Week 4 Picks and Preview: It’s the Coaching, Stupid
You know a good NFL quarterback when you see one, right? Sure, it might take a few hundred passes and a playoff game or two to really get a grip on how good a passer looks, but watch a guy for a few games and you shouldn’t find it too difficult to slap that binary good/bad tag on him.
So why is it so hard to figure out whether an NFL head coach is good? You can figure it out pretty quickly on the extremes — Bill Belichick is good, every Bill Belichick assistant1 is pretty bad — but our opinion on most other head coaches seems to oscillate wildly from month to month and year to year, much further than they ever do about most players at any position. Our attitudes toward coaches have a shelf life of weeks during the regular season and get even shorter during January. And there are few head coaches who embody that better than those left at the helm of the league’s three undefeated teams.
It seems impossible to imagine now, but it was less than three years ago that Bruce Arians was basically run out of town in Pittsburgh. Despite winning a Super Bowl in 2008 as the Steelers offensive coordinator, disappointing seasons led to fan complaints that the offense relied too heavily on the pass. Team president Art Rooney II reportedly wanted to see a more “blue-collar” offense,2 leading the Steelers to allow Arians’s contract to expire in January 2012. He was one of 13 offensive coordinators3 to leave their positions that offseason; of those 13, only Arians, Bill O’Brien, and Joe Philbin are head coaches in the NFL these days.
The oft-Kangoled Arians announced his “retirement” shortly thereafter, only to return weeks later as Indianapolis’s offensive coordinator. Of course, after doing excellent work in the stead of Chuck Pagano while Indy’s coach took time off for leukemia treatment, Arians was hired as head coach in Arizona, where he has gone 13-6 despite playing in arguably football’s toughest division. He is the only coach in the league to take a game from Russell Wilson in Seattle, and he’s won with the combination of Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton at quarterback. A guy who wasn’t good enough to be an offensive coordinator three years ago was Coach of the Year in 2012, a viable candidate in 2013, and probably the front-runner through three weeks in 2014.
Marvin Lewis deserves some credit after all these years, too. I wrote about how Lewis’s Bengals have been the best team in football through three weeks on Monday, but reading it back, I didn’t praise Lewis enough in the process. He has done a masterful job after losing both of his coordinators to head coaching gigs this offseason, freeing up Hue Jackson to rebuild the Bengals offense while continuing to build what is quietly the league’s most impressive defense. Cincinnati has built around a bunch of cast-offs and afterthoughts on that side of the football, and Lewis routinely seems to get the most out of them. Departed defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer deserves some of that credit, but Lewis is unquestionably in line for some of those plaudits.
Yet Lewis is often perceived (including, to be fair, in this space) as a bumbling idiot, a guy who will fold as soon as the wind gets cold in January. Maybe he’ll do that again this year. Somebody, though, is making the Bengals a perennial competitor in the AFC North. It’s not the front office, which let homegrown talent leave despite ample cap space this offseason. It’s not the star quarterback, since the Bengals sold high on Palmer and are now 32-18 with Andy freaking Dalton at the helm. In the decade before Lewis arrived, the Bengals went 52-124 with three different coaches at the helm. Under those circumstances, 93-85-1 and three division titles is a sight to behold.
Chip Kelly, meanwhile, has packed years of ups and downs into just more than a full season of professional coaching. Kelly was the flirt, the college supercoach who turned away from Tampa Bay4 at the last second in 2012 and shot down the Eagles the following offseason before changing his mind. A few smoothies later, Kelly had his first division title, but it wasn’t as simple as you might remember even a year later.
After blowing Washington away with an otherworldly display in his first NFL game, Kelly’s Eagles were bogged down in the mud by Halloween. When Philadelphia hit 3-5 after two games without scoring an offensive touchdown, many of the critics threw in the towel. Phil Simms said the Eagles possessed the third-worst offense in football. Merril Hoge described the offense as vanilla. That Week 1 exuberance was an overreaction.
And then Matt Barkley’s helmet mysteriously disappeared, Nick Foles threw seven touchdown passes against the Raiders, and Philly has gone 10-1 in the regular season since that low point.
On Sunday, though, Kelly’s team lines up against a team whose coach is on the opposite end of his cycle. Jim Harbaugh has been one of the league’s model coaches since turning around the 49ers in 2011; I wrote about his massive trade value in 2012, and when Cleveland nearly completed a deal to acquire Harbaugh this winter, there was public chatter that he wasn’t long for his current gig in San Francisco barring a title in 2014. Mike Florio has already connected the dots, reconnected the dots, and drawn over the dots in permanent marker in regard to Harbaugh taking over at Michigan after this season, which seems odd for a coach who is two turnovers away from making three Super Bowls in three seasons. But, hey, 1-2!
Let’s start this week’s picks there. As always, home team in caps. I’m using the consensus lines posted at VegasInsider.com.
49ERS (-5) over Eagles
Last year, Philadelphia’s five starting offensive linemen each made it through all 16 games unscathed. In related news, the Eagles posted the league’s best rushing DVOA, and LeSean McCoy led the NFL in rushing yards while averaging 5.1 yards per pop.
By the end of Week 3’s game against Washington, stars Evan Mathis and Jason Kelce were out indefinitely with injuries, Lane Johnson was suspended, and Jason Peters was ejected for fighting, leaving Philly with just one of their five expected starters up front, Todd Herremans. In related news, McCoy is averaging 2.9 yards per carry.
Peters is back this week, and Johnson returns from his suspension the following Sunday, but the Eagles will start three backups in the interior of their line against San Francisco. Having already run through Allen Barbre (IR) and Andrew Gardner (mess), the Eagles will likely start two new linemen this week in David Molk and Matt Tobin. That means Philly will have started nine offensive linemen through the first four weeks, and when Johnson enters the lineup, it’ll be two full strings of linemen for an even 10. And yet, somehow, the Eagles are second in points per game! All hail the AFC South.
San Francisco should continue to struggle in coverage, especially against Philadelphia’s big, strong wideouts, but I have serious doubts Philly will be able to run the ball much on San Francisco’s front seven. This will be the game when the 49ers get back on track and that weird second-half-collapse thing disappears and nobody ever talks about it again.
Dolphins (-3.5) over RAIDERS (in London)
Exciting! How often do we get a loser-gets-fired game in Week 4? That might very well be what happens if there’s a blowout loss here, with rumors circulating for what feels like months now that the Raiders are considering Dennis Allen’s future on a week-to-week basis. Joe Philbin, who somehow still has his job after last year’s Jonathan Martin incident, added to the fun this week by refusing to name Ryan Tannehill his Week 4 starter after three disappointing weeks from his third-year quarterback, only for Tannehill to tell the press that Philbin named him the starter in private.
Of course, if the Dolphins beat the Raiders, Philbin’s public bungling will become a tactical masterstroke. “Joe Philbin was so smart,” your favorite announcer will say, “because he forced the Raiders to prepare for two quarterbacks in practice this week!” You know, because the Raiders would surely have been absolutely flummoxed by the idea of preparing for the wildly disparate styles of Ryan Tannehill and Matt Moore all week. The Dolphins shouldn’t bench Tannehill yet, but given that they’re about to enter a bye week that would give them two weeks to get Moore ready as the starter, this might very well be Tannehill’s last chance. Expect a run-heavy game plan out of Miami, and expect it to work.
As we export the worst game of the week to England, it’s also probably worth noting that the only people who might be rooting for Roger Goodell to keep his job are those who want a team in London. Nobody is more likely to fight for that than Goodell, who came up through the NFL ranks as the league’s director of international development during the days of the World League of American Football before coordinating the NFL’s expansion process in the early ’90s as vice-president of development. The moment Goodell leaves office, the biggest champion for an NFL team in London walks out the door. I won’t say it’s impossible to imagine a team in Europe without Goodell as commissioner, but the chances are far less likely that it will be a priority.
Packers (-2) over BEARS
Is Mike McCarthy the guy who developed Aaron Rodgers into a franchise quarterback while nobody was looking from 2005 to 2007? Or is he the coach who, late last season, threw out his challenge flag on an unchallengeable play and ran a meaningless halftime draw that resulted in an Eddie Lacy injury? This season, it looks more like the latter. Green Bay’s offense seems to consist entirely of plays where the Packers either run the ball into the middle of their offensive line for two yards or have Rodgers show off his accuracy by awkwardly hitting individual Jordy Nelson body parts.
As cool as it is that Nelson can catch passes that Rodgers whips at his kidneys and ankles, the Packers would benefit greatly from at least hinting to teams that they can run the football. This week should be their chance. Chicago had the league’s worst run defense last year, and while it’s 16th in DVOA this year, its run D remains a question mark. The Packers, meanwhile, through three weeks have faced the Seahawks, Jets, and Lions, all teams that should finish among the 10 best run defenses in football. If it’s going to be Lacy’s season, this should be the week we hear about it.
TEXANS (-3) over Bills
I liked Andrew Sharp characterizing this as the play-in game to be known as the surprise AFC team this year. To start, can I interest in you in EJ Manuel’s career home/road splits?
At home, Manuel is roughly Sam Bradford’s decent half-season from 2013; on the road, he’s been Terrelle Pryor’s abandoned 2013 as the Raiders starter. Small samples, obviously, but the game situation really dictates how Manuel performs. If the Bills get ahead early, they can keep Manuel in manageable situations and run the ball against Houston’s 32nd-ranked ground defense. If they get behind and Manuel has to throw to catch up, as was the case at home against San Diego last week, Manuel is a problem.
When reporters asked Doug Marrone if he had considered going to backup Kyle Orton during Manuel’s rough game last week, he was almost too quick to deny it. “Oh my god,” Marrone said. “Absolutely not.” That’s what you say when you aren’t happy about getting caught in something. It’s like the verbal equivalent of when a football player does something illegal on the field and then immediately puts his hands up in innocence. Nobody has ever done that and not been guilty. The didn’t-do-it motion should be a penalty in itself. When Marrone said that, it made me think he was preparing playbook study notes for Orton on the sideline.
Plus, Ryan Fitzpatrick revenge ga— oh, there’s only one revenge game this week …
RAVENS (-3) over Panthers
Steve Smith Steve Smith Steve Smith Steve Smith Steve Smith Steve Smith Steve Smith Steve Smith. I honestly think the Panthers are probably a better team than the Ravens, but there is no possible way I could bring myself to bet against Smith facing the Panthers. If they lose or don’t cover, whatever, that’ll happen. But if I take the Panthers, I know the Ravens are going to take the ball first, and Smith is going to come onto the field and catch a slant and lay out somebody trying to tackle him, and he’s going to get up and win a fistfight with the entire Carolina organization, and I’m going to feel very stupid about betting on the Panthers with 59 minutes to go in the game.
Let me tell you a story. During my year living in Vegas, I played a fair amount of poker. One day, I was playing at Mandalay Bay and talking to the guy next to me, who eventually revealed he had played wideout on the same junior college team (Santa Monica College) as Smith and Chad Johnson, then Chad Ochocinco. Somebody at the table asked him about Ochocinco and he had nothing but hilarious stories to tell about Ochocinco goofing around and having fun.
I asked him about Smith, though, and the man’s brow immediately furrowed. His smile disappeared. He told me a story of getting into an argument with Smith over some long-forgotten situation where he was in the right. The poker player was a younger man then, and as many of us were as young men, he got very obstinate about being in the right and was willing to turn an otherwise irrelevant slight into a fight. He got to the point where he was about ready to throw down … at which point Smith escalated the tension about 10 levels beyond anything my man could have ever generated at his most wronged. He looked into Smith’s eyes and saw a rage he could never hope to match. In sheer self-preservation mode, he apologized to Smith and got as far away as possible. It was a lot like the high school bully scene from Louie, only with one Steve Smith instead of a bunch of high schoolers.5
As he finished the story, I laughed in support of the guy’s situation and said knowingly, “I guess you don’t fuck with Steve Smith.” He looked at me with great sincerity, as if to warn me out of even the slightest possible hint of serious interest in the pursuit, and said very clearly: “Do not fuck with Steve Smith.”
The Panthers fucked with Steve Smith.
JETS (+1.5) over Lions
VIKINGS (+3) over Falcons
Jaguars (+13) over CHARGERS
In addition to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Shahid Khan owns English soccer club Fulham FC, which he bought in July 2013. You’re probably familiar with how the Jaguars have performed over the past few seasons. Fulham have arguably been worse. After 13 seasons in the Premier League, Fulham’s first season with Khan as owner saw them finish next to last in the Premiership and suffer relegation to the Championship, the second division of English soccer.
Now, I don’t think there’s anything about Khan’s ownership that has caused the Jaguars or Fulham to struggle; the Jags were a mess before he got there, and Fulham had been battling above their station for years in the Premiership. But I think it’s also relevant to note that things have been really, really bad this year. The Jaguars are 0-3 and have been outscored by 75 points, the seventh-worst figure since the merger.
Incredibly, Fulham have actually been worse! Forty-five percent of clubs relegated from the top division to the second division finish in the top six the following year, but Fulham have gotten off to a horrific start in their new digs. They have come away with seven losses and a lone draw from their first eight league matches in the Championship, leaving them last in the second division.
The disastrous start led Khan to fire manager Felix Magath, which led to an incredible story in the British tabloids. During Fulham’s relegation struggle last year, club captain Brede Hangeland went down with a thigh injury. As he was being treated in the club’s medical facilities, Magath insisted that the team doctor go to the store, purchase a large block of cheese, soak it in alcohol, and apply it to the affected area.6 As you might suspect, both Hangeland and the club’s physio are no longer with Fulham.
So, as we approach October, Khan’s two sports teams are a combined 0-10-1 in their respective leagues.7 This winless streak seems likely to stretch into another week; the odds from the online Pinnacle sports book suggest there is a 55 percent chance the Jaguars will lose outright to the Chargers, with Fulham either losing outright or drawing with Birmingham City.
Fulham’s hope is that interim manager Kit Symons rights the ship and doesn’t treat anything with cheese products. Jacksonville’s hope is more exciting. Blake Bortles has a much higher ceiling than Chad Henne, and given that Henne was completing 53.8 percent of his passes, Bortles really can’t have that much lower of a floor.
The biggest concern for Jacksonville is keeping Bortles upright and healthy so he doesn’t develop a Blaine Gabbert–esque fear of the pass rush, and it’s a serious quandary, given that Henne was sacked on 17 percent of his drop-backs. That’s the 10th-highest sack rate (minimum: 50 drop-backs) since sacks were officially recorded by the NFL in 1982, and the highest rate in a season since Quincy Carter in 2004. Bortles is more mobile than Henne, so he should be able to run away from more pressure, but he needs experience working within the pocket and operating amid modest amounts of pressure.
San Diego, which has already lost Melvin Ingram to a long-term hip injury and Manti Te’o to a broken foot, possesses the league’s ninth-best pass rush. It should hassle Bortles enough to win, but the Jaguars should care enough about getting Bortles meaningful reps in garbage time to pick up a backdoor cover.
COLTS (-8) over Titans
Jake Locker is very questionable to suit up for this game with a wrist injury, which would open the door for Charlie Whitehurst to start at quarterback for Tennessee. Just for a moment, let’s go back and run through Whitehurst’s career:
• Whitehurst grows to 6-foot-5.
• He spends four years at Clemson, during which he fails to complete 60 percent of his passes (ending at 59.7 percent) and throws nearly as many interceptions (46) as touchdowns (49). The Tigers go 30-19 during his time in school.
• The Chargers draft Whitehurst in the third round of the 2006 NFL draft.
• Whitehurst spends four years as the third-string quarterback in San Diego behind Philip Rivers and Billy Volek. He does not attempt a regular-season pass. His only experience comes during the 2006-09 preseasons, during which Whitehurst goes 104-of-197 (52.8 percent) for 1,031 yards (5.2 yards per attempt) with five touchdowns and seven interceptions.8
• Seattle’s new brain trust of Pete Carroll and John Schneider targets Whitehurst in a trade, getting their man by sending San Diego a future third-round pick and swapping Seattle’s second-round pick (40th) for San Diego’s (60th) in the 2010 draft.9 They also immediately give Whitehurst a two-year, $8 million contract extension.
• Whitehurst enters into a quarterback competition with 35-year-old incumbent Matt Hasselbeck.
• Whitehurst loses that quarterback competition.
• Whitehurst plays in nine regular-season games over two seasons with Seattle, starting four, most notably the division-clinching win over St. Louis in the fail-in game on Sunday Night Football in Week 17 of the 2010 season. He is benched in his last start after seven pass attempts for an already-injured Tarvaris Jackson. Over the two-year span, Whitehurst goes 84-of-155 (54.2 percent) for 805 yards (a terrifying 5.2 yards per attempt) while throwing three touchdowns and four picks.
• Returning to unrestricted free agency, Whitehurst signs a two-year, $3.05 million deal with the Chargers, including a $1 million signing bonus.
• Now 30 years old, Whitehurst spends 2012 and 2013 as the backup to Philip Rivers without throwing a regular-season pass. He takes 12 snaps during his stint with the Chargers, producing six handoffs and six kneel-downs for a total of minus-5 yards.
• Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt takes over as Tennessee’s head coach and brings Whitehurst along for the ride, giving the now 32-year-old a two-year, $4.3 million deal with $2 million guaranteed.
There are virtually no reasons to think that Whitehurst has any aptitude as an NFL quarterback. He wasn’t especially good in college. He didn’t impress anybody against third-stringers in the preseason. He was downright awful during the brief time he had as a starter, and that came and went nearly three years ago. The most obvious reason Whitehurst has continued to be employed as an NFL quarterback is that he was previously employed as an NFL quarterback.
For that résumé, Whitehurst has earned in excess of $15 million during his time in the NFL, with more than $1 million to come in 2015. Whitehurst is the definition of a replacement-level quarterback; in a totally free market, I suspect you could have offered him $35,000 a year (with serious playing-time incentives) to do the same job and he would have happily taken it.
This may sound like I’m jealous of Whitehurst or bitter about his success. I’m only jealous of his hair. In general, I’m wildly happy for Whitehurst, who is apparently an incredible hustler and a really nice guy, because you don’t get cushy backup quarterback jobs if you’re a dick. Whitehurst has lived in some of America’s most beautiful cities and collected millions of dollars almost exclusively to practice and serve as a de facto coach. God bless Charlie Whitehurst.
Buccaneers (+7.5) over STEELERS
Saints (-3) over COWBOYS
Patriots (-3) over CHIEFS
The problem with the Patriots offense isn’t that Tom Brady is force-feeding Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. It’s that Brady doesn’t trust his offensive line to give him enough time to get past his first read. Tom Curran found that Brady never made it past his first read on 30 of his 39 drop-backs against Oakland, and on those nine drop-backs where he did run through his progressions, he was hurried or hit seven times. As Brady’s best receivers, Edelman and Gronkowski have often been his first reads, which is why they’ve gotten the majority of his passes.
New England showed the first signs it’s going to change things last week, when it benched dismal right guard Jordan Devey during the second half, moving Dan Connolly to guard and playing rookie center Bryan Stork. Devey, who entered the starting lineup after Logan Mankins was traded to Tampa Bay, has received more local criticism than I’ve ever heard in reference to a guard.
Former Patriots quarterback and local pundit Scott Zolak had scathing words about Devey. “Right now it’s a talent issue. This isn’t coaching,” Zolak said. “If you can’t bend at the hips, or it looks like you’ve never been laid, you’ve got no hope.” That’s the meanest thing I’ve ever heard anybody say about an offensive lineman before. “I’ve seen enough of Jordan Devey. He can’t play,” Zolak added. Wait, maybe that’s the meanest thing.
Wherever the Patriots land with their interior alignment needs to stick. If they turn the center job over to Stork, his first four assignments will come against Dontari Poe, Geno Atkins, Kyle Williams, and Sheldon Richardson. It seems odd to think that the entire Patriots offense could come down to whether a rookie fourth-rounder plays better than a backup guard who most people hadn’t heard of before the season, but New England’s efficiency has been hinging on the woes of the offensive line.
So why pick New England here? Because the defense has been impeccable. Some of their success will eventually come out in the wash of opponent adjustments, but the Patriots have the best defensive DVOA, paced by the league’s best pass defense. The Raiders actually threw at Darrelle Revis with some limited success last week, but they did little to move the ball consistently.
Kansas City attacked Miami by going after its backup linebackers (and overstretched defensive ends) with throws to Joe McKnight and tight ends. I don’t think that will work quite as well against the Patriots, who have the likes of Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins, Devin McCourty, and Nate Ebner to hold up in coverage against McKnight and Travis Kelce.
The Chiefs will need to run the ball to stay out of third-and-long, and I don’t know if they’ll be able to do it. Jamaal Charles is expected to play after sitting out for one week with his “mild” high ankle sprain, but he’ll be limited and at high risk of aggravating his injury or creating another one (just as Dee Milliner did with the Jets in Week 2). Knile Davis, who had major fumble issues in college, has already fumbled three times in three weeks; that’s not going to go unnoticed by the coach on the other side of the field. This feels like the game where we remember why the Patriots were Super Bowl contenders before the season.
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