Monday Morning Digest: The Bell Tolls for Big Ben
In this week's edition of the Monday Morning Digest:
• Find out what the Packers-Cowboys thriller and the new Star Wars movies have in common.
• Discover once again again why Cam Newton is best seen and not heard.
• Learn what happens when the NFL's winless, hapless and homeless teams balance pride in their work with the quest for a high draft pick.
• Find out why A.J. Green is the best wide receiver you never see.
• Explore which NFL stars most deserve to be covered in pigeon droppings, just like Peyton Manning.
• Discover just what nefarious individual is spreading those awful Ben Roethlisberger is finished rumors. Why, it's none other than...Ben Roethlisberger?
The Last Days of Big Ben
In the wake of Ben Roethlisberger's five-interception cataclysm in the Steelers' 30-9 loss to the Jaguars—a game that looked worse on the field than it does on the stat sheet—everyone was thinking it. But no one expected Roethlisberger himself to say it.
"Maybe I don't have it anymore," Roethlisberger said after the game.
Roethlisberger isn't the soul-searching type. And he delivered his remark in the clipped tone of a frustrated quarterback telling the media horde to kiss off in so many words.
But on a day when Roethlisberger stood in a clean pocket and tossed softballs directly to Jaguars defenders, no one was about to come rushing to his defense.
Sure, any "Roethlisberger is finished" talk is both dramatic and premature. The Steelers are 3-2 and in first place, just one week removed from an impressive win against the archrival Ravens. But the Steelers offense has been flat at best all season, despite the presence of Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, a loaded supporting cast and a veteran-laden offensive line.
Offensive doldrums allowed the Bears to manufacture an overtime win two weeks ago, despite their complete lack of a passing game. The Jaguars built such a commanding lead on turnovers Sunday that they did not throw the ball at all in the fourth quarter. Think about it: The Steelers, with their Hall of Fame quarterback, have lost to two teams trying to avoid their own QBs.
Sure, we can talk about Bell's missed offseason, Brown's sideline snit-fits and coordinator Todd Haley's often-inscrutable game plans. But Bell and Brown have played well lately, and Haley isn't exactly calling triple reverses. The Steelers' problem right now is that their quarterback has been ordinary on his best days and a disaster on his worst.
Maybe Roethlisberger's right. Maybe he doesn't have it anymore. Why does that sound crazy? He is 35 years old. He has taken a 465-sack beating over his career. He muses openly about retirement every offseason. In terms of conditioning, well, he won't be joining Tom Brady on the wellness-regimen bestseller list. Contemporaries like Eli Manning and Philip Rivers are facing similar crises on weaker teams.
Old quarterbacks fade. That fade often starts with multi-interception performances in games that look like easy wins on the schedule.
So yeah, Sunday's game could have been the beginning of the end. Roethlisberger said so himself. He sounded like he was being ornery or sarcastic.
But the truest things are said in jest.
Tankapalooza 2017: The Giants Can't Win for Losing, and the Jets Can't Lose
Three Sunday contests between terrible teams went a long way toward determining next year's draft order. In the Digest tradition of this writer watching terrible games so you don't have to, here's a rundown on what happened and what it means:
Chargers 27, Giants 22
What happened: The Chargers played the first quarter like they showed up at the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 11 a.m. with all their possessions in a knapsack. But the Giants' receivers got injured one by one (Brandon Marshall, Sterling Shepard, Dwayne Harris and finally Odell Beckham Jr.) while the Chargers slowly regained their self-esteem and won late on a Melvin Ingram strip-sack and a short Melvin Gordon touchdown catch.
What it means: There's bad, there's embarrassing and there's losing at home to a pair of Melvins. With OBJ out with a broken ankle, things will only get worse.
Jets 17, Browns 14
What happened: The Browns benched DeShone Kizer in favor of future veteran journeyman Kevin Hogan, because why keep grooming a super talented rookie when you can try to win behind the next Matt Cassel? Josh McCown enjoyed another high-percentage (23-of-30) day throwing micropasses to Jeremy Kerley and Jermaine Kearse, a pair of fourth-receiver types who joined the team in September. On Sunday, they combined for eight catches, 77 yards and a touchdown.
What it means: Whoever is coaching and general-managing the Browns next year will enjoy all the draft picks and cap space this regime left them. With their uncanny ability to barely defeat worse teams, the Jets are sliding perilously down the draft order and potentially out of "Can't-Miss QB" (snicker) range. But maybe the Browns will trade down with them for even more draft picks.
Colts 26, 49ers 23 (OT)
What happened: An epic punt-fest in the first half got lively late, with the Colts taking a 23-9 lead and the 49ers tying it on a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns. Adam Vinatieri celebrated Peyton Manning's Ring of Honor introduction with a 51-yard game-winning field goal like the ones he used to kick when Manning was there and anything mattered.
What it means: While the Colts clean up for Andrew Luck's return like freshmen stuffing empty kegs and pizza boxes in their dorm closets as their parents pull up, the 49ers are free of any possible consequences for their bad play: Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch are still in the expectation-free honeymoon days with the team, and the first overall pick could reward an awful season. It's all well and good until you're the Browns and have been doing this longer than anyone can remember.
Game Spotlight: Packers 35, Cowboys 31
Waaaaay too much to cover in this space, folks.
The fourth quarter alone featured five lead changes, an apparent 4th-and-1 stop that became a Cowboys first down upon review, Dak Prescott exploiting the legendary Packers blind spot for option plays that result in a go-ahead touchdown with 1:13 to play, an Aaron Rodgers tour de force of pinpoint passes and gutsy scrambles on the final touchdown drive and a Cowboys playground pitch play with 0:00 on the clock that looked like it might work when Ezekiel Elliott briefly streaked past a wave of Packers defenders.
It all happened with the sun glaring through the windows behind the Cowboys' end zone like high beams on a county two-lane road, making the whole fourth quarter look like it was directed by J.J. Abrams.
What it means
We all know Rodgers is capable of the nigh-impossible given a wisp of protection and a receiver or two to target. But coming back from a 21-6 second-quarter deficit against a tough opponent on the road and executing a 75-yard touchdown drive in 1:02 as casually as he operates a minicamp seven-on-seven drill is impressive, even by Rodgers' standards.
Rodgers also got some surprising help from rookie running back Aaron Jones, who rushed 19 times for 125 yards and a touchdown in relief of Ty Montgomery and produced several key fourth-quarter runs. Give Mike McCarthy credit for trusting Jones. In the past, the Packers would respond to running back injuries by making Rodgers throw 90 passes or giving the ball to someone like Aaron Ripkowski.
The Cowboys defense is baby-blanket soft. That forces Dak Prescott to try to be perfect, resulting in a mix of big plays (the option touchdown) and big mistakes (the fourth-quarter pick-six).
The Cowboys get a week off and then a game against the 49ers, so it's really like two weeks off. The break couldn't come at a better time for them, as early-season wins over the Giants and Cardinals look less impressive each week.
The Packers visit Minnesota to discover which Vikings team with which quarterback shows up.
Player Spotlight: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
Watt suffered a tibial plateau fracture early in the Texans' loss to the Chiefs and is out for the year.
While the Chiefs won in typical Chiefs fashion—lots of Travis Kelce catches, Alex Smith point guard play and stifling pass defense, with a Tyreek Hill punt return as the cherry on top—the NBC broadcast followed Watt as he was carted off the field, limped through the stadium tunnels and rode away from the stadium in an ambulance. It began to feel a little creepy and invasive.
After the team announced the nature of Watt's injury, sideline reporter Michele Tafoya tried to explain what a tibial plateau fracture is, with the help of on-screen graphics that looked like they were borrowed from an honors anatomy teacher's PowerPoint presentation. It's a broken leg, folks, and the overzealous coverage of Watt's Trail of Tears would have been funny if the thought of another year without Watt was not so sad.
What it means
The Texans looked lifeless when Watt first left the game (an injury to fellow defender Whitney Mercilus didn't help matters). They recovered and mounted a brief comeback, but the Texans are now 2-3 and looking like a team that isn't good enough to beat the AFC's better opponents.
Watt is already a future Hall of Famer at age 28. His charitable efforts after Hurricane Harvey not only helped the Houston region but became one of the most inspirational events of 2017. The NFL is a better place when Watt is chasing quarterbacks around the field.
That said, he lost most of last season to injury and was sackless through four games this season. Great defensive linemen often have short peaks. We have probably seen the best of Watt. If that's the case, we'll be left wondering what the Texans might have accomplished if they ever paired the Watt defense with even serviceable quarterbacking.
The good news for the Texans is they get to wave Deshaun Watson in front of the Browns' face next week and laugh about how easy it is to find a decent QB prospect if you just get out of your own way.
Game Spotlight: Panthers 27, Lions 24
It was the battle of the NFL's Most Distracted Team (because Cam Newton made dismissive comments about women that are typically only heard from lawmakers) versus the NFL's Least Distracted Team (because no one notices the Lions unless they sign one of their players to a whopper contract or get screwed on a last-second call). But there was little early drama, as the Panthers built a commanding lead on misdirection plays, including a Christian McCaffrey shovel-pass touchdown and a five-catch, 175-yard effort by tight end Ed Dickson. The pass rush kept Matthew Stafford staggered for most of the game.
The Lions attempted one of their patented fourth-quarter comebacks, but they dug themselves a hole that two late touchdowns to Darren Fells (it was a great afternoon for no-name backup tight ends, folks) weren't enough to fill.
What it means
You may have expected some Cam-comment karma, but, well, if casual sexism were a detriment to football performance, the NFL would have gone out of business circa 1977. Newton has been sharp on the field for two straight weeks, finding big targets like Dickson and Devin Funchess (seven catches for 53 yards and a touchdown on Sunday) against a pair of opponents with mediocre pass rushes. The Panthers aren't perfect, but they are balanced and can beat you multiple ways.
The Lions cannot rush the passer consistently or run the ball—problems that weren't obvious against the woeful Giants and Cardinals that have been exposed by stronger foes. Losses to the Falcons in Week 3 and Panthers on Sunday will cause wild-card headaches down the line.
Drew Brees will pick the Lions apart in New Orleans next Sunday if they don't generate some pressure.
The Panthers host the Eagles on Thursday. A short week means fewer opportunities for Cam to jam his loafer into his mouth.
Player Spotlight: A.J. Green, Bengals
What he did
Green caught seven passes for 189 yards and a touchdown on a soupy afternoon in Cincy to help the Bengals win 20-16 over the Bills.
He torched rookie cornerback Tre'Davious White (who was playing well entering the game) for 77- and 47-yard receptions. But it wasn't all life lessons for rookie defenders. Green fumbled at the end of a 20-yard catch to set up a Bills field goal and came up limping after a reception late in the game. The injury was not considered serious as of Sunday night.
What it means
Green has two or three mammoth games like this per year when he's healthy. Andy Dalton's on one of his hot streaks and the game itself does not appear all that important or interesting on the schedule. Think of it as the Corner-Television Rule: If you are in a sports bar and the Bengals are only playing on a corner television, Green is likely to go ham. If the game is featured on one of the big screens behind the bar, get Green out of your fantasy lineup ASAP.
Green now has 22 receptions for 363 yards and three touchdowns in three games since Bill Lazor replaced Ken Zampese as the Bengals' offensive coordinator. Maybe simplification was all the Bengals offense needed.
Don't pencil them into the playoff chase just yet—see the Corner-Television Rule above—but now that their miserable zero-touchdowns-in-two-games start is ancient history, expect them to be competitive each week.
A bye, followed by a Steelers game that looks far more interesting now than it did three weeks ago.
Inside the Numbers
Some good, bad and otherwise remarkable stat lines from Sunday:
Matt Cassel: 21-of-32, 141 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 6 sacks
Cassel's longest completion netted just 17 yards, though he did have a deep touchdown called back for offensive pass interference. Cassel, the heady veteran who knows the system, stood motionless in the pocket on play after play, like he was trying to remember the names of his teammates from the 2008 Patriots before getting sacked, strip-sacked or delivering the kind of unproductive short-of-the-sticks garbage completions that make heady veterans who know the system such a delight to watch.
Jay Cutler: 12-of-26, 92 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Not to be outdone by Cassel, Cutler was in full April Ludgate mode, with 21 yards and an interception in the first half. At one point, he threw a wide receiver screen on 3rd-and-17 and actually lost yardage. Cutler threw for 59 yards in the fourth quarter when he saw that victory was likely and, like the lovably indifferent Ludgate in later seasons of Parks and Recreation, started doing the bare minimum.
Leonard Fournette: 28 carries, 181 yards, 2 TD
Fournette rushed 14 times for just 39 yards and a touchdown in the first half. He ran 14 times in the fourth quarter, including a 90-yard game-capper. Meanwhile, the Jaguars attempted zero fourth-quarter passes. Give them credit for sticking to their philosophy and featuring their best player. Also, the Steelers run defense stinks.
Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls: 17 combined carries for 39 yards
Promising Seahawks running backs like C.J. Prosise and Chris Carson keep getting hurt, forcing Seattle to turn to free-agent impulse purchase Lacy and honorary equipment manager Rawls, with predictable results. The longest Seahawks run of the game was a nine-yard Russell Wilson scramble.
The latest wrinkle in the Seahawks' neverending struggle to create a functioning offense is the seven-lineman formation, with backup blockers like Matt Tobin entering the game to beef up the front line. Because, you know, the team that hasn't been able to field five decent linemen in three years might as well throw seven of 'em out there for Lacy and Rawls to lumber behind.
Amari Cooper: One catch for eight yards on two targets
Cooper's only catch came in the fourth quarter, with the Raiders trailing by 10. EJ Manuel only had 26 pass attempts on an afternoon when both the Raiders and Ravens looked like they wanted to slow the game to a crawl. That only partially explains Cooper's disappearance. Postgame quotes by Manuel and Jack Del Rio didn't offer much insight. Cooper now has just four catches for 23 yards in his past three games. Dropped passes are a big part of the problem, but giving up on a player of Cooper's talent because of a few drops would be a huge mistake for the Raiders.
Defender of the Week
Sorry, Tashaun Gipson. You may have intercepted Ben Roethlisberger twice in the fourth quarter, but teammate Telvin Smith's pick-six earlier in the game gave the Jaguars the lead and opened the Big Ben turnover floodgates. Smith also added 10 total tackles, two of them for losses.
Offensive Line of the Week
The Ravens' line helped their no-name backfield committee grind out 143 rushing yards and provided Joe Flacco with enough protection to throw a few bombs—and at one point to trip and fall in the backfield, get back up and still complete a pass. So let's hear it for Ronnie Stanley, James Hurst, Ryan Jensen, Matt Skura and Austin Howard.
Special Teamer of the Week
Adam Vinatieri wins this award for four field goals, including a game-winning 51-yarder in overtime.
Honorable mention this week goes to Dolphins punter Matt Haack and his Titans counterpart, Brett Kern. The pair combined for 19 punts, with nine of them landing inside the 20. Haack averaged 51.0 yards per punt in victory, while Kern averaged 54.9 and boomed a 71-yarder. They were more fun to watch than their quarterbacks, which is saying very little.
Fantasy Leech of the Week
If you rely on any Ravens player but Justin Tucker to help your fantasy team, our hearts go out to you. But it must have been an extra miserable day for anyone giving a desperation or speculative start at running back to Alex Collins or Terrance West. If you thought either of those members of the Ravens' RB committee would get red-zone points, it had to hurt to see former JUCO edge-rusher and power forward-turned-Washington State wide receiver-turned Browns and Cowboys practice squad member-turned Ravens tight end Vince Mayle score a TD on a two-yard end-around.
Mystery Touch of the Week
Russell Wilson threw what looked like a receiver screen to reserve wide receiver Tanner McEvoy. But it was really a trick play, with McEvoy lobbing a bomb to running back/receiver/whatever J.D. McKissic. The Rams intercepted the pass. Remember the good old days when Wilson was surrounded by players you'd actually heard of?
Five Reasons for Excitement in Week 5
Who says internet football journalism has to always be negative (writes the person who just buried Ben Roethlisberger and devoted a whole segment to making fun of horrible teams)? Digest has five reasons to be totally pumped about what happened in Week 5 and what's to come as the NFL season heads into its second quarter:
The open-for-business AFC East
The Bills, Jets and Patriots are tied for first place. No, it won't stay that way, no matter how hard the Jets fans who were tweeting about Josh Rosen three weeks ago wish it would. But a vulnerable Patriots team and division rivals with a heartbeat are great for the whole league. Let's face it: The Patriots' King Kong routine is played out everywhere west of I-81.
The Eagles offense
Carson Wentz has gone from Captain Screen Pass to a human highlight reel! Nelson Agholor has gone from Jitters McPassdropper to an innovator of the end-zone celebration! The Eagles are balanced, tough on third down and capable of stomping on the clock in the fourth quarter. Eagles football hasn't been this much fun since the league figured out that Chip Kelly ran the same five plays over and over again.
The Jaguars defense
Everyone loves an underdog, and the Jags have been perennial puppers since the days when Netflix shipped DVDs to your home. So it's great to see them in first place, especially when the defense is full of players (Calais Campbell, Jalen Ramsey, Telvin Smith) capable of sustaining this level of success. All Blake Bortles has to do now is not lose games. He should be able to occasionally.
Garrett recorded a pair of sacks in his NFL debut: one right up the gut, and another hustling behind the play after Josh McCown escaped the pocket. Garrett arrived just in time, because the DeShone Kizer epoch in Cleveland didn't last until the first leaf pickup. Oh wait—we are keeping things positive!
Maybe offensive coordinators watched film from the first two weeks, realized they were getting their quarterbacks tenderized behind terrible offensive lines and decided to pull back a bit from the abyss. Whatever the cause, many teams appear to be running the ball more purposefully, thoughtfully and effectively now than they were a few weeks ago. Heck, even the Packers are, dare we say it, establishing the run a little. Maybe it's not a textbook analytics-approved tactic, but it beats wide receiver screens after sacks on 3rd-and-17.
Digest of Players Other Than Peyton Manning Who Belong on a Pedestal
The Colts honored Peyton Manning this week with not only a spot in the team's Ring of Honor, but also a large bronze statue outside Lucas Oil Stadium.
Lots of all-time greats earn Ring of Honor enshrinement, Hall of Fame induction, the right to open an overpriced steakhouse near the stadium and other forms of immortalization. But the bronze statue is usually reserved for truly unique accomplishments. In Peyton's case, it's the result of converting a generation of hoops-crazy Hoosiers into football fans and turning the Colts into more than a Midwestern NFL afterthought.
With that in mind, here are some statues Monday Morning Digest is proposing to honor other deserving current players.
(Note: Tom Brady is disqualified because he is going to play until he's 80. Right, Patriots fans?)
Joe Thomas, Cleveland Browns: The statue depicts Thomas blocking at the entrance to FirstEnergy Stadium in front of an empty pedestal representing Browns quarterbacks, with a plaque carrying a solemn reminder to fans: "He suffered more than you."
Philip Rivers, San Diego (Los Angeles) Chargers: Tear down SDCCU Stadium (formerly Qualcomm) and replace it with a 50-foot-high Colossus of Rivers, with the quarterback sneering and facing south, away from Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the entrance to the microbrewery in Carson where the Chargers currently play can then be decorated with inflatable likenesses of visiting quarterbacks to give road fans even more of a home-sweet-home experience.
Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals: Carson Palmer can sit at the base of the Fitzgerald statue and feed bread to pigeons when he is an old codger. Next Thursday, in other words.
Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks: Failed Seahawks offensive linemen can serve as an honor guard protecting the likeness of Seattle's iconic…aaaaand it's already pulverized.
The Unknown Quarterback: Standing outside the NFL's Park Avenue headquarters, this statue commemorates the generic hapless randos who played during Colin Kaepernick's…er…let's call it an unofficial leave of absence from the NFL. The statue will be very tall, completely immobile and faceless. Moments after it is erected, 15 coaches will try to sign it because it "fits their system."