Gridiron Digest: Upstart Titans Crash the NFL's Final Four
From staggering upsets to breathtaking comebacks, the divisional round of the NFL playoffs offered something for everyone. And Gridiron Digest is here to wrap up the weekend's action, catch you up on the coaching carousel and preview next week's Titans-Chiefs and Packers-49ers conference championship matchups. Plus:
• Relive Sunday's Chiefs comeback against the Texans in all its mind-bending psychedelic glory, if you dare
• Learn which Star Wars character most closely resembled Jimmy Garoppolo and what it means for the 49ers
• Discover the secret strength that could help the Titans keep pace with the Chiefs next Sunday
• Get some pointers on how to survive eight months of terrible Lamar Jackson takes
• Explore whether the Packers have become balanced and consistent enough to beat their next opponent: a 49ers team that trounced them in the regular season
• Find out why Kevin Stefanski was exactly the kind of coach that the Browns were looking for (as opposed to the kind of coach they really need)
...and much, much more!
Final Four Spotlight: Green Bay Packers
The team that won the Super Bowl after the 2010 season and spent the rest of the decade slowly coming down off the high is back in the conference championship and looking better than it has in years.
How they got here
The Packers played their most complete game of the season Sunday. Aaron Rodgers threw two touchdown passes to Davante Adams, and Aaron Jones rushed for two more as the Packers avoided their typical second-quarter swoon. Meanwhile, Za'Darius Smith and the defense held Russell Wilson to just three points at halftime. Wilson came alive to lead three touchdown drives in the third and fourth quarters, but Rodgers connected with Adams and Jimmy Graham for crucial first-down completions on the Packers' final drive to preserve a 28-23 victory.
Rodgers was the NFL's best quarterback from 2011 through 2014. He then morphed into the game-planning equivalent of one of those beer snobs who cannot find an IPA anywhere in the world to satisfy his sophisticated palate.
A creative, balanced attack that makes the most of both Rodgers and Jones until head coach Matt LaFleur's initial play script runs its course. Then, Rodgers sometimes just starts scrambling around and scowling at his receivers for not getting open enough. To his credit, Rodgers made both outstanding throws and good decisions for four quarters Sunday.
Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith are two of the NFL's fiercest pass-rushers. Someone should travel back to the mid-2010s in a time machine and tell the Packers to splurge on a free agent once in a while. Maybe the history of that decade would have turned out differently.
Mason Crosby was 22-of-24 on field goals this season and has kicked 26 postseason field goals, fifth on the all-time list.
The quality of the Packers' offensive weapons tails off after Rodgers, Jones and Adams, but receiver Allen Lazard ranked 18th in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric in the regular season despite a limited role. Lazard missed a chunk of Sunday's game with an ankle injury. The Packers will need him next week. Rodgers cannot beat the 49ers by throwing 11 passes to Adams and 11 to the rest of his targets combined. (Note: Five of Rodgers' passes against the Seahawks had no official target.)
According to Football Outsiders, the Packers offense ranked fifth in the NFL in the first quarter, 24th in the second quarter, fourth in the third quarter and 18th in the fourth quarter. Despite a more consistent performance Sunday, they still scored on their opening drive but allowed a late comeback. Unlike the Seahawks (who spend large portions of games running off tackle and waiting for something to happen), the 49ers will pounce if the Packers take even a few series off.
The Packers looked like a Super Bowl team Sunday, but will they look that way with Richard Sherman blanketing Adams and the 49ers defensive line harassing Rodgers? And will that even be enough to close the gap against a 49ers team that embarrassed them in Week 12? Others besides Rodgers, Adams, Jones and the Smiths must make their presence felt for the Packers to reach the Super Bowl. And of course, the Packers need more of the Good Rodgers we saw Sunday, not Bad/Frustrated/Impatient Rodgers we've seen too often over the last few years.
Final Four Spotlight: Kansas City Chiefs
Last year, they were the high-def, 5G-connectivity version of the Greatest Show on Turf, starring Patrick Mahomes, the NFL's most incandescent young superstar. This year? "Lamar Jackson and the Ravens played on Thursday night? Oh well, I guess let's watch these guys instead."
How they got here
Look, Sunday's 51-31 victory over the Texans wasn't a game. It was a consciousness-shattering psychotropic experience, like dropping peyote in the desert with Jim Morrison in the late 1960s. You were either part of it or you were not, and no recap could begin to do it justice.
Think 1980s NBA fast-break offense meets the arcade version of NFL Blitz 2000, with the the sensations and emotions of your first loop-de-loop roller coaster and first kiss sprinkled in.
Wait, the Chiefs have a defense? Yep, with playmakers like Frank Clark, Chris Jones and Tyrann Mathieu who can punish opponents trying to play catch-up by generating sacks and turnovers.
The Chiefs do not, however, have a run defense.
Mecole Hardman is one of the few true impact return men left in the NFL. His 104-yard kickoff return in Week 17 against the Chargers helped kickstart a sputtering offense so the Chiefs could avoid an upset and ease their path through the postseason. His 58-yard kickoff return to set up the Chiefs' first score when they trailed 24-0 on Sunday did almost the same thing in an even more critical situation.
The much-maligned Chiefs defense was the league's best, by far, when leading by more than eight points, according to Football Outsiders. As the Texans learned Sunday, the Chiefs defense will make your quarterback run for his life once it no longer has to worry about the running game. And Mahomes and friends are very good at racking up those eight-plus-point leads.
About that run defense: The Chiefs stuffed just 14 percent of opposing ball-carriers for a loss or no gain (the third-lowest rate in the NFL), and only the Panthers allowed more second-level yardage (essentially five- to 10-yard gains per rush) than the Chiefs, per Football Outsiders. This is not a defense that wants to give Derrick Henry a chance to carry the ball 30 times.
The Chiefs will rout the Titans as long as they do exactly the opposite of what they did Sunday against the Texans. If the Chiefs take a big early lead instead of surrendering one, they can neutralize Henry. If they play crisp special teams instead of muffing punts and allowing blocked kicks, they will avoid the gaffes that not only led to a near catastrophe Sunday but cost them the game against the Titans in Week 10.
The Chiefs should end a 50-year Super Bowl drought next Sunday. If they do not, it will be because they played right into the hands of an inferior—but still very dangerous—opponent.
Final Four Spotlight: Tennessee Titans
Pesky, adorable little sixth seed in the AFC playoffs that is just happy to be in the...HOLY FREAKIN' COW THEY JUST UPSET THE PATRIOTS AND RAVENS.
How they got here
The Titans followed tip-drill interceptions and fourth-down stops by their defense with huge offensive plays, taking a 21-6 lead that forced the Ravens to abandon their option package and turned Lamar Jackson into just another quarterback. Playing with the lead for nearly all of the game allowed them to unleash Derrick Henry as both a rusher (195 yards) and a passer (a Tim Tebow-like jump pass on a goal-line gadget play) in what ended as a stunning 28-12 upset.
Ryan Tannehill is a toolsy reclamation project who took over for Marcus Mariota in Week 6, went on to lead the league in passer rating (117.5) and offers irrefutable proof that the Jets made a huge mistake entrusting Sam Darnold's development to Adam Gase, whose malpractice helped make Tannehill look mediocre in Miami.
Derrick Henry. That's it. That's the offense.
Just kidding! Tannehill takes deep shots to A.J. Brown, tosses screens (and goal-line fades) to tight end Jonnu Smith and keeps it himself once in a while. But it all starts—and often ends—with Henry battering the line of scrimmage behind a solid offensive line.
The Titans defense is led by safety Kevin Byard and defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, known for years to most football fans as "the only two players on the Titans defense you can actually name." Byard got the upset rolling Saturday with his tip-drill interception and return, while Casey recorded two sacks and a forced fumble.
The Titans went through four kickers this season and became the first team to miss more field goals than it made in a season since the 1987 strike year. Greg Joseph discovered the secret to not missing field goals is to never attempt any: He has not attempted a single field goal since joining the Titans in mid-December.
On the plus side, punter Brett Kern led the NFL with 37 punts inside the 20 in the regular season. His ability to pin the Patriots near their own end zone was a major factor in that Titans victory, and he forced the Ravens to start two first-half drives at the 10- and 5-yard lines, which is a big reason why the halftime score was 14-6 and not 14-14.
The Titans ranked fourth in the NFL in red-zone efficiency and first in goal-to-goal efficiency in the regular season, per Football Outsiders. Their ability to punch it in from short range is no longer much of a secret after Henry's passing touchdown and Tannehill's option plunge Saturday.
Just about every bounce, deflection, call and roll has gone the Titans' way in the playoffs. This is simply not a championship-caliber team on paper.
Only two 9-7 teams in NFL history have ever reached the Super Bowl: the 1979 Rams (who lost to the Steelers) and 2011 Giants (who beat the Patriots). So there's precedent for what the Titans are doing, and Tannehill's emergence makes this version of the Titans better than the one that started the season 2-4.
The Titans took advantage of some Chiefs blunders to come back from a nine-point fourth-quarter deficit and beat them 35-32 in Week 10, making an upset easy to envision. The Chiefs are the better team and will get an edge from the deafening Arrowhead crowd. But if the Chiefs spot the Titans even half the lead they handed the Texans on Sunday, the Titans will know just how to extend and preserve it.
Final Four Spotlight: San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers built through the draft, by shrewdly trading for and developing the quarterback their head coach wanted, by amassing inexpensive running backs and undervalued veterans, and by doing many of the other things that both old-school football experts and analytics types agree are the proper way to do business. As a reward, they were considered "frauds" who were about to be "exposed" for much of the year, because they did not have enough famous guys.
How they got here
The 49ers were stunned by an early Vikings touchdown and an ugly Jimmy Garoppolo interception, and they found themselves in a tight 14-10 game at halftime. They then dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball in the second half, riding a Richard Sherman interception, lots of sacks, a fumble recovery on a punt return and some rugged running by Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert to a 27-10 victory.
Jimmy Garoppolo looks a little like Poe Dameron from the Star Wars universe, and he faces many of the same dilemmas that character faces at the turn of the decade. Is he a dynamic hero for a new generation? Or is he merely one of the least-interesting characters in a crowded ensemble, doomed to be forever overshadowed by iconic heroes of the past (Tom Brady for Garoppolo; Princess Leia for Poe)?
Garoppolo was nearly written out of the script after his interception Saturday, finishing with just 131 passing yards on 19 attempts. The 49ers won't advance to the Super Bowl if Kyle Shanahan must keep editing the offense around him.
Traps and counters. Reverses and misdirection. Fullback seamers. Tight-end arounds and double reverses. The 49ers offense is made from all the cool stuff NFL coordinators forgot about in the 2000s when they decided that every quarterback had to be a Tom Brady/Peyton Manning clone who could read the defense telepathically and throw 55 pinpoint passes per game.
Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner and Dee Ford devastate everything in their path while Sherman explains the financial wisdom of an All-Pro future Hall of Famer earning less money in the late prime of his career than Trumaine Johnson.
Veteran Robbie Gould is back as the 49ers kicker and had two field goals Saturday, so no one has to worry about the "moment getting too big" for midseason fill-in Chase McLaughlin during the 15 minutes between making a 47-yarder to force overtime and missing a 47-yarder in overtime.
The 49ers defensive line is hardly a secret, but Ford's return from a hamstring injury upgraded their pass rush from "dangerous" to "unstoppable force of nature" Saturday. Linebacker Kwon Alexander also returned Saturday; to keep the Star Wars riff going, the 49ers defense is now fully armed and operational.
Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon got outmuscled for Stefon Diggs' first-quarter touchdown. He's the closest thing the 49ers defense has to a weak link.
The 49ers clobbered the Packers 37-8 in the regular season, holding Aaron Rodgers to just 104 passing yards. They are healthier now than they have been in weeks, and they are the deepest team, on both sides of the ball, still standing in the postseason. Look past the names of the quarterbacks, and Sunday's NFC Championship Game appears to be a mismatch. And if this postseason has taught us anything, it's that you can't count on the old guard of quarterbacks to teach upstart challengers a lesson the way they used to.
How to Talk to a Lamar Jackson Hater (if You Absolutely Must)
Swarms of Lamar Jackson skeptics, deniers, trolls and haters took to the internet, airwaves and neighborhood sports taverns in the wake of the Ravens' 28-12 upset loss to the Titans on Saturday night. These pesky, incessant folks are sure to spread their joyless, wrongheaded arguments about Jackson, the Ravens and the future of NFL offense for weeks and months to come.
But don't despair! Gridiron Digest is here with a few simple, no-nonsense talking points to combat the laziest and most common of the anti-Jackson opinions. We can't promise to change any minds, but we can at least offer some relief from the non-stop buzzing and itching.
Argument: Lamar Jackson stinks.
Response: OK, boomer. Do you wanna at least try to sound like you have an informed opinion?
Argument: Lamar Jackson got "figured out" by the Titans.
Response: Really? So the secret formula is to turn a tipped pass into an interception, stuff two 4th-and-short attempts, pin the Ravens deep in their own territory on every punt, and generate your own touchdowns on Odell Beckham Jr.-worthy catches and trick plays so you roll up a commanding lead and run for over 200 yards? If that's a repeatable "formula" at all, it's one that would also have probably worked on the 2007 Patriots.
Argument: Lamar Jackson "cannot win big games."
Response: This anti-Jackson crowd has been saving this one for a relaunch since it was proved wrong in the second half of the Patriots game. Jackson was hardly helpless when forced to abandon the option and throw from the pocket. He led several long drives, delivering some jaw-dropping passes to a very ordinary corps of receivers, during his failed comeback bid. Jackson looked far superior as a passer and decision-maker in his comeback effort to how, say, Kirk Cousins looked Saturday or (whispers) Tom Brady did against the same defense last week.
Argument: Lamar Jackson doesn't deserve the MVP award after Saturday's loss.
Response: The MVP award has always been a regular-season award, which is how Peyton Manning won five of them despite so many playoff heartbreaks. Lots of past MVPs have played for teams that came up short of expectations in the playoffs; not everything that happens in the NFL must be seen through the lens of who wins the Super Bowl.
Argument: Read-option offenses remain doomed to failure in the NFL.
Response: Twenty teams failed to make the playoffs with conventional offenses this season (19 if you count the Cardinals as unconventional), and roughly 31 teams fail to win the Super Bowl with conventional offenses every year. Meanwhile, a handful of option-flavored offenses have resulted in some of the most exciting moments (and successful seasons) of the last decade: Tebow Mania, Colin Kaepernick's Super Bowl run, the Seahawks' Super Bowl victory, Cam Newton's MVP year, this Lamar Jackson season and so on. Yet for some reason, option-heavy offenses are deemed "failures" at the first sign of any setback, even if it happens in the playoffs or Super Bowl.
Argument: Option offenses aren't built to play catch-up.
Response: This is true. Navy is always in real trouble if it falls two scores behind. And the Ravens could use more firepower at wide receiver for when they have to shift into catch-up mode. Now go back and watch Saturday's Vikings loss. The coordinator who orchestrated that masterpiece was rewarded with a head coaching job. Watch any Jets game from this season. Their head coach will be running (or ruining) NFL offenses for the next 25 years. Are conventional offenses, with their 2nd-and-15 draw plays and 3rd-and-20 checkdowns, really built to overcome 21-6 deficits against playoff opponents?
At least the Ravens system is built to take and hold on to huge leads. The NFL is full of systems that aren't even well-designed to do that, but no one takes much notice of them when they fail.
Argument: Forget Lamar Jackson. The real problem is analytics. The Ravens would have won if they didn't keep gambling on 4th-and-short.
Response: Saturday's game was reminiscent of the 24-2 Falcons loss to the Giants in the 2011 playoffs, in which Matt Ryan was stuffed on a pair of fourth-down sneaks deep in field-goal range. It's easy to remember a decade later when a team loses a huge game on some fourth-down stops. Meanwhile, teams lose every single week because they settle for punts and field goals.
All of these arguments boil down to how easy it is to criticize something new and different. The same anti-Jackson arguments would have sprung forth if he led a comeback this week but lost next week—or in the Super Bowl, or if he had won two Super Bowls and then suffered a high-ankle sprain while scrambling in October 2022. They're ad hoc, bad-faith arguments that hold Jackson and the Ravens to a standard that even the best quarterbacks and teams would struggle to reach.
That's why the Jackson skeptics are best ignored, not engaged with. Jackson and the Ravens will be back to silence the naysayers themselves in nine months.
Eliminated Teams Digest
Here's one last look (or a second "last look," in the case of the Ravens) at the teams that were eliminated from the playoffs this weekend—and their outlook heading into the 2020 offseason:
Nearly every contributor of note is under contract for next season or can be easily replaced by an in-house successor. So while $34 million in cap space doesn't sound all that impressive, it's mostly real spending money. Wide receiver should be a top offseason priority; even if the Ravens are banking on Hollywood Brown and Miles Boykin to develop into Pro Bowl performers in their system, Saturday's loss revealed the need for better third or fourth options on obvious passing downs.
The Ravens generated such buzz this season that they could also become a popular destination for aging mercenaries hoping to both be part of something and win a ring: the kind of player we used to assume would just sign with the Patriots.
The Texans have no first-round pick next year and no first- or second-rounders in 2021 thanks to the Laremy Tunsil trade. Their $61 million in paper cap space will evaporate fast once they take care of in-house priorities like defensive lineman D.J. Reader, a huge chunk of the secondary and others. Deshaun Watson is entering his fourth year and will be seeking an extension, as will Tunsil. Even kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn and punter Bryan Anger are free agents; if the Texans had an actual general manager (as opposed to a dictatorial head coach making trades on a fantasy football app), he might have taken care of little details like extending the specialists during the season.
The good news for the Texans is they got some fine play out of mid-round draft picks (Lonnie Johnson Jr., Roderick Johnson) and reclamation projects that the team traded for (Gareon Conley, Duke Johnson) this season. If they keep Watson, DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt healthy and happy, they can just autofill the rest of the roster with Johnsons to remain a team that will contend for the AFC South title for a few more years.
The good news is that nearly all of the core Vikings are under contract for next year. The bad news is that nearly all of the core Vikings are under contract for next year.
The Vikings are slightly over the 2020 cap, per Over The Cap, and have a whopping $174 million on the books (but no quarterback) for 2021. Shopping in free agency will be out of the question; general manager Rick Spielman will have to use some voodoo economics just to take care of second-tier free agents like safety Anthony Harris (likely to receive lots of flowers and chocolates in free agency) and kicker Dan Bailey.
The easiest way for the Vikings to gain cap flexibility will be to extend contracts. That could mean taking out the second mortgage on Kirk Cousins, converting much of his $29.5 million salary into bonus over four years or so. That of course would only forestall the cap issues while guaranteeing a few more years of Cousins.
This sort of compromise inevitably hits when a team has kept a playoff veteran core together for many years but never managed to spill over into the Super Bowl.
The Seahawks have gone 21-11 and reached the playoffs twice in what for most organizations would have been rebuilding seasons after a Super Bowl rise and decline. It has been an impressive feat, but it has also made it hard for them to make the necessary improvements to get over the wild-card hump.
Much of their $63 million in cap space will be spent either signing free-agent pass-rushers Jadeveon Clowney and Ziggy Ansah or finding replacements for Clowney and/or Ansah. The rest of the Seahawks defense is ordinary at best, there's no depth at the skill positions, and the offensive line is just a notch above its typical state of chaos. Even with Wilson playing at an All-Pro level, the current Seahawks roster could have ended up around 7-9 if it experienced a run of bad luck (or even league-average luck) in close games. It's up to the organization to self-scout and realize that the team is closer to mediocrity than the Super Bowl and then do something about it.
Browns Find Their New Head Coach (Pessimism Immediately Ensues)
The Browns reportedly are hiring Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski as their new head coach, the news coming out hours after Stefanski's offense generated just 147 yards and seven first downs in a 27-10 playoff loss to the 49ers.
Stefanski spent just one full season as an offensive coordinator, and even then, Gary Kubiak also was providing input this season as the "assistant head coach/offensive adviser." The Stefanski-Kubiak braintrust led the Vikings to finish eighth in the NFL in points, 16th in yards and 10th in Football Outsiders DVOA.
Stefanski spent the previous 13 seasons as a Vikings assistant through various coaching regimes, most of them as assistant or head quarterbacks coach.
What it means
Josh McDaniels flew with his wife to Cleveland for an interview Friday, with some top lieutenants reportedly already selected for his Browns coaching staff. By Friday evening, those lieutenants were accepting jobs elsewhere, and the Browns were searching for general managers who had no relationship whatsoever with McDaniels.
That job interview must have been a doozy. Yahoo's Charles Robinson reported that McDaniels didn't feel he would fit in a structure where Moneyball guru Paul DePodesta reports directly to owner Jimmy Haslam as a "side jury." So, the Browns quickly shifted gears from a coach with the clout to make demands to someone who presumably won't be as much of a threat to those power bases within the organization that survived the most recent purge.
Stefanski is 37 and has both Andy Reid and Mike Shanahan roots. He can be passed off as another Sean McVay knockoff if we pretend the Vikings offense was really dynamic or innovative this year—or as a quarterback guru if Case Keenum and Kirk Cousins really get you jazzed.
The best thing that can be said about Stefanski is that he's a "blank slate" hire with little baggage. Maybe he's a quarterback whisperer who can develop Baker Mayfield while instilling that all-important winning culture. Maybe the Browns will find a great general manager willing to wedge himself between Stefanski, DePodesta and Haslam. Maybe Haslam's "everyone reports to me" power structure won't result in front office turf wars for once. There's just no evidence at this point that any of these things are true.
A Stefanski press conference in which he talks about toughness and emphasizing the run, followed by months of combing the Instagram accounts of Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr. for signs of discontent.
Coaching Carousel Digest
This edition of Coaching Carousel Digest is more about general managers, medical departments and optics than about the coaches themselves. That's only fitting at the moment, when every new coach is undefeated and every organization is trying—if not succeeding—to start things off on the right foot.
We learned from Mike McCarthy's December promotional blitz that he spent his year away from the NFL in the football equivalent of Bron Yr Aur cottage with a roundtable of ex-coaches discovering new tactical ideas in between fact-finding summits with high-profile analytics providers.
Then, in the week since he was hired by the Cowboys, McCarthy has:
• Admitted he lied in his job interview, telling Jerry Jones he watched every play of the 2019 season when he had not done so.
• Told reporters he was simply too busy, as of the end of the week, to contact quarterback Dak Prescott.
• Explained his understanding of analytics by talking about the importance of running the ball to establish play action, which is like coming out of Sunday school and announcing that the pharaoh was the hero.
OK, the "every single play" thing was meant as a joke, last week was certainly a whirlwind for McCarthy, and veteran coaches don't become analytics gurus after a glorified campus visit. But after one week, we're left to wonder just how much of the "new McCarthy" was manufactured to make him more appealing to NFL owners and how much of the guy who famously had issues with his previous quarterback while clinging to outdated offensive concepts still remains.
This is not an auspicious start for a head coach who is supposed to produce a Super Bowl contender immediately.
New York Giants
Dave Gettleman was justifiably ripped for justifying his outdated run-first team-building philosophy with this nugget of junk science: "The top four passing teams were not in the playoffs, the top four rushing teams were in the playoffs."
Gettleman was technically correct: The Ravens, 49ers, Titans and Seahawks were all still in the playoffs as of his Thursday press availability, while the top four teams in passing yards (Buccaneers, Cowboys, Falcons and Rams) were not. And let's give him the benefit of the doubt that this is not totally a case of mixing up correlation with causation. The Ravens, for example, clearly got a boost from their innovative, run-heavy system.
So let's presume there's real merit in building a run-heavy team in this era of options and 49ers-style systems. What do Gettleman and new head coach Joe Judge plan to build? A Ravens-flavored offense? Daniel Jones runs pretty well, but we're pretty certain that's not what the Giants have in mind. Something like the 49ers offense, with a bunch of affordable running backs playing interchangeable roles? Not with Saquon Barkley in the backfield. Do they consider the Seahawks offense a model, even though three of their running backs got hurt late in the season, forcing them to call Marshawn Lynch out of retirement? Do they think going 9-7 and hoping to get red hot like the Titans is a wise team-building strategy?
Based on Gettleman's history and Judge's tough-guy press conference cliches, the Giants' "plan" to become a great running team is to beef up the line and hammer opponents with Barkley. That sounds a little like the Cowboys' plan with Ezekiel Elliott or what the Rams hoped they could do when they splurged on Todd Gurley.
When a plan like that falls through, the "running" team finishes in the top four in passing, because it is always playing catch-up in the fourth quarter.
Washington overhauled its training staff and medical staff this week, bringing Ryan Vermillion and Dr. Kevin Wilk over from the Panthers as head athletic trainer and medical consultant, respectively.
In the wake of the Trent Williams controversy and other health-related issues in Washington (see: Colt McCoy), the overhaul was necessary. But it's interesting to note that the previous training staff won the Ed Block NFL Athletic Training Staff of the Year award in 2018, while Dr. James Andrews was named the NFL's Outstanding Physician by the NFL Physicians Society in 2017 (though Andrews' precise role with the Washington organization was always tricky to pin down).
The problem in Washington may not have been the people running its training and medical staff, but the executives who those trainers and doctors answered to. Fortunately for the organization and its players, more changes at the upper echelons of power are on their way in Washington.
Matt Rhule's rip-roaring introductory press conference was a triumph of style if not substance. And since coaches never say anything of substance in introductory press conferences, the organization might as well aim for a pep-rally vibe.
The Cowboys and Giants also juiced up their introductory press conferences this year by changing the location, kicking things off with meet-'n'-greets and so forth. This new trend is almost certainly a reaction to the disastrous, googly-eyed first impression Adam Gase made with the Jets last year.
New coaches are rarely seen or heard from early January through their scouting combine press conferences at the end of February, so the impression they make when introduced lingers for nearly two months with fans, reporters and anyone else keeping close tabs on the organization (local sponsors, free agents). Bland and procedural is fine, but upbeat and energetic is better, and the whole meds-are-just-wearing-off look should be avoided at all costs.
And you thought Gase wasn't an influential figure in the NFL.
Note: See the previous segment for all you need to know about how the Cleveland Browns and their new head coach fit into this.
Defender of the week: Nick Bosa recorded two sacks, six solo tackles and a pass defensed against the Vikings on Saturday. Bosa had such a dominating performance that when he was not harassing Kirk Cousins, he could sometimes be seen downfield tackling receivers after completions.
Honorable mention for defender of the week: Titans linebacker Rashaan Evans recorded just six tackles, but his real value was evident when he was scraping unblocked across the field just about every time Lamar Jackson tried to run outside, taking away cutback opportunities and turning Jackson's usual 10- to 15-yard gains into short trips out of bounds.
Offensive line of the week: Another week, another award for the Titans line of Taylor Lewan, Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, Nate Davis and Jack Conklin, who helped Derrick Henry and others rack up 217 rushing yards and have made a habit out of pushing around some much-ballyhooed defenses in the postseason.
Special teamer of the week: Bill O'Brien made some of his typical head-scratching tactical decisions in the Texans' loss to the Chiefs, but his fake punt attempt while leading 24-7 was not one of them. No lead is safe against the Chiefs, after all (boy, did the Texans ever learn that lesson), and Justin Reid appeared to have plenty of room to run when he took the direct snap. But veteran Chiefs special teams ace Daniel Sorensen chased Reid down from behind short of the sticks. That heads-up play gave the Chiefs great field position, which led to a quick touchdown, which led to one of the most remarkable comebacks and wildest first halves in NFL history.
Mystery touch of the week: Vikings center Garrett Bradbury hauled in a deflected Kirk Cousins pass for a two-yard gain in the third quarter Saturday. His 2.0-yard-per-catch average in the loss to the 49ers turned out to be equal to tight end Kyle Rudolph's average (two catches for four yards) and higher than running back Dalvin Cook's average (six catches for eight yards). Enjoy your new head coach, Cleveland Browns!
Honorable mention for mystery touch of the week: Remember those head-scratching Bill O'Brien decisions? Well, he called a reverse option-pass gadget play when trailing 41-24 in the third quarter. Kenny Stills dropped to pass after taking a pitch but was dragged down for a 14-yard loss by Rashad Fenton before he could eject a desperate pass to Deshaun Watson. So, the Chiefs were officially credited with five sacks Sunday: four of Watson and one of Stills. And that doesn't even crack the top-10 list of weird things that happened in the Chiefs-Texans game. It's behind the Nuk Hopkins lateral, O'Brien changing his mind and kicking a 4th-and-1 field goal at the 13-yard line, Travis Kelce's first-quarter drop, the fake punt…you get the idea.
Best supporting actor in someone else's highlight: Texans defender Jacob Martin is more of a pass-rusher than a coverage linebacker. So naturally, he got matched up against speedy Chiefs running back Damien Williams one-on-one just as a long kickoff return shook the Chiefs out of their first-quarter fugue state. All Martin could do after finally working through a Travis Kelce chip pick was flop in Williams' slipstream as the running back crossed the goal line. The Texans led 24-0 before that play; afterward, there was a sense anything could happen. And it did.
Tom Brady tells fans on Instagram that he still has "more to prove."
Point: For example, he hasn't proved yet that he can guilt his employer into acting against its own self-interest by signing a player in steep decline to a huge contract out of a sense of obligation or nostalgia.
Counterpoint: He also hasn't proved yet that he can grow old gracefully and with dignity, unlike some creepy comic book supervillain obsessed with eternal youth. But I don't think that's what he is talking about.
Kyle Rudolph's game-worn gloves wind up for sale on the internet after an unidentified media member asked for them as a charitable donation following last Sunday's victory over the Saints.
Point: Hey man, remember when you couldn't find your credential last week?
Counterpoint: Oh no. Did you impersonate me again?
Point: Yeah, man. We're now both banned from all 32 NFL stadiums forever. But help yourself to some of the swag I got when I told players about my charity for puppies with allergies. There's Kirk Cousins' grill spatula, Adam Thielen's blue collar, Danielle Hunter's vinyl copy of Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue"…
Counterpoint: Oooh, I'll take Xavier Rhodes' pride. That might be worth something someday.
Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikman tear up upon hearing that Johnson was elected to the Centennial Class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Point: Real men [sniff] don't cry. [Sniff.] Damn this mold allergy. [Honk.]
Counterpoint: Let it out, big guy. It's OK to show your feelings in situations besides your daughter's wedding and when Falcon says "On your left" in Avengers: Endgame.
Josh McCown tore his hamstring off the bone while playing in the Eagles' wild-card loss to the Seahawks.
Point: Wow, and he nearly staged a comeback! If McCown had pulled it off, the Eagles might have been forced to play this week with wide receiver Greg Ward Jr. at quarterback. Or maybe they would have to pull Mark Sanchez out of retirement. Or grab someone like Josh Johnson.
Counterpoint: Or maybe Colin Kaepernick.
Point: Oh, there you go, making everything political again. We all know that Kaepernick can't help an NFL team as much as, say, Sanchez, Johnson or a moonlighting receiver could. And he proved this year that he was unwilling to do the arbitrary and suspicious things the NFL demanded that he do to return to the league! And didn't you watch the Ravens game? The read-option is dead, again! And this is no time to divide our great nation with a controversial quarterback. And…
Counterpoint: Only three more weeks of this, folks. We can make it.