Texans’ Continued QB Problems, Steelers’ Bounce Back Ability, Rex vs. Belichick
Plus, the Saints’ strange spending habits, why the Jaguars aren’t dead yet and more for Week 4
1. If we’re being honest, this must have been Bill O’Brien’s inner monologue around 10:35 p.m. ET last Thursday…
I’ll preface this entire section with a disclaimer: Bill O’Brien knows quarterbacks better than I know literally anything. But anyone watching Brock Osweiler’s first three games as a Texan can’t help but notice: Osweiler looks an awful lot like the guy who was benched in favor of Peyton Manning’s reanimated corpse last winter.
I’m not big into judging quarterbacks solely on numbers, but Osweiler’s give you a clue. Since an impressive debut in Chicago last November, he has a 10-to-9 TD/INT ratio over nine starts. He’s posted a 90-plus passer rating once in those nine games. If you look past the numbers, it’s even more worrisome. Of his four interceptions this year, two were products of a combination of Marcus Peters’ ball skills and sloppiness on the part of his intended target. But not counted among his four INTs are the three or four times a defensive back has gotten two hands on a throw and dropped it. The point is this: Osweiler’s ball placement is really bad (I wonder if it’s due to the difficulty of repeating throwing mechanics when you’re 6-foot-8). And his decision-making is baffling at times.
Now the thing is: This isn’t a big problem. I mean, it’s a problem when your starting quarterback is playing poorly. But Osweiler is essentially on a two-year deal. If his next 30 games are anything like his last nine, that’s all it will be. And that’s fine. For all the “Broncos knew” lines being thrown around, they offered Osweiler a similar deal. (The fact that they were unwilling to challenge Houston’s deal and keep a player who was in their program for four years was a rather bright and garish warning sign, but let’s not pretend they threw him in the dumpster and moved on.)
I had a hunch that Bill O’Brien was blowing smoke and was secretly targeting former pupil Christian Hackenberg in the draft last spring. Hackenberg is a reclamation project that will probably take about, well, two years. Then heading into 2018, decision time on Osweiler’s deal, the Texans would presumably be done grooming their project QB. But, as we now know, the Texans didn’t draft Hackenberg. For the second straight year, they didn’t draft any quarterbacks. They’ve had a rotating door of bad former Patriots backups (Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer). But in the past five years, despite all their problems finding a signal-caller, they’ve only drafted one QB: Tom Savage, 135th overall in 2014. (O’Brien’s former team spent two top-100 picks on quarterbacks during the same span. And they have, y’know, Tom Brady.)
Savage, a big (6-4, 230) pocket passer in the O’Brien mold, is a mystery man to anyone outside the Texans facility. But the fact that he wasn’t deemed good enough to even compete with Osweiler this past summer is a clue about where he is. And here’s the thing: Even if Savage is secretly being sculpted into an NFL starting quarterback, his contract expires after 2017, just when the Texans will be facing a decision on Osweiler. The Texans could be back at square one in 16 months. So Osweiler’s contract seems to scream “placeholder.” But the Texans depth chart says “he’s our only hope.”
And that isn’t a big problem either, except for this: The developments of the past week were a punch in the crotch (what, do you have a better metaphor for being moved emotionally in a negative way?) that J.J. Watt is not going to dominate the NFL indefinitely. Having Watt on your roster allows for a certain margin for error in team-building. You can go with Brian Hoyer as your quarterback and win games. You can have your No. 1 overall pick top out at “pretty good” and still have a dominant defense. (And make no mistake, while Jadeveon Clowney has been decent in 2016 he has not turned a corner. Did you see his lone sack of the season in the highlights? Of course not. That’s because it was Jay Cutler drifting toward the sideline for eight seconds before Clowney clipped his heel as Cutler stepped out of bounds.)
Even without J.J. Watt, the Texans can still win what might be a historically bad AFC South. But they probably can’t win a playoff game without him. Watt will be a 28-year-old with a history of back problems when next season kicks off. They might get the truly dominant Watt, the most valuable non-QB in the NFL by a wide margin, back at some point in the next two seasons. But they can’t count on having that guy for 16 games.
O’Brien will take over the play calling when the Texans host a bad Titans team on Sunday. Maybe it’s just a matter of the coach getting to work more closely with his handpicked quarterback. Houston has to be praying that it is. If the Watt Super Bowl window hasn’t already closed, it may slam shut in the next year or two. And as far as finding the right quarterback goes in the Watt Era, it looks like it’s Osweiler or bust. And if the last nine games are any indication, it’s probably bust.
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2. In the summer of 2015, I made a friendly wager with my brother. I had noticed that Vegas had the Texans at 9-to-2 to win the AFC South; I found it patently absurd that the team with the best all-around roster in the division could be getting such long odds. My brother, noting the absurdity of a team entering the season with a QB competition between Brian Hoyer starting Ryan Mallett in the year 2015, said he’d take $20 from me on that bet. After the Texans fell to 1-4 with a particularly ugly loss to the Hasselbeck-led Colts in Week 5, it was suggested that I pay up then. Of course, Houston turned it around to win eight of their last 11, the rest of the AFC South predictably devolved into a pile of… I dunno, the grass clippings the neighbor’s dog ate and then vomited onto my driveway this morning. The point is, I had $90 to put toward my incurable addiction to cool mint Clif Bars.
And thus, we come to Sunday morning and the current state of the Jacksonville Jaguars. It’s regrettable that they’re losing a home game against a division rival, but certainly they have a winnable game in London against the Colts this morning. If they do win that game, they’ll leap-frog Indy (for the time being), and either (because the Titans play in Houston) leap-frog Tennessee or pull to within a game of the AFC South lead, with a 1-0 record in the division. That’s a pretty sweet place to be heading into a Week 5 bye.
The Jaguars didn’t show up in San Diego two weeks ago. That happens. (Just ask the Steelers.) They lost to a good Packers team at home in Week 1. They let one slip away in Week 3. But this team hasn’t stopped playing for Gus Bradley. The biggest problem right now is that Blake Bortles is spraying throws like a late-career Steve Blass, and it seems that perhaps he anointed Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns as America’s next great power couple a bit too early.
With Watt going down and the Colts and Titans both looking to be just as bad as they were last year, the AFC South is still within reach for Jacksonville. So let’s not put Gus Bradley on the obits page just yet.
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3. As you might have heard, last week the Steelers suffered their worst loss since the Bubby Brister Era.
But Pittsburgh has been weirdly resilient under Mike Tomlin. Tomlin has won 63.9% of his regular-season games as head coach, but he is also 35-15 (a .700 winning percentage) coming off a loss. And the Steelers are 10-1 coming off a loss in the regular season since 2014.
And, thus, you have a team coming off a 31-point loss and giving four points in Vegas on Sunday night.
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4. This is Part II of my 53-part series: “In Defense of Rex Ryan.”
Ryan has given Bill Belichick’s Patriots some unexpected challenges over the years. Unexpected because one guy has Tom Brady and the other guy has had a bunch of guys who are decidedly not Tom Bradys. Ryan is 4-11 against Belichick head-to-head. Really, with the gap in talent, that should be more like 1-14 or 0-15.
But more importantly, Ryan has the kind of creative blitz packages that (presumed) starter Jimmy Garoppolo’s beautiful eyes did not see often in his first two starts. In fact, in the victory over Miami in which Garoppolo looked like he was playing Madden on the easy setting before he got hurt, the Dolphins didn’t have any success until they started unleashing some blitzes. The Cardinals were also overly cautious when it came to blitzing Garoppolo. That might have been in part because they were daring a first-time starter to execute sustained drives against them, and also in part because their rookie No. 2 cornerback was a bit of a trainwreck.
After watching the Bills fly around like a classic Ryan defense in last week’s win over the Cardinals, I think they’re going to have something in store for Garoppolo. Remember, when these teams met in New England last November, Ryan did some things that confused Tom Brady in the first half; the game didn’t start to get away until Mario Williams started freelancing (and ultimately the Bills had the ball down seven at midfield at the end of the game).
Are the Bills going to win on Sunday? Probably not. But this one does profile as another relatively ugly one for the Patriots against Rex.
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5. Every spring, my family takes a trip to Sesame Place in Langhorne, Pa. It’s a bit of an off-brand vacation, but Sesame Street is the greatest show ever, the park is manageable and my kids enjoy it.
The first year we went it was still just three of us; my daughter was 2. She was alternatingly overjoyed and terrified, and understandably confused by the fact that Elmo, who is the size of a toddler at Astoria-Kaufman Studios, is a hulking 6-foot-8 in person. At the end of the trip, we went to the gift shop and told her she could pick out any stuffy she wanted. They had literally every Sesame Street character. Who does she choose? Pigeon-loving, unibrow-having killjoy Bert. Bert’s not even the most likeable Sesame Street character in his own apartment! But Bert it was (and we splurged and got Ernie too, so I could sleep at night).
That long, winding story that didn’t really go anywhere brings me to another opportunity to criticize those who are infinitely more successful than I am. Specifically, the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints are in cap hell. They have an obscene amount of dead money on the books. Junior Galette, Curtis Lofton, Ben Grubbs. I think Pat Swilling’s deal still counts against their cap. (And, after watching Monday night, I have a feeling Swilling could still compete for a starting job in New Orleans.) But none the less, they decided to splurge a little bit this offseason. They made one big purchase. They looked around the league. Perhaps a Bruce Irvin to give them a desperately needed edge rush presence? Sean Smith to help solidify a dangerously thin secondary? Nah. They spent on Coby Fleener. They went with Bert.
Fleener is just fine as an NFL player. If he was your No. 2 tight end you wouldn’t lose any sleep. But the Saints opted to give $18 million guaranteed to a fungible talent and then plugged him in as an unchallenged starter. The results have been, well… through three games, the Saints are 0-3 and Fleener has been a mistake-prone mess. His fantasy owners were pleased with his seven-catch, 109-yard Monday night performance. But it was a game that included a crippling third-down drop and another ball that he nearly shoveled into the hands of a defender for a pick-six. (Getting his head around and finding the ball has been a major issue.)
Again, it’s too early to throw in the towel after three games. But those three games in a system in which Fleener should thrive (at 6-foot-6, he should be perfect on those seam routes Drew Brees loves), combined with four underwhelming seasons in Indianapolis, it looks like the Saints have yet another undesirable contract on the books.
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6. Tough week for the Aguayo brothers, who are a combined 0-for-5 on field goal attempts since last Sunday.
Obviously, when you trade up to get a kicker in Round 2 you are expecting him to be better than this. But keep in mind that three games into his NFL career, fellow ’Nole alum Sebastian Janikowski, a first-round pick, was 2-for-5 on field goals. Janikowski finished 27th in the NFL in field-goal accuracy (68.8%) as a rookie in 2000, and only four of those kicks were from beyond 50.
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7. Last Sunday’s Lions-Packers game brought a 66-yard penalty.
A penalty that is the equivalent of four personal fouls… plus six more yards. “What for?” you might ask. “A devious plot normally reserved for the pages of an Agatha Christie novel, resulting in… Murder?”
Close. It was a rookie No. 5 receiver running downfield when his feet got tangled with those of a Lions defensive back. Though, as far as I know, a connection to ISIS hasn’t been ruled out.
I was shouted down on last week’s podcast, but I’ve long lobbied for defensive pass interference I and defensive pass interference II. DPI-2 (as the kids would surely call it) would be anything on which the defensive player was making zero attempt to play a catchable. That would be a spot foul, with a 10-yard minimum. DPI-1 would be the mutual hand-fighting and ticky-tack garbage (you know, the stuff that currently is called and swings games). Those would be 10-yard penalties. (And, while we’re at it, eliminate “automatic first downs,” and make defensive holding and illegal contact 10-yard penalties.) All DPI-2 penalties would be automatically reviewed. The extra breaks could be substituted for the commercial breaks that come before and/or after kickoffs. As for more judgment calls for the officials on the field? I think they're rewarded handsomely enough, in the form of U.S. currency, to take on the burden.
I know the competition committee has important things to do every offseason, like finding new ways to make the term “catch” a nebulous, impossible-to-define concept. But if they can free up some time during next offseason’s competition committee brunch pot luck (it’s lame, half the guys just bring a single-serving box of Honey-Nut Cheerios), perhaps they can do something about defensive pass interference.
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8a. Of all the short-sighted, counterproductive, money-grubbing ideas put forth by the NCAA, this one ranks… somewhere in the middle.
Big-revenue college sports have always been prone to academic clustering (the practice of putting all your athletes in the same major... the easy major, despite what they might want for their future in or out of sports). Athletes already have scheduling limitations because of practice and travel time. And, obviously, a program doesn’t want anyone failing out.
A few years ago, the NCAA doubled down by introducing Academic Progress Rate (APR). From an educational standpoint, it proved to be a poorly thought-out plan, incentivizing the easiest way out for programs. Though for the NCAA, it was always more about public relations than actually making sure an athlete gets an education in the field of his or her choice.
And that brings us to this latest proposal which, in a way, is perfect for the NCAA and its members. Programs are now encouraged to double-down on half-assing athletes’ educations in order to get better grades on paper. And for playing along with the farce, they get the only thing any of these administrators care about: money.
8b. Vice Sports had an interesting piece about “spatting” as an effective form of protest. I’m not sure it works in football (unless you’re DeShaun Watson, you’re probably getting benched or losing your non-guaranteed scholarship), but it would work for basketball players.
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9. This week’s MMQB Read of the Week comes from Jenny Vrentas’s new column (well, new this season, you should have seen it by now). On Tuesday, Jenny led with the understated brilliance of Mike Zimmer, easily one of the most underrated humans in the NFL.
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10. I think, at 12:58 p.m. ET, you should turn your volume all the way up and press play…