Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

Week 5 NFL Wrap-up: Does the Regular Season Matter?

Week 5 NFL Wrap-up: Does the Regular Season Matter?

Photograph via HolyTaco

Editor’s note: This fall, Sam Ennis and Nathan Schiller will cover the 2012 NFL season with a blog called “Vinatieri, Back to Kick It Off.” (If you don’t know why we’re calling it this, you obviously didn’t play excessive amounts of Madden ‘98.) Each week, they’ll exchange thoughts on the previous week’s games, examine developing and ongoing league trends, bring in guest writers to irrationally breakdown their favorite teams, and unravel many more features. Imagine the format to be like a radio show, except written. (In other words, not like a radio show at all.) The blog will run every Tuesday at Construction.

NATHAN: One of the big knocks about the NHL and the NBA is that their seasons don’t really matter until the playoffs, and that the playoffs don’t really matter until the Finals. In the NHL, the champion is determined almost entirely by who has the hottest goalie. A few years ago, the offensive juggernauts in Washington and Pittsburgh both got bounced by a collective bunch of Montreal no-names because some random dude named Jaroslav Halák decided that, for a few weeks, absolutely no one would score on him. Ditto last year with the Kings and Jonathan Quick. In the NBA, games between two groups of ridiculously talented and compelling athletes hinge on how well the best player on each team plays. That’s the reason I don’t watch the NBA until the Finals: no basketball player seems to matter until he is on a team that is playing LeBron James’s team when the stakes are highest.

Is the NFL regular season equally pointless? It’s not supposed to be—between end-of-the-season bye weeks and the temptation of home field advantage, there are huge incentives to finish as high as possible in the conference; and, only about one-third of NFL teams make the playoffs, as opposed to 100% of NBA teams and 125% of NHL teams (pretty sure I saw Metallurg Magnitogorsk playing the Hershey Bears in the second round last year)—but we’re also told to believe in NFL parity, even when history tells us that every season there are, with almost no exceptions, only a select group of teams that can win the Super Bowl. This season, though the teams haven’t yet played enough games for the pecking order to unfold via won-loss records, isn’t it clear that this season is exactly like every other, and that Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, and Matt Ryan are the only QBs that can win a Super Bowl? Not all of them will get into the playoffs, because some of them are on weaker overall teams (like the New Orleans Saints, who field a D-III college defense), but once they get in, any of them have the capacity to become the champion. And if we know this is true—and we do—then why do we care about the regular season? Why is the NFL exempt from what is the most damning charge against the NBA and that NHL?

SAM: Besides the fact that the NFL regular season gives us an excuse to binge drink on Sundays instead of going to the gym? Your premise seems to be that Super Bowl potential is dependent entirely on the presence of one of a few quarterbacks, and that it is pointless for any other teams to compete for the crown. But I think your list inherently disproves the argument. Brady, Brees, Eli, Big Ben, and Rodgers have combined to win nine of the past eleven championships, and have repeatedly proven that they can bring it in the clutch when it counts (as a Steelers fan, did you doubt for a second that Ben was going to lead a game-winning drive against the Eagles with 2:30 left? Me neither).

[pullquote_right]I watch to see the next generation rise and fall, to enjoy the evolution of the league.[/pullquote_right]

But how does Matt Ryan make that cut? Until this season, he was an immobile underachiever who could burn through the awful NFC South secondaries and then immediately collapse at home to a lower-seeded opponent in the playoffs. And Joe Flacco? Sure, he can ride Ray Rice and stingy defenses to the playoffs, but then what? He’s same old inconsistent Flacco, completing 60-yard bombs to the sideline on one play and inexplicably taking the snap and running backward, out of the end zone, and into the lockers like a unibrowed Forrest Gump on the next. What have they done to deserve mention as potential winners?

For all of our verbal calisthenics, we’ve conceded over the course of several columns that the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE is a QUARTERBACK-DRIVEN LEAGUE, and that the QB is the LeBron, the Halak: as our friend Finesse from the stupendous Get to Our Game pointed out in a comment last week, the reason why he won’t give up on struggling teams with elite quarterbacks is that you can never count out a team with one of the greats behind center. And that, I think, is what makes the regular season awesome: finding the next superstar while watching the scrubs collapse.

For instance, as Steelers fans, we’re supposed to love watching smashmouth defenses and running games. But honestly, I’m more excited to see what Ben is going to do next. Likewise, tell me that there’s anything as satisfying as watching Blaine Gabbert, Matt Cassel, and Mark Sanchez play like Pop Warner backups; as cheering for Alex Smith to keep on giving the figurative middle finger to the boo-birds while continuing to improve; as watching RGIII, Andrew Luck, and Christian Ponder continue to amaze; as running into Matt Schaub in the Bosley waiting room. I’m watching to see the next generation rise and fall, and to enjoy the evolution of the league.

NATHAN: Unfortunately for the merits of my premise, so am I. But I’ll defend my point on an ideological level. First of all, I think your Flacco bias is steeped in the Steelers’ playoff dominance over the Ravens{{1}}, because everything you said denigrating him could be held against Alexander Douglas Smith. It’s easy to forget that Flacco came within a Lee Evans dropped TD pass from definitely going to the Super Bowl, and a Billy Cundiff 33-yard miss from playing overtime to go to the Super Bowl. All the Ravens have to do is get in the playoffs, and only then, when Flacco has another chance to make the Super Bowl, will they become interesting.

[pullquote_left]Polamalu entered the final stage of the Bob Sanders Career Path Program: get hurt while walking back to the huddle.[/pullquote_left]

Same thing with Schaub, whose Texans were competitive with the Ravens in last year’s playoffs despite starting what’s-that-guy’s-name (oh yeah, it’s T. J. Yates!); Matt Ryan, who’s had the misfortune of going against a smoking hot Aaron Rodgers and Giants D-line in the last two playoffs; and Alex Smith, whose 49ers, as we’ve noted countless times, lost last year’s NFC Championship Game thanks to bad luck. Here’s my point: when, after the season-opening win against the Packers, Patrick Willis said, “We’re on a mission,” what he meant was, “Anything less than the Super Bowl makes us irrelevant.” Barring catastrophe, the 49ers will make the playoffs. We’ve known this since Week 2. Isn’t their regular season a formality?

In my view, this is the season we’re looking at: either one of the established elites (Brady, Brees, Manning, Rodgers, Roethlisberger) wins the Super Bowl, or one of the second-tier elites—Flacco, Ryan, Smith, Schaub—takes a major step forward and wins it. Do you really think the Super Bowl will be won by a team starting a QB other than one of these nine?{{2}} I hate gambling, but I’d stake money on this.

Okay, onto the reactionary bullshit that we’ve been sorely missing the last two weeks. Want to start us off?

SAM: Sure. While my dire doom-n’-gloom prediction about the Steelers was only partially true (Polamalu got hurt again, but we won!) . . .

  • After a career year in 2010, followed by a huge regression in 2011 (to be fair, he was forced to play out of position due to injuries in the defense), Steelers inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons has settled into the role of the most maddening players to watch as a Steelers fan. The guy could be the best athlete in the NFL (he has a burst like a top running back), but overcommitments, poor tackling, and shitty drops into coverage have plagued his game. Yesterday, he showed why he was a first-round pick and one of the best defenders in the NFL two years ago. Sacks, QB hits, shoestring tackles, forced fumbles, plugging the edge—he was everywhere. If Lamar Woodley remains hobbled with a hamstring injury (like last year), James Harrison’s only 75% with his knee, and the Larry Foote Truthers find his birth certificate to prove that he was born in 1933, a feisty Timmons could carry the Steelers’ much-maligned (by me) defense to the playoffs.

NATHAN: On Sunday, Timmons was the kind of defensive player you can’t help but notice every play, even though you’re not focusing on him. The way he flew to the ball reminded me of Polamalu’s epic performance against Denver in the 2005 AFC Championship Game, when Troy single-handedly stopped the Broncos. Three follow-up notes:

  • Eli Manning is another one of these players, simply because no matter how rattled he appears on TV, no matter how disgustingly wobbly his routine passes are, you look up at the TV and he’s always completing passes. Yesterday’s gamelog: 25-37, 259 yards, 3-1 TD-INT ratio, no sacks, 103.3 rating.
  • The Browns defense, against which Eli was throwing, was the collective version of the “player you focus on without trying to,” but for the reason diametrically opposite “they were awesome.”
  • Sadly, Polamalu officially entered the fourth and final stage of the Bob Sanders Career Path Program: get hurt while walking back to the huddle.

[pullquote_right]Gabbert and Tannehill seem similar, but Tannehill is accurate, is smart with the ball, learns from his mistakes, and hangs in the pocket like a veteran.[/pullquote_right]

SAM: Reactionary bullshit point #2:

  • The Jaguars are going to have a top-five pick in next year’s draft, and if they can swing Geno Smith or Matt Barkley, see ya in hell, Blaine Gabbert. What’s interesting is that Gabbert and Ryan Tannehill both seem to be faced with a similar team situation: one legitimate receiver (Justin Blackmon, Brian Hartline), a decent tight end (Mercedes Lewis, Anthony Fasano), high-quality running backs (MJD, Reggie Bush), and average offensive lines (though, to be fair, Miami’s is better with Jake Long and Mike Pouncey, whereas the only guy I’ve heard of on Jacksonville is named Eben Britten, which is a weird name). But Tannehill is accurate, is smart with the ball, learns from his mistakes, and hangs in the pocket like a veteran. Gabbert panics and (only sometimes successfully) checks down at the slightest hint of pressure, makes throws that are just bafflingly inaccurate and ill-conceived, and rarely makes it through an entire progression on his reads before running for his life. The guy’s had a full season as a starter, a full off-season with his coaches, and a quarter of the 2012 season, and has gotten worse, while Tannehill, who was a wide receiver until the very end of his tenure in college, looks like a poised veteran and a future franchise QB. Two guys with very young, but very different, career paths.

NATHAN: Some years ago, when I was consuming a minimum 3-4 hours of Steelers/NFL coverage daily, longtime Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Steelers beat man Ed Bouchette would answer the obligatory “How come the Steelers’ offensive line sucks this year?” online chat questions from overly-cynical, disgruntled Yinzers with a very simple answer: “Maybe they’re just playing worse. They’re humans, not machines.” In other words, maybe Ryan Tannehill’s capable of being a good NFL QB and the long-locked Blaine Gabbert, no matter the experience, coaching, and weaponry he amasses, isn’t. I realize, though, that this type of non-controversial answer can be difficult for sports fans educated in the Madden/fantasy football/Around the Horn era to accept.{{3}}

SAM: In honor of that answer, reactionary bullshit point #3:

  • Despite the fact that Philip Rivers’s accent makes him sound like one of these guys, you have to give the guy credit for how he’s carried the San Diego offense this season. He’s got virtually no running game, thanks to the fact that Ryan Mathews has Fruit by the Foot in lieu of tendons, is throwing to a host of no-name receivers (other than the criminally underrated Malcolm Floyd), and has an offensive line that’s battered beyond comprehension: Sunday night’s game-ending strip-sack against New Orleans occurred because for the final few series, Chargers left tackle Jared Gaither’s back had locked up to the point that he literally couldn’t move and the announcers pointed out in open disbelief that the Saints’ blindside edge rushers were going to kill Rivers (which they did). And yet, Rivers continues to (usually) win games, to sling precision passes when the Chargers need them most, to hang in the pocket and get throws to the sidelines, to generate points from a house of cards offense, and takin’ errrrr jahhhhhhhhhhbs on the side. The guy’s a gamer, no doubt.

NATHAN: Sam will spearhead next week’s blog with his list, The Top-8 NFL Gamers, 2002-2009. Until then, enjoy the week.

[[1]]While we’re here, it’s important to note a rock-paper-scissors of the AFC playoffs: the Steelers always beat the Ravens, and the Ravens can always beat the Patriots, but the Steelers will never beat the Patriots.[[1]]

[[2]]I’m discounting a solid crop of “gives your team a chance to win on a weekly basis and is at the very least a better short- and long-term decision than Brandon Weeden” QBs—Peyton (noodle armitis), Cutler (erraticism), Romo (unpredictablism), Sanchez (impressive . . . I mean, unimpressive . . . for an NFL quarterback and all . . . career INT-GQ cover stories ratio), Luck (youth), RGIII (youth), Dalton (Bengalism), Vick (recklessness), Stafford (looks like RoboCop), Rivers (eh, it’s the Chargers), Freeman (eh, it’s the Bucs), and Bradford (eh, it’s the Rams)—because I feel like each of their obstacles are too difficult to overcome.[[2]]

[[3]]Even though no one wants to read a superfluous hovering footnote this late in the text, I’d be remiss not to recall the time, ca. 2008, I was watching NFL Primetime, during a segment about the ineffable “it” factor of QBs, when suddenly Mike Ditka, practically barking up his thick old-timey Pittsburgh accent (even though the guy hasn’t lived in Pittsburgh in probably 80+ years), burst into a chorus of QBs who have “it,” starting with Hall of Famers and working his way down the list to, logically, Tony Romo: “Elway GOT IT Marino GOT IT Aikman GOT IT Brady GOT IT Manning GOT IT Romo GOT IT.” If you were too young or too lazy to formulate your own opinions, it was easy enough to believe that rodeo-smiling, backward hat-wearing, Jessica Simpson-schlepping dimpled Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was playing his position on par with the best ever, all because “coach” Ditka, deferred to by his studio partners “Key” and “Teej” and lionized by his corpulent host Chris Berman on a nearly minute-by-minute basis, said so, which happened in the first place because Coach Ditka couldn’t tap into the old brain to remember all the terrible games Romo’d played.[[3]]