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Week 3 Preview: Let’s Fix the Taunting Rule Debacle

Also, the Bucs’ newfound first-down success, Kenny Golladay causes his own problem, DeMeco Ryans putting his twist on 49ers elite D, Brissett fever, the season’s meekest playcall and more. Plus, musical guest: The Mountain Goats!

1a. It’s every coach’s worst nightmare*: Player A accuses Player B of being smelly. The next thing you know, Player B retaliates by gouging out Player A’s eyes and exploding one of his testicles.

I truly understand the motivation behind the early-season crackdown on taunting. It’s less “think about the children” and more trying to avoid a calibrated needling that will draw a flag-worthy retaliation. Or sparking the cheapshot and/or the brawl. But the problem—as is the problem with most personal fouls—is that the consequences are disproportionate, and the flags ultimately reward a team that did nothing to actually earn it.

Football has evolved more than any other over the past half century, the administration of penalties hasn’t moved to reflect it. Penalties that happen during play are often the result of a player outperforming an opponent (an offensive lineman holds because the pass rusher beat him, a defensive back interferes with a pass-catcher because he’s beat on the play, etc.). And they almost always provide some kind of advantage for the offending team (a blitzer crosses into a neutral zone and gains a step on a blocker, an illegal man downfield fools the defense into thinking an RPO was actually a run play, etc.). There’s even an advantage to a violation like roughing the passer, in that you’re giving the opposing quarterback something to think about as the game goes on. But personal fouls after the play, including taunting, don’t have any affect on the play that just transpired, or provide any advantage going forward, and the punishments are absurdly severe.

The problem is a continuing insistence that the first-down marker can’t be moved, as if it was written in the Dead Sea Scrolls and can never be altered. Last season, there were an average of 43 first downs per game. To give a free one, or to push an offense so far back that one becomes out of reach, is a disproportionate consequence for any penalty, especially one as silly to administrate as a “taunt.”

So let’s fix this in a way that will please everyone the world over. The most obvious adjustment is to make taunting a 5-yard penalty, rather than pretending it will, say, take A.J. Brown years of intensive therapy to heal the psychological scars left by the time a defensive back signaled incomplete while looking in his general direction.

But, also—and more importantly—move the sticks. Instead of awarding a first down to an offense because one of their players was subjected to a mild taunt, give them five yards of field position but move the first-down marker five yards with it. So if they were set up with a third-and-4 from their own 21, move them up to the 26, but move the line to gain from the 25 to the 30, keeping it a third-and-4 situation. Occasionally it will be the difference between field-goal range and not, but usually it won’t be. And that’s enough justice to soothe a world-class athlete’s not-very-hurt feelings.

Plus, don’t discount the fact that the offending party must forever live with the immeasurable shame of knowing he once spun a football within an eight-yard radius of an opponent.

1b. The other solution is to go back to not calling it because it wasn’t a problem in the first place.

*—Or so I gather after a run of press conferences this week defending the crackdown on taunting

2a. The beauty of the Bucs, last December, abandoning an archaic playbook in favor of an offense that works is mostly the fact that they now have an offense that works, unlike the on they were operating the last time they faced the Rams. And once the coaching staff relented and handed the offense over to Tom Brady, it cleared a path for a more forward-thinking approach with play-calling, which you’re seeing now.

Last season Tampa had one of the worst first-down offenses in football, a predictable slog of an approach that left them 30th in first-down efficiency (measured by percentage of first-down gains of four or more yards, 43.1%) and forcing them to frequently play from behind the sticks. This season, the Bucs are putting the ball in Brady’s supple, pliable hands on first down. They’ve thrown on 62.0% of their first-down plays this season, the fourth-highest rate in the league (especially high considering they’ve played with a lead for the majority of the first two games). With the updated approach, they’re top-10 in first-down efficiency (four-plus yards on 54.2% of their first-down plays).

2b. However, Sunday afternoon against the Rams might not be a bad time to turn it back over to a run-heavy first-down approach. First, there’s the fact that Antonio Brown is out and Jalen Ramsey will be largely neutralizing Mike Evans, allowing the Rams to devote an additional defender to Chris Godwin. Second, the Rams prepare for opponents’ tendencies as well as anyone (for instance, see “Russell Wilson, the de-pantsing of,” from last November). They are aware the Bucs are throwing at an almost 2-to-1 ratio on first downs through two weeks.

The Rams have looked susceptible against the run through two weeks—if not for the Colts’ Vaudeville theatrical production every time they got into a goal-to-go situation last week (seven points total on three trips inside the Rams’ 5), L.A. might not have escaped Indy with a win.

3a. Much like the world will get a proper introduction Matthew Stafford this season now that he’s not playing in a 1:00 regional game 15 times over the course of the year, people will also take notice of Kenny Golladay now that the league’s premiere contested-catch artist plays for the Giants. And Golladay would do well to take notice of the fact that people will now take notice of him.

Golladay’s sideline… let’s call it a mild paroxysm of frustration directed toward offensive coordinator Jason Garrett… on Thursday Night Football wasn’t a big deal. Except for the fact that it (1) happened in the vicinity of Daniel Jones on a night when the quarterback was tremendous, (2) happened during one of the worst games of Golladay’s career, (3) happened during an absurd loss that dropped the Giants to 0–2, and (4) happened to be caught on camera.

Because of those factors, Golladay had to address it with the press on Monday, and will now have cameras trained on him, trying to detect the smallest bit of drama, for the next few weeks at least. And none of that is a big deal but it’s a pretty miserable part of his existence now, and could have been avoided with a touch of restraint.

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3b. Golladay got eight targets, seven catchable, in that loss in Washington, he just didn’t do enough with them to justify force-feeding him. Garrett is sprinkling in some nice moments this season. The offense still seems like it’s 60-something separate playcalls building to nothing in particular, but if you squint you can find reason for optimism. However, the final Giants possession did a lot to spoil any good feelings.

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Golladay’s mild tirade came well before Garrett handed to Saquon Barkley on second-and-9 in field-goal range trailing by two with two minutes left. That moment signaled a decision to play for a field goal plus a two-minute drill stop instead of going for a first down that would have essentially clinched the game, and came on a night that looked like a potential breakthrough-to-stardom game for Jones. We’re only two weeks in, but so far that was the most soul-crushingly meek playcall of the season, an absolute game-losing decision that would have warranted anyone and everyone on the sideline screaming at the offensive coordinator.

3c. I wholeheartedly endorse “Most Soul-Crushingly Meek Playcall of the Season Brought to You By Applebee’s” as a new addition to NFL Honors.

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4. DeMeco Ryans has had a pretty neat first two weeks in his first season at the 49ers’ defensive coordinator. In Week 1, he went with a more conservative approach in Detroit in a game that the 49ers controlled throughout (even if an early turnover and a late turnover made things a little more interesting than they should have been). Then in Week 2, going against Jalen Hurts seven days after the quarterback had set Dean Pees’s defense ablaze in Atlanta, Ryans turned to a variety of blitzes. It not only ramped up the pressure with the extra rushers, but in the process created a series of 1-on-1 matchups for his all-world defensive line, and unleashed the full power of Fred Warner, both as a blitzer himself, and as a linebacker who can, say, come across the formation and carry an inside receiver up the seam on a slot blitz. It worked beautifully, even though any team trotting out Josh Norman for 50-plus snaps in a game can’t feel terribly confident that they have the man corners to hold up with that strategy.

Ryans is basically putting his twist on the foundation Robert Saleh set over the last couple seasons—just as Saleh’s approach evolved and became more diversified over his four seasons as defensive coordinator, culminating in an admirable performance by a unit being held together by scotch tape a year ago.

As they prepare for the Packers on Sunday, Ryans now has a number of potential approaches at his disposal. On a Thursday night last November Rodgers had his way with a short-handed 49ers D (which, at that point, was being complemented by a Nick Mullens–led offense). But in 2019, when the Niners were at full strength, Levi’s Stadium was Rodgers’s casual denim trousers–branded house of horrors. In this season’s opener, the Saints used a four-man pass rush to short-circuit Rodgers’s bootlegs. The 49ers did similarly in 2019 and, back at full strength, are capable of doing so again. But if Rodgers, Matt LaFleur and Nathaniel Hackett have prepared answers, Ryans can change things up on them in a way not many defenses can.

5. I write this realizing I might be literally the only person outside of Jacoby Brissett’s immediate family who feels this way, but: I am both excited and intrigued to see Brissett get an extended look for the Dolphins.

Three things about Brissett’s first stint as a starter, during the 2019 season in Indy: (1) He was promoted due to Andrew Luck’s unexpected late-preseason retirement, (2) He was solid overall in the first half of that season, a little slow as a processor but sprinkling in a few spectacular plays along the way (time has forgotten that those Colts were 5–2 before a knee injury to the quarterback), (3) His collapse—not coincidentally—coincided with his knee injury and then a rash of injuries to the receiving corps that left him throwing to Zach Pascal and a group of practice-squad players, along with the defensive backfield going through a rough patch on the other side of the ball.

The Dolphins’ offensive line has regressed—sharply—through two weeks, a huge issue considering Tua Tagovailoa’s already shaky pocket presence and struggles under pressure through a season-plus. On Sunday, the Dolphins will face a Raiders defense that has thrived through two weeks thanks to their edge rushers overwhelming crummy offensive tackles, and they’ll likely do something similar to the Dolphins. It will be a challenge for Brissett to operate as well, but his superior physical traits at least give him a chance to survive. And Gus Bradley’s defense doesn’t figure to throw anything particularly exotic at Brissett, which at least gives the Dolphins’ offensive brain trust of co-OCs George Godsey and Eric Studesville and QBs coach Charlie Frye a chance to draw up a highly schemed offense that can find the holes in Vegas’s defense.

6. One last note regarding the 2021 Jacksonville Jaguars, and then I promise I’ll drop it for at least the next 12 hours: Andy Dalton, Matt Ryan, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck all started as rookies and made the playoffs for teams that won four or fewer games the previous season. Dalton, Ryan and Griffin were all, objectively, lesser prospects than Trevor Lawrence. The Colts roster that Luck joined in 2012 was not only atrocious but was adjusting to a completely revamped scheme on the defensive side of the ball and doing it with their best player, Dwight Freeney, limited by injury and ill-suited for the scheme.

There’s a long way to go, but two games into the 2021 season the Jaguars somehow look worse than last year’s edition, despite a free-agent shopping spree, pouring more money than the GDP of Macau into infrastructure in order to appease Urban Meyer, and upgrading from Minshew/Glennon/Luton to the best quarterback prospect of the past decade. I really can’t think of a more stunning development at this point of the season.

7. Ladies and gentlemen . . . The Mountain Goats!

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