AROUND THE NFL

MYLES GARRETT MAKES A CLAIM

 

Someone leaked out word that during his appeal, and only until then apparently during his appeal, DE MYLES GARRETT said that Steelers QB MASON RUDOLPH uttered the worst word possible in 21st century America.  Ryan Gaydos of http://FOX.com:

 

Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett reportedly accused Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph of using a racial slur prior to the start of their infamous brawl last week — and the allegation drew fierce responses from both teams.

 

Garrett made the allegation during the appeal of his indefinite suspension Wednesday, ESPN reported. The allegation wasn’t made in any of the days after the brawl, though Garrett was asked by reporters whether Rudolph said anything to him that made him go berserk.

 

Browns offensive lineman Joel Bitonio was one of Garrett’s defenders after a report of the allegation surfaced Thursday. He told reporters that if Garrett said Rudolph used a racial slur then he believes him, according to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.

 

Browns defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson also believed that it wouldn’t be something Garrett would lie about.

 

“I know he wouldn’t lie on nothin’ like that,” Richardson said. “He’s kind of a carefree type of guy, so I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t lie about nothin’ like that.”

 

Though he said he didn’t know anything about a racial slur being used, Richardson was sure a slur would have been a reason why Garrett acted the way he did.

 

“Nah, dude grabbing at my facemask and underneath my facemask and grabbing at my Johnson and stuff like that, definitely,” Richardson said. “An ass-kicking was coming, it’s just that simple. You’re trying hurt me, I’m hurting you. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, everyone deaf, dumb and blind at the end of the day, so that’s the way you want to go, we can take it that way.”

 

Odell Beckham Jr. also defended Garrett.

 

@Jake_Trotter

Odell: “I just don’t see Myles as someone who would lie…”

 

Cameron Heyward said his quarterback was being “villainized,” according to ESPN.

 

“He was pretty distraught. Mason came to me and said, ‘I did not say that’,” Heyward said. “I think we knew that using that as an excuse is not right.”

 

Heyward added: “He’s being villainized by it. He said, ‘I’m going to be labeled as that.’ I just don’t think that’s right. That’s my teammate. I’m going to fight for him. I’m going to do what’s best for him. That kid made a bad mistake, but he never crossed the line when he talked about a racial slur.”

 

Alejandro Villanueva also defended Rudolph, according to The Athletic.

 

“I think using any kind of racial slurs has no place in our country whatsoever, but I think fabricating a story where somebody used a racial slur is a lot more damaging,” he said.

 

While Garrett said he “knows what he heard,” the NFL said it found “no such evidence” that Rudolph used a slur. Garrett’s indefinite suspension was upheld.

 

Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com plays lawyer:

 

Regarding Browns defensive end Myles Garrett‘s claim that Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph uttered a racial slur before last Thursday night’s melee, the NFL has said, “We looked into it and found no such evidence.”

 

Actually, there is evidence. The evidence comes from the version of the events shared by Garrett.

 

At a time when so many inaccurate things are being said by folks who know better about “hearsay,” Garrett hearing Rudolph say a slur becomes direct evience that Rudolph used a slur.

 

The more accurate explanation would be that the league found no corroboration of Garrett’s claim. But that doesn’t make Garrett’s claim inaccurate.

 

And finding no corroboration is a far cry from finding evidence that debunks Garrett claim.

 

If the league truly wanted to get to the bottom of this one, it would be easy to at least try. Bring Garrett and Rudolph to New York (or travel to them), grill them separately, and then make a decision. That’s what the league recently did in the Antonio Brown case, where one side claims one thing and the other contends the exact opposite.

 

One side is right, and one side is wrong. A skilled interrogator would have as good a chance as anyone at getting to the truth.

 

The broader question is whether the league wants to get to the truth, or whether the league simply prefers that it go away.

 

The league beefed up its enforcement of rules against the use of slurs several years ago. Only a small handful of players have fined since then.

 

More reaction from Mollie Walker of the New York Post:

 

(Garrett) took to Twitter on Thursday to stand by his claim.

 

 “I know what I heard,” he wrote. “Whether my opponent’s comment was born out of frustration or ignorance, I cannot say. But his actions do not excuse my lack of restraint in the moment, and I truly regret the impact this has had on the league, the Browns and our devoted fans.”

 

Steelers offensive lineman Matt Feiler was right near the scuffle when it first broke out, and he said he didn’t hear any sort of racial slur from his quarterback.

 

“I didn’t hear anything like that,” he said. “Mason’s not that kind of guy. He wouldn’t say anything like that.”

 

Some Pittsburgh players were suspicious of the timing of Garrett’s accusations as well.

 

“If that would’ve been said, you would’ve known about it Thursday night after the game, not a week later when he’s trying to appeal,” backup quarterback Devin Hodges said. “That guy’s got everything on the line for him and he’s trying to get anything back.”

 

Immediately after the fight, which occurred at the end of the Browns’ 21-7 win on Nov. 14, Garrett was asked whether Rudolph had said something to prompt his violent reaction.

 

“You’ve got to go look at it. I’m not going to comment on it,” he said.

 

Some players on the Steelers learned of Garrett’s accusations against Rudolph from coach Mike Tomlin, who reportedly gathered them together at the end of a recent practice. Heyward said he found out on TV in the team’s weight room.

 

While none of Garrett’s teammates have acknowledged hearing a slur from Rudolph, many Cleveland players say they don’t think he would lie about something like that.

 

And this:

 

An ESPN reporter described Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield as “pretty stunned” by the accusation and receiver Jarvis Landry said he hadn’t heard anything about the alleged use of a slur.

 

ESPN.com on Coach Freddie Kitchens standing firmly with Garrett while Rudolph’s attorney reminds us what a despicable thing Garrett did if it is a lie.

 

Browns coach Freddie Kitchens echoed Dorsey in his support of Garrett.

 

“I don’t question Myles’ character at all, the type of person he is,” Kitchens said Thursday on his radio show. “He’s never wavered with his character. I’ll always support Myles Garrett without wavering one bit, just like the organization.”

 

During Garrett’s appeal hearing in New York on Wednesday, Garrett alleged that Rudolph directed a racial slur at him just prior to the brawl, sources told ESPN’s Josina Anderson and Adam Schefter.

 

Rudolph has denied the accusation, with a Steelers spokesman and Rudolph’s lawyer releasing statements saying the quarterback did not use a racial slur.

 

“This false allegation was never asserted by Garrett in the aftermath of the game, never suggested prior to the hearing, and conspicuously absent in the apology published by the Browns and adopted by Garrett,” said Rudolph’s attorney, Timothy M. Younger. “The malicious use of this wild and unfounded allegation is an assault on Mason’s integrity which is far worse than the physical assault witnessed on Thursday. This is reckless and shameful. We will have no further comment.”

 

So the key is that someone in the hearing room put out work of Garrett’s statement without his knowledge or consent.

 

“I was assured that the hearing was space that afforded the opportunity to speak openly and honestly about the incident that led to my suspension,” Garrett said in a statement. “That was not meant for public dissemination, nor was it a convenient attempt to justify my actions or restore my image in the eyes of those I disappointed.”

 

Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com with the comments of Tony Dungy:

 

Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy says that no matter what Browns defensive end Myles Garrett heard Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph say, Garrett lost any moral high ground when he ripped Rudolph’s helmet off and hit him over the head.

 

Garrett says that Rudolph uttered a racial slur on the field, which Rudolph denied. Dungy said this morning on PFT Live that whoever is telling the truth, Garrett should be judged by his actions.

 

“I’m sorry, I don’t have sympathy with Myles Garrett if in fact that is what happened,” Dungy said. “If we’re in the bottom of the pile and Mason Rudolph is kneeing you in the groin or he’s trying to poke your eye out or he’s twisting your knee, something that’s going to affect your ability to do your work and your career, then, yeah, you can go off. But you can’t go off because somebody said something to you. All kinds of things get said out there on the field. There’s four-letter words. In this case it may have been a six-letter word, a multi-syllable word. All of that happens. I can’t go off and jeopardize my team’s chances to go to the playoffs, my career, my ability to make money because somebody called me a name. I don’t care what name he said, that is not an excuse to me.”

 

Dungy, who played three seasons in the NFL, said that if he had been in the situation Garrett described, he would have told the opposing player after the game that he didn’t appreciate it, but not done anything to get himself penalized during the game and suspended afterward.

 

“You talk to him after the game,” Dungy said. “You don’t go off, blow a circuit and give up six games of your career.”

 

Hearing officer James Thrash did not reduce Garrett’s suspension despite the severity of the allege provocation.  But he did reduce the suspension of Steelers C MAURKICE POUNCEY from three games to two.

 

NFC NORTH

 

CHICAGO

Hip injury or not, QB MITCHELL TRUBISKY will start Sunday.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

After Mitchell Trubisky was pulled from last Sunday’s loss to the Rams late in the fourth quarter, Bears head coach Matt Nagy said that the quarterback hurt his hip and would start against the Giants this week if healthy.

 

Trubisky was a full participant in practice all three days this week and Friday’s injury report doesn’t include an injury designation for Sunday. That puts him on track to start on Sunday at Soldier Field.

 

The Giants have been one of the worst defensive teams in the league this season, so Trubisky should have a chance to bounce back from a poor game against Los Angeles. His overall results this season suggest that fluctuations in the level of the opposing defense may not wind up mattering all that much.

 

The Bears ruled out linebacker Danny Trevathan (elbow) and tight end Adam Shaheen (foot) while linebacker Isaiah Irving (quad) is listed as questionable.

 

 

DETROIT

The broken bones in his back will sideline QB MATTHEW STAFFORD yet again this week.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Neither the Lions nor quarterback Matthew Stafford have said anything about Stafford missing the rest of the regular season, but the idea of shutting him down because of a back injury is going to remain on the table for the near future.

 

The Lions have ruled Stafford out of Sunday’s game against Washington. It is the third straight game that Stafford has missed after running up a streak of 136 consecutive starts for Detroit.

 

Stafford said this week that there’s no firm timeline for his recovery and that the team’s fading playoff hopes wouldn’t factor into his decision about returning to play this season.

 

Jeff Driskel will start again for the Lions with David Blough serving as his backup. The Lions will be back on the field on Thanksgiving and Stafford’s lack of practice time would seem to make it likely that he’ll run his streak of missed starts to four next Thursday.

 

NFC EAST

 

PHILADELPHIA

The Eagles are going to use recently-signed RB JAY AJAYI in a “notable” role.  Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Throughout his rehab from a torn ACL, running back Jay Ajayi knew he’d play again.

 

The fact it’s back in Philadelphia made it perfect for him.

 

“Once I was in the building, just to see all the people, my old teammates, and everyone was kind of excited to see me,” Ajayi said, via E.J. Smith of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Even the people in the cafeteria, the staff members, it was like family being here. I was here when we did something special, so the memories and everything, those will last forever, and those relationships will as well. So it’s just a blessing to still have that positive reaction when I came back.”

 

Many things have changed since Ajayi was part of a Super Bowl winner there. He’s had to overcome his own injury, but the team has endured many more, and is floundering with a number of key players falling short of expectations.

 

The Eagles need the help in the backfield, after losing Darren Sproles for the season and Jordan Howard for the moment with a shoulder injury. Ajayi was signed last Friday and was active, but didn’t play Sunday, as they had him there in case of emergency.

 

He hasn’t played since Oct. 7, 2018, so easing him back in makes sense, though he says he’s ready.

 

“I think it was just the coaches’ decision at the end of the day,” Ajayi said. “I just got in on Friday, maybe they wanted to see a week in practice. There was nothing wrong with me, so just staying ready.”

 

If Howard can’t go this week against the Seahawks, it might be time to complete the family reunion.

 

NFC WEST

 

SAN FRANCISCO

Some signs that TE GEORGE KITTLE will suit up Sunday evening in Santa Clara.

 

San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle took a stride towards a return to game action.

 

The playmaker was limited in practice on Thursday after sitting out Wednesday’s session. Kittle has missed the past two games due to left knee and ankle injuries.

 

“It went really well,” Kittle said after practice, via NBC Sports Bay Area. “It was definitely a great step in the right direction. It was really fun being back out there with all the guys. I definitely don’t miss sitting in the training room all day. My goal definitely is still Green Bay.”

 

Kittle joins a host of Niners walking-wounded who could be questionable for Sunday night’s pivotal tilt versus the Green Bay Packers. RB Matt Breida (ankle), DE Dee Ford (quadricep, hamstring), K Robbie Gould (right quadricep), T Joe Staley (finger), all sat out Thursday’s practice. On the positive side, receivers Deebo Samuel (shoulder) and Emmanuel Sanders (ribs) joined Kittle as limited.

 

Depending on how much work the trio gets in Friday, it’s possible Jimmy Garoppolo may have his top three targets on the field Sunday night.

 

“Unfortunately, that falls on the doctors and coach [Kyle] Shanahan, so whatever they decide, I’ll do,” Kittle said.

 

Ross Dwelley has filled in admirably the past two weeks, but no piece of the 49ers’ offense is bigger than Kittle. The YAC demon is a matchup nightmare for defenses, and Jimmy G’s security blanket.

 

Having Kittle back on the field in a tilt that will provide a huge swing for potential playoff seeding for the winner would be gargantuan for the 49ers.

 

“Every game is a big game, but definitely an 8-2 Packers team coming, it’s definitely a battle for the NFC, definitely a massive game,” Kittle said. “It’s one I don’t want to miss.”

 

 

LOS ANGELES RAMS

Lindsay Thiry of ESPN.com on the return of concussion-prone WR BRANDIN COOKS:

 

Los Angeles Rams receiver Brandin Cooks, who suffered two concussions in a 25-day span, cleared the concussion protocol Thursday and is expected to return to the field Monday night against the Baltimore Ravens.

 

“To be able to come back out here with the guys and prep for another game, I don’t take that for granted,” said Cooks, who spent the past two games on the inactive list.

 

Receiver Robert Woods also returned to practice Thursday after missing Sunday’s game because of a personal issue. Woods said he was planning to play against the Ravens, but added that he will take things “day by day.” Woods, 27, did not elaborate on his situation but said it was a family issue that he intends to keep private.

 

“He’s in a good place and we are just taking it a day at a time,” Rams coach Sean McVay said about Woods.

 

Cooks, who has suffered five known concussions in his six-year NFL career, was asked if his latest episodes caused him to consider retirement, given the serious nature of head injuries.

 

“Absolutely not,” said Cooks, who signed a five-year, $81-million extension before last season. “When it happened, that never went through my mind. Even now, it’s not going through my mind.”

 

The Rams and Cooks have demonstrated caution in his return after he suffered a concussion in Week 5 against the Seattle Seahawks, then again in Week 8 against the Cincinnati Bengals.

 

Cooks, 26, traveled to Pittsburgh twice to meet with Dr. Michael Collins, the director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program.

 

There, Cooks said he was able to gather enough information to feel comfortable about playing again.

 

“One of the biggest things that I learned, concussions is a case-by-case thing,” said Cooks, who didn’t show any symptoms the day after he suffered each concussion. “Mine was very unique, and just thankful once again to be able to go and get answers.”

 

Cooks returned to practice earlier this month as a limited participant after specialists instructed him to maintain his daily routine and physical activity.

 

When asked if he, or the public, should be concerned about the potential of him suffering another concussion, Cooks responded, “It’s one of those things that I’m taking game by game. But, no, I don’t think you should be concerned, because I’m not.”

 

In eight games this season, Cooks has caught 27 passes for 402 yards and a touchdown.

 

AFC WEST

 

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

Sean Wagner-McGough has some thoughts on QB PHILIP RIVERS:

 

When, with 1:53 remaining on the game clock, Philip Rivers got the ball back at the Chargers’ own 9-yard line with a chance to score a touchdown and force overtime in a must-win game against the Chiefs on Monday night, there wasn’t a person in the United States or Mexico or the solar system that didn’t already know how the game was going to end. We all knew it ended with Rivers throwing one of his patented game-losing interceptions before he sulked off the field and stared up at the heavens, wondering why the football gods decided he was the one worth cursing — partly because we’d already watched him throw three interceptions (it should’ve been four, but Tyrann Mathieu dropped a pop up) and partly because the game-losing interception has come to define his career.

 

So even when he converted an immediate fourth-and-4 with a 10-yard completion to Hunter Henry, even when he threw up an improbable, but somehow successful 50-yard bomb to Mike Williams a few plays later that brought the Chargers to within 25 yards of tying the game, and even when Rivers hit Austin Ekeler for an 11-yard gain that took the Chargers inside the 15-yard line, nobody was actually fooled into thinking Rivers was on the cusp of leading a stunning game-tying drive. No matter just how much hope Rivers tried to give Chargers fans, he was never going to give them the ending they wanted.

 

Just because we knew the ending didn’t make watching it any less entertaining. It was like watching the prequel to a movie we love. We knew how it had to end, because we knew what happened next. But it was still fascinating to see how it came to be. We knew “Rogue One” needed to end with the Death Star plans in Leia’s hands because we’ve all seen “A New Hope”, but that didn’t make Vader’s hallway sequence any less thrilling. Likewise, we knew Rivers was going to blow the game. But we still couldn’t take our eyes off the screen.

 

And he didn’t disappoint:

 

To be clear — if it wasn’t already — Rivers was bad beyond that final series. He threw an interception on the previous drive because he ignored two open receivers to hoist up an arm punt, which should remind everyone of how he handled his attempted game-winning drive against the Raiders two weeks ago.

 

His second interception displayed his diminishing arm strength paired with a shocking lack of recognition.

 

It’s been that kind of season for Rivers, arguably the greatest quarterback to have never reached the Super Bowl. Through 11 weeks, Rivers ranks 17th in completion percentage, 13th in yards per attempt, 24th in touchdown percentage (just behind Bills running back quarterback Josh Allen), fourth in interception percentage (as in, the fourth-highest rate), 22nd in passer rating, 12th in DYAR, 17th in DVOA, and 24th in total QBR. According to NFL Network’s Andrew Siciliano, Rivers has generated a 17.7 passer rating when the Chargers have trailed by one possession in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter. Related: The Chargers are 2-7 in one-score games.

 

It’s obviously the turnovers that have been problematic. Only Jameis Winston (18) has thrown more interceptions than Rivers (14). The lack of touchdowns has also been a problem. Rivers is throwing a touchdown on only 3.6 percent of his passes, which represents the lowest rate of his career (since he became the Chargers’ starter in 2006). The touchdown rate is less concerning given touchdowns tend to fluctuate more on a year-to-year basis. That percentage should, in theory, improve next year.

 

But … speaking of next year, it’s beginning to look more and more like this is actually Rivers’ final lap with the Chargers. Rivers is an impending free agent. He’ll turn 38 next month. While there’s no doubt that Rivers isn’t the only reason why the Chargers are 4-7 and that the issues around him deserve scrutiny (the offensive line has been shaky and the Chargers have displayed questionable decision making pertaining to their running back committee), there’s also no questioning the fact that this is the first time that Rivers actually looks washed, which makes sense given his age (ascending) and support structure (not ascending). With the Chargers on track to land a decently high draft pick, this is when they need to invest in a new potential franchise quarterback. 

 

The good news for Rivers is that, despite his struggles this year, he should have suitors in free agency if the Chargers don’t bring him back — and don’t rule that out. The Chargers could bring Rivers back and start him as their rookie gets acquainted with the league. One year after it happened to Eli Manning, it could happen to Rivers.

 

But if the Chargers do let Rivers walk, he’s going to get the chance to write a different ending to his career. There are a couple near-playoff teams that could be in need of a rental quarterback, like the Panthers and Bears. Carolina — depending on how the Cam Newton situation unfolds, of course — would afford him the opportunity to find finish his NFL career where he spent his college years. Chicago would be a fitting match: Rivers heading to a city starved for quarterback success, and a city that never learned to fully appreciate Jay Cutler getting stuck with Cutler’s former nemesis.

 

I know I just spent the past few hundred words hammering him, but I do hope Rivers gets the chance to write a happier ending to his under-appreciated career — whether it’s in Los Angeles or Chicago or Carolina or wherever. It’s sad to say, but if Rivers retired at the end of the season, he’d be remembered more for his failures than his successes. Fair or not, to borrow a line from Jose Mourinho (timely, I know), Rivers is going to be remembered by many as “a specialist in failure.”

 

@ScottKacsmar

Make that 77 failed 4QC/GWD for Rivers.

 

The only thing that gets repeated on TV more is a Law & Order rerun.

 

And it might be what prevents him from getting into the Hall of Fame while far inferior quarterbacks — cough cough Eli Manning cough cough — waltz on into Canton.

 

Anyway, that’s enough words on Rivers. Let’s get to the quarterback power rankings. It should come as no surprise to hear that Rivers fell into the bottom half of this week’s leaderboard. It’s not all his fault, but the turnovers and fourth-quarter failures are impossible to ignore.

 

AFC NORTH

 

BALTIMORE

Part of a story by Sheil Kapadia of The Athletic on John Harbaugh’s advance method of decision making:

 

About 35 seconds passed from the time Lamar Jackson was brought down two yards short of a first down to when Ravens head coach John Harbaugh chased down an official to call timeout.

 

The Week 7 matchup in Seattle was tied at 13, and time was winding down in the third quarter. Because of a drop and a penalty, the Ravens had faced a third-and-15 from the Seahawks’ 21. Rain was falling, and they hadn’t had a great day passing the ball, so offensive coordinator Greg Roman called an option run. Jackson kept it and picked up 13 yards to set up fourth-and-2. Now Harbaugh had a decision to make.

 

The 12th-year head coach doesn’t claim to be some kind of analytics expert or mathematics savant. It’s not that complicated, Harbaugh says. He just likes having the right information to help his team win.

 

“I trust my eyes first,” he says during a recent interview on the field at the team’s indoor practice facility. “And then the information confirms or opens your eyes to something. And you can go, ‘Oh, I’ve got to look at that or consider that.’”

 

One thing Harbaugh has taken a close look at is how he can best give the Ravens an edge with his in-game decision-making. For years, he’s had a staffer in the booth communicating win probabilities to him during games. First, it was Matt Weiss, who has since become the running backs coach. This season, it’s football analyst (that’s his official title) Daniel Stern, a 25-year-old behavioral economics major who grew up in Baltimore, got his degree from Yale and is in his fourth season with the Ravens.

 

During the week, Stern, Harbaugh and other members of the Ravens coaching staff come up with a plan for how they want to approach each game from a strategic perspective. They decide on a set of rules that will give them the best chance to win, and Stern reminds Harbaugh of those rules on the headset during the game. At the beginning of that drive against the Seahawks, they talked about how they wanted to be aggressive in short yardage. But with a third-and-15 run play called, it seemed unlikely that they were going to be in short yardage. Jackson, as he’s done all season, exceeded expectations with his run. The numbers said to go for it, but it wasn’t a no-brainer.

 

“There was definitely an advantage to going for it in that situation, mathematically it was the correct thing to do,” Stern says weeks later. “But if it had been fourth-and-4 or fourth-and-5, then it wouldn’t have been the correct thing to do. It was fourth-and-2, I think it was either a long 2 or a regular 2. It definitely wasn’t one-and-a-half. It definitely was a full 2 yards.”

 

Before Jackson’s third-down run, the field-goal unit was on alert. They were told to go out on the field for the kick if Jackson didn’t get the first down. But now Harbaugh wasn’t sure if that would be the right decision. Stern sits next to Roman in the booth during games and views the TV feed so he can fill Harbaugh in on exact distances in situations like this one. He reminded Harbaugh that according to the rules they decided on during the week, this was a go and that they could use a timeout if necessary. Harbaugh then started talking to Roman. He wanted to know what the play call was going to be — again, this was something that had been mapped out during the week. Roman told him it was going to be another run with Jackson.

 

In that moment, Harbaugh had to weigh the win probability numbers with how the Ravens were playing offensively and how much he liked Roman’s call against the Seahawks’ defense.

 

“We were doing OK, there was some looseness going on, I wasn’t feeling great about how things were going,” Roman recalls. “We weren’t dominating the game. I could have gone either way with it. It made sense either way. But I liked the play we had for it. We were prepared for the situation.”

 

Harbaugh heard what he needed to from Roman and Stern and saw Jackson coming to the sideline as Justin Tucker lined up for the kick.

 

“Harbs saw him as he was running off the field,” says Stern. “And Harbs takes his headset off. I knew as soon as he took his headset off that we were going because I’ve talked to Lamar about it before, and Lamar always wants to go. He’s obviously extremely confident. Our offense has been awesome all year — especially in short-yardage situations. So when he went to Lamar there, I knew that was the direction we were gonna go. He put his headset back on. He’s like, ‘Alright we’re calling timeout.’ He goes down there, he calls timeout and then we went for it, which I was obviously really happy about.”

 

Harbaugh called timeout with just five seconds on the play clock. Roman found QB power on his call sheet, and Jackson worked his magic for an 8-yard touchdown.

 

Aggressive fourth-down calls have become practically a weekly occurrence for the Ravens. They’ve gotten 10 of 14 fourth-down attempts on the season, tied with the Colts for the most conversions in the league. And on the 10 drives where they’ve converted, eight have resulted in touchdowns. They’re averaging 10.5 yards per play on fourth down, which is tops in the NFL.

– – –

In a sport where coaches constantly preach aggressiveness, many seem to prefer losing the game later over trying to win the game now. Harbaugh has had seasons where he’s been among the most aggressive coaches in the league, but with Jackson and an offense that ranks third in overall efficiency, he’s taken it to another level in 2019.

 

 “The more we’ve done it, it’s been the years I felt like we could get it,” he says. “You feel confident in your guys and their ability to get it and how the offense is doing. This year is probably the most confident I’ve felt in our offense so we do it the most, plus probably the most convinced that it’s the right thing to do just based on what we’ve learned over the last few years.”

 

The Ravens, like other teams, have built their own analytical model for fourth-down decision-making that accounts for a number of factors — factors that they prefer not to share publicly. There are two numbers to weigh with every decision. One is win probability — a percentage that reflects the team’s chances of winning based on the various options at any given time in the game. The other number is a break-even success probability. The model comes up with an estimate of how likely the team is to convert the fourth down. Part of the decision then comes down to how high that number has to be to justify going for it.

 

“It might be that there’s a decision that because we’re up by 14 points already, the decision that we make doesn’t change our win probability very much because we’re really likely to win the game no matter what,” explains Stern. “But in that moment we know that we would only need like a 15% chance of getting it to justify going for it. It doesn’t change our win probability that much in the game. It’s just the risk/reward calculus. So there’s situations like that too.

 

“Or maybe there’s one where the win probability is really big, but it’s only because it’s a tight decision in a critical moment in the game. Like late fourth quarter, we could have a really tight decision where on average we’re gonna get it 55% of the time, we think, and to justify going for it we need to get it at least 50% of the time. So that’s a really tight difference. We would need to be very confident in our estimate of how likely we are to get it in order for that decision to be the correct decision. So it’s a really tight decision compared to one where the break-even is 20% and the probability of getting it is 50%.”

 

Stern sat with Weiss in previous years and watched him communicate with Harbaugh during games. He noticed that Weiss didn’t mince words and was direct. There can be brief back-and-forths, but Harbaugh often has a short amount of time to make a decision.

 

What makes it easier, according to Stern, is that Harbaugh is familiar with concepts like win probability and expected points added (EPA). He wants to know the actual numbers in his headset during the game as he’s making decisions.

 

“We talk about all the different scenarios, and he basically gives me a percentage,” says Harbaugh. “So what’s the added win percentage of going for it? He’ll give it to me like one, two, three, four, five, six, up to whatever. Then you just decide if you want to do it. It’s not strictly based (on the numbers). I listen to it. If he starts telling me 3 and 4 percent, I get really interested. If it’s 1 or 2 percent, I’m still interested — especially if it’s short, if I think we can get it.”

 

Says Stern, “I just remind him during the game that this is what we were planning to do. If something’s changed, then he’ll argue back. You’ve just gotta be ready for him to push back, like, ‘You really think we should?’ Or ‘I don’t want to do that.’ I don’t take offense to that during a game at all. He’s the head coach so he’s gonna make the decision that he thinks is best.”

 

There’s a school of thought that coaches can’t date analytics, they have to marry them. The idea is that to see the benefit of using the numbers, you have to stick with them and always follow what they say. If you’re picking and choosing, then what’s the point? You’re not going to gain the edge you’re looking for.

 

Stern understands that school of thought but says given all the variables involved, it’s a little more complicated.

 

“I just think that every decision, you have a confidence interval,” he says. “An economist would say you have a confidence interval, but just as a person thinking about it, you know that you’re just making these guesses about how likely you are to win the game. You’re making your best guesses. Math is helping you make better guesses than you might be able to make purely with your intuition. But you’re making your best guesses, and every single one of those guesses, it’s not precise. Like you don’t know for sure, ‘Ok we have a 65% chance of getting it.’ What does that mean when you get to the line and you see how they’re lined up and you see who they have on the field?

 

“You know where you are in the ballpark, and if there’s an extreme difference between how likely you need to be to get it and how likely you are to get it, then those are the situations where you want to go for it, right? But then when it gets tighter, who’s to say that his intuition about how likely we are to get it isn’t better than whatever estimate that we have is? What’s important is that he’s cognizant, which he is, of if we do get it and we don’t get it, how does that impact our probability of winning the game down the line? And then with all of that information, he is better at making decisions than a computer would be. But better for it also because he has a really acute awareness of what the computer would do if it were him.”

 

Ten games in, fourth-down aggressiveness is part of the Ravens’ identity. If there’s an opportunity to go for it, players expect Harbaugh to keep the offense on the field. There’s a value in that trust Harbaugh has built with his players that cannot be quantified.

 

“It’s just confidence,” says Jackson. “Our coach believes in us. …He believes that we can do it, and we just have to honor it and do our job – get the first down.”

 

 

PITTSBURGH

The Steelers go 1-for-2 in terms of getting receivers back for the Bengals on Sunday.  Brooke Pryor of ESPN.com:

 

@bepryor

The Steelers will officially be without JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner against the Bengals. CB Artie Burns is listed as doubtful. There were no other injury designations, meaning WR Diontae Johnson (concussion) is good to go. That’s good news for a very depleted WR corps.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

HOUSTON

Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com analyzes the AFC South race after Houston’s Thursday night win:

 

The Texans are now the clear favorites to win the AFC South after Thursday night’s win over the Colts. But both teams remain in the division race, and the Titans are still in the mix as well.

 

In fact, the 5-5 Titans still control their AFC South destiny: They still play the 7-4 Texans twice and the 6-5 Colts once, so if the Titans win out they’ll be 11-5, and the Texans and Colts could be no better than 10-6.

 

For now, Houston is a game ahead of Indianapolis and 1.5 games against Tennessee. But the Texans’ next game is against the Patriots, so that’s one they’ll be underdogs in. After that they have two games with the Titans and games with the Broncos and Buccaneers.

 

The Colts play the Titans, Buccaneers, Saints, Panthers and Jaguars the rest of the way. Even if Indianapolis wins out, they need Houston to lose at least one.

 

Everything is still ahead of the Titans, who play the Texans twice and the Colts once in December, and also have games remaining against the Jaguars, Raiders and Saints. That’s not an easy schedule to go 6-0 against, but if the Titans did it, they’d win the AFC South.

 

Realistically, the Jaguars are out of it: They’re 4-6 overall and 1-3 in the division, so they have almost no path to first place.

 

The team with the clearest path to the division title is always the team that just has to win to get in. That currently describes both the Texans and the Titans.

 

 

INDIANAPOLIS

Another baffling moment from the NFL Review crew headed up by Al Riveron.  Kevin Patra of NFL.com:

 

Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard will go to his grave believing he recovered a Deshaun Watson fumble late in Thursday night’s 20-17 loss to the Houston Texans.

 

“We were fighting for it,” Leonard said after the tilt, via the Indy Star. “I got it.”

 

With 1:48 left and the Texans facing a second-and-9 after the Colts used their final timeout, Watson kept the ball on a run to the right end. Leonard jabbed the ball out, and the two went to the ground tussling for the pigskin.

 

“I punched it out,” Leonard said. “I punched for it, got it out. I had it, and after that, they said it wasn’t a fumble.”

 

On the field, officials ruled the play a fumble and a recovery by Watson.

 

Dubiously, NFL’s vice president of officiating Al Riveron didn’t call for a review, even after the Texans surprisingly called a timeout, which gave New York more time to look at the play.

 

“The officials, I was trying to get them to review it, but the officials on the sideline told me it was being reviewed, and then the Texans called timeout,” Colts coach Frank Reich said. “That gave them, in New York, even more time to review it. Obviously, they saw it and didn’t think it was a fumble.”

 

After the tilt, the NFL Officiating Twitter account noted that after looking at the replays, there was no clear and definitive evidence that could have changed the call, which is why play wasn’t stopped.

 

“Officials on the field ruled a fumble recovered by the offense,” the NFL’s officiating account tweeted. “There was no clear visual evidence of a recovery by the defense.”

 

That argument will not sway the Colts linebacker.

 

Had there been a clear recovery, Jacoby Brissett would have had one last chance with about 90 seconds left and no timeouts from their own 35-yard-line to move into field goal range for a potential game-tying try by Adam Vinatieri. Will never know how that might have turned out.

 

It wouldn’t be a primetime tilt without some controversy, but this was dust bunnies compared to last week’s issue the NFL is still cleaning up.

 

Apparently, it was a secret review because the game was not stopped.

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW ENGLAND

Tom Curran of NBCSports.com throws cold water on the idea that the Patriots could bring back WR ANTONIO BROWN.

 

Once bitten, twice shy.

 

Two sources with knowledge of the Patriots thinking scoffed at the idea Antonio Brown would rejoin the Patriots this season.

 

When one source was asked if there was a chance the wideout – who was with the Patriots for less than two tumultuous weeks in September – might have a chance at rejoining the team, this was the two-word response.

 

“What’s changed?”

 

I mentioned Brown’s social media apology to owner Robert Kraft earlier in the week and his meeting last week with the NFL as possibly changing the equation.

 

I was told that it does not.

 

At issue aren’t hurt feelings that Brown couldn’t fix with a few keystrokes. It’s the wariness of something else cropping up down the road.

 

When the Patriots signed Brown, there was no advance notice from Brown’s agent Drew Rosenhaus that Brown was on the cusp of being slapped with a lawsuit by his former trainer Britney Taylor even though the legal wrangling between Brown and Taylor’s attorneys had been going on for months.

 

And while it was subsequently reported Rosenhaus couldn’t break a confidentiality agreement Brown supposedly had in place, the fact that the Patriots entered into the Brown experience not knowing at all that that bombshell was waiting to explode makes them unwilling to go down the same road again.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

A REPLACEMENT FOR THE ONSIDE KICK

John Breech of CBSSports.com:

 

Back in 2018, the NFL’s 32 owners voted to implement a new set of kickoff rules that ended up having one major unintended side effect — the new rules basically killed the onside kick. Since the new rules went into effect, it’s become almost impossible to recover an onside kick. During the 2018 season, NFL teams combined to recover just 7.69% of all onside kicks (four out of 52). This season, things have actually been worse, as teams have combined to recover just 6.25% of all onside kicks (two out of 32). To put that in perspective, in the five years before the rule change, the onside recovery rate never fell below 13%.

 

To add some excitement to the onside kick, it appears that the NFL’s owners are going to reconsider a rule that was originally shot down back in March at the Annual League Meeting. According to the Washington Post, the league is going to revisit the possibility of implementing a pretty wild rule that was proposed by the Broncos earlier this year.

 

Basically, the rule would allow teams to try and convert a fourth-and-15 play from their own 35-yard line, instead of attempting an onside kick. If they get the 15 yards, the team would get a first down and keep possession of the ball. If they don’t get the 15 yards, the other team would take over possession from wherever the play ended.

 

The original rule proposal came with several stipulations, including the fact that the fourth-down play could only be attempted once per game and that the one attempt could only come in the fourth quarter. The play could be attempted after any score, including a touchdown or a field goal. A team could also attempt the fourth-and-15 after giving up a safety. Regular onside kicks could still be attempted at any point in the game as well.

 

 

If you’re wondering how exactly the play would be officiated, all normal rules would apply, so if a defense got called for defensive holding, the five-yard penalty would result in an automatic first down for the offense. Also, if the offense got penalized, they wouldn’t be allowed to then kickoff after the penalty is enforced. They’d have to run a fourth-down play from their new line of scrimmage.

 

Although the rule got shot down by owners in March, there’s definitely a possibility that it could get approved this time around. For one, the NFL’s competition committee seems to like the rule. The committee actually voted 7-1 in favor of the proposal back in March, and they could try to push it through again. The other reason the NFL could approve the rule is to spice up the fourth quarter of pretty much every game being played. Since onside kick recoveries have become basically impossible, this would give trailing teams a viable way to make a comeback.

 

For the rule to pass, 24 of the NFL’s 32 owners would have to vote on it at the next Annual League Meeting, which is scheduled to be held March 29-April 1 in Palm Beach, Florida.

 

 

BRADY, BREES AND RIVERS IN DECLINE

Michael Lombardi sees decline in three of the all-time great QBs who are without contracts at season’s end.

 

Father time is undefeated. No matter how great a player has performed over his NFL career, the older he gets, the less capable he becomes. It’s just human nature — all good things must come to an end. We as NFL fans have been spoiled the last few years as some of the greats of the game have been able to delay this inevitable decline, displaying elite talents late into their career. When I first started scouting in the NFL, quarterbacks who reached the age of 35 were considered old, declining, and unreliable. Once a player reached the age of 33, the teams were planning on replacing him. The numbers supported the decision to make a change, as his production, ability to win games and yards per attempt all began to decline. Now, 35 is the new 30 and players like Drew Brees and Tom Brady are winning as they turn 40 (Brady is 42, Brees is 40).  However, this year, Brady, Brees and 37-year-old Philip Rivers (who’s turning 38 on December 8) have all seen their statistics slip. Does this mean Father Time has won? Does this mean they are facing a career turning point? Does this mean they’re merely having a down year? Let’s examine.

 

TOM BRADY, New England Patriots. [Age: 42]

Brady has indicated he wants to play until he is 45. That might be possible based on his arm and his ability to move. But this season, he is averaging just 6.8 YPA, the lowest in his career since 2006. Why? Many reasons. The first is the lack of skill players around him, players who can make a difference down the field. Losing tight end Rob Gronkowski hurts the running game, not having Antonio Brown kills the passing game. When Brown did play in the second game of the season against Miami, Brady was the Brady of old, able to work the ball down the field and averaging over 9 YPA.

 

Since that game, he has been in a steady decline. During the Miami game, the Patriots lost their starting left tackle, Isaiah Wynn. With Wynn out of the lineup, the Patriots have to protect differently and help Marshall Newhouse, the new starting left tackle. The combination of not having his left tackle, playing with a backup center, and lacking explosive players on the outside other than Julian Edelman has made life extremely hard for Brady to work the ball down the field.

 

In addition, without Gronk, the Patriots have no strong side run game. They cannot control the line of scrimmage, nor can they secure the edge of the offense, which significantly affects their play-action pass game. The combination of backup players in the front, no tight end, and marginal skill talent make Brady appear to be declining. My sense over the next few weeks is that with Wynn back and the chance to integrate first-round receiver N’Keal Harry into the offense, Brady will be able to make more plays down the field in the passing game. In spite of the decline of yards per attempt, the Patriots still rank tied for sixth in the NFL with 20-plus yard plays. They can scheme ways to get the ball down the field with their creative design.

 

If Brady and the offense do not improve on their yards per attempt, then the Patriots will have to win with their defense — which has been dominating. The Patriots have allowed more yards per play on the ground, 5.20 YPR, than in the air, 5.11 YPA, over the last six weeks.

 

There is no real evidence Brady’s decline is age-related. Brady can still get the Patriots into the right play at the right time with his rare ability to orchestrate the offense at the line of scrimmage. In the second half of the Patriots’ loss to the Ravens, when their no-huddle offense exhausted Baltimore’s defense, Brady looked like he did back in 2015. So even though things have slowed down for him a bit this year, I am still reluctant to give Father Time time the edge just yet.

 

DREW BREES, New Orleans Saints. [Age: 40]

Drew Brees did not look impressive throwing the ball in perfect conditions during the Saints’ Week 11 win over the Bucs. Yes, Brees was smart, calculating, accurate and precise with his decision making. But when he had to drive the ball over 20 yards, the velocity was missing. That might have to do with his recent thumb injury that doesn’t allow him to tightly grip the ball. But it also might have to do with age. Brees is averaging 7.6 YPA this season, down a half yard from last year and his lowest since 2014.

 

In comparison, Teddy Bridgewater averaged just 7 YPA when filling in for Brees this season, which indicates the Saints don’t rely on down-the-field throws as much as other high-scoring offenses. Brees has only attempted five passes over 20 yards all season and just one over 30. The Saints are a controlled type passing game with the ability to stretch the field with their talent, not with their execution. With Taysom Hill as an alternate quarterback, the Saints are unpredictable with their offense. They find ways to make explosive plays without having to chuck the ball down the field.

 

The Saints’ run game and the vast talents of Alvin Kamara in both phases make them excellent at execution. They rely on their ability to execute precisely, play after play, more than they rely on a powerful arm at quarterback. Could Brees win anywhere with his current arm? Probably not, but because of his ability to always get the Saints in the right play on offense, the lack of arm power won’t impact their chances of winning — until they play a defense that will force him to expand his route tree.

 

By all accounts, Father Time is catching up to Brees, but — and this is a big but — a strong-minded Brees is able to offset the declining ability to be powerfully armed. How long will this last? Not much longer, but for the next two months, it will be enough. The last game of the year, whether it results in the Saints winning the Super Bowl or losing a playoff game, will be a huge indicator of what lies ahead for Brees in his struggle against time.

 

PHILIP RIVERS, L.A. Chargers, [Age: 37, turning 38 in December]

I feel bad for Rivers. He has great talent at the skill position, but his offensive line is bad. He has taken too many hits this season, which has affected his eye level, resulting in an inability to make plays down the field. Last year was an aberration for Rivers as he averaged 8.5 YPA — his normal career average was 7.8 YPA. This season, Rivers is making too many mistakes — in part because he’s playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in football. There are too many ill-advised throws, and he appears to have lost velocity on the ball. Everything about Rivers’ play this season screams decline.

 

The Chargers’ offense this year proves once again that you can collect all the talented skill players you want on your team but if you cannot adequately protect, then having those skills players is worthless.

 

In the last two weeks against AFC West opponents, the Raiders and Chiefs, Rivers has been under heavy pressure, sacked seven times, and has thrown seven interceptions to just three touchdown passes. The Chargers are coming off a 12-win season a year ago, where Rivers threw 32 touchdown passes and had only 12 picks. They are not the same team in any aspect.  Their defense is not as strong, their offensive line is terrible and Rivers shows signs of not being able to drive the ball down the field in his shot put fashion. Has Father Time finally gotten Rivers? Based on this season, there is no doubt he’s losing that battle.

 

All three quarterbacks will be free agents at the end of the season; all three might be on different teams, or all three might recover from these uncharacteristic seasons and keep defying the odds. We all know that Father Time will eventually win. But I wish all three could play forever.