Don’t get the two confused: Washington got screwed by the referees at the end of last night’s game, and Washington lost, but Washington didn’t lose because it got screwed by the referees. And likewise, 3-9 Washington is finishing up a wildly disappointing season, and Robert Griffin III isn’t playing to the same level as a year ago, but Washington isn’t really one of the league’s worst teams because RG3 isn’t the same guy. Contributing factor? Sure. But the primary causes are bigger than the refs or the Washington quarterback.
Start with last night’s dramatic exhibition of the NFL’s “no backsies” policy. Obviously, it’s critical that everybody on the field — players, coaches, referees, and chain gang alike — be on the same page with regard to the down-and-distance before every NFL snap. That becomes difficult to maintain at the end of a game, when one team is driving without any timeouts in an up-tempo no-huddle. It’s still surreal that a multibillion-dollar industry has a bunch of referees using their eyes and a chain gang paid a pittance by the home team making game-changing decisions about ball placement, but that’s where we find ourselves in 2013.
Last night, that system failed. There was a clear miscommunication between referee Jeff Triplette, who signaled that a completed pass had produced a third-and-inches situation, and the chain gang, who switched their down box to note that there was a first down and then began to move the chains downfield to indicate the new yardage needed for a first down. Only after the ensuing third-down play produced an incomplete pass did the miscommunication become clear.
To mix up the down-and-distance is one thing. What was truly replacement-level refereeing, though, was how Triplette and his crew handled the situation. On a play as close as the Pierre Garcon second-down catch, Triplette should have called for a measurement. Referees are naturally loath to give teams measurement opportunities in situations when they’re out of timeouts and driving, but this was a situation that clearly called for one. And then, when the chain gang started moving despite Triplette’s call for third down, somebody on the crew needed to notice and blow his whistle to stop the play. It was too critical of a difference to account for. Whether it was inaction or incompetence, Washington ended up throwing a deep pass that it almost surely wouldn’t have thrown had the team known it was third down, not first down.
But here’s the thing: Just as it didn’t for the Patriots two weeks ago on Monday Night Football, the refereeing decision at the end of the game doesn’t excuse the way Washington played on that final drive. That drive included two notable drops on third downs, including the deep pass to Fred Davis that came on the would-be third-and-1. It finished with the ball literally being ripped out of Garcon’s hands on fourth down by Giants safety/massage enthusiast Will Hill. The referees didn’t blow a 14-0 lead against a listless, middling Giants team with questionable play calling. They didn’t retreat into an offensive shell after two impressive drives at the start of the game or fail to come up with key points after an Eli Manning interception gave Washington the ball on the 12-yard line. The referees aren’t responsible for Washington’s grotesque special teams, which flipped the field position at the end of the third quarter. Washington played poorly enough to get screwed by one bad call from the refs, and when that bad call came up, the team didn’t execute well enough to overcome it.
And just as the referees were being scapegoated for Washington playing sloppy, uninterested football for three quarters, I couldn’t stop thinking about how this poor season from Washington has turned into a referendum on whether Robert Griffin is healthy, talented, well-liked, or enough of a leader for this Washington team. These are the usual silly arguments we see when people tie a quarterback’s performance and inherent value to a team’s win-loss record — notice how Cam Newton is suddenly a mature leader these days — and it’s based upon unrealistically high expectations from a year ago.
A lot of the arguments I’ve seen are grasping at straws for Griffin’s struggles. The read-option has been figured out! Well, if it has, it certainly hasn’t seemed to slow down the Washington rushing attack (an attack that’s built off the read-option) very much. Washington has been among the best rushing teams in football this year, and its numbers with the zone-read aren’t drastically off. Last year, per ESPN Stats & Information, Washington averaged 6.3 yards per carry when it used the zone-read; there’s no zone-read data from last night’s game available yet, but before the Giants game, Washington was averaging 5.3 yards per carry on its zone-read runs in 2013. This is a drop-off, of course, but not such a dip that it would render the Washington offense useless. And Griffin, who averaged 6.8 yards per carry and an even eight rushing attempts per game a year ago, is down to only 5.6 yards per carry and 6.8 attempts per game this year.
Instead, the biggest difference between last year’s offense and this year’s unit is one that was clearly going to come up before Griffin ever put on that knee brace and walked onto the field against the Eagles in Week 1: turnovers. The 2012 edition of this team simply avoided turnovers at a totally unsustainable rate. Washington gave the ball away just 14 times a year ago, with Griffin throwing a mere five interceptions amid his 393 pass attempts.1
Those figures just don’t happen from year to year, and sure enough, they’ve risen dramatically in 2013. Garcon’s “fumble” on the final Washington offensive play last night was the team’s 20th turnover of the season, and that’s with four games still left to play. Griffin has thrown 11 picks, but that’s not awful; it’s a 2.6 percent interception rate, which is almost exactly league-average (2.7 percent). Griffin’s numbers are down across the board, but he had one of the greatest seasons a quarterback has had in the past decade a year ago; even a veteran quarterback would naturally expect some decline from a 65.6 percent completion percentage and a 4-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, let alone a rookie like Griffin. Griffin hasn’t been flawless by any means, but he’s playing at a level that’s good enough for Washington to win if it had talent around him.
Instead, it has gaping holes throughout its lineup that the front office was unable to fill this offseason. Part of that is from the trade Washington struck to acquire Griffin, but it hardly seems fair to blame Griffin for the deal his team made to acquire him; it’s not like he made some outlandish salary request or insisted that Washington pay an exorbitant premium to acquire him. (More on that trade in a moment.) The other part is how Washington is hamstrung by the salary-cap violation the league stuck it with as a result of its shenanigans in the uncapped year, a move that has shrunk the salary boundaries for a team that’s perpetually cap-strapped.
The problem isn’t Robert Griffin playing at 90 percent of the level he performed at a year ago. It’s Brandon Meriweather arm-tackling Peyton Hillis. It’s David Amerson and Bacarri Rambo being stretched into meaningful roles as rookies before they prove that they aren’t ready. It’s Perry Riley chasing after an endless stream of quicker tight ends. It’s Tyler Polumbus starting at right tackle. It’s the fact that the team is so hard up for talented depth that it can’t afford to bench Fred Davis, who started for the injured Jordan Reed on Sunday despite the rumors that he’s been skipping out on team meetings for weeks. It’s the big deals for Stephen Bowen and Adam Carriker and Josh Morgan and Santana Moss and, yes, for Garcon and DeAngelo Hall, complementary players stretched as no. 1 guys at their respective positions.
And the scary thing for Washington fans is that it’s going to probably get worse before it gets better. The cap penalties for the uncapped shenanigans come off the books after this year, but Washington will have to take that space and apply it to a new deal for Brian Orakpo, with contract extensions for Griffin, Alfred Morris, and Ryan Kerrigan lurking in the near future. It will probably fire the Shanaclan after this disappointing campaign, which means that it’ll have to go through the transition to a new coaching staff and, possibly, a new scheme.
Worst of all, the Griffin trade is about to hit Washington where it really hurts. There is already a paucity of young talent on the roster by virtue of the draft picks Washington sent to St. Louis, but the team still owes the Rams one more first-round pick, the first-rounder that comes due in next year’s draft. At the moment, per Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated, that would be the second pick in the 2014 draft. If it stays that way, Washington basically swapped the second overall pick in 2014 for the second overall pick in 2012 … and sent the Rams two first-rounders and a second-rounder for the privilege of doing so. St. Louis might very well end up with two top-10 picks in the talent-rich 2014 draft, while Washington gets shut out until the second round. A year ago, that trade seemed like a colossal mistake by the Rams. Right now, it seems like one of the best deals they’ve ever made.
The truth about that deal, as is the case with the Washington team, lies somewhere in the middle. Griffin should be better in 2014, a year removed from knee surgery, even if Washington doesn’t use the zone-read as frequently as it did during his rookie campaign. Washington still has a core of talented players that it can ride to success in the league’s second-worst division,2 and it will be able to do a little more this offseason than it did a year ago. But this year is shot, and blaming Griffin or the referees is focusing too narrowly on one part of the equation. Washington rode a desperate all-in play into the playoffs in 2012. Too often in 2013, desperation just hasn’t been enough.
Most of the teams competing for the top picks in that vaunted 2014 draft managed to play competitive games this weekend. Among the teams with three wins or fewer, only Tampa Bay managed to get blown out, with the Vikings and Jaguars both picking up critical (and foolish?) wins. The third big winner/loser came in Toronto, as the 2-9 Falcons broke their five-game losing streak with an overtime win over the hapless Bills, who crumbled amid penalties and fumbles during the final few minutes of the contest, to win their third game of the season. The loss likely crushes Buffalo’s slim playoff hopes at 4-8, which might be a plus given the draft consequences, but Sunday’s game also served as a reminder of the depressing state that the annual Toronto game reveals for the Bills franchise.
The announced crowd for Sunday’s game in Toronto consisted of a mere 38,969 fans, a downright brutal total for an NFL game. If you think that’s the product of two bad teams playing one another, consider that the matchup between the Bills and Jets the previous week in Buffalo drew 68,036 to Ralph Wilson Stadium. For all the talk of a possible Bills fan base in Toronto, the crowd (judged from audible reactions and panning shots) seemed to be split pretty evenly between Falcons and Bills fans. The lackluster surroundings and the disappointing performance just put into perspective how the Toronto deal forces the Bills to sacrifice on-field performance for off-field profits.
The biggest problem with the Toronto deal is that it puts the Bills at a perennial disadvantage by taking away one home game and replacing it with a contest at a neutral field. While the organization undoubtedly expected that the “neutral” field would be a haven for Bills fans, either those in the Toronto area or those making the trip from Buffalo, that just hasn’t been the case. Attendance has fallen off every year but one since the Bills took to Toronto in 2008; the paid attendance was above 50,000 during Buffalo’s first four games in town, but that figure fell off to just over 40,000 for last year’s blowout loss to the Seahawks before going under 40,000 on Sunday.
That neutral field simply doesn’t offer the same competitive advantage that a home field does. Since 1990, NFL teams have won 58.1 percent of their home games. For regular-season “home” games played on neutral fields, though, like the games the Bills have played in Toronto or the games from the London series, the “home” team has gone just 5-14, winning 26.3 percent of the contests. And not a single one of those 19 teams with seven home games on the schedule went on to make the playoffs. That’s obviously due in part to the likes of the Bills and Jaguars playing some of the games as the nominal home team, but even bad teams aren’t enough to explain away the fact that those teams are giving up a home game.
While Buffalo might still get some of the mechanical advantages of being the home team by playing in Toronto, the emotional impact is muted. Research has suggested that referees are influenced by the home crowd, and that just isn’t likely to be the case at a neutral site. I wonder whether the game-changing pass interference call on the Bills inside the final two minutes of the fourth quarter would have come up in front of a Buffalo crowd as opposed to a neutral one. Atlanta ended up with more penalties than the Bills had, but what if the Buffalo crowd could have produced an extra false start with their noise in a key situation?
Of course, it’s pretty clear why the Bills do this stuff: money. The Bills were paid $78 million CAD for committing to eight games in Toronto before the 2008 season, which included five regular-season contests and three preseason games. The two parties renewed that deal as part of a five-year pact that begins this season and covers six games (five regular-season, one preseason). That deal is rumored to be for a smaller sum than the original contract, but would still represent an upgrade on the typical Bills take from a home game at the Ralph.
It’s hard to imagine that the hit is really worth it for the Bills. Keep in mind that the vast majority of the income each NFL team receives is from the league’s assorted television contracts; a conservative estimate has each team taking home about $150 million or so from the league’s TV deals per year. The difference between a Bills home game in Buffalo and the same game in Toronto might be about $3 million more in take-home money for the Bills. The Bills hope to attract more fans from Ontario to attend their home games in Buffalo and broaden their fan base (while staking a claim to the Toronto area), but is that difference really worth putting your team at a competitive disadvantage each season?
Atlanta, meanwhile, drastically reduced its chances of ending up with the first overall selection in next year’s draft with the win. Houston is now the prohibitive favorite to end up with the top selection in the draft, while the Falcons are now in a four-team tie with the Rams (via Washington), Buccaneers, and Jaguars. They’re also the most interesting team in that mix, because they’re the one team in the bottom five that will pay no consideration to drafting a quarterback.
That would seem to point them in the direction of star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who would fill a need for Atlanta and its anemic pass rush, but that might not be Atlanta’s best move. Just as is the case with Washington, Atlanta’s roster is filled with replacement-level talent by virtue of the Julio Jones trade and the absence of those draft picks the Falcons traded away. As tempting as Clowney might be, the Falcons would most likely be better off trading down from the top five in this year’s draft and picking up a number of midround picks to rebuild the depth on their roster. Then again, it’s a lot easier to do that without the possibility of a franchise pass-rusher staring you in the face. In any case, the Falcons will be a fascinating team to watch over the next few weeks; they might not need a quarterback, but they have as much to gain from losing as any team in the league.
On the other side of the standings, many of the league’s playoff knots began to resolve themselves with contenders knocking their competition onto the ropes. The slim playoff hopes of the Bills, Browns, Raiders, and possibly the Chargers seemed to come to an end this weekend, but there are another half-dozen teams that lost and still have reasonable shots at the January dance. That, in part, is because the teams that won aren’t exactly foolproof bets to make it there.
Starting at the very top, Denver’s comeback victory over Kansas City at Arrowhead gave the Broncos a stranglehold over the top spot in the AFC. The Broncos are now 10-2 and have essentially locked up the AFC West, as they’re now a game ahead of the Chiefs with the key tiebreaker from a two-game sweep. Their bigger concern is holding the top seed in the AFC, which is trickier by virtue of their loss to the Patriots a week ago. Had they beaten New England, the Broncos would have been two games ahead of the Patriots with the tiebreaker, basically guaranteeing themselves the no. 1 spot in the AFC with four games to go. Now, the Broncos are only one game ahead and don’t have the tiebreaker, so they’ll need to match New England’s performance the rest of the way to claim the top seed.
Kansas City, meanwhile, is basically locked into the fifth seed; it would need to lose out to have any real concerns about falling into the sixth spot (or somehow missing the playoffs) in the AFC. At 9-3 and with a home game against the Colts and road games against the Chargers and Washington still to come, the Chiefs need to find a balance between staying competitive and resting players for the playoffs. To be specific, they need to start giving Jamaal Charles regular rest; having a fresher Charles for the playoffs is going to be essential to the way they play. They should also be conservative with the injured Justin Houston and, if he’s able to return this year after going off on a cart on Sunday, left tackle Branden Albert.
The pathetic race for the sixth seed revealed two key challengers after Sunday, thanks to big victories by the Ravens and Dolphins, whose 6-6 records put them each one game ahead of the Jets, Steelers, Titans, and Chargers. Baltimore currently holds the sixth spot by virtue of its 26-23 victory over Miami in Week 5, a game that the Dolphins extended with an incredible 46-yard bomb on fourth-and-10 before Miami kicker Caleb Sturgis missed a 56-yarder at the end of regulation that would have sent the game into overtime.
So, that positions Baltimore at the head of the class for that final spot, right? Yes, but only for now, because the Ravens’ schedule is about to get exceedingly tough. They do host the Vikings next week, but after that, Baltimore hosts the Patriots and has road games against the Lions and Bengals. Finishing with three playoff-bound teams in a row is a tall order for Baltimore. Miami, meanwhile, has to play the Steelers before getting one more game in against each of its AFC East brethren. I don’t know about you, but I would rather play the Bills and Jets than the Lions and Bengals. The Ravens are the favorites right now, but stay tuned.
In the NFC, Philadelphia’s tight win over Arizona keeps the status quo in place for another week. The Eagles are locked in a dead heat with the Cowboys for the NFC East at 7-5, but the Cowboys own the tiebreaker over the Eagles by virtue of a Matt Barkley appearance earlier this season. Here’s where the tiebreakers get irritating to calculate. If everything stays the same and the Eagles beat the Cowboys in Week 17, they’re in. If the Eagles beat the Cowboys in Week 17 and they end up with the same record after that loss, the Cowboys would win by virtue of a superior record in the division unless they lose to Washington in Week 16, at which point it would come down to record in common games, which is still up in the air. Dallas has the slightest bit of an edge here.
Arizona’s loss also opens things up a bit in the fight for the NFC wild card, where the Cardinals now trail the 49ers by a game while San Francisco holds every tiebreaker; Arizona is now 0-3 in the NFC West. Those two teams play in Week 17 and each has a game against Seattle to go, but San Francisco’s is at home, while Arizona still has to go to the league’s most fearsome locale. Their other two games are relative pushovers; Arizona gets the Rams and Titans, while San Francisco has Atlanta and Tampa still to come. San Francisco is still the heavy favorite to come off here with the sixth seed, but Arizona is still kicking, albeit barely. It seems extremely likely by now that the two wild-card spots will go to the 49ers and the second-place team in the NFC South.
The Lions, finally, had just about a perfect week in terms of their hopes of winning the NFC North. They blew out the Packers on Thanksgiving Day in a classic Detroit performance in which they somehow win by 30 and inspire their fans to scream angrily at the television for most of the contest. Then, the Bears blew their lead over the Vikings and eventually lost in a crazy overtime contest, 23-20. Those results put 7-5 Detroit in an enviable position. For one, they’re now up a game on the 6-6 Bears and 1.5 games over the 5-6-1 Packers. Detroit also wins any tiebreaker with those teams for the NFC North crown; it swept the Bears and will finish with a better divisional record than the Packers, even if the Lions lose at Minnesota in Week 17.
If the Lions can win three of their final four games (at Minnesota and Philadelphia and hosting Baltimore and the Giants), they’re in the playoffs. If Detroit goes 2-2, Chicago or Green Bay could get in by winning out. The Bears and Packers play each other in Week 17, so there’s no way they can both go undefeated the rest of the way. (I’m not going to entertain the idea of another tie in Week 17.) If Detroit goes 1-3, things really open up; either the Bears or Packers would win the division by winning their final four games, with the Bears still coming through if they go 3-1 … unless that loss is to the Packers, who could then qualify by winning out. Anyway, you get the idea: The Lions are in really good shape to win the NFC North.
Josh Gordon is ridiculous. During Cleveland’s loss to the Jaguars on Sunday, Gordon became the first receiver since the merger to have back-to-back 200-yard games, and he didn’t scrimp on the totals, either; he finished with 261 receiving yards after racking up 237 yards in the previous week’s loss over the Steelers, giving him a staggering 498 receiving yards over his last two games. That, too, is more than any other receiver has produced in a two-game stretch since the merger, narrowly topping the 484 yards Calvin Johnson posted during Week 7 and Week 8 in October.
I wanted to bring up Megatron, actually, because I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had here. By acclamation, Calvin Johnson is the best receiver in football, and I don’t think there are any flaws in his game. He’s a phenomenal talent, and it’s a joy to watch him play every week. But isn’t it possible — just even the tiniest bit possible — that Josh Gordon might be even better? You’re going to say no, of course, and that’s fine. I’m also going to speculate that you’re not watching many Browns games. Let me quickly make the case for Josh Gordon.
For one, Gordon’s production on a per-game basis this year has been unparalleled. By anybody. Ever. After missing the first two games of the season, Gordon returned to the lineup in Week 3 and has produced a 64-1,249-7 line in 10 games. That’s an average of 124.9 receiving yards per game. Over a 16-game pace, that would be 1,998 receiving yards, which would be better than what Calvin Johnson did during his record-setting 2012 season, when Megatron averaged 122.8 receiving yards per game. Gordon has obviously been particularly spectacular over the past two weeks, but he’s hardly a two-week special; he now has six 100-yard games in 10 weeks, which is pretty impressive. The record is 11 in 16 games, which was achieved by Michael Irvin in 1995. Gordon can only make it to 10, although 10 in 14 would likely be the best ratio in league history.
What’s even more impressive is where Gordon has produced this run. He has been the primary receiver for the likes of Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer, and Jason Campbell this season. With Hoyer and Campbell hurt and Weeden concussed, the team might have to turn this week to fourth-string quarterback Alex Tanney. Alex Tanney! Megatron gets Matthew Stafford in a dome for his home games. Shouldn’t there be some bonus in this discussion for degree of difficulty?
What’s even scarier about Gordon is what he might become. The Browns took Gordon in the second round of the 2012 supplemental draft even though an NFL executive and an additional scout told NFL Network’s Albert Breer that Gordon was “overhyped” and wouldn’t come off the board before the fifth round of the traditional NFL draft. The Browns sacrificed their 2013 second-round pick to make the move, but that now seems like an incredible bargain for one of the most productive wideouts in the game. Even more impressively, Gordon turned just 22 in April; he’s several weeks younger than Tavon Austin, who was the first wideout selected in this past year’s draft. No 22-year-old has ever averaged 100 receiving yards per game in anything resembling a full season, but it seems likely that Gordon will be the first.
Of course, Gordon is not going to produce a long stretch of 200-yard games, and he’ll probably fall off of Megatron’s pace soon enough; a matchup against New England’s Aqib Talib next week should slow him down some. But given what he’s produced this year with that set of quarterbacks, there’s absolutely no reason to sleep on Josh Gordon any further. He belongs in the discussion as one of the best wideouts in football. And when the Browns do make their move for that new franchise quarterback this offseason, Megatron might want to watch his back.