1a. Playoff experience is probably overrated. There was a time when Tom Brady had never played in a postseason game, and then he won his first 10 including three Super Bowls. Peyton Manning lost his first three playoff games then won two Super Bowls. Dak Prescott’s team won and Russell Wilson’s team lost on Saturday night.
So the stark contrast between Nick Foles, unflappable Super Bowl hero, and Mitchell Trubisky, wide-eyed playoff newbie, is probably overblown. Still, Trubisky’s playoff debut will be fascinating.
Despite what you might have surmised based on your fantasy league scoreboard or whatever “Total QBR” is vomiting out (he was better than Brady and Rivers and Luck and Roethlisberger!), Trubisky—to put it kindly—struggled throwing the ball in 2018. He was fantastic with his legs, creative and dangerous as a scrambler. But during the regular season, any time Trubisky couldn’t hit his back foot and throw to his first read at the short or intermediate levels, there was trouble. His mechanics crumble and he seems to struggle mapping the field as he goes deeper into his progressions. He was dreadfully inaccurate hitting moving targets at the deep and deep-intermediate levels, a tragedy considering how often Matt Nagy’s system schemed receivers wide open this year. And as good as he was as a runner, when he extended plays and then threw, he seemed to get into even more trouble. There were multiple times this season when the only thing that saved an unforgivable late-in-the-down throw from being intercepted was that it came off Trubisky’s hand with an exaggerated wobble that the defender couldn’t corral it.
Trubisky still has plenty of time to develop and improve, but let’s focus on the now because of the fact that the Bears are in the playoffs. The ultra-conservative approach Nagy turned to over the final three games of the regular season is a pretty good indication of what the coach thinks of his quarterback at the moment. And the Bears were somewhat successful piecing together long, clock-eating drives that effectively complement the defense—Trubisky even made a couple of really nice third-down throws in Minnesota.
But the Bears were top 10 in the league in passing plays of 25-plus yards through the first 13 games of the season, with 29 (2.2 per game). They were bottom 10 over the last three weeks, with four (1.3). Chicago won six of their final seven, but the offense accounted for 19.6 points per game during that span. The question is whether the scaled-back passing game is going to get it done in January, especially for a team coached by one of the sharpest young minds in coaching, and especially for a quarterback with a No. 2 overall draft pick pedigree.
A year ago, we watched Foles carve up the Vikings and Patriots on the way to a championship. It’s easy to forget how poorly Foles was playing going into last year’s postseason (which is why the Eagles were underdogs and talked about dogs and wore dog masks and ate dog food throughout their playoff run). Doug Pederson and that Eagles staff rolled out an RPO-heavy offense early in the postseason and Foles ended up playing spectacularly late in the down as he lit it up in the conference championship and superest of bowls. If Nagy has something up his sleeve that his young quarterback can handle, Sunday, against a shaky Eagles secondary, is the time to break it out. At some point in January, you’re probably going to need some points.
1b. The Bears are the only team playing this weekend with two defensive players capable of rendering everything happening around them moot. The Eagles’ offense matches up well with the Bears’ zone approach on the back end, but none of that matters if Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks wreck this game. The Eagles will score somewhere in the range of 0 to 13 points, and that should be enough for Chicago to advance.
1c. My podcast partner an chiropractor to the stars Andy Benoit and I had an interesting conversation—well, it was a conversation—before our show the other day, about the difference between fumbles and interceptions. Not the literal difference, the fact that an interception often involves the field flipping to some extent, whereas the defense tends to fall on fumbles around the line of scrimmage.
When I was looking into the Bears defense’s league-high 36 takeaways, I was surprised to see that they had only nine fumble recoveries—surprising because I figured they’d have a bunch of Khalil Mack strip-sacks while protecting a lead. It’s also encouraging, since fumble recoveries tend to be somewhat fluky (Chicago was actually 7-1 in games when they didn’t take a fumble away from the opponent). But any “bad luck” involved in Chicago’s relative lack of fumble takeaways is canceled out by the eight returns of 20-plus yards on their 27 interceptions this year, as well as the six defensive touchdowns. Three of those defensive TDs were by Eddie Jackson, a game-time decision for Sunday afternoon because of an ankle injury. Pressure creates the chaos that leads to turnovers, but Jackson is the best on the Bears’ back end at capitalizing on those turnovers. If he can’t go, or isn’t playing at 100%, they’ll miss him on Sunday.
2. Nick Foles is 9-1 as a starter in meaningful games over the past two years, the lone loss coming to Ryan Fitzpatrick’s Bucs. Drew Brees has won 13 of his past 14 starts at the Superdome, the lone loss coming to Ryan Fitzpatrick’s Bucs. If the NFC title game ends up Eagles at Saints, it seems only fair that Roger Goodell intervenes and declares the Bucs NFC champions. Or at least replaces the celebratory confetti with Ryan Fitzpatrick beard clippings.
3. No one rooting for the Ravens should be upset at anyone doubting this team. They’ve been doubted ever since the switch to Lamar Jackson, and they’re 6-1 in that span, the only loss coming at Kansas City because Patrick Mahomes did a bunch of things no one else is capable of doing.
But Sunday will be an interesting test for Jackson and the new-look Ravens offense for two reasons. First, there’s the obvious advantage the Chargers have in having seen this offense just two weeks ago, the first time an NFL team will see the Jackson offense for a second time. There’s also the fact that the Browns made some interesting halftime adjustments in Week 17, when they nearly completed a 13-point comeback against a Ravens team that would seem to be quite difficult to come back against. The Browns used some late shifts to complicate the Ravens’ blocking assignments—after allowing 20 points and 7.2 yards per play over six first-half Ravens drives, Cleveland allowed only six points and 4.9 yards per play over Baltimore’s five (excluding the final kneel-down) second-half drives.
That’s one of the complications of leaning on a highly schemed, run-based offense. For a running play to work, you typically need two or three blockers to execute well, and the ball carrier to read the play properly. In the passing game, sometimes all you need is for one receiver to beat one defensive back, and the quarterback to create enough time and find him.
4. When I read that the Jaguars had revoked the remaining guarantees on Leonard Fournette’s rookie deal, the first thing I thought of was, Boy, the Jaguars’ front office is really bad at this if they’ve turned on their fourth overall pick 20 months after drafting him instead of taking a quarterback, especially since it’s the quarterback who they gave up on 19 months after the same ill-fated draft day. It’s almost like they’re tanking in order to make a potential move to London more palatable by following the script of Major League. Except owner Shad Khan seems like a more agreeable fellow than the late Margaret Whitton’s character. And the locker room seems to be short on lovable misfits. And the front office doesn’t seem to have an ulterior motive for building a bad roster, it seems this was actually their best effort. And there was no triumphant turnaround this season—quite the opposite actually, the team got markedly worse as the year went on. And it’s a football team not a baseball team. But other than that, it’s pretty much just like the movie.
My second thought was: Roquan Smith. If you remember, Smith’s lengthy holdout last summer was over language in his contract stipulating they could strip him of guarantees over suspensions related to the new helmet-lowering rule. The Bears, under the impression they were negotiating with a 4-year-old, said they had to have the language but swore they’d never actually strip him of those guarantees. Precedent, and all that. Well, what happened to Fournette is why you don’t allow that kind of language in your contract. The running back could be out up to $7.1 million over a one-game suspension for a brawl.
As for the Bears, they eventually made the logical, fair and obvious decision to give in to Smith (the language is that his guarantees can only be voided if it’s a suspension of three games or more for unnecessary roughness, which would require a Vontaze Burfict-type run of turdishness), but at that point it was too late to get him up to speed to play more than eight snaps in the season opener, a three-point loss to a one-legged Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. And Chicago eventually missed out on a first-round bye by one game, which is why they’re hosting the defending champs in the Wild-Card round on Sunday rather than taking a week off and hosting a game in the conference semifinals next week. The lesson: Treat your players right, and especially treat your young star players right.
(Sorry to be so negative on a celebratory day for the Bears, but… I am a jerk.)
5. All these teams firing coaches seem to be looking for someone as smart and handsome and new as Sean McVay, but what’s wrong with trying out a retread? Of the past 21 Super Bowl champions, 14 had a head coach on his second or third team—and before you say “that’s just because Belichick has won 53 Super Bowls,” it’s 15 different coaches with Super Bowl wins, and eight of them were retreads. There’s something to be said for someone who has previously managed a team of professional players and coaches, and has learned from the inevitable mistakes humans make when put in such difficult situations.
Of this year’s firings, Vance Joseph and Adam Gase stand out as guys who could be successful in the right situation. Joseph is out in part because of some poor game management decisions—and bad game management is bad! But game management is also a small fraction of a head coach’s responsibilities. (Worse, when it comes to game/clock management, your average Twitter user/sports talk radio caller gets no greater high than when he/she can cite win probability numbers, then lean back secure in the delusion that he/she has a greater level of expertise than his/her social better. That Andy Reid is a terrible coach, just look at his clock management!) And coaches typically get better with game management the more games they coach. The biggest issue with Joseph’s Broncos was quarterback play, which, as I read on the internet, is important in 2018.
As for Gase, there was apparently some friction in the locker room, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who could coax seven wins out of a roster that was subpar even before you factor in the Tannehill/Osweiler pairing. In fact, you might be hard pressed to find anyone willing to coach seven games with that roster. Gase was part of the team of miracle-workers that designed a functional offense around Tim Tebow, helped Peyton Manning to his best statistical season at a time when Gase could have probably thrown the ball with more zip than Manning, and got a career year out of Jay Cutler in Chicago. In Miami, he developed Tannehill into a passable game manager, which is only problematic when the roster you’ve put around Tannehill looks like the one the Dolphins assembled.
6. Not giving Antonio Brown a 2018 All-Pro vote is as mild and obvious as takes get, along the lines of saying “Antonio Brown was a good value as a sixth-round draft pick,” or “Frank Reich’s beard looks great,” or “Shasta-brand cola-flavored soft drinks give you a cool, refreshing blast of taste on a hot summer day or warm you to your soul on a cold winter night.” Drink Shasta.
Even before Week 17, it was difficult to argue Brown was a top-three receiver in 2018 considering the seasons DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, Michael Thomas and Tyreek Hill just put up. That Brown missed a do-or-die Week 17 game for any reason erased any argument that he was better than any of the aforementioned four.
7. I’ve written about the NFL’s dire need to abolish the rookie wage scale before it’s too late. To recap, it hurts the league by promoting tanking (not this year, but the 2020 draft is shaping up to possible have three QBs worthy of the No. 1 overall pick). And it hurts the union because the money that used to go to high draft picks now goes to the player equivalent of the 1%—not those gritty, underappreciated, role-playing veterans—which took an incredible amount of gullibility from the union to miss as the obvious outcome. Plus, it’s set up this silly roster-building formula where everyone now frantically builds around rookie quarterbacks until they have to give that quarterback his second contract.
If you’d like to see the future of a rookie wage scale world, you can look to the NBA, where as many teams play for the lottery as play for the championship. But, more appropriate at the moment, take a look at what is happening in Major League Baseball, a sport with no hard salary cap whose teams are awash spending cash. Right now, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, both 26-year-old superstars, are free agents. Both are sitting on the open market, for many reasons (most of them irredeemably stupid), but a big one is that MLB teams put an emphasis on team-controlled young players.
So if you were tipping over things and breaking windows of small businesses based on the Raiders’ decision to trade Khalil Mack last summer, imagine a world in which Mack and, say, Patrick Mahomes were unrestricted free agents this offseason, and your favorite team plus the other 31 all shrugged and said, Meh, we’ll wait to see how the market plays out.
8. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Guided By Voices!
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