Quarterback benchings! What’s more fun than a struggling team acquiescing to a booing fan base by bringing in an underprepared, inexperienced backup who was seen as the weaker option only weeks earlier? Two teams doing that same thing on one Sunday! The Redskins and Vikings each benched their starting quarterback during divisional losses in Week 6, but it’s hard to see how either move will help those teams win games going forward.
It was only a few weeks ago that Rex Grossman was coming into Monday Night Football and filming pre-tapes explaining how he’d taken a leap forward as a quarterback, how he wasn’t the same player who was dragged to the Super Bowl by his teammates in 2006 and unceremoniously benched during the following season. In reality, Grossman’s above-average numbers — 46-of-77, 596 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions (one a tipped pick) — were a combination of decent play and two very friendly matchups. Rexy got to play a Giants defense that was ravaged by injuries and a Cardinals unit that seemed committed to letting Redskins players roam downfield unperturbed. There were reasons to hope that Grossman’s improvements would stick, but every reason to be skeptical.
During that Monday-night game against the Cowboys, we saw the first signs of the old Grossman. He threw an interception and had a couple of others fall harmlessly to the turf, but it was the precursor to a pair of ugly starts. Against the disappointing pass defenses of the Rams and Eagles, Grossman fell apart. His three-game totals, including that Cowboys game, look positively Delhommeian: 46-of-88 (52.3 percent) for 536 yards, with two touchdowns against a whopping six interceptions. Nondescript Eagles safety Kurt Coleman was Grossman’s leading receiver on Sunday, catching three passes for 25 yards. Well, -25 yards.
The issue isn’t with benching Grossman, really; it’s just hard to figure how John Beck is going to be a better option. The two quarterbacks battled for the starting job in training camp just two months ago, and the coaches chose Grossman then. They’ve gotten a roughly career-average level of play from Grossman since then. How is Beck, a 30-year-old with 112 career pass attempts, suddenly a better player than the deposed starter? Did the Shanaclan not realize they were starting Rex Grossman at quarterback before today? The move reeks of populism. In reality, Grossman’s benching is more a shuffling of roughly similar options to distract the Washington fans and media from a poor three-game stretch. Their one win during that time was a narrow seven-point win over the Rams, a team that has lost by an average of more than 20 points in their other four games.
There are bigger problems in Washington to be concerned with. The sieve-like Eagles run defense held Ryan Torain to just 22 yards on 10 carries yesterday, one of the more shocking developments of the day. One of the biggest reasons for their 3-1 start was that the Redskins had almost avoided injuries altogether. LaRon Landry took an injury into the season and missed the first two weeks of the season, but the other 21 starters had all managed to make it through the first five games of the year without missing a start. That changed yesterday, as left guard Kory Lichtensteiger went down with a torn ACL that will end his season, and left tackle Trent Williams suffered a high ankle sprain that should keep him out for at least one game. Tight end Chris Cooley, already playing through a knee complaint, fractured his finger, a move that may prevent him from pointing the blame at Tony Romo for the foreseeable future. As a top-heavy team that’s still rebuilding the bottom of their roster after years of neglect in the draft, the Redskins are more vulnerable to injuries than most other teams. Staying healthy was a huge part of their elevated level of play, much more so than the play of their starting quarterback. And it will continue to be the more important factor going forward. Beck will satisfy the boobirds, but he’s highly unlikely to suddenly satisfy this team’s needs.
The Vikings, meanwhile, made a more curious decision. Coming off of a poor performance in the 1-4 Vikings’ 24-point win over the Cardinals a week ago, Donovan McNabb was probably better off on the road in Chicago this week than he would have been in front of the Minnesota faithful at home. Before he was benched in the fourth quarter, McNabb probably put up one of the best lines you’ll ever see from a quarterback who was forcibly removed from the lineup, as he went 19-of-24 for 177 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. That’s the sort of checkdown stuff that looks better in a stat like quarterback rating (97.4) than it does in real life, but it really isn’t a bad game.
It’s the subtle stuff that doomed McNabb. He started the game out with his receivers dropping passes on back-to-back third downs.1 He took five sacks behind an offensive line that appeared unprepared for Julius Peppers2 and lost two starters along the way. The worst of those sacks was a safety in which McNabb felt pressure and decided to immediately go down to avoid the safety, not realizing that he was already in the end zone. Bad play. Not a reason to bench somebody. Mix in a couple of passes short of the sticks on third down and a couple more throws that were out of stride, and suddenly the equation pointed to rookie Christian Ponder at quarterback.
Now, I am not opposed to the idea of getting Ponder reps. Eventually, the Vikings will need to give him the opportunity to earn the starting role, and giving him a few attempts at the end of a blowout is a fair way to go about it. But coach Leslie Frazier made it clear after the game that the move was a benching, and that he was considering starting Ponder against the Packers next week.
On one hand, it makes more sense to make the switch to Ponder than it does to John Beck in Washington. At 1-5, the Vikings are stuck in last place in a very competitive division. McNabb has failed to capture the hearts of the Minnesota faithful, and at best, he’s been about an average quarterback. A switch to Ponder would basically be giving up on this season, but it might give the Vikings a better idea of who the quarterback will be on their next contending team.
But here’s why it doesn’t make sense. Even though they’re 1-5, the Vikings have been a pretty good 1-5; they started the year with close losses to two good teams (San Diego and Detroit) and two middling ones (Tampa Bay and Kansas City), all of which came in games by a touchdown or less. We know that’s not likely to recur, and while they have to play the Packers twice in the next four weeks, they still have an outside shot at the playoffs. Ponder got positive reviews for a performance that saw him go 9-of-17 for 99 yards, but that’s completing far less of his passes and gaining less per catch against a Bears prevent defense. Furthermore, Ponder looked atrocious in the preseason, running an offense that caused me and NFL Network analyst (and frequent B.S. Report guest) Michael Lombardi to wonder whether the limited offense Ponder was running would qualify as being at a high school level of complexity. While the performances of players like Cam Newton and Andy Dalton might give the Vikings some hope, they’re historically the exceptions, not the rule. Giving Ponder the starting gig will essentially prevent Minnesota from competing this year. He simply needs more time.
The other flaw in the logic here is roughly similar to the problem we discussed in regard to Washington: Benching the quarterback is being used as a scapegoat for other issues. We covered the dramatic second-half collapse of the Vikings’ pass rush in Week 3, and on Sunday night they barely sniffed Cutler during that dominant Bears first half. Adrian Peterson had just 39 yards on 12 carries. The once-vaunted run defense allowed more than five yards a carry to Matt Forte. And the Minnesota special teams had a dismal first half, with a missed field goal and a pair of ugly punts, following that by allowing a 107-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to Devin Hester in the second half. Even uncontrollable luck is going against them on special teams; as Football Outsiders noted last week, Vikings opponents were perfect on field goal attempts this season, including four field goals from 50 yards or more. Robbie Gould was 3-for-3 with a 51-yarder on Sunday night. Like free throws in basketball, teams have historically exhibited no ability to control the likelihood of an opposing kicker making or missing a field goal (without blocking it, of course).
Donovan McNabb can’t cover punts or block field goals or rush the passer, but he’s the best quarterback the Vikings have. And while Frazier might be able to satisfy his fans by benching McNabb for Ponder and giving the community some hope that they’ve found their franchise quarterback, chances are that he’ll be sinking his own team and ignoring the real problems with the organization in the process.
We’re Sorry, Mr. Belichick, Please Don’t Hurt Us
Even the best coaches screw up sometimes. And on Sunday, while his team came up with a late victory, Bill Belichick didn’t have his finest game. His disappointing mistake came at the end of the first half, when the Cowboys were deep in the middle of a drive inside the Patriots’ red zone. With two timeouts and the two-minute warning to play with, the Patriots should have been using their timeouts to try to get the ball back with as much time as possible; certainly, as he showed in the fourth quarter, Tom Brady can execute a lethal two-minute drill. Instead, the Patriots let the clock run, and when Tony Romo threw a touchdown pass to Jason Witten with 33 seconds left, the Patriots were left with their timeouts but no time to run a serious drive. In a game that came down to the wire, it certainly would have been valuable for the Patriots to get an extra possession there.
Signed, Roddy White’s Agent
Spare a thought for Falcons wide receiver Roddy White, whose raw numbers masked the true impact he had on the day. Matt Ryan threw seven passes in White’s direction, but he was able to catch only two of them for 21 yards. A disappointing day? Perhaps, but it’s missing his two most important contributions of the day. White drew two different defensive pass interference penalties in the end zone against the Panthers. Not only did they pick up conversions on plays that needed a combined 21 yards for first downs, they gained a combined 53 yards and set up the Falcons with first-and-goal on the one-yard line. Each time, the Falcons scored on the ensuing series from a yard out, but none of the credit for those drives will go to White. The purpose of statistics is to provide some record of what happened on the field; it’s pretty clear that the record isn’t doing justice to White’s impact.
Rams Set Offensive Records! And Not for Futility! Well, Sorta.
“You can’t dance with the champ; you have to knock him out!” The Rams were apparently unconcerned with that familiar adage on Sunday, as they went through their loss to the Packers playing like a team that was afraid to anger its opposition. The Rams drove into Green Bay territory nine different times on Sunday and came away with just three points, which seems impossible to believe, but it’s true. In the first quarter alone, the Rams drove to the 29-yard line and missed a field goal to start the game, and then followed that two drives later by failing to convert on a fourth-and-3 from the Packers’ 41-yard line.
Both those decisions are defensible, but the Rams suddenly got hyperconservative as the Packers’ lead grew. In the third quarter, down 24-3, the Rams punted on fourth-and-4 from the Green Bay 44. Why would they go for it in the earlier situation and punt here? Of course, the Rams offense also capitulated when they did hold onto the football, mixing ill-timed sacks with penalties (particularly penalties before two fourth downs by tackles Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold) to produce impossible-to-convert fourth-and-longs. When they did get close to the end zone, Sam Bradford threw an indefensible pick on first down on a fade pattern thrown to his receiver’s front kneecap.
As a result, the Rams were able to claim a bit of history for themselves in their defeat. While St. Louis was able to accrue 424 yards from scrimmage, they set a record for the fewest points scored in a game by a team with 400 or more yards, with three. Yards in a vacuum don’t mean anything, but it’s hard to fathom that the Rams would have such consistent success moving the ball against the Packers and get so little out of it. Rams fans looking for a modicum of hope can look toward the yardage total and hope that things start looking up for them once they get to the Cardinals in Week 8.
Finally, good news and bad news for those of you expecting the Five Up, Five Down feature in this space. The bad news is that it’s not here. The good news is that you’ll be seeing an expanded version of it tomorrow and every Tuesday going forward. So come back tomorrow!
Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.
Previously from Bill Barnwell:
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part IV
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part III
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part II
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part I
Viva Las Vegas: Apartment Hunting in Sin City
Viva Las Vegas: Sabermetrics in the Wasteland
NFL Free Agency: Winners, Losers, and Who’s Left
Flash Over Substance: DeSean Jackson and the Eagles
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