NFL Mock Draft: Picks 1-10

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

It’s the most wonderful time of the sports year. March Madness is in full swing, MLB’s Opening Day is right around the corner, in case you couldn’t tell, and NFL Draft season is finally upon us. This article will focus on the latter proposition.

In this post, we’ll take a look at picks one through ten. There has already been one trade within these ranks, and in this article, we’ll raise the possibility of another hypothetical one.

So without any further ado, here is a first look at the top ten picks of next month’s NFL Draft.

1. Cleveland Browns

Josh Allen (QB/Wyoming)

Measurables are a surefire way to get NFL teams to salivate over your talent.

Want a guy who’s 6’5″, 230 pounds and can throw the ball 80 yards on the fly? Josh Allen’s your man. Allen has all of the arm talent of the league’s best quarterbacks and easily has the biggest upside of any signal-caller in this draft. But now that we have that out of the way, let’s get to the negatives.

Against two Power 5 opponents last season (Iowa and Oregon) Allen was less than impressive. He went 33-of-64 for 238 yards and three interceptions in those two games, and he only completed 56% of his passes last season. He is talented enough to make any throw on the field, but he also makes some horrendous decisions and misses some easy throws.

Now, of course, we need to acknowledge the changes the Browns have made in both their front office structure and roster in the past few weeks and months. The team has added quarterback Tyrod Taylor, wide receiver Jarvis Landry, cornerback Demetrious Randall, and wide receiver Brandon Coleman. Cleveland’s new general manager, John Dorsey, seems to have a clue as to what he’s doing, and that’s already an improvement over most previous Browns’ front offices. Fans of the team — who, at this point, probably feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick a football — are rightfully getting excited over a unit that still shouldn’t be good enough to compete for a playoff spot.

If the team takes Allen here, he likely would not be Cleveland’s Week One starter. That honor would belong to Taylor, a perfectly fine and competent NFL quarterback that the Buffalo Bills decided to bench for Nathan Peterman in November of last season. Taylor will protect the football and give the Browns mobility out of the pocket, and he’ll be far better than anyone Cleveland trotted out at quarterback last season. Allen doesn’t look like he’s ready to play next season, and the Browns, as crazy as this sounds, have the best personnel (head coach Hue Jackson, offensive coordinator Todd Haley, and Taylor) for him to learn from.

An NFL team will talk itself into Josh Allen early in the first round of the draft, even though he’s only the third or fourth-best quarterback available at the top spot. If Dorsey decides that Allen is the Browns’ quarterback of the future, he may very well pull a Lucy on the entire city of Cleveland.

And Browns fans might let out a collective “oh, good grief” in response.

2. New York Giants

Saquon Barkley (RB/Penn State)

Saquon Barkley is a once-in-a-generation talent.

He rushed for 1,000 yards in three straight seasons at Penn State, and that is hardly the only upside he brings to the table. He is a running back with shiftiness the likes of which we have not seen in some time, and he also has strength to boot; he weighed in at the Combine at 233 pounds and did 29 reps on the bench press. He also ran a 4.4 40-yard-dash and had two kick return touchdowns last year.

The guy has it all. He’ll run you over. He’ll jump over you. Sometimes, he’ll do both on the same play. He also has enough speed to run around you.

The Giants were the most disappointing team in the league last season. A year that started with high hopes and championship aspirations quickly turned into a 3-13 season and the #2 overall pick. While the team should start seriously thinking about replacing quarterback Eli Manning, their priority here should be to get the best player available.

And with Barkley, he’s not just the best player available. He could be the best running back we’ve seen in several years.

When I watch Barkley play, he reminds me equally of Eric Dickerson and Marshall Faulk. He’s that good. Here’s to hoping the Giants make the right choice if Barkley is available with the second pick.

3. New York Jets (from Indianapolis Colts)

Josh Rosen (QB/UCLA)

Josh Rosen is the best quarterback in this year’s draft class. He’s also not for the faint of heart.

To be clear, his off-field distractions have nothing to do with the legal sort. He hasn’t been arrested and many of his extracurricular troubles are of the inane, albeit concerning, kind. Rosen’s greatest hits at UCLA include wearing a “F— Trump” hat on one of the President’s golf courses, taking multiple shots at the NCAA, and, my personal favorite, putting a hot tub in his freshman dorm. Of course, these things are, in the grand scheme of things, not that important and, in the case of the hot tub, legitimately hilarious. However, to be the face of a franchise, you need to bring as few distractions along with you as possible.

Several teams are looking for a franchise quarterback in this draft. And gee, what team is most likely to inherit a total circus in the largest media market in the country? That’s right, it’s the New York Jets!

The J-E-T-E, Jets thought they had their quarterback with Geno Smith, just four years after thinking they had their guy in Mark Sanchez. The Jets’ history is a Sistine Chapel of awful draft picks, perhaps none more glistening than their 1997 draft, when they traded out of the first overall pick — which later became Hall of Famer Orlando Pace — then traded down the board again and out of the sixth pick, which the Seahawks used to select future Hall of Famer Walter Jones. In the span of six picks, the team fumbled their way out of two of the best offensive linemen in history and stumbled into James Farrior, who left the team after five seasons and played most of his career with the Steelers. And the mastermind behind all of that was none other than Bill Parcells!

Anyway, Rosen is the best quarterback available at three and could go a long way towards fixing the Jets’ quarterback issues. He, like Allen, can make any throw on the field and has decision-making concerns, but Rosen is far more accurate than Allen and can be plugged into the starting lineup for Week One. The Jets could also take Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield if Rosen gets taken before their pick here. More on Mayfield later.

For now, the Jets look to fix their years-long quarterback nightmare, but they’ll have to take a hot tub and some distractions with them if they do.

4. Cleveland Browns

Minkah Fitzpatrick (CB/S/Alabama)

In the eyes of many, Minkah Fitzpatrick is the best defensive player available in this year’s draft. He’s also one of the safest choices this early on.

He has a very high football IQ, which is most easily translatable in his ball skills as a safety at Alabama (he nabbed six interceptions last season) and is a very versatile defender as well. The Browns, provided they take Fitzpatrick, can plug him in as a safety, slot corner, or even an undersized linebacker in certain situations.

In my view, the Browns could use more help at corner than at safety, as the team drafted Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers last season and acquired Randall from the Packers two weeks ago to cover the other safety spot. Fitzpatrick is a rock-solid defender who would likely be able to get immediate playing time for a defense that surrendered the second-most points in the league last season.

Another option for the Browns with this pick would be an offensive lineman, likely Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson, to shore up their offensive line after the retirement of Joe Thomas. However, Fitzpatrick is the best player available with the fourth pick, and my bet is that Dorsey, the general manager of a team that still has a lot of needs, will simply grab the most talented player available and take his chances.

5. Buffalo Bills (from Denver Broncos) NOTE: This trade is simply a proposal; it hasn’t actually happened and the Broncos are still the owners of the fifth pick as of now.

Baker Mayfield (QB/Oklahoma)

A trade involving the Broncos at five makes sense; the team signed Case Keenum, mainly based on 14 starts last season, to an $18 million deal earlier in the offseason and no longer need a quarterback, unless they want to be the Chicago Bears and pay Keenum that money to back up an unproven rookie. Therefore, we pivot to a team that does need a quarterback: the Buffalo Bills.

Enter Baker Mayfield.

The 2017 Heisman Trophy winner was penciled in as my number-three quarterback before the NFL Combine, and his impressive performance there coupled with Sam Darnold’s confusing and perplexing decision not to throw at that venue bumped him up to number two. The problem here, though, is that many are ragging on Mayfield for only being 6’1″, and while those concerns are valid, they also completely discount the existences of Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Fran Tarkenton, and Johnny Unitas, all of whom either are or were shorter than Mayfield and still had wildly successful careers. Mayfield should not be compared to those men, but he can definitely succeed in the NFL.

Beyond his success in college, he is an accurate passer who has improved his deep ball tremendously and is also mobile enough to extend plays with his feet. He has several flaws (poor feel for the rush in the pocket, suspect footwork) but he can work through those and be successful in the NFL. And even though Mayfield brings his own baggage (most significantly, a DUI last February) he looks better and better the more you watch him on tape.

The Buffalo Bills signed A.J. McCarron earlier in the offseason but are still in the market for a quarterback. Making a splash move up to the fifth spot in the draft will get them the second-best one in this year’s rookie class.

6. Indianapolis Colts (from New York Jets)

Bradley Chubb (DE/NC State)

The Indianapolis Colts did a very smart thing by trading the third overall pick to the Jets. Chubb is the top defensive end coming out of college this year and could be a game-changer for one of the league’s worst defenses a season ago. With the team likely getting Andrew Luck back off his shoulder injury, the Colts should look to improve their defense. Because they don’t need a quarterback, Indianapolis could afford to trade down in the draft and get several later-round picks to draft more talented defensive prospects. The Jets, who do need a quarterback, were willing to surrender these picks in the name of getting one, and the Colts should look to use them on an ailing defense. Chubb, who may have been taken by Indy with the third pick, anyway, can make an immediate difference for Indianapolis.

He posted the highest vertical jump among defensive ends at the Combine (36 inches) and at 6’4″ and 270 pounds, he is someone the Colts could plug into their starting lineup immediately. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the only team that got fewer sacks than the Colts did last season and the team’s pass rush was the weakest link on a defense that ranked 30th in points allowed.  In that regard, Chubb can make an impact from day one, as he put up back-to-back seasons with ten sacks his last two years at NC State.

Bradley Chubb is a top-five player in the NFL Draft and if he is still available with the sixth pick, the Colts would be foolish to go in another direction.

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Denzel Ward (CB/Ohio State)

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a truly horrendous defense last season.

The team’s defense was last in the league in total yards, passing yards, and yards per play. Things went south quickly for the Buccaneers in 2017, as they finished 5-11 after a 2-1 start. The offense still has plenty of talent; while Doug Martin left to sign with the Raiders, Tampa Bay still has Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, and tight end Cameron Brate. Where they truly need help is on defense.

Denzel Ward can help the Buccaneers improve on that side of the ball. Ward led all corners at the combine in 40-yard-dash time (4.32), vertical jump (39.0 inches), and broad jump (136 inches). While he is just 5’10” and naturally gives ground to taller receivers, his athleticism and talent make up for his challenges in stature.

While Ward may not be enough to salvage the Buccaneers’ defense, he will help a secondary unit that gets the pleasure of facing Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Cam Newton twice a year. He’s the top cornerback coming out of college, and he’ll look to do what Marshon Lattimore did coming out of Ohio State in 2017; win Defensive Rookie of the Year and greatly improve a previously horrific defense.

8. Chicago Bears

Quenton Nelson (G/Notre Dame)

The Bears have a new head coach.

Matt Nagy comes over after serving as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator for the past two seasons. The Bears, under his leadership, may have something going for next season; the team has signed wide receivers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel from the Jaguars and Falcons, respectively, and will hope for improvement in quarterback Mitchell Trubisky’s second season. However, the team lost guard Josh Sitton to the Dolphins in free agency and should look to protect Trubisky at all costs.

The way they can do that is by taking Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson, the best offensive lineman on the board, with the eighth overall pick.

Nelson stands at 6’5″ and 325 pounds, and his athleticism should make him ready to start as soon as the season begins. Nelson played guard on the left side of Notre Dame’s offensive line last season alongside Mike McGlinchey, and the Irish had arguably the best offensive line in the country because of that combination. The Bears have made some questionable decisions under GM Ryan Pace, but they are having an objectively good offseason. They signed Robinson, Gabriel, backup quarterback Chase Daniel, and even the guy who threw the touchdown on “Philly Special”. I bet you had to look up who that was.

But anyway, Nelson is tied for the second-highest grade on’s draft tracker; he sits behind only Saquon Barkley in that category. Nelson is another safe bet for a team looking to contend in a talented NFC North next season.

He’s the best fit for the Bears, and they should look to scoop him up with the eighth pick.

9. San Francisco 49ers

Calvin Ridley (WR/Alabama)

The 49ers have found (and secured) their quarterback of the future.

After trading a second-round pick to the Patriots for Jimmy Garoppolo and going 5-0 with him as their starter, the team inked Jimmy G to a five-year, $137.5 million deal that, at the time, made him the highest-paid player in the NFL. After a 1-10 start, the team finished the year with six wins and will look to build around Garoppolo to compete for a playoff spot in the very near future.

Adding a wide receiver like Calvin Ridley would be a big boost to the Niners’ offense. Ridley is the only receiver in this draft class with the complete combination of speed, route-running ability, and hands. I actually like the upside of receivers such as Oklahoma State’s James Washington or SMU’s Courtland Sutton more than Ridley’s, but the Alabama product is the safest choice out of this year’s wide receiver class.

He would add to a receiving core whose best receiver, as of the moment, is Marquise Goodwin. Ridley would become a solid second receiver opposite Goodwin’s speed on the outside. The 49ers have their franchise quarterback, but they need to surround him with talent at the skill positions in order for them to have sustainable success on offense.

10. Oakland Raiders

Roquan Smith (LB/Georgia)

This one just feels right.

Roquan Smith is the best linebacker in the 2018 Draft, and a gap of about three-and-a-half-miles separates him from the number-two choice. Smith’s tape doesn’t “pop”; it explodes. He’s an athletic linebacker with a nose for the play, as he’s often involved in pass coverage or making a tackle. He won the Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker this past season and ranked in the top ten in the country in total tackles. Smith has it all; his one weakness is that he is undersized (6’1″, 236) but he compensates for that with elite effort and tremendous discipline.

The Raiders, who were one of the worst defenses in the league a season ago, could use a little of both.

Smith is versatile; he could help the Raiders, under new (old?) head coach Jon Gruden, in pass coverage and in the run game. He’s a slightly underrated prospect; I have him in the top five and he should be taken by a team in the top ten next month. The way things look right now, that team is the Oakland Raiders.

Smith would be a tremendous help for a team looking to jump back into contention in the AFC West. He’s also one of the best players in this year’s draft, and he would be an absolute steal for the Raiders at ten.

Going the Distance: Super Bowl Preview

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The Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots met in Super Bowl XXXIX on February 6, 2005. The game was quietly one of the better Super Bowls of all time; the Patriots won 24-21, but the Eagles kept the game close throughout and likely would have won had it not been for four turnovers, three of which were committed by quarterback Donovan McNabb. The Eagles also got 122 yards from Terrell Owens, who played that game with two screws and a metal plate in his ankle and deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Anyway, the two teams meet in the big game again, two days short of thirteen years later.

The stakes are as follows. If the Patriots win, they will seal their sixth Super Bowl championship and tie the Steelers for the most Super Bowl victories in NFL history. Tom Brady’s sixth ring will add to his already-ridiculous résumé as the greatest quarterback the sport has ever seen, and Bill Belichick will add his sixth championship as an NFL head coach and eighth as a head coach or an assistant.

If the Eagles win, it will be their first Super Bowl victory in three appearances (1980, 2004); Philadelphia is one of thirteen NFL teams without a Super Bowl victory. The win would be head coach Doug Pederson’s first as an assistant or head coach in the league; Pederson won a Super Bowl ring as a backup quarterback for the Packers in 1996. Philadelphia would also be the eighth team to win a Super Bowl with a different quarterback than the one they had at the start of the season, as Nick Foles took over for MVP candidate Carson Wentz in Week 14. The odds are undoubtedly stacked against Philadelphia, but their pole-climbing, dog-mask-toting fans wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Patriots are a five-point favorite for tomorrow’s game, and many experts are picking them to win. But should they be? Let’s look at a few keys to this one for both sides.

RPO Sightings

The Eagles have been deadly with run-pass options this season, and they carved up the Minnesota Vikings with them in the NFC Championship Game two weeks ago.

Quarterback Nick Foles (who, mind you, is a backup) cooked Minnesota for 352 yards and three touchdowns while completing nearly 80% of his passes. Run-pass options were a large part of his success. Why is this important, other than because the Eagles have run more run-pass options than any other team in the league this season? It’s important because they’re playing the Patriots, a team that didn’t do well against RPOs in the AFC title game.

Here is a clip, compiled by Pro Football Focus’ Mike Renner, of the Jaguars deploying the same run-pass option four different times against the Patriots in the first half of the AFC Championship game. On all four occasions, the Jags were successful:

Of course, games are not won in the first half, and the Patriots can deploy man-to-man coverage to combat the success of the RPO. However, the Eagles will look to capitalize on short passes like the Jaguars did two weeks ago, as Blake Bortles completed 18 of his 27 passes of 15 yards or fewer for 211 yards against New England in the AFC title game. What was particularly interesting about that was that Bortles was 10-13 for 102 yards when throwing short and to the right side of the field. Foles was 9-10 for 74 yards against the Vikings on the same types of throws, but was a perfect five-for-five for 42 yards when throwing short and over the middle, usually in the form of a slant route to a wide receiver (Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith) or an angle route to tight end Zach Ertz.

This is a matchup the Eagles can exploit if Foles is accurate like he has been in the team’s first two playoff games. He’ll need to continue to play at a high level, but the Eagles can make some noise in the RPO game.

Tom vs. Time vs. the Eagles D-Line

Another thing the Eagles must do if they want to pull the upset is pressure Tom Brady.

In the Patriots’ two Super Bowl losses to the Giants, Tom Brady was sacked a combined seven times. In the team’s five Super Bowl wins, Brady has been sacked ten times in total. The point is simple: if you give Brady time to settle into the pocket and survey the defense, he will destroy you. The Panthers found that out in Super Bowl XXXVIII. So did the Eagles the next year, the Seahawks three years ago, and the Falcons in the second half of last year’s Super Bowl. The formula for beating the Patriots involves making Brady uncomfortable.

The Eagles are facing an uphill task in that regard.

Philadelphia sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan three times in the divisional round but only got one sack on Case Keenum in the NFC title game. Philly did force Keenum into a pick-six at the hands of pressure and a strip-sack in the second quarter, but situational pressure won’t suffice against the Patriots’ offense. Pass rushers like Fletcher Cox, Derek Barnett, Brandon Graham, Timmy Jernigan, Vinny Curry, and many others will need to force the ball out of Brady’s hands quickly. If they don’t, the Eagles will have a hard time tomorrow night.

Brady has been given an average of about 2.7 seconds to throw this season. The Eagles can’t allow him any more time than that, and it will be interesting to see how aggressive defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is early in the game with his blitz packages.

There are two ways the rest of the Eagles can help their pass rushers. The first is by performing well in coverage; the Eagles are middle of the pack in the league in passing yards allowed and may need to settle for containing the Patriots’ offense if they hope to win this game. The other, more realistic way the Eagles can stop Tom Brady is by sustaining drives and time of possession, something Philadelphia knows a thing or two about.

The Eagles lead the league in total time of possession this season and have out-possessed their opponents in their two playoff victories. The best way to stop the Patriots’ offense is to keep it off the field, and if the Eagles can maintain possession for 35-40 minutes in this one, they may very well be on their way to a victory. This may be the Eagles’ best chance at containing the Patriots’ offense, one that only gets better and sharper as the game progresses.

How to Stop Gronk

This is the other clear problem the Eagles are facing in this one. Rob Gronkowski is a matchup nightmare for anyone, and the news that he is playing in the Super Bowl will come as a disappointing formality for a defense that is already scrambling for answers. The Eagles will have to be especially on-guard for Gronk’s exploits down the field and in the red zone, which means that safeties Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins will likely have to provide over-the-top coverage on the Patriots’ all-world tight end. This opens up one-on-one opportunities underneath for the likes of Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan, and Philadelphia cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby will need to play blanket coverage to ensure that Amendola and Hogan don’t get theirs, which is a daunting proposition.

Another option for the Eagles would be to play zone, but against a quarterback who operates on defenses like a surgeon, this probably isn’t a sustainable option.

The Play of Nick Foles

This is probably the area Eagles fans would least like to talk about, but Nick Foles is still a backup quarterback who, despite back-to-back excellent performances, is somewhat unproven.

While the Eagles have done a masterful job building their schemes to ensure that Foles would not be asked to do too much, he will need to play to the level he has been performing at if the Eagles want to win their first Super Bowl. There are reasons to believe he can pull it off, though.

Foles was 4-6 in the NFC Championship Game on passes of 20 yards or more downfield. When he was afforded time to throw last week, he made the most of his opportunities. The Patriots, though, have gotten eleven sacks in their two playoff games and will be sending extra rushers at Foles to make sure he doesn’t get in a rhythm in the pocket.

That being said, much of the Eagles’ offense is predicated around the run-pass option, and because many of the passing elements of those plays are screens and slant routes, Foles should have no problem getting the ball out of his hands quickly. While the Patriots may take away the downfield shots from Philadelphia’s game, they are a defense that is speed-deficient and finished 30th in the league in passing yards allowed, ahead of only the Giants and Buccaneers. Not good.

Because of this lack of speed, the Eagles’ running backs could also run loose in this one. The Jaguars rushed for over 100 yards on New England last week, and if the Patriots are overly cognizant of the pass, the Eagles’ troika of Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount (a former Patriot), and rookie Corey Clement could gash the Patriots. New England’s is a defense that has bent without breaking all season long, but with the various weapons the Eagles have on the outside and in the running game, the Pats’ defense could be in for a long night in Minneapolis.

The Pick

I’ve thought about this one considerably for the past two weeks. And while the Patriots are favored (and rightfully so), they face many matchup problems, particularly on their defense, that make me lean towards the Eagles here. Of course, if Nick Foles reverts to the Foles of December, one who completed just 54% of his passes for only five yards per attempt, then the Patriots will win easily. But I don’t see that Foles reappearing in the Super Bowl, mainly because of the outstanding work of Doug Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich, and the Eagles’ coaching staff of utilizing the team’s weapons at the skill positions and making the demands on Foles slightly easier.

While it’s hard to fathom picking Nick Foles to defeat Tom Brady and even harder to wrap your head around taking Doug Pederson over Bill Belichick, that’s what I’m doing here.

Eagles 28, Patriots 23

We’ve Seen These NFL Playoffs Before

Brad Rempel/USA Today

Heading into the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, there were eight teams alive and they could have easily been broken up into two groups of four.

The first group would comprise the teams with great quarterbacks; this group includes the Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, and New Orleans Saints. Four of the top six quarterbacks in passing yards over the last five seasons come from these teams, and if you believe that quarterback play is the most important factor in deciding playoff games, then you would have thought that these teams would win and move on to their respective conference title games (none of these four teams played each other).

The other group consists of the Philadelphia Eagles, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Minnesota Vikings. These teams are playing less-heralded signal-callers, and all of them ranked in the top half of the league in total defense this year. The Vikings, though, were the only team to get legitimately excellent play from their quarterback position, as unlikely starter Case Keenum finished second in the league in QBR this year (71.3); that figure comes in first among all quarterbacks who have started in the playoffs this season (bet you didn’t predict that going into the season).

Speaking of “bet you didn’t predict that”, guess which group is sending three of its teams to the AFC and NFC Championship games? If you went with the one with the great quarterbacks, you would be awarded no points, and may God have mercy on your soul. If you went with the latter group, however, you would be correct. The second group’s success this weekend is also part of a larger trend this season, one that tells us that you don’t need elite quarterback play to be successful, whether that is in October or January.

Consider this: out of the top ten passers in the league this season, only one (Tom Brady) is still alive in the playoffs. However, out of the top four defenses in the league in 2017, three of them are still alive (the Denver Broncos are the only top-four defense to miss the playoffs). Brady led the league in passing this season with 4,577 yards, a figure that would have put him in fourth in the same category last season and wouldn’t have even landed him in the top five in 2015. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, prior to mangling his knee in Week 14 against the Rams, led the NFL in QBR at 74.4. Similarly, that figure would come in sixth in 2016 and fourth in 2015. The theme is simple enough; quarterback play has gone downhill this season.

But, in addition to quarterback play, the NFL’s offenses have generally declined in 2017 as opposed to the past four years. This year, every team combined to score 11,110 points, for an average of just under 22 points per game. Both figures are the lowest in this decade and both figures are most similar to the 2002 season, one that ended with quarterback Brad Johnson and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeat quarterback Rich Gannon and the Oakland Raiders. You may know where I’m going with this.

That season, Johnson finished just 17th in the league in passing but came in third in passer rating, then the most sophisticated statistic for evaluating quarterback play. Tampa Bay also had the league’s best scoring defense and are still the most recent team to concede less than 200 total points in a season. The team that had the best scoring defense in the league in 2017? The Minnesota Vikings. And their quarterback, Case Keenum, is eerily similar to Johnson:

Player Season YDS/G TD INT Passer Rating
Case Keenum 2017 236.5 22 7 98.3
Brad Johnson 2002 234.5 22 6 92.9

For what it’s worth, I nearly fell to the floor when I figured this out. And, if you’ll recall, the Buccaneers beat the Eagles in the NFC Championship game that season. And the week before that, the Eagles beat the sixth-seeded, wait for it, Atlanta Falcons, while the second-seeded Buccaneers beat the fourth-seeded San Francisco 49ers. The Vikings were the two seed in this year’s NFL playoffs and beat the fourth-seeded Saints yesterday in one of the most shocking finishes in the history of the sport. I’m not saying that the Vikings are necessarily going to win the Super Bowl, but the precedent is there.

If you also look at the final four teams in the ’02 postseason and their quarterbacks, there are similarities abound to this year’s proceedings:

  • Tennessee Titans
    • Quarterback: Steve McNair; a mobile quarterback with a turnover problem (comparison: Blake Bortles. NOTE: please know that McNair is one of my favorite quarterbacks ever, and though I hate to make this comparison, their numbers are very similar)
  • Philadelphia Eagles
    • Quarterback: Donovan McNabb; a quarterback played just ten games but managed the game effectively when he did play; also had the second-ranked scoring defense in the league (comparison: Nick Foles; another comparison I’m not wild about, but it sort of fits)
  • Oakland Raiders
    • Quarterback: Rich Gannon; a 38-year-old gunslinger who led the league in passing that season and took home MVP honors when it was over; spearheaded the league’s second-ranked scoring offense (comparison: Tom Brady)
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers
    • Quarterback: Brad Johnson; a journeyman starter who played for three different teams before winning his first Super Bowl; Johnson ranked near the top of the league in efficiency and managed the game well enough to allow his defense to carry the team (comparison: Case Keenum)

The Patriots currently own the league’s second-best scoring offense, just like the Raiders did. This has gotten very bizarre in a very short period of time.

The precedent is there. It sounds crazy, and part of it probably is, but we’ve seen this before in the NFL playoffs. Of course, all of this would have been for naught had the Saints not completely blown their coverage in the last ten seconds of yesterday’s game, but they did, and we have one of the most fascinating final fours in the recent history of the NFL because of it.

Of course, there are marked differences between 2002 and 2017. If you want the most stark and noticeable difference, remember that 2002 was the only year in this millennium that the Browns made the playoffs. The Jets were also in the playoffs that season and beat the living daylights out of Peyton Manning. Neither of those things are happening this year, but there is a lesson to be learned here; expect the unexpected. And the unexpected is what we’ve gotten in this year’s NFL playoffs.

Upon further examination, the final four teams in the NFL playoffs all bear comparisons to teams of yesteryear. Thanks to a miraculous finish, we can see this legitimate resemblance, and if the Vikings beat the Patriots in this year’s Super Bowl, you can thank me later.

The NFL’s Concussion Protocol Is a Joke, Episode 57,219

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Pop quiz time!

If you see a football player take a big hit to the head and neck area, how do you react? Does your opinion of the situation change when you see the said player try to jog to the sidelines and instead stumble to the ground? What about when replays show the player wincing and shaking his head in what would appear to be an attempt to shake off the hit? What do you do?

All of those things happened to Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on Sunday. What the Panthers did (or more importantly, didn’t do) is the problem with this entire situation.

Newton took a shot to the helmet in yesterday’s game against the Saints, one New Orleans would later win by a score of 31-26. After the game, when questioned by reporters about his current condition, Newton (who, it should be added, wore sunglasses to his postgame presser) said that the injury was to his eye and not his head. This is actually a very plausible argument; Newton says that when he was smashed to the ground by Saints defensive end David Onyemata, his helmet dropped down into his eyelid and caused the injury. That explanation could very well be truthful.

It also completely misses the point.

Earlier this season, the NFL revamped its concussion protocol after Texans quarterback Tom Savage took a massive hit to the turf in a Week 14 game against the 49ers. Savage was seen lying on the ground with his hands shaking shortly thereafter, but after a brief sideline “evaluation”, he was allowed to return to the game. After his first series back in the game, however, Savage went to the locker room and did not return to the contest.

After this happened, the language of the NFL’s concussion protocol was changed and the league announced in late December that it would require a locker room evaluation for “all players demonstrating gross or sustained vertical instability (e.g., stumbling or falling to the ground when trying to stand).” That is what happened to Newton when he tried to half-trot to the sideline and instead ended up on the ground.

How the league handles this situation will be very telling. In November, the NFL fined the Seahawks $100,000 for failing to properly deal with a potential concussion to quarterback Russell Wilson. That happened because as the team was unfurling the league-mandated blue medical tent around him, he literally grabbed his helmet and came back into the game. So you can’t dispute that he was in the tent for two seconds, but you also can’t dispute that he could not have possibly gotten a real concussion test when he went there. In response, the league fined Seattle $100,000. The problem with that equation is that the Seahawks are owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, a man whose net worth exceeds $20 billion. A $100,000 fine affects Allen and his franchise the same way buying a Whopper at Burger King affects the average person’s finances, which is to say that it has very little influence.

Think about it this way: without Cam Newton, the Panthers would have been forced to ride out the rest of the game with Derek Anderson at quarterback. Anderson is not a bad option to have, but he is by no means on the level of Newton. Therefore, if the punishment you are facing is a $100,000 fine and you have a chance to win a playoff game, you probably want your franchise quarterback behind center at all costs. And chances are you won’t be too worried about his mental status as long as he is good enough to play and can tell you how many of these three fingers you’re holding up. Because if the Panthers win that game and go on a run to the Super Bowl, the $100,000 fine would have been, unfortunately, more than worth it in the big picture.

The NFL just saw its overhauled concussion protocol fail miserably on one of the biggest stages of the sport. Maybe the league should think about imposing serious penalties towards teams that violate it instead of arbitrary slaps on the wrist for this serious and, for the player, potentially life-altering offense.

But then again, that would require the league taking care of its players. Let’s not act like it does.

The Bengals Have Signed Up for Two More Years of Being Just Okay

Nick Wass/Associated Press

The Cincinnati Bengals just completed their second-straight nine-loss season, are losing their defensive coordinator, and haven’t won a playoff game since eleven days before the beginning of Operation Desert Storm; worse off, they won that game against a team that doesn’t exist anymore. So naturally, they extended their head coach’s contract.

Yesterday, it was announced that the Bengals had extended head coach Marvin Lewis for another two years. Lewis has coached the Bengals for the past fifteen seasons and is one of the most respected coaches in the NFL. Lewis ended the Bengals’ playoff drought in 2005 and is easily the winningest head coach in Cincinnati’s history with 125 victories. He has won four AFC North titles in his time with the Bengals and may be the best coach the franchise has ever had.

But with all of that being said, Lewis has never won a playoff game in seven attempts and, despite being the most successful coach the Bengals have ever had, is just thirteen games over .500 in his head coaching career. Lewis is, unfortunately, the dictionary definition of mediocrity. But let’s look at just how mediocre Lewis has been and what the Bengals have just gotten (or kept) themselves into.

Lewis is tied for 23rd in NFL history for the number of games he has coached (240). Of the 23 men either tied or ahead of him on that list, only three (Weeb Eubank, John Fox and someone you can find behind coach seven and ahead of coach nine) have a lower career winning percentage than Lewis. And no, that wasn’t a joke: Jeff Fisher has coached the eighth-most games of any coach in NFL history, which is a metaphor in and of itself. But of those four coaches, Fox, Eubank, and Fisher all went to the Super Bowl at least once, and Eubank won a championship with the 1968 Jets. Those three also combined for 17 playoff wins while Lewis is still sitting on zero. Even worse, four of Lewis’ seven playoff losses have come at home, which is a problem when you recall that home teams have won nearly 65 percent of NFL playoff games since 2000. But somehow, Lewis has found new and unique ways to lose each time his team has made the postseason.

If you want to know just how bad Lewis-coached teams have been in January, here is the full list of coaches who have gone winless in the playoffs in a minimum of seven games:

  1. Marvin Lewis

If it seems like we’re trying too hard to dunk on Lewis’ entire career and accomplishments, that could be deemed a fair assessment. Lewis does deserve immense credit for bringing the Bengals back from complete oblivion after the team lost over 70 percent of its games in the ten years prior to his arrival. He restored instant credibility to a team that desperately needed it, and that should not go unnoticed when fully evaluating the job he has done.

That being said, the Bengals are not a playoff-caliber team at the present moment. Their quarterback, Andy Dalton, finished between Jay Cutler and Eli Manning this season in Total Quarterback Rating (which is to say, near the bottom of the list). Dalton is not a very good quarterback, and he will count for nearly $17 million against the team’s cap each year for the next three seasons. The Bengals need to make a decision on whether or not Dalton, 30, will be the team’s franchise quarterback in the not-too-distant future. The problem, though, is that with the exception of his injury-shortened 2015 season, Dalton has never been much more than an average quarterback, and the Bengals, as currently constituted, cannot be considered serious championship contenders with Dalton playing at a league-average level.

That is another reason why I would have suggested moving on from Lewis. Lewis is a fundamentally defensive-minded coach (he led the Ravens’ defense to a championship in 2000) but he has only had one top-ten offense in the last ten years as the Bengals’ head man. There is no shortage of great offensive assistants in the NFL today (Josh McDaniels, Pat Shurmur, Matt LaFleur, and others), and the Bengals would have every chance to get their hands on one before the end of the coaching carousel. For example, why not try to pursue LaFleur, who was Matt Ryan’s quarterback coach in 2016 and who currently serves as the offensive coordinator for the league’s highest-scoring offense? If he could improve Matt Ryan and at least partially fix Jared Goff in the span of two seasons, why couldn’t he do the same for Dalton?

And speaking of carousels, Dalton had two offensive coordinators this season. Ken Zampese was fired after the first two games because his offense scored a combined nine points against the Texans and Ravens. The offense improved under new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, but even then it only averaged 20 points per game. Even if the offense’s average output under Lazor was applied to every game, the Bengals still would have ranked just 20th in points scored and 31st in total yards.

But, as you probably assumed, Lazor signed a contract extension alongside Lewis yesterday.

Even worse, the Bengals’ defense, which is its perceived strength, is losing its defensive coordinator, Paul Guenther. While the defense finished 18th last season, Guenther has worked for the Bengals in some capacity for the past thirteen seasons, and while the defense has suffered since he took it over for current Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, the only assistant the Bengals have lost to this point may be the one they need the most.

Keep one more thing in mind: while you may look at the Bengals’ 7-9 record this season as a sign that they really aren’t that bad, remember that they get two games per year against the Cleveland Browns. That automatically inflates their record and makes an otherwise bad season look slightly better.

The Cincinnati Bengals decided to keep Marvin Lewis as their head coach because they felt that they had no better alternatives. As it turns out, they probably aren’t looking hard enough for that someone who can lead the team into the future. Frankly, the decision Cincinnati made yesterday was perfectly fine, as long as they plan on maxing out at eight wins for the next two seasons.

Are the Browns the Worst NFL Team Ever?

Jason Miller/Getty Images

You may be aware of this, but the Cleveland Browns are very bad at football.

On Sunday, Cleveland’s 16th loss of the season, one that came at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers, clinched the team’s place in NFL infamy as just the third team in the Super Bowl era to go winless in a full season and just the second to do so over the course of 16 games. Ironically, Sunday’s tilt was one of the Browns’ better performances this season, and Cleveland had a legitimate chance to win given that none of the Steelers’ three best players (Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown) were playing.

The Browns had the ball with under two minutes to go at the Steelers’ 27-yard line on a fourth-and-two. Quarterback DeShone Kizer rolled out of the pocket and found a wide-open Corey Coleman near the sideline. Coleman, in the most appropriate ending imaginable, literally dropped the ball and let the Browns’ best chance at a 2017 win slip right through his hands. This ending to the Browns’ inglorious season is even more perfect when you consider the series of events that led to Coleman being in a position to throw away the Browns’ last chance at a victory:

  • April 21, 2016: the Browns trade the second-overall pick and a conditional fifth-round pick to the Eagles in exchange for a first-round, third-round, and fourth-round pick in that year’s draft. Philadelphia uses the second pick to select Carson Wentz, who was well on his way to being this year’s NFL MVP had he not been injured in Week 14 against the Rams.
  • Draft night, 2016: the Browns trade their first-round pick (8th overall) and a sixth-round pick to Tennessee for the Titans’ first-round pick (15th overall), a third-round selection, and Tennessee’s 2017 second-round pick. With the 8th pick, the Titans select Michigan State offensive lineman Jack Conklin, and Conklin is selected as a first-team All-Pro offensive lineman at the end of the 2016 season. With the 15th pick, Cleveland takes Corey Coleman, who has played 20 games in the last two seasons and currently has 718 career receiving yards.
  • However, because the Browns drafted Coleman, they had one too many wide receivers in training camp. To combat this problem, they decided to waive Taylor Gabriel. The Falcons picked him up shortly thereafter, and you may remember Gabriel for completely dusting Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler before all hell broke loose in Super Bowl LI.

All of this, of course, happened before Executive VP of Football Operations Sashi Brown was mercifully axed on December 7 after nearly two years on the job. We could devote another four or five full posts to his front office’s incompetence, but just know that they were driven by analytics (or something) and had no idea what they were doing or why they were doing it, which partially explains why they traded out of first-round picks that other teams used to draft Carson Wentz, Jack Conklin, and DeShaun Watson in the span of two years. Even worse, Brown was hired to run the front office by Paul DePodesta, the team’s “chief strategy officer”. So yes, the Browns owe their current incompetence to the guy Jonah Hill’s character in Moneyball was based on. I don’t know if that’s bad, but I don’t think it’s good.

With all of this being said, however, the Browns are not, in terms of talent or statistics, the worst team in NFL history. That title still belongs to the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The 1976 Buccaneers were a brand-spanking-new expansion franchise coached by former USC legend John McKay. And by all accounts, McKay was less than thrilled in his new situation; this is a real quote he gave to Sports Illustrated about the difference between coaching in college and the NFL:

I don’t know what this pro football mystique is. I’ve gone to the pro camps. They throw the ball, they catch the ball. Many of them are ex-USC players. I’m not amazed at what they do. I’ve watched the pros play. They run traps, they pitch the ball, they sweep. What else is there?

What ensued in the 1976 season would not surprise you; the Buccaneers lost every game en route to an 0-14 record, becoming the first team in the Super Bowl era to pull off that feat. The team still holds the record for the worst point differential in NFL history (-287) and was shut out in six of its 14 games. Additionally, the Bucs lost each game by an average of nearly 21 points; this was before the era of high-flying offenses and consistently good quarterback play. Speaking of quarterbacks, Tampa Bay was spearheaded that season by former Heisman Trophy winner and future NFL and college head coach Steve Spurrier.

But the Buccaneers were an expansion team that was expected to be terrible. Tampa Bay followed the franchise arc you would expect from an expansion team; they didn’t get their first win until the penultimate week of the 1977 season, but by 1979, they were in the playoffs. McKay and his zany persona left Tampa Bay after 1984, but he made two more playoff appearances before leaving the job. The Buccaneers knew what was ahead of them and, in some ways, made the best of their situation. The same cannot be said about the Browns.

The Browns were terrible for the sake of being terrible. Their front office had no plan for success and they also had the talent-evaluating abilities of most of their fans. They had multiple chances to fix their quarterback situation over the past two seasons; instead of doing so, the best answers they came up with were DeShone Kizer, Kevin Hogan, Cody Kessler, Brock Osweiler, and Robert Griffin III. If those are your “answers”, don’t even show me the question.

You could make a case for the 2008 Detroit Lions as the worst team in the history of the NFL, and that would make sense. They had a worse point differential than this year’s Browns and had one more double-digit loss than Cleveland did this season. However, Detroit started three different quarterbacks that season, and not by choice, as starting signal-caller Jon Kitna was placed on IR just five games into the season. The next week, backup QB Dan Orlovsky started for the Lions and gave us one of the dumbest and funniest plays in the history of sports when he ran out of the back of the end zone in a game against the Vikings. In case you were wondering, the final score in that game was 12-10 in favor of Minnesota, which means that Orlovsky forgetting any and all concept of location was the difference in that game.

When the Lions figured out that Orlovsky was not up to the task of being an NFL starting quarterback, the team signed former Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper. Culpepper, despite having Calvin Johnson in Detroit, was not the same player he was in Minnesota, and he injured his shoulder in Week 14, forcing the guy who forgot where he was to start the last three games of the year. Shockingly, the Lions won none of the games started by Culpepper or Orlovsky. The year before, Kitna started every game and the team went 7-9. No one could have foreseen Detroit being that bad, and part of their futility was due to circumstances beyond their control. While none of this excuses the fact that they went an entire season without winning a game, it does at least somewhat explain why it happened.

The Browns’ explanation for their lack of success is simple: their roster was mostly devoid of talent and lacked leadership at quarterback. After Sunday’s loss, coach Hue Jackson boldly declared that no one else could have done the job he did, which is further proof that some jokes write themselves. Before the season, Jackson also said he would jump in Lake Erie if the Browns went 1-15 for the second season in a row. The good news is he won’t have to that; the bad news is that only the Cleveland Browns could make 1-15 look like a high water mark.

Cleveland needs a quarterback. The leader in passing yards for this incarnation of the Browns is Tim Couch, and he wasn’t good at all! In case you weren’t sure of how the Browns have tried to fix the quarterback position through the draft, here is a list of all the QBs that Cleveland has taken since 1999:

  1. Tim Couch (1999)
  2. Spergon Wynn (2000)
  3. Luke McCown (2004)
  4. Charlie Frye (2005)
  5. Brady Quinn (2007)
  6. Colt McCoy (2010)
  7. Brandon Weeden (2012)
  8. Johnny Manziel (2014)
  9. Cody Kessler (2016)
  10. DeShone Kizer (2017)

This list says nothing of the fact that the Browns have trotted out 28 different starting quarterbacks since 1999. They need to fix the position, but it’s hard to do that when you have the reputation of a team that screws up every quarterback you’ve ever had. If you want an example of irony, in the new Browns’ only playoff game, their starting quarterback, Kelly Holcomb, threw for 428 yards. Go figure.

This is why I would argue for this year’s Browns as the worst team in NFL history. The Lions made the playoffs three years after going winless because they drafted Matt Stafford in the subsequent draft (Stafford is still their starting quarterback). The Lions found their way out of the mess they were in by drafting Stafford and building around him. From 2011 to 2016, Detroit went to the playoffs three times while the Browns went 24-72. The Lions have now gotten to the point where they can fire their head coach for going 9-7 and not look like complete idiots.

The 2017 Cleveland Browns may not technically be the worst team in the history of the NFL; that is a title the 1976 Buccaneers may own forever. But due to circumstances they can only attribute to themselves, they may very well be the most pathetic. The reason is that being successful in the NFL, just like in baseball, is a process, one that no other team in the history of the sport has ever executed this poorly.

The One NFL Team You Don’t Want to See in January

Philip J. Pavely/USA Today

I’m going to start this article by posing a very simple question: who has the best point differential in the AFC?

Surely it has to be either the Patriots or the Steelers, the two owners of the conference’s best record at 12-3. Maybe it’s the Baltimore Ravens, who currently sit at 9-6 but have three shutouts to their name. Or it could be the Kansas City Chiefs, who struggled in the middle of the season but have responded with three straight victories, each by ten or more points.

If you guessed any one of those teams, you are a very reasonable person. You’re also wrong.

The best point differential in the AFC belongs to the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are currently 10-5 and locked into the third seed in the playoffs.

You may not take point differential all that seriously, as teams often score or give up points in garbage time that are completely meaningless to the outcome of the game. That being said, the Jaguars are second in the league in this category, and the winner of the Super Bowl in three of the last four seasons has also finished in the top two in the NFL in scoring margin. Following this logic, though, would mean that Jacksonville would go to the Super Bowl and play the Los Angeles Rams, in a scenario that may precede the apocalypse. But the Jaguars currently find themselves at the top of the conference in scoring margin right now and, perhaps more significantly, they own one of the league’s best defenses, which is particularly important when facing off against offenses like the Patriots and Steelers.

There are, as with any team without serious playoff experience, questions about how legitimate of a contender the Jaguars are. With Jacksonville, their concerns are exacerbated because their quarterback just so happens to be Blake Bortles, who, before this season, averaged 17 interceptions per year for each of his first three NFL seasons. Even when he does play well, he is perceived as not being good enough to lead his team to a championship or, worse, “trash”. While he does make some shockingly bad decisions and throws mind-numbing interceptions from time to time, he is having the best season of his career, as he has put up career highs in completion percentage, QBR, and passer rating, while also posting a career low for interceptions.

This is not to say that Bortles is necessarily a good NFL quarterback; after all, he is coming off a performance in which he threw three interceptions against the league’s 26th-best defense. However, NFL history has shown us that you can win a Super Bowl with less than stellar quarterback play, or quarterback play that starts the season slowly and comes alive at the right time. Here are just a few recent examples of teams winning the Super Bowl in spite of the man they had under center:

  • The 1970 Colts (Johnny Unitas/Earl Morrall)
  • The 1990 Giants (Jeff Hostetler)
  • The 2000 Ravens (Trent Dilfer)
  • The 2002 Buccaneers (Brad Johnson)
  • The 2015 Broncos (Peyton Manning, in his final season)

This shows that while having a great quarterback certainly helps your cause in trying to win a championship, it is hardly necessary for you to do so. What you do need, though, is a great defense. Luckily, the Jaguars have it.

Jacksonville currently owns the league’s third-best defense as measured by total yards allowed. The only teams who have fared better are the 12-3 Vikings and the Denver Broncos, who have started three different players at quarterback this season. The Jaguars also own the league’s best pass defense, and that is important considering the talent of quarterbacks the team could potentially face in the playoffs (Marcus Mariota, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, etc.). The weakness in Jacksonville’s defense is its ability to stop the run, as it ranks just 21st in the league in that category. But that run defense is not quite as much of a hindrance to their success because the team has defensive end Calais Campbell, who is second in the NFL in sacks with 14.5. Some have argued for Campbell as the league’s MVP, and that is a fairly ridiculous stretch, but the Jaguars’ front four is good enough to get to the quarterback on a regular basis.

Jacksonville’s secondary is also paramount to their success, as it has pulled down 21 interceptions to this point in the year, which is good for second in football. A.J. Bouye (who was signed in free agency from the Texans after last season), Barry Church, Tashaun Gipson, and Jalen Ramsey each have at least four picks, and Bouye is second in the league with six. If you’re throwing against this secondary, you should really have a sense of what you’re getting yourself into.

Even though I’ve told you all this about how great the Jaguars are, you are still wary of their ability to beat the Patriots and/or the Steelers, the two best teams in the AFC. The good news is that they already have played one of those teams, and the results were promising.

In week five, Jacksonville traveled to Pittsburgh to face off against the Steelers. In that game, they forced Ben Roethlisberger into throwing five interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. The game was what you would expect and hope for on paper from the Jags: Bortles threw for under 100 yards, running back Leonard Fournette rushed for nearly 200, and the Jaguars forced five turnovers and only had one giveaway. While Bortles would need to play better than that if the Jaguars want to beat Pittsburgh a second time, the early-October contest shows that the Jaguars can win a difficult game on the road if necessary.

Just a side note on that game: many recall that afterwards, the media was taken on a roller coaster ride because Roethlisberger openly speculated that he was in decline and said, “Maybe I just don’t have it anymore.” This off-hand comment, likely intended as a joke, sparked fear and panic in Pittsburgh, as Roethlisberger, to that point in the year, had thrown more interceptions than touchdowns. Since then, however, the Steelers’ signal-caller has thrown 22 TDs and just seven picks while also completing nearly 66% of his passes. Everyone in Pittsburgh and around America has stopped wondering whether or not he still has it. He clearly does, and the chances of him throwing five interceptions against the same team twice in one season would appear to be low.

The road to the Super Bowl out of the AFC currently appears to revolve around the Patriots and the Steelers. But the Jacksonville Jaguars are perhaps better prepared to navigate that road than anyone, and they have put every team in the AFC, and the NFL, on notice.

The Steelers found out the hard way that the Jaguars are capable of beating anyone in the league on any given day. We’ll see if any other teams have to learn that lesson the hard way before the NFL playoffs are complete.

If I Ruled the NFL….

Don Wright/Associated Press

Two weeks ago, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell officially signed a five-year, $200 million (!) extension which will make him the league’s commissioner until, at the earliest, 2023. Despite Goodell’s profitable extension, the league has plenty of issues on its hands, between declining ratingshorrific injuries, and controversial refereeing decisions.

But let’s go to an imaginary world where Roger Goodell doesn’t exist and everything else is the same, except yours truly is the league’s new commissioner. My confidence in myself is very low on this one, but here are a few things I’d do to fix some of the NFL’s biggest problems.

Ban Thursday Night Football

Believe it or not, there are actually fewer injuries on Thursday night than there are on Sunday or Monday, but the moral of this story is that there are too many injuries in general. However, if injuries are not a good enough excuse for getting rid of Thursday Night Football, then its quality of play certainly is.

Of the 26 teams that have played on TNF this season (this excludes Thanksgiving and the first game of the season), exactly nine of them would make the playoffs if the season ended today. Last year, the league went an astounding 9-for-28 in scheduling playoff teams for Thursday night. If you’re keeping track at home, just one-third of all teams that have played on Thursday Night Football in the past two seasons have made the playoffs. If you want a little more context on that, here you go: while the league picked just 33% of its best teams to play on Thursday nights, Houston Astros star Jose Altuve got a base hit in 34.1% of his at-bats in the last two seasons. Getting hits on the best pitchers in the world shouldn’t be easier than picking good teams to play in prime-time. But keep this in mind: the league often uses Thursday Night Football as a way to get every team on prime-time television at least once; Goodell even copped to that in 2012, when the TNF schedule expanded to what it is now.

All this, of course, is to say nothing of the fact that teams cannot possibly create an adequate game plan in three days and the league’s over-saturation on television, which Thursday Night Football has heavily contributed to, is a big reason why its ratings have begun to hit the skids over the past couple of seasons.

So while there may not be more injuries on Thursday Night Football, the weekly fixture’s terrible quality of play and lackluster matchups would, in an ideal world, be enough to scrap the idea completely.

Decide What a Catch Is or Is Not

What is your definition of a catch? Unfortunately, it depends on who you ask.

For example: is this a catch? What about this? Or this? Don’t feel any pressure to answer these questions correctly, because no matter how you answer them, you will have the same understanding of an NFL referee as to what a catch actually is.

Just to show how confusing the catch rule is to some people, I put out a Twitter poll earlier today asking my followers if they thought Steelers tight end Jesse James made a legal, NFL catch at the end of yesterday’s bonkers, off-the-wall Patriots-Steelers game (a contest that drew a 17.0 rating, the highest of the NFL season to date). I was expecting at least something approaching a clear consensus, and while we’re still waiting on Alaska and Hawaii, that’s not exactly what I got:

If you show 30 people something and you ask them if what they just saw was a catch or not, it shouldn’t finish in an 18-12 vote. While I didn’t think James completed the process of the catch, the league should be as clear and concise as possible in the future with this rule. The other thing the league should do is throw out whatever precedent it has set in recent years, because this one is as bad as it gets.

Seriously Examine Other Alternatives to Painkillers

We’ve all heard stories about NFL players becoming addicted to painkillers, and according to court documents revealed in March, the league violated federal law in distributing these medications to its players. The solution to this problem is simple: stop distributing these addictive drugs and find a viable solution for them.

This includes doing serious research into alternative, non-opiate remedies that can help players heal quickly. One of them, kava, was recently the subject of an article on, while another, medical marijuana, has been recommended by multiple retired players as a better alternative to pain pills. The NFL should probably listen to these people because they very well may be on to something.

Get Rid of Grass Fields

If you play in one of these 19 NFL stadiums, your risk of injury on any particular day may depend on the weather and be significantly higher than it would be otherwise (NOTE: the team that plays its home games in each stadium is in parentheses):

  1. Arrowhead Stadium (Chiefs)
  2. Bank of America Stadium (Panthers)
  3. EverBank Field (Jaguars)
  4. FedEx Field (Redskins)
  5. FirstEnergy Stadium (Browns)
  6. Hard Rock Stadium (Dolphins)
  7. Heinz Field (Steelers)
  8. Lambeau Field (Packers)
  9. Levi’s Stadium (49ers)
  10. Lincoln Financial Field (Eagles)
  11. Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (Rams)
  12. M&T Bank Stadium (Ravens)
  13. Nissan Stadium (Titans)
  14. Oakland-Alameda County Stadium (Raiders)
  15. Raymond James Stadium (Buccaneers)
  16. Soldier Field (Bears)
  17. Sports Authority Field at Mile High (Broncos)
  18. StubHub Center (Chargers)
  19. University of Phoenix Stadium (Cardinals)

And about that thing I mentioned regarding the temperature of the field:

A 2016 study published in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine found that the incidence rate of concussions and ankle injuries on grass surfaces was nearly two times as likely in games with an outdoor temperature of 50°F or cooler than if the game was played on a natural grass surface at 70°F or warmer. Translated: if you’re playing in one of those 19 stadiums and the temperature is below 50°, you’re in serious trouble.

That same study found that at any given time, an NFL player is 1.36 times more likely to suffer a shoulder injury on natural grass than he would have been on artificial turf. Of course, many athletes object to playing on a synthetic turf because of fears about the long-term health of their knees (take, for example, FIFA’s much-maligned decision to play the 2015 Women’s World Cup on artificial turf). That being said, football does not require as much running as soccer and another one of the main concerns with the latter (turf burns) does not often apply to football.

Starting in December, your choice as an NFL player is simple: play on a surface where you may have slightly more risk of a knee injury or play on a grass surface, upon which you definitely have more risk for a shoulder, ankle, or head injury. I would go with the former.

Guarantee Players’ Contracts and Don’t Pay the Commissioner $40 Million 

This one is self-explanatory.

Matthew Stafford is the NFL’s highest-paid player, and he makes $27 million per year. However, even though he signed a contract for five years and $135 million, only 68% of the contract ($92 million) is guaranteed. Therefore, Stafford will be making, with the league’s richest contract, around $18.4 million of guaranteed money per year. Is your humble new commissioner more than twice as valuable as the league’s best quarterback? Somehow, I doubt that. It’s time for the NFL to adopt guaranteed, no-cut contracts. It’s not like the league is about to reach $14 billion in yearly revenue, or anything.

Of course, I could likely never be an NFL commissioner and I obviously respect the work that all sports commissioners do on a regular basis. But the NFL has serious problems that need serious solutions. And if Roger Goodell is looking for a successor after this deal is up, I have ready-made fixes for issues he likely won’t tackle anytime soon.

The Rams Are Unleashing Jared Goff, and Not a Moment Too Soon

Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times

For a guy who doesn’t know how the sun works, Rams quarterback Jared Goff played extremely well in Week 3.

We should probably forgive Goff by this point for his lack of knowledge about as minor a topic as the universe. We should let him off the hook because he doesn’t appear to be nearly as confused by NFL defenses this season.

In this week’s installment of Thursday Night Football, Goff and the Rams defeated the San Francisco 49ers in a game that had all of the makings of a snooze-fest but turned out to be a fantastic contest. The 2016 #1 pick finished 22-28 with 292 yards and three touchdowns. The 41-39 victory was the highest-scoring game in the NFL this season, and if before the season you had quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Jared Goff leading their teams to a combined 80 points in the most exciting game of the NFL season to date, please collect your winnings. You’re probably crazy but you’re definitely right.

Goff, though, is the quarterback I want to talk about here.

Last year, Goff started just seven games for the Rams in their return to Los Angeles. When he was handed the reins to the offense in Week 11 of last season, he struggled mightily. The game before Goff was named the starter, the Rams defeated the Jets by a score of 9-6. It was L.A.’s last victory of the season; Goff’s squad went winless in the final seven games of the year.

And Goff was one of the main reasons for the Rams’ late-2016 failures. Last year’s #1 pick only eclipsed 200 yards twice in the last seven games and the Rams averaged all of 12.1 points per game in that span. Goff finished the year with five touchdowns and seven interceptions; among players with at least seven starts last season, Goff came in 31st in passing yards per game. His passer rating of 63.6 would have put him dead last in all of football, and yes, he would have been behind both Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brock Osweiler. Those are two names you never want to be associated with as an NFL quarterback.

Of course, part of the problem was the weapons, or lack thereof, at Goff’s disposal. Last year, the team’s two leading receivers were Kenny Britt and Brian Quick. This year, Britt is playing for the Browns and Quick is playing for the Redskins. Despite their services to the team last year, they simply didn’t get the job done, as neither were able to create the separation that Goff needed to get them the ball. We’ll revisit the wide receiving corps in a little while.

The other issue for Goff and the Rams was, to be quite frank with you, the coaching staff. Head coach Jeff Fisher, who was one of the longest-tenured and most mediocre coaches in NFL history, simply did not provide his franchise quarterback with the right coaching for him to succeed. Last year’s offensive coordinator was Rob Boras, who was in his first year as the team’s permanent offensive coordinator. It showed, as the Rams scored the fewest points (224) in the league a season ago. In fact, the Rams’ offensive futility was almost impressive; their 224 points in sixteen games was the fewest points scored in an NFL season since the 2012 Kansas City Chiefs, who were spearheaded by Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn, put up all of 211. Fisher was fired with three weeks to go in the season; to show how much things have changed, last week, a Twitter user spotted Fisher at his local grocery store. Much more importantly, Fisher was reportedly seen by multiple patrons shopping in the vicinity of aisles seven and nine. I just got off on a tangent and I apologize. Actually, no I don’t.

Anyway, the Rams hired Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay in January; at the time, McVay, an offensive wunderkind who spent three years as Washington’s offensive coordinator, was just twelve days short of his 31st birthday, making him the youngest head coach in NFL history. Under McVay’s tutelage, Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins finished in the top seven quarterbacks in passer rating for the 2015 and 2016 seasons. The new Rams coach hoped to do the same with Goff, and the front office, for a change, helped the offense’s cause.

Remember the depleted wide receivers group from last year? Los Angeles and general manager Les Snead signed former Bills wide receiver Robert Woods to help the passing game. Woods is a perfectly acceptable second option; he’s never had more than 700 yards in a season but he would help the Rams this year. Until August 11, however, Woods was set to be the team’s number one pass-catcher, a role that likely did not suit him. But on that August day, the Rams traded for Woods’ Buffalo counterpart, Sammy Watkins, to provide Goff a legitimate downfield threat. While this put some pressure on Goff to perform, it also gave him a significantly better supporting cast than he had a season ago.

That newly-potent offense has been on full display in the first three weeks of the season. Goff’s passer rating, which ranked dead last in 2016, is third in the league this season among passers with multiple starts. He’s currently first in the league in yards per attempt, a category he would have also finished at the bottom of had he qualified for the statistic last year. The high-flying Rams are averaging 35.7 points per game in the first three contests of the season. Granted, there are defenses far better than the Colts and the 49ers in the NFL. But this isn’t the 2016 Los Angeles Rams.

And that has a lot to do with the play of Jared Goff. To show you how he’s utilizing his new offensive toys, I give to you this absolute dime from Goff to Watkins in the third quarter of Thursday night’s game:

I don’t remember the last time I was a downfield passing play that was that perfect on both the passing and receiving ends. More to the point, though, the 2016 Rams’ offense has no chance of making that play because it doesn’t have Watkins. That offense also didn’t have as good of an offensive line; this offseason, Los Angeles signed veteran linemen Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan, both of whom, ironically, are older than head coach Sean McVay. This offensive line has been more than effective; Goff has been sacked just three times in as many games. Last year, the Rams offensive line conceded 49 sacks, the second-most in football. This is consistent with McVay’s offense, one that emphasizes the quarterback releasing the football quickly after the snap. To support this, McVay’s Washington offense finished in the bottom four in the league in 2015 and 2016 in sacks allowed. That is as much a function of the teams’ offensive lines as it is a function of McVay’s offense.

That offense is now one of the best in football, and, improbably, Jared Goff is its centerpiece. While Todd Gurley has been more effective this year and the Rams’ offensive line has done a far better job protecting its franchise QB, Goff has been the most impressive and surprising part of the team’s success.

That being said, he hasn’t been perfect. The Rams lost their Week 2 game to the Redskins in large part because of this mind-numbing fourth-quarter pick-six from Goff to Redskins linebacker Mason Foster. The Rams also have accomplished defenses such as the Seahawks (twice), Giants, and Texans on their schedule for later in the season. All of those defenses are far better than the Colts and 49ers. But the Rams’ resurgent offensive is strikingly stellar this year; the team has scored 40 points in two of the first three games of the Sean McVay era. The Rams crossed that threshold twice in 77 games under Fisher.

The Los Angeles Rams have gone from being the NFL’s worst offense to one of the league’s best. That has everything to do with the new offense of head coach Sean McVay and second-year quarterback Jared Goff.

The combination of the two has meant offensive success for the Rams. And regardless of whether the sun goes down in the east or the west, know that it will be setting on one of the best young quarterbacks in the game, one who finally has the weapons around him to be successful.

The NFL’s Hard Knocks Problem

David Kohl/USA Today

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are currently being featured on HBO’s annual Hard Knocks series. The show takes a look at a different team’s training camp exploits each year and has aired intermittently since 2001, when the then-defending-champion Baltimore Ravens starred on the show. The series provides access you can’t find almost anywhere else, from meetings with players and coaches to the day-to-day minutiae of being on and running an NFL team.

Hard Knocks is a good show and almost always an entertaining watch. The high point in the history of the series was undoubtedly in 2010 when the New York Jets, led by head coach Rex Ryan, were on the show. The most legendary scene in that year was this speech from Ryan in which he called out his team’s lack of leadership, said, “I’m not a great leader”, and ended his diatribe with “let’s go get ourselves a g–d—- snack”. The speech is, simply put, one of the funniest things I have ever seen. And that’s not the only hilarious/ridiculous moment the show has spawned; Hard Knocks has given us Ryan Mallett blaming his alarm clock for his lateness, Vince Wilfork’s overalls, Chad Ochocinco, and, possibly most unforgettable of all, Antonio Cromartie floundering to the finish line of barely naming all of his children (at the time). In 2010, he had eight kids and he’s had another five since then. Antonio Cromartie now has thirteen children. More importantly, Antonio Cromartie is just 33 years old.

You would figure that with all this, Hard Knocks is the occasionally serious laugh factory that keeps on giving. Unfortunately, though, that’s not all there is to the show; in fact, it sometimes shows the dark side of football training camp. This was never more evident than in this past week’s episode.

Some background: in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Bucs traded their third and fourth-round picks to the Kansas City Chiefs to jump to the 59th pick in the draft and select Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo in the second round, making him the earliest-selected kicker in the draft since 2005. The team, clearly not following the fantasy football precept of waiting until the last round to take your kicker, likely based their decision on his college career, one in which he made nearly 90% of his field goal attempts over three seasons. That success, however, didn’t quite translate to the pros.

Last season, Aguayo ranked dead last in the league in field goal percentage as he went just 22-of-31 with no made field goals past 43 yards; he also missed two extra points. To make matters more interesting, Tampa Bay signed former Jets kicker Nick Folk in the offseason to challenge Aguayo after his disastrous 2016 campaign. Folk is a ten-year pro who has made at least 80% of his kicks in each of the last four seasons. Folk is a better kicker than Aguayo and he was clearly brought in to push Aguayo and ultimately steal his job, assuming the latter’s fortunes didn’t change in a hurry. And after Aguayo missed an extra point and a field goal attempt in the team’s first preseason game against the Bengals, the outcome became clear for all parties; Aguayo was going to be released.

And, because of the presence of HBO’s cameras, one of the worst days of his life was about to be watched by millions of Americans.

On Tuesday’s episode of Hard Knocks, Aguayo learned his fate in a heartbreaking moment between player, coach, and general manager. The team’s GM, Jason Licht, explained to Aguayo that he needed to make more of his kicks to be of service to his team. No, really.

The good news for Aguayo is that he was acquired by the Chicago Bears after Tampa Bay cut ties with him. And, to be fair, Aguayo was likely compensated for his being featured on the show; NFL Films, the production arm of Hard Knocks, has paid certain players who appear on the show dating all the way back to 2001. But still, the only people who didn’t watch Aguayo get fired either weren’t interested or didn’t have basic cable.

And even those people may have had the chance to see it because the NFL’s Twitter account proudly trumpeted the video of his release to only, let’s see, 23.9 million Twitter followers.

In fairness to the league, the NFL is not necessarily in the real world and has never pretended to be. After all, this is the same league that suspended Josh Brown for one game after he admitted to abusing his wife but banned Josh Gordon indefinitely for substance abuse violations. That’s not to defend Gordon’s actions, but it’s not like the league operates like any other company would in this type of situation.

But let’s say we were dealing with a real-world enterprise here. Let’s say that a McDonald’s employee was fired for inconsistent performance and cameras caught everything on tape. Let’s then say that in addition to a TV show airing the employee’s ouster, the McDonald’s Twitter account proudly tweets a video showing the same scene as the show. That would be pretty embarrassing for the employee, right? It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, but it’s not necessarily unlike what happened with Aguayo and many other members of the team who have been cut in the first two episodes of the show.

And yet, scenes like Aguayo’s demise make me want to watch Hard Knocks. Think about it: two men are signed to the active roster and you absolutely know that one of them is not going to make it to the end of camp with his job. The other will win the starting job but is not guaranteed success and will face continued scrutiny from the media and his team. If the Oscars were like that, I’d watch.

Here’s the problem, though: getting fired is a humiliating, degrading experience and having cameras around to capture it and display that to people around the world can’t help, either. Getting traded is a similar ordeal; one of the most memorable moments in the history of Hard Knocks came courtesy of the Miami Dolphins in 2012. Near the end of camp, the team traded cornerback Vontae Davis to the Indianapolis Colts for two draft picks. The seminal moment of the show’s seventh season was general manager Jeff Ireland telling a dazed, confused, and possibly blindsided Davis about what had just transpired. Davis has since turned in five excellent seasons with the Colts, but the scene was completely cringe-worthy and difficult to watch.

This is also a discussion that goes beyond Hard Knocks; Amazon’s original series All or Nothing is a behind-the-scenes look at an NFL team during the regular season. Season 2 of the show was filmed last season with the Los Angeles Rams and it showed Jeff Fisher’s firing on December 12 of last year. Like the Aguayo and Davis clips, watching Fisher explain to his assistants that he’s just been canned is awkward. And, like they did with Aguayo, the NFL’s Twitter account used a grown man losing his job as an opportunity to plug a TV show. Lovely.

Just so we’re on the same page here, I’m not telling you not to watch Hard Knocks or, for that matter, All or Nothing. Frankly, I watch the former because it’s good television and it gives us a look at the inner workings of a team that we would not otherwise receive. I’m not even suggesting that HBO and NFL Films shouldn’t have shown Aguayo getting released; while you know what the outcome is going to be, the tension and drama surrounding the occasion plainly cannot be replicated.

But when you watch the show next week and beyond, think of the players as human beings instead of numbers that will be quickly removed from the Buccaneers’ training camp roster.