$.01--The NFL is a more fun place with Lamar Jackson in it. Jackson continues to impress, amaze and astonish with his ability at quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens. His latest highlight reel came at the expense of the woeful Cincinnati Bengals.
The Bengals never had a chance. Jackson was the cheat code enabled from the get-go. He does things that other humans simply cannot do. Behold the spin button:
He makes the Ravens, traditionally one of the more staid offenses in the decade of Joe Flacco, must-watch football. Jackson glides past would-be tacklers and consistently knows exactly when to execute the moves more maximum effectiveness. There’s an art to that which cannot be taught. Oh yeah, he throws the ball pretty well. Jackson posted a perfect passer rating with a line of 15-for-17, 223 yards and 3 TDs. You hear that, Bill Polian?
Baltimore is having fun playing with Jackson as the ringmaster of the diverse offense show. How can you not love Robert Griffin III taking a read-option pitch from Jackson for a first down? Unless you’re a Bengals fan, it’s the kind of unexpected flair that brings a smile to the eyes.
The Ravens rout ended at 49-13 after they let off the gas and let RGIII play some mop-up QB. It really did have the feel of a college senior who has been great for the program but simply isn’t good enough to have a significant role getting a deserved cameo at the end of a blowout win. The whole college atmosphere surrounding John Harbaugh’s Ravens comes through. It won’t work for every team. But Harbaugh has impressively tailored his team to what Jackson can do, and the players clearly love it and enjoy it. That can do wonders for a franchise--see the Greatest Show on Turf Rams teams. With Jackson now a legit MVP frontrunner, this Baltimore team has taken over the moniker of the greatest show in the NFL right now.
$.02--One of the more impressive streaks in the NFL ended on Sunday in Chicago. Detroit Lions QB Matthew Stafford had his consecutive starts streak end at 136 games when he was ruled out with broken bones in his back. For the first time since the end of the 2010 season, Stafford missed a game.
Contrary to popular belief, he did not suffer the injury from carrying the moribund Lions all season--though that’s certainly an apt metaphor. Just as he did near the end of the 2018 season, Stafford suffered a fracture in his bones, likely a transverse process. Those are the “wings” that stick out to the side of the vertebrae that sort of resemble giraffe ears when viewed from behind. It’s not any risk of paralysis, but it’s painful and causes restricted strength and range of motion in the torso and lower body.
Stafford had to be forced to sit, a sign of just how badly he wants to win. His sense of obligation to play for the Lions is understandable; without No. 9 at the controls, Detroit just might be the worst team in the league.
Backup Jeff Driskel wasn’t awful in relief, but without Stafford threatening down the field or fitting throws into tight windows, the Lions offense was too easy for the Bears to defend. Driskel was the Lions’ leading rusher with 37 yards, which speaks volumes about the injury-riddled Detroit run game that was down to third-string gadget guy J.D. McKissic after rookie Ty Johnson left early with a concussion. Workhorse Kerryon Johnson is already on IR.
Stafford can probably return to action in 2-3 weeks, based on most reports I’ve seen. I would question the Lions for risking him further injury in a lost season. Even though he was having an amazing season, Stafford still couldn’t outscore what opponents continue to hang on the toothless, passive Detroit defense. There’s no point to it. Any defense that makes Mitchell Trubisky look like Steve Young is not the kind of support a quarterback can function with even at full strength.
At 3-5-1, the Lions have sunk back to the bottom of the NFC North. They’re not escaping that basement in 2019. And if Matt Patricia’s trademark defense--which has legit talent but doesn’t attack or coordinate well--doesn’t dramatically improve, they might be there for a long time.
$.03--I have been highly critical of rookie Browns coach Freddie Kitchens while wearing one of my other hats as the managing editor of Browns Wire for USA TODAY. It is my belief that Kitchens is the biggest reason the talented Browns roster started out 2-6.
I like Freddie. I supported him getting the gig though he was not my first choice (I wanted Bruce Arians). It’s been painful to watch, however. But there are now some signs of progress from both Kitchens and his underachieving, mistake-prone team. Beating the Buffalo Bills 19-16 was a great step forward for the Browns.
There were a couple of critical coaching decisions made by Kitchens that paid off. Benching WR Antonio Callaway and giving his reps to Mayfield’s 2018 security blanket, Rashard Higgins, worked brilliantly. All Higgins did was catch the game-winning TD on a red zone route that Callaway could not execute. The blocking on the outside dramatically improved in Callaway’s absence, too.
The other involved Kareem Hunt. The controversial RB made his season debut after serving his 8-game suspension for kicking a woman in a Cleveland (it’s his hometown) hotel last year. Kitchens nicely integrated Hunt into the offensive attack with fellow RB Nick Chubb. The duo played together a lot and made life miserable for the Bills LBs. It was a needed wrinkle and I thought Kitchens showed some of the creativity and smart design that won him the job in the first place.
It still took Buffalo kicker Stephen Hauschka missing two field goals, including a potential game-tying effort from 53 yards, for the Browns to hold onto the first home win of the season. But these are games Kitchens and the Browns have been losing, almost always at their own fault. Baby steps...
$.04--Any Given Sunday, Week 10 edition happened in New Orleans of all places. The Atlanta Falcons improved to 2-7 with a road win over the now 7-2 Saints. It wasn’t even close, with the visitors from Atlanta posting a 26-9 win.
Matt Ryan’s return will get a lot of credit, but the QB merely kept the trains running mostly on time. He managed just 182 yards on 20-for-35 passing as the Falcons leaned more on a rushing attack. The real heroes came from the Falcons’ beleaguered defense.
Linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich took over the defensive coordinator role for head coach Dan Quinn this week, and the move worked. They shut down the token rushing attack from the Saints--just 11 carries for 52 yards--and prevented Drew Brees and his receiving corps from hitting big plays. Brees dropped back for 51 throws and generated just 287 yards. He was sacked six times by a defense that had registered just 7 sacks in its first 8 games.
The Saints picked a bad day to collectively have a bad day. It was Atlanta’s most inspired and well-executed effort on the season. I wouldn’t fret much as a Saints fan, nor would I expect this victory to suddenly launch the Falcons on a late-season tear. But it’s a reminder that every NFL team is dangerous and the margin between winning and losing is pretty tight even between squads that appear mismatched on paper.
$.05--Last week featured a cent devoted to Trent Williams and how Washington grossly mishandled his rare form of skin cancer on his head. The story continues to spin forward, and none of the spinnings show the Washington organization in a favorable light.
The Skins have refused to pay Williams the remaining salary he is due for the 2019 season. Williams was placed on the non-football injury (NFI) list this week, a proper move for both parties. It’s rare that a team will withhold salary for players on the NFI unless they’ve suffered an injury doing something stupid, like crashing an ATV or blowing off fingers with fireworks. Now the Skins organization has made a conscious decision to punish Williams for getting cancer--a cancer their medical staff misdiagnosed and subsequently put his life at risk with their own selfish negligence.
Think about that stance. Think about if you would ever want to work for a company like that. Think about if you’re an agent and have some control over where your clients will play, or not play, and there are other options besides a spiteful Washington team owned by megalomaniac Daniel Snyder and run by clueless meat puppet Bruce Allen.
The lawyers will sort out the legalities. Those won’t matter to anyone but Williams and the team. But the broader damage the Skins have done, almost certainly without any regard for doing so, is myopically created an environment where players will not trust management and figure to actively avoid playing. And they did it to spite their best player specifically because he had the nerve to grow a rare cancerous tumor on his head. I...just...can’t...
$.06--Just when you thought nothing could be more inept than how Washington handled Trent Williams, the NCAA says “hold my beer” to a disbelieving sports nation. In its infinite lack of wisdom, common sense and own mission to protect student-athletes, the NCAA suspended Ohio State defensive end Chase Young indefinitely, beginning with Saturday’s Buckeye matchup with Maryland.
Young’s crime? He accepted a short-term loan from a family friend so his girlfriend could attend the Rose Bowl back in January. Young repaid the loan already, but that doesn’t matter to the Gestapo, err, NCAA.
The NCAA doesn’t believe that student-athletes have the same rights as regular students. If Young was not a football player and wanted to borrow some bucks to attend the Rose Bowl, that’s no problem. The money Young took was not for himself, but rather so someone he’s close to could fly across the country to watch him play. It’s not Young’s fault his family can’t afford such an unexpected and immediate expense. It’s not Young’s fault he can’t work while he’s a student because he’s a football player.
This is the latest in a lengthy volume of highly calculated missteps by the tone-deaf NCAA that serve no purpose other than to prove the NCAA serves no purpose. They function akin to the Coast Guard having a major base in South Dakota, a completely superfluous and gratuitously funded body politic with no real function other than trying--and failing badly--to preserve the so-called integrity of amateurism.
The Chase Young situation should be yet another stake driven into the heart of the vampire that is the NCAA oversight over college football. Without the money football brings in, nothing else the NCAA does would exist at any level. As soon as the major college football programs realize the NCAA needs them far more than they do the NCAA, college sports as we know it will undergo a radical change for the better.
$.07--The initial College Football Playoff rankings came out with great fanfare on Tuesday night. And within five days the games on Saturday proved just how pointless the much-hyped rankings proved to be.
Ohio State proved they deserved the top spot, even without Chase Young. LSU has a legit argument to be No. 1 after beating Alabama, the best win of either team. If I had to vote, I’d give the edge to LSU based on overall résumé, but it’s close. The rest of the rankings were largely invalidated.
Minnesota was No. 17 despite being unbeaten. The Golden Gophers beat unbeaten, No. 4 Penn State in a fun game. P.J. Fleck got a rich new 7-year contract this week and his young players--more than 75% of the team are freshmen and sophomores--made it look prescient. Now Minnesota has a marquee win that’s a lot better than anything Alabama or Clemson or Oklahoma can claim. Yet knowing the selection committee, Minnesota will still be ranked behind the Penn State team they just beat.
Clemson continues to cruise in the ACC, which might be having the worst power-5 conference season of any since the CFB Playoff system began. They’ll be the only ACC team ranked in this Tuesday’s Top 25 update after Wake Forest got smoked by Virginia Tech. The Tigers could very well wind up not playing a single opponent that will be ranked in the final year-end Top 25 unless Virginia wins out. There is zero evidence Clemson is better than Minnesota or Baylor or a bevy of 1-loss teams (including Alabama and Penn State) other than the fact the Tigers are the reigning champs.
There are still a few weeks of action to sort things out. No doubt the next revelation show on Tuesday will ruffle more feathers. Don’t read too much into it even though it will be impossible to avoid the hype machine.
--Pittsburgh beat the Los Angeles Rams 17-12 in a game that puts a damper on the Rams’ playoff chances. The Rams have now gone 20 straight offensive drives without a touchdown. They got their 12 with a defensive TD, a safety and a field goal. Pittsburgh also scored a defensive TD as the trade to acquire Minkah Fitzpatrick continues to pay dividends for the 5-4 Steelers, the new holders of an AFC Wild Card spot (for now).
--The fact the NFL officials cannot be trusted to spot the football accurately speaks volumes to how much of an overhaul the rulebook needs. The officials are asked to monitor far too many things on every play. Even so, flubbing the spot this bad is inexcusable:
Kenny Golladay spots the ball himself almost two yards ahead of where went down.— Bad Sports Refs (@BadSportsRefs) November 10, 2019
Ref: OK cool, thanks Kenny that looks okay.pic.twitter.com/J3nWLTwqKF
What’s even worse is that if the spot were reviewed, they almost certainly would not have moved it back where it was supposed to be. Help the officials, NFL…
--Panthers rookie EDGE Brian Burns was off to a good start. Then he punched an inanimate object. Now?
Brian Burns had one tackle today. That's his only defensive statistic in three games since wrist surgery. That punch of the ground at Houston has hurt.— Joe Person (@josephperson) November 11, 2019
--Rookie QB Luke Falk is the second New York Jets player to file an injury grievance against the team since the season started. Falk joins former OL Kelechi Osemele, who was released after he had season-ending surgery the Jets insisted he did not need. The Jets dumped Falk after he was unsatisfactory in relief of both Sam Darnold and Trevor Seimian, but Falk claims he suffered a hip injury that team doctors ignored.
--Steve Keim is the GM of the Arizona Cardinals. He’s the man in the dark suit apoplectically reacting to yet another botched pass interference call that directly impacted the outcome of a game:
Pretty sure Cardinals GM Steve Keim thought it was PI. pic.twitter.com/DckyGfbeVH— Dan Hanzus (@DanHanzus) November 10, 2019
It’s not as bad as the one the officials blatantly ignored to give the Packers a win over the Lions earlier this season, but it’s still an egregious whiff that should have been overturned on review. Oh wait, the officials can do no wrong in the final 2 minutes of games, and if they do, it’s a 10-second runoff. What a ridiculous system we have…
--Don’t look now but the Miami Dolphins are hot, baby! Rookie coach Brian Flores has nicely united the undermanned Dolphins and led them to two straight wins after opening the season 0-7. They beat the Jacoby Brissett-less Colts 16-12 in what should represent the end to the inexplicably long career of Indy backup QB Brian Hoyer, who appeared unworthy of playing for an expansion team in an upstart league in the loss. Miami doesn’t mind and happily escapes the national punchline status.
--Kudos to Appalachian State for becoming the first Sun Belt Conference team to ever beat two Power-5 conference teams in the same season. The Mountaineers beat back South Carolina from the SEC, completing the Carolina sweep. They knocked off North Carolina earlier and are 8-1 on the season.
--Best catch you’ll see all year, and it forced overtime in the TCU/Baylor game:
Te’Vailance Hunt with catch of the year!— BettorIQ (@BettorIQ) November 9, 2019
TCU ties it up 16-16 in 1st OT pic.twitter.com/SzXebsPHhF
Ruled incomplete on the field, the review correctly determined Tevailance Hunt got his right hand down inbounds before his feet landed out of bounds. Phenomenal wherewithal. Baylor still won to remain unbeaten.
--Speaking of the tyrannical tone-deafness of the NCAA…
Flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for this.— John Kosko (@JohnKosko3) November 9, 2019
THINK OF THE CHILDREN pic.twitter.com/wD7yDpt3jg
--Lovie Smith pulled another rabbit out of his beard in East Lansing, and now Atlanta Falcons fans have some company to commiserate in the land of blowing 28-3 leads. Illinois completed a furious rally to overcome the 28-3 deficit, and later a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit, to stun the badly fading Michigan State Spartans, 37-34. Lovie’s Illini are now 6-4 and bowl eligible, winners of four in a row.
As for the Spartans, it’s time for Mark Dantonio to realize he needs to walk away at the end of the season. He’s earned the right to leave on his own terms, but Dantonio needs to understand how to exit gracefully. The program is spiraling down and out of control, and Dantonio just isn’t the right guy to guide them out of it.
--It’s not a big national story but around here in West MI, the Anchor Bone game between D-II powers Grand Valley State and Ferris State is a very big deal. Ferris State prevailed 21-16 to remain unbeaten. The Bulldogs are poised for a deep playoff run.
$.10--This column will be published on Nov. 11th. Veteran’s Day. As someone who did not serve and medically could not serve (I had a congenital heart issue), I just want to thank my loved ones who did. From cousins to fraternity brothers, high school friends to old volleyball teammates, I’ve been blessed to know many who proudly represented our great nation in conflicts from Korea to Qatar. The breadth of their experiences is truly amazing.
Contrary to what the increasingly polarizing media would have you believe, Veteran’s Day is not a time for political statements. I know vets who are to the left of Obama. I know vets who are to the right of Trump. Yet somehow they all managed to put aside those political differences to do what they could to protect, serve and honor our country. There’s a lesson there, one which will certainly get lost in the blustering race to be The Most Patriotic Candidate or The Official Network of Veterans.
I’ll show my gratitude and respect with a simple “thank you” and not try to exploit their service for my own personal glory. I might pick up a lunch tab or two. I sincerely hope you’ll do the same.