We’re two weeks into the NFL season and Washington has apparently been hopelessly eliminated from the playoffs. What was parody last week is now reality less than a week later: We’ve already got people calling for the head of Robert Griffin III, the man who would be replaced by Kirk Cousins. The read-option is somehow dead. The equation is clear: Take a playoff-bound team in D.C., subtract the threat of RG3 running the football, and you get a useless, dreadful football team.
Well, it’s not that simple. The issues with Washington are more complex and far-reaching than the read-option, Griffin’s speed, or his health. Some of the issues are things that should have been expected before the season that are otherwise being buried underneath the rug with the Griffin story. Others are worse than might have previously been let on. In any case, it’s important to take a look at the broader picture of what’s going wrong in Washington to see what it can fix, regardless of who’s under center and how much they’re running with the football.
To start: How bad is it? It’s pretty bad. The final scores from these past two weeks undersell just how little Washington has had to offer in its opening contests of 2013. Washington was down 24-0 at the end of the first half against the Packers on Sunday, and the Eagles took it to the woodshed with a 26-7 halftime lead last Monday; that’s a 43-point halftime gap over the first two games of the year. Just three teams since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger have trailed by more at halftime over their first two games than Washington. Those three teams1 went a combined 18-28 in those seasons, which isn’t a great sign for Washington’s hopes. On the other hand, it’s lucky to play in the NFC East, a division that has no truly great team at 2-0, which will make it easier for Washington to catch up if it can play better from here on out.
It seems likely that Washington will, if only because the schedule will get easier. That’s the biggest fact to pin hopes on if you’re a Washington fan, especially with regard to its defense. It’s already played two of what might be among the five best offenses in football this season in the Eagles and Packers. The Lions look pretty scary, too, but it gets better after that, with the Raiders, Cowboys, and Bears lined up before the Broncos and their juggernaut of an offense show up on the schedule.
The defense is probably even more disconcerting than the offense, because it has been close to hopeless when teams have been trying to score. Despite the return of Brian Orakpo and consistently excellent play from Ryan Kerrigan, Washington just hasn’t been able to stop anybody in the first half. That hurts the offense because it keeps Washington out of run-friendly situations and forces it into situations where it has to pass to catch up. Consider this past week; for whatever RG3 couldn’t do as a runner, Alfred Morris could, running for 107 yards on 13 carries, which averages out to a whopping 8.2 yards per attempt — but he only had five rushes after the break. Washington’s strength as an offense, whether inside or outside the read-option, is running the football, but you can’t catch up to teams running the football when you’re down three touchdowns.
With regard to Griffin, I don’t think it’s a matter of him being unhealthy as much as it’s a matter of him being rusty. Every medical check on him heading into the season suggested that his knee was structurally sound. When he has accelerated to the sideline on the occasional rollout or scramble during this 0-2 stretch, he certainly doesn’t look slow, even if he doesn’t necessarily look like he’s going at top speed. At worst, he looks about as good as he did after returning from the injury he suffered during the Ravens game last year, when he was good enough to lead Washington through most of its winning streak and into the playoffs.
In fact, I don’t think it’s really Griffin’s scrambling ability that has been most noticeably off; it’s his passing. Merril Hoge noted after Sunday’s game that Griffin was struggling with his footwork at times over the first two weeks, which is to be expected. Even veterans like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have struggled with their footwork and accuracy after returning from major injuries in the past; remember those interceptions Manning was sailing against the Falcons at the beginning of last season? Griffin didn’t take a single preseason snap, so he wasn’t able to shake those cobwebs out against NFL pass rushes before the season began. Even if he wasn’t going to run the ball ever again, Griffin was an accurate passer with zip on his throws before this season; there’s no reason to think that won’t come back and that he’ll keep sailing throws from here on out. And if Washington decides to bench him now, he’ll just have to get rid of that rust whenever he comes back into the lineup.
The Washington offense was really hurt by turnovers in the Philadelphia game, and that’s something that was always going to be a bigger problem in 2013. Washington’s offense turned the ball over only 14 times in 2012, which was the lowest total in football and a totally unsustainable figure. It has already turned the ball over four times in two games in 2013, and while it might not average two turnovers per game the rest of the way, Washington is certainly going to surpass those 14 giveaways from a year ago. That’s just simple regression toward the mean, and it meant that the D.C. offense was almost sure to be worse than it was a year ago.
Cousins would be unlikely to help stem that turnover tide; in limited action last year, he threw three interceptions on 48 pass attempts and fumbled once. The Cousins option seems enticing because Washington fans remember what he did in place of an injured Griffin against the Ravens (on a final drive against a gassed defense) and in his lone start against the Browns, but Cousins was also useless as a Griffin replacement in losses to the Falcons and Seahawks. In any case, his 58 passes (including the playoffs) aren’t enough to tell us very much about him in any sense; there’s no guarantee whatsoever that a healthy Cousins would be better than RG3 at whatever level of health he’s currently at.
Those inflated expectations are also fueling the throng that is insisting that something is wrong with Washington. To be quite honest, Washington isn’t as good of a team as the Packers are, and it’s obvious that they’re not more talented than the Eagles. Fans remembered the season-ending 7-0 run and penciled Washington in for more of that in 2013, but the 3-6 run that began the season is just as important. That stretch saw Washington lose to the Rams, Bengals, Falcons, Giants, Steelers, and Panthers, with the Carolina loss coming at home. It was so far removed from the playoffs that Mike Shanahan basically gave up on the season after the Panthers loss and said he was using the rest of the year to evaluate players. Those Washington games mean just as much as the ones from the 7-0 finish, since there’s no momentum carryover effect from the previous year.
That extends to the bigger problem with Washington, one that won’t be solved regardless of who lines up under center in D.C. for the rest of the year: It’s stuck with a roster that just isn’t very good in a lot of places. When it traded three first-round picks and a second-rounder to get Griffin, Washington basically lost the best way to find impact players like Kerrigan to add to its roster on the cheap. On top of that, the league-mandated cap penalty that the team incurred from the Albert Haynesworth fiasco continues to bite them; according to Spotrac, Washington is eating $17 million in cap space this season. It also has $5.4 million in dead money on its cap, including $3.3 million owed to former right tackle Jammal Brown and $1.8 million to Chris Cooley, who signed with the team when it was desperate for a tight end last year after Fred Davis went down. This is too much money.
The result is a team that still can’t fill its major problems with consistent answers. Washington still has a dismal secondary that offers up little resistance when the pass rush doesn’t get home. It has an offensive line that’s still very weak on the right side, and it’s stuck having overpaid for both Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan last offseason, leaving the team with a low ceiling at wideout. Washington is also still lacking for depth, so when any of its stars get injured, it’s very susceptible to massive drop-offs in level of play.
So, Washington fans, lower your expectations and stay the course. You’re not as bad as you looked these past two weeks, and RG3 should get better as he shakes off the rust and gets real pro reps again. A playoff run, though, might not be in the cards.
Ceja Contra Ceja
You don’t manhandle the San Francisco 49ers. If you’re able to beat them, you do it with jujitsu; you use technique and finesse to take advantage of their brutal, violent aggression. You wait for them to make a mistake and capitalize on it. And then, when you do gain an advantage and get them in a compromised position, you hold on for dear life.
Unless you’re the Seattle Seahawks, of course. If you’re the Seahawks and you’re at home, just about anything goes. Seattle’s defense produced a dominant performance against the 49ers, holding them to a lowly field goal in a 29-3 blowout. They took a passing game that produced 404 yards a week ago and shut it down to the tune of 4.1 yards per drop-back, picking off Colin Kaepernick three times in the process. They were even better than the numbers, too; there must have been a dozen plays where Kaepernick scanned the field for five or six seconds and couldn’t find an open receiver. Kaepernick did run for 87 yards on a mix of scrambles and read-option keepers, but what was noticeable for the second week in a row was just how ineffective San Francisco was when handing the ball off to its running backs. And that issue raises a bigger long-term problem for the 49ers.
That running game is scary. During the first half of the 2012 season, the 49ers had one of the best rushing attacks in NFL history, as they were averaging 5.6 yards per attempt, the fourth-best figure since the merger. Frank Gore was at the heart of that attack, having run the ball 119 times for 656 yards, producing a whopping 5.5 yards per carry. He was having the best half-season of his career, and his best game came against the Seahawks in Week 7, when he had 16 carries for 131 yards in a narrow 13-6 victory. He barely averaged more than four yards per run over the second half of the season, but Gore returned with a vengeance in the playoffs, when he produced 319 yards and four touchdowns on 63 carries, averaging 5.1 yards per attempt.
During the first two games of the 2013 season, Gore has been a total non-factor. The Packers held him to just 44 yards on 21 attempts last week, and in Week 2, the Seahawks limited him to a mere 16 yards on nine carries. That’s an even 60 yards on 30 carries, exactly two yards per attempt. It’s the fifth-lowest rushing average through two games since the merger for a player with as many carries as Gore’s 30. I wouldn’t dare to say that Gore’s done after two games, but it’s a situation that bears watching going forward.
More than Gore, I think the issue that really reveals itself by analyzing his struggles is one of depth and of the weaker links in the starting lineup. The 49ers have been notably brilliant these past two years at bringing players into the lineup and having them play really, really well; they’ve famously incorporated three homegrown Pro Bowl–level talents recently in Kaepernick, NaVorro Bowman, and Alex Boone. That can’t happen forever and some of the guys the 49ers are stuck relying upon in situations haven’t been up to the task.
Last night, that role was filled by one player on either side of the ball. On offense, it was right tackle Anthony Davis, likely the weak link of the line in terms of pass coverage. Davis was beat up on a number of plays by the likes of Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, players he would normally stand a fair chance against. And on defense, the weak link was nickel cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who has quickly become the liability that other teams try to target when he steps on the field. On Sunday, Asomugha missed a run fill early on and then got caught at the end of the third quarter for a 40-yard pass interference penalty that really changed the game; Seattle later scored a touchdown on that drive to go up 19-3, nearly killing off the game with 13:51 to go.
Meanwhile, Seattle got more out of its borderline starters and backups. Star corner Richard Sherman was a mammoth presence as he shut down Anquan Boldin, but the Seahawks also got great play out of opposite corner Walter Thurmond, who was pressed into duty with the absence of Brandon Browner. The trio of Avril, Bennett, and O’Brien Schofield played well up front, with Avril forcing a fumble and the trio combining for two sacks, three tackles for loss, and three quarterback hits. All three players are free agents signed on short-term deals, using up the cap space the Seahawks save because their starting quarterback is a third-rounder on a rookie deal.2 They got a 51-yard reception from Doug Baldwin, their third wideout, an undrafted free agent who played for Harbaugh at Stanford. Those guys came through in a way that the 49ers’ depth didn’t.
What’s more important is that the 49ers are actually going to start needing that depth in ways they haven’t in the past, thanks to a number of injuries that are afflicting their roster. Traditionally one of the league’s healthiest teams, the 49ers are one of the more injured organizations in football at the moment. Seahawks right guard J.R. Sweezy broke 49ers nose tackle Ian Williams’s ankle with a
sleazy sweezy cut block at the line of scrimmage, an injury that could end Williams’s campaign. Fellow lineman Ray McDonald was dinged up with an ankle injury that saw him come in and out of the game as the night went along. Rookie safety Eric Reid, who had an interception, suffered a game-ending concussion. To add to all that, Vernon Davis injured his hamstring in the fourth quarter on Sherman’s interception and could very well be out for a week or two. And that doesn’t consider the preseason injuries to Michael Crabtree and Chris Culliver or the ongoing absences of LaMichael James and Mario Manningham. Other teams have to deal with these sorts of injury stacks occasionally, but the 49ers have not in the Harbaugh era in the Bay; that hasn’t been the case through two games this year.
I’m very confident that Kaepernick will be fine, and that Gore will end up being a useful player in 2013, even if he’s not the world-beater he looked like at this point last year. And I’m really confident that the 49ers are going to enjoy these next few weeks, since after starting their season against two likely NFC playoff teams, they play all four teams in the AFC South as well as the Cardinals and Rams over the next six weeks before their Week 9 bye. At the highest level, I worry that the 49ers might be exposed a bit at their weakest points, especially if the injury bug continues to bite. While the Titans and the Jaguars won’t be able to reveal those weaknesses, the Seahawks can.
The Definition of Madness
Ron Rivera did it again. After passing on an opportunity to convert a fourth-and-1 to beat the Falcons last year, a move that ended up turning a near-certain win into a loss, Rivera faced another tough situation Sunday and chose the most conservative option available despite the nature of his team. And let’s be clear: That’s the biggest problem with Rivera’s decision-making at the end of close games. It’s not that he’s making decisions that go against the numbers, nor is it that he’s choosing the most tentative, risk-averse option available to him. It’s that he refuses to recognize his team’s strengths and adapt his decision-making to incorporate them. This isn’t Thank You For Not Coaching; it’s Thank You For Not Learning.
In short, Rivera passed up another fourth-and-1 game-sealer to put his defense in a situation where it needed to produce a stop to win. With 1:42 left, the Panthers were up three on the Bills, who were out of timeouts. Carolina was facing a fourth-and-1 on Buffalo’s 21-yard line with two clear options. The aggressive choice was to go for it, a move that would have allowed the Panthers to kneel three times and end the game, with the downside of allowing the Bills to tie the game if they stuffed the Panthers and drove for a field goal (or lose if the Bills scored a touchdown.)3 The conservative option was to kick a field goal and force the Bills to drive down the field and score a touchdown, at which point they would (barring a failed extra point) win the game.
The Advanced NFL Stats fourth-down calculator estimates that the Panthers should have gone for it if they had a 38 percent chance of converting the fourth-down carry. Truthfully, you can throw in just about any figure you want within reason in there and it doesn’t really matter. 45 percent? 50 percent? 55 percent? Go nuts.
What is unquestionably true is that the Panthers are a wildly successful team in short yardage. Since Rivera took over and the Panthers drafted Cam Newton first overall, Carolina has run the ball on third-and-1 or fourth-and-1 43 times. It has converted 35 of those runs for first downs or touchdowns, meaning that its break-even rate on those plays has been a whopping 81.4 percent. Newton, in particular, has been near-unstoppable: He is 16-for-18 on those carries as a pro. You wouldn’t want to risk sneaking him on every single short-yardage play just for the purposes of keeping him healthy, but with the game on the line, you simply have to turn to Newton. And even if you don’t, Carolina’s backfield is full of expensive running backs; Jonathan Stewart is hurt, but the Panthers could just as easily have handed the ball to DeAngelo Williams or Mike Tolbert. Even if you want to accuse that data of being too small to analyze, what do you think Carolina’s “true” success rate is if it ran the ball a million times with a yard to go against an average defense? Would it convert 60 percent of the time? 70 percent? Literally, if the Panthers had to sit down and write a résumé, the first strength they would mention is their effectiveness in short yardage. And yet, Rivera turned down another opportunity to use that strength to seal a victory.
Rivera turned to his defense and — yet again — it failed him. The strength of the Carolina pass defense is its pass rush, which isn’t always quite as noticeable in the fourth quarter after a full day of chasing after players. Its weakness is the secondary, which is exactly what shows up when the other team is trying to throw the ball to make plays downfield on every single snap. And sure enough, just like Haruki Nakamura got beat for a big play by Matt Ryan last season, the secondary failed Carolina when it needed it most on Sunday.
The Panthers had already lost two starters in the secondary during the game, with safety Charles Godfrey suffering a (likely season-ending) Achilles injury and cornerback Josh Thomas going out with a concussion. That left backups in their places, and that inexperience showed up with a blown coverage on the game-winning touchdown pass to Stevie Johnson.
On that play, you can see the slot cornerback, D.J. Moore, frantically signaling to the outside cornerback, Josh Norman, that something’s up. That should have been Rivera’s cue to use one of his remaining timeouts to make sure he had everybody in their right place before that fateful final snap.4 Instead, the Bills get the snap off and the defensive backs blow their coverage; Norman thinks they’re playing man and follows his player through to the inside, while Moore (likely expecting a pick play) plays zone and lets his man, Stevie Johnson, break free on an out pattern for the easiest game-winning touchdown catch of his career.
I preach a lot about judging decisions based upon process and not outcomes, so I can understand why Rivera would be sticking to his guns while continuing to make conservative decisions; after all, I wouldn’t recommend that a coach who was making the right calls in these situations give up after two or three bad experiences. But that’s not the issue here. The problem is that Rivera is running his team by remaining obstinate and without properly adjusting his process to account for the players he has available. That’s an essential part of the job, and it’s Rivera’s biggest failing as a head coach. It’s also the biggest reason why Carolina is so dreadfully bad in close games — it’s now 2-14 in games decided by seven points or fewer under Rivera, a historically dismal performance. Some of that is bad luck, but a fair amount of it is Rivera putting his team in situations to lose. If Rivera continues to coach his team like he’s never actually seen it play, he’s not going to be a head coach much longer.