Hi Everyone! I wrote an article this week for my school’s newspaper, The Fordham Ram. It is filed in what is called the “Overtime” section, which is a series of longform pieces that I get to write every third edition. You can access the article here.
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.
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:
Will be interesting to see how the Pats gameplan for the Eagles RPOs. Jaguars shredded them with same RPO 4 times in first half last week pic.twitter.com/gYJWIPYIjj
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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)
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)
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.
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 University of Central Florida may ave been the best story in college football this season.
UCF, as they are more commonly known, went 13-0 and became the first Group of 5 team in the Playoff era to finish a season undefeated. The Knights’ dream season culminated in a Peach Bowl victory over Auburn, one that showcased the high-flying offense of Scott Frost, who left the UCF job at the end of the season to become the head coach at Nebraska, his alma mater.
UCF is truly a great success story; two seasons ago, the team went 0-12. Two years later, they finished undefeated with one of the most talented rosters in college football. One of their star players, linebacker Shaquem Griffin, was born with amniotic band syndrome and lost his left hand at birth. He hasn’t let that stop him, though, and he finished the Peach Bowl with 12 tackles and 1.5 sacks. He was, by all accounts, UCF’s best player this season and his perseverance is nothing short of inspirational.
Between their previous futility, their best player’s overcoming of personal challenges to achieve success, and the likability of Frost, who coached the team’s bowl game despite accepting Nebraska’s job offer a month ago, UCF had the makings of being one of the great underdog stories in recent memory.
And then the school took things approximately 500 steps too far.
It all started just hours after their bowl game ended, with Frost saying that a “conscious effort” kept UCF out of the College Football Playoff. Frost posited this theory after watching Georgia and Alabama, two teams Auburn beat on their schedule, advance to next Monday’s national championship game. By the transitive property, UCF could be considered better than all of those teams; the transitive property, of course, does not take into effect important things like home field advantage, the injuries both teams dealt with when they played Auburn, and coaching in high-leverage situations. Also, remember that Georgia later played Auburn (in the same stadium in which the Peach Bowl was played) in the SEC Championship Game and defeated them 28-7. How quickly they forget.
But if people at the university stopped at being angry about the Knights’ apparent snub, we would have had no problem and the rage would have been easily understood. Instead, we have a far different situation on our hands.
It’s also important to point out that this claiming of a nonexistent championship is hardly unprecedented. Ohio State gave its players rings after the Buckeyes finished the 2012 season 12-0 but were barred from postseason play because of the infamous events of tattoo-gate. And the 2003 USC Trojans crowned themselves champions after what their then-Athletic Director referred to as “significant research”. In that case, though, USC actually was the #1 team in the Associated Press poll at the end of the season and did earn at least a split of the national championship with LSU.
UCF, on the other hand, did not top the Associated Press poll, or any other poll, for that matter. They finished twelfth in the final College Football Playoff rankings, tenth in the final AP Poll, and tenth in the last Coaches’ Poll. And before you tell me that the BCS would have resolved all of this, UCF would have finished ninth if that poll was still in use. These rankings are especially crucial because many have clamored for an eight-team playoff in recent years, as that would allows smaller, lesser-known schools like UCF to make the Playoff. So it’s good to know that the Knights would not have gotten in even if the size of the Playoff was doubled.
There is also another, not-so-insignificant problem with expanding the Playoff to eight teams, and don’t take it from me. Take it from former Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware. Boulware was asked about hypothetically having to play in another game after his team played in fifteen games last season before defeating Alabama in a thrilling and emotionally-draining national title game:
If we had to do another game after this? God, no. I’d literally die.
But anyway, if you thought that the coronation of UCF’s alternative national title and the absurd celebration of Frost’s team was complete, then get ready to have your mind frosted:
UCF athletic director Danny White said Wednesday that the program has decided to claim a national championship and will place a championship banner inside Spectrum Stadium to recognize its undefeated 2017 season.
Nonetheless, the school said that it will hold a celebratory parade for the team at Disney World on Sunday. UCF and Orlando announced Thursday they would hold a national championship celebration Monday evening, the day of the CFP national championship game.
At this point, I can’t even be mad at UCF. If I ever get to the point in my life where I have a parade at Disney World in my honor for no particular reason, I’ll know that my life probably won’t get better from there.
But this is madness. College football is the only sport in which you can say that you won a national championship (without actually winning a national championship, no less) and have your fans believe you. And they’re serious about this too, as their socialmediafeeds indicate. Because nothing says “we don’t take ourselves too seriously” quite like finishing twelfth in the final Playoff rankings, missing the four-team Playoff, winning your bowl game against what may have been a slightly uninspired opponent and then declaring yourself a “national champion”.
There is one more point to be made here. While some have argued for an eight-team Playoff as of late, others are arguing for this and an automatic bid for the top Group of 5 team. That is all well and good until you consider that this was the first year in the Playoff era that a Group of 5 team has gone undefeated and could actually be considered as an honest-to-goodness candidate to make the Playoff. Many have pointed to the NCAA Basketball Tournament as having the best format for allowing smaller schools to shine. But in case you were wondering, the only “Cinderella” teams that have won a college basketball championship since the tournament has expanded to 64 teams were the 1985 Villanova Wildcats (in the first year of the new format) and the 2014 Connecticut Huskies. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s two-for-33, or roughly six percent of the time.
To make matters worse, UCF’s best win before their bowl game this season came against Memphis in a game that went to double-overtime. The Knights also suffered other close calls at the hands of Navy, SMU, and South Florida, and their out-of-conference schedule consisted of FIU, Georgia Tech, Maryland, and Maine. (The Georgia Tech and Maine games were canceled, the former directly and the latter indirectly, due to the effects of Hurricane Irma.) I am all for the little guy who can take down Goliath, but we shouldn’t make sure the little guy gets in the Playoff every year if he isn’t good enough. I’m not saying UCF wasn’t, but they have been the best non-Power 5 team in the Playoff era and even including them in the Final Four (or Eight) would require a serious explanation, one that may be difficult or impossible to justify.
If there is anything you can take out of this article, it is these two things:
We shouldn’t bring small-school teams to college football’s big dance if they aren’t worthy of it.
We shouldn’t give schools national championships based on the transitive property.
And if UCF’s recent lunacy has exposed those two truths, then maybe it was worthwhile.
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:
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.
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.
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:
Tim Couch (1999)
Spergon Wynn (2000)
Luke McCown (2004)
Charlie Frye (2005)
Brady Quinn (2007)
Colt McCoy (2010)
Brandon Weeden (2012)
Johnny Manziel (2014)
Cody Kessler (2016)
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.
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 threedifferentplayers 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.
Yesterday, former NBC, CBS, ESPN, and San Diego Padres announcer Dick Enberg passed away at the age of 82. Multiple reports have stated that his family believes Enberg died of a heart attack in his California home late Thursday night. He retired as the television voice of the Padres at the end of last season, something you probably missed because Dodgers legend Vin Scully was leaving the business at the exact same time.
However, it is tremendously important that we recall what an important voice Enberg was throughout his career. He called some of the biggest events in sports over the course of his broadcasting career, which spanned nearly 60 years. Here is a list of just some of the games and tournaments he was on the microphone for in his illustrious career:
This list likely omits several other significant assignments Enberg covered as a broadcaster. Just for some context on that list: the first Final Four Enberg called for UCLA was in 1967, and that year’s Most Outstanding Player was Lew Alcindor, who later became known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His final NCAA Tournament game behind the microphone was in 2010 for CBS, and it featured young Kentucky stars John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. That means Enberg stuck around long enough for college basketball to progress from playing without a shot clock to becoming a one-year pit stop for many of the country’s best 18 and 19-year-olds.
Additionally, his first Super Bowl, the fifteenth in NFL history, featured quarterbacks Jim Plunkett and Ron Jaworski. Super Bowl XXXII, the last Super Bowl Enberg worked, featured quarterbacks Brett Favre and John Elway.
There are not may broadcasters who can say they have witnessed the history Enberg did. And while he worked in a golden era of sports broadcasting (one that gave us legends such as Vin Scully, Al Michaels, Howard Cosell, Keith Jackson, and countless others), it is important to remember how good Enberg really was and just how many important events he lent his voice to over the past 50 years.
I would write more here, but it would come at the risk of repeating things that have already been written and said. So I’ll just close with Dick Enberg’s catchphrase, a two-word ditty that aptly describes his career and accomplishments:
The Houston Rockets have been the NBA’s hottest team through the first two months of the season and currently hold a Western Conference-leading 25-5 record. Until last night’s loss to the Lakers, one in which MVP candidate James Harden casually dropped 51 points, the team had won 14 games in a row and had also gone 15-0 with point guard Chris Paul in the starting lineup. Paul, though, left last night’s game with an adductor strain and is currently considered day-to-day.
Now that we enjoyed that little bit of fun, it’s time to return to reality and consider whether or not the Rockets can seriously stack up with the Warriors if the two meet in the playoffs.
Much of Houston’s success to this point in the season has been due to the acquisition of Paul from the Clippers this past summer. While Harden has been one of the league’s best players this season, the Rockets are a different monster with CP3 on the floor. To show you just how good Paul has been in just 16 games this season, I give you this table from the good people at Basketball-Reference that provides point differentials and field goal percentages of the Rockets’ lineup combinations to this point in the season. I have modified the table to remove the most common five-man lineups that feature Harden. The point differential, per 100 possessions, of some of these combinations may shock you:
In reality, though, this shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. Paul has been a plus/minus god for the better part of ten years and is, for my money, one of the three best point guards in the game today. That makes his injury last night, the second significant one he has suffered this season, all the more concerning. While he isn’t expected to miss much time at the moment, the Rockets cannot possibly win a championship without him. After all, we’ve seen what can happen to the Rockets in the playoffs without him and it wasn’t pretty.
All that being said, this is not at all an affront to James Harden’s abilities. It is, however, a testament to the state of the NBA today that having just one of the best players in the league is not nearly enough to get a team into serious championship contention. The other problem for the Rockets last season was that Harden, without the presence of a true point guard, played the position admirably and nearly won Most Valuable Player honors. The issue was that, by the time the Rockets faced off against the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals, Harden was asked to create his own offense and initiate most of Houston’s, as well. He barely shot over 41% in the series and the Rockets were dispatched despite the Spurs’ loss of star forward Kawhi Leonard at the end of Game 5. The Rockets don’t have that problem anymore, and while Harden can put the team on his back for periods when Paul is injured or on the bench, the team hopes that they won’t completely need him to come playoff time.
Since we seem to keep coming back to it, let’s address this next issue head-on. Can the Rockets dethrone the defending champions and beat the Warriors in a playoff series?
For starters, let’s take a slightly closer look at the performance of both teams to this point in the season. The Dubs are currently just a half-game back of Houston for the top spot in the West, and while much of the attention has gone to the Rockets’ start, the Warriors have ripped off 25 wins in their first 31 games with little to no fanfare. And you could argue that Golden State has not yet hit its stride, as superstar point guard Steph Curry will be out until the end of this calendar year with an ankle injury.
Simple Rating System, a statistic that rates teams based on point differential and strength of schedule, has the Warriors and Rockets rated just about identically, with Golden State holding the advantage by one one-hundredth of a point. If you want to be skeptical of this metric, you have my full permission; it currently has the Raptors rated as the top team in the East and made the exact same mistake a season ago. But while it may not be perfect, it does take into account most aspects of a team’s performance and gives a number correspondent to the strength of that performance. And according to SRS, the Rockets’ success has been impressive, but it still isn’t enough to put them past the Warriors as the Western Conference’s best team.
There is also no guarantee that the Rockets will keep up this pace, one that has them winning 83% of their games, for the rest of the season. While the Rockets’ offense shouldn’t be a problem as long as Paul and Harden are healthy (they currently lead the league in offensive rating), their defense could become a concern. A team coached by Mike D’Antoni for a full season has never finished in the top ten of the league in defensive rating; the lockout-shortened 2011-12 New York Knicks, a team D’Antoni resigned from with 24 games to play in the regular season, finished fifth in that category that year. The Rockets currently sit in 7th in the league in defensive rating, and while this may very well be the best team he has ever had in his coaching career, there is also reason to believe that their defensive performance could suffer as the season goes along.
I truly want to believe that the Houston Rockets could dethrone them as the best team in the NBA. I really believe that they are the second-best team in the league right now, and I don’t see that changing, barring injuries or unforeseen circumstances, before the season ends.
But I’ll believe in the Rockets as a championship contender when I see the Warriors lose a playoff series. I wouldn’t bet on it.