$.01--The Tennessee Titans remain the epicenter of the NFL’s COVID-19 issues. In an ever-developing timeline of positive testing and ripple effects across the NFL schedule, the Titans and the Buffalo Bills may or may not play on Tuesday. The game was supposed to be Sunday but was bumped back when more Titans players and coaches continued to test positive on several different days. The tally of positive tests hit 24 on Sunday morning, leaving the game’s fate very much in doubt but technically still on the Week 5 schedule.  

Tennessee didn’t play in Week 4 thanks to an outbreak. Because of that first diagnosis, the Pittsburgh Steelers wound up getting an earlier bye than desired and the schedule changed for the Ravens as well. But the Titans weren’t done being superspreaders of chaos around the league.  

I don’t honestly remember the exact timeline or figures. It doesn’t really matter other than to know the Titans have fumbled the COVID-19 protocol football worse Joe Pisarcik, and there’s no Herm Edwards scooping and scoring in celebration of the epic mistakes this time around. Now the rest of the NFL is at the mercy of the Titans and their unauthorized workouts, their flippant disregard of the NFL’s carefully crafted protocols.  

If the Bills and Titans game cannot get played on Tuesday, the NFL needs to hit Tennessee hard. The game should not be rescheduled again. It should be forfeited, with the Titans paying the game checks for the Bills players that they wouldn’t otherwise get for not playing. Going forward, the Titans have to field whatever team they can with players testing negative for COVID-19 every day for two weeks. If that means they’re down 10 starters, that’s their problem. One team cannot ruin it for everyone. We’re not to that point just yet, but the Titans have flown close enough to the sun that they need to be exemplified and punished.  

$.02--There is a lot of doom-and-gloom about the NFL’s decision to continue playing through the COVID-19 pandemic. While there is certainly some rightful questioning of the path, the decision for the NFL to continue on the journey is the right one for the NFL and the NFLPA. 

It’s important to focus on the end destination. There is more than one road to having a complete 16-game season for all 32 teams. The traditional 17-week schedule is simply not going to work. That road is closed, torn up and not capable of being driven upon anymore. Not after the chaos of the Titans and Patriots and their destruction of the carefully planned courses of action. 

Hopefully, and I mean that quite literally, the NFL has backup plans, alternate routes around roadblocks and accidents that temporarily close the highway. Smart travelers know their alternate routes before they even depart. Back in the 1990s when I drove over 50,000 miles a year as a road warrior, I knew all the back channels. Interstate 90 closed trying to get from Cleveland to Chicago? Don’t sit and wait, get off and find Ohio Route 2 to U.S. 6 to get around the impasse. If that way was blocked too, head south to U.S. 20 and scoot across to Fort Wayne, take I-69 up to the Indiana Turnpike and then pray the I-94 merger near Gary doesn’t have yet another major accident.  

This NFL season must be a non-linear path. If the final destination is to be reached, the NFL has to be willing to throw out the preferred route. That might mean adding a one-week shutdown across the league, preferably the coming week (Week 6). The NFL has the leverage on the television networks, it’s time to flex that muscle and make them trade a week in October for a week in January. 

The players have to also be willing to detour if they want to keep playing. They loathe the concept of bubbling up and isolating themselves, and I don’t blame them. Who wants to be separated from their families, their friends, their homes for up to three months? That’s what it will take, unfortunately. The NFL needs to allow another round of opt-outs--with pay. Players who don’t want to be a part of a bubble environment should have the option to park in the garage until 2021 without penalty. That will impact the competitive balance, to be certain, but not as much as not playing at all.  

Right now the NFL has a flat tire and a wobbly suspension. Instead of driving on the rims and risk major damage to the entire car, pull over, change the tire and get back on the road. This isn’t the Dukes of Hazard. The NFL doesn’t need to jump the broken bridge. Roscoe P. Coltrane isn’t chasing them with Flash in the passenger seat. Find a way around the roadblock, NFL... 

$.03--Dwayne Haskins is out as the starting quarterback of the Washington Football Team. Ron Rivera benched the 2019 first-round pick after a Week 4 loss to Baltimore where Haskins thought he played well and told his teammates so in the locker room. That was not well-received by some veterans and it certainly didn’t go over well with Rivera, a former player and old-school coach honed form playing under MIke Ditka and Da Bears of the 1980s.  

The situation is more complex than just a veteran coach and a Millenial mindset at QB. Some of it is out of both of their control. Haskins was hand-picked by wildly unpopular owner Dan Snyder, who continues to champion his pet project. The DC-area media have beaten this drum longer than any dead horse deserves to be whipped, but it feels like its infiltrated the Football Team’s walls. 

Kyle Allen barely lasted a half as Haskins’ successor. An ugly, both-guilty helmet-to-helmet hit with Rams CB Jalen Ramsey ended his day. With Haskins not in the building as the No. 3, the story quickly became the remarkable comeback to the field for Alex Smith.  

Smith hadn’t played since nearly losing his leg in a gruesome injury. It took 17 surgeries, a potetnially fatal infection and years of rehab to get back to playing. Smith completed his first pass and then survived a walloping sack from Aaron Donald. He didn’t exactly look like the Alex Smith of old, but the fact took a licking and kept on ticking was a huge victory for Smith. It’s a tremendous feel-good story in a season--no, a nation--where we need as many of those as we can get. 

Alas, the fairy tale didn’t end with fireworks and unicorns leaping through rainbows. Smith managed just 37 passing yards on 14 attempts in a 30-10 loss to the Rams. Washington managed just 108 total offensive yards in the game in falling to 1-4.  

$.04--We have our first coaching casualty of the 2020 season. The Houston Texans finally had enough of Bill O’Brien the epically inept GM to also pull the plug on Bill O’Brien the successful head coach. It was time when the Texans fell to 0-4 after getting stomped by previously winless Minnesota.  

The Texans went all-in on winning last year and came pretty close. But since leading the eventual Super Bowl champion Chiefs 24-0 in the AFC Divisional Round, nothing has gone right. They lost that game 51-31 and haven’t led in the second half of any game since outside of five quick minutes in Week 3.  

Much of that failure is directly attributable to O’Brien and his ridiculous personnel decisions. O’Brien the coach also wasn’t having a good season either, not without DeAndre Hopkins or so many other very good players O’Brien thought he was smart enough to win without in Houston. The Texans next GM won’t have a first or second-round pick in 2021 thanks to O’Brien, which makes the job a lot less appealing than it should be for a team with Deshaun Watson leading the team. The defense built around J.J. Watt is aging and overpriced, too.  

It was reportedly a practice-field conflict with Watt that was the final straw for O’Brien. By popular demand from pretty much every corner, Watt won the battle.  

Romeo Crennel took over as the interim coach. As often happens with a coaching change popular with the locker room, the Texans got the longtime assistant a huge, convincing win in his debut. The Texans rolled the visiting Jaguars, 30-14, behind 359 passing yards and 3 TDs from Watson and 96 rushing yards from David Johnson. Congrats to Crennel, one of the best-loved coaching presences of the 21st century. 

$.05--This is my 17th season covering the NFL professionally. One of the most difficult parts of the job is seeing devastating injuries like the one Cowboys QB Dak Prescott suffered on Sunday. 

Prescott’s ankle was badly broken as he was tackled in the third quarter of the Cowboys game against the New York Giants. His foot angled sideways gruesomely as Dak sat up in obvious shock. Teammates grabbed their helmets and looked away in aghast horror. That was the universal reaction on Twitter too. The owner’s box inside AT&T Stadium featured consolation hugs, red eyes and bewildered stares of disbelief. 

Players from both teams gathered around Prescott as he was loaded onto the cart and wheeled away. The tears in his eyes as he courageously held up an acknowledging thumbs up to the fans might have made viewers swell up a bit too. It was that kind of a devastating injury. Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy and his Dallas predecessor Jason Garrett, now with the Giants, stood together in support of Prescott. 

That illustrates the popularity of Prescott around the league. He’s one of the guys who made himself into something much greater than just about anyone ever believed he could be. Prescott was on pace to set the NFL record for passing yards in a season. It’s a brutal loss for the Cowboys but also for the NFL at large.  

Oh yeah, the game...Andy Dalton stepped in for Prescott and led the Cowboys to a 37-34 comeback win with Greg Zuerlein’s field goal barely snuck inside the right upright as time expired. The win propels Dallas to 2-3 and first place in the NFC East, while keeping the Giants winless.

$.06--The Battle of Pennsylvania turned into the Chase Claypool show in Pittsburgh. The Steelers rookie wideout torched the visiting Philadelphia Eagles for not one, not two, not three but four TDs in Pittsburgh’s rollicking 38-29 win. 

The Steelers improved to 4-0 thanks to a healthy dose of Claypool against the undermanned, overmatched Eagles. The big rookie scored in all four quarters, the first on a quick handoff and the other three via the air against an Eagles secondary that never seemed to figure out No. 11 was a great weapon. Seven catches, 110 yards and 3 TDs and yet there were the Eagles still trying to cover him with hybrid S/LB Nate Gerry 25 yards down the field. That right there is a great summation of why the Steelers are undefeated and the Eagles needed a lot of help to win one game so far.  

If Eagles fans expect some great rebound anytime soon, they’re apt to be disappointed. The injuries have definitely taken their toll, but it’s getting real close to time to start wondering about Carson Wentz’s ugly regression and if he can snap out of it. He’s taking a beating and it’s showing with deepening mental errors and physical mistakes. He looks defeated, for lack of a better term. 

One of the interesting storylines from this game was the astonishing breakout of Eagles WR Travis Fulgham. A 6th-round pick from Old Dominion by the Lions in 2019, Fulgham quickly washed out of Detroit. The WR-needy Packers claimed him this summer but dumped him after just nine days. He was saddled to the bench in Philadelphia until rampant injuries forced coach Doug Pederson to call his number.  

Pederson kept calling No. 13. And calling and calling some more. The No. 1 WR by the sheer fact he’s got two healthy legs and nobody else on the roster does, Fulgham turned in an amazing game: 10 catches, 152 yards and a TD. Good on Fulgham for seizing the opportunity and making the most of his chance.  

For more on Fulgham’s improbable journey, check out this feature from my good friend Mike Kaye of NJ.com.

$.07--The Cleveland Browns improved to 4-1 with a hard-fought win over the visiting Indianapolis Colts, 32-23. Cleveland’s offense stomped the top-ranked Colts defense in the first half, posting 20 points, 16 first downs and 284 yards in the first two quarters. That’s more production than the Colts allowed in their entire win over the Bears a week earlier. 

It took a spirited effort from the Browns defense to hang on for dear life in the second half. A pick-six by Ronnie Harrison and a safety created by Myles Garrett wound up being the only points for much of Cleveland’s half until a game-salting late FG by Cody Parkey. Garrett completely dominated the game, forcing two INTs with his relentless pressure of Philip Rivers.  

It’s been a long time since the Browns were 4-1. It last happened in October of 1994 when Bill Belichick’s Browns, led by Vinny Testaverde at QB, blew out Pete Carroll’s New York Jets to climb to 4-1. Myles Garrett, Baker Mayfield and many other Browns players weren’t even born yet. That Browns team finished 11-5 and won a Wild Card game over Bill Parcells’ Patriots. That was the last postseason win for Cleveland.  

Back to Garrett. He’s an easy choice for Defensive Player of the Year to this point. He’s got 7 sacks in 5 games, but it goes far beyond that. Garrett has created 8 takeaways with his combination of pressures and strip-sacks. Even facing near-constant double teams, Garrett has proven himself the most impactful defender thus far in 2020. 

$.08--NFL quickies

--The Carolina Panthers have won three games in a row to improve to 3-2 under rookie coach Matt Rhule. They haven’t lost since losing RB Christian McCaffrey. There are obviously scads of factors in why the Panthers are winning that don’t involve conjecture about McCaffrey not being as important as hyped, and most of those factors involve Rhule showing he’s a good coach.  

--The defending champion Kansas City Chiefs lost for the first time, falling to the Las Vegas Raiders 40-32. The Raiders pulled it off by smothering the Chiefs run game; KC eked out just seven rushing yards in the second half. They were unable to sustain drives and take pressure off Patrick Mahomes, who was not at his sharpest. Bigger win for the 3-2 Raiders than it is a loss for the 4-1 Chiefs.

--It’s not solely his fault the Giants are winless, but QB Daniel Jones has twice as many lost fumbles (4) as TD passes (2) through five games. 

--In the Bengals’ ugly 27-3 loss to the Ravens, Joe Burrow threw 30 passes. Baltimore’s defense recorded 15 official QB hits, including the 7 sacks. It’s the second time in three weeks Burrow has taken at least 7 sacks and 12 hits. He’s been impressive for a rookie but at this rate he might not finish the season in one piece.  

--Reminder that Jadeveon Clowney turned down $18M a year from the Browns this offseason. Twice. 

--Those of us covering the league aren’t immune to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic either. Get well soon, Cam...

$.09--College/Draft quickies

--One of the best college games of the season went down in College Station with Texas A&M rallying for a comeback win over Florida. Aggies QB Kellen Mond turned in arguably the best performance of his career, methodically shredding Florida’s pass defense to lead TAMU to its first win over a top-5 team at home since 2002.  

--LSU will not be repeating as national champs. We knew that anyway, but the Tigers losing to lowly-regarded Missouri on Saturday ensures it. LSU is now 1-2. 

--Clemson quickly popped the hype balloon surrounding its matchup with allegedly resurgent Miami on Saturday night. The Tigers annihilated the Hurricanes 42-17, proving that the ACC still has a long way to go to catch up to Clemson. Miami had no answer for RB Travis Etienne or QB Trevor Lawrence, who had the kind of game that should solidify his status as the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2021 NFL Draft. 

--The Red River Rivalry was a very exciting matchup of two not-so-great football teams. Texas and Oklahoma battled through four full quarters and then four overtimes to see which team could finally lose the game. Texas eventually succeeded, falling to the sloppy Sooners, 53-45.  

--This is “just” HS football from South Dakota. Doesn’t matter. This is what it’s all about, folks…

$.10--Eddie Van Halen passed away this week. With the legendary guitarist’s death, a small piece of every child of the 1980s did too. 

Van Halen was never “my” band, not even at their peak in the early 80s. I was a fan enough that I owned every album and saw them in concert twice (1988 and 1995), however. And Eddie’s innovative, influential style of playing his signature guitar was why. 

I’m a rock/metal fan and I’ve always leaned on the more instrumentally talented bands. Van Halen is what helped set that course. Even in an absolute rat burger of a song like Drop Dead Legs or Big Bad Bill, Eddie’s shredding made it listenable. Eddie’s ability to salvage a nonsensical, poorly constructed song idea with a brilliant solo and a nice harmony with bassist Michael Anthony really stands out.  

His influence on the guitarists I favor now, guys like John Petrucci, Tosin Abasi, Misha Mansoor, Tim Ohrstrom and Travis Stever (give yourself a big high-five if you know who those guys are without looking them up!), you can hear it in so many songs and solos. It’s been over 40 years since Van Halen I and over 35 years since the band--and Eddie--became megastars with 1984, yet the classic Eddie sound and approach to different techniques remains vivid. Through David Lee Roth, Sammy Hagar, Michael Jackson (Eddie played guitar on Beat It) and even Gary Cherone, you can always tell Eddie’s work no matter the singer. 

That’s the hallmark of a legend. You instantly know his work from just one riff, one tone, one style. Eddie had that. RIP.