Do Not Embrace the Tank, the Patriots Are Not Magical, Who’s Playing in Super Bowl 54
1. The 2019 NFL season is upon us, and everyone is talking about the Cleveland Browns. Well, they were talking about the Cleveland Browns, but then Andrew Luck retired, then Antonio Brown did a bunch of stuff, then Antonio Brown did some more stuff, then Antonio Brown apologized for doing the aforementioned stuff, then Jon Gruden apologized to Brown for Brown having to apologize, then Brown maneuvered his way to the Patriots. But before that, I swear, everyone was talking about the Cleveland Browns.
And rightfully so. The Browns have been bad for a long time, but now they have a lot of really good young players. They got many of those players because they were so bad, and they were so bad because they were willing to consistently pass on improving short-term in order to accrue more draft capital (aided by the asinine rookie wage scale, which has inflated the value of draft picks versus veteran players to an absurd degree). And now we’ll start to see more teams imitating that roster-building strategy, starting with this year’s Miami Dolphins.
To be fair, the Texans did send Miami the kind of package that would normally be reserved for a franchise quarterback and multiple Hawaiian islands. But the result is that the Dolphins will go into the 2019 season with a roster that is likely not competitive. And many Dolphins fans are happy about that, but they shouldn’t be.
The NFL is a league where parity is easy to come by, due to a combination of a short season, an imbalanced schedule that favors teams that performed poorly the previous season, high injury rate, and the fact that, unlike in college football, there’s just not that great a talent gap from team to team aside from the quarterback position. The Browns started their semi-intentional tank after the 2015 season, when they sunk to 3-13. But taking a trip through the 2015 NFL standings reveals a bunch of losing teams who found success in a much quicker fashion. And these teams did it without turning to anything resembling a tank:
Miami Dolphins (6-10): Went to the playoffs the next season.
Baltimore Ravens (5-11): Won the AFC North three seasons later.
Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11): Went to the AFC title game two seasons later.
Tennessee Titans (3-13): Won a postseason game two seasons later.
San Diego Chargers (4-12): Went 12-4 and won a postseason game three seasons later.
Dallas Cowboys (4-12): Never got their injured QB back but won their division two of the next three seasons.
Philadelphia Eagles (7-9): Won the Super Bowl two seasons later.
New York Giants (6-10): Won 11 games the next season.
Chicago Bears (6-10): Won their division three seasons later.
New Orleans Saints (7-9): Won their division and a playoff game two of the next three seasons.
St. Louis Rams (7-9): Won their division two of the next three seasons, went to the Super Bowl three seasons later.
It doesn’t take a complete teardown to rebuild in the NFL. But more importantly: This style of roster building suggests that a season has no value if it doesn’t end with a championship (which is stupid, because every year 31 teams fail to win a championship), that there is no joy in just watching your team win a game.
For instance, Dolphins fans, your team missed the playoffs the past two years but you also defeated the Patriots twice in your own building. Did it not spark joy when the greatest coach of all-time momentarily forgot how to coach and put Hollywood Rob Gronkowski on the field for a defensive snap at the end of the game, only to have Kenyan Drake take a lateraled ball into the end zone for the miracle game-winning score as Gronk flailed, fell on his weiner and everyone pointed and laughed at him?
And for that matter, how sure are you that you’re going to be around four years from now. Sorry, but do you realize how complicated your circulatory system is?
There’s no good reason to celebrate a cynical, unnecessarily lengthy rebuilding process like the one Cleveland fans just suffered through. Instead, demand that your team develop its own players, improve year to year, and play some competitive football while you build toward championship contention.
2. On the other side of the tank-a-thon, the Texans indeed just spent an obscene amount of draft capital to acquire Laremy Tunsil (and Kenny Stills, as the Dolphins traded their best receiver as part of some kind of hazing ritual they're subjecting Josh Rosen to).
Houston was in a quandary though. Last season they, and more specifically their rising star QB, were completely hamstrung by an offensive line that was, ironically, wholly incapable of blocking the very opponents it was tasked with blocking. The Texans had to compensate by keeping extra blockers in. Deshaun Watson, understandably, never got comfortable as he played under constant threat of having his lungs caved in.
They drafted two tackles, neither of whom seem ready to contribute this season. So the question was: Do they spend another season playing with a limited offense and putting their quarterback not only at risk of injury but risk of regression as he is forced to adopt bad habits? Or do they swallow their pride and pay a quarterback price for a very good young player who is not a quarterback but who could be a difference maker in their young quarterback’s development?
With Andrew Luck’s retirement blowing the AFC South wide open, it’s a move that’s easier to understand. And if this move allows Watson to flourish into an MVP candidate, they won’t miss the picks anyway.
3a. Antonio Brown isn’t like Josh Gordon or Chad Johnson or Randy Moss or Aaron Hernandez or Albert Haynesworth except in the broadest sense, that they were all Patriots acquisitions that came with red flags. But it’s also important to remember that simply walking into the Patriots’ locker room doesn’t automatically fix everything—well, you’ll live forever if you wear Tom Brady brand special pajamas, but beyond that there’s nothing magical about Foxboro. Moss worked out and then some for the Patriots and was absolutely worth it even if it did end sour. But Gordon has continued to wage an up-and-down battle against his demons, Haynesworth and Johnson never did anything of note, we know what happened with Aaron Hernandez. Brown’s issues—and no matter what his agent might claim, he has some serious issues that seem to be going unaddressed—are unique and repeatedly play out in the form of bizarre behavior, often in the most public of ways. It won’t be helped by a simple combination of rings, Belichick, and a chance to commiserate with Tom Brady over the fact that they can no longer wear those helmets made out of asbestos or whatever and the time the Worker of the Week award went to JuJu Smith-Schuster and this inanimate carbon rod:
That said, Brown is firmly in his prime and will age well. Despite being undersized, he is one of the best contested-catch receivers in the league because he understands how to get away with the little things at the catch point (ask a defensive back who has faced him); even after he loses a step, he’ll still be a legitimate No. 1 receiver. And if nothing else, figuring out who gets left in single coverage between Brown, Gordon and Julian Edelman is a sum of all fears for opposing defenses.
Still, the Patriots’ season starts in January, and from now until then is an eternity as far as Brown’s behavior goes.
3b. As for the Patriots’ actual game Sunday night, we won’t have AB taking it out on the franchise that employed him for nine seasons, but it should be interesting to watch two teams with good old-fashioned gap blocking schemes go out and try to run it down each other’s throats.
3c. Two of my favorite overlooked details from the “inanimate carbon rod” clip above: (1) How enthusiastic the crowd is for the rod (who, as you remember, is not yet a national hero), and (2) Monty Burns has his problems as an employer, and the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant does need to hire more women, but that’s pretty impressive on the diversity front, especially for 1994.
4. It’s going to be a fascinating autumn for Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen, particularly the latter, as we get a better idea of the trajectories their respective developments will take.
It’s like, remember that Indigo League episode where Ash (finally!) gets to the Vermillion City gym. And Lt. Surge is talking a whole lot of junk about how he immediately evolved his Pikachu into a bigger, stronger Raichu, and meanwhile Ash is sitting there with a little Pikachu, and this is a total mismatch. But ultimately, Ash’s Pikachu gets the better of Surge’s Raichu, because the Raichu never mastered the nuances he would have learned as a Pikachu if Surge had patiently developed him rather than rushing him through an evolution. I’m sorry, what am I saying, of course you remember that.
That’s where we are with Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, still two of the most supremely and uniquely gifted quarterbacks ever to come into the league. In Baltimore, the Ravens took a patient approach with Jackson last year. They were ultra-run heavy, with a good enough supporting cast and rudimentary passing game that didn’t force Jackson to play beyond his comfort zone at this point in his career. It’s still unclear exactly how far his development will go, but he wasn’t put in a position to develop any bad habits as a rookie.
Meanwhile, I appreciate the fact that Josh Allen proved my pre-draft Cam Newton comp to be 100% accurate despite a bunch of melvins yelling about his box score stats, but this isn’t about me. Allen became utterly reliant on the scramble last season, a bad sign for his development as a passer. The good news is that, for the first time in his life, he has a receiver who can separate in Cole Beasley, who should provide him something of a security blanket in this offense—you’d be amazed how much a quarterback’s accuracy improves when he has an open target to throw to. Not to mention, the offensive line added some pieces and should be closer to league average rather than serving as a collective sieve like they did a year ago. But an early-season key for Allen is how willing and, eventually, how comfortable he is operating within the pocket. If he can’t shake the bad habits he showed a year ago, he’s going to ultimately top out as a rich man’s Mitchell Trubisky. (Who, of course, is the rich man’s Blake Bortles.)
To put it in terms everyone can understand, when it comes to Allen’s development, will we eventually be saying this about the Bills?:
5. The Super Bowl isn’t always contested by the best team in each conference because our football lives are filled with injuries and upsets and other mysteries of the unknown. But if Super Bowl XLIV is contested by the best team in each conference, it’s going to be Eagles vs. Chiefs, a matchup the media will dub the “Andy Reid Bowl.” Not to be confused with the Andy Reid Bowl, available at participating Wawas, which, I believe, is a half-dozen slices of Kraft singles—the yellow kind—layered over a mixture of SpaghettiOs and tater tots.
I very much like the fact that the Eagles were forced to break in a lot of their young defensive backs last December and January. That has gone from a weakness to a solid, deep group. Plus, they have the soon-to-be 2019 NFL MVP in Carson Wentz. As for the Chiefs, while the defense won’t necessarily be great, upgrading the pass rush with Frank Clark and getting more aggressive with the blitz should help out a defensive backfield that, by the end of last year, couldn’t cover anyone. Plus, Patrick Mahomes—who will outplay Wentz, but it’s too boring to vote the same guy MVP two years in a row—is still the best football player on the planet.
6. The Colts getting nearly a touchdown in Vegas, on a greater Los Angeles soccer field, is outright insulting. First, folks have to stop looking at Jacoby Brissett’s 2017 box score stats as a starting point. He was dropped onto one of the league’s worst rosters (led by one of the league’s weakest coaching staffs) five days before the season started. He’s big, strong-armed, flashes the ability to throw with touch, is excellent in a muddy pocket, and athletic enough to make plays out of structure. In ’17 he was a little slow processing, but he’ll speed up as he gets more reps. And at the end of the day, he’s a much better quarterback now than Nick Foles was when Frank Reich first got his hands on Foles three seasons ago. Brissett is going to be a quality starter, and potentially a very good one.
On top of that, the Colts defense allowed the second fewest points per game in football the second half of last year, when Matt Eberflus’s young, fast unit started to jell. And the Chargers are trotting out a seriously weak offensive line, especially with Russell Okung out. The Colts might not even have to turn to their fire-zone blitzes; Eberflus might be able to leave an extra body in coverage, rush four and still bother Philip Rivers. Oh, and also the Chargers don’t have a kicker this week.
7. Conversely, the Giants have what looks to be a pretty decent offensive line, unlike the one they trotted out early last season. Eli Manning has absolutely crumbled against pressure, and there’s a chance the Cowboys pass rush will win the day on Sunday simply because there’s a lot more talent there, but if they can give Manning a little bit of time, the Giants are going to hang around with their division rival.
Losing Odell Beckham Jr. makes them worse, but Dave Gettleman quietly—well, not quietly since it was Dave Gettleman—improved this team in places you might not have noticed. There’s the offensive line. They’ve gotten away from those classic Giants edge rushers because James Bettcher’s scheme isn’t reliant on them, and they added a potential stud in first-round corner Deandre Baker and a younger, cheaper Snacks Harrison in Dexter Lawrence. If Pat Shurmur can cobble together an offense around Saquon Barkley and Evan Engram, this team won’t be a pushover.
8. There was plenty of sunk cost fallacy at work when it came to Jon Gruden’s handling of Antonio Brown. And it wasn’t so much because of the draft picks he gave up, but the contract the Raiders gave Antonio Brown (and if we’re being honest—which we always are because that’s the kind of relationship we have—should have voided the moment they were able to) would have covered most of the deal they would have needed to retain the future Hall of Fame pass rusher they refused to retain.
If you have some time on your hands—and if you’ve read this deep into this particular column, clearly you do—be sure to read the killer piece Jenny Vrentas and Greg Bishop did on Gruden’s second act in Oakland, featuring this among its many gems:
“So headstrong is Gruden in his vision for the team that he spent the first 20 minutes of a dinner with a top draft prospect defending the trade of Khalil Mack, saying it helped them get players like Antonio Brown—certainly not expecting then that Brown would be the poster child for the circus many see in Oakland.”
For now, all we can do is lament the fact that we’ll never get to see, for instance, Brown pee in a cup and throw it on Mike Mayock, half-heartedly apologize, then have Gruden give him a contract extension and an executive vice president title.
And so, with “pee” and “weiner” now appearing in this column, my work for opening week is done.
9. Ladies and gentlemen . . . The Flaming Lips!
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