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Mailbag: Seriously, What’s the Deal With These Taunting Penalties?

Why did the NFL care so much about taunting, and has the league gone too far? Plus, where the Bills can improve, how the Panthers might address their QB position, how the Eagles could use three first-round picks and Jordan Love’s debut.

A little bit of a slower news week in the NFL. But that didn’t slow down the questions landing in the mailbag. Let’s dive in …


From IdinkNdrance416 (@IdinkNdrance): What’s with the NFL refs and their BS calls in MNF?

From Gary Robinson (@Shark34): Taunting. That's all I got. I can't even turn that into a question as I'm still speechless after MNF

Idink and Gary, thanks for asking—I don’t view the conversation about the emphasis on the taunting rules as binary. So I’ll unload a few thoughts here, as they relate to the costly flag Cassius Marsh drew in Pittsburgh on Monday night.

1) I actually understand the thought the coaches and competition committee had in putting the rules emphasis in place. There were a lot of on-field fights last year. The Saints and Bears tussled. The Saints and Buccaneers had repeated confrontations. The Rams and Giants threw hands. And I’m probably missing a few. The coaches were looking for a way to better turn the temperature down on these situations, and that’s where the discussion took place with the competition committee, which led to the conclusion that after loosening the celebration rules, the act of celebrating at an opponent was a big part of the problem.

2) I didn’t panic in September because I figured this would be one of those rules emphases where it’d take two or three weeks of games for the officials to work with the players and coaches to define where the line is. It’s November, and it’s a problem that there still seems to be some confusion over what’s O.K. and what’s not.

3) I wish they wouldn’t flag ticky-tack stuff like Marsh’s Karate Kid–mean-mug combo platter. But I’m also not going to make Marsh out to be a victim here. If you know you’re not supposed to be celebrating at someone else’s expense, I think it’s an easy assumption to make that walking over to, then staring down the opponent’s entire sideline, probably will put you and your team in position to draw a flag. I’d bet Matt Nagy tells his team that this week, too.

4) The NFL can never—ever, ever, ever—have the appearance out there that its officials are grinding axes in-game. And Tony Corrente’s hip check, which was followed by a late pulling of the flag, gave the appearance that things between the officials and the Bears had gotten personal. If integrity of the game is the most important thing, someone has to answer for that, and not just through league PR saying they found no wrongdoing in Corrente’s behavior. If a player has to face the music in a situation like that, an official should have to, too.

So that’s where I stand on all of that, and I would say, additionally, the Bears had more than a couple of crimes of discipline that weren’t forced by the officials (you could even lump Marsh in on that). It’s on them to fix that.

From craig maz (@CraigMaz1): For my Bills, what is the one area they could use a true difference-maker that would put them over the top?

Craig, I think the one place they could use a true difference-maker is in an area that’s going to be pretty much impossible to find one until the offseason (though it’s hard to find a difference-maker anywhere post-deadline), and tough even then—and that’s on the offensive line. Being without Jon Feliciano and rookie Spencer Brown was a problem against Jacksonville. The hope is both can return by the end of the month.

Is this bigger than a couple of guys being hurt? Maybe. But I’m also not sure the guys up front were done any favors from a game-plan standpoint on Sunday either.

The running game was mostly fine the first five weeks of the season. Since, it really hasn’t been. And part of it is that Buffalo’s just flat-out gotten away from it. In the three games in question (Titans, Dolphins, Jaguars), the Bills have 60 rushing attempts. Twenty-two of those have been Josh Allen himself carrying it. Take away a counter run to Isaiah McKenzie, in which the Bills motioned the receiver into the backfield, and that’s 37 carries over a three-game stretch to the backs in two incredibly close losses and a win.

I know it’s popular now to say running the ball doesn’t matter. That’s incorrect. It does matter. The Bills’ failure to create even a cursory threat on Sunday—they ran it 14 times against Jacksonville, and five of those carries were Allen’s—allowed the Jaguars’ pass-rushers to tee off, and it looked like that, combined with the line’s issues, conspired to lead Buffalo’s franchise quarterback to revert to playing playground ball.

Thing is, if the Bills can get the run game going behind Devin Singletary and Zack Moss, opponents simply can’t play them the way the Jaguars did, or the Steelers did in the opener. And then, you’ll get the Josh Allen that we’ve gotten over most of the last two year. Add that to a fast-improving defense, and there’s a good chance the Bills are in the Super Bowl.

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From Ray; @Blackbaud Community Manager (@BBRayRay1): Chargers running game—good enough with Austin Ekeler, or would they be better off drafting another back to compete with him?

Ray, I’m going to get this going with a quote.

“What I think that the running game does for a quarterback is it gives you some breathers. You don’t need a good running game to be a good play-action team, but what you need the running game for is the physical element of the game. There’s a physicality to the game that’s real, right? If you’re just a passing team, there’s a physical element to the game that the defense doesn’t have to respect. And that’s the truth. Because the data will tell you that you don’t need a run game to play pass. You don’t need that.

“But what the running game does for you, it brings a physical dimension to the football game. And what the running game does that the passing game does not is the running forces the defense to play blocks and to tackle. That happens on a run play. You must play blocks and you must tackle. In the passing game, those things don’t need to happen, right? You don’t have to play as many blocks. And you may not have to tackle based on incomplete or not.

“So what the running game does is it really challenges your physicality and that’s why I think the run game is important to a quarterback. It’s literally going to allow him to have more space to operate when you do throw the football.”

You may recognize that as the quote from Chargers coach Brandon Staley that went viral earlier this season.

Again, and this plays into the Bills question I just fielded, investing in the run game is investing in the quarterback. Anyone who’s ever taken a pass rush snap, all the way down to the high-school level, knows the difference in rushing the passer when you know the other team is throwing the ball. And knows the wear and tear the run game can put on a defense. And if Justin Herbert is in second-and-6 more often without having to work much for it on first down, there are fewer things the defense can throw at him.

So yes, the run game is important for the Chargers and Justin Herbert, just like it is for the Bills and Allen. Which brings us to the question you asked.

I love Ekeler as a player. But I think the reality with him is he’d be best off in a platoon out of the backfield. So I’d love to see him paired with another back that complements what he brings to the table. Maybe Justin Jackson can eventually stay healthy and get there. It’s also fun to think of the idea of Georgia’s Zamir White or Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III in Ekeler’s position group in 2022—especially given everything else the Chargers can do.

From Christoffer A. (@cvoersaa): It's obvious Justin Fields keeps improving week by week, by starting games. Can we be so lucky that it will convince a seemingly stubborn Kyle Shanahan to start Trey Lance?

Christoffer, Fields has gotten better, no question. But Fields was also in a different spot coming into the NFL. He’d played three years at the highest level of college football, the first as a spot player in the SEC, and the final two as the full-time starter for a national title contender. Over that time, he saw athletes, schemes and situations that were at least somewhat analogous to what he’d encounter in the NFL.

Lance’s situation was different. He was coming from an FCS program, and one that is more dominant at its level than Alabama is in FBS. He started a little more than half the number of games Fields did, rarely played from behind and rarely had to throw the ball very much. That’s not to say Lance wasn’t excellent. He was. It’s just that the volume of defenses, adverse situations (long yardage, playing from behind) and elite athletes he faced in college was a fraction of what Fields did.

That’s why I think the Niners are right not to force it with Lance. As we detailed back in August, Lance showed so much progress between the end of the offseason program and the start of camp—a period of about 40 days—that Kyle Shanahan and the Niners did open the door, just a crack, for Lance to try and take Jimmy Garoppolo’s job. Then, Lance leveled off, and his tape, both preseason and regular season, hasn’t yet justified playing him more.

I know it’s frustrating for fans. But I think Lance is in a good place now, and I do believe that Shanahan’s the right coach for him. He just had a little further to go than the other quarterbacks in his draft class.

Oct 31, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold (14) walks off the field against the Atlanta Falcons in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

From Keep Pounding BR (3-4) (@KeepPoundingBR): Where do the Panthers go with the QB position for next year? Any trade possibilities involving Sam Darnold, or are they eating the dead cap?

Keep Pounding, at this point I think they’ll be right back where they were last offseason. Remember, they didn’t just land on Darnold. They offered the eighth pick in the draft, a third-rounder and Teddy Bridgewater to the Lions for Matthew Stafford. They had discussions with Houston on making a Godfather offer for Deshaun Watson before his legal situation turned. They really liked Fields, too, and he was a serious consideration at No. 8.

In the end, my feeling is trading for Darnold served a few purposes. One, it gave the team a swing at getting the position right with a 24-year-old talented enough to go third in the draft just three years ago. Two, it gave the team the flexibility to bring in a cornerstone player at another position at No. 8 (and they believe Jaycee Horn is one). And three, at worst, they knew at the time that if Watson’s legal situation didn’t clear up, and they decided not to go with Fields, it at the very least would allow them to hit pause on their quarterback pursuit.

That last thing? That’s where we are. They’re dating Darnold. They didn’t marry him. Yes, the fully guaranteed $18.858 million option in his rookie contract they exercised for next year would make a breakup a little … uncomfortable. But we’ve seen teams in these sorts of positions before. The Eagles, for example, committed a ton of money to Sam Bradford just before trading up twice for Carson Wentz in 2016. The Bears opened the vault for Mike Glennon then moved up for Mitch Trubisky six weeks later in ’17.

Bottom line, it’s not an ideal situation, to be in financially for one quarterback and looking for another. But if the Panthers are out on Darnold at the end of this year, it shouldn’t stop them from making another move, be it for a veteran or someone in the draft, in 2022.

From Not who you think I am (@DonRidenour): Kingsbury for Coach of the Year??

Don! I’d say right now it’s between Kliff Kingsbury and his former Patriots teammate Mike Vrabel. Both guys have a really strong case for the award.

With Kingsbury, I think you saw the strength of the operation he’s built in big road wins in Cleveland and San Francisco. The latter came without Kingsbury himself on the sideline. The former came without Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins. In both cases, you saw an area that Kingsbury emphasized this offseason—growing the maturity of the team—show up in a very big way. Kliff’s proving a lot of people wrong through two months.

As for Vrabel, I’m not sure there’s a team in the league with a more well-defined identity than his. The Titans have flipped the defense over a couple offseasons to one with a fearsome front and an improving secondary, and the offense might be the NFL’s most physically imposing, even without Derrick Henry. And the way Vrabel has his team playing, the Titans have effectively been able to turn most of their games into street fights, and Tennessee isn’t going to lose many of those.

I think it’s close enough now between those two to where I’d consider splitting my vote, with Ravens coach John Harbaugh right there (mostly for how his team has managed injuries, and morphed into one that’s dangerous coming from behind), and Patriots coach Bill Belichick lurking, should New England continue to ascend.

From Richard Wright (@bigtimejazzfan): Is [Aaron] Rodgers going to get punished? If so how?

Well, Richard, by now, you’ve seen that he has been punished. He was fined $14,650, as was receiver Allen Lazard, which is the prescribed amount for unvaccinated players committing mask violations. And the team was docked $300,000.

Now, I know some felt like the league should come down harder on the players and the team. Why didn’t that happen? I’ve at least wondered if part of that is that the league is complicit in this case—the lion’s share of the violations occurred with Rodgers going maskless to press conferences, and that press conference video wasn’t hard to find. In fact, it’s not that hard to find other instances of unvaccinated guys going maskless at pressers.

Somewhere along the line, enforcement on this simply slipped, and that was evidenced by a number of teams calling the league last week to admit they’d allowed guys to go to the podium without a mask when they shouldn’t have, too. Those teams were given a warning not to let it happen again. And I think that’s why, in the league’s findings that were released on Tuesday night, you saw an emphasis on the Halloween party, and a simple mention that everyone acknowledged the press conference violations.

In the end, this case was pretty much as high-profile as it’s gotten with COVID-19 violations. But Rodgers and the Packers were treated largely the same way other players and teams that got busted have been—with fines, and not suspensions or draft pick sanctions, serving as the punishment for first offenses.

From Brett (@HartHitmanmma): Are the Eagles going to use all three of their first-round picks on players in the draft coming up or they going all in on a franchise QB such as Russell Wilson?

Brett, I think where they go with the three first-round picks—the Colts’ pick is creeping closer and closer to being locked in as a first-rounder—is going to tell you where they think they are right now. And making that decision is going to require Howie Roseman, Nick Sirianni and everyone in football ops being very honest with themselves.

Could you look at the team at a few critical positions and come up with a scenario where they could be in contention with a few tweaks, and a few young players coming along? Sure you could. The problem, I think, is that a relatively large number of the team’s core players (Lane Johnson, Brandon Brooks, Jason Kelce, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Darius Slay) are on the wrong side of 30, and that group has felt its age with injuries cropping up.

To me, that makes going all in on a veteran quarterback pretty risky, because if you sell off a ton of draft capital to get a Russell Wilson, and the bottom falls out on that aging group, you’re left in a really tough spot. Acquiring a Watson would be a little different because he’s younger, but the premise stands—like building a house without a foundation.

That would leave the idea of either investing in a young quarterback or giving Jalen Hurts another year. And with the draft class looking pretty shaky at the position, it might make the most sense for the Eagles to take another swing with Hurts, and spend the three first-rounders getting younger in key spots, and creating a better long-term situation for whoever the long-term quarterback winds up being, whether it’s Hurts or someone else.


From Moose Block (@moose_block): Will the Saints stick with Trevor Siemian at QB or will we see Taysom Hill making some starts under center?

Moose, I think this one’s going to be a platoon from here on out. The Saints need to be more creative about generating big plays on offense, and threatening defenses, with Alvin Kamara and an average cast around the quarterback. So Hill’s value to the team, as I see it, is greater now as a gadget player than it would be as a quarterback, and Siemian’s a capable game-manager type that can be a chain-mover.

It’s not ideal, of course. But we’ve seen Sean Payton pull the Saints out of a lot of fires over the years. The bigger question at quarterback will remain after the year, that’s now a given. For now, I’d trust that Payton can keep the team in contention with what he’s got.

From Tom Marshall (@aredzonauk): Has Arthur Smith finally found the key to unlocking Cordarrelle Patterson's various talents?

Tom, I think you can give Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels some credit here, for being the first one with the vision and the stomach to try playing a guy with a number in the 80s in the backfield, and do it in a way where he was calling some plays for Patterson the way he would for a tailback, rather than just viewing him as a gimmicky kind of scatback.

That said, Smith has certainly taken it to another level. And I love how he explained it to me over the weekend, giving credit to his assistants Dave Ragone and Charles London, who were with Patterson on the Bears, and to GM Terry Fontenot.

“We had a vision,” Smith said. “Dave Ragone and Charles London were with him last year in Chicago, and they really pitched [GM] Terry [Fontenot] and I on the idea of it. And so it was a good team effort. We got a real football staff here, Albert. We don't have any of the professional politicians that most teams have. We work together—they brought it up and then Terry and his staff did a great job and got him here. And that's a good team effort.

“But we had a vision for him, and we started working that when he got here, moving him around, and it's paid off.”

And it did, of course, in a huge way on Sunday.

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From Matt Ramas (@matt_ramas): Bad debut for Jordan Love, giving Aaron Rodgers even more leverage. Will the Packers find a way to keep #12 after this season?

Matt, I think the Packers had an idea on how this was going to go—they really didn’t feel like Jordan Love was ready going into OTAs or training camp, which is why they had him drinking from a fire hose from a reps standpoint. And he made progress, but Sunday showed, again, just how far he had to go when he entered the league 18 months ago.

Now, looking at one side of the coin here, lots of quarterbacks have looked bad in their first starts. On the other, you’d like to have seen something you could hang your hat Sunday, and we didn’t see that.

So what effect does this have on the Rodgers saga? To me, it’s pretty simple. The Packers don’t have the escape hatch they’d like to have here. And that puts them in a spot where I think they have to continue to carefully manage their relationship with Rodgers, as they have for most of this calendar year. Of course, the best way to recruit him back would probably to be to accomplish the goal everyone their shares: to win the Super Bowl.

If you check our staff midseason predictions, you’ll see I’m sticking my preseason call, and have the Packers doing just that. Which is to say I wouldn’t totally rule out Rodgers being a Packer in 2022. 

More NFL Coverage:

Midseason Roundtable: Surprises, Story Lines, Super Bowl Predictions
MMQB: Lamar Jackson Is Proving He Can Come From Behind
Jordan Love’s Starting Debut Was a Lose-Lose Day for the Packers
Week 9 Takeaways: The Real Browns Stand Up

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