This isn’t an easy one for me to write. During the offseason, after seven diligent years on the Jaguars’ bandwagon, I hopped off, errantly assuming that the team was packing itself in a cardboard box and shipping itself to Trevor Lawrence’s doorstep.
General manager Dave Caldwell tried to warn us last week, telling Pro Football Talk, “Before we decide where we are or where we stand, let us play some games, and let’s see where we are. And let’s see where these young guys are. I know the 53 players in this locker room are excited to be here.”
It is true that tanking in his position would make little sense. It would be difficult to convince a tenured GM or head coach like Doug Marrone, almost certainly at risk of a regime change if the season turns sour, to lose out so that a new head coach can inherit the best quarterback prospect of the decade and a pocket full of valuable picks and cap space to boot.
But what’s more lovable is the fact that Jacksonville decided to go out their own way. On Sunday, they started an undrafted free agent rookie running back in a season opener, making them the first team in NFL history to do so. James Robinson gained 62 yards on 16 carries. They did so because they released Leonard Founette, the type of player some GMs might hang on to until the end of time in an attempt to legitimize the pick. Andrew Wingard, an undrafted free agent out of Wyoming in 2019, sealed the game with an interception. C.J. Henderson, the cornerback drafted to overcome the team’s massive exodus at the position, handled T.Y. Hilton and logged an interception of his own. Laviska Shenault Jr., the team’s second-round pick, caught three of four targets and scored a touchdown.
Gardner Minshew, who most of us wrote off as a meme that erroneously passed in and out of our lives last season, completed 19 of 20 passes for 173 yards and three touchdowns.
And so it goes. Those of us who gave up our seats on the bandwagon were left watching a spartan version of the team we perpetually picked as the trendy choice to reach the playoffs show up and mow down the Philip Rivers and the Colts—probably the trendiest pick to reach the playoffs in 2020. A series of camera shots—Wingard celebrating the pick; a dancing woman in the stands donning a cheetah COVID mask and denim shorts; and a smiling Minshew, content in knowing that everyone who wrote him off would have to write a terrible column like this—was so perfectly Jacksonville.
It was wild and uninhibited. It was somewhat anonymous and beautiful.
Congratulations to those who remained steadfast on the bandwagon. It looks like a hell of a ride …
Here’s what else we’ve already been proven very wrong about …
Say what you will about the validity of the offseason competition, of who the front office wanted to win the battle between Trubisky and Nick Foles, of the middling nature of their opponent on Sunday or of what happened in Chicago’s past.
If you’re a person like Trubisky, who clearly wavered in his own confidence enough that the team had to bring in legitimate competition, making it back into the starting lineup, posting three touchdowns in the season opener and sticking a gorgeous game-winner to Anthony Miller in tight coverage is no small feat.
It’s strange that, despite his plummet from medium-upside player to high draft pick who may not get re-signed by the team that selected him, Trubisky always maintained the ability to complete a few perfect throws a week. The belief, perhaps, was that if Chicago could continue to design something friendly enough to work him into games, that the best of Trubisky would carry through.
While we will not make too much out of one week, or declare Trubisky back, one has to wonder: If they could get a version of this throughout the season, ranging from replacement level to what we saw in Week 1, what might the Bears do with the following stretch of games:
Giants (horrendous secondary), Falcons (just gave up 322 yards and a near perfect QB rating in the season opener against the Seahawks) and Colts (just surrendered a 95% completion rate and three touchdowns to Gardner Minshew).
Ron Rivera and the Washington Football Team
I think there is a difference between another coach having this pass rush and Ron Rivera having this pass rush. Washington was fighting on one leg throughout most of Sunday’s game, with their dizzying pass rush combination being the only aspect of the game plan that was making a noticeable dent. A few quarters later, that snowballed into an eight-sack, two-interception knockout of Carson Wentz and a handful of functional (enough) drives by Dwayne Haskins to pull a win together.
While it’s difficult to give Daniel Snyder credit for anything, it would seem that recognizing the pure state of dysfunction the organization sat in and hiring Rivera to correct said dysfunction was a good idea. This team will not be good in 2020, but they will be difficult to play against because of Rivera.
That is more than we might have thought coming out of the gate.
The Browns’ rebirth (again)
I had Cleveland as a team barely missing the playoffs at 9-7 in my preseason record predictions. Everything about this roster on paper makes sense, and yet Sunday’s throttling in Baltimore may have been as disheartening a new head coach opener as they’ve seen in the last decade. (And they’ve had their share of new coaches.)
Baker Mayfield’s time to throw averaged three seconds per dropback, which was 0.12 per dropback higher than last season. While some of that is to be expected given that Cleveland is a firm believer in play-action, and that some types of play-action may prolong the life of the play pre-throw, I expected that number to be a lot lower.
Anecdotally, it looked like Mayfield was much more committed to the design of the offense. Last year, it was shocking that his time to throw was not much slower given that on every down he was faced with both the prospect of a bad offensive line and tremendously long routes that took too much time to develop. On Sunday the ball was mostly out on whichever step drop the play called for. He looked more confident, however his expected completion percentage (-7.6) was among the worst for an NFL quarterback on Sunday.