Cam Hits and that ‘Forcible Contact’ Nonsense, Bill O’Brien Gets It All So Very Right (Except His QB), Steelers Are Scary
Plus, potentially more help for the Cowboys, Delanie Walker no longer the man who drops everything, and more heading into Week 16
1. I could spend thousands of words each week criticizing the poorly conceived and nonsensical portions of the NFL rulebook. (And, well, I often do).
As you probably already saw: Dean Blandino talked about the non-call against Trent Murphy for diving into the helmet of a sliding Cam Newton on Monday night. And Blandino is right, for the most part. Cam’s a runner, so it’s not a roughing the passer situation. It’s a late slide. Now, we can sit here and debate whether or not a 290-pound human diving headfirst constitutes “forcible contact” or not and you’d be categorically incorrect if you said it did “no, it does not,” but let’s set that aside for now. Plus, Blandino, rightly, makes the point that the officials get one look at the play, at full speed. It’s understandable that a handful of these kinds of calls would be missed.
But let’s step back for a moment and examine how misguided it is to require “forcible contact” be the threshold on any hit to the head (both in roughing the passer and unnecessary roughness). Or, at least “forcible contact” as it is currently being interpreted.
The goal here is player safety. Right? Yes? O.K.? O.K. If you’re talking the lower body and legs, the forcible contact threshold makes sense. You can’t really injure someone’s leg without forcible contact. But as for hits to the head, let’s first look at the hit on Cam:
Then watch this play from later in the same game, on which Washington cornerback Greg Toler suffered a concussion:
Do you think the contact on Toler’s head was more “forcible” than the contact on Cam’s? Of course not, because you’re not a crazy person and you have excellent vision (and not to be weird, but brilliantly beautiful eyes as well. Really, just take the compliment.) But, as we see on a fairly regular basis, even seemingly innocuous hits to the head can cause concussions.
If the league wants to legislate concussions out of the game as much as possible, the “forcible” language should come out of the rulebook entirely when addressing hits to the head. Unless it’s incidental contact with a ballcarrier who is not giving himself up, the helmet should be 100% off-limits, forcible contact or not.
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2. The Texans are weird. Particularly when it comes to their quarterbacks.
I wrote about Osweiler back in October, and hot takes aside, no one should be in the habit of calling for QB switches from afar. The “gotta put him out there to see what he can do” argument is completely nonsensical. A team sees 94% of what a quarterback can do behind closed doors. When you “put him out there to see what he can do,” you end up with situations like the Jets, who surely knew Bryce Petty couldn’t play but seem hellbent on ruining him (metaphorically and literally) with the motivation of getting people to stop calling into WFAN and demanding that they see him for themselves.
Which brings us to the unusual tale of Tom Savage. He was a 2014 fourth-round pick who’s been in the Texans’ program for two years. Two years won’t give you a 100% certain read on what a guy will become, but a team (especially one with an offensive head coach) should have a pretty good read on a developmental QB who’s been in their program for that amount of time. Bill O’Brien was talking Savage up during the offseason. Of course, it rings hollow when you say “We really like our developmental guy! And we’re also going to lock ourselves into $18 million per year for this free agent over the course of the remaining years of the developmental guy’s contract!” Signing Osweiler was the act of a team that had very little confidence in Savage.
On Monday, O’Brien told a bunch of people with pens and notepads and cameras: “We don’t make decisions on how much a guy gets paid.” But he spent the past month-plus doing precisely that. Osweiler was regressing on a weekly basis. They had scaled back the passing game so much that it was no longer built around their two first-round picks at wide receiver; it was centered around their fungible tight ends catching seven-yard passes. It was the New York Giants altering their passing game to work around Will Tye instead of Odell Beckham. The K-Gun Bills letting Andre Reed and James Lofton languish while they threw it to Pete Metzelaars 14 times every week. Everything was going horribly, undeniably wrong. And it showed no signs of getting better.
Until, of course, Savage entered the Jaguars game and showed he was miles ahead of Osweiler in terms of running this offense. Yes, he has played 80% of one regular season game. But it was impossible to watch Savage’s performance off the bench last Sunday and not think he was, indisputably, the best fit at quarterback for the Texans. And considering how long he’s been in the program, the Texans had to have known this. Savage was either on the bench because of Osweiler’s status as an $18 million-per-year player. Or the Texans’ assessment of their own roster has been woefully inadequate.
And that’s the weirdest thing about all of this: From management to the coaching staff, the Texans have mangled their quarterback situation beyond recognition. And yet, in every other facet, they are not just a well-run organization. They are a supremely, almost flawlessly run organization. This is a team that lost the best non-quarterback in football, has been forcing itself to play the worst starting quarterback in the league all season, and yet, at worst, they’ll have a chance to play for a division title in Week 17. If you strip away the QB situation on all 32 teams (I know, big “if”), you could argue that the Texans are the NFL’s model franchise. (And you’d probably be right!) If I were Bob McNair, I’d give O’Brien and GM Rick Smith, oh, 22-year contract extensions.
It’s just strange to see an organization that gets so many things so right get the most important position on the roster so wrong.
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3. Whether or not the Cowboys play their starters down the stretch, this is one big advantage clinching the No. 1 seed with two games to go gives them: They’ll get to see what, if anything, Randy Gregory can give them in the postseason.
The Cowboys’ fatal flaw is the lack of a pass rush. Things went better Sunday night when David Irving suddenly played up to his physical abilities and took over against the Bucs, though rarely in the postseason do you get the offensive line version of an E-ZPass that is working against Gosder Cherilus one-on-one. The Cowboys could use more.
Gregory is the most athletically gifted pass rusher on the Dallas roster. Or, at least he was the last time we saw him, in Week 17 of last season. He might not be in good enough shape to even make the gameday roster in a playoff game.
But on the other hand, fresh legs could play in his favor, and maybe he could ultimately give them a dozen good snaps in a postseason game. And now they can see what they have in two games that will carry zero consequences.
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4. If my body, mind and soul encompassed the combined thoughts and hopes and fears and dreams of every member of an NFL organization, the team I’d least like to see in this year’s playoffs is the New England Patriots because Tom Brady is on that team. The team I’d least like to face aside from the Patriots is the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers haven’t gotten a vintage Ben Roethlisberger performance during their five-game winning streak, yet they’ve steamrolled opponents and will finish the regular season 5-3 on the road. With Le’Veon Bell running behind football’s most underappreciated offensive line, their ground game is the best in the AFC. And while their young defense has been up and down all year, they’re No. 1 in the NFL in total defense over the last eight games. (And while, yes, that included games against the Browns and the Tolzien-led Colts, it also included games against the Patriots and Cowboys). Total defense, like any statistical measure, traditional or what you’d find on PFF, is a snapshot. No one is arguing that the Steelers are the best defense in football. They still don’t have a consistent answer in the pass rush. They miss Cameron Heyward. But the back end of the defense has been better, and their run of strong performances coincided with the return of stud linebacker Ryan Shazier.
The Steelers are not only built for all weather, but they might even be better in the cold (New England, Kansas City) considering they can run it and stop the run.
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5a. There once was a time, four years ago, when Delanie Walker was an athletic but drop-prone No. 2 tight end in San Francisco. Oh, so drop-prone was he! (Nine in 30 targets in 2012!) It was fair to wonder whether he was capable of literally catching enough passes to justify the four-year deal the Titans gave him.
And now, four years later, Walker is the most irreplaceable part of the upstart Titans. He’s a mismatch nightmare, forcing opponents to either put an extra defensive back on the field against their power-running offense, or try to defend a player with wide receiver athleticism with a combination of safeties and linebackers. And he’s been especially important considering how punchless the Titans’ receivers are.
It all goes to show: Better to be dynamic and drop-prone than slow and sure-handed. (Just ask the Eagles. Though those Chip Kelly hires aren’t so sure-handed either.)
5b. Speaking of the Eagles, I’d love to see them grab University of Washington’s John Ross with the first-rounder they recouped from Minnesota in the Sam Bradford deal. Dude is Tyreek Hill minus the off-field baggage.
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6. Just a couple of random thoughts in light of last week’s item on Rex Ryan. (And I basically said the same stuff on this week’s podcast, if anyone’s interested in hearing a frazzled man with an effeminate voice sum up these bullet points.):
a. This is the kind of headline my id would have written. And to be sure, I stand by my claim that it’s a crappy roster in Buffalo. Though when it comes to Doug Whaley and his job performance, there are some shades of grey…
i. I don’t think Whaley “has to go.” I don’t think he’s done a good job, but I also don’t think he’s been a disaster, or that he’s hopeless going forward. The Sammy Watkins trade was ill-advised and far too high a price to pay for a non-quarterback, unless it’s a non-quarterback who you are convinced will be a superstar. If Watkins had made an Odell Beckham-like impact over his first three seasons, we’d be having a different conversation. (And it doesn’t help that the Bills could have, y’know, kept their 2015 first-rounder and simply stayed put and taken Beckham in that 2014 draft, but you could go through every GM’s track record and find high draft picks that weren’t maximized. The problem is that Whaley spent a high-first rounder and a mid-first rounder to get Watkins at a time when the team didn’t have a quarterback. That’s a nearly impossible price for a non-QB to justify.)
ii. The Marcell Dareus extension was a mistake. They should have known better. But then, a lot of franchises would have made the same mistake. On the other hand, Richie Incognito (who I still maintain never would have made it to Buffalo if Rex didn’t give the Bills flexibility with character concern guys) has been a win.
iii. Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland are ideal fits for Ryan. They would have been a better team if neither had gotten hurt.
iv. Ronald Darby was a pleasant surprise as a rookie. This year he’s looked like the gifted but inconsistent player he projected to be coming out of Florida State. But obviously, they unlocked something in him last season and could find it again.
v. I think Whaley should stick around. I think Rex should stick around. I think this is a team in mid-rebuild and everyone needs to chill the f*** out. However, if the politics of the matter are that they can’t work together, I’d rather have the overachieving coach and his staff than the, to this point, underachieving personnel guy.
b. A couple of more random notes:
i. For those who wrote in to say, essentially, “Tyrod Taylor is Rex’s guy,” you’re kind of missing the forest for the trees here. Taylor was Rex’s choice, no doubt. His other options were Matt Cassel and EJ Manuel. So yes, when posed with that Sophie’s Choice at quarterback…
ii. I realize that Rex has said very positive things about Tyrod Taylor publicly, and at the risk of sounding like a dismissive turd, I do not care what Rex Ryan says at press conferences. It’s a show. It has no bearing on the success of a team. I did not think the Jets were going to win the Super Bowl with Mark Sanchez at quarterback. I did not think the Bills were going to go to the playoffs with a subpar roster. It’s the equivalent of a Trump supporter being disappointed, three years from now, that Mexico hasn’t built a giant wall on its border, or that there’s not a 35% tariff on companies sending jobs overseas. This stuff is all bluster.
iii. For the most part, the overwhelming response from Bills fans who contacted me was along the lines of, I’m not crazy about Rex, but he has done a good job with what he’s been given, and hitting the reset button is no way to run a franchise. That’s because the people of Western New York are smart and why the region as a whole has an enchanting musk.
A couple readers thought that my description of the Bills as a four- to six-win roster was a bit much. Fair enough. But by far the most unhinged response was from the gentleman who thought this was a 12-4 roster. That, in and of itself, is utterly preposterous. But he parroted a couple of Rex criticisms I’ve heard elsewhere, that are probably legitimate.
It looks like they might be having some communication problems on the defensive side. Maybe Rob Ryan makes for too many cooks.* They simplified the offense under Anthony Lynn, and that’s helped fuel that unit’s turnaround (that, and Lynn being a superb coach). It’s also just a very complex defense. And one that differs drastically to the one Jim Schwartz ran. (Because no one can let go of Jim Schwartz.)
But 12-4 Guy also wanted to isolate the times when the Bills have been outschemed in individual instances. (That time they had Kevon Seymour on Amari Cooper! Once they had Duke Williams on Mike Wallace!) Look, if you’re going to fire a defensive-minded head coach because opponents were able to scheme an individual mismatch or two a couple times per season, your standards are insane. You’d have fired Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll (7-9 in each of his first two seasons in Seattle, by the way) a thousand times over.
c. If applying Occam’s Razor to the Buffalo Bills, the problem is this: Quarterback. So to shut the door (for now) on all things Rex hot seat, a power ranking of Bills starting quarterbacks in the post-Jim Kelly era:
1. Drew Bledsoe
2. Doug Flutie
3. Kyle Orton
4. Tyrod Taylor
5. Rob Johnson
6. Kelly Holcomb (gone too soon!)
7. Ryan Fitzpatrick
8. Trent Edwards
9. Todd Collins
10. Pills Van Pelt
11. J.P. Losman
12. Tyler Thigpen
13. EJ Manuel
14. Thaddeus Lewis
15. Brian Brohm
16. Jeff Tuel
17. Matt Cassel (technically the starter in the 2015 opener)
And a power ranking of New England Patriots starting quarterbacks in the post-Jim Kelly era:
1. Tom Brady
2. Drew Bledsoe
3. Jimmy Garoppolo
4. Matt Cassel
5. Scott Zolak
6. Jacoby Brissett
*—will spoil the broth, but they’ll fill our hearts with so much, so much love.
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7a. We here at the Gameday 10 Things column like to have some fun. And seeing how Sunday is Christmas, we thought we’d have a little bit of that fun and, in honor of the birth of Our Savior, do something no one has ever done before: Make a list of the perfect holiday gifts for your favorite NFL personalities. So here goes...
Falcons LB Tyler Starr: A three-pack of crewneck undershirts
49ers NT Tony Jerod-Eddie: $35 gift card to Yankee Candle
Line Judge Mark Steinkerchner: Season 3 of NCIS: Los Angeles on Blu-ray (be sure to include a printed out version of online episode synopses for Seasons 1 and 2; he won’t be able to follow the intricate plot lines without knowing the back story)
Chicago Bears TE Ben Braunecker: Variety pack of single-serving Kellogg’s cereal boxes
Jaguars interim head coach Doug Marrone: Scrap metal in order to make his own “make your own ice cream” maker
Patriots G LaAdrian Waddle: Two 3-liter bottles of Royal Crown Cola
Chargers punter Drew Kaser: Uhhhh… like, a very nice pair of slacks.
(7b. Don’t worry, there were no jokes to be gotten.)
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8. I laugh with the individual responsible for this, because as a human being who used to have access to multiple social media accounts I have indeed had similar screwups. (A couple years ago I had Peter King referring to himself in the third person in a tweet that was supposed to be from my account).
That said, whatever you think of Skip Bayless and his craft, you have to appreciate the… shall we say “gusto,” of this Facebook account/comment mishap:
Funny. Skip Bayless forgot to switch accounts praising himself on a Facebook Live stream pic.twitter.com/WJ22Neleix— Ollie Connolly (@OllieConnolly) December 19, 2016
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9. Particularly in light of the Steelers-Ravens faux AFC North title game coming up on Sunday, I’d recommend all of our Steelers-Ravens historical rivalry coverage. But Jenny Vrentas with the oral history of the games is probably the best one.
To me, Ryan Clark on Willis McGahee is the moment that forever stands out in this rivalry. And Trevor Pryce sums up exactly what I thought while watching the 2008 AFC title game.
“PRYCE: I remember Willis lying on the ground with his arm up in the air. And I remember saying, I think he’s dead.”
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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…
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