actually takes into account how many yards those pass attempts lad to, which is a far more meaningful measure than the binary of catch or no-catch. Mahomes’s throws went for 8.7 yards per attempt, Brees’s for 8.2 (both very impressive numbers). Points is also a good box-score stats; the Chiefs offense has averaged more points (33.5 to 32.3) and, as mentioned above, have not had anything resembling the lows the Saints have had. Or, in an age where big plays decide NFL games, look at the big plays generated. Mahomes has 49 passes of 25-plus yards this year. Brees has 34.
Passer rating is outdated to the point of uselessness due to the overemphasis on avoiding turnovers and everyone should stop citing it.
c. Actual Arguments: A legitimate argument for Brees is that his 2018 season is a culmination of years of building and molding this Saints offense. He’s been like a player-coach for New Orleans, and the fact that he built this—whereas Mahomes had an offense built for him—should be taken into consideration.
However, you also have to consider the couple of times Mahomes won games that no other quarterback would have won under the same circumstances. The victory over Baltimore comes to mind, in which the Ravens defense thoroughly out-schemed and out-executed the Chiefs. The no-look throw got all the attention, but Mahomes made three or four plays that no other quarterback has the physical ability and mental acuity to make. And while I’m not going to lean on home/road splits since home wins and losses count just the same as road wins and losses, but I think there is something to be said for playing well on the road, the most difficult thing for an NFL offense to do. Mahomes threw an NFL-record 31 touchdowns on the road this season, where the Chiefs averaged 38.3 points per game and 36 offensive touchdowns, the second-highest all-time marks behind only the 2007 Patriots (39.3 and 36).
I’m the kind of guy who likes to see everyone get a chance to win an award. It’s why I spend each offseason hand-addressing certificates of achievement to anyone who participated in an NFL game over the course of the season. They have a giraffe giving a thumbs-up on them. They’re pretty swell.
But the honor loses meaning if you give it to someone who didn’t rightfully earn it (you know, like every honor handed out in baseball). The Saints are the team of the year, but if league’s Most Valuable Player award is going to be awarded to the league’s most valuable player (as the name of the honor suggests), that is Patrick Mahomes.
3. “A long December and there’s reason to believe
“Maybe this year will be better than the last.”
—Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz, in 1996, in anticipation of the Carolina Panthers’ winless final month of the season 22 years later
The Panthers were football’s most disappointing team in 2018. Unlike so many others who fell short of the playoffs, Carolina had it all at one point: An innovative offense featuring an MVP-caliber QB and a playmaking young all-purpose back. A defense led by a Hall of Fame linebacker and, while they were young on the back end, you figured those green defensive backs would improve as the year went on.
Instead they’re taking January off, in large part because Newton’s shoulder hasn’t been right the second half of the season, and in part because they couldn’t catch a break once things started to go downhill. There was the Graham Gano misses and the Newton overthrow that cost them in Detroit. Then there was the home loss to Seattle, a game in which they were the better team but came up short on fourth downs and in the red zone.
Until the Newton shoulder problems became too much to overcome, there really wasn’t any reason the Panthers couldn’t do what the Seahawks did this year, maybe even at a higher level. They’re even similarly built to the Seahawks, with a strong front seven and question marks on the back end on defense, and a potential MVP under center. There’s no reason the Panthers can’t be a contender next year, as long as Newton can avoid an Andrew Luck-type leave of absence to get right.
As for now, a bitter end to a once promising season—but I guess the winter makes you laugh a little slower.
4. The “Collinsworth Slide” became self-aware earlier this month and is no longer worth anyone’s attention. Though, did you know, Monday Night Football experimented with a “Witten Slide” a few weeks ago? It resulted in three cracked vertebrae for Joe Tessitore. (I kid! But their chemistry wasn’t very good this season.)
Still, I’m glad that Tessitore-Witten-Booger team is getting a second year together. ESPN patched together a college play-by-play guy with one analyst with no experience and another relegated to a Rascal scooter for reasons still unknown. I remember being fairly unimpressed with Cris Collinsworth early in his broadcasting career, and over 20 years or so he’s developed into the best analyst in sports. Those dudes can get better.
5. From the moment the move was made, the promotion of Cody Kessler in Jacksonville made zero sense. After four excruciating weeks (and, in the Jaguars brass’s defense, multiple touchdowns!), the nightmare is over. But what the Jaguars can’t undo is the mistake of canning Nathaniel Hackett.
Hackett had taken over as interim offensive coordinator late in the 2016 season, the interim tag removed after that year. Hackett was handed lemons and made lemonade. Actually, it was more like he had a pile of human feces dumped on his front porch and he made lemonade. The Jaguars were inconsistent offensively because their quarterback was inherently bad. And this year their offensive line—slightly above average when healthy—was ravaged by injuries, erasing anything Hackett could do in the run game. You’d think that would lead to trouble for whomever was responsible for building the roster, but instead the decision was to scapegoat Hackett.
Someone made the call to insert Kessler as the starter, and at some point that person will have to be outed. Turning to Blake Bortles’s wholly less-talented veteran backup was a move devoid of logic, an aimless “change for the sake of change.” The Jaguars could have just as well opted to keep Bortles in the lineup but have him play left-handed, or put Jaxson de Ville at left tackle, or replaced the Gatorade with battery acid. It’s different, but it obviously wasn’t going to be better.
In the big picture, the Jaguars were moving on from Bortles regardless. But in losing Hackett they not only give up a promising young offensive coach, but they showed they’re delusional about where the organization’s real problems lie.
6. I’ll wrap the final Football Things of the 2018 calendar year—and the holiday season—with a heart-warming Christmas story: Every Boxing Day when I as a kid, my Uncle Dave and Aunt Jean would come over for a gift exchange, and Uncle Dave would always show up with a couple packs of the newly released baseball cards as well as a crapload of football card packs. And, as you do when four boys are opening packs of cards, you intermittently call out your best cards. Barry Sanders!, Oh, Steve Young…, Alvin Harper rookie!, etc. After a few packs, my 8-year-old brother piped up with: “Vinny Testicles…”—the nickname for Vinny Testaverde on the mean streets (or cul-de-sacs) around the nation back then. My mother reacted with a wealthy dowager-esque “Oh my, Timothy!” While she won’t admit it now, to this day I wonder if a small voice in the back of my mother’s mind was asking, “Is there a quarterback who goes by the name of ‘Vinny Testicles’?”
7. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!
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