Gridiron Digest: NFL Wild-Card Previews and Picks

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 30, 2019

Gridiron Digest: NFL Wild-Card Previews and Picks

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    The playoff matchups are set, and Gridiron Digest kicks off this week by breaking down all four of next week's games and answering important questions like:

    • Do the Titans pose a threat to the most vulnerable Patriots team we have seen in years?
    • Can Marshawn Lynch (pictured) keep the Seahawks from coming up a yard short when it matters?
    • Is the Saints defense healthy enough to force Kirk Cousins to turn into Big Game Kirk Cousins in a big game?
    • Could the rugged Bills suplex the Texans onto a card table for their first playoff win since the Jim Kelly era?
    • WTF are the Eagles even doing here?

    Plus: Freddie Kitchens, Jameis Winston, coaching carousel rumors, unblocked Ben Roethlisberger tweets, a jam-packed Year in Review segment and much, much more!

         

Wild Card First Look: Seattle Seahawks at Philadelphia Eagles

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    Sarah Stier/Getty Images

    The Seahawks came within inches of winning the NFC West. Instead, they'll have to travel to the East Coast to face the strangest division champions in recent memory. 

          

    How the Seahawks got here

    The Seahawks traded paint with the 49ers at the top of the NFC West after beating them 27-24 on a last-second overtime field goal in Week 10. So it was only fitting that the battle for the division came down to the final plays, seconds and inches of the season.

    The Seahawks spotted the 49ers a 13-0 halftime lead but came back to cut the deficit to 26-21 in the fourth quarter with the help of some typical Russell Wilson heroics and the high-flying, Beast Mode-enabled return of Marshawn Lynch. But the final Seahawks drive ended with two fourth-down receptions getting stopped at the 1-foot line: the first to convert 4th-and-10 with the Seahawks out of timeouts, the second to hand the 49ers a victory.

         

    How the Eagles got here

    The Eagles overcame an extinction-level injury event at the skill positions to win four straight games against the huddled masses of the NFC East, culminating in a wild 34-17 Sunday victory over the Giants. Team MVPs down the stretch included Fletcher Cox, Carson Wentz, some skill-position no-names like running back Boston Scott and receiver Greg Ward Jr. and, of course, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett.

          

    When the Eagles have the ball

    With Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Nelson Agholor, Zach Ertz and Jordan Howard all injured, the Eagles field a bunch of backs and receivers each week who look like they belong in the fourth quarter of a preseason game, not the first round of the playoffs. Injuries on the offensive line to Lane Johnson and (on Sunday) Brandon Brooks have placed even more strain on the dusty corners of the depth chart.

    But backs like Scott and Miles Sanders keep getting the job done as runners and receivers, while Wentz overcame a midseason reluctance to throw to any of these randos and now gets the ball downfield to targets like Ward and Dallas Goedert. 

    Three returning defenders should help the Seahawks corral this band of misfits. Jadeveon Clowney had a statistically quiet Sunday after returning from a core injury, but he spun away from some blockers to disrupt plays in the backfield. Shaquill Griffin, the Seahawks' best cornerback, also returned against the 49ers. And free safety Quandre Diggs, who recorded three interceptions after coming over from the Lions at the trade deadline, is expected back from a high-ankle sprain for the playoffs.

         

    When the Seahawks have the ball

    You know what the Seahawks offense looks like. They run the ball too often, though it was fun to see Lynch crashing into defenders and leaping into the end zone again. Russell Wilson buys time in the pocket and searches for slippery go-to receiver Tyler Lockett or rookie Madden Create-a-Player DK Metcalf. Sometimes, the offensive line even blocks someone. As Sunday night illustrated, no lead is safe from Wilson, but the Seahawks offense can also dissolve into a puddle of three-and-outs for halves at a time.  

    The Eagles secondary is shockingly slow-footed, but they make up for it by frequently misplaying deep balls in the air. The Eagles run defense is stout, and the cross-your-fingers coverage technique works against Daniel Jones and Dwayne Haskins types (or when Garrett decides to "rotate" Amari Cooper out of the game on the final drive), but Lockett and Metcalf should be open all day if Brian Schottenheimer decides to allow Wilson to fling it to them.

         

    Recent history

    The Seahawks overcame one of their flat offensive performances to beat the Eagles 17-9 in Week 12, holding the Eagles (then in the early stages of their skill-position plague) to just three points until the final seconds of the game.

         

    Digest Sportsbook: Seahawks -1

    Take the Seahawks now before the house realizes what a foolish mistake it has made.

         

    Bottom Line 

    The Seahawks didn't deserve a first-round bye: Lopsided losses to the Ravens, Rams and Cardinals revealed them to be a notch below the top contenders in the NFC. It was inevitable that their close-game luck would run out. But the Seahawks do deserve the easiest matchup a wild-card team could ask for: the injury-ravaged winners of a cupcake division. 

    The Eagles overcame the odds and showed a lot of poise and determination to get this far. They won't be going any further.

Wild Card First Look: Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    The weakest Patriots team in years hosts the strongest Titans team in years. We'll soon learn how far the balance of AFC power has really shifted.

         

    How the Titans got here

    After three straight years of disappointing 9-7 finishes, the Titans swapped out Marcus Mariota for Dolphins castoff Ryan Tannehill, who added big-play capability to their cloud-of-dust offense, sparked a 6-1 stretch from late October to early December and led the team to a 9-7 finish. 

         

    How the Patriots got here

    Their quarterback is a living legend. Their defense played at a historic level for the first half of the season. Their schedule would embarrass a college basketball coach who likes to fatten his record against divinity schools. The stage was set for the Patriots to cruise to home-field advantage in the playoffs and then on to the Super Bowl.

    But the Patriots defense, while great, wasn't quite as historic when it wasn't making novice quarterbacks "see ghosts." And Brady is starting to show his age. After losing to the Texans, Chiefs and Ravens in the regular season, the Patriots needed to beat the Dolphins on Sunday to secure a first-round bye. But funny things happen when the Patriots face the Dolphins: A last-minute 27-24 upset underlined just how vulnerable this iteration of the Patriots has become on both sides of the ball.

         

    When the Patriots have the ball

    Screen passes. Flat passes. Wheel routes, sometimes thrown to linebackers masquerading as fullbacks. Brady relies upon his ability to read defenses and on an offensive line with a knack for nasty downfield blocking, both to turn short passes into big plays and to hide the fact that his fastball is now more of a knuckler.

    The Titans have a stout run defense but a defense that's vulnerable to the short pass (22nd in the NFL, per Football Outsiders), in part because defenders like linebacker Rashaan Evans and slot cornerback (and former Patriot) Logan Ryan tend to whiff on open-field tackles. That's not an ideal combination against an opponent that likes to pick opponents apart with short passes.

         

    When the Titans have the ball

    The Titans did not diverge too far from their "exotic smashmouth" roots with Tannehill's emergence. Derrick Henry led the NFL with 20.2 carries per game. Tannehill still keeps the ball on some option concepts and looks to set up big plays on misdirection screens. But rookie A.J. Brown emerged as a deep threat once the Titans had a quarterback who could throw 20 yards downfield without a windup and a running start.

    The Patriots like to play man coverage with All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore and a deep corps of reliable cornerbacks. They then threaten with pass-rushers from all angles, which is why Sam Darnold and other young quarterbacks ended up in Luigi's Haunted Mansion for much of the year. The good news is that Tannehill has seen it all before in 11 previous meetings with the Patriots. The bad news is that he led his team to just a 4-7 record with 11 interceptions and only 15 touchdowns in those 11 meetings. 

         

    Recent history

    The Titans beat the Patriots 34-10 last November during the early-onset "Tom Brady has gotten old" period. The Patriots stomped the Titans 35-14 in the 2017 playoffs the last time they met in Foxborough.

         

    Digest Sportsbook: Patriots -5.5

    The Patriots are 7-2 against the spread in playoff games since 2016 but were just 3-4-1 as home favorites this season. The likelihood of a Patriots win in the 23-20 final score range makes this a tough play.

        

    Bottom line

    If the Patriots were any other team with an aging quarterback and a soft schedule, this game would look like a mortal lock of a first-round upset. But history reminds us that the Patriots aren't any other team, and Brady is unlike all the other aging quarterbacks. There may well be a changing of the guard coming atop the AFC standings, but a Titans team that barely made the playoffs won't be the one that does the changing.

Wild Card First Look: Buffalo Bills at Houston Texans

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    The slow-and-steady Bills face a brilliantly erratic opponent with a reputation for playoff meltdowns. Do you smell an upset? (Upsets smell like Genesee Cream Ale and splintered card tables.) 

         

    How the Bills got here

    A skeptic would say the Bills coasted to a wild-card berth by feasting on one of the league's easiest schedules. And that skeptic would be 100 percent correct. But the Bills also played sound, fundamental football, beating fellow middleweights like the Titans, Steelers and Cowboys by blocking and tackling hard, executing correctly, taking care of the football and making the field goals their opponents missed. 

         

    How the Texans got here

    Bill O'Brien's controversial preseason trades (the Texans acquired Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills, Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde for lots and lots of future draft picks) may have long-term consequences, but they helped the Texans beat the Patriots, Chiefs and (in their meaningful first meeting) the Titans, allowing them to clinch the AFC South a week early and use Sunday as a glorified bye. Tunsil earned a Pro Bowl berth and quelled an offensive line emergency, Hyde and Johnson combined for over 1,900 scrimmage yards, and Stills diversified a passing game that in past years boiled down to DeAndre Hopkins, screens and sacks.

         

    When the Texans have the ball

    Despite all the changes and reinforcements, Hopkins was targeted on 29 percent of Texans passes, and Deshaun Watson endured 44 sacks, the fifth-highest total in the NFL. When things are clicking, Watson spreads the ball around and can count on big plays from Stills, Will Fuller or his tight ends when Hopkins is covered. When things aren't clicking (see the Week 14 loss to the Broncos), O'Brien becomes too predictable on first down and Watson ends up running for his life on third down. 

    Focusing on Nuk could be disastrous for the Texans, because Tre'Davious White is one of the two best cornerbacks in the NFL. Micah Hyde has also had an All-Pro-caliber season. The Bills entered Week 17 ranked third in the NFL at stopping opponents' No. 1 receivers, fourth at stopping their No. 2 receivers and second at stopping deep passes, per Football Outsiders. Watson must bring his A-game, and O'Brien (gulp) his A game plan.

         

    When the Bills have the ball

    #BillsMafia version: Josh Allen is developing into a cross between Cam Newton and John Elway, a devastating dual threat who would get a lot more attention if Lamar Jackson didn't hog all the headlines and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll didn't shackle him to arch-conservative, run-heavy game plans every week.

    Objective reality version: Allen remains a very limited passer, so Daboll's game plans are designed to emphasize the run, limit his decisions and throws and generate 17 to 24 points per week on runs (including Allen options), broken plays, shallow crosses to Cole Beasley and bombs that sometimes come within 10 yards of John Brown.

    All eyes in Houston are on J.J. Watt, who returned to practice last week after missing most of the season with a torn pectoral muscle and is expected to be activated for the playoffs. Veterans like Whitney Mercilus and Zach Cunningham played well in Watt's absence, but Watt's return could transform the Texans defense from one that waits for the opponent to make mistakes into one that causes mistakes. 

         

    Recent history

    The Texans beat the Bills 20-13 in October 2018. Nathan Peterman replaced an injured Allen and threw two late-game interceptions. This segment was just an excuse to further troll Bills fans by bringing up Peterman.

         

    Digest Sportsbook: Texans -3

    The Texans are 1-5 against the spread as home favorites this season. We like the Bills to win outright, and we like them even better with a field-goal cushion. 

         

    Bottom Line

    Look for the Bills to beat the Texans with primitive, physical football for their first playoff win since Jim Kelly, Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas were still around in 1995.

Wild Card First Look: Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints

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    Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

    It doesn't get much wilder than a Saints-Vikings playoff game. Except perhaps for a Saints-Rams playoff game with a pass interference no-call at the end. And that Saints-49ers playoff game after the 2012 season was also pretty wild. OK, anything can happen when the Saints play anyone in the playoffs. But this is the most intriguing matchup of Wild Card Weekend.

         

    How the Vikings Got Here

    Kirk Cousins played at an MVP level against weaker competition and avoided bungling self-parody in big games. Dalvin Cook (1,135 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns) made the run-heavy game plans Mike Zimmer prefers both functional and fun. The rest of the defense played well enough to make up for the toaster crumbs in the cornerback corps. The overall results were almost, but not quite, good enough to avoid the sweep that gave the Packers the NFC North crown.

         

    How the Saints got here

    Neither a 13-3 record nor a 42-10 clobbering of the Panthers in the season finale were enough to secure a first-round bye for the Saints; the Packers came back to beat the Lions on Sunday, and they held the tiebreaker advantage. Blame it on George Kittle's 4th-and-2 catch-and-run to set up a game-winning 49ers field goal in Week 14 or the loss to a 1-7 Atlanta team in Week 10 or on Teddy Bridgewater's inability to beat the Rams in relief all the way back in Week 2. The Saints simply had no margin for error in the ultra-competitive NFC.

         

    When the Saints have the ball

    Drew Brees, Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara are the most dangerous "triplets" in this year's playoffs. Jared Cook (pictured; 43 catches, 9 touchdowns) and Latavius Murray (637 rushing yards) help diversify the triangle offense. And Taysom Hill runs the Wildcat, plays wide receiver or fakes a punt once in a while. His cameos look like a goofy, unnecessary wrinkle most of the time but strokes of brilliance when they work. 

    Vikings edge-rushers Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen combined for 22.5 sacks and dozens of pressures, stuffs and disrupted plays. Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris may have been the NFL's top all-purpose safety tandem this season. However, cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mike Hughes couldn't cover a sleeping baby with a blanket for most of the year. If Hunter and Griffen can't get through the banged-up Saints offensive line to pressure Brees, Thomas could catch 20 passes for 300 yards.

         

    When the Vikings have the ball

    The Vikings strive to stay ahead of the sticks, running the ball or throwing short on first down so Cousins can take safe downfield shots to Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen on 2nd-and-short. It's a simple philosophy, and it has its limitations (the Vikings got very little from their other wide receivers, even when Thielen was hurt), but it helped the Vikings win turnover battles (they finished plus-13 in takeaways) and control both the clock and the line of scrimmage against less disciplined opponents like the Eagles and Cowboys.

    The Saints defense was racked by injuries down the stretch. Edge-rusher Marcus Davenport and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins are out for the year, and the team was without defensive backs Vonn Bell, Marcus Williams and Eli Apple on Sunday. 

         

    Recent history

    The Vikings beat the Saints 29-24 in the 2017 playoffs thanks to a 61-yard touchdown catch-and-run by Diggs after Williams went for a kill shot tackle instead of keeping Diggs in front of him and knocked teammate Ken Crawley out of position to make the stop. You will probably hear that old tale retold about 4 zillion times this week. 

    The Saints got some revenge in a 30-20 win last year in one of those Cousins "big games" you hear so much about.

         

    Digest Sportsbook: Saints -7

    The Saints are just 6-10 against the spread as home favorites over the last two seasons, which is a good reason to steer clear of making a decision until the injury reports come out.

         

    Bottom line

    The Saints took a beating down the stretch and could have really used a bye. Now, too much depends on the health of their secondary. Even if Williams and the others are out, Thomas could win this game single-handedly, or Cousins could live down to his caricature and lose it. But don't underestimate the Vikings' ability to thump out a win in the trenches.

Coaching Carousel Digest

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    Bryan Woolston/Associated Press

    Here's a roundup of just how hot some coaching (and front-office) hot seats were as of the wee hours of Monday morning.

         

    Browns fire Freddie Kitchens.

    The Browns looked flat and lost to the lowly Bengals 33-23, with only 10 Browns defenders lining up for one early-game play near the goal line. (Joe Mixon punched in an easy touchdown.)

    Firing the unqualified and staggeringly incompetent Kitchens (pictured) was the right call, of course. Think about what it says about the Browns organization that it was thinking of keeping Kitchens, according to Albert Breer and Ian Rapoport, for two, before Sunday's loss. 

         

    Redskins reportedly remove Bruce Allen as head of football operations; considering Marvin Lewis for head coach.

    Allen spent far more energy during his Washington tenure removing threats to his power (from scouting hotshots to members of the business department to the PR staff) than trying to build a good football team. The only thing surprising about his demotion (reported by NBC Sports Washington's JP Finlay) is that owner Dan Snyder actually got wise to what was happening.

    On the one hand, hiring Lewis (Les Carpenter and Mark Maske of the Washington Post reported he's a candidate) would be a sign of the NFL's logic of ingrained mediocrity: Hire a coach legendary for losing in the first round of the playoffs and hope you can make it that far. On the other hand, Lewis is a no-nonsense, football-first infrastructure builder, and the Skins lack any semblance of infrastructure. 

         

    Falcons will retain Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

    Bringing back a coach who rallied late in the year to pull the team out of a tailspin is a great way to ensure that the same thing happens next year (see: logic of ingrained mediocrity, previous segment). The Falcons are clearly skittish about starting from scratch late in the Matt Ryan-Julio Jones era, and the Saints and 49ers wins were truly impressive, but retaining Quinn means succumbing to Jason Garrett "he tries hard and there might not be anyone better" reasoning.

         

    Jaguars may or may not fire Doug Marrone, as Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio summarized.

    Marrone was a nondescript retread functionary hired from within by a directionless organization, and he performed exactly as indicated on the label. The Jaguars are an organization that thinks it can make players report to team headquarters for medical treatment anytime it wants them to, so they are perfectly capable of turning a routine coaching change (or the decision not to make that change) into an overcomplicated drama. 

    Tom Coughlin is gone and Marrone's status is up in the air, but general manager David Caldwell may have tiptoed through the minefield for yet another year.

    The Jaguars are 36-76 since Caldwell arrived in 2013; they have spent much of the last seven years in a vicious cycle of splashy/expensive additions followed by double-digit-loss seasons due to the underperformance of those splashy/expensive additions. Caldwell may be one of those executives whose skill lies in keeping the job, not doing the job. Bruce Allen was the same type of executive until roughly Thursday. 

         

    Jerry Jones tells reporters there's no "shareable timetable" on a Jason Garrett decision.

    We'd share our timetable for a Garrett decision with him, except it's dated December 2015.

Meaningless Game Awards Digest

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    To qualify for this week's Gridiron Digest awards, the player or team in question had to be eliminated from the playoffs.

         

    Offensive Line of the Week

    The Bengals offensive line of Fred Johnson, Michael Jordan, Trey Hopkins, John Miller and Bobby Hart sent a message when it helped Joe Mixon run for 162 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-23 win over the Browns. That message was "WE WANT TO BLOCK FOR JOE BURROW!"

    Yes, Bobby Hart, who has been a human sack factory for both the Giants and Bengals, has now somehow won an Offensive Line of the Week Award. But things are likely to be harder for the Bengals next year. Their opponents might even put more than 10 defenders on the field against them at the goal line.

         

    Defender of the Week

    Deion Jones handed Jameis Winston his 30th interception of the season with a game-winning overtime pick-six in the Falcons' 28-22 victory over the Buccaneers. Great for Jones, who looked like a future All-Pro as a youngster during the Falcons' Super Bowl run three years ago, but you know we're going to pay attention to Winston instead.

    Only 11 quarterbacks in NFL history have thrown 30 interceptions in a season, the last being Vinny Testaverde in 1988. The good news for Winston is that there are plenty of Hall of Famers among the 30-interception club: Ken Stabler (1978), Fran Tarkenton (1978), George Blanda (1962 and 1965) and Sid Luckman (1947). The bad news for Winston is that it is no longer the 1960s or 1970s, when interception rates were far higher than they are now.

    Recent reports indicated that the Bucs planned to commit to Winston as their starting quarterback in 2020, though those reports came before interceptions led directly to a pair of losses. Maybe they should keep him but also use him as a kicker the way Blanda was used. It would be worth it for the fantasy points.

         

    Special Teamer of the Week

    Sorry, Mecole Hardman! Your 104-yard kickoff return touchdown doesn't count for this week's award, because it counted in real life. So this award goes instead to Bears kicker Eddie Pineiro for his four field goals against the Vikings, including a 22-yard game-winning boot. 

    The Bears' failure to reach the playoffs this season had almost nothing to do with their kicker. That's as succinct a summary of their season as you could ask for.

         

    Mystery Touch of the Week 

    Any veteran offensive lineman can catch a one-yard goal-line touchdown. Falcons tackle Ty Sambrailo (pictured) ran the type of seam route Travis Kelce typically runs, hauled in a Matt Ryan pass and rumbled 35 yards for a touchdown through a very confused defense. It was the longest touchdown catch by an offensive lineman since 1950.

    If Sambrailo played for the Eagles, he would have been their No. 2 wide receiver Sunday.

         

    Meaningless Fantasy Touchdown of the Week

    In a particularly meaningless TD unless your league finishes in Week 17, Christian McCaffrey punctuated his remarkable season with a touchdown run that cut the Panthers' deficit to 42-10 against the Saints. He became just the third player in NFL history to record a 1,000/1,000 season, finishing with 1,387 rushing yards and 1,005 receiving yards. (Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk were the others). 

    McCaffrey couldn't do anything for the cratering Panthers, but maybe he won some dough for you.

         

    Best Supporting Actor in Someone Else's Highlight

    Bengals defensive back Darius Phillips was a Defender of the Week candidate thanks to a pair of interceptions against the Browns. But Phillips earns Best Supporting Actor instead for being the defender who got "posterized" on Odell Beckham Jr.'s leaping sideline touchdown grab.

    We waited 17 weeks for a signature Beckham highlight with the Browns, and it only came after a pair of interceptions in a meaningless game. That's as succinct a summary of the Cleveland season as you could ask for.

2019 in Review: The Year of Lamar Jackson

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    What happened

    Lamar Jackson changed the conversation surrounding "mobile" quarterbacks forever with an MVP-caliber season: 36 passing touchdowns, a 113.1 quarterback rating, 1,206 rushing yards and enough highlights to make the Ravens both appointment television and the top seed in the AFC playoffs. 

         

    What it means

    For a moment, let's push pause on the endless, often contrived conversations surrounding Jackson's transcendent season and take a moment to just admire it. 

    In the NFL's 100th season, Jackson and the Ravens showed us something we have never seen before, something breathtakingly new that also harked back to football's forgotten 1930s A-formation tactics and the sport's deep roots in sandlots and on dusty high school fields. Jackson fulfilled a promise made by Randall Cunningham, Michael Vick, Robert Griffin III, Tim Tebow and others to truly revolutionize the game with his running and passing. He breathed life into tired strategies and redefined what successful NFL quarterbacks and offenses can look like.

    Jackson gave us a new reason to tune in every Sunday. He turned Thursday night blowouts into pep rallies. He created opportunities and expectations for those who will follow in his footsteps.

    As for the fans who watched Jackson and were compelled to talk about his eventual injury or backslide: It's their right to be reactionary, irrelevant and miserable as the world passes them by. Don't let them spoil the fun.

         

    What's next

    Lots of Ravens copycats. Lots of "next Lamar Jackson" comparisons for every rookie quarterback who ever ran an option in college. And, of course, a chance for Jackson to prove once and for all what a true dual-threat quarterback is capable of in the playoffs.

2019 in Review: The Year "Tanking" Jumped the Shark

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    What happened

    The Browns, the mighty Team that Tanking Built, collapsed under the weight of lofty expectations into a heap of melodramatic, unprofessional mediocrity.

    The Dolphins gutted their roster in exchange for future cap space and draft picks but rejected the "tanking" mentality. Instead, they played hard all season, won a few games and sacrificed a few slots of draft order in the name of developing players and establishing coach Brian Flores' culture and system.

    The Steelers also refused to tank, despite Ben Roethlisberger's injury and the departures of Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. They even traded a first-round pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick in defiance of the Moneyball bullet points. They were rewarded with an unlikely playoff push, a memorable season featuring some lovable new heroes and hope for a quick return to Super Bowl contention. 

         

    What it means

    The Browns are a team built from Twitter arguments, not coherent plans. They're the inevitable result of thinking that building a football team is simply a matter of acquiring some big-name talent and a coach with a funky playbook. They skipped all of the hard work of roster, staff and culture development on purpose, and it showed every single week.

    Not only did the Browns finish behind a Steelers team that fielded a third-string quarterback and running backs for much of the year, but their prospects for 2020 and beyond are far less certain—a stark reminder that there's lots of value in doing some things the old-fashioned away.

    The Dolphins chose "rebuilding" over "tanking" this year. Yes, they shed veterans and acquired extra draft picks. Yes, they weakened the roster to the point where they looked comical at times. And yes, their smattering of wins may prevent them from drafting their choice of quarterback.

    But consider this: The two best second-year quarterbacks this season were Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen, the fifth and third quarterbacks selected in the 2018 draft, respectively. Both were selected by teams with solid management and infrastructure to support their development, not by teams waiting around to win the lottery. 

    The Dolphins look a lot more like the Bills and Ravens did a few years ago than the Browns do. That's another reason why this was yet another rough year for the experts in pseudo-analytics who believe the best way to win is to spend a bunch of years losing.

         

    What happens next

    The Dolphins have three first-round picks in next year's draft. The Browns have fired Freddie Kitchens and must now figure out how to quell a roster mutiny. The Steelers await Roethlisberger's return, with a new attitude and optimism. And the next executive who advocates for anything that sounds like "tanking" would be wise to peddle his wares in the NBA.  

2019 in Review: The Year the Running Back Class of 2017 Mattered

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    What happened

    The running back class of 2017 emerged as one of the best ever, making a major impact on the playoff race:

    • Dalvin Cook made the old-fashioned Vikings offense exciting and effective; 
    • Aaron Jones gave Aaron Rodgers the complementary rushing threat he has lacked for most of his career; 
    • Christian McCaffrey mounted an early MVP campaign while keeping the Cam Newton-less Panthers competitive in the first half of the year; 
    • Alvin Kamara's rushing and receiving helped Teddy Bridgewater go 5-0 in Drew Brees' absence;
    • Austin Ekeler threatened Marshall Faulk's receiving records for a running back;
    • Chris Carson was a workhorse until he got hurt in Week 16 for the Seahawks; 
    • Leonard Fournette's big runs helped make Minshew Mania possible; 
    • Marlon Mack and James Conner battled injuries to help their teams through quarterback crises.

        

    What it means

    Even the most hardened "Running Backs Don't Matter" fundamentalists must admit that Jones and Cook were instrumental to their teams' success, and that Kamara and McCaffrey are much more than just replaceable sprockets in offensive systems. 

    Unfortunately, the debate about the value of running backs rarely focuses on what they do in their first three years. It's about what happens after they have absorbed a thousand carries and signed a big-money contract. This was also the year when Todd Gurley II and Ezekiel Elliott looked ordinary for long stretches, a banged-up David Johnson was supplanted by Kenyan Drake and Le'Veon Bell spent much of the season bowling for dollars for a coach who didn't really want him.

    And it ended with Cook and Carson sidelined by injuries when their teams needed them down the stretch: an ominous warning of what's to come.

    The stars of the running back class of 2017 will soon be angling for contract extensions. They've worked hard for the money. They deserve the money. But giving most of them a big contract will be a huge mistake, because few of them are likely to earn it in the future.

         

    What happens next

    Perhaps the next collective bargaining agreement will shorten rookie contracts, allowing running backs to leverage their way into extensions after their second seasons. In the meantime, we'll see if any members of this remarkable class have the staying power to change the ruthless economics of the position. 

2019 Was Also the Year of...

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    Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

    Growing old gracefully

    Frank Gore helped the Bills reach the playoffs and passed Barry Sanders on the all-time rushing list. Larry Fitzgerald brought professionalism and reliability to the Cardinals through the 299th regime change of his career. Adrian Peterson was one of the few players Washington could count on in a lost season. Adam Vinatieri reached the end of the line but still had one last memorable 51-yard game-winner left in him. Drew Brees came back from an early-season thumb injury to play some of the most impressive games of his career. And of course, Tom Brady defied time yet again and kept on winning with a little help from his friends. 

         

    Overnight quarterback sensations

    Gardner Minshew II replaced Nick Foles for the Jaguars and became an internet phenomenon. Devlin "Duck" Hodges emerged from the bottom of the Steelers bench to become a Minshew for the Cabela's crowd. Kyle Allen looked like the heir apparent to Cam Newton for almost two months. Meanwhile, prospects-of-the-past Teddy Bridgewater and Ryan Tannehill returned to revive their starting careers and play major roles in the playoff race.

    As Luke Falk and David Blough illustrated, not every obscure or overlooked quarterback was an undiscovered superstar. But 2019 proved over and over again that groovy sixth-round picks, reclamation projects and duck-call champions can win some games off the bench if the coach and organization know what they are doing. Keep that in mind the next time your team goes in the tank because the starter got hurt.

         

    Officiating disasters

    First, a rash of holding penalties rendered early-season games unwatchable. Then, the league garbled the language and intention of pass interference replay challenges, throwing fans, coaches and experts alike into utter confusion and frustration. At least one game per week was marred by obvious mistakes, many of which had a hand in determining the outcomes. 

    The league has promised a "top-down review" of officiating in the offseason. It should consider everything: new leadership, better technology, more full-time officials. Most of all, it should consider a complete rewrite of the rulebook; there's too much language written for a 1930s game being used to apply 21st-century decisions. 

         

    Performative social justice

    The NFL's much-maligned partnership with Jay-Z's production company and its ham-fisted "tryout" for Colin Kaepernick underscored the league's cynical approach to social justice. The NFL made it clear that it wants all the trappings of racial sensitivity without the risk of ruffling powerful political feathers or sacrificing a penny of the bottom line.

    With the NBA suffering similar setbacks at the close of the 2010s, the hope that sports figures and leagues could act as voices and agents of social change feels more and more like a deferred dream. But that could just be a sign that it's ready to explode. 

Point-Counterpoint

11 of 11

    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    1. Ben Roethlisberger tweets a message to Steelers fans.

    Point: He blocked me, so I don't know what it said.

    Counterpoint: Me too. Can you find someone he didn't block and ask them to relay the message to us?

    [Scours Gridiron Digest office; finds an intern with 73 followers who was not blocked by Roethlisberger] Here you go: "P.S. Contrary to recent reports out there about my football future and my 'uncertainty' about playing again, I am working hard and am more determined than ever to come back stronger and better than ever next year!"

    Point: The soon-to-be 38-year-old with the supersized contract is going to come back so the Steelers can relive the glorious era when everyone in the locker room wanted to punch one another in the throat? Hooray!

    Counterpoint: You might want to check the location stamp on that tweet to see if it was sent on $5 bucket night from a wing joint in Latrobe.

         

    2. Aaron Rodgers and Danica Patrick purchase a $28 million Malibu estate with a guesthouse.

    Point: That guesthouse sounds perfect for Patrick's family and friends. Rodgers won't be needing it.

    Counterpoint: Tom Brady and Gisele Bundchen's housewarming gift was a welcome mat that reads: "You are not us, and you never will be, so stop trying."

         

    3. Julian Edelman admits he faked a head injury to make sure he drew a penalty in the Week 16 Patriots victory over the Bills.

    Point: Taking an unsportsmanlike dive that exploited our constant fear of CTE to gain an incremental advantage in a football game and then being unapologetic about it? Yep, that's The Patriots Way all right!

    Counterpoint: Tune in next week when Edelman distracts the referee by taunting him from behind the turnbuckle so Brady can hit him over the head with a chair. 

         

    4. Antonio Brown works out for the Saints.

    Point: Glad this misunderstood rapscallion is getting another chance. Heck, I even forget why he's been out of the league all season. It was because he tweeted something naughty about Jon Gruden, right?

    Counterpoint: Actually, it was because of allegations of sexual assault, as well as a variety of troubling lawsuits, in addition to a yearlong pattern of erratic behavior and insubordination that caused three of the NFL's most storied franchises to give up on him. So no, it's not merely because he's some sort of internet diva. That's just your memory playing tricks on you because scandals pile up so quickly nowadays. 

    Point: Oh. But still...touchdowns and stuff, amirite?

    Counterpoint: [Sigh]. Never before have I rooted so hard for the Commissioner's Exempt List.