$.01--The weekend kicked off with an amazing, entertaining tale of two games in Houston. It wasn’t great football very often, but the Texans’ 22-19 win over the Buffalo Bills was incredible theater.
Buffalo absolutely dominated the first half of play. Leslie Frazier’s smartly conceived defensive pressures foiled Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins and the Texans attack at every turn. Josh Allen caught a TD pass and ran for more yards than anyone else in the first half, an impressive feat for a quarterback. It was 16-0 and didn’t really feel that close.
Then halftime came. Watson found his way, the Texans defense started making plays and Allen regressed to being a scared white-collar newb walking into a maximum-security prison shower. Watson made several clutch plays, including a tough TD run and ensuing 2-pt. conversion to breathe life into the NRG Stadium faithful.
There were two key plays from Houston that subsequently changed the game. J.J. Watt, in his first game since tearing a pectoral muscle months ago, sacked Allen to force the Bills out of field goal range. The emotional response from the Texans sideline and the fans was tangible through the TV broadcast. Later in overtime, the 3rd-and-18 pass from Watson to RB Duke Johnson covered about 10 yards. Johnson, known for speed instead of power, bulled his way for the critical conversion. The Texans would score on that drive after one of the most remarkable plays of the season.
Watson being smacked by two free Bills rushers, spinning out of the hits and having the wherewithal to find third-string RB Taiwan Jones for a huge catch-and-run. It’s a play that will roll on highlight reels forever. Ka’imi Fairbairn nailed the 28-yard game-winner on the next play and the Texans completed the wild comeback win.
Watching the calm leadership of Watson in contrast with the frantic panic of Allen on the other side of the ball was stunning. Where Watson kept his Texans composed and on point, Allen quite literally just threw the ball in the air in sheer terror. There is lack of composure, there is George Costanza pushing down the elderly while yelling fire in a crowded birthday party, and there is Allen in the second half in Houston. It was such a stark contrast, and on Saturday it was the difference between two otherwise evenly matched teams.
$.02--You probably are aware the New England Patriots lost. You might not know the Tennessee Titans won that game, based on the nationally obsessive focus on the losers of the Saturday night AFC matchup.
Yes, certain 3- and 4-letter networks, the Tennessee Titans were involved in the game too. Made more plays. Had a better top-to-bottom roster. Executed better along both lines. It might behoove you to at least recognize the team that, you know, actually won the damn game?
In that spirit, my focus will be exclusively on the Titans. Mike Vrabel’s team played a smart game, riding Derrick Henry’s running to control the game pace and consistently set up the Titans offense in manageable situations. Even when the Patriots tried to focus on stopping Henry, the league’s rushing champ proved capable of grinding out big yards and keeping the sticks moving. Ryan Tannehill and the Titans passing offense couldn’t do anything, but they didn’t need to.
It’s rare for a team to beat the Patriots with a one-dimensional attack, but the Titans pulled it off thanks to Henry and a stellar night from the offensive line. The Titans WR combined for 10 (10!) receiving yards the entire game and still Tennessee advanced. Listening to former All-Pro left tackle Tony Boselli on the Westwood 1 radio call offered a fantastic perspective. Boselli raved about the specific details of the Titans OL play and how the Patriots tried to adjust by changing their front. Henry’s ability to get downhill off a cut at his considerable size is a nightmare if the defensive line cannot slow him down, and the Patriots DL could not do it nearly often enough.
The Titans have been one of the AFC’s hottest team, and their peculiar playing style gives them a legit chance to head into Baltimore next weekend and pull the surprise. Their defense has well-heeled talent at all three levels and the special teams are a major asset; Brett Kern’s punt pinning New England inside the 2 for the would-be final drive was a masterpiece. Vrabel benching Marcus Mariota for Ryan Tannehill goes down as one of the best coaching decisions of 2019.
$.03--Another year, another heartbreaking, excruciating postseason loss for the New Orleans Saints. For the second time in three years, it comes at the hands of the Minnesota Vikings.
This one was in New Orleans and the Saints themselves were more culpable in their own demise than in year’s past. That’s not to say there still won’t be some controversy. What would a Saints postseason be without that?
To address that right away: I do think Kyle Rudolph pushed off on the game-winning TD in overtime. I also think I see more egregious examples of pushing off on pretty much every drive in every NFL game and it goes uncalled a lot more often than it’s called. It’s ridiculous the NFL stresses the rule so strongly and yet so consistently fails to enforce it as designed, but the league mishandling rules and enforcement is what it does best these days.
Minnesota made more plays, period. The strip-sack of Drew Brees was the biggest, but there were other blown opportunities by the Saints and head coach Sean Payton. The clock management on their drive at the end of the 4th quarter is about as wretched as you’ll ever see. It darn near cost them the chance at the game-tying field goal. A missed Will Lutz FG as the first half expired after an awful Brees INT on another poor clock management situation that gave the Vikings the unexpected halftime lead was far worse than the non-call in the end zone.
It’s a bitter ending for the Saints at home, but for Kirk Cousins, it’s a giant monkey off his back. The Vikings QB is constantly dogged by criticism that he can’t win meaningful games. Now he’s got one, and an absolutely perfect throw to Adam Thielen before the Rudolph TD proved he could make the huge downfield throw in the clutch. It’s a redemptive victory for Cousins, for head coach Mike Zimmer--who was rumored to be in job peril with a loss--and a Vikings team that finished the season with some uninspiring play down the stretch. Now they survive and advance to face the 49ers.
$.04--Seattle buried the Eagles in Philadelphia in the last Sunday game, a relative yawner after the nailbiting predecessors that all came down to a final conclusive play. Seattle won 17-9 in a game punctuated by rookie WR D.K. Metcalf’s impressive breakout on the national stage. It’s a game Philadelphia fans will remember most for losing QB Carson Wentz in disgusting fashion.
Wentz left the game after this hit from Jadeveon Clowney, a helmet-to-helmet spear job that went unpenalized:
It led to Wentz being taken to a hospital and Josh McCown making his postseason debut. McCown is 40, playing on his 8th NFL team since he joined the league in 2002. He’s been on some good teams but never played for them when they were good. And the injury-ravaged Eagles he led for most of the game Sunday fit that bill, too.
It’s a shame we didn’t get to see an Eagles team at even half-strength and what they could do, but injuries absolutely ruined the promise for Philadelphia. They still valiantly fought to keep it interesting before just not having enough.
The Seahawks finding an emerging No. 1 wideout in Metcalf is very bad news for the rest of the NFC. Russell Wilson is an MVP finalist in part because he’s amazing despite not having a great go-to WR. Now he’s got one in a physical package that’s a nightmare for defenses. Oh yeah, Marshawn Lynch is getting into game shape too. If their defense can continue to make plays, Seattle is a real problem for Green Bay next week and anyone potentially beyond that as well.
$.05--We have our first new head coaching hire. Washington tabbed Ron Rivera to take over the franchise in the midst of a radical overhaul.
Rivera is a smart hire. He brings experience, defensive discipline and a track record of working with precocious young offensive talents and getting the best out of them from his days with Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey in Carolina. He’s also experienced at dealing with controversial ownership, though nothing quite compares to the Daniel Snyder experience in Washington.
Perhaps Snyder is learning. He pushed longtime GM and feckless apparatchik Bruce Allen out the door. It’s several years too late, but better late than never for a Washington organization Allen helped drive into the league’s cellar. Snyder also cleared out the team’s training staff, the source of major problems for their mishandling of star left tackle Trent Williams and his skin cancer diagnosis and treatment. These are changes the organization sorely needed to make, and Snyder deserves some credit for (sort of) admitting he’s wrong.
Before Washington fans feel too good about things, there is this unfriendly reminder Snyder still runs the team the way Captain Smith piloted the Titanic. Snyder has opted to put off hiring a general manager until after the 2020 NFL Draft in April. Full speed ahead into the dark abyss, icebergs be damned!
$.06--Jason Garrett is finally out as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. A week of endless speculation and dancing on his grave finally concluded around halftime of the late Sunday game with Jay Glazer’s report that Garrett is no longer coaching the Cowboys.
The general consensus had been that Garrett is a goner when his contract officially expires on the 14th. Owner Jerry Jones and his bromantic advances towards Mike McCarthy, Urban Meyer and (allegedly) Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley suggest the man making the decision had already moved on, but predicting what the impetuous Jones would actually do is like trying to open a coconut with a butter knife.
The end arrives with a bizarre statement from Glazer, “The Dallas Cowboys have fired Jason Garrett and Garrett has allowed them to do so.” Breaking up is hard to do.
Who’s next for the Cowboys? McCarthy makes a lot of sense if the team is indeed going to give Dak Prescott $30-plus million per year to play QB. McCarthy coaxed the best out of Aaron Rodgers and developed wide receivers brilliantly in Green Bay. I’m a (cautious) believer that the year off allowed McCarthy to self-assess and learn from watching the league from a different perspective. Urban Meyer as an idea is probably better than what Urban Meyer as an NFL head coach will be. The same is probably true for Riley too, though with an experienced defensive coordinator (hello Wade Philips!) it could be a lot of fun.
One name that has come up in connection with Dallas and deserves more respect: Marvin Lewis. I know he doesn’t move the excitement meter, but Lewis established a consistent winner in Cincinnati under a cheap owner in a spartan organization. The Bengals completely imploded to the worst team in the league almost as soon as he left. Lewis is a good, proven coach who players respect. If Jerry Jones really wants a change, Marvin Lewis would be just that.
$.07--The inability for the NFL officials to properly spot the football after a play is one of the most needlessly maddening things to witness. The unwillingness of the league to help the officials on something so fundamentally integral to the game is something that must change.
The officials could do a better job of this themselves, but I respect all the duties that the side judge and field judge (the two officials you see on the opposite sidelines marking the spot after the whistle) are tasked with on every single play. Precisely spotting the ball when a play is terminated some 30 feet away from them, often with players in the sightline, is inherently problematic.
Yet we get a very good look from the television production cameras. But there is an even better way than having someone from a production truck telling the umpire (the man responsible for setting the official spot) exactly where to place it via wireless communication.
We have technology that can identify individual fish in a school of tens of thousands with a simple tag. My cheap old Android phone can tell whether it’s in my left hand or my right based on the positioning of where I’m at in my living room. Radiofrequency transmitters smaller than the dimple on a pigskin ball can pinpoint inventory locations in busy big-box stores within a centimeter. A real simple solution for the NFL is to incorporate the tagging technology into the football and have the officials worry about one less thing to watch during the frenzied action. Help the officials help the game, Mr. Goodell...
--The Bears locked up safety Eddie Jackson to a rich new contract extension. Four years and $58.4 million, with $33M guaranteed, and Jackson is worth every penny. He’s one of the most consistently impactful players at his position. After losing running mate Adrian Amos after last season, the Bears smartly kept Jackson in Chicago.
--Two veteran standouts are calling it a career after losing on Saturday.
Alexander had a very odd career. He wasn’t a regular starter until into his 30s but blossomed into one of the NFL’s best OLBs after signing in Buffalo at age 33. Perseverance.
--Bears OG Kyle Long also retired this weekend after a very impressive career. He had some injury issues late, but Long never missed a chance to rub his success in the face of the draft analysts who doubted his potential. I might have been one of them. Good on you, Kyle. Enjoy a well-deserved retirement after a great run.
--ESPN’s live broadcast coverage of NFL games has mercifully come to an end. No more Booger McFarland being astonished by the obvious. No more Liberty Mutual ads instead of hearing the officials explain a replay, something that happened twice during the Texans/Bills game. No more camera shots of insignificant action so we can’t see proper spots or penalties on replay. ESPN does a lot of things incredibly well, but broadcasting NFL games is not one of them.
--From @ScottKacsmar on Twitter:
Record since Week 9
That includes bye weeks and playoff games. What an incredible visual representation of the decline of the Patriots from early in the season. Maybe next year the AFC East will actually be competitive!
$.09--The All-Pro voting snafu
Normally this ent is reserved for college news and notes, but I’m pulling rank and joining the cacophony of common sense directed at the utter nonsense that is the AP All-Pro voting.
Christian McCaffrey is an incredible running back. He deserves to be on a first-team All-Pro. But placing that honor upon the Panthers RB at multiple positions is ridiculous. Especially when the second position, “Flex”, isn’t even real.
The way the voting works, the 50 electors vote for their running backs. They only get to vote for one, but they can select a second one in the Flex category, which can be any offensive skill position. McCaffrey got 27 votes at RB, more than Derrick Henry’s 20, followed by Nick Chubb with 2 and Dalvin Cook at 1.
The Flex is also just one straight vote, and 18 of the voters who didn’t select McCaffrey as their RB named him their flex. Except he won the RB race already, though they have no way of knowing that. He also got the most votes at Flex. Ironically, Henry was second there with 7.
If a player wins at one position, they should be ineligible to win at another. Throw those Flex votes out for McCaffrey and move onto the next one.
But it’s even dumber on the defensive side of the ball. Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt made the first-team at EDGE and the second-team at linebacker. He doesn’t play linebacker, a designation meted for off-ball players and not pass rushers. According to Pro Football Focus, Watt played off-ball LB exactly 34 snaps out of 992 in 2019. The next player up at LB in the voting, Lavonte David, played that many snaps at the position by halftime most weeks.
As with most inherently flawed processes, there is an easy solution. Make the voters choose two selections for the Flex, in case their first choice wins at RB or WR. If that first choice wins elsewhere, go to the next choice. With Watt’s situation, a clearly demarcated position list on defense makes too much sense to not incorporate. We do it for college All-Americans, we do it for Pro Bowl balloting, we do it for literally everything else except the one that matters most.
$.10--This time of year sees a lot of folks resolute on getting into better shape. That means new people at the gym.
I’ve been there. It can be intimidating, even as an athlete in relatively good shape. There are routines, there are the regulars who have peculiarities, there are getting to learn faces and then names.
I have been a regular now at my gym for 15 years, save the three years we moved away--where I quickly became a regular at another gym. Working from home, it’s my best chance at adult interaction and I take advantage of that opportunity. I know who I can talk with and which guys just want to get their workouts in, and that’s fine.
I always try and be supportive of the newcomers, especially the folks who don’t appear to have been involved in physical activity in some time. Getting into better shape and getting healthier, feeling livelier is a very big step and it can be scary. Anyone who makes the effort deserves your support. Use your hand to lift up, not to slap down.