AROUND THE NFL

Mike Florio crunches the pass interference review numbers:

 

The one year (and perhaps only one year) pass interference replay-review experiment has resulted in limited reversals of calls and non-calls made on the field.

 

According to the league, 63 total replay reviews of pass interference calls and non-calls have occurred through the first nine weeks of the season. Of those, only nine decisions made on the field have been overturned by senior V.P. of officiating Al Riveron and/or his lieutenants.

 

For offensive pass interference, 26 reviews have occurred. Of those, 11 were reviewed after rulings on the field of OPI. On 15 occasions, a non-call of offensive pass interference was reviewed.

 

As to the 11 reviews of OPI rulings, eight were initiated by coaches and three came from the automatic review process. Nine were upheld, and two were overturned. No coaches challenges of OPI rulings have been successful; the two reversals came from the automatic review process.

 

Regarding the 15 offensive pass interference not called on the field, 12 came from the coach’s challenge and three were initiated by the automatic process. Twelve rulings on the field were upheld. Of the three that were overturned, two came from the automatic process and one from a coach’s challenge.

 

For defensive pass interference, 37 reviews have occurred. On 11 occasions, a ruling of DPI on the field was reviewed, with 10 coming from coaches and one coming from the automatic process. None of the rulings on the field of DPI have been overturned.

 

Another 26 non-calls of defensive pass interference have been reviewed. Coaches have initiated the process 23 times, with four of them successful. An automatic review has happened three times, with no reversals.

 

The overall success rate for coaches’ challenges of pass interference calls and non-calls stands at 9.4 percent, with 53 challenges and only five reversals.

 

As to the automatic process, no reviews of defensive pass interference calls or non-calls have resulted in a reversal. For offensive pass interference, the automatic process has a 66.7-percent success rate, with four of six resulting in the ruling on the field being changed.

 

It’s no surprise that the success rate for red-flag challenges from coaches is so low. Riveron, either on his own volition or (more likely) at the behest of someone higher than him in the league office, has applied a much higher standard than the one he intended to use, based on things he told teams and media before the regular season began. And yet coaches still throw their flags, confident that the replay angles will show clear and obvious visual evidence that contradicts the decisions made by officials — even though Rivenon rarely utilizes the standard he had intended to use.

 

Some coaches, like Jon Gruden of the Raiders, have vowed to keep throwing the red flag, reluctance of Riveron to act be damned. As a result, it’s still unclear how clear the evidence much be in order to trigger a reversal, making the entire process a crapshoot that produces much more crap than shoot.

 

The situation virtually guarantees that replay review for pass interference calls and non-calls won’t be used by the league in 2020 and beyond. The question then becomes whether the league will devise some other procedure for preventing another Rams-Saints debacle.

 

And that’s really the overriding story. Regardless of how replay review will, or won’t, be used for pass interference calls or non-calls, the on-field officials are doing a poor job of spotting interference in real time and at full speed.

 

It’s possible that it’s always been this way, and that the availability of replay review has made it more noticeable.

 

That reality makes the entire process even more of a failure. Thanks to the inability of the officials working the NFC Championship to spot one of the most egregious failures to call pass interference in the history of the league, everyone now notices much more clearly and obviously the various failures of officiating when it comes to spotting pass interference — even if the replay review process is doing much too little to cure them.

 

NFC NORTH

 

CHICAGO

Like a Trump supporter in a CNN airport, QB MITCHELL TRUBISKY wants the damn TVs off.  Jeff Dickerson of ESPN.com:

 

Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky wants televisions turned off inside Halas Hall to insulate the struggling team from outside criticism.

 

“Trying to get some of these TVs in the building turned off because you’ve got too many people talking on TV about us and what they think about us — what we should do, what we are and what we’re not,” Trubisky said before Wednesday’s practice. “But they don’t really know who we are, or what we’re capable of as people, or what we’re going through, or what we’re thinking. It’s just the outside viewers looking in.”

 

“So tunnel vision, ear muffs and just come to work every day and try to get better and get back to what we know we’re capable of doing.”

 

Trubisky, 25, is having a forgettable third NFL season. The second overall pick of the 2017 NFL draft, Trubisky might not even pass for 2,500 yards or throw for double-digit touchdowns. By comparison, 16 other quarterbacks have already thrown for over 2,000 yards. After seven starts, Trubisky has 1,217 passing yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions and is 31st in the league in QBR (34.8).

 

After getting off to a 3-1 start, the Bears have lost four straight and sit in last place in the NFC North. The Bears finished last in their division four straight years from 2014 to 2017 before they surprised the league last season with a 12-4 record and a trip to the playoffs in head coach Matt Nagy’s first year.

 

“It is totally different [this year in terms of expectations],” Nagy said on Wednesday. “Because last year there aren’t those outside expectations. No one knew exactly what we were getting into [last season]. And then we made a little run. We ended up winning the division. And we put ourselves in a great opportunity to where now the expectations are meteoric.

 

“Now they’re just extremely high for a team that’s coming from where we were coming from. And that’s great. We’re not asking for anything different. We want that. If you don’t crave that pressure and you don’t crave that, then you shouldn’t be on this team.”

 

 

DETROIT

QB MATTHEW STAFFORD is playing with a bad back.  Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press:

 

The NFL’s leading passer is dealing with another back injury, but he said Wednesday it won’t impact his availability for games.

 

Matthew Stafford, who leads all quarterbacks with a 312.4 yard-per-game average, was a limited participant in Detroit Lions practice Wednesday with what the team called a “back/hip” injury.

 

Stafford struggled late last season while playing through a back injury, and the team gave him ample rest during training camp this summer to preserve his body.

 

Stafford has played every Lions offensive snap so far this fall, and his ironman streak of 136 straight starts is the second longest active streak among quarterbacks in the NFL, but he’s been a regular on the injury report since a Week 4 game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

 

“No,” Stafford said when asked his latest injury is related to the one that had him listed as questionable for the Chiefs game. “I’m fine. I’ll be good to go. I’m not really worried about it. Something different, but I’m totally good.”

 

A limited participant in practice the Friday before the Chiefs game, Stafford has received regular treatment for his injury but has been a full participant in every practice since early October.

 

The 11-year veteran also dealt with an illness last week that caused him to lose his voice for several days. He was still hoarse on Wednesday.

 

“I’m fine,” he said. “Just a little sick, but so is everybody in Michigan right now.”

 

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

RB EZEKIEL ELLIOTT admits that he has not been the cat’s meow in 2019.  Kevin Patra of NFL.com:

 

Ezekiel Elliott shared an honest assessment of his play this season, admitting that several other running backs are playing better than him this year.

 

“I wouldn’t say so,” Elliott said when asked if recent games show he’s the best RB in the NFL, via the Dallas Morning News. “I think there’s been running backs that have played better than me this year. … I don’t think it bothers me. It kind of adds a little fuel to the fire. I’ve got some more work to do. That’s all.”

 

Elliott declined to name any specific players who have sprinted out in front of him this season, but two obvious choices could be Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook. CMC leads running backs with a 5.3 yards per attempt among players with at least 100 totes, and is an MVP candidate with 1,244 scrimmage yards, 881 rushing yards (second-most in the NFL), and a league-high 13 total TDs. Cook, meanwhile, leads the NFL in rushing (894) and is second in scrimmage yards (1,232), rushing TDs (9) and owns the second-highest percent of his team’s scrimmage yards in 2019 (34.3).

 

While Elliott decided to not pull an Eminem in Till I Collapse and name everyone in the game better than himself, he did offer glowing praise for Cook, who his Cowboys face Sunday.

 

“Just his speed, his ability to stretch and cut and make guys miss,” Elliott said. “He’s definitely a special guy.”

 

Elliott’s’ assessment of Cook is dead on. The Vikings RB is a spaceship on grass, able to blastoff at any touch.

 

While he might not consider himself the top runner now, Elliot is making his way back towards the top of the charts.

 

Zeke got off to a slow start after his offseason holdout that helped make him the highest-paid running back in the NFL. The Cowboys heartbeat has increased his rushing totals each of the past five games:

 

Week 4: 35 yards (L)

Week 5: 62 yards (L)

Week 6: 105 yards (L)

Week 7: 111 yards (W)

Week 9: 139 yards (W)

 

 

NEW YORK GIANTS

TE EVAN ENGRAM is hurt again.  Tom Rock of Newsday:

 

Evan Engram said he “dodged a bullet” with his foot injury, which appears to be a low-grade sprain and not the dreaded Lisfranc condition that can end seasons and sometimes require surgery.

 

“It could have been a lot worse,” he said while wearing a protective boot on his left foot on Wednesday.

 

But it is bad enough that Engram likely will miss Sunday’s game against the Jets. That will give him three weeks to recover before the Week 12 game against the Bears since the Giants have a bye next week.

 

Engram and the Giants sent the MRI of his foot to Dr. Robert Anderson in Green Bay for a second opinion. Engram said they had not heard back as of Wednesday afternoon but that the “pictures are promising.”

 

The injury is the latest to befall Engram, whose career with the Giants has been marked as much by promising performances as games missed. Of the 41 games he has been eligible to play, Engram has missed seven. He’s missed one game already this season with a sprained knee.

 

“It’s tough, I definitely hate missing time and I hate not being out there playing football,” Engram said. “But it’s out of my control…It’s not my fault. It’s this crazy game we play. Things happen.”

 

With the Battle of the Meadowlands for NY/NJ bragging rights looming, Coach Pat Shurmur lays down the law.

 

There is much riding on Sunday’s game when the Giants (2-7) take on the Jets (1-7), particularly for Pat Shurmur, who will try to avoid losing his 19th game in his first 26 as head coach.  Pat Lombardo of NJ Advance Media:

 

Before the Giants’ first practice of the week Wednesday, Shurmur delivered a stern message to his team. He also issued an ultimatum.

 

“Guys understand those mistakes are unacceptable and if individuals don’t get it corrected, they probably won’t be playing anymore,” said one player.

 

NJ Advance Media surveyed several players following Wednesday’s practice about the meeting. The players were granted anonymity so they could reveal Shurmur’s message.

 

“It’s time,” the player said. “There’s no more waiting around. It’s not about growing pains. It’s time to get it done.”

 

Added one special teams player: “It isn’t a sense of panic, it’s a sense of urgency.”

 

After five consecutive losses, Shurmur cut music from Wednesday’s jog-through practice and tried to put the commitment he’s asking of his players into perspective.

 

“He wants to win,” one player said. “You put in a lot of work. You lose time with your family, your wife. It’s like ‘[Shoot], if you’re doing that, you should want to do that for a reason and to win some games.’”

 

One player acknowledged Shurmur’s demeanor hasn’t changed, but the message became more dire.

 

“It’s make it or break it for all of us,” the player said.

 

Sunday’s game comes just before the Giants’ bye week. Ownership could theoretically have time to make a coaching change, or Shurmur could spend the off week making personnel changes, if the Jets hand the Giants their sixth straight defeat.

 

“When you’re 2-7, there are going to be changes,” one player said. “That’s what happens when you aren’t producing and aren’t winning, change happens. People who never experienced that before, it’s going to be a shock to them.”

 

Overall, the sense from players NJ Advance Media spoke to is that the team remains committed to Shurmur and the second-year head coach hasn’t lost the locker room, despite all the losing.

 

“Hell, yeah,” one special teamer said, when asked if Shurmur still had the team’s support. “Nobody’s moping. We’re just, like, ‘Damn, we just have to find a way.’”

 

 

WASHINGTON

You never know – the activation of long-anticipated RB DERRIUS GUICE might give the moribund Redskins some life.  Kevin Patra of NFL.com:

 

Derrius Guice will be back in action following the Washington Redskins’ bye week.

 

The team announced Thursday they’ve activated the second-year running back off injured reserve.

 

The 22-year-old tailback has been on the shelf since Week 1 due to a knee injury. Guice suffered the injury after earning 18 yards on 10 carries in the opening-week loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. The RB subsequently landed on IR.

 

Guice is eligible to play Week 11 against the New York Jets.

 

After missing his entire rookie campaign due to an ACL tear, the Redskins hope to finally have the young running back on the field for more than 22 plays this time.

 

With interim coach Bill Callahan taking a ground-first, ground-second, and ground-as-much-as-we-can-pound approach to offense, Guice could see a significant role alongside Adrian Peterson as Washington tries to take as much off rookie Dwayne Haskins’ plate as possible.

 

So out of 25 possible games since his draft selection, Guice has been available for one.

 

NFC WEST

 

ARIZONA

RB DAVID JOHNSON swears he will be back for the Arians Bowl.  Josh Weinfuss of ESPN.com:

 

Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson left no doubt Wednesday on his status for Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after missing the last two games with an ankle injury.

 

“I’m definitely playing,” Johnson said. “I’m definitely playing. I’m good. I’m ready to go,” Johnson said.

 

Johnson, who went on the injury report with the ankle injury leading into the Cardinals’ Week 7 game at the New York Giants, said he’s at “100 percent.” Earlier Wednesday, coach Kliff Kingsbury said Johnson was “close” but that he wanted to see “full-speed cuts and comfort level” in order to decide whether Johnson can play at Tampa Bay.

 

“Hopefully we see what we want this week and we can get him back out there,” Kingsbury said.

 

Johnson was listed by the Cardinals as a full participant for Wednesday’s practice.

 

On Monday, Kingsbury said the Cardinals will be “smart” with Johnson whenever he’s back and “make sure we don’t give him the ball 40 times or anything like that, just get his game conditioning back.”

 

Johnson played just three snaps against the Giants on Oct. 20 and hasn’t played since.

 

He went through a series of pregame exercises with trainers to determine whether he could play Thursday night against the San Francisco 49ers but was inactive.

 

“I was close,” Johnson said. “But I was listening to the trainers, and I knew they had my best interest and they knew what was smart.”

 

With Johnson dealing with the ankle injury after working through a back injury, and fellow running back Chase Edmonds out with a hamstring injury and D.J. Foster on injured reserve, also with a hamstring injury, the Cardinals traded for running back Kenyan Drake from the Miami Dolphins on Oct. 28. In his first game with Arizona three days later on Thursday night, he ran for 110 yards and a touchdown while catching four passes for 52 yards, instantly creating competition for touches in the backfield.

 

 

LOS ANGELES RAMS

Brad Evans of YahooSports.com says don’t be fooled by RB TODD GURLEY’s 7 TDs:

 

During the Pats/Ravens broadcast Sunday night, a commotion unrelated to the actual game erupted on Twitter. Fantasy legend LaDainian Tomlinson has a steakhouse? And he greets people at the door? Of course, it was brilliant satire cooked up by the folks at Arby’s. Yes, the joint is real, at least temporarily, but its servers won’t be handing out perfectly cooked porterhouse cuts to those who visit the pop-up location this Thursday in New York. Bank on plenty of horsey sauce, however.

 

Gurley, like the LT2 commercial, is a prime example of everything not being the way it seems. From a superficial viewpoint, the decorated rusher has skipped only a small beat from last year’s dominating season. To the gullible, he’s scored seven touchdowns in seven games, ranking RB17 in fantasy points per contest. That may indeed be the case, but a deep dive reveals serious concerns. His 2.85 YAC per attempt isn’t indicative of a paralyzing downhill rusher. Most worrisome, his snap percentage has fallen off a cliff the past three weeks, trending downward from 93.1 to 60.5 to 51.6 Weeks 5-8. Compounding matters, LA’s offensive line has steadily deteriorated. One of the best run-blocking units in the league a season ago, it ranks No. 26 in the category.

 

Gurley could see a workload uptick fresh off the bye, but several empty touches are likely. His Week 10 opponent, Pittsburgh, has shed its early season soft exterior and morphed back into a Steel Curtain. Since Week 4, it’s allowed just 49.6 rush yards per game, 3.4 yards per carry and the second-fewest fantasy points to RB1s. The Steelers also haven’t surrendered a receiving TD to a running back the entire year.

 

Arby’s and LT2 may have the meats, but Gurley, whether visually or statistically, is 100% vegan.

 

AFC WEST

 

KANSAS CITY

The Chiefs seem to have their Mahomey back.  Kevin Patra of NFL.com:

 

Patrick Mahomes will continue to press toward an early return.

 

Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid said the quarterback would practice Wednesday, and the team would increase his workload “a little bit more” this week to see how his knee responds. So far so good as he was a full participant for the first time since he was injured. Mahomes’ practice particpation suggests he could be on the verge of returning to game action.

 

“It’s day-to-day. We’ll get both (quarterbacks) ready to go, like we did last week.” Reid of Mahomes and Matt Moore prior to Wednesday’s practice, per Adam Teicher of ESPN.

 

The reigning NFL MVP suffered a dislocated kneecap in Week 7. The initial timetable for his recovery was that he’d miss at least three games. After being out two, Mahomes is still pushing for an early return when K.C. takes on the Tennessee Titans this Sunday.

 

Reid’s decision will come down to how Mahomes’ knee reacts to increased stress this week during practice, and how whether the medical team is comfortable with his recovery.

 

“We’re not going to put him out there unless it’s safe,” Reid said.

 

Wednesday’s practice is an excellent first step this week in Mahomes’ potential returning to action. How he progresses throughout the week will tell the rest of the story.

 

 

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

No surprise in the answer to Bill Barnwell’s exhaustive study on the Best Quarterback Never to Play in The Super Bowl. A much abbreviated version below:

 

If someone asks you to name the best quarterback to never win a Super Bowl, the answer is clear. Dan Marino was one of the greatest signal-callers in NFL history, but after losing to the 49ers in Super Bowl XIX at age 23, he never made it back to the biggest stage. The Dolphins would be outscored 60-24 in their two remaining conference championship appearances before Marino eventually retired after the 1999 season.

 

If I were to ask you about the best quarterback to never make it to a Super Bowl, though, the answer might not be quite as obvious. Plenty of passers have sneaked in for at least one championship game, even if guys like Mark Brunell only made it as backups who didn’t take any snaps during the game. The thought was inspired by Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who is playing Thursday night, and indeed has made it onto my list.

 

To create the list of the 10 best quarterbacks to never make it to a Super Bowl, using skill as a measure isn’t enough. Time matters too. A quarterback who is above average for 10 years probably has a better shot of making it to a Super Bowl than a signal-caller who is even better, but lasts for only five seasons.

 

My determining factor for candidates was to find the passers who had played well enough over the largest number of seasons to push their teams into the Super Bowl. To be more specific, I looked at quarterbacks who arrived after the merger and the seasons where they were the primary starter for their respective team(s).

 

To figure out whether a quarterback played well enough to win a Super Bowl, I used Pro Football Reference’s indexed version of adjusted yards per attempt, or AY/A+. AY/A improves on passer rating by weighting touchdowns and interceptions more accurately. AY/A+ then indexes the stat to the league average, so we can compare quarterbacks across eras.

 

The indexing scale makes it so that a 100 AY/A+ is exactly league average, which seems like a good baseline for me. There are certainly quarterbacks who have won Super Bowls without a 100 AY/A+ — Trent Dilfer posted a 93 AY/A+ with the Ravens in 2000 before being carried by their dominant defense to a Super Bowl victory — but a league-average season is a reasonable baseline for a quarterback holding up his end of the bargain. We’ll rank these quarterbacks, then, by how many times they posted an AY/A+ of 100 or better while they were their team’s primary starter.

 

Honorable mentions

As I mentioned, there are several passers who only made it to the Super Bowl as backups, including Brunell, Bernie Kosar and Alex Smith. Danny White won a ring while he was Dallas’ punter, years before he took over as the starting signal-caller. We could include those quarterbacks, but since they actually suited up for the championship (and several of them won rings), it doesn’t seem reasonable to put them in the same grouping as the 10 quarterbacks below.

 

There are plenty of players who didn’t accrue enough seasons as an above-average passer to make the list. Modern-day stars such as Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer and Matthew Stafford all narrowly came up short, as did veterans such as Steve DeBerg, Trent Green and Bert Jones. The last guy off of the top 10, strangely enough, was recently resurfaced Falcons backup Matt Schaub. Schaub posted six above-average seasons as his team’s primary starter at quarterback, and if that doesn’t seem particularly impressive, consider that about half of the quarterbacks who pulled that off made it to at least one Super Bowl.

 

10. Jeff Blake (1992-2005)

It’s not hyperbole to suggest that Blake is the most productive quarterback the Jets have drafted since Joe Namath.

 

Closest trip to the Super Bowl: 2000. The one time Blake did link up with an above-average defense was 2000, when he joined the Saints. Blake started 7-4, only to break his foot and miss the remainder of the season. Aaron Brooks took over and led the Saints into the postseason, where they upset the defending champion Rams before losing to the Vikings in the divisional round. This was Blake’s only trip to the playoffs.

 

9. Randall Cunningham (1985-2001)

One of the most dynamic quarterbacks of his era, Cunningham helped inspire the next generation of quarterbacks.

 

Closest trip to the Super Bowl: 1998. The following season, Cunningham took over as the Vikings’ starter. Buoyed by the addition of first-round pick Randy Moss, Cunningham went 13-1 and led one of the most devastating offenses in league history to the NFC Championship Game. The Vikings led Atlanta 27-20 with 2 minutes, 11 seconds left and were about to seal the game with a 38-yard field goal by Gary Anderson, who had made 122 consecutive kicks over two years. He pushed his attempt wide. The Falcons subsequently tied the score in regulation and won it in overtime.

 

8. Jay Cutler (2006-17)

The presence of Cutler on any top-10 list will invariably get some people angry, but while he became a punchline, he delivered six above-average seasons as a starter by our definition.

 

Closest trip to the Super Bowl: 2010. After comfortably handling the Beast Quake Seahawks at home, Cutler was one home victory against the Packers away from a trip to the Super Bowl. It didn’t go well. He suffered a knee injury during the first half and struggled, going 6-of-14 for 80 yards with an interception. He tried to gut it out on the opening drive of the second half before spending the rest of the day on the sideline with what would later be diagnosed as a sprained MCL.

 

7. Jeff Garcia (1999-2009)

Closest trip to the Super Bowl: 2006. The 49ers were blown out by the eventual Super Bowl champion Bucs the following week in 2002. Garcia would get his next playoff victory with the Eagles in 2006, beating the Giants 23-20. The Eagles faced the Saints the following week in the divisional round, but after Philly failed to convert on a third-and-1 from the 43-yard line when it was down six points in the fourth quarter, it kicked a field goal and didn’t score again. The Giants finally got their revenge on Garcia by beating his Buccaneers in the wild-card round the following season, which was Garcia’s final playoff appearance.

 

6. Jim Everett (1986-97)

Originally drafted by the Oilers with the third overall pick to presumably replace Warren Moon, Everett wasn’t able to come to terms on a contract with Houston and was shipped off to the Rams. The Purdue product quickly took over as the starting quarterback and spent eight years in Los Angeles before moving to New Orleans, where he spent three years starting for the Saints.

 

Everett was generally an above-average quarterback, although he’s probably best remembered now for brawling with TV host Jim Rome in the early days of ESPN2.

 

5. Jim Hart (1966-84)

Hart, who posted eight qualifying seasons under our measure, turned around his career with the St. Louis Cardinals after the arrival of legendary coach Don Coryell in 1973.

 

Closest trip to the Super Bowl: None.

 

4. Tony Romo (2003-16)

Romo took over the starting job at age 26 and immediately emerged as one of the league’s best quarterbacks. He posted only one sub-.500 season as the Cowboys’ starter, a six-start campaign in 2010. He was always good and occasionally great before injuries and the emergence of Dak Prescott led to Romo’s retirement in 2017.

 

Of course, some subset of the Cowboys’ fan base simply couldn’t forgive Romo’s playoff failures. During the 2006 season, Romo — still serving as the team’s holder after starting the season as the backup to Drew Bledsoe — fumbled away the snap on what would have been a winning field goal in a loss to Seattle. The following year, Romo was criticized for taking a bye-week vacation to Mexico with then-girlfriend Jessica Simpson before the 13-3 Cowboys were upset at home by the Giants. Romo won his first playoff game in 2009 by blowing out the Eagles, only to turn the ball over three times in a 34-3 loss to the Vikings the following week.

 

Closest trip to Super Bowl: 2014. Romo’s final playoff run was likely his best chance at glory. Supported by a devastating running game, he went 12-3 during the regular season. The Cowboys beat the Lions in the wild-card round after the referees controversially reversed a pass interference call on Anthony Hitchens without explanation.

 

3. Dan Fouts (1973-87)

Brees ended up as the most productive of the bunch after leaving the organization, and Rivers has hung on for a longer career. Fouts, however, might be the best quarterback in franchise history. I gave him the Quarterback Championship Belt for his three-year stretch in 1979-81, when he led the NFL in passing yards, passer rating and yards per attempt. He was then robbed of the MVP award during the strike-shortened 1982 season, when the nod instead went to kicker Mark Moseley.

 

Closest trip to the Super Bowl: 1980. The closest Fouts ever came to a Super Bowl, then, is his one remaining playoff trip. After throwing for 314 yards and two touchdowns in a comeback win over the Bills, Fouts and the Chargers were four-point favorites in the AFC Championship Game at home against the Raiders. On the third play of the game, the Raiders saw a pass bounce off of one receiver and into the arms of tight end Raymond Chester, who took it to the house for a 65-yard touchdown. Oakland got up 28-7 in the second quarter, and while Fouts was able to lead a comeback to get within one touchdown at 34-27 with 6:43 to go, the Raiders were able to hold the ball for the remainder of the game without needing to punt.

 

2. Warren Moon (1984-2000)

Moon won five professional championships, but none of them were in the NFL; he was part of a dynasty with the Edmonton Eskimos in the CFL before moving back stateside. As a result, Moon’s NFL career didn’t begin until he was 28, and after an inconsistent start to his career, the Oilers tried to replace him with Everett. Moon only really emerged as a Pro Bowl-caliber passer in 1988, by which time he was already 32. In making up for lost time, he proceeded to make the Pro Bowl in seven of the ensuing eight seasons.

 

Even given that his NFL career started late, few quarterbacks had as many chances to make it to a Super Bowl as Moon, who made it to the playoffs six times as the starting quarterback of the Oilers and added a seventh with the Vikings. For all the opportunities and his playoff success in Canada, though, he never made it as far as a conference championship game. He was on the losing side of one of the most famous games in playoff history, when the Bills came back from a 35-3 halftime deficit to win in overtime 41-38.

 

Closest trip to the Super Bowl: 1993. The best team Moon quarterbacked was this 12-4 Oilers team, which finished fourth in the league in both points scored and points allowed. \

 

1. Philip Rivers (2004-)

There’s no quarterback in modern league history, though, who has delivered more above-average seasons without sneaking into a Super Bowl than the man who will make his 229th career start for the Chargers on Thursday night. Rivers has been good enough to snuff out the idea that the Chargers made a horrific mistake by letting Drew Brees leave for the Saints in free agency after the 2005 season. Brees turned out to be the better quarterback, but the Chargers have been blessed with very good quarterback play from the moment Rivers took over.

 

In turn, he has been repeatedly let down, only at times by himself. There have been injuries and ill-timed mistakes and breathtakingly bad units elsewhere on the roster. While contemporaries Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning have had the breaks go their way during fateful runs in January, Rivers hasn’t been able to catch a break.

 

Take the first playoff game he started, which came in the divisional round of the 2006 playoffs at home against the Patriots. The Chargers led 21-13, and with the Patriots facing a fourth-and-5 on the San Diego 41-yard line with 6:25 to go, Tom Brady threw an interception to Marlon McCree. What happened next seemed preordained for the Patriots: McCree fumbled during the return and handed the ball back to the Patriots with a new set of downs.

 

The Pats subsequently scored a touchdown and converted a 2-pointer to tie the score. After the Chargers went three-and-out, Brady lofted a third-and-10 pass over highly drafted Chargers corner Quentin Jammer to Reche Caldwell for 49 yards, setting up a lead-taking field goal. Rivers got the ball back and drove the Chargers into field goal range, only for Pro Bowl kicker Nate Kaeding to miss a 54-yard field goal that would have sent the game into overtime.

 

Special teams misadventures have been a near-constant for the Chargers. Kaeding, who connected on 87% of his regular-season tries for the Chargers, was just 8-of-15 during the playoffs, including an 0-for-3 performance in a 17-14 wild-card loss to the Jets. The 2010 Chargers ranked in the top seven in both offensive and defensive DVOA, only for the one of the worst special teams units in league history to keep San Diego out of the postseason.

 

Every other quarterback I could find who posted 10 or more above-average seasons as their team’s primary starter in the Super Bowl era made it to at least one title game over the course of their career. Rivers has 12 and is likely to hit 13, having posted just one below-average season as a starter along the way. In what could only be considered a stunning development, poor special teams and goal-line mistakes have repeatedly cost the Chargers this season, as their 4-5 record does not include a single loss by more than seven points.

 

Rivers is a free agent after the season, but it’s difficult to imagine him playing anywhere else or slipping much. He feels destined to chuck up terrible-looking perfect passes for years to come without ever making it to the Super Bowl.

 

Closest trip to the Super Bowl: 2007. I wrote about this postseason several times in my Brees alternate history from 2018, so this might be familiar. Everyone remembers that the Giants eventually slayed the beast and upset the 18-0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, but along the way, the Patriots slipped. The Chargers should have been able to take advantage, but they were prevented by a bevy of injuries.

 

They won the AFC West in 2007 with an 11-5 record, and after beating the Titans at home, they traveled to Indy to face a 13-3 Colts team. As 11-point underdogs, the Chargers pulled off a 28-24 upset when Billy Volek sneaked in a 1-yard touchdown with 4:50 to go. Volek was in, of course, because Rivers went down with a knee injury in the third quarter. It would later become clear that Rivers had torn his ACL, which is a season-ending injury for anyone who isn’t Philip Rivers.

 

Rivers underwent a knee scope during the week and somehow suited up for the following weekend’s game against the Patriots, but he wasn’t the only one who was beaten up. Superstar running back LaDainian Tomlinson suffered a knee injury in the first quarter of the Colts game, and while he tried to come back for the Patriots game, he tapped out after three touches and spent the rest of the game on the sideline. Star tight end Antonio Gates, playing through a dislocated toe, had two catches on six targets for 17 yards.

 

Presented with a golden opportunity to beat a team whose star players were compromised, the Patriots laid an egg. Brady went 22-of-33 for 209 yards with three interceptions and a passer rating of 66.4. On a windy day, Brady averaged 3.5 adjusted yards per attempt, the second-worst playoff performance of the future Hall of Famer’s career. Randy Moss, perhaps dealing with an ailment of his own, had just one catch for 18 yards.

 

With an injured Rivers and Tomlinson, though, the Chargers couldn’t take advantage of their opportunities. San Diego went 3-of-12 on third down. It made three trips inside the red zone and kicked three field goals inside the 10-yard line, with Kaeding adding a fourth from 40 yards out. Rivers earned the respect of anyone watching him gut through pain, but he went 19-of-37 for 211 yards with two interceptions.

 

If Rivers is healthy, do the Chargers win that game? We’ll never know for sure, but it’s certainly plausible. The Chargers would have then been a nightmare matchup for the Giants in the Super Bowl, given that New York struggled mightily against throws to running backs and tight ends. The San Diego defense was also better than New England’s by DVOA.

 

Not only would Rivers have made it to a Super Bowl, he might very well have won the thing. Instead, unless the Chargers can overcome what the ESPN Football Power Index pegs as 0.1% odds of making it to Miami this postseason, Rivers will spend another year watching the Super Bowl on TV.

 

AFC NORTH

 

CLEVELAND

QB BAKER MAYFIELD explains his shaving on Sunday:

 

Baker Mayfield shaved twice Sunday, before and after a 24-19 loss in Denver. The Cleveland Browns quarterback arrived at Empower Field with a beard, sported a handlebar mustache during the game and showed up to his postgame news conference with a simple mustache.

 

Wednesday, Mayfield explained what happened.

 

“The original thought for me, do handlebars,” he said, still with the plain mustache. “I was undefeated before Sunday with the handlebar mustache.

 

“So I shaved it off because I didn’t deserve it.”

 

It has been a rough season for Mayfield and the Browns, who are 2-6 despite massive preseason expectations. Mayfield is last in the NFL among qualifying passers in both completion percentage (58.7%) and touchdown-to-interception rate (0.58).

 

Last week, Mayfield stormed away from his media availability after a testy exchange with a reporter and admitted afterward in a tweet that he was “frustrated.” Wednesday, after yet another loss, Mayfield was far more tranquil, preaching how the Browns need to “stay the course” to turn their season around heading into Sunday’s game against the 6-2 Buffalo Bills.

 

“Now we just have to make the plays when they’re there,” Mayfield said. “We have to execute when it’s in the red zone. We have to do those obvious things. … We know that right now, eight games left in the season, just have a single-week focus coming into it and do our job.”

 

One downfall for the Browns offense, which ranks 26th in efficiency, has been the inability to consistently get the ball to their best playmaker, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

 

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Mayfield ranks last in the NFL in Total QBR while targeting wide receivers. Beckham hasn’t had a touchdown catch since Week 2, his only one of the season.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

JACKSONVILLE

Although he has a toehold in the U.K., Jaguars owner Shad Khan is saying the Jaguars presence there is not “planned” to expand.  Charean Williams of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

It seems unlikely any team moves to London, with the logistics making it difficult for any team to call the UK home.

 

After a report surfaced linking the Chargers to a London move, Chargers owner Dean Spanos, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and the NFL quickly shot it down. Spanos called the report “a lot of crap” and used even more profane language denying it.

 

Jaguars owner Shad Khan, whose team would seem the most likely to move if any team were ever to call London home, offered his denial, too.

 

“Personally, in my humble opinion, I don’t think it’s anywhere near close to that,” Khan told Rich Eisen of the NFL. “We don’t want to have more games than there’s really organic demand for.”

 

The Jaguars play an annual game in London, and Khan wants to extend that partnership with the deal set to expire after the 2020 season.

 

“The idea I had was, why don’t we sell the games we can in Jacksonville and then play a game and make a long-term commitment to London, which frankly, a lot of people thought was very crazy,” Khan told Eisen. “But I think it’s turned out to be great, and we need London to really have a stable franchise in Jacksonville.”

 

The Jaguars, though, have no plans to make London their permanent home. It will remain their home away from home with Jacksonville their primary home.

 

“Well, I think no, there are no plans for us to move the team to London,” Khan said.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

AARON HERNANDEZ

We think we know that Aaron Hernandez shot some folks while a student-athlete at the University of Florida.  We are then asked to believe that his penchant for gun play lay dormant until he shot two Cape Verde Islanders to death on the streets of Boston (somehow acquitted by a Boston jury we must report) and later his good friend Odin Lloyd.

 

Now, more murder most foul has been linked to Hernandez, the Gator Gangster.  Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

At the time of his suicide, former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez had been convicted of one murder and acquitted of killing two other men. A new book links Hernandez to a fourth murder — with a direct connection to the first one.

 

In Aaron Hernandez’s Killing Fields, investigative journalist Dylan Howard writes that Hernandez bragged to his cellmate that Hernandez was responsible for the murder of not three but four people.

 

“[Aaron] always used to tell me he had four murders,” Kyle Kennedy told Howard. “He would just always, all the time joke around saying, ‘I got four bodies.’”

 

According to the book, Hernandez originally dispatched a group of men to find and kill Odin Lloyd in June 2013, a week before Lloyd was killed by Hernandez and others. In a move that for some of a certain age and musical taste will conjure memories of Big Audio Dynamite’s Dial A Hitman, the crew may have killed a man named Jordan Miller, accidentally thinking he was Lloyd. Miller and Lloyd apparently had physical similarities, and they moved in the same circles.

 

It was the arrest of Hernandez for the killing of Lloyd that first exposed Hernandez’s double life. The Patriots abruptly released Hernandez, who was convicted of killing Odin Lloyd.

 

Hernandez also was accused of killing Daniel Abreu and Safiro Furtado in a drive-by shooting that may have been sparked by one of the men bumping into Hernandez in a bar, causing him to spill his drink. A jury acquitted Hernandez of the 2012 double murder in April 2017. Two days later, Hernandez committed suicide in his cell.

 

We almost forgot about this fine citizen, Alexander Bradley, who Hernandez shot in the eye and left for dead by the side of a Florida road.  This about Bradley from 2017:

 

Alexander Bradley, the East Hartford man who says his eye was shot out by former New England Patriots star and convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez, was sentenced Monday to five years in prison for shooting up a Hartford bar.

 

Bradley has been in prison since his arrest in the case three years ago. He was also sentenced to five years special parole.

 

“I’m not the same person I was three years ago,” Bradley told Superior Court Judge Julia D. Dewey. “It was a tumultuous time in my life. I was going through some traumatic events.”

 

Bradley, 34, already had been shot three times on Feb. 3, 2014, when he opened fire on the front of the Vevo Lounge on Meadow Street. He’d been shot moments earlier by Leslie Randolph after the two had a disagreement over money that spilled outside the club, court records show. Randolph was captured on surveillance video firing at Bradley.

 

Bradley, whose wounds included a gunshot wound to the “crotch area,” retrieved a handgun from his car and tried to get into back the club. Bouncers saw him coming and locked the doors, prosecutor Vicki Melchiorre told Judge Julia D. Dewey. So Bradley opened fire on the club.

 

 

GRADING THE ROOKIE COACHES

This from ESPN.com:

 

It’s not easy being a head coach in the NFL. The season began with eight new coaches — we’re looking at rookie head coaches and veteran coaches with new teams. The eight have a combined record of 17-47-1.

 

Not everyone has struggled out of the gate — Matt LaFleur has the Packers in first place in the NFC North. How has everyone else fared?

 

NFL Nation gauges the first-half performance of each new head coach, and NFL reporter Dan Graziano offers them some advice for the second half of the season.

 

Exceeds expectations

 

Matt LaFleur, Green Bay Packers (7-2)

Biggest signs of progress: LaFleur has built relationships — not only with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, which was a must, but with the entire locker room. Most thought LaFleur was hired to revamp the Packers’ sluggish offense and get Rodgers back to an MVP level, but perhaps underrated was LaFleur’s people skills and his ability to build camaraderie among the players. They’ve taken ownership in his program and as free-agent pickup Preston Smith told me: “You can set a standard and have a standard, but players have to enforce that standard and come out every day and be ready to play and play for one another.” Other than the clunker against the Chargers, that has been the case.

 

What he needs to do better: Not much. It’s hard to find fault with a 7-2 team but if there’s something he needs to get a better handle on, it’s special teams. Though specialists Mason Crosby and JK Scott have performed at a high level, the return game and coverage units have been a recurring issue. It took a while for LaFleur to settle on Shawn Mennenga as the special-teams coordinator when he put together his first staff and perhaps now it will be necessary for LaFleur to get even more involved in those units. — Rob Demovsky

 

Second-half advice: Win your division. Matt, you’re 7-2 and in first place. You’re the only one of these guys with real playoff expectations for the second half. Your mission is to hold off the Vikings and see if you can’t make a run at a first-round bye. Hot starts are precious so keep things humming with Rodgers and don’t squander yours. — Dan Graziano

 

Meets expectations

 

Kliff Kingsbury, Arizona Cardinals (3-5-1)

Biggest signs of progress: Kingsbury has adjusted to the NFL game, as evidenced every week. Kingsbury came into this season without any NFL head-coaching experience. It took him some time to figure out what works and what doesn’t, but Kingsbury has found a groove calling plays and running his scheme. He has figured out the importance of running the football and how it’s necessary to stay patient when down a score or two. But overall, Kingsbury has shown he can coach in this league. He just needs the right roster to fit his offense.

 

What he needs to do better: A few of his decisions have been head-scratching and they’ve cost the Cardinals a shot at winning some games. Against the New Orleans Saints, Kingsbury went for it on fourth-and-1 in Saints territory while down 10-6 about midway through the third quarter. The Cardinals didn’t convert, turning the ball over to the Saints, who scored a few plays later. Early in the season, Kingsbury was calling questionable passing plays in the red zone, where most coaches would traditionally run the ball. Though Kingsbury is far from traditional, he has also realized that he needs to call a traditional game at times to win. — Josh Weinfuss

 

Second-half advice: Just keep getting reps. It’s pretty unlikely this organization flips over the apple cart two offseasons in a row, so you can keep a long-range focus. Kyler Murray and your offensive plan are showing signs of life. Make this second half about getting better — Murray getting better, the receivers growing around him, you getting better at managing the team through the game … just keep repping. — Dan Graziano

 

Vic Fangio, Denver Broncos (3-6)

Biggest signs of progress: Fangio has seen the roster grow increasingly younger right before his eyes, either because of injuries, trades or personnel decisions. And he and his staff have coached those young players well. The team is improving, for the most part, week to week as players such as Chris Harris Jr., Courtland Sutton, Derek Wolfe and Justin Simmons are playing some of the best football of their careers, and players who weren’t even on the roster before Aug. 31 have been capable starters in spots, such as Davontae Harris at cornerback.

 

What he needs to do better: Fangio’s extensive résumé is on defense, but the team’s struggles to score points are now on his watch. QB Joe Flacco’s criticism that things are a little too close to the vest at times was mostly spot on. Nobody is saying chucking it deep all the time, but they need to be more efficient in how they use their personnel on offense (23 of the 29 sacks given up this season have come when they’re in a three-wide look) and take advantage of matchups where they clearly hold an edge. — Jeff Legwold

 

Second-half advice: Run a killer defense. The offense isn’t going to be there for you in Year 1, Vic. Without a quarterback or a plan at quarterback, you’re just stuck. So do what you’re great at — go with what got you here. Establish a dominant defense in Denver so you guys can go out on the market and maybe get a quarterback to sign with you. — Dan Graziano

 

Brian Flores, Miami Dolphins (1-7)

Biggest signs of progress: Cutting down on penalties. Flores surprised some players when he introduced the T.N.T. (Takes No Talent) Wall, making them run to it every time they made a mistake that “takes no talent” like false starts or jumping offside. But it has paid off. The Dolphins have the fewest accepted penalties in the NFL (5.6 per game). There isn’t a lot of talent in Miami, but Flores has gotten his team playing hard and disciplined, which has kept them in games as of late.

 

What he needs to do better: The Dolphins rank in the bottom four in scoring offense, yardage, scoring defense, yards allowed, passing offense, rushing offense, rushing defense, sacks, sacks allowed, takeaways, giveaways, and turnover differential. But we’ll focus on the last one, their league-worst turnover differential (minus-13). Flores’ defense has forced only four turnovers this season, tied for the fewest in the NFL, which has given them little chance to catch teams once they fall behind. Their 17 giveaways force them into holes way too often. So the discipline has to transfer to this area next. — Cameron Wolfe

 

Second-half advice: Find out who’s with you. We all know the core of your team’s future lies in the trove of draft picks your front office has assembled over the next two years. But some of the guys on the current team are going to be a part of that future. This second half should be about finding out who they are. You’re going to do a lot of losing. Find out who you can count on to stick with you through tough times. — Dan Graziano

 

Below expectations

 

Zac Taylor, Cincinnati Bengals (0-8)

Biggest signs of progress: To Taylor’s credit, the locker room appears to be fully behind its new coaching staff despite the winless start to the season. Players have retained the optimism of their new coach during the buildup to games this season. Establishing a good culture was one of Taylor’s primary objectives when he arrived after two seasons on Sean McVay’s coaching staff with the Rams. So far, Taylor has done that successfully as he tries to pick up his first win.

 

What he needs to do better: Taylor is still trying to find his way as a playcaller. The coaching staff is trying to instill its philosophy that primarily centers on running 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) as the base package. However, the Bengals have struggled to find any rhythm and consistency on offense, which is one of the main reasons they are winless. Before Cincinnati’s off week, Taylor started to mix in more diverse offensive packages, which indicates he might be learning to adapt as an offensive coordinator. — Ben Baby

 

Second-half advice: Find out what you have in QB Ryan Finley. It looks as if your draft pick will be a high one, so it’d be good to know before the draft whether you need to use it on a quarterback. Benching Andy Dalton at this point was the right move because it gives you a long look at Finley — maybe even with WR A.J. Green to help him — and tells you whether he has a chance to be the solution or whether you need to find one in April. — Dan Graziano

 

Freddie Kitchens, Cleveland Browns (2-6)

Biggest signs of progress: Save for a brief fumbling spell, Kitchens has gotten the most out of Nick Chubb, who has been among the league’s most effective running backs in his second season. Kitchens was Chubb’s position coach last year before becoming interim offensive coordinator. The defense has been decent for the most part, too, despite injuries to its secondary, and the special-teams units are much improved.

 

What he needs to do better: The Browns are arguably the most undisciplined team in the league, and ultimately that falls on the head coach. Cleveland, the NFL leader in penalties, is the only team to commit 13 or more penalties in a game twice, both resulting in double-digit losses. The Browns are also tied for third in turnovers, trailing only the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Factor in the dubious challenge flags, questionable clock management and, at times, curious playcalling, and this has been arguably the NFL’s biggest disappointment thus far. — Jake Trotter

 

Second-half advice: Give them a reason to bring you back. All the high hopes with which they trusted you are circling the drain. You’re not making this year’s playoffs, and if the level of disappointment continues to crescendo, you’re going to convince them all you were the wrong guy for the job. Show them you can bring the team together and finish strong, even with hope lost. That’ll prove you’ve got head-coaching stuff inside of you, and it might keep you around for another year. — Dan Graziano

 

Adam Gase, New York Jets (1-7)

Biggest signs of progress: The Jets have been so bad that it’s really hard to pinpoint one area in which Gase has excelled. The team is a laughingstock because its offense is historically bad (Gase’s area of expertise) and because of off-the-field dramas. Star safety Jamal Adams is feuding with management because he was dangled in trade talks, and former guard Kelechi Osemele was cut because he had shoulder surgery without the blessing of the team — an ugly divorce that made the organization look bad. In Gase’s defense, there hasn’t been a full-blown mutiny in the locker room (yet), so that’s something. He also has managed to keep his cool with the media, another small victory.

 

What he needs to do better: Gase’s pet project, QB Sam Darnold, has regressed under his tutelage. Gase has failed to create a pass-protection scheme that protects the franchise’s No. 1 asset from a weekly beating. There have been too many blown assignments and mental errors on offense. He hasn’t figured out a way to get versatile RB Le’Veon Bell involved in the offense on a consistent basis. Granted, he’s working with a sub-standard offensive line, but there has been no evidence that suggests he can get replacement-level players to overachieve. Gase’s game management has been suspect, and there’s no excuse for that because he’s a fourth-year head coach. We could go on, but you get the point. — Rich Cimini

 

Second-half advice: Get Darnold on track. There’s no way this season can possibly live up to any win/loss expectations you had for it, and frankly, they’re calling for your head already. Your best bet to get the angry mob off your back is to get Darnold playing at a higher level by the end of the year than he is right now. What the Jets’ fan base wants is hope, and if they think Darnold is on the ascent, that’ll help. — Dan Graziano

 

Bruce Arians, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-6)

Biggest signs of progress: Arians has infused an air of confidence that has been much-needed inside the building after Dirk Koetter spent three years learning on the job. Arians assembled a strong coaching staff composed of some top-caliber teachers and advisers, including one of the best defensive minds in the business in former New York Jets head coach Todd Bowles. Arians’ biggest asset is his ability to gauge what players need psychologically, infusing discipline and encouragement. The two bright spots have been pulling off road upsets over the Carolina Panthers in Week 2 and Los Angeles Rams in Week 4. They also nearly beat the Seattle Seahawks on the road in overtime in Week 9.

 

What he needs to do better: Arians’ assessment this summer that the “secondary has been fixed” couldn’t have been more wrong, and you could argue that it set an extremely inexperienced group up to fail. They continue to give up chunk plays on defense and have struggled coming out at halftime. They’re also blowing fourth-quarter leads. Offensively, there have been communication issues resulting in receivers running the wrong routes and even a collision in the backfield against the Tennessee Titans that could only be described as “Butt Fumble 2.0” — understandable in Week 1, but in Week 8 it’s unacceptable. Quarterback Jameis Winston doesn’t appear any closer to resolving his turnover issues. There also has been questionable playcalling and use of personnel from offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, who appears to be going through his own set of growing pains as an inexperienced playcaller. — Jenna Laine

 

Second-half advice: Win some games, man. You have the fourth-best scoring offense in the league and you’ve lost four games in a row. We all know the organization has to make a Winston decision in the offseason, but that decision will be a lot more fun to make if you guys can finish the season strong and translate some of that offensive production into wins. — Dan Graziano