Stop the quarterback narrative merry-go-round: I WANT TO GET OFF!
One week, Mark Sanchez is the punchline to an old joke. The next, he's the toast of Philadelphia, the guy everybody knew should have started the season opener instead of that detestable, washed-up Nick Foles (Pro Bowl participant last year, left the field with the lead in the fourth quarter of a playoff game, 5-2 as a full-game starter this year).
Now, Sanchez has been reSanchezified into the silly barrel. Drew Stanton is the hero now. Or maybe it's Ryan Mallett. Or Shaun Hill. Until next week.
It's dizzying. It's nauseating. It's ridiculous. The bipolar way we talk about quarterbacks—all-time smash this week, all-time trash next week—is getting worse. It's not a fun, pulpy soap opera anymore; it's attention-deficit theater. Trying to have a real discussion about the journeyman quarterbacks who are going to shape this year's playoff race is like trying to have an intelligent conversation at a rave.
Sanchez was terrible in a 53-20 Eagles loss to the Green Bay Packers. He overthrew open receivers, tossed a pair of interceptions (one into Julius Peppers' belly) and lost two fumbles, comically flailing as he chased one aborted snap like he was trying to pick up a 20-dollar bill on a fishing line.
"Mark Sanchez looked terrible" is not a sentence I expected to write in the opening of an NFL roundup in 2014; it's like writing, "The ocean looks wet." But Sanchez had a pretty good game (two touchdowns, a modest 54.1 percent completion rate) against the Panthers on Monday night and a pretty good game (two touchdowns, two interceptions) in a relief win against the Texans the week prior.
"Pretty good" is not a recognized category of quarterback performance anymore, so Sanchez's two wins instantly propelled him back into the national spotlight.
Hangover Headquarters is located in the Philadelphia area, so I expected a little Sanchez is so awesome over-exuberance from the local fans, who love adding to the city's Donovick Cunningjawshoying quarterback scrap heap. But I had several conversations with everyone from my fellow basketball dads to the hosts of talk radio shows from other cities last week that went something like this:
So, Mike, what is Mark Sanchez bringing to the Eagles offense that Nick Foles couldn't?
Well, Sanchez has a non-broken collarbone. That's a considerable advantage over Foles right now. He had also gone nearly two weeks without a two-interception game. But given a defensive touchdown, a special teams touchdown, two defensive turnovers to set up short drives and an opponent like the Carolina Panthers that surrounds its quarterback with Lilliputians, Foles probably could have squeezed out a win.
A trouncing at the hands of the Packers placed Sanchez right back in butt-fumble territory. A win over the Tennessee Titans next week will place him in a brief holding pattern before a Thanksgiving game in Dallas, which will either make him Philadelphia's greatest hero since Dave Schultz or lead to a public draw-and-quartering on Broad Street.
Is this trip really necessary? Sanchez is a backup quarterback like any other: good enough to lead his team past a bad opponent, not good enough to lead them to victory on the road against a much better opponent.
He has done nothing surprising since taking over for Foles, yet we made the Eagles story (good team with some obvious flaws), the Packers story (great team, great quarterback, great home-field advantage) and the Panthers story (Cam Newton and a bunch of Revolutionary War re-enactors) into yet another silly quarterback rise-and-fall tale.
Drew Stanton is probably the next guy who will get the treatment. Stanton has an established MO in several spot starts this season: complete a bomb or two, do nothing stupid, hold on for dear life while the defensive cavalry does its work. Michael Floyd leaped for a pair of touchdown receptions Sunday, and the Arizona Cardinals defense played so well that Stanton's two interceptions had little impact on a 14-6 victory that had little to do with outstanding quarterback play.
It's great to see Stanton get some wins after a college and pro career so full of reversals (numerous college injuries, Michigan State program fell apart around him, acquired by New York Jets five days before Tim Tebow, and so on).
But if this pre-Cardinals-Seahawks week is going to be full of "Why did so many teams give up on Stanton?" and "Does Stanton have some magical ability to never throw costly interceptions?", you will forgive me if I write about the Kansas City Chiefs defense or Lovie Smith's return to Chicago instead.
I realize that I am not allowed to get off this quarterback merry-go-round. As a media member, I am one of the painted horseys. It's my job to keep you riding. (Take 10 minutes to purge that image from your mind. I'll wait.)
Following, analyzing and predicting the changing fortunes of quarterbacks can be lots of fun if we don't suffer weekly amnesia and rein in the hysteria just a bit. Whether trying to figure out if Stanton or Sanchez can keep their teams in the playoff hunt or getting to know Mallett or some other new starter, it's best to remember a handful of key truths about quarterback performance and perceptions:
The First Start Is the Easiest
- The opponent has little or no film on a quarterback making his first start.
- Coaches can custom-tailor an all-new game plan around their quarterback in his first start.
- First starts are when the fake punts are unveiled.
- The high-risk, high-reward elements of the offense's playbook are often minimized for a quarterback's first start, in favor of a conservative approach that often results in a close, "gutsy" win.
- If a defense or special teams has it in them to "step up," they often will in that first week.
Whether the quarterback is Sanchez, Stanton, Mallett, Kirk Cousins, Colt McCoy or any other standard-issue backup, evaluations based on the first start are likely to be misleading, unless the quarterback throws five touchdowns or six interceptions.
Playing with the Lead Is Easier Than Playing from Behind
This is a Hangover staple which bears repeating: There's a big difference between having to force passes when trailing in the second half and playing punt-and-pin.
Ryan Mallett and Shaun Hill (the latter making his first start since the season opener) illustrated this point Sunday.
Hill was not about to win any shootouts with Peyton Manning, but he could play conservatively, lead short field-goal drives and come away with both an upset win and solid numbers (20-of-29, 220 yards, one touchdown) because his St. Louis Rams led for most of the afternoon.
Mallett's 20-of-30, 211-yard performance featured a 10-of-14, 78-yard second half. With a two-score lead and his defense playing at its usual wattage, Mallett could hand off, throw seven-yard passes and contentedly punt instead of forcing the throws that can snowball into multi-interception games. As an easy rule of thumb: Two interceptions when trying to come back in the fourth quarter are a minor issue, but two interceptions in the first quarter are a major one.
Sanchez's two-week runaway-mine-car ride to the abyss is a pretty cut-and-dried example of a quarterback looking great with a 24-7 lead (thanks to turnovers and special teams) one week and terrible when trailing 17-0 (thanks to an opponent's big plays and special teams) the next.
Sanchez was better against the Panthers than the Packers, of course, but the extreme boom and the bust, as they so often are, were as much a matter of situation as performance.
One or Two Games Are an Inadequate Sample
We now have five games, four starts and 125 passes with which to evaluate Drew Stanton. That's nearly enough to really talk about his strengths and weaknesses, but we could use more. Would you evaluate a baseball player after 125 at-bats? A basketball player after 125 shots? Probably not, unless either of them completely tanked.
Just because coaches wait six to eight games to get a "book" on a quarterback doesn't mean we have to. You are just here to have fun, after all, and my job is largely to shoot spitballs. We can talk about arms and scrambling ability, smart plays and dumb ones, and make guesses about a guy's floor and ceiling.
We can dream that Mallett is the next Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer the next Bernie Kosar, Mark Sanchez is the quarterback who can end 54 years of Philly phan phrustration. We just have to be honest with ourselves about the fact that we recently dreamed that Austin Davis was the next Kurt Warner, Kirk Cousins was the next Sonny Jurgensen, and Nick Foles was the quarterback who would end 54 years of Philly phan phrustration.
So don't stop the ride. Just slow it down. Stanton is very likely to lead the Cardinals to an NFC West title, now that the Seahawks and 49ers are both three games back with six to play. Let's enjoy him for who he is instead of form-fitting him into a standard storyline.
Sanchez can still lead the Eagles into the playoffs; he has led other teams there before, bumbling much of the way. When a surprising new quarterback leads a team to a win, let's please, please talk about the TEAM that won so we can stop thinking about the most complex sport in the world as if it was a Street Fighter-type video game consisting of 32 quarterbacks and J.J. Watt.
The Cardinals won because of Alex Okafor, Calais Campbell, their secondary, their offensive line and their coaches. The Eagles lost because the Packers are the superior team.
Hey Mike, with Drew Stanton playing so well over the last two weeks, do you think the Cardinals regret wasting all of that contract money on Carson Palmer? Should the Redskins trade for Stanton? Is Stanton elite?
I don't know. I just know that all of these around-and-around quarterback conversations are giving me a bad case of the spins.
Not everybody earns one, but everybody gets one!
Ref…er, Madness Trophy
(Awarded to the officiating crew that must have been smoking something.)
Russell Wilson dropped to pass from the Chiefs' 9-yard line before halftime, and Cooper Helfet ran a slant route. Wilson thought Helfet would run a corner route, and he threw to an empty spot in the corner of the end zone.
Wilson was under no real pass rush, and most observant fans could tell that this was a case of miscommunication between the quarterback and his inexperienced tight end. But the refs called intentional grounding, which offset a Chiefs penalty and led to the Seahawks settling for a field goal in what became a 24-20 loss.
Later, Sean Smith shoved Doug Baldwin in the end zone on a 4th-and-goal pass. Wilson's throw did not appear catchable, but why did we spend the whole summer watching a flag monsoon after every grazing downfield nudge if the refs were planning to swallow whistles in the fourth quarter on fourth down?
"I was pushed," Baldwin said after the game. "It was obvious. As far as I know, when the ball is in the air I'm not supposed to be touched by the defender. Period. That's the rule."
That's the rule as far as I know it, too, but the NFL rules fill a magical storybook that can suck you into its alternate universe and shatter your perception of reality.
The Seahawks commit enough penalties of their own in the red zone without the officials making new ones up or forgiving their opponents for obvious infractions. Then again, none of this would be an issue if they just handed off to Marshawn Lynch on 4th-and-2. Or kicked a field goal.
Fantasy Leech Trophy
(Awarded to the fullback, tight end, fourth receiver or moonlighting linebacker who scored so your fantasy first-round pick could not.)
Jamaal Charles delivered for his fantasy owners, gaining 159 rushing yards and scoring two touchdowns. Marshawn Lynch ran for 124 yards, but when the Seahawks needed a late third-quarter touchdown, they play-faked to Lynch and threw to third-string tight end Tony Moeaki.
You may remember Moeaki from his three seasons as an on-and-off starter for the Chiefs. The Seahawks lost, but that touchdown was Moeaki's Revenge, which is also the name of the greatest Nintendo 64 game that never was.
Salvador Dali Melting Clock Trophy
(Awarded for the strangest clock management of the week.)
It can be hard to tell where bad clock management ends and bad execution begins, particularly in New Orleans. When Jeremy Hill took a handoff up the gut with 15 seconds left before halftime, it was universal football communication for "we are content to head to the locker room with a 10-3 lead," and hence a signal for the defense to simply prevent a big play.
Rob Ryan's defense failed to get the message. Hill squirted through the line, which will happen, but safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Rafael "Glaring Fundamental Error Per Week" Bush took ridiculously overaggressive angles instead of staying back and stopping Hill for a meaningless 10- to 15-yard gain.
Hill blew past the eager defenders for 62 yards to set up a Bengals field goal. He also almost accidentally ran out the clock, but he can be forgiven—he was having a hard time figuring out where the safeties he expected to tackle him had gone.
A bonus clock-management shout-out to the Panthers, who ran a hook-and-lateral pass with 22 seconds left, before it was time for a desperate playground pitch-around play. Cam Newton passed to Kelvin Benjamin for five yards, and Benjamin pitched to Jerricho Cotchery, who gained nine more yards and got out of bounds.
Teams should be a little more creative with plays like these when trailing with under a minute left. Defenders often concede the middle of the field and can be caught flat-footed when squaring to tackle the initial receiver, so it should be easier to sometimes gain 20-some yards and stop the clock with a lateral than to laser a 20-yard pass to the sideline.
Another Panthers lateral got the ball out of bounds with one second left, setting up a 63-yard field goal. The long shot failed, but it was better than pitching the ball around with the clock at 0:00 like preschoolers until someone fumbles.
Meaningless Fantasy Touchdown Trophy
(Awarded for the most unnecessary, yet fantasy-relevant, touchdown of the week.)
Lacy's blowout touchdowns are about the only things keeping me alive in fantasy football this year (eyes Kai Forbath angrily). Sanchez does not share in the prize for his throw to Maclin, because it's depressing to think of someone both starting Sanchez in fantasy and needing that touchdown.
Mysterious Touch Trophy
(Awarded to the defender, lineman or specialist who got an unlikely carry or catch of the week.)
Colts tackle Anthony Castonzo caught a goal-line touchdown on a sneaky "tackle eligible" play. The formation made him an eligible receiver, but the Patriots defense did not expect him to slip into the end zone to catch a pass.
Castonzo performed an end-zone dance halfway between the Malfunctioning Robot and the Tarantella. If he were holding semaphore flags, Castonzo's dance would have signaled, "If you still start Trent Richardson in your fantasy league, there is nothing we can do for you."
J.J. Watt caught Ryan Mallett's first career touchdown pass. At some point, we may want to admit that Watt has a habit of horning in on everyone else's accomplishments; I half expect to see him photobombing Jennifer Lawrence at the next People's Choice Awards. Anyway, here is Watt's entire stat line from Sunday, though the last few items are not verified:
- One touchdown
- One sack
- Three tackles for a loss
- One forced fumble
- One fumble recovery
- Two roughing-the-punter penalties
- Six laps as the leader in the Ford EcoBoost 400
- Five rebounds and three blocked shots against the University of Kentucky
- Three under par in final round of OHL Classic
- Five saves for Winnipeg against Minnesota
- American League Silver Slugger at second base
- Made The Simpsons culturally relevant again
Snap Fail Trophy
(Awarded to the center who dooms a play before it starts.)
Browns punter Spencer Lanning had a rough day. As mentioned above (before the gags started), Watt roughed him twice. Lanning also had to deal with a Christian Yount snap that flew well over his head and sailed 22 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Lanning alertly retrieved the bad snap and switched into rugby mode, sprinting laterally until he found an open patch of field and dropping a 22-yard punt along the sideline. Watt did little of note on the play, but since he probably intimidated Yount or something, let's give him credit here too!
Dominic Raiola delivered one of his patented "invent your own snap count" plays with the Lions facing 3rd-and-12 in the fourth quarter. Those seeking foreboding signs of a Lions collapse felt a shiver when Raiola sent Matthew Stafford his surprise delivery on the same day that the Lions committed nine penalties and Stafford became Megatron-dependent.
We are one missed field goal or Ndamukong Suh fine away from a full-throttle Lions relapse. And things were going so well...
Kenny Rogers Trophy
(Awarded to the coach who does not know when to hold 'em, or when to fold 'em.)
Peyton Manning's lone highlight this week was a 42-yard touchdown to Emmanuel Sanders on 3rd-and-10.
The Saints' woes in their 27-10 loss to the Bengals started when Erik Lorig got stuffed for a loss of one on a 4th-and-goal flat pass in the second quarter. The go-for-it decision was statistically sound, and the Saints had already given Mark Ingram two carries, so a fullback counterpunch was not a crazy play selection. Then again, the replay shows two defenders chasing Lorig and three encircling Jimmy Graham (good idea), so simple arithmetic suggests one more handoff to Ingram may have been the best decision.
Despite my usual go-for-it advocacy and my unwillingness to declare every decision that fails to be an incorrect one (at least publicly; in private life, I am insanely judgmental), I think the Seahawks should have kicked a field goal on 4th-and-2 from the Kansas City 2-yard line, to cut the Chiefs' lead to 24-23 with 7:11 to play in the fourth quarter.
With center Max Unger injured and the Seahawks short on receiving weapons, they seemed more likely to win with a defensive stop and another field goal than with a fourth-down play. But then, the Seahawks' run defense wasn't evoking memories of last February, either.
Burn This Game Plan Trophy
(Awarded to the most over-engineered play or series of the week.)
A gorgeous Odell Beckham Jr. sideline catch gave the Giants the ball on the 4-yard line in the fourth quarter while trailing the 49ers 16-10. With five minutes on the clock, the Giants had their full goal-line playbook at their disposal. Eli Manning was playing poorly, and Rashad Jennings was back to give the Giants a semi-credible running game.
So here's what Tom Coughlin and Ben McAdoo called at the goal line:
- Fade to Beckham
- Fade to Rueben Randle
- Fade to Larry Donnell
- Sad little before-the-end-zone slant to Preston Parker that gets tipped and intercepted
There's nothing quite like simplifying things for the defense.
As always, there is a lot to talk about after Sunday's action. Let's have some fun with a little whip-around coverage:
Emmanuel Sanders, Julius Thomas, Montee Ball All Injured Against the Rams
Thomas will have an MRI on his ankle Monday, according to The Denver Post's Mike Klis, who said Ball's groin injury might be the most serious of the three. The Dolphins and Chiefs are next on the Broncos schedule, and Peyton Manning does not want to face two very good defenses without most of his top playmakers.
Speaking of not having any playmakers...
Cam Newton Sacrificed Again to Appease AFC South Mediocrity Gods
Cam Newton is the subject of a government experiment to see just how bad a quarterback's situation must become before the NFL chatterverse finally acknowledges that, yes, this is an untenable situation that cannot really be summed up in a "What's Wrong with Cam Newton?" headline. It's like Mystery Science Theater 3000, but instead of wisecracking robots, the Panthers have Andrew Norwell and Fozzy Whittaker.
Newton stumbled through three quarters against the Falcons. He looked like the same banged-up and utterly abandoned quarterback who took the field against the Saints and Eagles, running in circles while waiting for receivers to get open and bouncing interceptions off his tight end's hands as the Falcons took a 16-3 lead.
But the Falcons secondary only has about half-game's worth of competence to offer each week, so Newton launched a 22-yard touchdown to Kelvin Benjamin (it was a leaping circus catch, which Benjamin makes look easy, as opposed to a routine catch, which Benjamin makes look like a low-orbital skydive) and a 47-yarder to Philly Brown to give the Panthers a 17-16 lead with 6:20 to play.
The scientists conducting the experiment could not allow a Newton fourth-quarter comeback to happen, so the Panthers surrendered a quick 54-yard field-goal drive. Newton got the ball back at the two-minute warning and drove the Panthers to the Falcons' 28-yard line, but Graham Gano's 46-yard field goal was no good.
Newton managed to complete three passes to Benjamin within 21 seconds when the Panthers got the ball back one last time, but Gano's 63-yard prayer was blocked, vaulting the Falcons into first place in the NFC South with—gulp—a 4-6 record.
In summary, what's wrong with Cam Newton?
Patriots Defeat Colts in Anticipated Patriots' Defeat of Colts
The game was closer than the 42-20 final score, but not all that close. Both teams will make the playoffs, and if they meet, the results will be similar to what happened Sunday night.
The Colts had the chance to improve their playoff tiebreaker opportunities if they managed an upset, but no one was really anticipating one. This game played out precisely the way you would expect a Patriots-Colts game to play out, except perhaps for about 80 more Patriots rushing yards and a sloppier Tom Brady start than you might have anticipated.
It was not a particularly enlightening game, and it changed nothing about the playoff race, but it just seems weird to not mention a game between two important teams at all, so here is the mention.
Jay Cutler Placed on Trading Block; Trading Block Immediately Loses All Motivation
Amid speculation that they will try to trade Cutler and his hefty contract at the end of the season as part of a complete franchise rebuilding project, the Bears put together their most impressive performance in over a month.
They beat the Vikings, a team with a rookie quarterback, rookie running back and developmental players at numerous positions, by a 21-13 score with the help of a late-game interception in the end zone and malfunctioning stadium clocks. Cutler threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns, adding just two interceptions to show that he is serious about cutting his turnover rate slightly.
With this emphatic statement of a victory, the Bears have proved that the humiliations of the last two weeks are behind them, and they are once again the proudly almost-.500 team we saw in 2013 and through the first seven games of this season.
Navy SEAL from Raid on Osama Bin Laden Speaks to Redskins (Not About the Quarterback Job)
Redskins players were thrilled to meet Rob O'Neill of Navy SEAL Team 6, a lifelong Redskins fan, on Saturday night. They were so inspired that they lost to the Buccaneers, 27-7, the next day.
Robert Griffin III threw two interceptions and Kai Forbath missed two field goals, so if O'Neill lectured about accuracy, it didn't sink in. O'Neill made the right decision by staying in Redskins headquarters long enough for players to hear his important, inspirational message of teamwork and leadership, but not long enough for them to start resenting it.
Andy Dalton Finds Dignity in New Orleans, Where Most of Us Lose Ours
Dalton threw three touchdowns and looked sharp all afternoon, as he often does in the afternoon.
He's like a lame educational superhero who teaches children about the importance of proper sleep and maintaining a healthy schedule: Lunchtime Man, whose only weakness is evening.
Day of the Brady Spawn
Ryan Mallett completed 20 of 30 passes for 211 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in the Texans' 23-7 win over the Browns. Brian Hoyer was 20-of-50 for 330 yards, one touchdown and one pick. That's right: 80 full pass attempts by the Tom Brady Wannabes. It was like an entire game of Patriots' preseason third quarters of the last six years.
Mallet's deep passes leave his hand at an angle of 89.9 degrees with the ground and float high into the stratosphere, typically coming down within range of their targets but taking so long to arrive that defenders can also navigate their boats to the splashdown location.
Joe Haden's end-zone interception was typical of Mallet's deep attempts: DeAndre Hopkins camped in the ball's shadow and hummed the Jeopardy theme while waiting for re-entry, allowing Haden to gradually make a play on the ball.
Mallett made some very sharp throws and took advantage of a pair of Browns defensive lapses late in the first half (tight end Garrett Graham got open twice over the middle before halftime, using an official to set a pick on a linebacker for a touchdown catch), but Bill O'Brien took few chances with his new starter. The Texans ran the ball 54 times, including numerous 3rd-and-medium situations.
Hoyer did not play as poorly as his 40 percent completion rate suggests, but he provided another reminder that he is not a quarterback to build around. Hoyer is good enough to win games when the defense is playing at a high level and the running game is humming.
The same can be said of Mallett right now. Remember the article opener: Evaluating a quarterback takes time, the first start is often the easiest, and it's wise to never get too high or too low on a new guy getting an extended look.
One final look at the strange, bizarre and fascinating images from Week 11.
Pigeons, Pigeons Everywhere in Cleveland
A whole flock of them kept landing on the field during the Texans win over the Browns, then flying away when the action got close. But maybe they weren't pigeons. Maybe they were doves. DOVES THAT DESCENDED FROM HEAVEN TO ANOINT THE NEXT TOM BRADY.
But they were probably just pigeons.
Even the Clocks in Chicago Are Unmotivated
The Soldier Field clocks malfunctioned so badly that the officials turned them off late in the fourth quarter, forcing the Vikings to attempt to execute a two-minute drill without knowing exactly how much time was left. (Two-minute offense is a precise science, like microwaving popcorn.)
Officials informed coaches of the time remaining after each play, the PA announcer provided periodic updates and carrier pigeons sent the information to NFL headquarters just like they did in the 1930s. Newsboys could be heard around Chicago: Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Teddy Bridgewater attempting comeback! Bears hold opponent under 50 points! Eliot Ness shuts down an Al Capone speakeasy. Extra!
With no official clock graphic during the telecast, Bears-Vikings felt like it was beamed in from the Stone Age. Even back in the day of rabbit-ear antennas, television networks superimposed the digital stadium clock in the corner of the screen when the game was late and close.
I can't imagine what the league will do when game film is released Tuesday; each play is usually preceded by a shot of the scoreboard to provide down-and-distance and time remaining. I hope those shots are replaced by closeups of Marc Trestman's 40-function digital watch.
Saints Fan Has Better Ball Skills Than Rafael Bush
By now, you have probably seen the Saints fan snatch Jermaine Gresham's post-touchdown souvenir football away from a woman in an A.J. Green jersey, then hold firm for the entire second half while the woman and her friend cajoled him and the Fox broadcast cameras kept trying to jerk-shame him.
The Grinch never gave the woman a ball, but the Saints provided her with one.
I have no problem with the dude keeping the football. In fact, the NFL should make sure it is properly signed as a certified collectible:
This football commemorates the time a second-tier NFL tight end scored a touchdown that helped drop my favorite team to a 4-6 record, then tried to give the ball to a woman who probably traveled 800 miles to my hometown to cheer for her favorite team, but I callously swiped the ball on national television, even though it can only provide me with unpleasant memories, simply to deny her from having something a pro football player clearly intended her to have.
Then again, as NFL souvenirs go, something like that could be like a cursed monkey paw.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.