The NFL is back and in full swing! Here are some of my thoughts and observations after two weeks of action.
Packers-Vikings: Bradford Shines, Rodgers Struggles
Sam Bradford has always been a bit of an enigma. He’s always had the skillset, and he looks like a prototypical strong-armed, rhythm, dropback, pocket passer. He’s just never really lived up to expectations. He’s played in a ton of different offenses, has struggled with injuries, and has often been surrounded by subpar supporting casts. Nonetheless, he just always leaves you wanting a little more. He’s never proven that he can really elevate his supporting cast, or that he can produce wins consistently (or that he can stay healthy).
History would tell you to be skeptical that Sam Bradford can be anything more than average. Nonetheless, I find myself wanting to be optimistic about Sam Bradford. That’s because, when you watch him, you see why he was a No 1 overall pick. He’s a really natural and easy thrower of the ball. His arm strength is significantly above average, and he has a quick, effortless release.
On the one hand, a Bradford skeptic could argue that last night’s win over the Packers really wasn’t anything too significant. It was only one game, and it was a 17-14 win that was mostly defensive driven. Still, two throws in particular stand out to me: The play action deep shot to Diggs, and the TD pass to Diggs running up the seam while Bradford was being hit. Those are two throws that Teddy Bridgewater doesn’t make.
I think Sam Bradford has the potential to be an upgrade over Teddy Bridgewater, at least as Bridgewater is at this point in this career. (That’s not to say that he will be, or that the Vikings should abandon Bridgewater.) I know a lot of people like Bridgewater. The folks at Football Outsiders are really high on him. But one reason why I thought the Bradford trade sort of made sense, and why I didn’t think the Vikings were necessarily doomed when Bridgewater went down, is because I don’t think Bridgewater played particularly well last year. That Vikings team went to the playoffs because of Peterson and the defense, for the most part. Bridgewater threw for 3231 yards, 14 TD, and 9 INT for a passer rating of 88.7. His 65.3% completion and 7.2 y/a are okay, but for the most part, those numbers aren’t very good.
One thing that concerns me about Bridgewater, which Greg Cosell of NFL Films brought up during the pre-draft process and which hasn’t really changed, is his arm strength and throwing process. Bridgewater throws a very slow ball, and he’s not a natural thrower of the football. He pushes it way more than he flicks it. It looks like he’s trying really hard to throw it, like I often do when I play in the backyard. One reason for this, I believe, is his small hands, which prevent him from spinning the football and really getting torque on it. People talk about his struggles with the deep ball and lack of aggressiveness, but this is all tied into arm strength. You’re not going to make throws into tight windows if you don’t think that you are physically capable of getting the ball there.
This isn’t to say that Bridgewater can’t become a serviceable quarterback. But it’s just one more thing he has to compensate for, and it limits how high his ceiling can be. Bradford, as I mentioned, has no such issue. Not only is he a better natural thrower of the ball, but he’s taller and he plays taller, with a more over the top delivery and less bend in his knees.
The Vikings are a good team built on a strong defensive foundation by head coach Mike Zimmer. Bradford in many ways has become an easy target for criticism because of some of his history– the multiple huge contracts he’s signed and inability to produce that kind of return, the demanding of a trade in Philadelphia, the fact that he’s incredibly injury prone… but as a player, there’s no doubt that he’s talented. And there’s no doubt that Minnesota can make the playoffs with him at the helm. Whether or not they will? That, only time will tell.
Now onto the Pack. Over the past few days, Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders has tweeted some interesting stats about Rodgers. He is now going on a 14 game streak without a 100+ passer rating. His yards per attempt was 6.7 in 2015 (career is 8.0) and through two games in 2016 is 5.9. He is 6-8 as a starter in his last 14 games, including the Playoffs. As Greg Rosenthal of NFL.com pointed out within the last few weeks, Brady and Manning never had streaks of futility like this in their primes.
Now, Rodgers is certainly not all to blame, and he certainly has not been horrible. But the TD/INT ratio (31/8 in 2015) does not tell the story of what a poor offense this has been recently and how poorly Rodgers has been playing.
Again, Rodgers hasn’t been awful, and he still has had a spectacular career, but you wonder how long this can go before he starts being criticized. There have been a lot of times where I’ve felt that Rodgers has been overrated and that he often gets a pass for poor play. Yes, I had him at No 1 for my QB Rankings coming into the 2015 season. Yes, he’s still probably the most talented Quarterback in the league in terms of arm strength, although that’s always a tough call to make. But people for years have taken it for granted that he’s been the best QB in the league, and many have gone on to claim that he’s on his way to being the greatest that’s ever played this game. That’s ridiculous. He’s only been playing since 2008, and he has one Superbowl ring and has been average in the playoffs since. In terms of the all time argument, he’s still in the shadows of Brady, Peyton, and arguably even Ben Roethlisberger, as well as several guys that are now retired.
But that’s beside the point. On a more micro level, what’s always bothered me most about Rodgers is the degree to which he just isn’t a rhythm player. He holds onto the ball way longer than he should at times, and he takes a lot of sacks, WAY more than the Brady/Mannings. That should play into the picture when talking about his phenomenal TD/INT ratio.
We’ve seen this lack of rhythm come to haunt Rodgers at times during losses and against high level defenses, but for the most part he’s had an effective career and done a fantastic jab of walking a fine line between structure and improvisation.
But that’s not how he’s been playing recently. Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders was talking about how the Green Bay Offense just looks broken. How it used to run so smoothly and efficiently, like a tightly oiled machine, like we used to see with those perfectly timed back shoulder fades. But recently, it’s just been so out of sync. It essentially relies entirely on broken plays. Last year, I bet if you took out of Rodgers’ numbers screens and plays where he got the defense to jump offsides to get a free play, they would be a lot worse.
This is how Rodgers is playing recently. There is no timing or play-to-play execution involved in the GB offense. He’s arguably the best in the league at making improvisational plays, but that can’t be your whole game. Every play can’t be backyard football. That’s not high level quarterbacking and that doesn’t lead to consistent execution. That’s why the GB offense has been inconsistent and struggling. It seems like almost every time Rodgers drops back, he’s running around or moving around in the pocket to try to buy time and “make a play”, or wait for something to happen.
Rodgers is consistently looked at as having great pocket movement, but it’s different than that of guys like Brady and Brees. When they move in the pocket, it is measured and methodical. And it’s fairly consistent. It’s drop back, step up, deliver. Slide left or slide right occasionally if needed. Rodgers is by no means frenetic in the pocket, and he certainly has a great feel for finding the empty space… but his movement seems more random than that of those guys. It’s a little more all over the place. It seems like he’s buying time/extending the play just for the sake of extending the play. When he moves in the pocket, it looks like he’s trying to complete a madden challenge where you’re asked to stay in the pocket without getting sacked as long as you can. It’s not very calculated movement.
In Week 1 against the Jaguars, Rodgers made an absolutely ridiculous touchdown pass. He threw it with precision down the field with a defender practically tackling him. But the talking heads were so caught up with talking about that play, that they ignored the bigger picture of how out of sync the GB offense has been. And that’s been the story for the past year it seems like with Rodgers. People just talk about the crazy broken plays, and ignore how inconsistent Rodgers has been when he’s not making those plays. Sometimes, you just have to drop back and get rid of it for a short gain. Those plays aren’t exciting and they don’t make the highlight reels. But the great ones are going to make those every time. Rodgers tries to improvise so much, that he leaves a lot of plays on the field.
And then there are the comeback woes, which reared their ugly head again on Sunday. As Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders (who keeps track of QB 4th Quarter Comeback records) has written about time and time again, Aaron Rodgers is essentially a frontrunner. This means if it’s the 4th Quarter and the Packers are behind, they aren’t likely to comeback with Rodgers at the helm. No one in the media talks about this, but if you look at his track record, it’s surprisingly accurate. Rodgers’ last pick in the Minnesota game was bad (although the receiver might share the blame), and so was the fumble before that, another example of Rodgers holding onto the ball too long (also poor RT play). 4th Quarter Comebacks have been a problem for Rodgers every year since his rookie year, so this aspect of his game is unlikely to change even if he does get back to MVP form. Some QBs just aren’t comeback QBs. This doesn’t mean you can’t be a great QB–Kurt Warner, one of my favorite QBs, is an all time great, and he too was a notorious frontrunner–but when guys like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and even guys like Eli Manning, are spectacular in this department, it’s worth at least mentioning
Now, the poor GB offense certainly isn’t all on Rodgers. The O-line has struggled at times. The run game has been hit and miss. And most importantly, the receivers have been below average and have often been unable to separate. The GB receiving core has lost pieces throughout the years (Jones got old, Driver retired, Jennings left/got old, Finley got hurt), and it just isn’t what it used to be. Cobb really struggled without Jordy Nelson in the lineup. And Davante Adams is not a good No. 3. Everyone thought he’d be so good in 2015, but people were fixated on what were essentially only two good games for him (DAL and NE) out of the whole 2014 season. Greg Cosell of NFL Films was talking about, a while back, how it seems Rodgers doesn’t trust Davante Adams when he’s running the slant (the slant-flat is a staple route combination in the GB offense), because often he didn’t pull the trigger on those throws. And I’ve seen a few times where a slant to Adams almost ended up getting picked from the defender cutting in front of him. That kind of stuff messes with a QB’s head. The QB needs to trust that the receiver is going to be where he needs him to be. Otherwise, he either doesn’t throw it at all, or throws it a clutch too late, which is the difference between a completion and an incompletion/INT in this league.
I think 2015 was a perfect storm of factors for Rodgers. Somewhat similar to 2013 for Eli Manning. That year on the Giants there was no run game, the o-line was awful, the receivers were inconsistent, and the pass game concepts weren’t helping the issue. When Rodgers is uncomfortable, he plays fast at times (goes through his reads too fast/moves around too soon), holds onto the ball too long, and leaves plays on the field. When Eli gets uncomfortable, he chucks up absurdly dumb interceptions. Yes, it’s good that Rodgers has managed to avoid throwing picks throughout this slump, but that doesn’t mean he’s been playing well. There’s more to good quarterbacking than not throwing picks. Now, Eli did not at all have a good supporting cast in 2013, but he was part of the problem. A big part. By no means has Rodgers been as bad as Eli was then, but the GB offense has been bad, and that includes him. He too has been part of the problem. The bottom line is, it can’t all be about Jordy.
And it may seem like I’m overstating the issue (and perhaps I am), but this is the part of it that gets me. If I had a penny every time I heard someone talk about Jordy Nelson coming back and him being gone last year and the impact of that on the offense, I’d be rich. I know it matters. I know he’s a great WR, and I know the comfort level with Rodgers is huge. But there has to be more to it than that. Rodgers is supposed to be one of the best in the game. Does the production of the best QB in the game entirely depend on the presence of one WR? Does that also mean that when Rodgers has been so good in the past, it’s just been because of his receivers? Of course not. When Rodgers has been great, it’s been because of him. Why can’t we acknowledge that when he’s been not so great, it’s also because of him? Again, that’s not saying there aren’t other factors. It’s simply saying that he is one of the factors.
A guy like Peyton Manning, no matter who he was throwing to, would always get rid of the football quickly. That’s simply the type of player he is. Rodgers doesn’t have to run around for ten minutes every time he drops back. He needs to be more disciplined in the pocket, and he needs to be mentally sharper. That’s on him, and not anyone else.
Rodgers is one of the best in the game and one of the best to ever do it. And there’s a very good chance he bounces back. I was thinking similar things about him at the beginning of the 2014 season, and he responded by deservedly winning his second MVP award after telling everybody to R-E-L-A-X. But right now, he’s in a slump, and he’s struggling a bit. Let’s not be afraid to admit that, instead of just talking about Jordy Nelson and fawning over every time a broken play just happens to work out positively for him.
The Giants are 2-0 Thanks to Improved Defense and the Return of Victor Cruz
As a passionate Giants fan, it’s hard not to get over-excited about this. Yes, it’s just two games. Both were close games that included some mistakes and that really could have gone either way. But the thing is, we won. And that’s what the Giants haven’t been doing recently. If my memory is correct, this is our first 2-0 start since the 2010 season. That’s six years! That’s big, especially for a young, rookie head coach. Even more exciting is why we’re winning. The defense is looking better than it did a year ago, and Victor Cruz is back and contributing big time. He caught the go-ahead TD in week 1 on a great play to get open after the initial look was covered, and he caught a huge 3rd down in the fourth quarter this past week. He was running straight down the sideline, and the cornerback was right with him as he fought for position. Eli threw it up softly, and Cruz aggressively went after the ball and wrestled it away from the defender, who was in perfect position. That first down allowed the Giants to run the clock down before kicking the go ahead FG, so that they didn’t have to give Drew Brees the ball back.
It cannot be understated how big Cruz was in helping us win the SB in the 2011 season. Not to mention, he was undrafted and wasn’t even starting at the beginning of the 2011 season. And if you’ve ever seen or heard him talk, he’s a really great kid. I’m really happy that he’s come back from injury to be productive. He was out for a long time. And I bet he’s playing with a chip on his shoulder. There were a lot of people saying he wouldn’t be the same guy coming back. But I didn’t have much doubt. Every time he’s been healthy since 2011, he’s contributed. Really cool to see him back and on the field. Not to mention, Sterling Shepard is looking good as well. What’s interesting is that Shepard was a slot guy coming out of college, with questions about whether he could play on the outside. But Cruz was looked at as being primarily a slot guy as well, and most assumed he would take the slot while Shepard would go to the outside opposite Beckham. But from what I can tell, it looks as if Cruz has been playing outside with Shepard in the slot. I’m sure Ben McAdoo will mix it up–he even put Odell in the slot at times the past few years, from which he’s been very productive, just like he is everywhere else on the field–but this is an interesting move. For all the talk of Cruz being a slot guy, he did play on the outside a fair bit in 2011 with all the WR injuries we had. And he was pretty good from there as well. If Shepard can be a productive slot WR (which it looks like he can), we have a pretty good 3 deep WR core. We thought this was the case back in 2013. But Nicks wasn’t the same after injury, Cruz started getting injured, and Randle just was always a bit of a mess. But this is exciting going forward if you’re a Giants fan, no doubt.
Texans Putting Osweiler in Position to Succeed
I’m rooting for Osweiler, if not just because like Bradford has been in the past, he’s another guy that’s going to be under the microscope after signing a big contract. The Texans are 2-0 so far. He played pretty well in week 1 and was eh in week 2. There’s certainly no guarantee he’ll succeed this season. It’s early in the year. QBs really make their money in December. Hoyer in 2014, Fitzpatrick in 2011, and Orton in 2009 were all QBs who started the season well only to implode in the second half. Having said that, I’m cautiously optimistic, and I like what the Texans are doing with Osweiler.
Osweiler, like most QBs, is a system QB. He likely needs to be in a good situation to succeed. When you look at other free agent QB deals that have gone poorly in the past, it’s because these QBs were system QBs that were in over their head and asked to do too much. Kevin Kolb succeeded as a backup in Andy Reid’s system (which has been proven to be QB friendly) throwing to Maclin and Jackson. He wasn’t going to dig the post Kurt Warner Cardinals out of nothingness. Matt Flynn excelled in the GB West Coast with talented pass catchers, but the Raiders were no good when he went there. The same can be said for Matt Cassel in New England. Outside of one very game manager-ish year in KC, he was mostly a bust there.
Yes, these QBs didn’t play well on their respective new teams. But they were brought in to make losing franchises winners again. Usually, those types of Quarterbacks need to come from the draft.
But with Osweiler it’s different. The Texans made the playoffs last year with Brian Hoyer at QB and came close the year before with Ryan Fitzpatrick. So they’re already a good team. If Osweiler can prove to be even a marginal upgrade over those guys, then the trade is justified. Furthermore, lots of people were worried about how Houston might remain a contender with Brock getting so much money. But he has lots of team around him. We all know about JJ Watt. There’s also Clowney on that line, who definitely has talent. Bill O Brien wants to rely on defense, and has proven that he’s capable of doing so in the past. (He’s also a good coach, which wasn’t always the case with the other free agent situations I mentioned.) But offensively, they drafted Braxton Miller, a pretty good prospect at the slot position, as well as the speedster Will Fuller, to go along with Deandre Hopkins, one of the best X-ISO receivers in football. They also traded for Lamar Miller, who definitely showed flashes in Miami. They can mix him along with Alfred Blue, who’s proven to be a capable backup. Lastly, Bill O Brien comes from New England, and his pass game is very well schemed. It’s multiple, and aims to get the ball out quickly. All of this puts Osweiler in a very good position to succeed. Yes, he got the big contract. Yes, he likely will have the spotlight on him. But the investments look to be paying off two weeks in. He doesn’t have to be Tom Brady at this point. He just has to be Andy Dalton: efficient and smart.
-It’s unfortunate that Garoppolo got hurt. Because I thought he looked really, really good against Miami.
-I was glad to see Matt Ryan bounce back against the Raiders. They came away with a W, but more importantly, he was aggressive throwing the ball downfield and confident, two things that have been missing from his game recently.
-It certainly doesn’t look like Cam Newton and the Panthers are taking a step back this season. Cam looks just as good as he did last year, and the addition of Kelvin Benjamin makes this offense scary. He’s quickly becoming one of the best young wide receivers in the league. What’s so impressive is his big body and catch radius, which gives Cam Newton margin for error. Then you have Devin Funchess as well, who people didn’t mention last year. WR often take a few years to develop, but he was a big time draft prospect. If he can become something too, then watch out. You also have Greg Olsen, one of the top receiving tight ends in the league, Corey Brown and Ted Ginn for deep shots, and then you ALSO have J. Stewart and that dominant O-Line… AND Mike Shula’s multiple option scheme which is so hard to defend. I don’t like Carolina, but it looks like they could be here to stay. If they play at their peak, they’re tough to defend.
-The Bills firing of OC Greg Roman struck me as a little strange, especially only two games into the season. He fits what they want to do in terms of being run first and then using Tyrod’s athleticism. Also, their problems over the last year seem to be more about defense than offense.
-Josh McCown gave us the usual Josh McCown treatment. Some nice gunslinger throws while under pressure (see the TD pass), and some bad gunslinger INT’s while under pressure (see the game ender). He did okay for himself last year, and should have been the starter this year (which isn’t saying much when RG3 is your other QB). But now he’s hurt, and the Browns might have to draft another QB next year. What number is that, now? Not to mention, they could have taken Wentz this year (who looks like he has the makings to be a star, at least based on week 1), but they traded the pick to Philly. They even spoke negatively about Wentz in the process (because the Browns are sooo good at evaluating Quarterbacks). What an embarrassment of a franchise.
-Can Chip Kelly and his offense succeed in the NFL? The jury is still out. On Sunday, we saw both sides of the equation. On the one hand, SF allowed 46 points. Yes, CAR is a very good offense, but as we’ve seen time and time again with Chip, when your offense plays so fast, you a) get into holes quickly if your offense isn’t producing, and b) your defense tends to suck. On the other hand, the 49ers were within one score of tying it in the 4th quarter. Before the Blaine Gabbert pick that basically sealed it, there was a dropped past by the niners that could have gone for a TD and tied it. Blaine Gabbert hasn’t played well by any means, but the offense has produced, albeit inconsistently. It’s hard to see anywhere else where Blaine Gabbert could go and even come close to this kind of offensive production. But that’s the Chip offense. They play fast, they get the ball out, and they get completions. Gabbert plays fast (wayyyy too fast), but the Chip Kelly offense is a good fit for him, because Chip wants the ball out. And when you have Blaine Gabbert as your QB (and Torrey Smith as your No. 1), you have to scheme offense. There’s nowhere Gabbert could go where they could huddle up, line-up, and simply out execute the defense. But Chip’s offense is at least giving these guys a chance, with a guy that is essentially a backup QB and a below average WR corps. And we’ve seen that with Chip in the past, where guys like Foles and Sanchez have looked serviceable. It hasn’t translated to wins consistently, but it does have the potential to morph offensive production.
-Speaking of Gabbert, he’s another guy that, like Bradford, can be frustrating. Like I said, at this point, he’s ideally a backup. He plays way too fast, and is way too overreactive to pressure. Because of that, his lower body mechanics become compromised, which leads to inaccuracy and missing throws he needs to make. It’s always been a problem with him, and pocket presence isn’t really something you can teach. But he also is capable of making really impressive throws. His TD throw this past week to Torrey Smith was an example. You do see the arm talent and the type of throws that explain why he was a first round pick. It’s just the other stuff that keeps him from being good.
-It looks like Mike Tirico is replacing Bob Costas as the host of pre and post-game Sunday Night Football. It’s unfortunate; I think Costas is better. I was never a big Tirico fan. He’s definitely a professional; I just don’t really like his voice or his style. But after the NFL told NBC they couldn’t put Tirico on Thursday Night broadcasts, they probably wanted to find something for him to do.
-We’re in the golden age of passing in the NFL, and we might be in the golden age of Quarterbacking as well. From vets to young guns, there’s a lot of talent in the NFL. I saw it all over the highlights this past sunday. Like I said earlier, Matt Ryan made some really impressive throws. Derek Carr as well. Marcus Mariota’s game winning TD pass was phenomenal, and Flacco’s TD to Mike Wallace was nice as well. Then as I mentioned there was Jimmy Garoppolo who looked really good, but Tanehill, although he’s dabbled in mediocrity, has a big time arm and is capable of big time throws as well, which can be seen with his TD pass to Jordan Cameron in the endzone. And Carson Palmer is back to MVP form; he continues to be a tremendous asset for Arizona.
-If it’s the golden age for passing, it might be the golden age for receivers as well. The NFL is full of physical specimens that we didn’t use to see, and these guys attack the ball. Late in the game, Amari Cooper went up for a first down catch on a short hitch that was spectacular. The ball was high and his arm extension was crazy. I was wrong when I said Larry Fitzgerald was done a few years ago, he’s rejuvenated with Palmer and is an absolute dog, attacking the football and running after the catch. Then there’s Julio Jones. A lot of people have been mentioning Antonio Brown’s name as best WR in the NFL, but don’t forget about this guy. Hardly anyone draws as much defensive attention as he does on the Falcons, yet he continues to make plays. He has a lethal combination of size and explosiveness. On a lot of those in-breaking routes, he reminds me of Andre Johnson, because he’s practically impossible to stop. He’s such a big target and so strong to the ball. Then there was the deep ball he caught from Ryan on the second and one deep shot. The ball placement was perfect, but his closing speed to the ball was ridiculous. He was double covered and behind the ball when the camera closed in on him, but by the time the ball got there, he ran through the double coverage and right into the ball. Phenomenal stuff.
Hopefully there’s plenty more great football on its way! Continue to stay tuned in to the blog to keep getting updates and analysis.