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A Very Garoppolo Sunday, the Sad (Almost) Reality of the Post-Brady Bucs

Also, why Rams-49ers could be a defensive slog, the mind-blowing Ja’Marr Chase, what Family Feud can teach us about NFL overtime rules, and more. Plus, musical guest: Neil Young!

1. If the past two weeks have taught NFL head coaches anything, it’s that we—you, me, media people, fans, you know, goobers with internet connections—will never let you live it down if you make a clock-management mistake.

Each head coach in the postseason will have made tens of thousand of decisions—most of them good—in order to get his team into that position. They’ll make hundreds more during a game. The vast majority of those decisions? We’re not qualified to make them ourselves in any capacity. (If I was the head coach of an NFL team, regardless of talent, we’d lose every game by 80 and I’d be heckled mercilessly by fans, players, and loved ones.)

But the clock management stuff is different. Most of us have played Madden. All of us understand basic arithmetic. So whether it was Mike McCarthy’s team botching an end-game situation, literally letting the final seconds of their season bleed away in a manner that suggests they don’t grasp the forward march of time (or, at least the human species’ shared perception of the forward march of time). Or Sean McDermott’s kicker blasting a kickoff into the end zone and failing to burn some of the precious final seconds or regulation that the Chiefs desperately needed. Those are the mistakes that will live in infamy and brand a coach forever.

Unless, like Andy Reid, you start winning Super Bowls. But the other three guys coaching this weekend can consider this a PSA.


2a. After two weeks of mild criticism over his substandard play, there’s never been a more appropriate time to mount an impassioned defense of Jimmy Garoppolo who—aside from being a starting NFL quarterback, having four-year earnings approximately equal to the island nation of Nauru’s annual GDP, and being impossibly handsome—just can’t catch a break.

The issue with Garoppolo’s play is two-fold: First, playing within structure he misses a little too often, and when he misses it tends to be high and wide, a disproportionate percentage of those misses in danger of becoming interceptions. Second, he struggles to make second reaction plays both because of slipshod mechanics on the move (the reason for the game-altering interception in Dallas two weeks ago) and just not being able to map the moving bodies later in the down, presumably because of a lack of reps in those scenarios (the reason for the red-zone interception in Green Bay last week).

But Garoppolo has brought the 49ers back a few times in recent years—especially notable because it’s a team that doesn’t trail in a lot of games. The 48–46 win over the Saints in December 2019 was the most impressive performance of his career, coming back from down 13 in the first half to win a shootout, throwing for 349 yards on 35 attempts with four touchdowns and a long catch-and-run to George Kittle to set up a game-winning field goal, all against a very good defense on the road. And, of course, he mounted a late drive to force overtime against the Rams in the regular-season finale, getting a lot of YAC help but also fitting in a couple tremendous throws.

On Sunday, the 49ers would like to be able to lean on the run game, and their passing game will once again be heavy on in-breaking routes and YAC opportunities. They, more than most teams, don’t want to have to rely on their quarterback to bring them back. But should that be the case, Garoppolo has done it, and he is, if only in the most literal sense, capable of doing it again.

2b. Trent Williams is the best player on the 49ers. If he doesn’t play, or is less than 100%, it hampers what the 49ers can do in the run game, and makes it a pick-your-poison proposition in pass protection, rather than being able to trust Williams one-on-one against Von Miller. So, in other words, a disaster.

2c. Though keep in mind that the 49ers’ front four—as they have in their two playoff games—scored an overwhelming victory over the Rams’ offensive line in the Week 18 matchup. There’s a chance this one turns into a slog, which the Niners wouldn’t mind.

3a. It’s the third round of the postseason, all these teams are really good, and the Bengals beat the Chiefs less than a month ago. That said, one week after watching (1) the K.C. offense, now with Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce moving at full speed again, take its final form, and (2) the Bengals fail to adjust against a well-schemed but not necessarily impenetrable Titans, it makes it difficult to project a reasonable path to victory for Cincinnati. There’s the Chiefs lose three downfield fumbles scenario (which we saw a few times early in the season), but other than that it will take Joe Burrow going shot-for-shot with Patrick Mahomes. That’s a possibility, but less so if Tyrann Mathieu (still in concussion protocol as of Saturday) is in the lineup.

When these teams met last time, it was Ja’Marr Chase torching the Chiefs with a couple of superheroic catch-and-run plays. He made a downfield catch essentially any time he was left in single-coverage. He caught 11 of his 12 targets for 266 yards and three touchdowns, including one of 72 yards and one of 69. The 72-yarder was an incredible run-after-catch. The other long one was against a Cover-2 look on a spectacularly blown coverage by safety Daniel Sorensen. Those things could happen again, but it seems highly unlikely Chase won’t frequently be bracketed, and even more unlikely Sorensen (or anyone for that matter) will execute a coverage as poorly as Sorensen did in that first matchup.

3b. Joe Burrow is spectacular, but Chase is otherworldly. Even last week in Nashville, when his numbers weren’t eye-popping, he had three incredible catch-and-runs, one of which led directly to a field goal and the two others put them in field-goal range before Burrow was sacked out of it. His ability to stay top speed when turning a corner is mind-blowing.

3c. With Larry Ogunjobi sidelined, this is also a chance for the Chiefs to flex those man-blocking scheme chops they’ve been building up and occasionally flashing this season. Unless D.J. Reader is just going to wreck the whole thing like he did against the Titans last week. Either way.

4. After a six-day, solutions-focused process that mostly involved staring into the middle distance while Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim lineup played in the background, the only way to have a truly fair overtime in the NFL postseason is by adding a fifth quarter, non–sudden death, that picks up where the fourth quarter left off (a la first-into-second or third-into-fourth quarters). Things like special teams and clock management (beyond end-game clock management) then come into play, as they should.

The problem with guaranteeing an equal number of possessions is that the team with the second possession has an advantage in that they know what they have to get, and know they’re playing four-down football if they have to (and the other team is forced to defend four-down football, exceedingly difficult against quality opponents in the modern NFL).

Ergo, the only way equal-number-of-possessions works is if you do it Family Feud Fast Money style, where during the opening possession the offensive/defensive units not on the field—and their respective playcallers—go into an isolated, sound-proof area for the entirety of that possession, then come out and play the second possession with all scoreboards turned off. I would be fully in favor of that, but only if they also broadcasted Steve Harvey making silly faces in reaction to every play.

5. If you were playing a word association game two years ago on this date, and the prompt was “the Tampa Bay Buccaneers organization,” you probably wouldn’t go with answers like “well-run,” or “efficient,” or even “above a baseline level of competency.”

As reports pop up that Tom Brady is indeed retiring and we wait until his social media team puts the finishing touches on the four-minute sizzle reel to announce it, we’ll skip the hypothetical-driven conversations about whether he really is the greatest football player of all time. (But what if he got drafted by the Browns instead of the Patriots? But what if the forward pass had been outlawed circa 2004? But what if professional football games were contested entirely underwater?) Instead, a look at the state of the team he’s (potentially) retiring from.

In 2019, the Bucs had hired self-proclaimed “quarterback whisperer” Bruce Arians in an attempt to salvage Jameis Winston. Winston went on to throw 30 interceptions as seemingly every one of his worst habits became amplified (specifically, a tendency to rifle passes into the chests of linebackers and defensive backs playing a robber technique). The Bucs started 3–7 before rolling off four straight wins over a succession of crumbums (Take that David Blough! Not today, Minshew-Foles dynamic duo! Jacoby Brissett throwing to Zach Pascal and four street free agents? We've got it handled!) before finishing 7–9.

The direct consequence of (potentially) losing Brady is that it leaves them with Blaine Gabbert, Kyle Trask (shoulda taken Davis Mills!) or rookie/free agent TBA as their quarterbacking options next season. But almost as crucial as his play on the field (not to mention his role as de factor co-offensive coordinator) was Brady’s role in getting the band together in 2020/keeping the band together for 2021, coaxing Rob Gronkowski out of retirement, Chris Godwin to accept a below-market one-year franchise tender, Shaq Barrett and Lavonte David to ink below-market deals, and—for better (from Brady’s perspective), then for worse—getting Antonio Brown into the fold.

As it stands right now: Godwin, Gronkowski, Ryan Jensen, Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, William Gholston and Carlton Davis are free agents, and Brown (presumably) isn’t coming back. For those players, as well as free agents from outside the organization, the Bucs are once again paying retail prices.

In 2020, with numerous key players opting out for the season, the Patriots fell to the middle of the pack without Brady. 2021’s wild-card, one-and-done postseason team was probably a better indicator of the state of that franchise. As for the Bucs? The NFC South is down—the Saints are going to slide back, the Panthers are still grasping for some kind of upward momentum, the Falcons are stuck in some in-between space after a year as the worst seven-win team in NFL history. A bad team can (and probably will) win this division in 2022. But the Bucs, post-Brady, are shaping up to be really bad. Bryce Young/C.J. Stroud sweepstakes bad.

6. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Neil Young!

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