Week 9 Preview: The Lamar Jackson Conundrum, Midseason Awards

Also, all interceptions are not created equal, a solution for Trubisky, Jacoby Brissett’s price tag, Freddie Kitchens’s chance to get right, and the end of all things Flacco. Plus, musical guest: Talking Heads!
NFL Week 9 Preview

1. The neat thing about the Sunday night matchup between the Patriots and Ravens is that it’s the only good matchup of Week 9. The other neat thing is that it matches up the Baltimore offense’s schemed improvisations against a Patriots defense that thrives because it prepares for exactly what opposing offenses want to do.

In the past, the Patriots have had issues against quarterbacks who can make improvisational plays out of structure. That’s Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson. Cam Newton is a guy who rarely scrambled throughout his career (not to be confused with his usage on designed runs), but he killed the Patriots on scrambles when the Panthers pulled off an upset in Foxboro two seasons ago.

Lamar Jackson is obviously capable of scrambling and making plays out of structure. However, a lot of it is built into the Ravens’ offense. Consider this, from respected private citizen Andy Benoit:

It’s a designed scramble. In short, that is something the Patriots can probably prepare for. Do they essentially have a safety for their spy (Jamie Collins, one would assume)? Considering the advantages they have on the outside with their corners against the Ravens receivers, it’s something they can afford to do. They’re also good enough on the defensive line (Lawrence Guy revenge game!) that they don’t have to be overly concerned with the Ravens’ rushing attack.

There’s also the fact that halfway through the season Tom Brady’s offense is still searching for an identity, and a couple big plays from Jackson resulting on some points on the board for the Ravens could put some pressure on that struggling Patriots offense. So maybe get a good nap in during the afternoon games, because the Sunday nighter could be very interesting.

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2. There are enough shortcomings with passer rating that you could write them all down on tiny post-it notes and fill a warehouse. Here’s another one: All interceptions are not created equal.

At the beginning of last season, I wrote that simply avoiding interceptions can no longer be the primary goal of a quarterback (not that it ever should have been, but it especially should not be in 2019). Passer rating penalizes interceptions so severely that you’d think it was. But, even more than that, it doesn't recognize that all interceptions are not created equal.

Which brings us to the MVP candidacy of Matthew Stafford. (Why does it bring us to the MVP candidacy of Matthew Stafford? Quiet you, it just does.) Best I can tell, Stafford hasn’t garnered MVP buzz because the Lions are 3-3-1—the QB Wins folks rule the world and if you’d like to join them they’ll all be meeting up at Trent Dilfer’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony next summer. (Never mind that the Lions are a fourth-and-9 Mahomes first-down scramble and umpire Jeff Rice’s bold new interpretation of what constitutes a “face” away from sitting at 5-1-1, all while the poorly constructed roster surrounding Stafford is still unable to generate any kind of significant help in the form of a run game.)

But another reason for the lack of recognition for his performance is that he ranks a mere sixth in passer rating (105.3), more than 10 points behind league leader Russell Wilson. That difference has a lot to do with Wilson’s single interception, compared to Stafford’s four.

But what it doesn’t take into account is that Stafford’s interceptions came in the following situations:

i) First-and-15 from opponent’s 36, resulting in a touchback (+16 yards of field position)

ii) First-and-15 from own 34, intercepted at opponent’s 15 (+51 yards of field position)

iii) Second-and-3 from own 48, trailing by 12 points with 66 seconds to go, intercepted at opponent’s 20 (+32 yards of field position)

iv) First-and-10 from opponent’s 40, intercepted at opponent’s 5 and returned to 15 (+25 yards of field position)

The third one was a desperation throw with the game already decided. The other three, while problematic on first down, weren’t completely unlike punts.

As for Wilson, his single interception on the year came in the Week 7 home loss to the Ravens, leading by four with five minutes to go in the first half, facing a third-and-6 from the opponent’s 34. Wilson uncharacteristically delivered a ball so flat-footed and so late to the sideline that new Raven Marcus Peters was still packing his bags in Los Angeles when the play began, caught a flight to Seattle with a brief layover in Salt Lake City, and still made it to CenturyLink Field in time to snag the easy pick-six. That play, giving an opponent seven points while taking a chance for three away from his own team, was more damaging than the four Stafford interceptions combined.

And that brings us to the midseason MVP conversation . . . 

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3a. Midseason MVP debates are typically pretty dumb, but this year has reached new levels of stupidity with folks basing their MVP shouts solely on what happened in the previous four hours or so. Which is why Twitter is clamoring for Andy Isabella’s candidacy; his 88-yard catch-and-run TD on Thursday night is the last thing anyone remembers since their long-term memory, attention span, and overall cognitive abilities are fried on account of spending all day on Twitter.

The fact is, three quarterbacks (and, yes, the most valuable player must be a quarterback) have been consistently great all season: Deshaun Watson, Matthew Stafford and Russell Wilson. If you’re saying anyone but those three are MVP front-runners at this moment, you are objectively wrong. There’s a second tier of candidates who could certainly work their way into the conversation with big second halves:

• Aaron Rodgers: Rodgers has been great of late (with a little help from a Raiders defense that did an improv everywhere performance of an Electric Football defense), but pretty crummy for the first month. He was also outplayed by Stafford in his own building in a primetime game, bailed out only because umpire Jeff Rice insists that the human face extends down to the lower abdomen.

• Lamar Jackson: As great as the highs have been, he had an absolutely dreadful three-game stretch—resulting in the two losses (Cleveland and Kansas City) as well as a near-disaster overtime win against the imposters posing as the Pittsburgh Steelers. That might be too much to overcome since at this point it accounts for 38% of his season, but maybe not if he keeps cooking against the Patriots on Sunday night.

• Kirk Cousins: The bounceback was utterly predictable, but the fact that he singlehandedly lost two games, as well as the fact that this team is very much built around the run, limits his MVP appeal.

• Patrick Mahomes: If he only misses two games, heck yeah he has a chance to get back into this race.

3b. With that, here are your midseason awards, which will then be refreshed after the Week 9 games:

MVP: Deshaun Watson (co-runners-up: Matthew Stafford and Russell Wilson)

Defensive Player of the Year: Marshon Lattimore (co-runners-up: Stephon Gilmore and Nick Bosa)

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Terry McLaurin (note: by the end of the year it will go to whomever has the biggest second half between Daniel Jones, Kyler Murray and Gardner Minshew)

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Nick Bosa (runner-up: no one because it’s not close)

Coach of the Year: Sean McDermott (runner-up: Bill Belichick)

World’s Greatest Grandpa: Arnold Peters, from the Werther’s Original ads.

3c. Here’s a fact that will make you feel old: Arnold Peters turned 94 last June. And also he passed away six years ago.

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4. If I were Jacoby Brissett’s agent, and the quarterback was in line for a monster contract extension this summer (and Brissett is in line for a monster contract extension this summer—he’s not playing 2020 under a Flacco-esque one-year, $16 million pact), I’d get my hands on whatever contract Dak Prescott ends up signing, take out a box of crayolas, replace all instances of “Dak Prescott” with “Jacoby Brissett” and all instances of “Dallas Cowboys” with “Indianapolis Colts,” probably draw something like fighter jets or a rock band made up of dinosaurs—a cool visual to keep the reader engaged—put it in front of Chris Ballard and say “sign this.” It would be the easiest negotiation of all-time. And it would be completely worth the 35% commission I’d take.

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5a. The bar for the Bears offense couldn’t get any lower right now. You can tell because every time Mitchell Trubisky completes a throw that would and should be considered routine for any starting NFL quarterback, the color commentator will typically praise him in the same fashion that you’d praise a kindergartener who just brought home macaroni art that is supposed to be a dinosaur but really just looks like an unwell giraffe, at best.

Earlier this year, Matt Nagy said the key to getting Trubisky going was to scale things back—which is ridiculous 18 months into a coach-quarterback marriage, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do. It hasn't helped. The problem is, Trubisky lacks all clarity when it comes to seeing the field, which seems to be at the root of his disastrous lack of accuracy (which is at the root of the fact that Nagy won’t let him attempt a pass that travels more than four yards through the air).

However, Trubisky has looked good in late-game two-minute drills, perhaps because the tempo keeps him from overthinking things in the pre-snap phase, and perhaps because his back is up against the wall there’s nothing to lose by being aggressive. In the event that it’s mostly the former, Nagy should just go ahead and run hurry-up for the entire game in Philadelphia and see how it plays out. They’re not going to even compete for a playoff spot the way things are going now.

5b. If you’re not going to use tempo with Trubisky, encourage the guy to run again. Make everything a one-read play for him. It’s not a long-term solution, but it could be a short-term one (heck, it worked well enough last year that a lot of people failed to realize the glaring problems they had with the quarterback).

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6a. There’s a realistic chance that Freddie Kitchens becomes a better in-game manager as time goes on—the same way everyone gets better at something the more you do it—or perhaps he reimagines his staff in order to take some of that burden away from him. Of course, he has to make it to a second season. And to do so, he has to start piling up wins now that the Browns are on to their very soft second-half schedule.

It begins in Denver on Sunday, which in one way is a difficult matchup because the Broncos are still bringing it in the pass rush and the Browns still can’t block anyone. But in another way, it’s a great matchup because Denver has Brandon Allen making his first career start under center, and the Browns have done a pretty nice job defensively despite being banged up all year.

A win would move the Browns to 3-5, six of their final eight games are against teams that currently have three or fewer wins (that will hold through the week if Pittsburgh loses to the Colts), and the other two games are home against Buffalo and against a Ravens team they already beat on the road.

6b. The Joe Flacco Era in Denver created memories that will last for minutes, probably. As I wrote last offseason, despite some of the weirdest hysteria imaginable the Flacco acquisition had no long-term downside for the Broncos, even after they restructured his deal (which was less about Flacco and more about years of poor cap management). Next offseason Flacco will be gone, and in 2020 it will be either Drew Lock or whomever they draft in Round 1 under center. Flacco

6c. And I’m not going to claim this GIF encapsulates the Flacco Era in Denver in any way, shape or form, but like many of the things Friend of the Show Rene tweets, I just think it really looks neat. I just love how Flacco is as blissfully unaware of Ben Banogu’s impending, terrifying arrival as we the viewer are (quarterbacks, they’re just like us!):

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7a. Deadspin did not bat 1.000 over the course of its existence (or, I guess since this is a football column, “post a 158.3 passer rating” is the more appropriate lazy metaphor). Setting aside what they’ve written about us over the years—some of it fair, some of it not so much—their journalism was exceptional more often than not, and the site as a whole consistently entertaining. Deadspin became one of the most important voices in sports journalism, unwilling to pull punches when it came to holding power accountable. Its death is a loss for journalism.

7b. Also, Jonathan Jones now works at CBS Sports, where I presume he will continue to be wonderful. In light of that, you may visit that site for one hour every week, and only to read JJ. Should you visit for more than an hour, you are banned from reading this column.

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8. I very much dislike these London morning games, which are bad for football, football teams, and football fans. I’m glad this is the last one of the 2019 season.

With that, I leave you with my favorite London-adjacent song.

Ladies and gentlemen . . . Talking Heads!

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