The Daily Briefing Monday, October 8, 2018
AROUND THE NFL
If The Season Ended Today – in the AFC
It was a big week for the Patriots and Chargers as they won and Tennessee, Baltimore, Miami, Jacksonville and Denver all lost:
Kansas City West 5-0 2-0 4-0
Cincinnati North 4-1 1-0 3-0
New England East 3-2 1-0 3-1
Tennessee South 3-2 2-0 2-2
LA Chargers WC 3-2 1-1 2-1
Baltimore WC 3-2 1-2 3-2
Miami 3-2 1-1 3-2
Jacksonville 3-2 0-1 2-2
Cleveland 2-2-1 1-0-1 2-1-1
Pittsburgh 2-2-1 0-1-1 0-2-1
– – –
Rookie QBs went 4-0 in Week 4 with wins from SAM DARNOLD of the Jets, JOSH ALLEN of the Bills, BAKER MAYFIELD of the Browns and Josh Rosen of the Cardinals.
Elias Sports Bureau is reporting that it is the first time that rookie QBs have gone 4-0 in one week. There is a presumption in the statement that they’ve never gone 5-0, but it isn’t clear.
And we would note that Mayfield and Allen put up 25 points combined in achieving their victories.
– – –
A tale of three coaches. One defied conventional group think and won, another came up with a new strategy we never would have thought of but it makes sense and another timidly punted in overtime and lost.
First Sean McVay of the Rams. Kevin Patra of NFL.com on 4th-and-1 at your own 42, up by 2, inside the 2:00 minute warning, the other team out of timeouts:
Sean McVay was going to punt the ball back to Russell Wilson in Seattle with the game on the line.
Then his players changed his mind.
“Initially we talked about punting it,” McVay said after Sunday’s 33-31 win over the Seahawks, via the Rams’ official team website. “You look at the belief that they had and how much they wanted to do and because of their belief, it made me feel confident — it made us as a coaching staff feel confident to make that decision.”
Rams players were insistent they could pick up the six inches for a first down despite Todd Gurley being stuffed on the previous play. With 1:39 left in the game on their own side of the field, L.A. wanted to play for the win.
“We wanted to go for it,” right tackle Rob Havenstein said.
“I was actually sitting on the bench with my helmet on the ground, then I realized the whole offense was out there, so I took off running,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth added. “I was already pouting — I was in full pout mode on the sideline and then realized the whole offense was out there, so I took off running.”
McVay had the punt team on the field when Pete Carroll called a timeout to preserve 30-plus seconds. The pause in action allowed the Rams’ coach to revisit his decision.
“I can’t remember why — I think during a T.V. timeout, maybe they called a timeout — I can’t remember, we had a lot of time to decide,” quarterback Jared Goff said. “He was kind of going back and forth. I was off [the field] — I thought we were punting. I went back on the field just to talk to one of the officials about something and as I’m turning around, the offense is running back on. So I was like, ‘OK, I guess we are going for it.'”
Goff easily made the line to gain on a QB sneak, giving L.A. a first down. With Seattle out of timeouts, the QB kneeled out the rest of the time to secure the division win.
McVay added that his decision had nothing to do with how his defense played Sunday, giving up big plays to Wilson and allowing 31 points.
“I think really if you look at how much space there was — it was six inches,” McVay said. “While you do have confidence in our defense’s ability to close that out and win it, we felt like as a coaching staff and as a team, that if you have to get six inches to win a football game, what better opportunity is there going to be, rather than punting and the variables that can come in. When we felt like we had an opportunity to close that game there, that’s what we felt like was best. It goes back to the players’ ability to deliver.”
Any narrative involving McVay not trusting his defense is hogwash. If anything, the decision displayed confidence not only for the offense but for his D too. Had Goff been stopped, the Rams’ defense would have needed multiple stuffs to get the Seahawks out of field-goal range.
McVay made the calculated decision to play for the win. Too often coaches get conservative and allow opponents the opportunity to snatch a win. Wilson himself has come back countless times in those exact situations.
As the DB sees it, anytime you have a chance to gain one measly yard to absolutely win the game, you go for it. Chances of getting six inches, what 80%, 90%? For a 100% chance of winning.
Chances the Seahawks take the ball and you stop them short of a field goal that wins the game? We’d guess about 50%. So 90% to win vs. 50% to lose? And even if the 10% stop comes up, the Seahawks are not guaranteed to get the winning field goal taking over at the extreme edge of field goal range.
This from Scott Kachsmar:
#NFL QBs are 20-of-21 on 4th-and-1 runs this season.
The only stop? Jared Goff was stuffed on a QB sneak vs. Cardinals in Week 2. Rams led 27-0 in 4Q at the time.
So kudos to McVay for going for it again in a much bigger spot.
That’s at least 51-of-53 on the QB sneak on 4th-and-1 since 2016.
Next we turn to Doug Pederson who was down 14 to the Vikings (24-10) and scored a TD. The DB, like any coach before him, would have kicked the point and hoped for a 24-24 tie and overtime. But not Pederson, and now that you look at the numbers, it makes all the sense in the world to go for two on that first TD.
Mike Colangelo of USA TODAY:
The Philadelphia Eagles weren’t exactly moving the ball well against the Minnesota Vikings in their NFC Championship rematch. The game had entered the fourth quarter when Wendell Smallwood caught a touchdown pass from Carson Wentz putting the Eagles down eight points. The normal for almost every NFL coach would be to kick the extra point, go down seven and play for overtime. Except Doug Pederson isn’t a normal coach and he doesn’t do normal things. Pederson called for the Eagles to go for two. Philadelphia converted and went down six. Now the Eagles were could go for the win if they held the Vikings. It may go against conventional wisdom but Pederson’s decision was correct regardless of whether the Eagles converted the two-point attempt or not.
Math is simple here. The move works 50% of the time, is neutral 25% (miss, then make) and backfires 25% of the time (miss, miss).
Doug Pederson brilliantly chooses to go for two. Coaches should always always always go for two if, when down 14, they score a TD in the 4th quarter.
The thing that people forget is that it’s better to win the game than to go to overtime. Yes that’s the extent of today’s math.
Going for 2 after scoring a TD when previously down 14 is the money move but coaches never do it. Well @CoachBillick did it once! http://www.footballperspective.com/down-14-scoring-a-touchdown-and-then-going-for-2/ …
I know real football guys hate math, but Pederson apparently doesn’t. It’s pretty simple though. Two point conversions are made at roughly 50 percent. If the Eagles missed one, they were likely — by simple math — to convert the other because that’s how math and percentages work. It’s not hard. This shouldn’t be seen as crazy. This move should actually be made more often. It’s the only way for Eagles to actually win the game. They don’t lose if they don’t make it. They have another shot at tying the game.
Plus, have you seen NFL kickers this year? There were five extra points missed in Week 5 alone. Kickers aren’t exactly super reliable. There’s also the math that teams should be going for two more, period.
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It didn’t end up working out for the Eagles. The Vikings ended up kicking a field goal with a late fourth-quarter drive. The Eagles did eventually score to put 21 points on the boar,d but it wasn’t enough to beat the Vikings as Minnesota recovered an onside kick to ice the final, 23-21.
The DB saw anther analysis that used 94% PAT and 46% 2-point. If you go for 2 there is a 46% that you can win the game, win the game with a 94% PAT, so about 43% chance you win. Plus 23% of the games would be in overtime if 2nd 2-point try is good. Figure 50/50 in OT so your chance of winning is 54%
At 94%, the chances of making two PATs to tie are 88%. With 50/50 in OT, chance of winning is 44%. So by going for two, Peterson increased his chances of winning with a stop and a 2nd TD from 54% to 44%.
Something to remember.
Crazy stat from Scott Kachsmar:
Marvin Lewis has gone for 2 one time since 2016.
Doug Pederson has 17 attempts in that period. Most in the NFL.
– – –
And then there is the case of Jason Garrett. Jason Lisk of The Big Lead:
Jason Garrett and Bill O’Brien engaged in a coaching clinic on Sunday Night Football, and Jason Garrett emerged as the winner … in the race to get on the hot seat. This despite O’Brien’s best efforts by kicking three field goals of 21 yards or less, and using a timeout on 3rd and 15 in regulation and then not running a play to get to the sticks.
Garrett’s final stroke of genius came when he punted on 4th and 1 from the Texans’ 43, on the first possession of overtime, with 5:40 remaining. I’ll note that this was NOT the same situation as Frank Reich faced when deciding not to play for the tie a week ago. The distance was shorter, and the ball was on the Texans side of the field.
By punting, Garrett was conceding a chance to win for fear of losing, but was putting his team in a situation where they could be sudden death losers. They were underdogs to win the game once he made that decision. Just do a mental experiment. What would the chances of converting that 4th and 1 have to have been to make it a bad move?
The answer is about 25%, given that field position and game situation. The actual conversion rate on 4th and 1 (non-red-zone situations) is 69.8% over the last three years.
Yes, Dallas is less likely to give up a score by punting than by giving Houston the ball at around the 43, but a score isn’t automatic. Based on past overtime possessions, the chances of a Houston score starting inside the 20 is about 27%, and it is 41% starting closer to the 43. Meanwhile, Dallas almost certainly scores if they convert that fourth down. Thirteen of 15 teams in the last decade to start an overtime possession between the opponent 45 and 35 scored (4 touchdowns, 9 field goals). Dallas could win outright, and even if they eventually settled for a field goal, they would be a solid favorite to win the game, as fewer than half the teams answer a field goal with a score, and if Houston answered with a field goal, Dallas would be a favorite again with possession and in sudden death.
I estimate, based on recent historical results in overtime, that the Dallas Cowboys were a 76% favorite to win if they convert the fourth down, a 31% favorite if they went and failed, and a 42% favorite if they punted. Yes, failing is worse than punting but the massive difference in chances of winning by going and getting the ball right on the edge of scoring range far offsets it.
Thus, using the 70% conversion figure on 4th and 1, Dallas overall chance of winning was 62% by going for it (without knowing the result) and 42% by punting.
That is a MASSIVE error in strategy. A 20% error. Yet, I doubt anyone else will call it the dumbest move this year, like folks were doing with Frank Reich last week (Reich’s decision may have been about a net -2 to -3% chance of winning (where a tie is a half-win).
That folks, is how you end up with two playoff appearances in what looks like now eight seasons in the NFL.
This from Frank Schwab:
The funny thing about Garrett getting conservative is the Cowboys went for it on fourth-and-1 at Houston’s 41-yard line just after the two-minute warning of the first half. Dak Prescott got 2 yards for the first down. When the stakes were higher, Garrett folded. That decision will follow him for a while.
His explanation, which included that it was a long 1 yard to go, probably won’t help.
“Yeah, it was a long 1 [yard],” Garrett told the media after the game, via NFL.com. “You know, we had a third-and-2 and we didn’t make much on it and we just felt like at that point in the game, the way our defense was playing, the idea was to pin them down there. Chris [Jones] did a great job with the punt. They got the ball on the 10-yard line and hopefully you make a stop and you win the game coming back the other way with a game-winning field goal.”
Jerry Jones knows that Fortune Favors The Bold – and that by meekly punting Garrett was anything but bold. Ryan Wilson of ESPN.com:
Even owner and general manager Jerry Jones thought Garrett was playing too conservatively with the game on the line.
“We were being outplayed. It’s time for risks at that particular time,” Jones said, via the team’s official website.
But no risks were taken. Instead, the Cowboys squandered a win Texans coach Bill O’Brien was trying to gift them and instead of taking advantage of losses by the Eagles and Giants, they instead joined them in the loss column, falling to 2-3 on the season.
This from Ohio U. alum Peter King:
Kenny Golladay, with a 60-yard reception, continues to show he’s the latest in the line of Mid-American Conference receivers (Golladay went to Northern Illinois) to verge on NFL stardom.
Peter King wants to talk about WR ADAM THIELEN. Thielen wants to talk about an onside kick he nearly mishandled:
For a player who had to pay his way to an NFL combine when he didn’t get invited to the real one after his career at Minnesota State, Vikings receiver Adam Thielen sure puts off questions about his big accomplishments. He became the only player in the Super Bowl era (52 years) to start a season with five 100-yard receiving games. He deflected most everything about that after leaving Philadelphia with what he really wanted, a 23-21 victory, some slight revenge for the NFC Championship drubbing nine months ago.
I’ll tell you what he was into when we spoke before he left Philadelphia: the onside kick with 1:09 left that came his way on the hands team of the Vikings, produced by Eagles kicker Jake Elliott. Thielen said it’s the best one he’s ever had to field.
“We knew that was going to be the biggest play of the game,” Thielen said. “He kicked a phenomenal kick and it was by far the hardest onside kick of all the onside kicks I’ve practiced against in college of the pros. It was the nastiest thing I’ve seen. It was low, with a side spin. It wasn’t a normal end-over-end onside kick. It had a nasty spin on it and when I saw it coming at me I just wanted to make sure I could just knock it down then jump on it. Just wanted to get on it and secure it because when it’s a bang-bang play like that there’s a lot of guys on you—a lot of pinching and hair-pulling. They were trying to pull my hair. Good thing I got my hair cut. It was not fun under there.”
For the record, Thielen’s got 138 catches for 1,865 yards since opening day 2017. He’s one of the league’s best, and most reliable, receivers, and Kirk Cousins loves him as much as the Viking fans: His 47 receptions in five games leads the NFL.
The NFL record for 100-yard receiving games in a season is 11, shared by Calvin Johnson and Michael Irvin. Thielen is almost halfway there. He has to go 7-for-11 the rest of the way to get it.
Scott Kachsmar with a tweet on the Cowboys:
Led in receiving by Dez Bryant (WR1), Terrance Williams (WR2), and Jason Witten (TE1).
David Irving was 2nd in sacks
Sean Lee led team in tackles
Travis Frederick – 4x Pro Bowl center
None of those guys are active tonight.
NEW YORK GIANTS
I think the Giants/Beckham controversy will be deodorized because of the way the Giants came back and the cool touchdown pass Odell Beckham threw. But his selfish comments to Josina Anderson of ESPN have to be making the Giants wonder if he’s got the maturity to be a cornerstone player for the team for the long haul. The key moments with Anderson:
Anderson: Is there an issue at quarterback for the Giants?
Beckham: “Uh, I don’t know …”
Anderson: Are you unhappy in New York?
Beckham: “That’s a tough question.”
It continued in Charlotte, where Beckham was totally unaware where a punt was falling, got hit by the ball, and the Panthers recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown. He made some big plays after that, including the clever 57-yard touchdown pass to Saquon Barkley, and caught eight passes for 131 yards. But there’s no excusing the comments he made, and coach Pat Shurmur—who Jay Glazer reported was livid over what Beckham said—is going to have to air him out today in East Rutherford, if he didn’t on the plane from Charlotte to Newark last night.
The DB seems to be in the minority who think that if you want something approaching candor, you can’t be too upset with Beckham’s answer. At this point, you could come up with 20 QBs you’d rather have this Sunday (or should we say Thursday) than aging ELI so is “I don’t know” all that bad.
And if you have only one win on the year, must you be “happy.” Aren’t competitors never happy with less than victory.
Peter King notes a decline in pass defense for the 2018 Eagles from last year’s Super Bowl champs:
The Eagles allowed a stingy opposing QB rating of 79.5 last year, which is superb. This year: 96.5, which is not. Philly’s lucky the rest of the division is a combined 5-8.
If the Eagles are going to turn it around, they will have to do so without RB JAY AJAYI. He’s headed to IR with a torn ACL.
Albert Breer of TheMMQB.com on the epic winning FG of PK GRAHAM GANO, who apparently had an epic pregame warmup:
Maybe you were wondering why the Panthers chose to run the ball on third-and-one from the Giants 46 with 35 seconds left, down 31-30, on Sunday. Social media sure was. And it was logical to ask the question.
We’ve got your answer. It’s in what special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn said to Carolina coach Ron Rivera (as Rivera laid it out to me) when the Panthers took possession at their own 25 with 98 seconds to go, regarding kicker Graham Gano.
Coach, he was killing it in warmups, Blackburn said. He’s good from 65. All we gotta do is get it past the 50.
So offensive coordinator Norv Turner—who actually saw Gano hit the 65-yarder in pregame—called a run, banking on Christian McCaffrey to give Carolina a fresh set of downs, maybe more, and at the very least one more shot at getting closer before the staff made its big bet on Gano’s right leg. McCaffrey got the yard. Cam Newton and the offense hustled to clock the ball. Then a Newton throw to Jarius Wright along the left sideline fell incomplete.
And Rivera got his final confirmation.
Rivera and Gano have this unspoken thing—if Gano’s good with the distance, he starts jogging toward the field from the kicking net without being prompted. Rivera saw Gano moving, and then Gano saw Rivera raise his hands up, giving the signal for the field goal team.
You know the rest. Gano was nails, absolutely drilling the 63-yarder, and the Panthers moved to 3-1 with the 33-31 win.
“I saw the arms go up, and said, Here we go,” said Gano over his cell from the victorious locker room. “I’m glad he has faith in me to send me out there for that. Those are fun ones. It’s one of those, you just try to hit a good ball, hit it straight. You know if you hit it left or right, it’s got no shot. So I just tried to hit it down the middle, make sure I hit a clean ball. I mean it [when I say] those guys around me, they really do make my job easy.”
And did he know from the start that it was true?
“It felt pretty good,” he continued. “It’s hard to see with the big guys in front of me. But the reaction that my holder had, that’s the first moment I knew it was gonna be good—‘Oh my gosh, this thing actually has a chance.’ Words can’t describe it. I’m excited to hang out with my family and relive that. I have to go home and play basketball with my son, I told him I’d do that.”
Given the mood Gano was in, that promise wasn’t going to be hard to follow through on. A lot easier, anyway, than the promise dad just delivered on for his coach and teammates.
– – –
With 20 seconds left in the first half, 23-year-old Giants kicker Aldrick Rosas roped one through from 53 yards out to cut the Panthers’ lead to 20-13. It was into the end that Gano would be kicking with the game on the line.
“There are some days I feel good from 60-plus, there’s others, I’ll tell coach, ‘Hey, maybe shorter 50s or mid-50s’,” Gano said. “It honestly just depends. But today I felt pretty good about it, watching Aldrick hit his 50-something yarder, he hit it way up in the net. So I knew the ball was traveling well. He’s got a cannon for a leg anyways. But I know going that direction that the ball is moving pretty well.
“My other two field goals early in the game were going the other direction. And we had one short one, in the same quarter. You just try to take as much information as you can throughout the game. It definitely varies and given some adrenaline there’s no telling what can happen.”
Interestingly, it wasn’t the longest field goal Gano had ever made in a game, but it was the longest one that counted. Peter King:
He’d never made one from 60 yards or longer in his NFL career. So to win a game the Panthers would have been heartbroken to lose, Gano had to make a field goal the length of which he hadn’t made since high school. “I kicked a 68-yarder in high school, but there was a flag and the penalty allowed us to get a first down—so they took that field goal off the board.”
And a good quote from CAM NEWTON:
“A wise man once told me great quarterbacks are only as good as their kicker.”
And now you know the rest of the story – there was a time that QB DREW BREES nearly gave up football. Jeff Eisenberg of YahooSports.com:
The man who’s poised to break the NFL’s all-time passing record Monday night wasn’t always on a path to superstardom.
A quarter century ago, Drew Brees wasn’t even the top quarterback in his high school class.
Coaches at Texas football powerhouse Westlake High School anointed Jonny Rodgers as quarterback of their freshman A team in 1993 and began grooming him to take over as the varsity starter two years later. Relegated to quarterbacking the B team was Brees, then a scrawny private school transfer who had never played tackle football before.
While Brees already had a slightly more powerful, accurate arm than Rodgers by that point, he was not as good a fit for the option-style attack Westlake favored at that time. Not only was he wholly unfamiliar with the system, he also lacked the elusiveness to evade defenders in the open field or the muscle to withstand big hits.
The son of a University of Texas assistant coach and younger brother of Westlake’s varsity starting quarterback at the time, Rodgers boasted the requisite strength, speed and agility for a dual-threat quarterback. He also was already comfortable with the system, having run it while quarterbacking one of the middle schools that feeds into Westlake.
“I thought I was going to be the guy,” Rodgers said. “My brother Jay was going to be a senior when Drew and I were going to be sophomores, and it was kind of set up for me to take over the following year. There was no indication in my eyes that there was someone who was going to take my spot, especially not someone in our class.”
Rodgers was so entrenched as Westlake’s heir apparent at quarterback that Brees briefly pondered giving up football early in his sophomore year. One hot August day, a frustrated Brees came home from two-a-day practice and told his mother he wanted to concentrate solely on baseball, but she urged him to be patient and forbade him from quitting in the middle of the season.
Everything changed for Rodgers and Brees only days later during Westlake’s final preseason junior varsity scrimmage against Killeen High School. As Rodgers rolled right and planted to throw, his knee buckled and his football future flickered.
Suddenly Rodgers was facing nine months of grueling rehab and the possibility that he had squandered his chance to follow his older brother as Westlake’s next standout quarterback. Suddenly Brees was Westlake’s JV starter, the break he needed to prove himself to a coaching staff that until that point had been reluctant to give him a real chance.
“I can’t say what would have happened if Jonny hadn’t torn his ACL,” former Westlake football coach Ron Schroeder said. “If Jonny had been healthy his entire sophomore year, that would have kept Drew on the B team in all probability because Jonny was good enough not to be benched. We could very well have stuck with Jonny Rodgers at quarterback, and you probably wouldn’t know who Drew Brees is.”
There is more to the story and you can read it here. Rodgers returned to have a good high school career as a safety.
Brees might have quarterbacked an Ivy League school or pursued a baseball scholarship had a pair of pass-happy football coaches not become enamored with him in the nick of time. Purdue’s Joe Tiller and Kentucky’s Hal Mumme both had scholarships available late and came to view Brees as their quarterback of the future after watching him spearhead Westlake’s spectacular run through the Texas state playoffs.
Purdue won a brief battle to land Brees because of the strength of its academics, the prestige of the Big Ten and the possibility of early playing time. Kentucky’s pitch to Brees was to redshirt and sit behind Tim Couch for another year before potentially winning the starting job in Year 3.
In many ways, landing at Purdue instead of Texas or Texas A&M may have been a blessing in disguise for Brees. It gave Brees the chance to earn playing time quickly and showcase himself to NFL scouts in a pass-oriented offense tailored to his strengths.
As Brees prepared to begin his college football career at Purdue, Rodgers was coming to grips with hanging up his cleats for the final time. He had suffered a second torn ACL in the waning minutes of the state championship game, shuttling his plans to play quarterback at TCU as a preferred walk-on.
“I thank God everyday that I blew my knee out a second time because it forced me to realize it was time to do something else,” Rodgers said. “I went to TCU, had a great time, came back to Austin, got into real estate and I’m enjoying life here.”
Twenty-one years after they graduated high school, Brees and Rodgers remain close friends. They contribute to one-another’s charitable causes and talk or text regularly, the subject usually former classmates and funny memories rather than anything to do with pro football.
Because it was Rodgers’ fateful knee injury that opened the door for Brees to launch his football career, the two men will be forever tied.
Were it not for Rodgers’ misfortune, who knows if Brees would be entering Monday night’s game 201 yards away from breaking Peyton Manning’s all-time NFL passing yardage record? Maybe Brees wouldn’t have played football beyond high school at all.
The link with Brees is something Rodgers’ friends tease him about all the time. Instead of introducing him to strangers as a successful real-estate agent, a generous philanthropist or the city of Austin’s 2015 man of the year, Rodgers’ oldest friends often prefer to highlight that he once started ahead of one of the NFL’s premier quarterbacks.
“Looking back, it is a lot easier to say that I got beat out by Drew Brees rather than some random guy,” Rodgers said. “I like to think it was God’s plan. We’re going to move you aside. We’ve got some other cool things for you in the future outside of football, but right now we need to put everything on this Drew Brees kid because he is special.”
LOS ANGELES RAMS
This from Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:
The Rams are the fifth team in NFL history to score 30+ points in each of their first five games. The others: Peyton’s 2013 Broncos, Brady’s 2007 and 2011 Patriots, and the 2000 Greatest Show on Turf Rams.
The Chiefs would have joined them, but they only scored 27 last Monday night in Denver.
Adam Teicher of ESPN.com says this Chiefs team will sustain its early season greatness:
The Kansas City Chiefs have been the NFL’s last remaining unbeaten team twice since coach Andy Reid arrived in 2013, not that it did them much good either time.
They failed to so much as win a playoff game in 2013 — when they started 9-0 — or 2017 — when they started 5-0.
Here they are again, one of the two remaining unbeaten teams at 5-0 after they defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. The Los Angeles Rams are also 5-0, and the teams will meet in Week 11 on Monday Night Football in Mexico City.
Oddly for a team with little recent playoff success — the Chiefs have lost 11 of their past 12 postseason games — 2018 doesn’t feel like early season fortune on the path to eventual slaughter.
It feels different, sturdier. The Chiefs seem built to last.
“I believe so,” tight end Travis Kelce said. “I think everyone can say it’s a different feeling, a lot more confidence, a lot more accountability amongst the guys to keep coming in and going through their routines of getting ready for each week.
“It has a lot to do with years past, guys feeling sick of the kind of up-and-down roller coaster, [wanting] to take what happened last year and fix it. Finishing the games … overall, the finishing mindset has been huge in terms of what coach Reid has emphasized on this football team. In the fourth quarter, we try to amp it up one more notch.”
Here are a few reasons the Chiefs will sustain their early success this season:
Their offense is less prone to deep slumps. The Chiefs went into a midseason offensive slump last year, when they scored 36 points in a three-game stretch, all defeats against teams that failed to win their divisions. That won’t happen this season. The Chiefs had their worst offensive game so far on Sunday against statistically the best defense in the league. For the first time this season, the Chiefs did not get a touchdown pass from Patrick Mahomes, who threw his first two interceptions. It didn’t matter. They scored 23 points on offense, more than enough to win. The Chiefs have more for a defense to worry about than they did last season. The addition of Sammy Watkins to go with Kelce, Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt gives the Chiefs four threats on the field on almost every down.
Their defense isn’t great, but it’s better than it looks statistically. The Chiefs beat the Jaguars with their defense. They made quarterback Blake Bortles commit five turnovers and sacked him five times. Jacksonville had 502 yards, but a significant chunk of them (212) came during garbage time in the fourth quarter, when the Chiefs had a comfortable lead. It’s time to judge the Kansas City defense on more than yardage allowed. The Chiefs are getting the job done when it matters. They entered Sunday’s game with the league’s best defense on third down. They excel defensively when the opponent has a lead, the game is tied or the Chiefs lead by seven points or fewer. In those situations, opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 68.9, which puts the Chiefs fifth in the league.
They’re close to lapping the field in the AFC. The Chiefs have the tiebreaker on some of the teams they might compete with for home-field advantage in the playoffs. They’ve already beaten the Jaguars, Steelers and Chargers. They can almost assure themselves of the tiebreaker against any potential playoff opponent by winning their next two games, which are against possible division winners. The Chiefs play Sunday night against the Patriots in New England and return to Arrowhead Stadium on Oct. 21 to play the Cincinnati Bengals. If the Chiefs get to 7-0, it’s a good bet they’ll play their playoff games in Kansas City.
The Mahomes factor. The Chiefs believe they’ll never be out of a game as long as their young quarterback remains in the lineup. He delivered in the fourth quarter in his two career games in which his team absolutely had to have it. He led the Chiefs to a walk-off field goal against the Broncos in his only start last season. The Chiefs then scored two touchdowns in the last half of the fourth quarter last week in Denver to overcome a 10-point deficit. Late-game rallies were never Alex Smith’s thing. The Chiefs usually lost when behind in the fourth quarter with Smith at quarterback.
For as talented as Martavis Bryant is, and he’s supremely talented, he’s not worth the trouble. His fumble at the Chargers on Sunday … just inexcusable. Never mind all his off-field stuff.
Bengals OC Bill Lazor is making himself a hot coach. Albert Breer:
Going into Monday night’s game, there are four teams averaging 30 points per game. You could probably guess that the Chiefs, Rams and Saints are among them.
But the fourth? Would you believe it’s the Cincinnati Bengals?
Quietly, Marvin Lewis’s bunch has emerged at the front of the AFC North pack at 4-1, and so much of it is predicated on the revival of the offense behind a revamped line and new coordinator Bill Lazor. And so it was that the first half of Sunday’s game against Miami cropped up as a pretty significant speed bump—Cincinnati was shut out, and the Dolphins’ lead bulged to 17-0 just after the break.
“Certainly the last few games, it didn’t go like this,” Lazor said afterward. “And being at zero at halftime put us in a whole new spot. It’s not a disappointment—even though we don’t like the result—if we learn from it. And I think that’s what this group will do. And what you have to be most proud of with this team, and it’s a young team overall, is the way they were in the locker room. We talked about it—’Hey, here’s what we’re going to do.’ There’s going to be no panic. And we went out and did it.”
There were personnel changes in the offseason too, and significant ones. Trading for left tackle Cordy Glenn and drafting Billy Price were part of a big effort to overhaul the offensive line. Joe Mixon and John Ross were going to get bigger roles in Year 2. And though injuries have slowed some of those plans, the difference is evident.
Just as big, though, was the promotion of Lazor to coordinator. After Marvin Lewis worked out a deal to stay in Cincinnati, he made the tough call of moving on from an assistant, Ken Zampese, who’d been on his staff since Lewis got the job in 2003. In his place, and taking the torch Jay Gruden and Hue Jackson once carried, would be the QBs coach, Lazor.
When we talked Sunday, Lazor pushed back on the idea that he’s simplified everything for the players, but he agreed that playing fast was a priority—”we literally talk about playing fast all the time”—right there with being physical and winning the line of scrimmage. And it showed up in an unplanned way against Miami.
As the Bengals were fighting their way back into the game—a 51-yard field goal from Randy Bullock cut the deficit to 17-3 in the third quarter—Andy Dalton and the offense faced a second-and-12 at the Miami 18. It was the first play of fourth quarter and, at the snap, the Bengals’ protection broke down. Miami rusher Charles Harris had a free run at Dalton. The QB subtly stepped up, and with Harris wrapped around his legs, he found the matchup he was looking for—Dolphins LB Kiko Alonso on Mixon.
“We got a tough look from the defense for the protection we had called,” Lazor said. “We still tried to adjust to it, and didn’t make a good enough adjustment. We knew we put some guys in a tough situation when they walked everyone up. Joe Mixon was one-on-one with a linebacker, and beat him. And Andy was able to avoid the rush for long enough to get the ball out and give Joe a chance at it. Two great players made a play, and hopefully it’s one of those we learn from.
“That’s not exactly how we’d hoped to be playing fast today. Normally with your quarterback, you like to play fast by making a quick decision and getting the ball out of your hand before the rush is an issue. He had to do it a little different way.”
Seven points went up on the board all the same, and two defensive touchdowns later (a Michael Johnson pick-six and Carlos Dunlap strip-sack recovered and run in by Sam Hubbard), and the Bengals had a 27-17 win and sole possession of first in the only division in the league where every team is at least .500.
And that prolific Bengals offense finished up with 332 yards, and 5.7 per play, with both AJ Green (112 yards) and Mixon (115 yards) in triple-digit scrimmage yardage. So this one wound up looking different than some of the others? As Lazor sees it, in the long run, that should wind up being a good thing.
Albert Breer on the new spirit in Cleveland:
The difference that Baker Mayfield is making in the Browns building is obvious to everyone there, and it really boils down to something simple: belief. As is, his teammates believe they’ve got the guy now who’s going to win games for them. “That’s what separates him from others,” one Cleveland staffer texted me. “Teammates know they don’t have to be perfect. They can just do their job.” And all that showed up in OT on Sunday. On what was likely going to be the Browns’ last chance to win the game, with less than three minutes left in the extra frame, an end-around to Rod Streater got blown up to put Cleveland in second-and-21 from its own five-yard line. Time to pack it in? Not a chance. Mayfield pulled the ripcord and scrambled for 13 yards on the next play, then converted third-and-8 with an off-balance throw in a collapsing pocket to Derrick Willies, which Willies took for 39 yards. Three Duke Johnson runs later, and Greg Joseph was knuckling home the game-winner. I know Browns fans are like kicked puppies and afraid to say these things out loud … But Mayfield is making this feel different.
Peter King has both feet squarely on the Browns bandwagon:
The thing that’s surprised me the most about the first month of the season—even more than the fact that Philadelphia is 2-3 and hasn’t scored 24 points in any game, more than Atlanta being 1-4, more than Ryan Fitzpatrick being 18 points higher than Tom Brady in passer rating—is the Cleveland Browns. They’re fun. They’re competitive. They’ve got a quarterback out to prove the world wrong, and playing like it. They’re 2-2-1, they easily could be 4-1, and conceivably could be 5-0.
Scoring margins in the first five Browns games: 0, 3, 4, 3, 3. In the three games they lost or tied, they had the ball in opposing territory in the last minute of the fourth quarter with a chance to win. The whole year: crazytown.
You might remember back in April, when I covered the Browns draft in Cleveland and met a two-decade season-ticket-holder named Dan Adams. So mad at the Browns’ ineptitude was this middle-aged operations manager at a hydraulics company that when his ticket invoice came in the mail last spring he photocopied his hand with the middle finger sticking up and folded up the image and sent it to the Browns with these words: 1-31 and I’m done. This one’s for you. At the last moment, he relented and bought the tickets again, for one last time he said. He just couldn’t quit his Browns.
I called Dan Adams on Sunday night.
“The energy in this city is incredible right now,” he said, a few hours after the Browns’ ugly but beautiful 12-9 overtime beatdown of Baltimore, their first AFC North home win in four seasons. (Think how incredible that is.) “The Indians are great. The Cavs are great, and God bless LeBron. But there is nothing like this place when the Browns are winning—70,000 people just going nuts for their team. We’ve really missed that.”
When the draft was over, I met Cleveland GM John Dorsey near the Browns’ practice facility in Berea. He showed up in one of those funky gray sweatshirts with the block orange CLEVELAND BROWNS on the front. (Dorsey: those sweatshirts. Jim Harbaugh: the khakis.) We had a couple of beers, from Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing, and Dorsey dissected the draft.
Here’s what I remember about that day: Dorsey knew the draft cognoscenti wasn’t crazy about quarterback Baker Mayfield at No. 1 overall and cornerback Denzel Ward at 4. Mike Mayock, for instance, had Mayfield as his fourth-rated passer, and thought pass-rusher Bradley Chubb was a surer choice than Ward. USA Today gave the Browns’ draft the 25th-best grade out 32 teams. But Dorsey was almost fierce in his regard for both picks. And he made this declaration:
“We will awaken the sleeping giant. I have no doubt.”
Five games is too early to say anything about the Browns other than this: They’re one of the most compelling and competitive teams in the NFL. Their feisty new leader, wideout Jarvis Landry, told me Sunday he thinks they shouldn’t have lost a game yet, and when players say things like that, you just nod and laugh a little bit on the inside. But they tied Pittsburgh when their kicker had a field goal blocked with 13 seconds left in overtime, they lost to the Saints when their kicker missed two field goals and a PAT in the fourth quarter, and they lost to Oakland when a dubious replay reversal gave the Raiders life in the final minute.
Most Sundays, I watch games in some combination on my laptop and the TV, on the RedZone Channel and whatever is the game of the day. In the last two weeks, the 45-42 loss at Oakland and the 12-9 win over Baltimore, I spent most of the second half and overtimes lasered on the Browns. The Cleveland Browns, the Browns Gonna Brown Browns. Dorsey talked about awakening the sleeping giant? He’s awake all right, now, and Baker Mayfield is the alarm clock.
With all 5 Browns games decided by 4 or fewer points, we wondered what the record for most such games in one season is. It seems to be 10, by 6 teams since 1950, most recently the 2010 Redskins.
After the game, in the raucous Cleveland locker room, Dorsey found Landry. The GM loves this firebrand wideout because of the example he sets and the ethos he brings to practice and games. Dorsey smiled at Landry. “Hey!” Dorsey said. “It ain’t always gonna be easy.”
But with these Browns, it’s always going to be interesting.
Albert Breer on why RB Le’VEON BELL won’t be traded:
The Steelers believe they’ll get a third-round compensatory pick if he reports, plays out the year and hits free agency next year, which would make it hard for them to accept less than that. And their phone hasn’t been ringing off the hook to begin with. Since Bell would be by definition a rental (by rule, franchise tagged players can’t be extended until after the season), and a pricey one at that (ruling out teams tight on cap space), his market has been pretty limited.
Houston Texans players have two kinds of water they drink around their practice facility and stadium. After workouts and practices and games, they drink Essentia, high-alkaline water that the company claims has been tested and shown to be better for rehydration than regular water. At other times—sitting in meetings, eating meals—the players are provided Smart Water, which Texans nutritionists believe is a healthy water to drink.
Two waters, to drink at different times of a player’s life. What a country.
This Used to Be a Rivalry Dept.: Since 2010, the Colts have lost eight straight to the Patriots. Average margin: 18.4 points.
NEW YORK JETS
Rich Cimini on RB ISIAH CROWELL’s big day against Denver:
Isaiah Crowell has set a new franchise record with 219 rushing yards, surpassing Thomas Jones (210). Apparently, he’s wiping the slate clean. #Jets
THIS AND THAT
ESPN’s officiating guru Kevin Seifert sees more bad than good in recent roughing the passer jurisprudence.
One of the NFL’s longest-tenured coaches, and one of two coaches who sit on the league’s competition committee, let loose Sunday with a blunt assessment of officiating in 2018. Speaking after his team’s 41-17 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said some of what he has seen is “a joke” and that he’s “pissed about it.”
Don’t write off Tomlin’s words as emotional postgame rantings. I also wouldn’t classify them as the kind of reflexive frustration that the NFL, and really every pro sports league, has heard about its officiating throughout its history. Tomlin is known in NFL circles as a level-headed defender of football, and his judgment Sunday reflects league-wide concern that the biggest problem of 2018 — an overcorrection in protecting quarterbacks by the league’s least-experienced group of referees in memory — will be more difficult to fix than anticipated.
There have been 11 flags thrown for roughing the passer in Week 5, despite a clarification issued Sept. 27 that was designed to address a spike in those penalties. Of those 11, none could be attributed to the league’s point of emphasis against falling on quarterbacks with all or most of a defender’s body weight. The rest were an amalgamation of incidental contact, non-forcible blows and a handful of avoidable late hits.
The surge of calls brought the NFL’s season total to 50 flags for roughing the passer, including those that were declined or offset, a 72 percent increase from last season’s numbers through five weeks. More importantly, it was a sign that referees are focused on a wider menu of offenses than the narrow point of emphasis had indicated, an apparent expansion that has caught many coaches and players by surprise. At its core, their most common reaction — “I don’t know what we are supposed to do” — is a clarion call for fans who want to see a fair game and for game-changing penalties to be justified.
In Pittsburgh, for example, Steelers pass-rusher T.J. Watt was penalized for a low hit on Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. The NFL’s roughing the passer rule prohibits “forcible” contact at or below the knee level, but replays showed Watt stumbling as he approached Ryan, trying to avoid him and ultimately clipping Ryan’s right leg. Watt’s brother, Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt, questioned the call on Twitter.
In San Francisco, 49ers cornerback K’Waun Williams approached Arizona Cardinals quarterback Josh Rosen on a blitz. Williams jumped to bat down the ball and missed. In an effort to avoid hitting Rosen, he turned his body sideways in the air. His left arm then hit Rosen’s face mask, technically a violation of the rule prohibiting hits on the head or neck area of a quarterback in the pocket. The penalty wiped out a third-down incompletion and gave the Cardinals a first down.
In the most impactful call of the week, Philadelphia Eagles pass-rusher Michael Bennett approached Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins from behind. His initial contact against Cousins was above the knee, but he slipped toward Cousins’ feet as he brought him down for a sack. The resulting penalty gave the Vikings a first down at the Eagles’ 11-yard line late in the first half, rather than a third down at the 35, and helped them score a key touchdown in their 23-21 victory.
Referee Walt Coleman told a pool reporter that Bennett’s hit was “forcible,” which is a matter of judgment and ultimately at Coleman’s discretion. But if Bennett’s hit is the NFL’s interpretation of “forcible,” then it is hard to avoid a conclusion that there is a larger movement in play this season.
At its heart, roughing the passer is designed to protect quarterbacks. But as Eagles defensive end Chris Long told reporters: “It wasn’t like he was putting him in danger.” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins added: “I know they don’t want low hits on the quarterback, but if you’re falling down, I guess you’re supposed to just let the quarterback go? The explanation from the official is he has to avoid that hit, which means he can’t do his job. He can’t tackle the quarterback while he has the ball.”
And that is why this episode is a big deal. There will always be debatable calls in every sport. One mistake can overinfluence an assessment that should also include 99 correct calls. But we have a large enough sample size of this surge in quarterback protection. Over five weeks, it clearly has veered into an area that prompts a reasonable person to question the integrity of the game.
In the end, we all want the games we watch to be fair. We want officials to make sure players and coaches follow the rules, and we want them to throw their flags for clear violations. We should accept occasional mistakes, but it’s difficult to swallow a sustained gush of flags for acts that either don’t pass the eye test or run counter to the fundamental nature of the game — in this case, attempting to tackle the player with the ball.
That’s why I think Tomlin chose Sunday to speak up. We overuse the phrase “it’s just football” to paper over the violent nature of the game, but we’ve seen players penalized too often for playing football this season. If flags are thrown for reasons that don’t make sense to a majority of viewers, it means that the outcomes of games are in question.
And this particular foul is a really big deal. It’s a 15-yard penalty, meaning officials have walked off more yards for roughing the passer (622) than all but three other penalties, even though seven other penalties have been called more frequently.
Protecting quarterbacks will always be a priority, as it should be. They are the most important parts of the game’s entertainment model. But those efforts have moved outside the context of the game, a shift the league thought it corrected with the Sept. 27 clarification. That was not the case. Will Tomlin’s outburst represent a true tipping point? One way or the other, there is more work to be done — and quickly.
Peter King on a value to Thursday games that sometimes gets lost in the short week angst.
I think Thursday night is a huge money-maker for the league, and thus for the players; it’s very likely not going away, particularly now that the league has made a far better Thursday night schedule to accomodate free-spending FOX. But Thursday night football will always be the yeah-but element to those in the league saying they’re doing everything humanly possible about player safety.
However (and this is a big however), I do want to make one last point about these short-week games: Over the years, I have met players and one coach—Mike McCarthy—who have pointed out that the side benefit to the Thursday games is the mini-bye that follows. That cannot be forgotten when discussing the effect of the Thursday games on players’ health. Some coaches give their players Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday off after the Thursday games, and that five days of rest in midseason can be invaluable to players. So I do not dismiss the Thursday games as altogether bad for player health. But don’t tell that to the Colts today. They just had to play the best team this century with half a team.
Here’s how Peter King sees it after most of Week 5:
1. Pat Mahomes, QB, Kansas City. Jared Goff has not passed Mahomes through five weeks, but he has made it a ballgame. Latest example of Mahomes’ MVP-ness: inclement weather Sunday in KC against Jacksonville, first Chiefs possession, 10 plays, 73 yards, six of seven passing, 4-yard touchdown run by Mahomes. This, against the best defense in football.
2. Jared Goff, QB, Los Angeles Rams. This is not just Sean McVay’s influence making Goff a player. You don’t make the kind of precise throws into tight coverage the way Goff is doing with a coach pulling strings and making you a robot. Sunday in Seattle was the kind of tough struggle even the best teams are going to have to win regularly in the course of a long season.
3. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. Brees turns 40 in three months. His 115.3 passer rating is 5 points higher than in any full season in his career.
4. Khalil Mack, pass rusher, Chicago. He’s on this list for what he does in games, but also during the week. Four games as a Bear, four games with a sack and a forced fumble. Might be underpaid. Listen to coach Matt Nagy talking about Mack’s influence in his first month in Chicago: “What Khalil does before every defensive period … when the equipment manager sets the ball down, they all sprint out to the ball. He started it. We never did that up until he got here. So now, when the horn blows, during an offensive period, the equipment manager will put the ball down. ‘Defense is up!’ Before it just used to be like a three-quarter, half-speed jog out onto the field. Now you got all the guys sprinting out to the field and it’s the first one to touch the pigskin. This is just a minor thing that goes so far. He’s just elevated [the defense]. He helps out our backup tackle when he goes against him. He sees this kid set the wrong way do something with his technique, and he’ll tell him, Hey, you might want to think about this as I go ahead with this move. It’s every day that this goes on. I’ve never seen one person helping everyone else around him as much as this guy does.”
5. Adam Thielen, WR, Minnesota. Five games, five 100-yard receiving games, the first time in the last 50 years that’s happened to start the season. He’s here, too, because of his value to the team, as shown by his recovery of the onside kick to ensure the Vikings’ 23-21 win at Philadelphia on Sunday. His 47 catches and 589 receiving yards both lead the NFL—though Michael Thomas of the Saints could pass him in one or both categories tonight when he plays his fifth game.