Monday Morning Digest: Making the NFL Great Again
There was drama on the field and off the field, before the games, after the games and even in overtime.
Sunday was the Day the NFL Stood Still. And knelt still. Yet the teams still played, despite a presidential controversy unlike anything any American sports league has ever faced. And the results were amazing.
Digest is here to focus (mostly) on all of the on-field action, from the Lions-Falcons shootout of undefeated teams to a stunningly thrilling Colts-Browns battle to escape the cellar. And much more.
Stick to football? Don't mind if we do. After we address that elephant in the stadium.
Great Football Is the NFL's Most Powerful Form of Protest
We saw things yesterday that we never thought we would see on an NFL Sunday:
Mike Tomlin and his coaches standing alone for the national anthem on the Steelers sideline. Jaguars owner Shahid Khan standing arm-in-arm with his players. Ray Lewis on both knees in a sport coat and dark glasses like the sinner who just staggered into a tent revival. Rex Ryan questioning Donald Trump (the president he openly campaigned for) on a pregame show, with Randy Moss staring at him pucker-faced, as if he had just bitten through a lemon.
Empty sidelines in Nashville, as both the Titans and Seahawks declined to take the field during the national anthem. The Nashville anthem singer herself, Meghan Linsey, taking a knee beside her guitarist at the end of her performance like it was the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, not a politically turbocharged football game in 2017.
Patriots fans booing the Patriots before a game in Foxborough.
The president tried to silence the NFL's social-justice protesters with a weekend-long barrage of profane insults of the players, challenges to Roger Goodell and calls to his loyal supporters to boycott the game. Predictably, the NFL rallied as it always does when threatened by an outside force. Still, there has never been anything quite like what we witnessed Sunday. The owners, players, coaches and singers stood (and knelt) together in an inspiring demonstration of solidarity and, yes, patriotism.
But if Sunday was strictly about the right to free expression, it would be a hollow victory. The NFL needs to win in the marketplace, not in some Constitutional ethics debate. That's why the other things we saw Sunday were almost as important and inspirational as the protests:
Tom Brady winning back the Foxborough doubters with a last-minute game-winning touchdown to Brandin Cooks. Aaron Rodgers leading a comeback and an overtime win. Rookie kicker Jake Elliott nailing a 61-yard Eagles field goal to thwart a thrilling Giants comeback. Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard tag-teaming the Steelers in overtime. The Lions taking the Falcons down to the final gun. The Browns and Colts—the Browns and Colts!—playing like neither of them wants the first pick in the NFL draft.
Buried within the president's harsh rhetoric and not-too-carefully coded racial semiotics was one other message: The NFL isn't that good anymore, anyway. He bashed the quality of play in tweets and even complained about officiating in Friday's rally. It's a hedged-bet argument—the games have been dull anyway, so why not make your dissatisfaction a political stand?—but a potentially potent one for an industry fueled by television ratings and American cultural cachet.
The NFL we saw Sunday has nothing to fear from any political boycott. The league may have its highs and lows—and we love to gripe when it serves up a slate of 13-9 games—but the product on the field is too compelling for even casual fans to ignore, especially when everyone from players to fans is participating with complete passion and emotion.
The NFL proved the president wrong in the most American way possible: by creating an irresistible product for its consumers.
Even his staunchest supporters must admit that Trump has accomplished little in his presidency thus far. But he inadvertently did something wonderful Sunday. He reminded us that football is our nation's pastime. He inspired hundreds of protesters to transform the national anthem into an exploration of what it really means to be American.
Thank you, Mr. President.
But you didn't make the NFL great again. Because the NFL was already pretty great. And it has always been better without your input.
It's Hard to Go 3-0 in the NFL
The leaves haven't turned yet—heck, I haven't even switched the air conditioning off yet—and already parity has worked its moderating magic upon the NFL. Only the Falcons and Chiefs remain undefeated after three games.
Going 3-0 in the NFL is really hard. Here's a rundown on the teams that failed in their bids to do it this week.
Baltimore Ravens (44-7 loss to Jaguars in London): Winning is hard when you play 30 minutes of football in the first half and your offense travels 45 feet.
Carolina Panthers (34-13 loss to the Saints): Cam Newton's shoulder was clearly bothering him, so Mike Shula tried to play Conceal-a-Cam with an exotic smashmouth game plan. If you took the "over" and wagered that Shula would run out of ideas late in the first quarter, you won.
Detroit Lions (30-26 loss to Falcons): The Lions are great in the fourth quarter but terrible at getting breaks on borderline touchdown catches. That's a tough needle to thread week after week.
Denver Broncos (26-16 loss to Bills): The Trevor Truthers claiming that Trevor Siemian somehow morphed into Aaron Rodgers against the Cowboys last week are now setting their Brock Clocks after Sunday's two-interception reality check.
Oakland Raiders (27-10 loss to Redskins): The Raiders offense looked nothing like the balanced, explosive unit we are used to seeing. The Raiders secondary and run defense looked exactly like the second-grade scavenger hunt we are all too used to seeing.
Pittsburgh Steelers (23-17 overtime loss to Bears): The Steelers spent the first two weeks goofing around with terrible opponents (the Browns, then the Vikings on a short week after Sam Bradford was pulled out from under them). It came back to haunt them on a Sunday full of fumbles, blocked field goals and off-tackle Bears runs that moved through the Steelers defense like a spoon through soup.
Big-Name Free-Agent Disappointment Digest
They made headlines when they arrived. They brought great reputations and greater promise. But through two weeks, they did little. Here's a Week 3 update on some big names trying to get their faces off the side of the milk carton.
Brandon Marshall, Giants
First Two Weeks: Signed as an Odell Beckham complement and insurance policy, Marshall spent OBJ's convalescence as a decoy/pass dropper/quotable veteran who reassured fans that everything was going to be OK because the Giants were no more disappointing than the Bears, Dolphins and Jets teams he played for in the past.
Week 3: Eli Manning launched a deep pass to Marshall that was intercepted by rookie Rasul Douglas, killing an early Giants rally in what became a roller coaster of a 27-24 Eagles victory. Marshall finished with eight catches for 66 yards on 11 targets but remains the fifth-most dynamic receiver in the Giants offense behind healthy Beckham, Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram and injured Beckham.
Eddie Lacy, Seahawks
First Two Weeks: Signed as a Beast Mode surrogate, publicly fat-shamed for six months, given five carries for three yards in Week 1 and scratched in Week 2 as the Seahawks offense forged its identity as "we get sacked a lot and rarely score."
Week 3: Lacy was activated but did not play in the Seahawks' 33-27 loss to the Titans. C'mon, folks: The Seahawks offense of desperation Russell Wilson shot-put passes and Hail Marys with over seven minutes to play always starts putting points on the board by the two-minute warning of the first half. There's just no room on this finely tuned dragster for Lacy!
LeGarrette Blount, Eagles
First Two Weeks: The squarest of pegs in the Eagles offense—a lumbering, stone-handed bruiser in a system designed for Darren Sproles types—Blount carried 14 times for 46 yards in the opener but was held without a carry and caught one pass for zero yards in the Chiefs loss.
Week 3: Blount carried 12 times for 67 yards and one touchdown. There were weird stretches where Blount bowled over defenders on back-to-back carries and then disappeared from the game plan for a series or two. But that's just Doug Pederson adhering to the modern coaching philosophy that "running back committee" means "randomly shuffling them like your depth chart is an iPod Touch."
Adrian Peterson, Saints
First Two Weeks: I had a college summer job cutting lawns on off-ramps for the Port Authority. By late July, the grass stopped growing, so the foremen gave us "make work" jobs: washing the trucks, sweeping sidewalks, other meaningless tasks to make us look busy. Adrian Peterson's role in the Saints offense for two weeks was similar to my old late-summer role with the Port Authority.
Week 3: Peterson carried nine times for 33 yards, despite the fact that the Saints were in clock-killing mode for most of the second half against the Panthers. Peterson got three straight carries but failed to net a first down late in the game, so Sean Payton called a pitch to rookie Alvin Kamara on the next series and was rewarded with a 25-yard touchdown. Peterson doesn't look all that bad, mind you, but clearly there are better options.
Game Spotlight: Falcons 30, Lions 26
In the battle of really good teams no one ever talks about, the defending champion known for blowing fourth-quarter leads in important games held off the team known for pesky fourth-quarter regular-season comebacks.
The Falcons moved the ball up and down the field all game (428 yards of total offense) but could never widen a lead against the Lions, who drove in Atlanta's blind spot all afternoon by intercepting passes and kicking 55-plus-yard field goals.
Matthew Stafford led the Lions 88 yards to the 1-yard line in the final 2:23, but an apparent Golden Tate touchdown was nullified by the latest codicil of the Calvin Johnson Rule (which, loosely interpreted, states that the Lions are forbidden from winning games on borderline touchdown catches) to preserve the Falcons victory.
What It Means
The Falcons may be the NFL's best team. but they remain tightrope walkers whose defense is great at delivering sacks and turnovers but terrible at preventing gobs of yardage in prevent situations. Every late-game high-wire act either exorcises the Falcons' Super Bowl demons or just resets that ticking time bomb that will lead to an epic collapse at the worst possible time (like a playoff game).
The Lions are a tenacious team with lots of assets: Stafford, Tate, the Darius Slay-led secondary, kicker Matt Prater. But they remain one or two players away—a complementary edge-rusher for Ziggy Ansah, perhaps a real workhorse rusher—from being more than wild-card fodder. At least people outside of Detroit are starting to notice them.
What Happens Next
A pair of tough tests: The Lions visit a Vikings team that isn't letting Sam Bradford's absence hold it back, while the Falcons host the feisty Bills.
Game Spotlight: Packers 27, Bengals 24 (OT)
The Bengals came out of the gate swinging with two early touchdown drives, thanks to a new coordinator (Bill Lazor, replacing fired Bengals lifer Ken Zampese) and what looked like a new attitude.
The Packers, meanwhile, couldn't move the ball consistently without left tackle David Bakhtiari or receiver Randall Cobb. With the Bengals leading 21-7 after a William Jackson pick-six, the world teetered perilously on the edge of another What's Wrong With Aaron Rodgers storyline, the annual tradition of lazy sports-talk hot-take regurgitation that's about as enjoyable as flu season.
But Rodgers overcame six sacks to lead a late comeback to force overtime, when he then hit Geronimo Allison for a 72-yard catch-and-run to set up a game-winning field goal. Rodgers finished with 313 yards and three touchdowns, placing him safely out of range of his critics. For one more week, anyway.
What It Means
This was vintage Packers football, for better or worse: too much pressure on Rodgers, too many itty-bitty flat passes, too little margin for error but favorable results.
Yes, Rodgers causes some of his own problems by never making an easy throw to the middle when he can attempt a low-percentage bomb on the run. Yes, a "normal" running back to take pressure off Ty Montgomery would help. No, neither of those things will change in the foreseeable future.
The Bengals played their best possible game for a half, then embarked on a string of short, empty drives that gave Rodgers multiple opportunities to make magic. They have issues a coordinator change could not possibly solve. But everyone knows that.
What Happens Next
The Packers host the Bears, the NFL's most dangerous jobbers. The Bengals try to regain their self-esteem in Cleveland.
Inside the Numbers
Good, bad and strange statistics from Week 3, broken down for both their fantasy and "real football" value:
Case Keenum: 25-of-33, 369 yards, 3 TDs
Stefon Diggs (8-173-2 with some tricky snags), Adam Thielen (5-98, an over-the-shoulder gem for 45 yards) and Dalvin Cook (5-72 on several catch-and-rumbles) combined with an anemic Buccaneers pass rush and a start-to-finish Vikings lead to make Keenum this week's Ordinary Quarterback with Spectacular Numbers. (See Trevor Siemian last week; Blake Bortles this week is technically a Terrible Quarterback with Spectacular Numbers.)
Ty Montgomery, Packers: 12 rushes for 35 yards, eight catches on 12 targets for 15 yards
Montgomery lost seven yards on an early-game reception and carried twice for zero yards from the one-yard line. With Randall Cobb hurt, Montgomery is the Packers' featured back, third-down back, goal-line back and primary slot target. He's only suited for the second and fourth of those roles.
Chris Thompson, Redskins: 6 catches for 150 yards and 1 TD, 8 rushes for 38 yards
Inside the Numbers will feature Thompson every week until the Redskins realize they should feature him in their offense. Thompson caught a 22-yard touchdown early against the Raiders and added a 74-yard scamper on a screen pass to put the game away. He's productive on every touch, yet the Redskins insist on using him as a change-up back, even as injuries forced Mack Brown into a featured role Sunday night. Thompson is like the anti-Ty Montgomery.
Kareem Hunt, Chiefs: 17 carries for 172 yards, 1 TD; 1 catch for 11 yards
Hunt only had 18 touches because the Chiefs only ran 51 offensive plays in their 24-10 victory. They scored 17 points on short drives after turnovers, and the other seven came on Hunt's 69-yard late-game touchdown. Hunt is currently averaging 8.5 yards per rush and 15.2 yards per catch with six touchdowns after three games. The Rookie of the Year race isn't over, but Hunt leads it by a lap.
Ka'imi Fairbairn, Texans: 4 field goals, 2 extra points
Fairbairn is perfect so far this season. His two field goals last Thursday night helped the Texans keep the Bengals at bay. He kicked four short field goals in Foxborough (39-, 40-, 31- and 36-yarders) to maintain a one Brady Comeback lead over the Patriots until the inevitable happened. Settling for short field goals is a tried-and-true method for losing to the Patriots, but that isn't Fairbairn's fault.
Surprisingly Entertaining Game Spotlight: Colts 31, Browns 28
When two terrible-but-equally-matched teams square off, one of two things happen. Either the coaches over-coach the game into a snooze-fest full of 3rd-and-long draw plays and punts, or both teams open things up and let their few playmakers shine against overmatched opponents.
Hue Jackson is the let-'em-play type, and Chuck Pagano has given up ineffective over-coaching for ineffective under-coaching this year. So Jacoby Brissett scrambled, T.Y. Hilton weaved through defenders, Duke Johnson delivered some nifty runs and receptions, and a round-robin match for the first overall pick resembled an actual game.
The Browns overcame a 28-14, turnover-and-dropped-pass-fueled halftime deficit with a pair of late touchdown drives (helped along by some Colts penalties). But DeShone Kizer's final Hail Mary was intercepted by rookie safety Malik Hooker to preserve the first Colts win of the season.
What It Means
With the Jets somehow beating the Dolphins and the Bears upsetting the Steelers in overtime, the Browns now join the 49ers (another team just spirited enough to lose with class) on the inside track to the first pick in next year's draft. (Other 0-3 teams like the Giants and Chargers are likely to climb off the pace.)
Really, there is not much to be gleaned from this Conference USA duel except: a) Kizer is big-armed and fun to watch but on pace for 37 interceptions and 53 sacks taken this year; b) Hilton and Frank Gore would look great with a real coach and quarterback, but neither is expected to arrive for a few more weeks; and c) bad football teams are most fun to watch when they are at least trying to be good.
What Happens Next
Let's look ahead two weeks to other games with draft-order implications: the Browns host the Jets after facing the Bengals, while the Colts host the 49ers after battling the Seahawks. With everyone now trying their hardest to win, these games could be must-see TV!
Player Spotlight: Marcedes Lewis, TE, Jaguars
What He Did
Lewis, the oldest and longest-tenured player on the Jaguars roster, punctuated the most complete and dominating victory the franchise has enjoyed in about three coaching administrations with three touchdown catches in a 44-7 clobbering of the Ravens. He entered the game without a single catch this season.
What It Means
The 33-year-old Lewis has been in Jacksonville so long that he actually played in a Jaguars playoff victory. Yes, those exist, but you have to go back to January 5, 2008 (against the Steelers) to find one.
Those 11-5 Jaguars of the 2007 season weren't a great team, but they had personality and identity. Running backs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew shared the load while Jack Del Rio's defense forced turnovers.
One decade later, Lewis is once again on a Jaguars team with a running game and an identity. The defensive front four led by Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson ended the Tom Savage era in Houston in 30 minutes in the opener before stopping the Ravens offense before it started on Sunday. Speedy linebackers and defensive backs (Myles Jack, Telvin Smith, A.J. Bouye, Jalen Ramsey) exploit the mistakes and clean up the spills caused by the front four. And Leonard Fournette's presence keeps pressure off the passing game and sets up play-action and isolation opportunities for Lewis.
Sunday's win was more about the Jaguars franchise than Lewis. But it's great to see him contributing to a team that matters again.
The Jaguars have not started 3-1 since that 2007 season. They face the Jets next week. What's old may be new again.
Offensive Line of the Week
The Titans deserve this award—some of what they did to the Seahawks defenders should be rated NC-17—but they won last week and will probably win again a few times this year. So let's hear it for the Bears offensive line of Charles Leno Jr., Cody Whitehair, Hroniss Grasu, Kyle Long and Bobby Massie. They helped their running backs churn out 220 yards against the Steelers while allowing just two sacks of Mike Glennon, who holds the football like he is waiting for a kettle to whistle.
Defender of the Week
Terrance Mitchell becomes the second straight Chiefs player to win this award (Chris Jones earned it last week) for his two-interception effort against Philip Rivers and the Chargers. So much for spreading things around.
Terrence Brooks of the Jets also picked off two passes, but one was a Jay Cutler Special (Cutler has settled in and once again thinks he can throw through defenders) and the other was on a fake punt. So Brooks gets honorable mention for both defense and special teams, because:
Special Teamer of the Week
Eagles rookie Jake Elliott kicked a 61-yard field goal at the gun to beat the Giants. Steven Hauschka and Matt Prater each kicked four field goals, including a pair of 50-plus-yarders, but a game-winning bomb in an Giants-Eagles game always wins.
Mystery Touch of the Week
That Dolphins fake-punt interception was thrown by undrafted rookie punter Matt Haack. He was a wide receiver in high school, so Haack's even less experienced as a passer than most punters. On the other hand, his throw was no worse than half of Joe Flacco's on Sunday.
Fantasy Leech of the Week
If your fantasy hopes rest on the Bills receiving corps, heaven help you. But anyone hoping to get some production from Zay Jones had to be cursing when Tyrod Taylor's touchdown pass deflected off Jones' hands and over to Andre Holmes, a starter on approximately 0.0 percent of fantasy lineups.
Constructive Criticism Digest
Monday Morning Digest stands in solidarity with all NFL players, coaches and organizations. We love you guys, warts and all. But sometimes, we need to dole out a little gentle criticism. To keep anyone from getting too offended in these contentious times, we sugar-coated this week's criticism with a little bit of praise.
Praise: Richard Sherman is a great defender and a passionate, fiery leader on and off the field.
Constructive Criticism: Going completely ham on the officials after blatant holding calls and then taking cheap shots out of bounds at Marcus Mariota doesn't help the Seahawks win any games. In fact, it might just contribute to that "bunch of counterproductive loose cannons" reputation that irks you so when we write about it.
Praise: Odell Beckham is an exceptional player who is delightful to watch, and end-zone celebrations add fun and a humanizing element to a brutal game.
Constructive Criticism: Beckham's "peeing doggo" celebration is not fun, funky or sexy. It's still illegal and kinda disgusting. And it may not have been the best choice for your team's second touchdown of the year, in the fourth quarter of Week 3.
Praise: Fake punts are fun, and a team like the Jaguars that has had little to celebrate can be forgiven for getting caught up in the moment of a blowout victory.
Constructive Criticism: Calling a fake punt in the fourth quarter of a 37-0 game isn't just sub-bush-league sportsmanship; it's also a dumb play-calling tactic. Doug Marrone just gave opponents film of one of his trick plays to dissect. Let's check back if a similar play is stuffed when the Jaguars need a win later in the season.
Praise: Patriots fans are great people from a variety of walks of life and with varied sociopolitical opinions, these are trying times for everyone, and ticket buyers are allowed to express themselves however they wish, within limits of decency and respect for other patrons.
Constructive Criticism: Booing the team that brought you five Super Bowl rings for engaging in the same protest as the rest of the NFL? Not the best look, folks.