Monday Morning Digest: The Browns May Go 0-16. Is That a Good Thing?
In this week's edition of Monday Morning Digest...
• The Dak Prescott-Carson Wentz debate is settled once and for all, forever and ever, until New Year's Eve.
• The best team that no one is talking about produces the most convincing win that no one noticed.
• The Bills search for a quarterback of the future and find only themselves.
• Bad quarterbacks. Bushels of 'em.
And much, much more, including a team so bad that it makes watching football feel like eating your vegetables.
The Browns Are Going 0-16 This Year. Maybe That's the Point
The Browns are about to go 0-16. Don't let the Moneyball vegans talk you into thinking that's a good thing.
Sunday's matchup with the Jaguars was the Browns' best chance to win this season—the Jaguars are good, but perhaps there was every chance they might forget themselves in the Cleveland sleet. The Browns did make a game of it, lingering in the rearview mirror while the Jaguars tried to milk a narrow lead for three quarters before pulling slightly away for a 19-7 win. The game was always close, yet never really felt close.
The Browns now travel to face mediocre-but-competitive Bengals and Chargers teams on the road. Then come the Packers, Ravens and Bears: three more so-so teams who look like the 1966, 2000 and 1985 versions of themselves compared to the Browns.
Maybe the Steelers will have nothing to play for in their traditional Week 17 meeting. Otherwise, it's smooth sailing all the way to infamy and the first pick in next year's draft.
The Moneyball vegans will claim the draft will make it all worthwhile.
Moneyball vegans must never be confused with analytics experts, though. Analytics experts tell you to eat more vegetables, exercise regularly and be savvy about cap management and fourth-down conversions. Moneyball vegans are purists who have come to value draft positions and cap space over players and wins. Choke down this tofu turkey of a season, they say, worse (somehow) than the last one and probably as bad as the next one, and you'll be rewarded later, like when you are running marathons at age 70 and the Browns have finally won a Super Bowl.
They will also point to "progress" in Cleveland. The defensive line is playing well. Duke Johnson is great. If you really loosen your definition of "building blocks," there are a few others.
Hooray. The team with one win in two seasons has a few good players.
The Browns coaching staff and front office are fractured. DeShone Kizer is backsliding. The offense is too dysfunctional to properly evaluate any youngsters.
Hue Jackson won't survive a winless season (addition by subtraction, the extremists hail). Nor will the actual Moneyballers in the front office (acceptable loses; Viva la Revolution!). Don't mention locker room morale to the hardcore: What cannot be quantified must not exist.
The most seductive thing about Moneyball veganism is that it turns failure into a secret success. If you are waiting for the Browns to be competitive or entertaining, you just don't get it, dude. This team's playing the loooooong game.
The Browns are about to go 0-16, and there is nothing clever or scientific about it. It's unwatchable and depressing. There are much better ways to build a team, including actually trying to build a team.
Maybe the Browns will have the last laugh in three, 13 or 30 years. Right now, the joke is on them.
Game Spotlight: Eagles 37, Cowboys 9
Carson Wentz-Dak Prescott III did not live up to its Roman numerals in the first half. Prescott threw a pair of interceptions, but the Eagles could not capitalize because Carson Wentz was also off-target. They looked generally out-of-sync on offense and kicker Jake Elliott suffered an early-game injury.
The Eagles made second-half adjustments, with Wentz firing his patented third- (and fourth-) down fastballs while a four-headed rushing attack provided 215 yards to balance the passing. Prescott threw for just 73 yards while his defense got gouged for touchdowns by four different players.
A late strip-sack by Derek Barnett returned for a touchdown by Nigel Bradham, followed by a final end-zone interception by Malcolm Jenkins turned a game the Cowboys led 9-7 at halftime into a farce.
What it means
Forget Wentz vs. Prescott. That fight is over, at least for now. Wentz is a legitimate MVP candidate after his two-touchdown, multi-two-point-conversion (for a kicker-less team) performance on the road.
The Eagles now have a four-game lead in the NFC East. They've won their last three games by a 121-42 margin. There are still Wentz/Eagles skeptics out there, who are probably quibbling about his completion percentage on Monday morning (he actually throws downfield, kids), but it's getting harder and harder to find faults with the Eagles.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, have lost two games by a combined 64-16 margin without Ezekiel Elliott and Tyron Smith. That speaks poorly of Prescott, who is still yet to prove he can consistently make plays without pristine protection and endless run-aided 2nd-and-short opportunities.
It also speaks poorly of Jason Garrett and the mettle of the team. The Cowboys knew the Eagles could not play for field goals yet could not keep them from marching into the end zone again and again in the second half. That has nothing to do with an injured left tackle or a suspended running back.
The Eagles must be careful when they host the trap-tastic Bears next Sunday. The Cowboys need Smith back so Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa don't make a wishbone out of Prescott on Thanksgiving Day.
Player Spotlight: Nathan Peterman, QB, Bills
What he did
Making his first (and possibly only) start in place of Tyrod Taylor, Peterman threw five interceptions and completed just six passes for 66 yards in one half before Taylor returned to mop up a 54-24 blowout loss to the Chargers.
In fairness to Peterman, one of the interceptions bounced off a receiver's hands. And the pass pressure was heavy on all of the others. But Peterman still threw more interceptions in 30 minutes than Taylor (and many other starting NFL quarterbacks) have thrown all year.
What it means
The Bills have a porous offensive line and a pastry-thin receiving corps. One of the only things that kept their offense viable in the first half of the season was Taylor's ability to avoid pass pressure and make plays on the run. Unfortunately, a coaching staff that was itching to make a quarterback change since the day it took over chose to see only Taylor's flaws, so it tossed an unready fifth-round pick with C+ NFL attributes on the field to face one of the NFL's best pass rushes.
Sean McDermott now has a potentially ugly quarterback controversy on his hands, one which will probably end when Taylor reclaims the starting job without comment like an ultra-professional. But the damage to McDermott's credibility and team morale will be difficult to quantify. McDermott wanted to change the team culture after the circus atmosphere of the Rex Ryan era. But Ryan's teams never quit as badly as McDermott's Bills have quit at the ends of two straight games.
What happens next
Taylor (or maybe Peterman, because YOLO) will try to keep the score within 40 against the Chiefs at Arrowhead.
Quick Thoughts on Bad Quarterbacks
Nathan Peterman may have achieved quarterbacking infamy in his inauspicious debut, but that doesn't mean other quarterbacks earned Joe Montana comparisons. A quick countdown of the quarterback ugliness on display Sunday:
7. (tie) Tom Savage, Texans, and Blaine Gabbert, Cardinals
Five combined touchdowns and three interceptions in a 31-21 Texans victory
Larry Fitzgerald, some good field position and Bruce Arians' let-'er-rip philosophy made Gabbert look quasi-competent. Savage lost yet another fumble (it's not a Texans game without one) but got a boost from a run-heavy game plan and from facing Gabbert. And let's not forget DeAndre Hopkins, without whose help Savage might lock himself in his own car before a game and die of heatstroke.
6. Joe Flacco, Ravens
22-of-28 for 183 yards, one TD and one interception in a 23-0 victory over Packers
This is just basic Flacco, so it almost doesn't count.
5. DeShone Kizer, Browns
Two interceptions, two lost fumbles and five sacks in a 19-7 loss to the Jaguars
It's hard to tell where Kizer's ineptitude ends and the Browns' helplessness begins. But Blake Bortles was happy to face yet another quarterback who overshadowed his weekly attempt to become a poor man's Trent Dilfer.
4. Alex Smith, Chiefs
Two interceptions in a 12-9 loss to the Giants
That MVP conversation in September sure was fun! Smith is a veteran who will bounce back from this performance. Unfortunately, he will just bounce back to being Alex Smith.
3. Brock Osweiler, Broncos
254 yards, one TD, one interception in a 20-17 loss to Bengals
Osweiler used Peterman's trending-topic interception spree as cover for going 9-of-19 for 97 yards, two sacks and an interception in the first half. He then led a few drives to make the numbers and score look better once the football world tuned away from the Patriots and Chargers blowouts. That's what's called being a "crafty veteran pocket passer," and it should keep Osweiler in the huddle for (ugh) at least one more week.
2. Brett Hundley, Packers
Three interceptions, six sacks in a 23-0 Packers loss to the Ravens
If Hundley doesn't like his first read, he lingers in the pocket, begins drifting to his right, and either A) runs directly into a pass-rusher, B) throws a freebie to the defense, or C) throws the ball away while leaping out of bounds.
1. Nathan Peterman
Five interceptions in a 54-24 loss to the Chargers.
This one left a mark.
Game Spotlight: Vikings 24, Rams 7
The Vikings defense did not give Jared Goff, Todd Gurley and company a single inch that they did not earn. The Vikings offensive line protected Case Keenum from the outstanding Rams front seven and plowed running lanes for Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon (143 combined rushing yards and two touchdowns). Only a pair of Kai Forbath missed field goals kept the Vikings from outstanding performances in all three phases.
Meanwhile, Rams receiver Cooper Kupp fumbled at the goal line before halftime, Aaron Donald drew a foul for an extra shove on Keenum to help set up a Vikings touchdown, and even usually reliable punter Johnny Hekker plopped a dud from his own end zone to set up a Vikings score. That's the type of play a team can get away with when walloping the Giants or Cardinals, but it won't cut it against playoff contenders.
What it means
Several big games over the next few weeks will separate the true NFC contenders from the upstarts and legacy powerhouses (think: Packers and Seahawks).
The Vikings are about to embark on a brutal three-game road trip against the Lions, Falcons and Panthers. The Rams have the Saints, Eagles and wounded-animal Seahawks in Seattle on the upcoming slate. Other goodies on the horizon include the Eagles at Seattle and the Saints running an NFC South gauntlet.
Big-game readiness will determine who wins these games and will shape the NFC playoff picture. Right now, the Vikings appear to have everything they need to face the conference's toughest foes, from disciplined tackling to Adam Thielen's emergence as a go-to receiver to an extra quarterback in shrink wrap on the sideline.
After a promising opening drive, the young Rams played like the game was a little big for them on Sunday, particularly on offense. If they don't grow up fast in spotlight games, they won't last long in a very competitive conference.
The Rams host the Saints. Vikings visit the Lions. The NFC saga continues.
Early Game Madness Digest
Overtime! Missed field goals after heroic 4th-and-forever scrambles! Drew Freakin' Brees! A quick recap of a delightful slate of down-to-the-wire early games.
Saints 34, Redskins 31 (Overtime)
Play to remember: Alvin Kamara's bobble-bobble-boom fourth-quarter touchdown, followed by his (sweetly drawn up) two-point conversion on a sweep to tie the game.
What we learned about the Saints: They have beaten most opponents with defense and ball control this year, but they have not forgotten about old-fashioned, madcap, basketball-style Saints football.
What we learned about the Redskins: This is who they are. And it's hard to see how they will get any better in the foreseeable future.
Giants 12, Chiefs 9 (Overtime)
Play to remember: Alex Smith's too-cute-by-half shovel pass to Travis Kelce, which ended up right in Snacks Harrison's belly for one of the seven thousand turnovers in this game.
What we learned about the Chiefs: Their offense is all icing and no cake. They rely too much on veer-option cuties and trick plays because they are incapable of lining up toe to toe and playing conventional offense. One penalty, and their station-to-station drives fail.
What we learned about the Giants: Coroners often report hearing cadavers groaning or wheezing in the morgue. It's not a resurrection or a zombie apocalypse, just the body expelling gasses.
Buccaneers 30, Dolphins 20
Play to remember: Jay Cutler throwing across his body to Robert McClain for his third interception before 2 p.m. Florida time.
What we learned about the Buccaneers: They are just good enough to narrowly defeat bad teams. This game had "Conference USA Showdown" written all over it.
What we learned about the Dolphins: They have now been outscored 134-50 in the first halves of games. Maybe they need to set their "giving a damn" alarms an hour earlier on game days.
Lions 27, Bears 24
Play to remember: Mitchell Trubisky's wannabe-Russell Wilson scramble for 19 yards on 4th-and-13 in the final moments to help set up a doomed Connor Barth field goal that would have forced overtime.
What we learned about the Bears: Trubisky is coming around a little at a time. The Bears are the toughest out in the NFL. The Lions won, but the Bears produced most of the fun highlights.
What we learned about the Lions: Let's talk about that in the next section.
Player Spotlight: Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions
What he did
Stafford overcame an early strip-sack (which helped the Bears build a 10-0 lead) to throw for 299 yards and two touchdowns in a narrow escape of Soldier Field with a 27-24 win.
While Stafford distributed passes, led drives and took a lot of hits behind a piecemeal line, the Lions defense allowed 222 rushing yards, and Lions rushers combined for just 65 yards and 2.7 yards per carry.
No quarterback wins all by himself, but few come as close to doing so as Stafford on a weekly basis.
What it means
With all due respect to young guns like Carson Wentz, right now Stafford is the best quarterback in the NFL not named Tom Brady. Others produce better statistics, but none do more at the line of scrimmage (except Brady) and accomplish as much as Stafford does behind an ever-changing offensive line with a minimal running game and an ordinary defense.
What happens next
The Lions host the Vikings next week, and a sweep (Detroit beat Minnesota 14-7 in Week 4) represents the team's best chance to get out of the Vikings' shadow in the NFC North.
The post-Vikings schedule is full of winnable games, so Stafford should be able to lead the Lions to the playoffs again. To do more than that, however, he will either have to play even better or get a little more help from the rest of the organization. Frankly, it's hard to expect any more from Stafford than he is already giving.
Inside the Numbers
The defenses (good, bad and ugly) have gotten the short shrift in this week's Digest. Let's rectify that here.
Patriots Defense (344 net yards allowed, 2 takeaways)
The only Raiders points came after the Patriots led by 30 in the fourth quarter. The Patriots defense, one of the league's worst early in the season, has not allowed over 350 yards in four straight games, despite playing some fine offenses (Falcons, Chargers, Raiders).
There's a smoke-and-mirrors element to the Patriots defense—sacks remain rarities—but Bill Belichick can sustain defensive illusions like no other coach in history. And remember: The Patriots defense just has to be OK, not great, for the team to do what it always does.
Raiders Defense (3 TD passes allowed, 1 sack, 0 takeaways)
The Raiders defense has allowed 17 touchdown passes and recorded zero interceptions this year. Opponents complete 72.3 percent of their passes against them. Oh, and before Tom Brady they faced quarterbacks like Trevor Siemian, Joe Flacco, Jay Cutler, Josh McCown and the newly redeemed Tyrod Taylor. If the Broncos are ever going to give Paxton Lynch another shot, next week in Oakland is the time to do it.
Ravens Defense (6 sacks, 3 interceptions, 0 points allowed)
The Ravens now have three shutouts on the season. They have recorded 16 interceptions and 23 total takeaways. They have also faced Brett Hundley, Matt Moore, EJ Manuel, a pair of Browns quarterbacks, still-hobbling Marcus Mariota and early iterations of Mitchell Trubisky and Case Keenum.
No team slithers into the playoffs by whomping on bad offenses like the Ravens. But in a year with lots of belly-up offenses and quarterback catastrophes, be on the lookout for defenses that enjoyed a lot of favorable circumstances and might not be as great as advertised.
Jacksonville Jaguars (5 sacks, 5 takeaways, 2.8 yards per rush allowed)
See the Ravens comment. Yes, the Jaguars did crush the Steelers earlier in the year. Yes, their defense should carry them to the playoffs in the weak AFC field. And yes, it's loads of fun watching Jaguars edge-rushers turn the corner and rip the ball from quarterbacks' hands over and over again. But yes, there's also a lot of Kizer-Savage fluff in their 40 sacks and 23 takeaways on the season.
Minnesota Vikings (254 net yards allowed, 3-of-11 third downs allowed, 22:38 time of possession allowed)
The Vikings have now held six of their last seven opponents under 300 net yards. But they are the best team no one is talking about, so let's not talk about them.
Offensive Line of the Week
The Vikings rushed for 171 yards, held the vicious Rams pass rush without a sack and exerted their will at the line of scrimmage in the second half. So let's hear it for Riley Reiff, Nick Easton, Pat Elflein, Joe Berger and Rashod Hill.
Defender of the Week
Jaguars pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue recorded 2.5 sacks and forced two fumbles against the Browns. Ngakoue now has nine sacks this season, but you don't hear much about him because it is so much easier to both spell and say "Calais Campbell."
Special Teamer of the Week
Had the Redskins not coughed up their fourth-quarter lead against the Saints, Niles Paul's fake-punt run—which set up a Ryan Grant touchdown to give Washington a two-score lead—would have been one of the biggest plays of the week.
Touchdown Celebration of the Week
The Texans' four-man relay team (with the ball as the baton) was a fun way to let players besides Lamar Miller and DeAndre Hopkins discover what it was like to touch the football in the end zone. But even that was upstaged by Washington's Jeremy Sprinkle, who "sprinkled" the end zone like it was a funnel cake and he was topping it with powdered sugar.
Bad Coaching Decision of the Week
Things were going so well for Brett Hundley and the Packers offense that Mike McCarthy went for it on 4th-and-6 early in the third quarter. Hundley, showing the pocket awareness of a box turtle, stumbled into a pass-rusher for a sack, which is of course just about the worst thing a quarterback can do on fourth down.
Mystery Touch of the Week
Trailing 23-20 on the final play of the game, Dolphins kick returner Damien Williams grabbed a squib kickoff and threw backward across the field to Jarvis Landry, who ran a few yards before blindly discuss-hurling the ball backward 10 yards across the field to Jakeem Grant, who retreated nearly to his own end zone before fumbling a pitch back to Landry. Buccaneers special teamer Adarius Glanton pounced on the loose ball for the first touchdown of his career. Leave it to the Dolphins to be at their worst when they literally have nothing to lose.
A roundup of big stories from a busy week:
Jerruh gone wild
In a whirlwind week for Jones v. the NFL, Jerry Jones told radio station 105.3 The Fan that he was battling the commissioner's office because of the "social issues" surrounding the Ezekiel Elliott suspension and that he had the "short-term and long-term best interests of the NFL" in mind when igniting a league Civil War. He then fired a broadside at Robert Kraft's, er, fortitude in an ESPN report by Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham and apologized for a racially insensitive joke caught on video four years ago.
We're about three days from the Cowboys tweeting, "Crooked Roger! Lock Him Up!" from their official account.
Seahawks lose Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor for the year
It's a double whammy in more ways than one. Not only is this season lost without two-thirds of the Legion of Boom, but an injury catastrophe on defense gives the team an offseason excuse for not getting serious about fixing the offense.
New behind-the-quarterback angle debuts on Thursday Night Football
The NFL beer snobs on the internet say we should all love the angle because it highlights the intricacies of line play and route concepts like the hop and citrus notes in a fine double IPA. The rest of us philistines would like to know how many yards a play gained and don't think we should get motion sickness from watching Le'Veon Bell run off tackle.
30 scouts from 20 teams attend USC-UCLA on Saturday, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter
Nineteen teams sent one scout each, the Browns sent 11 so they could argue about Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold for five months until the team drafts the kid that called Hue Jackson "Sir" most often during Senior Bowl practices.
Also...shouldn't all 32 teams have a scout at a freakin' USC-UCLA game? Which 12 teams were like, "Hey Hawkeye, we need you to go watch Clemson pound The Citadel instead"?
Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield makes obscene gesture during blowout of Kansas
"Let's see. I gotta do something that will make really dumb teams not want to draft me but won't worry smart teams at all. Got it!"
Leonard Fournette admits that he doesn't like to play in cold weather.
Fournette then ran for 111 yards in the sleet against the Browns. But it's good to know weeks in advance that this charmed Jaguars season will end with two fumbles in a playoff game at Foxborough in January.