1a. I believe in second chances. And third and fourth chances. Folks will argue that playing in the NFL is a privilege and not a right, but for some players it is their only marketable skill; taking it away indefinitely is draconian (not to mention, the kind of power Roger Goodell should not—and, legally, cannot—exercise). People change, especially in their 20s and 30s, and every one of them deserves a pathway to redemption.
However, the pathway must involve some baseline effort at rehabilitation. Right? A hint of contrition? Even just a show that he is making the slightest effort to maybe think about possibly making amends for his actions? With that in mind: Did Antonio Brown do that?
You could do some mental gymnastics and convince yourself he did the absolute bare minimum. There were some apologies—under a markedly different writing style than we usually get from him—posted on his social media accounts. He took cuts at a few softballs last winter and dispensed the type of reflexive, mealy-mouthed, non-specific apology I wouldn’t accept from my preschooler. And when it came to his abhorrent treatment of women, he played the victim card. I mean, this is an actual quote from February:
“I feel like I never really got in a conflict with no woman. I just feel like I’m a target so, anybody can come against me and say anything and I’m going to have to face it. There’s no support, there’s no egos, there’s no rules in it, anyone can come after me for anything. No proof or whatever. ‘He said, she’s saying.’ The media will run with it, so even if I’m not guilty, I already guilty because they already wrote it, put it on TV and put that in people minds. So for me to have to sit here and hear those the allegations of me is just unfair to me every time.”
Brown's mistreatment of women has been chronicled in police reports, sometimes on his own social media accounts and in the accounts of accusers. If he was referring to our source who, in September 2019, accused Brown of sexual misconduct, a quick refresher: She did not come to us—we found her. Her story and her background held up against exhaustive vetting by our team. And despite what you might have heard on sports radio or seen on social media from the kind of people who have yet to realize you can breathe through your nose, at no point did she ever give an indication that there was financial motivation.
Each of us are, in the simplest terms, the sum of our actions, and our actions are shaped by our circumstances. After spending the summer of 2019 researching Brown’s behavior, I write this with a fair amount of confidence: Superstardom on the football field shaped Antonio Brown, and not in a good way. It made him feel like others—viewed as being beneath his station as a star athlete—could be treated however he saw fit, without consequence. Brown was surrounded by the typical variety of toadies and stooges who encouraged that kind of behavior, but he has also been enabled by coaches and teammates as well. Tom Brady is now chief among them.
Over the past 13 months, Tom Brady has floated the notion that he and his football team’s culture is what Brown needs—apparently ignoring the fact that, while a teammate of Brady’s, Brown saw fit to send threatening texts to a credible accuser. For Brown, football isn’t the solution, it’s part of the problem.
This isn’t about rehabilitating Antonio Brown as a man, because he’s never shown even the slightest interest in being rehabilitated. (And if Brady is interested in helping troubled players, there are many who are more deserving than Brown.) No, this is the opposite of rehabilitation: It reinforces that as long as the greatest receiver of this generation is still in his prime, there are no consequences, especially when it comes to people who don’t have a role in winning football games. And Brady will always be there to fight those consequences—every single one—because there is no greater calling in life than maximizing your chance to win football games.
We can only hope we've arrived at the final act of this farce. It will further cement the legacy of Tom Brady the player as a guy who won a lot of football games. And it will further cement the legacy of Tom Brady the man as a guy who won a lot of football games.
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Whatever. Here’s some analysis of the week’s games and news interspersed with poop jokes…
2. Anyone with optic nerves that transmit images to their brain knows that the Steelers defense poses a stiff test for the Titans. But what’s even more worrisome for Tennessee is that this Steelers defense is almost custom-built to deal with their offense.
Pittsburgh has the best run defense in football by just about any metric, but I want to focus in on its defensive line Stuff Percentage (a league-leading 32% according to Football Outsiders) and the fact that Vince Williams—maybe the closest thing to a “weak link” in its defensive front—leads the NFL in tackles for loss (10) while T.J. Watt is tied for second (9) and even slot corner Mike Hilton (5) is top-20. The book on Derrick Henry is that, while he’s superhuman once he gets to the second level, he’s a mere mortal around and behind the line of scrimmage. The Steelers often don’t allow backs to get to the second level, and while I don’t like touting the vague notion of “physicality,” there’s no doubt that the Steelers’ cast of front-seven characters are capable of handling Henry. And, yes, Devin Bush is out, but so is Taylor Lewan, which means Bud Dupree will get to pick on Ty Sambrailo, for whom “functional strength” has been an issue throughout his career (I write while struggling to summon the strength to get off my couch and get more candy corn).
Play-action is the other staple of the Titans offense—one very much aided by the fact that linebackers often get sucked up more than they normally would because everyone is trying to get to Henry before he gets a head of steam. But playing behind-schedule is an issue for anyone’s play-action offense. The average second-down distance for Pittsburgh’s opponents this year has been 9.22 yards, which is a number that has no right existing outside a science-fiction short story about a dystopian future where footballs have been replaced by 600-pound anvils. If the Titans find themselves in a lot of second- or third-and-long, that play-action game becomes less effective. (And we haven’t mentioned the steady diet of Minkah Fitzpatrick in disguised robber coverages the Titans are likely to see.)
Look at what happened to Cleveland against the Steelers last week. The Browns’ system is loosely similar to Tennessee’s (zone running and play-action off it). But with the Steelers’ dominant run defense mitigating that play-action game, Cleveland was utterly doomed. And you could argue that the Browns are better than Tennessee at every offensive position—except quarterback.
And with that, I arrive at the core point of this meandering take. Ryan Tannehill might not be an MVP-type quarterback (yes, I’ve seen the stats). But since arriving in Nashville, he has been an exceptionally good system quarterback who’s an exceptionally good fit in an exceptionally good system. What he hasn’t been is a guy who’s going to make plays off-schedule and have a lot of success on third-and-long. So far this season, the Titans rank 26th in third-and-long (defined as 6-plus yards to gain) at 21.7%. They were 22nd (26.5%) after Tannehill took over as the starter last year.
Carson Wentz and Mayfield are the last two quarterbacks Pittsburgh faced. Wentz, for all the Josh Allen-esque mistakes he’ll make late in the down, also has the ability to create Josh Allen-esque magic. The Eagles went 5-for-7 on third-and-long in Pittsburgh, which is how they put up 29 points and hung around, and it's a big reason why the Steelers still rank near the bottom of the league in third-and-long defense (28th, at 38.9% allowed). Mayfield, on the other hand, hasn’t shown the ability to make out-of-structure plays this season, and didn’t do so in Pittsburgh, which is why that game was not competitive.
When Tannehill played in Miami, the later in the down it got, the worse off he was. In Tennessee, he’s rarely had to make plays out-of-structure. He’s a 57.0% passer on third-and-long since becoming the Titans starter, which is actually slightly lower than the mark he posted in Miami (57.4%). Sunday is shaping up to be a week where he’s going to have to make a handful of plays outside of the system. Whether or not he rises to the occasion will determine which of these teams stays undefeated.
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3. It seems the Dolphins had circled the bye week for promoting Tua Tagovailoa all along, but doing it now makes plenty of sense. The biggest deterrent to throwing a young quarterback into the fire is an offensive line that can’t protect him—Miami couldn’t do this a year ago. But their young offensive line has improved immensely, to the point that it’s league-average and trending up.
The other factor is that, as good as Ryan Fitzpatrick has been in 2020, they know it’s not going to last for 16 games. Because it’s never lasted for 16 games. Sometimes when you get on a hot streak at the craps table, you just have to walk away.
You likely already know Fitzpatrick’s origin story—no formal education, worked as a chimney sweep, radioactive squirrel bites him and he gains the power to ace the Wonderlic, Rams draft him, etc. etc. etc. He took the demotion as graciously as possible, and mentioned he might have made his final start, which might be true. But, while he’s 38 in November, he has for the most part maintained the physical traits he had when he entered the league. He can move an offense as well as any backup in football, and it seems he did just fine in the mentor role with Tua. Most likely, he bought himself at least one more chance to be someone’s bridge quarterback.
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4. Not sure why, but I’ve been thinking about this clip a lot this weekend:
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5. We’re all furrowing our brows in a vain attempt to understand the Bears’ 5–1 record. We know luck—the same kind of pure, stupid luck that shines on a team or two every season—has something to do with it, and the Vaudevillian nature of their opponents’ fourth-quarter gaffes draws the eye to late-game scenarios. But hey, the points in the first three quarters count the same as the ones in the fourth quarter.
If you really want to understand the one fluke constant with Chicago, look at its outlier defensive performance in the red zone. Red-zone performance on both sides of the ball tends to fluctuate wildly year to year, due to the small sample size and the unique nature of the tight field. To credit the Bears’ red-zone success to some kind of otherworldly situational football play, you’d also be arguing that the Ravens (fourth-worst red-zone defense in 2020) and Titans (third-worst) are bad situational defenses. Or that the Packers were a great situational defense last year (fourth-best red-zone defense) but, with the same staff and roster, forgot how to play situational defense this year (second-worst red-zone defense).
The Bears are allowing a league-leading 36.4% touchdown percentage—they allowed a TD rate over 50% each of the past two seasons, and were 48% or higher each of the last eight years. Only the Cardinals are allowing fewer points per red-zone trip (4.0). And since they’ve played 22 red-zone possessions, if Chicago’s 4.14 number were closer to the league-average (5.13), you’d be talking about a three-point increase in points-per-game allowed.
However, last week’s win in Carolina was at least a blueprint of how they should be expected to win games: They had constant pressure on Teddy Bridgewater, resulting in four sacks and three takeaways (though one was when Panthers RB Mike Davis forgot he was carrying a football in the open field).
The difference between the 2018 and ’19 Bears was takeaways. They led the league in ’18 (36) but fell to 22nd last season, as the number was almost halved (19). Part of that is luck. Part of it was a down year for Khalil Mack, who very much looks like his all-world self again in 2020. The takeaways weren’t coming during the 4-1 start—just five over those first five games—but pressure creates turnovers, and the pressure has been there this season. A multi-takeaway outing like the one in Charlotte shouldn’t be an outlier.
No matter how good your defense is, you’re walking a tightrope when your offense is this level of inept. However, the Bears could go 4–6 from here on out and still make the playoffs—a 5–5 finish would virtually guarantee postseason football. And once they’re in the tournament, with this defense and with a quarterback with a history of getting very hot in January, anything goes.
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6a. The funny thing about Yannick Ngakoue joining the Ravens is that Baltimore has consistently used overload, fire-zone blitzes to generate pressure in order to make up for the fact that they don’t have a truly dominant edge rusher. And now, in Ngakoue, they’re adding a dominant edge rusher. Though now that I read it I guess that’s not as funny as I originally thought.
Defensive coordinator Don Martindale (or, as many call him, "Mink" Martindale, due to his fondness for the semiaquatic, carnivorous animal) now has a chance to be a little more flexible in his approach. With Ngakoue capable of creating pressure independent of scheme, they could take an approach more along the lines of what the Steelers do: blitz-happy on early downs, four-man rush in front of coverage on third down.
6b. From the Vikings' perspective, clearly they thought they were going to make a run this year. That just isn’t the case as long as the NFL insists on setting the playoff field based on win-loss record. And considering the fact that they’re in cap heck the next two seasons, it didn’t make sense to commit to Ngakoue long-term—not only would they be paying a premium to Ngakoue, but they’d surely have to adjust Danielle Hunter’s below-market deal if they did. They didn’t get caught up in sunk-cost fallacy, so good on them.
6c. The move also suggests this might be fellow pending free agent Matt Judon’s last year in Baltimore. He’s a very good player, but probably a half-step below Ngakoue talent-wise (not to mention three years older). If Ngakoue works out—and there’s no reason to think he won’t—and gets a long-term deal, the Ravens can play their comp pick game when Judon signs elsewhere this offseason.
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7. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Pixies!
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