1. IT LOOKS LIKE FOOTBALL
From Houston’s loss to Kansas City on Thursday Night to Tennessee’s after hours win over the Denver Broncos, football looked like football this past weekend. The games were sharp and crisp, and didn’t look noticeably different than anything from previous seasons.
Sure, there is the bizarre, and aspects of epidemic football that will take some getting used to. I forgot how violent the game itself is. Bloodlust screaming. Shoulder pad clattering. Wolves whooping into the night. Enormous purple splotches, like that great red spot, grew on my hands watching these games, as I remembered, how absurd it is to actually play football.
The lack of fans in the arena don’t really matter. As Lamar Jackson put it, you have to bring your own energy. And as someone who watches the game while staring out into parched backyard grass, the lack of fans, and the inability to actually attend a game doesn’t matter. Only a few teams have a real homefield advantage nowadays anyways, since the common fan has been priced out of the stadium, and those who still decide to brave the cost, have to navigate drunken sink pissers, traffic, parking lot marathons, and spend an entire Sunday listening to strangers take the lord’s name in vain. The piped in crowd noise is an empty gesture and a little off putting. Even though it sounds like a horde of hollering scoundrels, it just isn’t there. It’s strange and off. Doesn’t sit right. The best environments have the fraudulent noises removed altogether.
My personal favorite stadium experience was the horror show in Detroit. They amplified what the other teams did by adding holographic fans to their cardboard Blockbuster cutouts. They would stand up and move, like plastic seeping from a microwave, uncanny and horrible, and it looked exactly like the crowd from MVP Baseball 2005. A short story idea I have is a reality, locked in a vault once all this football writing is over and done with, now that these computer generated images have sentience.
During the epidemic millions of people have come to the realization of what is actually and truly important in their lives, and now that football is back on, millions of people are coming back to this realization once again, that what matters, what truly does, is how the funny shaped ball moves in silly ways while gargantuan super humans crush themselves and others all in the name of its movement.
2. CAM CAN AND IS
One of the enormous questions entering this season, was how New England would modify their offense for Cam Newton, and when they made these modifications, would Newton be fit to run the ball. The Patriots have only had a mobile quarterback once during the Bill Belichick era. It was when Jacoby Brissett filled in for the injured Jimmy Garoppolo, who was substituting for Tom Brady when he was in timeout, and the Patriots utilized him as a power runner to bomabrd Houston on a short week, and go 3-1 during the ball deflating scandal.
This week this question was already answered. The Patriots are going to use Cam as a power runner, and as of right now, he looks healthy enough to run it. It’s the perfect pairing between quarterback and offensive line. Newton is still a punishing runner that takes multiple bodies to pull down, and the Patriots still have a great power run blocking offensive line intact, that’s only improved with David Andrews’s return. Against Miami, Newton had 15 carries for 75 yards and 2 touchdowns.
On this run, Newton picked up ten easy yards. The pre-snap motion pulls the safety to the other side of the formation. Kyle Van Noy (#53) is the read defender. The left guard is pulling to the second level to lead the way for the running back. Van Noy sits, opening up the keep for Newton. In front of him is a great ‘duece’ block where the right guard Shaq Mason (#69) crunches the defensive tackle, and new right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor (#72) pops off at the perfect time to block the second level. Van Noy is able to chase back to the play, and is given a piggy-back ride like he’s in a line at an Orlando amusement park.
This is the same play, but Newton paints the mesh point to create an open edge for James White. Defensive end Shaq Lawson (#90) is in a good spot to play either Newton or White. Rather than make a quick decision, with confident blocking in front of him, Newton holds this hand off as long as possible until Lawson commits. He chooses Newton. White beats former New England Patriot Elandon Roberts (#44) to the edge and scampers for the first down.
On Newton’s first touchdown, the 59th rushing touchdown of his career, the Patriots called a power run play for Newton without an option built in. The motion pulls the safety over, opening up the alley for him. On the edge, they utilize pin-pull action to bend them inside. The tight end blocks down on the defensive end. Right tackle Eluemunor pulls around his block and gathers up safety Eric Rowe (#21). It’s a top hat walk in touchdown for Newton.
Carolina didn’t move on from Newton because of a talent issue. It was simply a health issue. If you forgot, last season he couldn’t turn the corner on a similar power run play against Tampa Bay on 4th and short, something that’s usually automatic for him, and had Gatling gun accuracy to the sideline. New England was the only team to give him an incentive heavy contract, and already they’ve been rewarded for it.
His accuracy was noticeably better too. The short middle passes were placed well, and led his receivers. This was also missing from Newton last season.
The offense still lacks a vertical threat and is going to be stuck in a box. K’Neal Harry providing something downfield is vital for New England to be something more than AFC East competitive this year, but Belichick can always find a way to add more talent to the receiving room. A 4.2 completed air yards works when Ryan Fitzpatrick throws three interceptions and their run defense is devouring a terrible rushing attack, but it won’t against the best teams in the AFC.
For now, Cam is beautiful and happy and that’s a good thing to see, even if he’s not real, and is just a moving image on my computer screen.
Entering the 2020 season I thought Jacksonville would be competent enough, and had enough talent to be a 5-11 or a 6-10 team. This tanking idea seemed impossible with the players they had in place. Then the preseason max exodus came. Leonard Fournette released, and Yannick Ngakoue and Ronnie Harrison were traded. This trip to the aquarium store made 2020 feel like a give up year for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Then they played football, and the Jaguars had a great defensive and offensive gameplan, completely outcoached Indianapolis, and made the most out of Philip Rivers’s mistakes and Frank Reich’s insane 4th down decisions. Hey Frank! How about you don’t hand the ball off to Nyheim Hines on 4th and 1?
Offensively, Jay Gruden’s west coast offense created easy reads and quick crossing routes that confused the Colts’ zone defense. Their three main receivers had an average depth of target less than ten yards. Gardner Minshew only completed one pass over 20 yards, despite it being the strength of his game last season, and his brain and arm were noticeably better as a short thower of the football. Over the course of 20 pass attempts he threw one incompletion, when Laviska Shenault Jr. lost the ball as it made its route to his belly.
The Jaguars’ passing offense was littered with easy throws and decisions. My personal favorite was this quick redzone touchdown pass to DJ Chark. The Colts are playing quarters in the redzone. The hole in this defense is the flat. Shenault Jr. motions out wide and into the flat. Minshew fakes this throw, pulls the corner, who should be defending the deep fourth, and opens up an easy seam between the corner and safety. Simple motions and movements can create easy throws.
The fun part is going to be when Jacksonville actually starts stretching the field more. Chark slot fades, Chris Conley go routes, and Shenault Jr. running deep crosses over the first level of the defense, are all going to be on display soon.
Jacksonville has the talent to be competent and competitive. Hopefully they stretch it to see how long it lasts for. Life is too short to crater for a quarterback, especially when you already have an edible eating, Lord Huron listening, stunt devil on set for 600k a year.
4. ISN’T THAT SO
The Eagles seemed to be headed for a cursed season. Brandon Brooks, the great dancing bear, tore his Achilles, and Andre Dillard’s bicep fell of the bone, leading to Nate Herbing starting at right guard, and Jason Peters playing left tackle, until injuries to Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz force him to return to his youth and play tight end.
This quickly renovated offensive line was forced to block one of the best fronts in the league. Washington’s defensive line is Matthew Ionnadis, Ryan Kerrigan, Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen, Da’Ron Payne, and Ryan Andersen. This unit sacked Wentz 6.5 times, hit him 11 times, and pressured him 13 times. This doesn’t even include the screaming blitzes and detonations Jon Bostic delivered from the inside linebacker position. Every Washington blitz is hilarious. It’s like cutting the limbs off someone and then burning them alive.
Young immediately brought an insane rush to force a field goal on third and five. He spun back inside against the chip to get around Peters, and then managed to comeback and get a claw on the ball to force a fumble, that was luckily recovered by Jason Kelce. Young is worth the price of admission, or your 40 minutes, alone.
Some of these sacks were on Wentz though. He dangerously held onto the ball, and ignored the clock screaming in his skull. The pocket movement was blurry. He walked into sacks. And took hits he shouldn’t have taken. He lost a fumble that ended the game, and was fortunate, he didn’t fumble more often.
Washington is worth your time because of this front. Not even Dwayne Haskins starting 3 for 12 and finishing 17 of 31 for 178 yards can dampen this murderous band of bandy-legged demons Washington has.
5. OLD DUDES ROCK
Last week was a Big Dog sweater with a slogan like OLD DUDES ROCK or MY HOUSE MY RULES paraded above a very large dog with crossed humanistic arms. The previous generation of quarterbacks are still alive and eating Luann Platters. Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Drew Brees won their week one starts. And Tom Brady was on the losing end of an 84 year old quarterback battle.
Rodgers was the best of the bunch. The Green Bay Packers ran an offense noticeably different than the one they had last season. They ran plays from spread formations, stretched the field and attacked it in every direction available, and Rodgers had a better connection with those receivers not named Davante Adams.
Throughout the course of their 43-34 win, Rodgers threw horizon to horizon stretching rainbows down the field. It helps to be playing against cornerbacks like Mike Hughes, Cameron Dantzler, and Mike Hilton, who consistently failed to stay on top of their routes, regardless, these throws were military grade precision.
Minnesota lost the majority of their cornerback room—which was kind of crappy to begin with—this offseason because of salary cap constraints. With enough elite talent, it seemed possible they could scheme their way around it so their best players would overlap to help with their secondary issues. Cornerback play this disastrous is impossible to scheme around though. The computers may end up being right about Minnesota’s defense, or at least until Danielle Hunter returns from injured reserve.
Ben Roethlisberger returned for the early Monday Night game after elbow surgery stole his 2019 season from him. Bearded and beer bellied, Roethlisberger looked more like he was playing beer pong with BUD ICE—I want to live in the America that advertises malt liquor instead of seltzer water in the empty stands behind the endzone—than playing professional quarterback as he swayed in the pocket, and delivered back foot Dirk Nowitzki fades against pressure.
With him back, and a threat their secondary receiving options would receive competent downfield passes, it allowed JuJu Smith-Schuster to run the type of routes he’s best at. From the slot, he’s excellent running quick drags and slants from bunch formations out of the dust created from his teammates. He had 69 receiving yards, and caught 2 touchdowns, one of which came from an excellent slot fade he ran under a quick James Washington drag route.
It’s unfathomable Pittsburgh didn’t address the quarterback position in any meaningful way, but as long as Roethlisbeger is healthy, they have the front seven to carry them against any team since their quarterback is no longer a disastrous negative.
Drew Brees was whatever. He mainly dumped it off to Alvin Kamara, and found Jared Cook downfield enough times. He’s playing on the best roster in the NFC. New Orleans could let him sit in salt until December and they’d still make the playoffs. Nothing he does in the regular season matters. January is the only thing that does at this point of his career, in an attempt to ensure those years of heart break were worth it.
Tom Brady going to Tampa Bay unleashed despondency in the caverns of my rib cage. Bruce Arians’s vertical offense would be replaced by soulless quick slants, and Mike Evans and Chris Godwin would turn into a polo-shirt version of themselves.
Their passing offense against New Orleans was pleasantly surprising. They did a great job balancing their heavy multiple tight end sets, with spread formations, and Brady looked remarkably acceptable throwing the ball downfield. He doesn’t have eviscerating arm strength, but he can throw with enough arc to carry the ball downfield well. Although he didn’t hit too often, he was able to complete some pretty intermediate sideline completions, and draw pass interference penalties.
The problem was the turnovers. Like Mike Vrabel always says, the turnover differential is undefeated. Brady threw one interception after Evans cut off his route, and another was a pick six to Janoris Jenkins, that was something out of a Jameis Winston movie.
As excited as we’ve all been for the next generation of quarterbacks to waltz in and fully take over, the old men are still hanging in there, playing bocce ball with chestnut died hair, and loving life by taking everything day by day. All four quarterbacks play on complete rosters, and as long as they can stay healthy, we’ll be seeing them play important football well into the winter.
6. THE REAL E-P SYSTEM
Bill O’Brien’s vaunted E-P system has taken on a mythical quality around these parts. It takes years to learn it. But once they do, they’ll become this unstoppable super offense that rivals the elite passing attacks of the game. Every season we hear some semblance of this, and every season, it’s the same disappointing and frustrating mess. Week one against Kansas City was the first step along the same well worn trail.
Multiple teams in the league run this offense, don’t make the same excuses, and don’t go through the same struggles. Take Buffalo for example. They run the same system Houston does, and despite Josh Allen being ‘one of the worst quarterbacks in the league’, they finished 20th in offensive DVOA compared to Houston’s 16th.
This offseason they kept the same structure of their offense, and rather than trade their best receiver, they added a true number one in Stefon Diggs, and replaced Frank Gore with Zach Moss, giving Devin Singletary the steering wheel to drive the team’s rushing attack. In week one they put up 27 easy points on the New York Jets, who were tenth in defensive DVOA last season, and this total came after two hilarious Josh Allen power running fumbles and two missed kicks.
Their offense operates on multiple planes of reality. Buffalo has a power run game where every blocker can pull, they can spread it out and pick and pop (Allen is a better short passer than he gets credit for), when defenses drop deep or play man coverage Allen can scramble for easy runs, end arounds with Isaiah McKenzie create simple yards, Diggs can turn off-man into easy comeback and curls, and they have a receiver for every segment of the field. Against New York, almost every play was positive, the main exceptions were the Marcus Maye Jamal Adams impersonations. Overall, it was a well executed and well designed offensive attack. Allen’s passing chart was symmetrical and beautiful.
The one thing missing were the deep passing shots. Allen was 2 for 3 past 20 yards, but being up big, and this being his worst trait, you’d like to see him get more practice at these throws.
Buffalo running an aggressive offense that takes chances is crucial for their 2020 season. Their defense is dominant. It can make up for their offensive mistakes. It’s important for a team with a young quarterback to make mistakes and learn in the regular season, instead of trying to flip some switch that doesn’t exist when they find themselves down against better opponents.
7. TENNESSEE REDZONE TOUCHDOWN RATE TRACKER
One of the main components of the newest wave of TITAN UP was Tennessee’s redzone touchdown rate with Ryan Tannehill in the offense. They scored in every way imaginable. Sliver window precision passes. Derrick Henry jump passes. Jonnu Smith one handed receptions. Brian Kelly extra blocker leakage. Tannehill-Henry speed options. It was beautiful and tiny blue-toothed, but it was unsustainable. With Tannehill the Titans had an insane redzone touchdown rate of 86.7%. Including the postseason, the Titans scored 33 touchdowns, kicked 2 field goals (one in the AFCG unfortunately), and had 3 turnovers.
The regression already started against Denver. They scored touchdowns on two of their five trips, and scoured in devastation as Stephen Gostkowski missed four field goals. To circumvent last season’s kicking issues the Titans stopped kicking field goals. Without the same touchdown rate, Gostkowski is going to get plenty of chances to fight off his yips, and Tennessee’s offensive production could suffer by three to six points, or even ten points some games because of it.
8. THE NEW MARKET INEFFICIENCY
For months I’ve been modifying my algorithm, adding new variables, extending decimals to up to 73 places, and replotting the distribution, to figure out where and how NFL offenses are missing opportunities.
With surprising results it spat back something remarkable. Teams with an excellent receiving running backs should run more angle routes out of the backfield. Both Oakland with Josh Jacobs scorching Shaq Thompson, and San Francisco with Raheem Mostert annihilating Isaiah Simmons, did exactly this.
This year there are a handful of teams who punted on the linebacker position, and are trotting out totally abhorrent linebacker groups. The door is wide open for the McCaffreys and Barkleys of the world to make easy catches in isolation that also offer big play potential.
9. BALTIMORE SIM PRESSURE
Unfortunately, the All-22 still isn’t out, so the video clips are from the broadcast view, and this piece of very serious very professional football writing is limited because of that. This next play is a little difficult to tell from the camera work available, but that shouldn’t limit its majesty.
Cleveland managed to find themselves tied 0-0 against Baltimore with 12:27 left in the first quarter. In this situation, Cleveland opened the door, and tried passing out of the shotgun with 11 personnel and a slot right wide receiver formation. The Ravens are the Ravens. They blitz more than any other team. They load the line of scrimmage like purple boxed nachos and make soothsaying a pre-snap impossibility. Despite showing seven defenders at the line of scrimmage, they only bring four, simulating the pressure because they still have seven defenders in coverage.
One of the defenders in overage is Calais Campbell (#93), who goes from left defensive end to the hook defender on the opposite side of the formation. Baker Mayfield sees off-man coverage. He’s locked on his first read. He never checks the kicked out ant pile to see where the defenders scatter. Campbell runs directly in front of this pass, lurches in anger over his clumsy hands, and wakes up surprised to see Marlon Humphrey with the ball.
This diabolical play call led to a quick seven for Baltimore’s offense. It was a devious way to take advantage of a young locked eyes quarterback, and is a perfect reminder of how defenses can design playcalls to create opportunities for themselves, instead of bending until an offense makes a mistake.
10. LEAP FROGGIN
One of the perils of football watching is the lexicon. The same words and phrases are always uttered, and after sixteen Sundays of hearing the same things it becomes nauseating. Grown Man. He just wants it more. Tough, smart, dependable. These phrases hypnotize me off the couch and behind funeral processions. Constant cliche uttering turns a great game into banal khaki pants viewing.
During last week’s game I heard a phrase that lifted my soul. Saquon Barkley, and other running backs didn’t merely hurdle a defender, or jump over a defender, or hop over a tackler, they leapfrogged over them. Damn I love that. That makes my ears feel good.
Leave it to Saquon to string together a stiff arm and hurdle, and create a connection of neurons that gives us all a new, better, and prettier way to describe one of the most exciting plays the game has to offer.