Adrian Peterson, Alex Smith, Antonio Gibson, Baltimore Ravens, Bill Belichick, Bill O'Brien, Bob Quinn, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Covid-19, Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys, Daniel Jones, Denver Broncos, Derek Henry, Deshaun Watson, Detroit Lions, Ezekiel Elliott, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jeff Driskel, Jerry Jones, Jim Caldwell, JJ Watt, Joe Burrow, Joe Judge, Kendall Hinton, Marvin Lewis, Matt Patricia, Mike Brown, Mike McCarthy, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, NFC East, NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers, Ron Rivera, Tennessee Titans, Thanksgiving Football, Vic Fangio, Washington Football Team
Against a backdrop of second waves of Covid-19 across Europe and the United States it is not a surprise that there has been an increased affect on the NFL in recent weeks that means that I’m writing the week twelve summary post with one game left to finish as I put this post live. The Baltimore Ravens have become the second team to have a facility-based outbreak of Covid-19 and so for reasons of medical safety as much as anything the Ravens take on the Steelers on a Wednesday afternoon nearly a week after it was initially scheduled to play. I will mention the other team who had a serious Covid-19 issue later, but while the cracks are showing in the NFL’s strategy, it is holding up so far and it is clear the league are now determined to keep to their weekly schedules even if they are moving individual games around.
Still, let us start with the games I have seen before we get to the details of the schedule changes that stretch into week thirteen.
What I Saw
A slightly underwhelming pair of Thanksgiving games which saw two forty point blowouts started with the Houston Texans beating the Detroit Lions 41-25. The Lions actually moved the ball well on their opening drive and scored a touchdown to take an early lead. However, the Texans quickly answered with a pick-six touchdown from JJ Watt before the offence got in on the act with a touchdown of their own. The Lions got a second rushing touchdown from Adrian Peterson to give them their last lead of the game as the Texans soon scored another touchdown and hardly looked back. I’ve heard Greg Cosell talking about how well Deshaun Watson has been playing for a number of weeks so it was nice for him to get to demonstrate this on a national stage, but the truth is that this was not a competitive game. The Lions took what seemed like the inevitable step of firing GM Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia after this latest loss and will be looking to start over again as the rebuild with Quinn and Patriicia after the firing of Jim Caldwell produced worse results. This game featured two tweams who started the season with former Bill Belichick coordinators as head coaches, but while Bill O’Brien’s actions as GM of the Texans let himself down despite a good record as head coach, from the outside it looks like Patricia’s attempt to recreate Belichick’s formula rather than create his own was his downfall. This is a pattern we have seen before with the Belichick coaching tree, and stands in contrast to the success that Brian Flores is having with Miami, but it will be interesting to see in what direction both of these franchises head come the off-season.
The second Thanksgiving game saw the Washington Football Team go to Dallas and beat the Cowboys 41-16. There have been problems with the Cowboys’ defence all season, but the offence’s struggles in this game at least could be explained as the pair of alternative tackles that were starting their second game for the Cowboys both went out injured early, reducing them to third string tackles. Throw in a poor day and a fumble from Ezekiel Elliott and it’s easy to see how this game got away. It’s not as if Ron Rivera had an easy task turning around the Football Team to start with, but his coaching through cancer treatment is frankly remarkable, and his team are playing tough football and looks to be heading in the right direction. Alex Smith is not a long term answer at quarterback but there is already talk of him coming back next season, whilst rookie running back Antonio Gibson looks to be establishing himself and finished this game with over a hundred yards rushing and three touchdowns. With the injuries on the offensive line and to Dak Prescott there is some cover for Mike McCarthy’s difficult first season, but the Cowboys are probably still under-performing in a very winnable NFC East and it is the defensive side of the ball that would worry me if I was Jerry Jones. It wouldn’t take much to get the Cowboys back in the race for the division, but even if they do drag themselves back into contention there’s going to be some serious decisions to be made in the off-season.
Continuing the theme of the NFC East, the New York Giants took a share of the division lead with their 19-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. This was more of a contest than I was expecting, with the Bengals defence stepping up to an extent but the offence was only able to generate a total of one hundred and fifty-five yards of total offence and the one touchdown drive took place late in the game against a Giants playing a prevent defence. In truth, the Giants were in control for the majority of the game, had the ball for more time and I like where their defence is headed even if the offence has its limitations with Daniel Jones at quarterback. I worry what the Bengals long term prospect are, even with Joe Burrow who is a phenomenal talented young quarterback, but Zac Taylor has not convinced me with his total of four career wins and the ugly truth is that the Bengals have not had a winning season since 2015. It feels right now like my mindset as a fan has to be a lot more like the pre-Marvin Lewis Days and I find that deeply concerning. I would love to be proved wrong, but right now I feel better about how the Giants are shaping up under first year head coach Joe Judge (and there is no shortage of questions there) than how the Bengals are building. I truly hope I am proved wrong next year and it always used to be said that you shouldn’t judge a coach until their third year. These days teams are a lot quicker to judge (except ironically the Lions) but as old school as Bengals’ owner Mike Brown is, I wonder how long he will put up with the Bengals losing now they have a franchise quarterback.
The final game I watched in it’s entirety this week was the Tennessee Titans return trip to face the Indianapolis Colts that was another forty point blow out (there have been five so far in week twelve) where the Titans won 45-26. The downfall for the Colts was that their top ten defence by DVOA, that had only given up three one-hundred yard plus rushing games going into Sunday, allowing over a hundred in the first half as the Titans amassed a total of two hundred and twenty-nine yards rushing, with one hundred and seventy-eight of them coming from Derick Henry. This efficiency on the ground let the Titans keep the game script how they wanted and they quite literally ran out easy winners. There’s still a little over of the quarter of the season to go, but after a bit of a wobble the Titans have won their last two games to take sole position of the AFC South as they prepare to host the Cleveland Browns next week. The Colts are only a game back from the Titans and are solid football team so I expect these two to be neck and neck going forward unless there is a significant change to either teams roster, which is even more possible than usual this season with Covid-19 stalking teams as well as the more traditional injuries that an NFL team face throughout a season.
What I Heard
I wanted to step away from podcast topics this week to go straight to the head coach of the Denver Broncos after they were forced to play against the New Orleans Saints on Sudnay without any one of the four quarterback on their roster being available.
The reason this happened was fairly straight forward, third string quarterback Jeff Driskel tested positive for Covid-19, which is not so unusual this season. However, all four Broncos’ quarterbacks on the team/practise squad held their own workout on Tuesday and broke the protocols enough to be deemed close contacts of Driskell. This was discovered late enough in the week that none of them had five days to register clear tests ahead of Sunday and be available to play. In fact, the news broke so late that the Broncos only had a few hours to prepare a practice squad receiver Kendall Hinton, who had played some quarterback in college, to start Sunday’s game. It is unsurprising that he only completed one of his nine passes whilst throwing two interceptions.
If there is a positive to come out of this situation, I would say it is the way Fangio handled the discussion after the game stating that he was disappointed in the players for putting the team and the league in this position, but also owning up that he had obviously hadn’t done a good enough job of selling the protocols to them, when they are on their own.
You can see him talk about this and get a snippet of Kendall Hinton discussing the game here.
What I Think
It’s seems pretty clear that the NFL are very focussed on sticking to their schedule of games in a week, even if specific games do get moved about, but at this point they are doing that for medical reasons and not those of competitive balance. The Ravens got moved because they had an outbreak and then delayed an extra day so the players could have some form of in-person workout before playing.
The Broncos however, despite asking for a delay were not granted one because although at a competitive disadvantage, were able to field a team safely from a medical point of view on Sunday.
This week the teams were only allowed to operate virtually on Monday and Tuesday because of concerns over people having out of town visitors for Thanksgiving, and against a background of a second wave of Covid-19 building as we go from autumn into winter the NFL is concerned about getting to the end of its season at it’s usual pace, trying to minimise medical issues, but not worrying about competitive balance to their usual degree.
Given that teams have been fined millions of dollars and a draft pick so far over Covid-19 protocol violations, and still teams like the Raiders have been repeat offenders, perhaps the example of the Broncos playing without a recognised quarterback will sharpen people’s focusses. I remember questioning whether entire position groups going down would delay games early in the season, and now to an extent we have our answer. Unless there is in-facility transmission the answer appears to be no, you are going to have to find a way to cope.
What I Know
I knew it was going to be an odd season, but it somehow feels like it has been going on for months and yet I still can’t quite believe that we are nearly three quarters of the way through the regular season. For all that there were problems in week twelve and as a consequence we have another Wednesday game in week thirteen, I think that if you had told the NFL that they wouldn’t have lost any games by the start of week thirteen, they would definitely have taken it.
What I Hope
It feels more relevant than ever with how the world is to hope that the NFL gets through this pandemic season with no one catching a life changing version of Covid-19. Yes, I hope the league makes it through the season, and I am grateful for football as I always am, but if we learned anything from this week it is how important following protocols are for protecting yourself from Covid-19. Whatever that means for you, I hope you stay safe. With vaccines on the horizon if we can hold things together for a few more months then there is a real chance we can get back to a lot of things we are missing, even if the world will still be a different place.
We owe it to ourselves and all we’ve lost to learn from this experience, and I hope that as we can get back into the world that we do a little better with it and each other. That feels like something worth holding on to as we head into the depths of winter.