The Daily Briefing Wednesday, October 25, 2017

AROUND THE NFL

 

The Riveron Regime is reversing more calls than predecessor Dean Blandino.  Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com:

 

Clear and obvious. Clear and obvious. Does that phrase mean the same to you as it does to me? In a complex language, and amid the inherent subjectivity of human judgment, is it possible that one person’s clear and obvious could be another’s not so much?

 

So went my thought process in Week 6 when Alberto Riveron, the NFL’s new senior vice president of officiating, made what seemed to be the most aggressive replay reversal in some time. I wondered if we were witnessing a significant creep into on-field officiating and a new paradigm for how games could be decided.

 

Citing the NFL’s standard — there must be “clear and obvious” evidence to overturn a referee’s call — Riveron ruled that New York Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins had fumbled a fourth-quarter reception out of the end zone. The Jets lost both a touchdown and possession in what turned out to be a 24-17 loss to the New England Patriots.

 

During the delay, CBS showed nearly a half-dozen angles of the play. None conveyed the full story of the ball. It was reasonable that Seferian-Jenkins might have been out of bounds before regaining control of the loose ball, but even sensible extrapolation shouldn’t suffice for a reversal.

 

Had Riveron’s decision, supported by new vice president of replay Russell Yurk, signaled a new interpretation of the NFL’s replay standard? After all, Riveron’s two most recent predecessors — Dean Blandino and Mike Pereira — said on Fox Sports that they disagreed with the decision. Had we been wrong to focus on the league’s offseason process shift — final authority now rests with Riveron instead of the referee — and not the people who would be executing that process?

 

I spent some time this week reviewing the Jets-Patriots play and putting it in context with the NFL’s 2017 replay statistics. I also spoke with Riveron by phone.

 

Here’s what I found out. Riveron and Yurk have reversed calls at a higher rate in 2017 compared to the previous two seasons. But it seems early to declare that the standard has changed or even that Riveron and Yurk will apply more aggressive attitudes over time. In the case of the Jets-Patriots play, the replay angle that convinced them to order a reversal — and cited later by Riveron in an NFL Network appearance — was never broadcast to the live CBS audience.

 

I asked Riveron if it were possible that the NFL’s replay standard could have unintentionally changed under new management. Could 365 million people — my inaccurate guess of the United States population — think differently about the same words?

 

“If we go by the definition,” Riveron said, “the answer is no. The standard has not changed. If you go by interpretation? Sure, 365 million people can have a different interpretation of the words. But then you have to take into account how long the individuals making the decision have been in this room. I have been in the replay room for three years, and the philosophy and application of the rule has not changed. That I can tell you.”

 

Let’s back up for a second and review the basics. The NFL established its Art McNally GameDay Central command room in 2014 to assist referees in making replay decisions. Blandino often saw the video, and rendered an opinion, before a referee had reached the sideline “hood” to see it for himself. Although the referee had the final call, Blandino’s judgment increasingly informed those decisions over time.

 

So there wasn’t much debate when NFL owners voted in March to slide authority from referees to Blandino. The substance of the calls wouldn’t change, but efficiency and speed could increase. There also was little discussion when Riveron replaced Blandino, who resigned in April to join Fox Sports. As Blandino’s deputy, Riveron had assisted in the replay process since its inception. Yurk, promoted to a new title at the same time, had spent the previous seven seasons as an NFL replay official.

 

But as a wise man once told me, people are human. Each of us carries our own perception, and it’s fair to wonder if Riveron and Yurk would apply the exact same sensibility we had grown to expect during the Blandino era. As the chart shows, the NFL has reversed 48.3 percent of reviews this season — including half of those initiated by the replay official. That’s a much higher rate compared to the same time period in 2016 and slightly higher than 2015.

 

NFL REPLAY REVERSAL PERCENTAGE

 

Through Week 7 during the 2015-17 seasons:

 

                        2017     2016     2015

Booth pct          50         30.6      43

Coaches pct      45.7      45.8      47.6

Total pct           48.3      37.4      45.1

 

Riveron and Yurk study each replay call on a weekly basis and have found no common thread to explain the uptick.

 

“One season, we might be a little higher or lower than the previous season,” Riveron said. “We haven’t seen a trend or anything to get any deeper than that.”

 

I’m not alarmed by those numbers, either. There are plenty of unrelated reasons for higher reversal rates, most notably a larger number of mistakes from referees. It’s also possible that referees, on average, were less willing to reverse their own decisions than their boss is. And after watching Riveron’s subsequent NFL Network appearance, in which he featured an angle that showed the ball still loose as Seferian-Jenkins hit the ground, I was less inclined to consider it an extrapolation.

 

It’s only fair to point out that in Week 7, Riveron upheld a controversial touchdown call on what amounted to a jump ball between Seattle Seahawks receiver Paul Richardson and New York Giants safety Landon Collins. Richardson was first to the ball and Collins had it at the end of the play. But there was no angle that showed definitively when or if he had gained possession. In those cases, the standard demands that the call on the field stand — and it did.

 

“The rule is that there must be clear and obvious evidence to overturn the call on the field,” Riveron said. “That’s what we did for three years before now. The process has changed, but the philosophy and the rules have not. The only thing that has changed is the process.”

 

And the people, of course. The new regime does not appear to have initiated anything close to a fundamental shift, but I think it’s worth monitoring for more subtle and less intentional changes. At the moment, the numbers are a bit more aggressive than in previous years. Chances are that they will even out over time. We’ll be watching.

 

NFC NORTH

 

CHICAGO

Kudos to Gil Brandt for tweeting an amazing stat in the wake of Chicago’s win last week in which rookie QB MITCH TRUBISKY beat the Panthers with four completions:

 

@Gil_Brandt 

Only 3 QBs in last 30 years have won games completing 4 or fewer passes: Weinke (4), Tebow (2), Trubisky (4).

 

John Fox was HC all 3 times.

 

Three different games with three different QBs for three different teams.

 

 

10/22/17   Bears 17, Panthers 3          Mitch Trubisky,   4-7, 107 yards

1113/11    Broncos 17, Chiefs 10         Tim Tebow         2-8,   69 yards

12/24/06   Panthers 10, Falcons 3        Chris Weinke     4-7,   32 yards

 

 

DETROIT

The Lions have re-upped PK MATT PRATER for the rest of the decade.  Jeremy Bergman of NFL.com:

 

Matt Prater is staying in Motown.

 

The Lions are signing the Pro Bowl kicker to a three-year contract extension worth $11.4 million with a max value of $12.15 million, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported, per a source informed of the situation. Prater’s deal includes a $3.6 million signing bonus and will be signed Wednesday.

 

One of the league’s top booters, Prater was in the final season of a three-year pact in Detroit and will now be under contract through 2020.

 

Since joining the Lions in 2014 from Denver, Prater has been an above-average kicker, ranking 11th with 85 made field goals and 13th in points (355). He has made 10 of his 12 field goal attempts this season with a long of 58 yards.

 

NFC EAST

 

PHILADELPHIA

This long piece at ESPN.com by Tim McManus is the touching story of the wrist band worn by CARSON WENTZ.  A slightly amended version is below – and bring your Kleenex:

 

Quarterback Carson Wentz was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles within days of 8-year-old Lukas Kusters being diagnosed with stomach cancer.

 

Lukas was a football player himself. He played with his brothers in the front yard of their home in Wilmington, Delaware, before joining a league at age 6. The ferocity of his spirit and style of play earned Lukas a nickname — the Dutch Destroyer.

 

He also lived by the mantra: “Wake up, kick ass, repeat.” It served him well as the second youngest of five boys in a football-crazed household, and later as he geared up for what doctors described as the fight of his life.

– – –

As much as Lukas loved playing football, he also loved watching the Eagles. When doctors ordered a year of chemotherapy and radiation to treat Lukas’ cancer, his family decorated his hospital room in green and white and hung Wentz’s Eagles and North Dakota State jerseys on the walls.

 

A radiation technician who worked on Lukas’ case reached out to the Eagles to tell them his story. Not long after, a bunch of Eagles swag was delivered to his hospital room, along with a video message from Wentz.

 

“When he saw what it was [Wentz], and when he saw that it was for him — he just got this smile, just the most beautiful smile on his face, just ear to ear,” Rebecca said. “Smiled the whole way through it. And then at the end, I think it hit him, this is Carson Wentz — that took the time out of his day — to send this message to me. And he just — he just started to cry. He just started to cry.”

 

It was just the beginning of Lukas’ relationship with his hero. The connection can still be seen every Sunday on Wentz’s wrist.

 

“So he gave me — he gave me a bracelet that said ‘Dutch Destroyer’ on it. I still wear it,” Wentz said of the gray and green rubber bracelet that bears Lukas’ nickname. “I wear it in games. I never take it off. And I really never wear bracelets like this, but this one has definitely given me extra motivation — reminds me of that bigger-picture purpose.”

– – –

Lukas got through surgery to remove the tumor (which doctors said had grown to the size of a regulation football), progressed in physical therapy to a point where he no longer needed a wheelchair or a walker, and made it to the end of treatment. All the signs pointed to remission.

 

“We had a party in his room,” Rebecca said.

 

“We celebrated. He came home,” Jonathan said. “We had family over. Everything was great, honestly. We thought that the last however many months of our life was finally coming to an end. We didn’t have to worry about it anymore.

 

“And then a few weeks later, it came back.”

 

Lukas’ brother, Anthony, remembers his mom taking the call from the doctor. “I saw how she was reacting and I knew that it was not good,” he said. “She was breaking down.”

 

“The most difficult part was having to … tell Lukas and tell the rest of the boys, what I had just learned,” Rebecca said. “But you know what Lukas did when I told him? He was immediately worried about everybody else. Everybody else. His brother, Travis, was there, and was very upset. And Lukas got up and went over to him, and was comforting him, telling him everything’s gonna be OK. It’s gonna be OK. He said, ‘I’m not gonna let this hold me back anymore.’ Those were his words. So that was devastating for our family.”

 

Doctors told the Kusters that Lukas did not have long to live. Their social worker recommended focusing on Lukas’ wish. The Make-A-Wish Foundation arranges experiences, called wishes, for children with life-threatening medical conditions.

 

“I said, ‘Look, buddy, let’s think of something good and positive and happy right now,’” Rebecca said. “Let’s think about your wish and what you could do. And he said to me, ‘Mom, I just want to thank Carson.’ That was his wish. His wish was just to thank Carson for the video he sent him.”

 

Wentz and the Eagles planned something a little bigger. A limo picked up Lukas and his family last May and brought them to the practice facility. They were greeted by coach Doug Pederson before taking a tour. When they got to the locker room, Wentz emerged.

 

 “The second he walked out, he got right down on Lukas’ level. Lukas was in a wheelchair,” Rebecca said, “and, you know, welcomed him there, and just made Lukas feel like there was no one else in that building the entire time.”

 

The first thing Lukas did was present Wentz with his bracelet. The rubber band was a small token of the appreciation Lukas felt for Wentz. Then, Wentz and linebacker Jordan Hicks — Lukas’ favorite defensive player — took him into the locker room, interrupting player interviews to get autographs.

 

Afterward, Wentz took Lukas to the team cafeteria and made him a smoothie. Lukas hadn’t been feeling well and didn’t have much of an appetite, so he had trouble drinking it all. They took the leftovers home.

 

“That thing sat in the fridge at home for at least a week,” Jonathan said. “Oh my goodness. They’re like, ‘We’re not throwing that thing away. Carson made it.’”

 

When their time together came to a close, Lukas rose from his wheelchair to give Wentz and Hicks a long hug. As requested, they each rubbed his bald head.

 

“He said it was for good luck,” Wentz said. “And I just told him that I’m praying for him, and I just knew it was something that I would never forget. It was a day that started as I thought would be just a simple hang out with this kid, and it went way deeper than that.

 

“You could just feel all of his emotions; just in that hug. … I could tell it was tough on them. It was tough on me to know that. I always wish I could do more.”

 

‘Do you think there are TVs in heaven?’

 

Lukas died on June 12, four days after his 10th birthday and 13 days after his Make-A-Wish day with Wentz and the Eagles.

 

The family decided to bury Lukas in a Wentz No. 11 jersey. The quarterback broke down in an interview with ESPN when he recalled the moment he heard.

 

“When his family told me that at training camp,” Wentz said after composing himself, “I was — just got done with a hot, long, sweaty practice, and I was trying not to tear up hearing that from his family. To think that — that he’s buried wearing my jersey …

 

“It’s so much deeper than football is what it comes down to. It’s so much more than just a game. Impactful. Meaningful. Powerful. And just another reminder for me that it is more than a game; that it is an opportunity to do good, whatever that is, whatever that looks like, and to just be authentic and genuine with people.”

 

Wentz sent flowers to the funeral and penned a hand-written letter to the family, which they framed and put up in their home. Wentz and the Eagles, Rebecca said, have “kept them close” in the weeks and months since.

 

Travis described cancer as “something that doesn’t understand who we are, and they shouldn’t mess with us. We try and try and sometimes we do beat it. But sometimes we don’t.”

 

In his view, Lukas beat cancer twice: Once when he fought it into remission. Then again when he died.

 

“Well, he’s not suffering anymore, so that’s kind of how he won the fight,” Travis said.

 

The dawn of the 2017 season brought mixed emotions to the Kusters.

 

“It was the first time watching without my baby, which was heartbreaking,” Rebecca said. “But at the same time, it’s the beginning of the season. We’re so excited to see what the season holds, see what Carson can do and what the team can do.”

 

There were nerves as the family watched the Eagles take the field for the opener at the Washington Redskins. Then, as Wentz emerged from the tunnel, they saw it.

 

“What we see is Lukas’ bracelet, right on his wrist,” Rebecca said. “It was humbling. And just a proud moment for us — blown away that he continued to hold onto that and carry that with him.”

 

Rebecca’s husband, Rich Burmeff, remembers clearly the question that followed.

 

“Do you think there are TVs in heaven?” Rebecca asked.

 

A beat later, Wentz dropped back, spun out of the pocket, swiped one defender away, broke a tackle and ripped a ball deep down the left side for receiver Nelson Agholor, who ran in for a 58-yard touchdown. One defender tried to bring Wentz down by his wrist, but ended up on the turf instead.

 

“I said, ‘That’s Lukas! That’s our little s—kicker right there. He bounced off the bracelet, babe!’” Rich said. “That was a moment for us.”

 

Said Rebecca: “It took another game or so for me to put it together. I said, ‘You know, my baby may not get to live his dream of being in the NFL, but he’s awful close right now. He’s there. He’s there with Carson.

 

“It is not just a rubber bracelet. That’s a little boy’s dream, right there.”

 

 

WASHINGTON

Keith Van Valkenberg of ESPN.com explores why QB KIRK COUSINS is 9 or so games from free agency:

 

KIRK COUSINS WAS glowing. He’d spent months praying and patiently waiting for a moment like this, and now it had improbably arrived on Dec. 16, 2012. With their playoff hopes on the ropes, the Redskins had turned to the rookie backup in desperation after starter Robert Griffin III injured his knee. Cousins responded in his first career start by throwing for 329 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a comeback win against the Browns.

 

The visitors locker room in Cleveland was buzzing. Cousins was standing by his locker, receiving celebratory handshakes and backslaps from teammates, when Redskins owner Dan Snyder and team president Bruce Allen entered the room-and essentially breezed right past him. Snyder, according to a witness, patted Cousins on the shoulder and kept walking.

 

Snyder and Allen were on their way to see Griffin, the dynamic multi-threat quarterback who was seen as maybe the future of the NFL. Griffin seemed annoyed that the team had given the start to Cousins, and would later confess as much to reporters. He felt his knee was healthy enough for him to play; the team’s medical staff felt otherwise. Snyder and Allen were aware of the tension and sought to reassure Griffin that no matter what Cousins did, RG3 was still the Chosen One. Cousins is polite and charming but also a fiery competitor who has been dismissed his entire football career as “just a guy.” On that day, he soaked up the scene and tried not to let the snub bug him. His teammates, however, were furious. When head coach Mike Shanahan heard what happened, he paid a visit to Snyder’s office. “Kirk is a strong guy, and he can handle it, but his teammates are pissed at you,” Shanahan says he told Snyder. “That’s not the way you handle things. If you do that, you run the risk of losing the football team in the future.”

 

Snyder brushed off the concerns. Griffin was selling jerseys, appearing on magazine covers and making Washington relevant for the first time in a decade. The Redskins were on their way to their first division title in 13 years, with a budding superstar in Griffin. Anything he wanted, Snyder was happy to provide. No one realized that the franchise was coddling the wrong guy. “Kirk dealt with a lot that we don’t know about,” says Santana Moss, the former Redskins wide receiver. “It was sad. We all heard the whispers.”

 

Five years later, that locker room snub might seem like a petty thing to hold on to, an affront that has no relevance now. After all, Griffin is out of the league, while Cousins has been Washington’s starter for three seasons. The team, whose front office declined comment for this story, has paid him $44.3 million over the past two years under the franchise tag, and he might eventually become the NFL’s highest-paid player.

 

But to understand why the marriage between Washington and Cousins has always been an uneasy one, you need to understand the importance of that moment. It was a slight that planted a seed that sprouted into a belief. That belief, over time, hardened.

 

When are they ever going see me, Cousins wondered, as something other than a scrappy fourth-round pick?

 

IT’S RARE TO watch Cousins size up a defense and think you’re about to see greatness unfold in front of you. He has found success by playing at a level best described as frequently promising yet occasionally maddening. He throws great screen passes, slants and outs. He gets the ball out quickly and reads defenses well. He just doesn’t scare defensive coordinators. He projects competence, not brilliance.

 

Still, in 2015 and 2016, he led Washington to back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in 20 years. He finished third in the NFL in passing yards in 2016 with 4,917 (a franchise record) and was sixth in ESPN’s Total QBR at 66.5. His career completion percentage (65.9) is the third best in NFL history, better than those of (among others) Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.

 

Sitting in the cafeteria of the Redskins’ practice facility in Ashburn, Virginia, after a recent workout, Cousins admits it has taken him years to believe in his own potential. “A large number of quarterbacks have a confidence that is borderline out of touch with reality,” he says. “They have that naturally. For me, it took playing and having experience to build that confidence.”

 

His reputation is certainly complicated by his habit of making mistakes in important moments, especially considering that he has played behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, according to Football Outsiders. In the red zone last year, Cousins was one of the least efficient starting quarterbacks, completing just 45.8 percent of his passes. Inside the 10-yard line, he was even worse, connecting on 31.6 percent of his throws, dead last in the NFL. And although he has cut down on the interceptions that plagued him early in his career, he threw arguably his worst pick in the regular-season finale against the Giants last season. Trailing 13-10 with 1:27 remaining, Cousins had a first down at the Giants’ 43, but he tried to force a throw under pressure to Pierre Garcon while running to his left and without setting his feet. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie easily stepped in front of the pass. A win would have put Washington in the playoffs. Instead, the pick fueled an entire offseason of criticism.

 

“He’ll never be special,” says one longtime NFL front office decision-maker when asked to assess Cousins’ prospects. “Great guy, will never embarrass you off the field, and if you were ranking guys, he’s probably above average. But he’s not special. And that’s not going to change. What you see is what you get.”

 

That makes what happens between Cousins and the Redskins over the next six months one of the most interesting questions in the NFL. Cousins is the Joe Flacco conundrum all over again. In a league in which competent quarterback play is essential to long-term success, Cousins is a guy you can win with but who needs plenty of help. Do you risk overpaying him because you believe the alternative might be significantly worse?

 

In a league in which Jay Cutler and Case Keenum are starters, though, the answer is yes-some team is going to pay Cousins $25 million (or more) in 2018. If he signs a long-term deal, Washington (or someone else) will likely have to guarantee him $90-100 million, based on what the Lions gave Matthew Stafford, and Cousins might end up as the highest-paid player in NFL history. The market will demand it.

 

Does Cousins even want to be in D.C. for the next 10 years? Former Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan, who declined comment for this story, reportedly tried to sign Cousins to a long-term deal before 2016. But the initial offer, according to people briefed on it, was $12 million a year, and Cousins was insulted. He would have signed if the team had offered a three-year deal at $19 million per, according to a source familiar with his thinking. Allen wouldn’t go higher than $16 million. The team felt as if it hadn’t seen enough, that he’d played only nine good games. Instead, it ended up paying Cousins significantly more when it had to franchise him.

 

The mixed signals and the team’s lack of candor bugged him more than any locker room handshake ever could. When he led Washington to a November win over the Packers in 2016, he couldn’t resist playfully screaming “How do you like me now?” at McCloughan and tousling his hair as he jogged off the field. Cousins, according to people close to him, spent years watching the team fawn over Griffin, treating him like royalty, and when it became his team, Washington didn’t show him similar respect. If Griffin had put up the same stats Cousins had, wouldn’t he already have a substantial contract offer?

 

When Allen went to visit Cousins in Michigan this offseason to persuade him to sign a deal, Cousins looked him right in the eye and told him it wasn’t about the money. He was going to play under the franchise tag again. “I prayed about it and said, ‘Lord, what do you want to do?'” Cousins said this offseason at Liberty University’s convocation. “I just didn’t feel a peace about signing a long-term contract. I think the Lord communicates to us in many ways, and one of those ways is through his peace. I just didn’t feel a peace. I do believe that the Lord, at least in my life, he likes to use one-year contracts, not long-term contracts, if you will.”

 

Publicly, Cousins has never shown signs he holds a grudge. He’s said all the right things, gushed about the city and the fans on social media. But privately, he has told several people he is open to reuniting with Kyle Shanahan, the former Washington offensive coordinator who is the 49ers’ head coach. Or maybe Sean McVay, another former offensive coordinator, who is now running the Rams.

 

IN SOME RESPECTS, it’s improbable Cousins’ athletic career happened at all. He refers to it as a miracle, and with good reason. When he was 19 months old, Cousins was playing in the kitchen when he pulled a pot of boiling spaghetti off the stove. The scalding-hot water left third-degree burns on his chest, shoulders and underarms. He spent two weeks in the hospital, and a year later a doctor told his parents that Cousins might have limited range of motion in his arms for the rest of his life. He might never be able to throw a ball properly, the doctor emphasized. A few scars remain, but nothing else in the original prognosis came to pass. The incident did, however, establish what Cousins would come to see as a theme in his life. He would be tested, sometimes plagued, by doubt, but his faith would eventually reward him. “I see it as the compass that points north,” Cousins says. “We all have a lot of storms in our life, and without the compass it can be pretty easily swayed to the right or left.”

 

In high school, it seemed coaches never believed in him until he starred for their teams. “I don’t think he’s ever walked into a situation where someone has said ‘You’re our guy,'” says his father, Don Cousins, a small-town Michigan pastor. “It was always ‘Well, we’ll give him a try.'”

– – –

The theme of his athletic life, though, continued when the draft came around. The NFL’s interest was lukewarm. When the Redskins selected him with the 102nd pick in 2012-exactly 100 picks after Griffin-he couldn’t hide his disappointment. His parents’ living room felt more like a funeral parlor. “Dad, I’m at a complete dead end,” he said. He knew he wouldn’t even be allowed to compete for the job. “I remember telling him, there is a reason you were picked,” Dantonio says. “People don’t usually do this. They must feel pretty good about you.”

 

In the years that followed, he gradually changed perceptions. He kept his mouth shut in quarterback meetings while Griffin slowly began to lose allies. “Robert was a diva to everyone, not just Kirk,” Mike Shanahan says. “His teammates all knew. Kirk handled that situation like a pro, and all his teammates could see it.”

 

Players didn’t initially dislike Griffin, Moss says. He was making dynamic plays and selling tickets. But over time, it was infuriating that he couldn’t make even the most basic reads. Receivers eventually resorted to telling Griffin in the huddle who was going to come open on certain playcalls. Griffin would still freeze after the snap and miss guys running wide open. “The one thing I like about film, it doesn’t lie,” Moss says. “The guys in practice know. The guys in games know. They see you busting your butt. With Robert, stuff just wasn’t adding up. Then Kirk gets in later in the year, and it’s crazy. Suddenly the guys who are open are getting the ball.”

 

Griffin, not surprisingly, remembers things differently on many fronts. “I know what the truth is,” he tells ESPN in a recent phone interview. He says if teammates had criticism at the time, they didn’t voice it to him. “And I know that has gotten a little bit blurry over the years.”

 

Mike Shanahan says much of the tension stemmed from Griffin’s insistence that the Redskins let him morph into a dropback passer. The team was open to the idea, especially after Griffin reinjured his knee in the 2012 playoffs against the Seahawks, after which Shanahan came under heavy criticism for letting Griffin play with a sprain. The coach remembers that Griffin wanted to play, and Griffin backs that up: “Any player in the heat of the moment, whether they’ve got one leg or no legs, they’re going to want to play.”

 

But later, when the Redskins tried to change to a more pro-style offense, Shanahan was frustrated that Griffin wouldn’t put in the work. He thought Griffin believed he’d already arrived as a player. “It takes time to master that,” the coach says. “But he wanted to be known as a dropback passer because of his brand. He had people telling him things that weren’t in his best interest, and he didn’t want to be known as a running quarterback.”

 

Again, Griffin has a different take: “It’s surprising and shocking to me he would say those things in reference to a brand,” he says. “What I wanted to be … is what every quarterback wants. To master things from the pocket. We weren’t able to get there because our time was cut short. I think I could have gotten better at the things he’s talking about if we’d continued.” Shanahan was fired at the end of the 2013 season, a move several people in the organization believe happened because he wanted to let Cousins compete for the job. Shanahan concedes that he felt Cousins had the potential to be the next Drew Brees.

 

Jay Gruden was more skeptical. He took over and saw Cousins as a quiet backup who was afraid to step on toes. “He was still a little fragile,” Gruden says. “It took him a while to establish himself.” Gruden tried to find a way to make things work, but as tensions in the locker room rose, the situation became untenable. At the start of 2015, with Griffin still struggling to get healthy, a group of players went to Gruden and implored him to make a change. Gruden and McCloughan persuaded Snyder and Allen it was time to give Cousins a shot. Griffin was relegated to third on the depth chart and spent the entire season inactive before he was released in March 2016. He remains without an NFL job, although he had a tryout with the Chargers this offseason.

 

Cousins, meanwhile, grew obsessed with unlocking his potential. “I crave discipline,” he says. He studied tape and read books on leadership, finance and spirituality. He prepared spreadsheets that divided his days into 15-minute increments, each activity color-coded. At one point, Cousins taped an old high school math quiz, wrinkled and ripped down the middle, above his desk at home. He’d gotten a C-plus after failing to study and kept it to remember what happens when he doesn’t work hard enough.

 

“If he does have a weakness, it’s that he’s too much of a perfectionist,” Gruden says. “He wants everything to be perfect. Unfortunately, I can’t get guys 30 f—ing yards open all the time. There are going to be some tight-window throws he’s going to have to throw some days. I’ll call some of these in practice, and if it doesn’t look exactly the way I drew it up, he’ll [say], ‘I don’t know if I like that. I can’t call it in a game.’ I’m like, ‘Bud, c’mon.'”

 

Cousins chuckled when told of Gruden’s comments. “If I played the way Jay is suggesting,” he says, “I’d throw 20 interceptions a year, and I wouldn’t last. I know my limitations.”

 

WHAT’S MADDENING ABOUT Cousins is, there are times when he can turn even the most hardened football cynic into a believer. There are series, even entire games, when his passes seem to whistle through the air, when Cousins can freeze safeties with his eyes and zip passes through chaotic tangles of arms, the ball nestling softly into a receiver’s hands. And whatever his faults, Cousins is the rare player who has improved every season he’s played football, dating back to high school.

 

Cousins couldn’t make deep throws to the outside of the field when he came into the league, and when he tried to put some extra mustard on shorter passes to prove he had arm strength, veterans like Moss told him to stay in his lane and not try to become something he was not. “I remember Kirk threw me a ball in practice once, and he threw it so hard it kind of messed up my finger,” Moss says. “I said, ‘That’s not you. You throw a catchable ball.'”

 

But Cousins knew he had to show he could stretch the field. Each offseason since he was drafted, Cousins has worked with throwing mechanics guru Jeff Christensen to improve his technique. They labored for hours over his footwork, when to open his hips, how to position his elbow. Cousins learned his lower body, not his arm, was the key. The ball started coming out with more zip and accuracy, without additional effort. Now Cousins might not have a cannon for an arm, but he has one of the NFL’s quickest releases. He gets sacked on only 4.1 percent of his attempts, seventh best in NFL history.

– – –

THERE HAVE BEEN signs of thawing in the relationship between Cousins and the team. This spring Snyder got involved in Cousins’ recruitment for the first time, reaching out to express that he wants Cousins to be part of the team’s future. He has taken Cousins to dinner, texted with him off and on, and tried to make his appreciation clear. “He’s done everything right,” Cousins says.

 

Cousins, in turn, has said several times that the Redskins remain his first choice. He would like to play his entire career with one franchise, he says. Asked last week about the significance of the 2012 locker room snub, Cousins says he has moved on. “The team has clearly communicated their desire to have me around,” he says. “I was the one who decided to play on the tag. The team was happy to commit and do a long-term deal.”

 

Against San Francisco in Week 6, facing his old coach Kyle Shanahan, Cousins at times played as if he were auditioning for a job in 2018. He carved up the Niners with surgical efficiency, throwing two touchdowns early and helping Washington open up a 17-0 lead. The winless 49ers clawed their way back, but Cousins eventually finished them off, scoring on a 7-yard read-option in the fourth quarter, the exact kind of play Griffin used to run with transitory brilliance. “I’m happy for him,” Gruden says. “He’s done a good job. He’s going to keep doing a good job, either here or somewhere else. Hopefully it will be here. That’s what our plan is, anyway.”

 

After Cousins’ touchdown run, he jogged the length of stands behind the end zone of FedEx Field with his hand out, vacuuming up as many high-fives as he could. The crowd went bonkers, and you could even see a few fans dangling their arms over the railing while wearing Robert Griffin III jerseys. It was easy to imagine the scene on repeat, with Cousins stirring up the home crowd every week, for years and years to come.

 

It was just as easy, though, to think of the victory lap as a polite precursor to him saying goodbye.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

CAROLINA

The Panthers visit Tampa Bay on Sunday – and PK ROBERTO AGUAYO is now positioned to be part of the team.  Jeremy Bergman at NFL.com:

 

Roberto Aguayo has resurfaced in the NFC South.

 

The Carolina Panthers signed the embattled kicker to the practice squad Wednesday as Graham Gano deals with some knee soreness.

 

This is the first time we’ve heard Aguayo’s name mentioned in the trades since the end of training camp when he was released by the Chicago Bears.

 

The Panthers have claimed WR KAELIN CLAY off waivers from the Bills.  S DEMETRIOUS COX goes to IR.

 

 

TAMPA BAY

A shuffle on Tampa Bay’s offensive line.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The Buccaneers signed veteran defensive end Darryl Tapp after a workout on Tuesday and they revealed the reason for their interest in defensive line help on Wednesday.

 

The Bucs announced that defensive end Noah Spence has been placed on injured reserve. Spence has a shoulder injury that has hampered him for much of the season and recorded one sack in six games. He had 5.5 during his rookie season in 2016, but also dealt with shoulder issues that year so finding a permanent solution to the problem would be a good way to head into his third NFL season.

 

NFC WEST

 

ARIZONA

Coach Bruce Arians refutes a report that he is contemplating stepping down.  ESPN.com:

 

Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said his focus is on this week, not on a report that this will be his final season with the team.

 

ABC15 in Arizona reported that the 65-year-old coach has told those close to him that he plans to step down at the end of the season.

 

However, Arians refuted that report in a text message to ESPN’s Ian Fitzsimmons.

 

“I don’t know who put that out there,” Arians told Fitzsimmons. “But that’s something I never think about until the end of the season. I’m just focused on being 1-0 this week.”

 

Arians also took to Twitter to say he’s not thinking about life after coaching.

 

@BruceArians

Hearing reports I’m retiring. News to me. Nothing could be further from truth & 100% focused on getting back on track at SF! #birdgang

 

In July, Arians said he’d like to at least finish out his contract, which runs through 2018. His contract also includes a team option for the 2019 season.

 

Arians, who is in his fifth season with the Cardinals, has battled health scares in recent years.

 

 

SEATTLE

With CLIFF AVRIL done, the Seahawks turn to another veteran.  Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times:

 

Seeking to add to their pass rush after putting Cliff Avril on Injured Reserve last week, the Seahawks on Tuesday night agreed to terms on a contract with veteran defensive end and likely future Hall of Famer Dwight Freeney.

 

The Seahawks had not filled Avril’s spot on the 53-man roster leaving an opening for Freeney, who agreed to terms after a visit, workout and physical with the Seahawks on Tuesday afternoon.

 

Freeney broke the news that he was becoming a Seahawk on Twitter Tuesday night stating: “Time to get loud, 12s.” The team later confirmed that Freeney had agreed to a one-year contract. He is expected to practice for the first time with the Seahawks on Wednesday with the intention of making his debut when Seattle hosts Houston on Sunday.

 

Freeney, 37, has been a free agent since the end of last season, which he played with Atlanta on a one-year deal. He had three sacks in 15 games in playing more of a complementary role for the Falcons — he logged 415 snaps, or 37.5 percent — and also had sack in the Super Bowl loss to the Patriots.

 

Freeney, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, is 18th on the NFL’s all-time sacks list with 122.5, which is second among active players behind only Julius Peppers of Carolina, who has 150.

 

Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson tweeted a welcome to Freeney Tuesday night, stating: “Excited to have my homie @DwightFreeney join the squad! #SackKing.”

 

Avril, the team’s leader in sacks last year with 11.5 when he also made his first Pro Bowl, is out until at least a Dec. 17 game against the Rams as he continues to see doctors to determine what caused numbness in his arms and hands when he was kicked in the chin by Indianapolis QB Jacoby Brissett when he dove to make a tackle in a game against the Colts on Oct. 1.

 

Avril, 31, has been reported as wanting to continue to play but the team is waiting to see if doctors will give clearance for him to take the field again.

 

Frank Clark has been starting in place of Avril. But the bigger concern is in the depth behind Clark and Michael Bennett, who is also dealing with a plantar fascia injury. Freeney could help take some of the load off of Bennett, who has played 84.38 percent of the team’s defensive snaps this season despite the injury. But he’ll also simply be counted on to add pass rush.

 

AFC NORTH

 

CINCINNATI

Coach Marvin Lewis responds to the complaints of RB JOE MIXON who watched most of Sunday’s second half in Pittsburgh.  Jeremy Bergman of NFL.com:

 

Joe Mixon was less than pleased Sunday evening after seeing just two targets and zero rushes during Cincinnati’s disaster second half in the Steel City.

 

The rookie runner cited Le’Veon Bell’s 35 carries across the pitch as a comparison, telling reporters, “It’s frustrating to us running backs. We feel like we’re in the room and we feel like we’re part of the offense. If it worked in the first half, why not do it in the second?”

 

Marvin Lewis, meanwhile, was having none of that. After telling scribes Sunday that “whatever plays are called are called” in regards to Mixon’s gripes, the Bengals coach elaborated Monday.

 

“You should show maturity just like everybody else. Everybody wants to be out there all the time,” Lewis told reporters, per the team’s website. “But we’re not going to create a run when we are down by 12 or 15 [points]. We’re not going to create it.

 

“I saw a ball go on the ground when he received two balls thrown to him, which are the same situation. We got to handle it all the time the correct way, and be strong enough to not be led into questions after the game, which unfortunately he doesn’t know enough about.”

 

The Bengals entered the second half down 20-14 and quickly went down by 12 points after two Steelers field goals and two interceptions. Cincinnati attempted just four rushes in the final frames, despite Mixon racking up 48 yards on seven carries in the first half.

 

Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor had a similar reaction to the mini-quarrel, explaining that after early-half setbacks and long Steelers drives, Cincy had no choice but to abandon the run.

 

“If you look at how those series went, first of all, we were three-and-out, interception, interception, three-and-out,” Lazor said. “So when you have a 51-play game, no one gets it enough. And there were a couple plays we chose to put someone else in for particular things and it had nothing to do with Joe; it worked out that way.”

 

 

CLEVELAND

DE MYLES GARRETT is in the concussion protocol this week.  He has produced four sacks when healthy.

– – –

The Browns will go with rookie QB DeSHONE KIZER on Sunday in London.  Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

 

DeShone Kizer will have a chance to treat Browns fans in London like royalty and give them a victory that fans here haven’t enjoyed.

 

Hue Jackson named his rookie as the starter for Sunday’s game at Twickenham Stadium against the Vikings, who are in the top five in four defensive categories

 

Kizer, who’s last in the NFL with a 47.8 rating, will make his seventh start of the season over Cody Kessler, who took the Titans to overtime on Sunday, but lost 12-9 on a field goal with 1:55 remaining.

 

Kizer, 0-6 as a starter, was benched in the third quarter of that game after throwing interceptions on back-to-back possessions, including one with 19 seconds left in the half at the Titans’ 7.

 

“If you turn the football over in the National Football League, you cannot play,” Jackson said after the game. “It’s just that simple.”

 

Kizer was also reinstated after a video surfaced on Sunday of him being out in a bar shortly before closing time on Saturday morning. Jackson said the late night out wouldn’t factor into his decision, and Kizer vowed not to make negatives headlines again.

 

“Absolutely,” he said. “I’ve learned that this is distraction. We’re sitting here and talking about this and teammates are coming up to me and asking me about this. There’s so many cameras around here, it’s going t be made a pretty big deal and with that it’s on me to make sure from here on out I’m not a distraction and I’m an asset to the team and not a guy who’s pulling away from the ultimate goal.”

 

“My discussion with DeShone was you have to be careful,” said Jackson. “Decisions you make can affect you, and people can see things the wrong way.”

 

He also believes that Kizer will continue to get better and cut down on the league-leading 11 picks. The only other QB in double digits is Cam Newton with 10.

 

“DeShone is going to grow out of a lot of this,” he said. “He’s working at it. We all saw improvement from him in the first half up until the first turnover. He was doing some really good things and playing well. I said this a long time ago, the pressure of playing quarterback in the National Football League for 50 plays, 40 plays, first half or whatever that is is sometimes a big task for some men.”

 

Speaking of Mary Kay Cabot, the DB found this long piece at The Ringer (titled “Queen of The Damned’) by Rob Hanzilla from last fall on what it is like covering these Browns for 20 years.  Excerpts:

 

“I feel sorry for these poor people,” says Mary Kay Cabot. “I really do. It’s heartbreaking to me.” She is gazing forlornly out the press-box window, at all the Cleveland Browns fans.

 

It is early Sunday afternoon, and the worst team in football is hosting the Cincinnati Bengals at FirstEnergy Stadium in snowy, frigid, inhospitable downtown Cleveland. Should the home team falter today, its record will drop to an unsightly 0–13. It’s getting ugly. Recently, some jokers ran an EA Sports full-game simulation that had the Alabama Crimson Tide beating the Browns 34–0; other jokers closer to home are threatening to throw a parade should the boys achieve perfection and finish 0–16. “It’s disrespectful,” lamented veteran cornerback Joe Haden to reporters the week before. “We’re literally the laughingstock of every joke.”

 

Cabot is among the longest-suffering and highest-profile of those reporters. For many, she is the official Bearer of Bad News, the Goat Whisperer. She’s put in 20-plus years at hometown paper The Plain Dealer (online at Cleveland.com), along with regular radio and TV gigs, local and national. This stretches back to before the team’s first iteration bolted for Baltimore in the mid-’90s. The Browns’ head coach when she started? Bill Belichick.

 

“If you can survive the Bill Belichick years and live to tell about it, then nothing else that happens is gonna rattle you,” she says now. “Nothing. I mean that. Nothing else is gonna rattle you. ‘I got this.’ I would recommend that to anyone.”

 

Losing does not rattle her, either. For the first time in half a century, she has cause to be jealous of other sportswriters in her own newsroom: The Cleveland Cavs are NBA champs, the Cleveland Indians valiant World Series losers. Whereas the Browns last posted a winning record in 2007, and last played (and lost) a playoff game in 2003. Cabot has overseen an ignoble parade of 20-plus starting quarterbacks, including Johnny Manziel, whose calamitous media flameout, she jokes, brought her so many talking-head opportunities that she got nearly as famous as Johnny Football himself. (“Half the time, more so than anything, I was worried about him.”) Her good cheer is admirable, her tenacity galvanizing, her cautious optimism infectious. Generally.

 

But 0–16 is something else, something new. The Browns, as if in petulant response to the Cavs and the Tribe, are somehow plunging even further. The fans are enraged, the players dejected. And often vice versa. Hue Jackson — the team’s ninth head coach since their 1999 reinstatement — teared up last month during his postgame press conference when the Giants dropped his squad to 0–12. It’s his first year. And should his team end the season as the league’s very worst, even the glittering prize of the no. 1 pick in next year’s draft — as of now, not a sure thing, given that the San Francisco 49ers have only one win and hold the tiebreakers — doesn’t much energize a fan base burned by many a rookie disaster, Manziel only the most unfortunate of myriad high-profile, humiliating busts.

– – –

Reporting on all this requires delicacy. And empathy. And, it turns out, bottomless endurance. As the first quarter of the Bengals game unfolds, the few brave ticket-holders outside the press-box window (the stadium is one-third full, maybe) scrape the ice off their seats and huddle around frosty beers, steaming coffee cups, copious nachos. They believe. And so does she. But by the time Cabot first gives voice to her pity and her heartbreak, Cincinnati is already up 13–0.

 

No one in NFL history has ever made better use of a bye than Mary Kay Cabot. “Well, I always like to say that I wasn’t very productive,” she recalls of the Browns’ three-year post-Baltimore layoff. “But I was very reproductive. I had three children.” Those kids are now 20, 18, and 16; “I would not recommend teenagers to anyone,” concedes their mother. They’re not necessarily huge Browns fans, either, and this, too, dismays her: She worries about a “lost generation of fans” burned by the move and beaten down by two decades of failure since.

 

She’s covered all of it. Born in nearby Lakewood, Cabot graduated from Kent State, turned a Plain Dealer internship into a full-time gig, and can still remember getting barred from an NFL locker room. That aspect of the job has improved, but now she spends much of her day on Twitter, which is often no more hospitable to women.

 

“Most of the time, I don’t even look at my notifications, because it’s too upsetting,” she says. “It’s really upsetting. Because I view this” — she gestures out the window, into the stadium — ”as an enormous responsibility on my part. It’s an enormous responsibility, what I do. It’s an honor, it’s a privilege, and it’s a big responsibility. And I have to get it right, and I’m doing the best I can every day. And it is disheartening, to see some of the stuff that you see. You know what I mean? It can get to you. It can. So I don’t let it.”

– – –

Cabot does not particularly mind being the bearer of bad news; it’s not her psyche you should worry about. “Here’s the thing,” she says. “At the beginning of the season, they were playing well. They were in really close games. And now, it’s just become an embarrassment.”

 

The Browns are up to eight home sacks on the year, the Jumbotron crowing each time. “I’m gonna run to make some hot tea, because I’m freezing,” Cabot announces. “Beat the crowd.” Bengals kicker Mike Nugent misses a field goal to end the first half. “God, I love him, but I think this is the end,” someone mutters.

 

Halfway there. “I actually didn’t think the game was gonna be this bad,” Cabot tells me. “I’m sorry you have to stay for the whole thing.” She counts the people in the stadium section right outside the window. Twelve. She’s cheered when three more fans return from the concourse and take their seats nearby. “Aww,” she purrs. “They’re coming back.”

– – –

“I actually sometimes think there’s more to kick around and write about,” she says. “There’s more to analyze. There’s more to figure out. You know what I’m saying? I honestly think the Patriots writers probably get a little bored. They’re the ones that get bored. You know? Same old victory. Same old Super Bowl victory.”

 

And then she throws on her coat and hauls ass for the locker room.

 

Not quite a sprint, but not quite not a sprint, either. A distinctly Cleveland Winter pace. In heels. Glasses perched on her head. Barreling toward the press elevator, which closes just before she arrives, leaving her impatient for the next one, which she crowds into (“Those aren’t pillows,” someone mutters, stuck in a tight group of dudes crowded near the back), eager to make it in time for Jackson’s press conference. She does. It’s the nimblest piece of running I’ll see all day.

– – –

She’s got videos to do next; she apologizes to the ersatz-cinematographer colleagues she kept waiting. “Josh, you’re mad at me,” she tells one. Josh looks up from his phone: “I’m playing chess.”

 

The videos are bite-size riffs with Labbe, who reads off tweets from Browns fans; the vibe as they shoot is bemused and dutiful, but Cabot fights the Content Wars with gusto. “In my mind, there’s kind of something about being the main kind of beat writer for a local newspaper and a local website,” she said earlier. “There’s just something that’s important to me about that. And I like that. But the job has evolved — the job has evolved tremendously. The good thing about it is that I’ve always loved to do the on-camera stuff, and the podcasts, and you know, now I do all that in the current job I have. So even though I’ve had essentially the same job for all these years, the job has grown and changed so much that it encompasses every single possible thing that I could ever want to do.”

 

And so now, after putting on a little makeup to combat six-plus hours of press-box moroseness, she goes multimedia once again. “I actually thought [Robert Griffin] did some halfway-decent things,” Cabot offers on camera; “What a mess of a game that was,” she exclaims off it.

 

Cleveland is a championship city now. The Cavs overcame a 3–1 lead to win the NBA Finals; the Indians blew a 3–1 lead in a nonetheless thrilling World Series. Basking in that afterglow, fans are apt to be more forgiving of another disastrous NFL season, right? “It just made them more impatient,” Labbe counters. “All of a sudden, this is a place with higher expectations. They’ve seen this is possible. Which wasn’t always the case.”

 

Nor do those thrilling playoff runs matter much when your job is to cling solely to the Browns, through thin and thinner. That this team has been this calamitous for this long means that Cabot’s job is never boring, and also never easy. “They keep blowing it up every year!” she says. “Every year I’m doing a coaching search. Every year I’m doing a GM search. I’ve had two ownership changes, a ton of coaching changes, a ton of GM changes. I will say that makes it much more difficult to develop relationships. It makes it really tough to develop relationships. You get to know someone, and they are gone in a year or two, and then you have to start all over again.”

 

But she presses on. At every level, the Browns need people who are reliable, who are consistent, who have been there and will stay there. A rock; a constant. Cabot is too polite, maybe, to say that despite few constants in her two-decades-plus career, she has nonetheless become one herself.

 

“Hue Jackson always says, ‘I’m built for this,’” she says. “I feel like I’m built for this.”

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

KAEP

He hasn’t done any interviews lately, so maybe there is a segment of America that will shell out for a Colin Kaepernick book.  Will Levith of RealClearLife.com

 

Former professional quarterback Colin Kaepernick might still be out of a job, but he’s reportedly landed a nice, fresh stack of green.

 

According to a report from Page Six, Kaepernick has signed a $1 million book deal with Random House. The book would be published on the One World imprint, headed by Chris Jackson, who has edited titles by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Trevor Noah.

 

It’s unclear what the guts of the book deal include or what its central theme will be, as Page Six was unable to get comment from either Kaepernick or the publishing house. But it’ll likely have a lot to do with the sideline protests the quarterback began as a member of the San Francisco 49ers in August 2016, which have opened up a veritable pandora’s box for the National Football League.

 

Will he do a book tour, complete with sitdown interviews with members of the elite media?

 

 

QB RATINGS

Here is where Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com thinks the 2017 QBs rank as the midseason approaches.

 

This is the Quarterback Index. The QBs are ranked based on 2017 play only. The next ranking of all 32 starters comes after Week 8.

 

1  Tom Brady                  Patriots

The Patriots’ offense is starting to look more familiar. Brady has been less reliant on spectacular deep throws the last two weeks and more in rhythm with his receivers, showing improved timing with Brandin Cooks.

 

2 Alex Smith                    Chiefs

It’s Week 8 and there will be tweets saying that Carson Wentz — not Alex Smith — should be ranked as the No. 2 quarterback of the season. This would have been difficult to imagine in August.

 

3  Carson Wentz              Eagles

According to Next Gen Stats, Wentz’s bomb to Mack Hollins traveled 62.8 yards of raw distance, the longest of any touchdown over the last two years. ( Thanks Matt Harmon, keeper of the Next Gen flame.)

 

4  Russell Wilson              Seahawks

Wilson’s most complete game of the season included more plays from inside the pocket, including this gorgeous 32-yard gainer to Doug Baldwin, thrown just before Wilson got leveled. This performance coming after the bye week should give Seahawks fans a big boost of hope.

 

5  Drew Brees                    Saints

With more screen passes and reliance on the running game, the Saints’ offense is evolving into a far more risk-averse attack. This is what happens when your organization fields a defense.

 

6  Dak Prescott                  Cowboys

The quarterback class of 2016 has a chance to turn out pretty fantastic if Wentz, Prescott and Jared Goff continue on their current trajectories. Sunday’s win against the 49ers was a 2016 Prescott special, with only a handful of great throws required to put up 40 points.

 

7  Tyrod Taylor                   Bills

Tiers would be helpful here because there is a major drop-off from sixth to seventh, and the rest of the top 15 is incredibly bunched-up. Taylor’s the perfect quarterback for this talent-starved Bills offense.

 

8  Marcus Mariota                Titans

Mariota deserves credit for playing well through injury. Expect a better Titans offense after the team’s bye.

 

9  Matt Ryan                        Falcons

The easy completions are gone. The Falcons made 18-yard throws look like handoffs last season, but this year’s scheme is requiring Ryan to make far more passes into tight windows. He missed a few open plays in the red zone against the Patriots that would have likely been completed a year ago.

 

10  Cam Newton                      Panthers

Newton’s season has looked like a polygraph test gone wrong. His individual performance against Chicago wasn’t as bad as the final score indicated, but what happened to his purportedly improved pass protection or the plan to keep him from running? When the Panthers need a first down, they still look to Newton, their leading rushing in each of the last two weeks.

 

11  Kirk Cousins                       Redskins

If I threw out Cousins’ first two games, he would be approaching top-six status. But two games is a large part of a six-game sample, so Cousins’ solid October play only boosts him into the top 12. While his wideouts could help him out more often, Cousins’ biggest issue at present is taking the checkdown pass on long-yardage situations before pass-rush pressure arrives.

 

12  Derek Carr                      Raiders

A strange season for Carr now has three excellent performances, a few lackluster efforts and an injury. Carr’s late-game heroics against Kansas City could ignite the Raiders’ 2016 magic, although it’s worth noting Carr was fortunate to avoid a few interceptions and a lost fumble early in the game.

 

13  Deshaun Watson              Texans

If you are curious why Watson isn’t higher, this article by Pro Football Focus’ Steve Palazzolo neatly summarizes many of the scribbles from my notebook. The short version: For all the great moments, Watson hasn’t been consistently accurate and he’s been lucky to get away with many plays that should have been turnovers. This is not a knock. It’s absolutely incredible for a rookie to play like an above-average starting quarterback, and Watson’s wow plays and heady feel for the game are special.

 

14  Ben Roethlisberger             Steelers

Game Manager Ben is going to take time to get used to.

 

15   Philip Rivers                            Chargers

Rivers still operates like a top-10 quarterback when given a clean pocket, but his trademark ability to spin magic in the face of pressure could be waning.

 

So no JAMEIS WINSTON, ELI MANNING, MATTHEW STAFFORD (?!?!?!) or JARED GOFF in the top 15.

 

 

DVOA

Football Outsiders says the Steelers are now atop its DVOA Ratings:

 

We have a new No. 1 team in DVOA this week, and it’s probably not the team that you expect. Yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers are 5-2, tied with four other teams for the second-best record in the NFL right now. But for much of the season, the conventional wisdom has been that the Steelers are sputtering and overrated. After the Steelers lost to Chicago in Week 3, it was like the sky had fallen on Steelers Twitter. Ben Roethlisberger’s pathetic Schaub-a-thon against Jacksonville two weeks later just made them feel worse.

 

And yet, here we are after seven weeks of the NFL season and at least one advanced metric (ours) has the Steelers on top of the league. And not just by a small amount; the Steelers opened up a healthy lead this week over the No. 2 Rams and No. 3 Chiefs.

 

The teams below are ranked by DAVE:

 

1          PIT      34.7% 

2          LARM  27.5% 

3          KC       27.2% 

4          PHI      23.1% 

5          NO      21.1% 

6          MIN     20.6% 

7          HOU    18.1% 

8          JAC     17.0% 

9          WAS    15.2% 

10        SEA     12.1% 

11        BUF     12.1% 

12        DET     10.7% 

13        NE       9.1%   

14        DAL     8.5%   

15        BAL     6.5%   

16        GB       4.4%   

17        CAR    3.6%   

18        CIN      -0.5%  

19        OAK    -2.0%  

20        TEN     -2.9%  

21        ATL     -3.2%  

22        LACH  -3.8%  

23        DEN    -5.9%  

24        TB       -8.2%  

25        NYJ     -20.4%

26        NYG    -20.6%

27        CHI      -23.3%

28        MIA     -25.5%

29        ARI      -28.6%

30        SF       -30.0%

31        CLE     -40.1%

32        IND      -41.7%