1a. I’ve long wondered why “Rainbow Connection” starts with the line “Why are there so many songs about rainbows/And what’s on the other side?” when there’s really only one song anyone is familiar with that even tangentially deals with that subject matter. It seems that is more placeholder lyric rather than the iconic opening line of an iconic song.
I’ve also long wondered if, because he’s not just a uniquely wonderful quarterback but also a wonderfully unique quarterback, NFC West opponents have more success containing Russell Wilson than teams who prepare for him less often. Take this with a grain of salt due to (1) small sample size, and (2) the fact that the NFC West has been an especially strong division in recent years, but here’s Wilson’s numbers in intra- and inter-division play over his career:
Vs. NFC West: 7.55 yds/att, 23.6 PPG, 29-20-1 record (.590 win percentage)
Outside division: 8.17 yds/att, 26.1 PPG, 71-28 record (.717 win percentage)
And since 2018:
Vs. NFC West: 7.54 yds/att, 26.1 PPG, 6-7 record (.462 win percentage)
Outside division: 8.53 yds/att, 27.1 PPG, 21-7 record (.750 win percentage)
I bring it up because, on paper, Wilson and the Seattle offense should do whatever they want against a 49ers defense decimated by injuries (Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, plus they might be without both starting safeties again this year). Yet, you could have said the same thing about last Sunday night’s matchup against the Cardinals, in which an Arizona defense without Chandler Jones was lacking any semblance of a pass rush, and one of their top three corners (Dre Kirkpatrick) was hobbled to the point of barely being mobile.
The Seahawks did roll up 572 yards in that game, but they also punted three times, settled for field goals twice and turned it over three times which, with their defensive shortcomings, won’t get it done. More specifically, as the game went on Russell Wilson became increasingly uncomfortable to the point of being borderline frazzled by his final snap. A lot of that was due to defensive coordinator Vance Joseph pushing the right buttons, something Niners DC Robert Saleh might have learned from.
Last Sunday night was a strange performance overall for Wilson. Two or three times every season, he commits what can only be described as a spectacularly boneheaded turnover. Normally he spreads them out over the course of the season (and, obviously, the mistakes you can count on one hand are more than canceled out by the other 1,014 snaps during which he’s fantastic).
On Sunday night, the Cardinals defense—that, again, was physically incapable of matching up with Seattle’s offense—often did a nice job erasing the tight end rolling with Wilson on those staple play-action bootlegs. That, plus Patrick Peterson mostly locking down DK Metcalf, might have made Wilson feel the need to force things more than usual. The red-zone interception (the one everyone forgot about because of the Metcalf chasedown) was a woefully miscalibrated throw on a unique play where the defense was unprepared for the snap—just not that unprepared. The second pick looked like Wilson wanted Metcalf in a jumpball situation but Metcalf wasn’t on the same page.
But the Seahawks’ second (and final) overtime possession is when the Cardinals appeared to have Wilson shaken. Joseph had been rolling the dice with the blitz after halftime, mostly with Budda Baker, to mixed results. On the first play of this series, safety Deionte Thompson doesn’t get there in time for the sack but lays a hit on Wilson, sending the quarterback headfirst into a lineman’s backside. You can see that Wilson is slow to get up. On the very next play, the Cardinals send six and the result is linebacker Tanner Vallejo coming free and drilling Wilson. (To be fair to rookie RB DeeJay Dallas, the Cardinals had been putting linebackers in that A-gap all night but dropping out, so it’s understandable that he had his eyes on the other side of the formation. Still, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to send Russ a Vermont Teddy Bear. The “Beary Sorry My Pass Protection Mistake Resulted In Your Rib Cage Being Caved In” Bear—he has little eye black on!)
Those two hits were followed by the quick-screen to Metcalf that was erased by a holding call, pushing Seattle back into third-and-14. That brings us to Wilson’s third interception of the night.
Arizona shows pressure but only brings four—the protection is sound. The Cardinals are playing the sticks, and even Seattle’s receivers don’t expect the ball to be put into a spot that has virtually no chance of ending in a completion. Maybe I’m failing to understand something—there’s a lot I don’t know about football—but Wilson’s final throw of the night is either a result of confusion (did he think the blitz was coming and was throwing hot?) or hopelessness (lemme chuck a 50/50 ball and let’s get out of here).
I lay this all out in part because I get paid by the word. But it’s also to point out that the 49ers, like the Cardinals, are finding their way defensively after key injuries. Saleh has done more blitzing out of necessity this year, and blitzing Wilson is playing with fire (and Seattle presumably worked on those protection issues this week). But dialing the right one up at the right time could allow the 49ers to contain—or at least create some plays—against a Seahawks offense that is just better than them.
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2a. The worst start of Lamar Jackson’s career came last season at Pittsburgh, his only game against the Steelers (he didn’t face them as a rookie and sat out last year’s Week 17 matchup that was meaningless for Baltimore). Jackson took five sacks, threw three interceptions and the Ravens averaged 3.8 yards per play. (They won in overtime; it was a Mason Rudolph/Duck Hodges game.)
After that dud, Jackson spent the subsequent two months establishing himself as the best football player on the planet, but the issue is going to be the same for him and the Ravens offense against Pittsburgh: They can’t beat this Steelers defense in the trenches. Marshal Yanda’s retirement left a gaping hole at right guard; rookie Tyre Phillips has mostly been a liability so far, and that likely won’t change going up against Stephon Tuitt. But Baltimore might have issues on the other side of the line as well. Left guard Bradley Bozeman has been solid in 2020, but he’s going to have a tough time handling Cam Heyward.
The Ravens have sunk to 22nd in the league in average yardage on first down, and they’ve gained four-plus yards on just 45% of their first-down plays, 26th in the league. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has been historically great as a first-down defense. Playing behind schedule is not where Jackson and the Ravens want to be, especially as they try to iron things out with the passing game.
2b. Conversely, Ben Roethlisberger has always struggled in Baltimore. And, if this is a low-scoring game, it’s always nice to have Justin Tucker on your side.
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3a. Carlos Dunlap and Seahawks are like this generation’s Ross and Rachel, in that we all knew they’d end up together and also because Pete Carroll used to look like an older David Schwimer (now he looks like a contemporary David Schwimmer*). The Seahawks are desperate for some kind of edge-rushing presence, and Dunlap, who is some kind of edge-rushing presence, was desperate to get out of Cincinnati.
Thus, Seattle is an early trade-deadline winner, and John Schneider’s congratulatory Blimpie’s coupon is already in the mail. Detroit also did well to get Everson Griffen, who’s had his ups and downs the past two seasons but can be an effective complementary pass-rusher over limited snaps—and Detroit, like Seattle, very much needed to address their pass rush.
With that in mind, a few other deals that should happen if everyone plays it smart:
Browns TE David Njoku to Philadelphia: The Eagles can’t be banking on long-term health for Zach Ertz or Dallas Goedert, and even if one of them returns this offense has room for multiple tight ends. Picture Njoku getting the targets that are currently going to Richard Rodgers. (And while the Browns aren’t sellers, Njoku has no future there behind Austin Hooper and Harrison Bryant.)
Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore to Buffalo: The Patriots seem ready to move on from Gilmore, and they might as well made the deal immediately after the game if they lose in Buffalo on Sunday—that way they don’t have to worry about who’s going to drop Gilmore off at South Station to catch a Greyhound Tuesday morning. It’s been a down year for the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, but even if you think Gilmore will fall off exponentially from his current level he’s still a significant upgrade at Buffalo’s No. 2 corner spot.
Falcons G James Carpenter to Chicago: This is it, guy. The Bears’ quarterback situation is screwed up beyond recognition and there’s no way to solve it right now. But this defense isn’t staying good forever, and you’ve already got five wins in your pocket. James Daniels is done for the year, but addressing the interior offensive line and someone telling David Montgomery to move forward after breaking a tackle rather than standing in place until more defenders come might be the best chance of having some semblance of a functional offense. Adding Carpenter gives you that chance. (Bonus points if you also turn back to Mitchell Trubisky in December and install a Tebow-style read-option offense for two months.)
Football Team QB Dwayne Haskins to Pittsburgh: Washington isn’t serious about developing him, so send Haskins to a team where he fits the offense and can, maybe, in two years play in the right system, with the right weapons, behind a quality offensive line, and actually hit his ceiling.
Jets LB Avery Williamson to Miami: Now’s your chance, Dolphins, before the Bills take the next step toward AFC royalty, the Patriots restock, and the best QB prospect in nearly a decade lands with the asset-rich Jets. Win the division now! Miami has had the worst first-down defense in football (league-worst 7.5 yards allowed per first-down play, including 5.6 yards per rushing attempt). Williamson has some limitations in coverage, but he’d push Elandon Roberts into a reserve role (his rightful spot) and immediately upgrade this run defense.
Bengals WR John Ross to Seattle: They already dealt a Day 3 pick for Dunlap, but you figure Ross could be had for a late-round pick swap. Ross would return to his old college stomping grounds, and I’d just be curious to see him run a half-dozen 9-routes with Russell Wilson every week. There’s a play or two to be had this season, right?
Falcons WR Julio Jones to Atlanta in a recommitment ceremony: If you’re lucky enough to have a Julio Jones in your organization, you give him a thousand-year contract and let him play as long as he wants to.
*—Is the actor’s last name spelled with one or two M’s? Think you have what it takes to solve this week’s episode of Football Things Murder Mystery Theater? We’ll reveal the answer… right after this!
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4. Participating in the 2020 NFL season seems like a limited amount of fun for players. And it would seem like even less fun if you are a veteran player used to competing for Super Bowls on an annual basis but are currently sitting at 2-4 and led by a quarterback who has had major issues throwing a football the past two games.
Yes, Bill Belichick’s defense has issues. But the Patriots’ biggest problem is that, after such a promising start, Cam Newton 2020 has looked a lot like Cam Newton late-2018, when his typically violent throwing motion transformed into something downright laborious due to a lingering shoulder issue. Cam has looked every bit as bad as his numbers suggest since returning from the COVID list, and he’ll be without Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry on Sunday, when the Patriots make a trip to Buffalo for a game that could very well determine the trajectory of their season. After a humiliating loss to the 49ers last week, will the Patriots show up?
First, two wholly unsurprising facts about the Patriots and Bills: 1) the Bills are 3-29 against New England since 2004—and one win was when the Patriots were starting then-rookie-third-stringer Jacoby Brissett, while another was a meaningless Week 17 game in which New England pulled their starters at halftime. And 2) the Patriots defense has largely dominated Josh Allen in three matchups—Allen’s 56.4 passer rating against New England is the lowest against any opponent regardless of sample size, and Buffalo scored a total of 39 points over those three games.
That said, Allen was better in their Saturday night matchup in Foxboro last December, and has followed up a Year 2 leap to “quality starter” with a Year 3 leap to “borderline superstar.” Stefon Diggs wasn’t there last season but will be this year, and Stephon Gilmore, who suffered a knee injury in practice this week, might not.
One of the most overlooked storylines of the season is Buffalo’s sudden defensive struggles, especially against the run. Sometimes it’s been a schematic decision—like when they played with basically three men in the box against Patrick Mahomes. But there’s no doubt stopping the run has been an issue, and they could be without LB Matt Milano and DT Quinton Jefferson on Sunday. Josh McDaniels presumably spent the week further expanding the rushing attack to take advantage, and right now the less throwing Newton has to do the better.
If the Bills win on Sunday, they’ll not only have a minimum game-and-a-half lead in the AFC East (two-and-a-half if the Dolphins lose to the Rams), but a 4-0 record against division opponents. If the Patriots win, they pull within a game-and-a-half of Buffalo, with a home game against the Bills to come, as well as 2-0 against the AFC East with both Jets games still on the schedule. That puts a 12th consecutive division title well within reach.
But if the Patriots lose, and Newton continues to struggle, in a year when they already had a collection of starters opt out, they might as well sell at the deadline and embrace their also-ran status.
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5a. The talk has already begun that Trevor Lawrence pull an Eli and refuse to play for the Jets if they draft him, so three things: 1) He’d look great in green, an absolutely perfect shade for those golden locks, 2) No one is trading the first pick—Lawrence is a potential generational talent who will play at least three seasons at a discounted rate and there is no compensation for that except maybe Patrick Mahomes, and 3) The Jets are not any worse off than recent worst teams in football.
A year ago, the Jets were 7-9, including 7-6 when starting QB Sam Darnold was actually in the lineup. They have a potential franchise left tackle in place (Mekhi Becton). Perhaps we’ll find out they have something in Denzel Mims. Next year, the defense will bring back LB C.J. Mosley, who was supposed to be that unit’s nerve center this season (and last year). And if they do own the No. 1 pick, the Jets will also have two more picks in the top 33, and (excluding the No. 1) five more in the top 100. Potentially six more if they’re dealing Darnold.
Also, first-year GM Joe Douglas learned a tough lesson last offseason: You can’t play the “only at the right price” game when you’re a losing franchise. The Browns did that for years and discovered it’s the kind of thing that leads to, say, four wins over a 48-game span. Douglas bowed out of the Jack Conklin bidding and, more problematically, got outbid on his own very reasonably priced free agent, Robby Anderson. Conklin would have given them a quality long-term answer across from Becton, and Anderson is a far better receiver than anyone on this roster.
The silver lining is that the Jets are projected to have a league-leading $82 million in cap space in an offseason where most teams will be up against it. So along with the potential for immediate help in the draft, they can and should absolutely be ready to overpay for a top lineman (Brandon Scherff, Joe Thuney) and whatever else might be out there.
5b. The Jets’ biggest rival for Lawrence is Jacksonville. The Jaguars just spent two years alienating their star players; they fired Tom Coughlin and told everyone it was 100% Coughlin’s fault. But right after Coughlin was gone, they used the free-agency-cancelation tag to hold another star player, Yannick Ngakoue, hostage for five months. And during all the unpleasantness they decided their new tack would be to not only treat players shabbily, but take to social media to taunt players over the aforementioned shabby treatment. (Though in their defense that is a change in company policy; Coughlin was never known for his Twitter beefs.) Anyway, is that preferable to the Jets?
5c. The real solution for avoiding these potential Eli situations is to abolish the draft. The salary cap and scheduling system already serve as mechanisms to promote competitive balance—also holding a draft is like going belt and suspenders and then using binder clips to attach your pants to your shirt and underwear.
Give all teams a rookie contract pool (all contracts three years, fully guaranteed), let prospects sign where they want. You also get the added bonus of discouraging tanking. But best of all for the league, it would create the greatest spectacle in television history: rookie signing week. It will have to wait until the next CBA in 2030, but maybe by that point the NFL will be interested in making some real money.
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6. The answer to this week’s Football Things Murder Mystery Theater: Three M’s. David Schwimmmer. Just kidding. I think it’s two M’s. With all the time I devoted to this nonsense bit, you’d think I could’ve looked it up. But seeing as you’ve read this far down in the column, who are you to lecture anyone about managing their time?
As long as you’re still here, enjoy a great band’s very good song that they don’t play anymore…
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7. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Radiohead!
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