The NFL has been more difficult to enjoy in 2014 than at any other point in its entire history. If you’re a fan with a conscience, the moral and ethical question of whether football is something humans should do has weighed on you this year more than it ever has before. And even if you can make an exception for football, if you can find some logical path to justifying the risks that athletes take when participating in this sport, the NFL itself has done about as much as possible to dissuade you from supporting professional football. For whatever happens on the field over the next two months, 2014 will always be the season of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson and that press conference when Roger Goodell was introduced to other humans for the first time. No game is going to change that.
And yet, for all of that, there’s a reason why NFL television ratings have barely budged and why you’re reading this column on Monday: Football is fun. There is so much to enjoy about the experience of watching (and surely playing) a bunch of football on Sundays, and that hasn’t gone away. As we approach Thanksgiving here in the States, I went through the things I really appreciate about this lost NFL season. Many of them appeared during Week 12, which is quite convenient for a Monday-morning recap. In no particular order …
OH MY GOD THAT ODELL BECKHAM CATCH
This should have ended the game And1 mixtape–style. The 20,000 Giants fans in attendance who didn’t sell their tickets to Cowboys fans1 should have stormed the field waving towels. The Giants should have walked off and signed autographs and drank energy drinks. I am sure the Cowboys would have understood. You’ve seen the myriad clips of Beckham making ridiculous catches in practice, and while that’s incredible enough, it’s another thing to do it in real time against an active defense in a game.
As fellow Grantlander Bryan Curtis noted, given the large influx of road fans to Cowboys Stadium this year, this felt like the first Dallas home game of the season. The only addendum I’d make is that the London game against the Jaguars was also in front of an exceedingly partisan Cowboys crowd.
It’s about as difficult of a catch as you can make, and that isn’t entirely an Eli Manning joke. Beckham is being interfered with as he runs downfield. He has to avoid stepping out of bounds. Brandon Carr drags Beckham’s body away from the football right before he jumps. He has only one arm to work with. The force of the throw causes his arm to bend backward; it’s a wonder that he didn’t hurt his shoulder. And then that catch, somehow, with three fingers, on a 45-degree rainy night in northern Jersey. Odell Beckham caught it like he was supposed to catch it all along and we never should have suspected otherwise. It was such an incredible catch that, outside of a more important context, it’s hard to imagine anybody making a better one. It was so good that there wasn’t an immediate Twitter backlash to the idea that it was amazing. That’s the highest praise anything can get in 2014.
It’s fair to say that Beckham has exceeded expectations, even given that he missed the first four weeks of the season with a hamstring injury and has been a terrifying weapon really only during the five-game stretch since Victor Cruz’s departure via injury. Over the last five games, Beckham’s posted a 35-537-4 line; that prorates over an entire season to 112 catches, 1,718 receiving yards, and 13 touchdowns. Scouting reports said Beckham could be outmuscled in a crowd and wasn’t a red zone threat, but he has been a complete receiver this season, capable of both beating guys with raw speed and physically outpointing them with his leaping ability.
Beckham wasn’t among the top tier of wideouts in this year’s rookie class. While it became clear during the draft process that he would go somewhere in the first round, he was also regarded as a step behind Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans, who were 1A and 1B. There’s still a lot of time before we can really say where those guys should have gone, but Beckham has looked every bit as good as that duo when on the field. And I don’t want to take anything away from them. In fact, I’m thankful for …
The Wide Receiver Class of 2014
Rookie wideouts can be erratic. For every freakish talent who comes out of the gate fast, you’ll find a Calvin Johnson who struggles a bit with injuries and inconsistency as a rookie before taking a monster leap forward. With Beckham and Evans as two of the hottest wide receivers right now, I feel blessed to be watching one of the greatest rookie classes at wideout in the history of the NFL.
How good? I went through the league’s post-merger history and calculated what percentage of its receiving yards were caught by rookie wide receivers (per the listings on Pro-Football-Reference). We’re still waiting to finish up this NFL season, and Watkins had his Week 12 game pushed back to tonight after the devastating snowstorm in Buffalo, but you can already see where the rookies are challenging history:
I’m including 1987, but I probably shouldn’t, because many of those “rookie” receivers were players who entered the league only during the 24-day midseason strike. There were 98 rookie receivers accruing yards as part of that group, while the average season from 1970 to 2014 (without including 1987) had an average of only 26.7 rookies. If we throw out the strike year, 2014 has narrowly edged the Jerry Rice–led class of 1985 as the most productive rookie class of wideouts in league history.2
One natural concern here would be whether our rookies in 2014 will struggle with the rookie wall, but research that I conducted in tandem with Mike Tanier for Rotoworld in 2006 suggested that no such rookie wall exists. I can’t find a publicly available link for the research, but take my word for it.
It’s not just Beckham and Evans and Watkins. It’s Kelvin Benjamin, who almost single-handedly kept the Carolina offense afloat early in the year before it dragged him under, too. It’s Jordan Matthews and Jarvis Landry, each of whom led their teams in targets yesterday. It’s John Brown and Martavis Bryant, who have been electric big-play machines as third wideouts. And it’s the Jaguars offense, which has consisted almost entirely of rookie wide receivers. This year’s group of rookie quarterbacks might be struggling, but it’s going to be fun to watch these young wideouts grow in the years to come.
The Dallas Offensive Line
As incredible as Beckham’s catch was, it couldn’t match up to the Dallas offensive line. The Cowboys went down 14-3 after Beckham’s catch and then again 21-10, and from there, it depends on the story you want to tell. Take the Cowboys’ side and you’ll note that they never quit, stayed in the game, continued to battle, and took advantage of a critical Giants mistake to take back the lead. Take the Giants’ side and you’ll note that they were about to go up 28-17 with 18 minutes left when Manning made his worst pass of the game, sailing a throw to a wide-open Preston Parker and turning a sure touchdown into a interception. Dallas was up 24-21 four plays later.
Regardless of how they found themselves there, a 14-play, 93-yard Giants touchdown drive left the Cowboys down four with 3:06 to play on something resembling the road. Never mind that Tony Romo has a long track record of game-winning drives and the sixth-most fourth-quarter comebacks of any active NFL quarterback. If the Cowboys blew it here, it would be yet another stain on the Romo legacy in prime time against a divisional rival.
Romo’s offensive line came through. If anything, the Cowboys scored so quickly that you could have argued it left the Giants too much time on the clock; they needed just seven plays and 119 seconds to move the ball 80 yards and produce a game-winning touchdown. Approximately 57 of those 119 seconds came on the final play of the drive, when that five-man front delivered one of the most staggering pass protection efforts you’ll see all season:
OK, maybe it was only seven seconds. It felt longer. That’s an unheard-of amount of time for an NFL quarterback, but it was the second time on this drive that Romo was able to spend seven seconds in the pocket. Poor Jason Pierre-Paul is supposed to go out and get a deal in the free-agent market with that on film? Tyron Smith knocked him down twice and could have pancaked him if he weren’t more interested in knocking him down again. And this is in pass protection, mind you; while it wasn’t Dallas’s most impressive game of the year on the ground, DeMarco Murray still carried the ball 24 times for 121 yards, just over an even five yards per carry.
In 2008, there were murmurings that an MVP voter might have considered casting his or her vote for the Giants offensive line, a group that blocked for a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward while producing five yards per carry. Voters are allowed to consider position groups, but nothing ever came of it. While the San Francisco offensive line was brutal and overpowering in 2011 and 2012, this Cowboys line is the first group since that 2008 Giants team that might seriously engender MVP consideration. It’s been that good all season. And when the Cowboys needed them on Sunday, Smith & Co. delivered a truly dominant display.
The read-option was supposed to be dead more than a year ago, with Phil Simms explaining how teams had stopped running it in college and Mike Tomlin calling it the “flavor of the day.” That famously didn’t go well for Tomlin’s Steelers, and while I could have sworn I saw a Saturday full of teams using zone-read principles as part of their rushing attacks this past weekend, maybe Simms was talking about colleges in another country.
The read-option is no passing fad. It isn’t the out-of-body experience that turned teams into zombies at the slightest hint of a mesh point in 2012, but it’s a meaningful part of professional offenses in a way that the Wildcat never was. While the effectiveness of the zone-read is down, its usage continues to go up, per ESPN Stats & Information’s data on NFL running plays:
Even as the tactic produces fewer yards per carry than it did in 2012 or 2013, it remains more effective than traditional carries, which have averaged just 4.1 yards per play this season. Teams with mediocre offenses and mobile quarterbacks have managed to manufacture running games out of next to nothing with the schematic help of the zone-read.
Take the Dolphins, a team that averaged 4.1 yards per carry last year in a West Coast scheme with an offensive line riddled by suspensions and departures. Miami turned over virtually its entire line this season, and with the arrival of offensive coordinator Bill Lazor from Philadelphia, the Dolphins also began implementing read-option concepts as a core component of their running game. It has helped dramatically, with Miami using the read-option on a league-high 143 rushing attempts this season, averaging 4.9 yards per carry on those runs. Their traditional running plays have gained just 4.4 yards per attempt.
Just behind them are the Seattle Seahawks, who have scored a league-high nine touchdowns on zone-read runs this season, with nobody else producing more than three. With an offensive line missing Pro Bowl center Max Unger and a passing game that really wishes Percy Harvin were still around, the Seahawks worked through a tough matchup against the Cardinals by calling on the read-option.
The Seahawks ran the ball 14 times for 67 yards using the zone-read on Sunday, producing 4.8 yards per attempt against a Cardinals defense that had allowed the league’s fifth-fewest yards per carry heading into the game. Not only did it work, but it also might have revealed a way for other teams to attack Arizona’s aggressive, defensive back–intensive scheme. The Cardinals are now allowing 4.3 yards on zone-read runs, almost a full yard more than the 3.5 yards per rush they allow on traditional rushes.
Even Arizona ran one zone-read play, an attempt foiled when Drew Stanton failed to read the player on the end of the line correctly and was hammered by Bruce Irvin for a 3-yard loss. It’s not a trick play or something you can run once per game to keep teams honest. The zone-read is a meaningful part of offensive schemes, no different from the play-action pass or the shotgun. It’s not going anywhere. And as long as that continues to mean quarterbacks running by confused defensive ends for big gains, I’m going to enjoy it.
The Rabona Onside Kick
The Dolphins went up 14-3 against the Broncos thanks to an impressive start on offense and a bizarre Denver game plan that saw it run the ball on 10 of its first 14 plays. It didn’t last. The Dolphins had Denver up against it with a third-and-20 at the end of the first half, only for Emmanuel Sanders to trick reserve cornerback Jamar Taylor into falling for a double move, which produced both a sprawling 35-yard catch and an illegal contact penalty that would have given the Broncos a first down anyway. Denver scored a touchdown three plays later, which ended up serving as the margin of victory in Denver’s 39-36 win.
After a late Dolphins touchdown and two-point conversion brought them within three, they needed to pull out something special to try to get the ball back. Needing to recover an onside kick, they had Caleb Sturgis attempt what I believe to be the NFL’s first rabona:
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You can understand why Sturgis would try a rabona. It looks like he’s about to kick the onside attempt in one direction before suddenly directing it the other way, which would throw off the opposition, albeit only for the brief moment until they see the football bouncing in the opposite direction. It would probably provide a weird bouncing path, given that the ball is being struck at such an unnatural angle. It’s also really cool, and having seen how much downtime kickers have during NFL training camps and practices, I guarantee Sturgis has given the rabona plenty of practice reps.
Alas, it didn’t work quite as well as Erik Lamela’s ridiculous rabona for Tottenham earlier this year. But given how conventional the NFL perpetually wants to be, it’s right up my alley anytime that players want to try something weird that nobody else has done before.
It’s always fun to watch T.Y. Hilton, who spends his life terrifyingly open and ready for Andrew Luck bombs offscreen during Colts games. It’s especially overwhelming and cool to see emotionally open T.Y. Hilton talk about scoring a touchdown for his newborn daughter:
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That’s awesome. NFL players crying when they’re happy is great. (Remember Vernon Davis crying after blowing up the Saints in that legendary 2011 NFC playoff game?) I’m all for crying. I had to stifle back tears the other day at the end of The Heat, a buddy cop movie I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to cry at. Hilton had a way better excuse. Let’s hope he scores a bunch more touchdowns over the next couple of months so he can go through some of the other newborn-related celebrations.
Speaking of the 49ers, I’m obviously thankful for the patron saint of the Grantland NFL Podcast. For the uninitiated, when Robert Mays and I were previewing the NFC West before the season, I brought up Chris Borland and suggested that the third-round pick might possibly be 85 percent as good as NaVorro Bowman if he played in Bowman’s stead as a rookie. Mays did not take kindly to this suggestion,3 and when Borland was torched by Peyton Manning in the preseason and began the year on special teams, it came up as a running joke on the podcast.
“That’s insane. That is an insane comment to make.”
Then, when Patrick Willis went down, Borland went into the lineup … and magic started to happen. While the Broncos blew out the 49ers in Borland’s first start, he picked up a sack of Manning. That was fun. Then, in the next game, things suddenly began to slow down and Borland started to destroy worlds. He had 18 tackles against the Rams in a lawnmower-esque display, including 15 solo tackles and three tackles for loss. The following week, he took down opposing Saints for 17 tackles before diving into a pile from yards away to come out with the game-winning fumble recovery. It wasn’t a joke anymore. Then he picked off Eli Manning twice in San Francisco’s 16-10 win over the Giants, including a fourth-down interception inside his own 5-yard line on a tipped pass. Now he’s a legitimate defensive rookie of the year candidate.
Borland had a relatively quiet game against Washington, leading the team with just eight tackles, two for losses. Washington also had success running the football, with Alfred Morris carrying 21 times for 125 yards, only to come up on the short end of a 17-13 nail-biter. But Borland has been exactly what the 49ers needed. For a team that’s quietly emerged as the league’s best pass defense by DVOA, Borland is a useful foil as a demonic run-stopper hell-bent on getting past blocks and tackling anybody who even looks like he has a football in his hands.
It’s a little anachronistic, since Borland’s never going to be a great coverage linebacker in a league that continues to get more and more pass-happy, but he’s damn useful, especially given that he’s making $420,000 in base salary this year. Borland would typically be fourth on the San Francisco depth chart at inside linebacker if Bowman, Willis, and Michael Wilhoite were all healthy, so what he’s been able to accomplish this season has been remarkable.
As for 85 percent of Bowman? Nah, not really. Most of my logic came from thinking about how Willis makes the linebacker next to him so much better, how he had made Takeo Spikes look like an ageless Pro Bowler before Bowman stepped in as a star during his second season. I didn’t anticipate Borland replacing Willis himself. Bowman is also a totally different style of player, a far more versatile three-down type who had the athleticism to run down the field with receivers before his knee injury.
What he isn’t is the other thing Mays described him to be, which was a very unflattering impersonation of Zach Thomas. Thomas was an undersize, underathletic middle linebacker who went later in the draft than his college production suggested, only to quickly earn a starting job and hold on to it for a long time. Chris Borland isn’t the homeless version of Zach Thomas. He’s Zach Thomas’s 23-year-old clone.
Mike Smith’s Endgame
I wonder whether Mike Smith’s coaching at the end of Falcons games is a sarcastic, ironic commentary on how to win football games in the fourth quarter.4 As Andrew Healy recently showed on Football Perspective, Smith became the most timid fourth-down coach in football after failing on several fourth-down tries against the Giants in the 2011 playoffs.
I enjoy this, of course, because writing about bad coaching helps keep me employed.
Smith followed that by nearly costing his team its only playoff win during his tenure, refusing to go for a two-pointer while up 19 points (an obvious go-for-two spot) because it was “too early” in the game, even though Atlanta was lining up on the 1-yard line after Seattle went offside. The Seahawks promptly scored three touchdowns and went up 28-27 with 34 seconds left, only for Matt Ryan and Matt Bryant to bail out their coach with 41 yards of passing before a game-winning 49-yard field goal.
Of course, it was only four weeks ago that Smith helped his team blow a 21-0 lead by stopping the clock twice in a dominant situation before calling a bizarre timeout when the Lions were trying to settle for a long field goal. It was so bad that I finished my article begging you to never think about that game again. Apparently, Smith took that to heart, because he made eerily similar mistakes in costing his team the game against the Browns.
This time, the Falcons were coming back. Having been bailed out by a pair of atrocious Brian Hoyer interceptions, Atlanta was given the ball near midfield down two points with three timeouts and 2:42 left. The Falcons controlled the game situation. After picking up a first down, they moved the ball toward the edge of field goal range with a 7-yard completion to Harry Douglas, setting up a third-and-2 from the Cleveland 35-yard line with the clock running and 57 seconds left.
Now, you don’t want to just settle for a 53-yard field goal; even with a kicker as effective as Bryant, it’s still a very risky proposition. You want a first down; not only does it make the field goal easier, it also forces Cleveland to start using its three timeouts. Atlanta also had three timeouts that it could use if it happened to miss the field goal, but if Cleveland wanted to wind the clock down and let Atlanta try a field goal for the win, it wouldn’t be particularly bad for the Falcons, either. You don’t want to give the Browns the ball back with an opportunity to score.
Somehow, that’s exactly what Smith did. He called a timeout two seconds after the end of that second-down play. Smith said afterward that he wanted to get the best play in there on third-and-2, something he apparently can’t do with 38 seconds left on the play clock and a veteran quarterback who’s been in the same system with the same coaches for the last three seasons. It’s one thing if the Falcons were messed up on offense and had the wrong personnel, or they didn’t know the play, or they weren’t equipped to handle a blitz that Ryan saw. Heck, it would have even been fine if they had run the clock down to 20 seconds or so and then called a timeout to get in their money play. That wouldn’t have been great, but at least they would have reduced Cleveland’s chances of scoring, or forced the Browns to use one of their timeouts to stop the clock. “They would’ve used the timeout probably if we hadn’t,” Smith said after the game. If only there were a way to find out whether that inclination was true while calling a play at the same time!
The play that Atlanta needed to call a timeout to get in ended up being a pass play. Cleveland’s defensive look led Ryan to throw a fade route to Devin Hester versus rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert, a sound decision in a vacuum mitigated by the fact that you absolutely, positively want to get the first down and keep the clock running more than anything else. This isn’t simply looking at the outcome and judging the process, which happens a lot in these sorts of situations. When the Falcons ran a third-down screen against the Lions in this same spot and Julio Jones dropped it, it was bad, but it was a play with an extremely high percentage of turning into a completion. This was not.
The incompletion actually decreased Atlanta’s chances of winning from 60 percent to 44 percent, only for the Falcons to temporarily be bailed out by Bryant’s clutch make from 53 yards out. But having left the Browns three timeouts and 44 seconds of game time, the Falcons could not hold on. Hoyer ran a nearly perfect two-minute drill, picking up four consecutive first downs and spiking the ball before Billy Cundiff drilled a 37-yard field goal to win it. The only positive was that Smith didn’t try to exert his influence by icing the final field goal attempt, but given that he did ice Cundiff’s 60-yard attempt to end the first half, I can only assume that Arthur Blank had taken away his timeout privileges for that final Browns drive.
The Falcons are not what you would call a good football team. They can’t run the ball, they have no pass rush, and their secondary is full of holes. They were lucky to have a shot at winning this game, with Hoyer having thrown two of the worst picks you’ll see in the fourth quarter after Ryan had two would-be interceptions dropped. They did actually have a shot at winning this one, and that’s what hurts. Atlanta doesn’t have to be good to win the NFC South. If it were just a tiny bit more careful and didn’t coach its way into a paper bag late in the fourth quarter against Detroit and Cleveland, it would be 6-5 instead of 4-7. That would have given it a commanding lead in the NFC South.
Instead, the Falcons are no longer in first place in the NFC South,5 with the Cardinals, Packers, and Steelers to come over the next three weeks. A win on Sunday wasn’t going to give them the ammunition to beat the likes of Green Bay, but it might have been enough to keep them in the divisional race even if they go 1-2 or 0-3 against that schedule. Now, they probably have to overcome the Cardinals and Steelers in Atlanta to stay in the hunt. They’ll also have to overcome a more obstinate barrier to success to host a playoff game in January: their head coach.
But will be again if the Saints lose to the Ravens on Monday Night Football.