1. The excitement over Trey Lance in a Kyle Shanahan offense was the prospect of Trey Lance actually operating a Kyle Shanahan offense. Basically, imagine all the things that work well with Jimmy Garoppolo under center, but now instead of just attacking the intermediate level of the defense, you’d have a quarterback who could pull it back on those wide-zone play-action looks and either (a) keep it and escape to the back side—forcing defenses to keep a back-side defender in place on every outside-zone run—or (b) fire a downfield throw outside the opposite hash, putting incredible stress on defenses, both vertically and horizontally.
But the only time we saw Lance in extended action this season, back in Week 5 at Arizona, that wasn’t the offense he ran. The 49ers trotted out a read-option- and QB-power-heavy offense that, frankly, wasn’t very good. And it wasn’t good just because Lance wasn’t ready (he wasn’t)—it mostly wasn’t good because of that fact that, in 2021, opposing defenses are fully adept at defending read-option looks, and, more importantly, the 49ers weren’t adept at running such an offense, because it’s not what they do.
That game was marked by a number of holding penalties on the 49ers’ offensive line, almost all of which were the product of a line used to a disciplined, in-rhythm offense now blocking for a quarterback who was not versed in that style, and was therefore running around and looking to create. And when you have a quarterback who holds the ball and moves around in ways unfamiliar to and unpredictable for the offensive linemen who have their backs to him, you end up with a ton of holding calls (and, ultimately, a 17–10 loss in a very winnable game).
There’s a school of thought that Lance can be what Colin Kaepernick was for the 49ers in 2012, a uniquely skilled quarterback catching opponents off-guard with an offense no one had prepared for. But, really, the most effective use of Lance would be operating an already-difficult-to-stop Shanahan offense at a high level. On Sunday, we’ll see what version of Lance the 49ers have available to them in January and February, should they decide to go that route.
2a. Aaron Rodgers is the MVP frontrunner, though I’d argue his two worst games (the season-opening loss to the Saints in Jacksonville and the game he missed in Kansas City) were worse than Joe Burrow’s two worst games of the season (the loss in Chicago and at home against the Browns). However, I understand the obsession with turnover avoision, and that therefore the league leader in interceptions will never get MVP consideration.
However, since the Bengals’ Week 10 bye no quarterback in football has been better than Burrow, who is being tasked with operating a master’s-level offense in his second season—lots of spread looks, none of the trendy Shanahan/McVay play-action stuff despite Zac Taylor being there (according to PFR, Cincinnati has the fewest number of play-action pass attempts in football), and lots of second-reaction plays behind a pretty shaky interior line.
At home against the Chiefs on Sunday, the Bengals can clinch the AFC North with a win. K.C. has Patrick Mahomes, and they also have a red-hot defense. Burrow has already solidified himself on that second tier of “young quarterbacks you’d most like to build around,” along with Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Justin Herbert and Kyler Murray (and, if you consider him young, Dak Prescott). Outdueling Mahomes, the QB who would top that list, would be an early-career signature win fitting for Burrow’s breakout season.
2b. I’d also argue Tom Brady should be the MVP frontrunner considering he’s also serving in the roles of head coach, offensive coordinator and general manager. And in the GM role he’s the reason Tampa got Rob Gronkowski and convinced Shaq Barrett and Chris Godwin to return to the team on below-market deals (Rodgers, in his personnel role, only brought back Randall Cobb).
3. A week ago I promised an expanded take on Bruce Arians’s faux-tough guy “I could give a s— what they think” comment regarding criticism of the organization’s decision to retain Antonio Brown after his fake-vaccination card suspension and undermine Arians’s zero-tolerance policy for Brown, stated upon signing him (a signing which, by the way, undermined Arians’s “we won’t sign Antonio Brown” policy). And since then, six days have passed, so…
Arians’s sophomoric dismissal of a legitimate line of questioning (Why, for the second time in a little more than a year, are you doing the opposite of the thing you publicly said you’d do in regards to Antonio Brown?) surely earned him points with the not-quite-Mensa-material faction of the team’s fanbase. But let’s mercifully push Arians out of the spotlight for a moment and first examine what it means for any organization (since the Bucs weren’t the only team interested in signing him last year) to, right now, employ Antonio Brown.
I don’t take any issue with Brown being in the NFL—there has to be a path to redemption no matter what the offense, even if they are as numerous and upsetting as Brown’s mistreatment of others. As someone who spent an entire summer reporting on him, I can say with a fair amount of confidence that Brown’s pattern of anti-social behavior was fueled, at least in part, by the enablers surrounding him, at that point a collection of fairly unremarkable sycophants. Then Tom Brady hopped on board as the chief enabler, taking advantage of an opportunity to add an in-his-prime Hall of Fame talent to the Patriots’ roster. Whatever self-improvement tips there are to be gleaned from being a teammate of Brady’s, they didn’t take during Brown’s 11-day stint in Foxboro, during which he saw fit to send threatening text messages to a woman who had detailed allegations of sexual misconduct to SI. (For the 14,812th time, that woman was never in search of money, via lawsuit or otherwise; she had seen the allegations regarding Brown piling up and wanted to share her story publicly.)
That path to redemption should always be available, but it also has to be earned. At the heart of the issue when the Bucs signed Brown last year was that he never showed the slightest bit of contrition for his actions, save for a vague apology to “the NFL” (give him credit for knowing his audience) during an interview in which he also played the victim card when it came to his abhorrent treatment of women. A quote from that interview, conducted by a rightsholder media outlet: “I feel like I never really got in a conflict with no woman. I just feel like I’m a target so, anybody can come against me and say anything and I’m going to have to face it. There’s no support, there’s no egos, there’s no rules in it, anyone can come after me for anything. No proof or whatever. ‘He said, she’s saying.’ The media will run with it, so even if I’m not guilty, I already guilty because they already wrote it, put it on TV and put that in people minds. So for me to have to sit here and hear those the allegations of me is just unfair to me every time.” (For the 17,953rd time, Brown’s mistreatment of women has been chronicled not only in our independent reporting—for which simply vetting the allegations against Brown was a weeks-long process—but police reports, and sometimes his own social media accounts.)
Also, does the above phrasing Brown used sound familiar? Here is Brown, a few weeks ago, on a teammate’s not-very-good podcast, one day before Brown was suspended by the NFL for “misrepresenting his vaccination status.”
Teammate Who Hosts Not-Very-Good Podcast: “So, like, how frustrating is it for you, I mean like even, even talking about the stuff that that that you’ve been dealing with recently, like they talking about your card fake and all that. And you got the vaccine and then you get the booster shot and you still got to deal with scrutiny, like, it’s like no matter what the truth actually is, people can make their own narrative and you got to deal with it.”
Brown: “Yeah that’s the sad part. You know the country say you’re innocent until proven guilty but you’re guilty until you show innocence because anything someone says everyone’s already magnifying it and if I come out if you come out and say anything you just put yourself in deeper holes.”
I’d argue that, while understandable, a zero-tolerance policy was unfair toward Brown. What if someone got in Brown’s face in a restaurant and a fight ensued? What if Brown was in a fender-bender, words were exchanged and things escalated? There are mistakes any of us could make in the heat of the moment. But that’s not what Brown did by acquiring a fake vaccination card, which was a calculated action carried out over a long period of time. And—just like he was regarding his mistreatment of women—he feels emboldened to depict himself as a victim.
After Arians’s profane and regrettable remarks to assembled media regarding Brown’s return, Arians went on a national radio interview with a rightsholder media outlet and asserted that Brown is “working hard on it,” presumably referring to self-improvement. But Brown’s actions over the past two years are those of a man who is being enabled. He clearly isn’t “working hard on it,” he continues to—only in the vaguest terms—blame “the media” for “drama,” among other defiant messages delivered via social media and, as recently as last week, in his only meeting with assembled press. All of this is because he knows there will be no consequences coming from the Bucs organization.
“I could give a s— what they think.” The “they” in that statement includes not only people who have been subjected to Brown’s anti-social behavior, but those who know that, regrettably, professional sports leagues (and none more than the NFL) play a significant role in shaping and informing society-and-large’s attitudes toward such behavior. The “they” includes people who think Brown should have to do something—anything—besides being good at football to earn the second and, now, third chances that Arians’s organization has awarded him. The “they” also includes people who think professional athletes, young men usually in their 20s and 30s, are often too-quickly demonized for mistakes, and that a restorative rather than solely punitive approach to discipline is in order, but that there still must be some level of personal accountability if there is to be growth.
Arians has advocated for women in coaching—he has two women on his Tampa staff—and Black head-coaching candidates; if he hasn’t experienced it, he can surely imagine what it would be like if someone in power was so dismissive over his support for those underrepresented groups. It’s been 13 days since Arians proclaimed he could “give a s—.” You’d think that, over the course of two weeks, Arians could have come up with something even the slightest bit more thoughtful on the topic.
As we return to our regularly scheduled menagerie of questionable takes and poop jokes, a quick palate cleanser. My kids and I just caught up with this episode, and even though I knew it was coming it was still a moment—Ash won the whole dang Alolan League with that evolved little Rockruff! I wasn’t sure the third battle would quite hold up, moment-wise, to Pikachu battling back against Zoroark’s never-ending nightmare basically to a draw, but that finale was a monster.
4a. There will be a lot of bad Mac Jones vs. Trevor Lawrence takes after what will very likely (but not certainly!) be a convincing Patriots victory over the Jaguars on Sunday. But keep this in mind: If you traveled the infinite metaverse to the timeline where Shad and Tony Khan’s Jaguars, coached by Urban Meyer, selected Mac Jones first overall and dropped him into that undertalented and consistently underprepared roster, you’d find that Mac Jones announced his retirement mid-game the second week of November.
4b. Mac Jones has been the best of the rookie quarterbacks this season by a wide margin, but the past three games have been a reminder that he’s a player with some limitations. When you don’t have second-reaction ability to go to in an emergency, that will show up at some point. The Patriots, though, didn’t come into this season relying on Jones to carry them, and he’s avoided the meltdown-type mistakes that we’ve seen from the quarterbacks of some other contenders. Bill Belichick can live with that, the Patriots just have a narrower path to victory against quality opponents.
4c. I wish Mac Jones a long and happy career in all alternate timelines.
5. I’m not sure the takeaway from the COVID-19–related* absence of Kirk Cousins is that the Vikings need to move on from him this offseason. It’s not even really an option considering his contract.
Cousins is a high-performing system quarterback, and one who proved he can put together big drives late when called upon. He’s not going to carry a team, but with the current supporting cast on offense, Cousins would be enough if the defense was still performing at an elite level.
The only real option for replacing Cousins in 2022 is Kellen Mond, but the only way we get a QB competition next summer is if Mond relieves Sean Mannion at some point Sunday night and impresses in Lambeau. The fact that the Vikings are turning to Mannion tells you how they feel about Mond right now.
*—Yes, Cousins should have gotten the vaccine, which would have lessened the chances he’d be symptomatic and therefore lessened the chances he would have been tested, even if the current NFL protocols don’t make a ton of sense. But more importantly, he should have gotten the vaccine because the medical and legitimate portions of the scientific community overwhelmingly recommend the vaccine at this time.
6. As a late-Gen-Xer, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the trend of college football players skipping bowl games is less about “entitlement” of the current generation and more about the naiveté of my generation, which believed that, for instance, participation in the MicronPC.com Bowl was a significant event in anyone’s lives.
7. One more (last? Meh, probably not) check in on the Omniscient Spreadsheet that brings us luck-adjusted point differential. It’s been a big move for the Eagles, who around midseason corrected their offensive approach and play-calling. It’s been a fairly incredible turnaround for an organization that, one year ago, before a national audience in primetime, gave up on participating in competitive football, and just months ago was desperately looking for a way to replace their emerging young quarterback.
A reminder that strength of schedule is not incorporated here because it’s mostly a lie and also I have better things I need to do than build this model out further. Well, not better and need so much as other and want:
1. Dallas, +7.2 points per game
2. Buffalo, +6.4
3. Kansas City, +6.3
4. Philadelphia, +5.3
5. Indianapolis, +5.0
6. Cincinnati, +4.9
7. Tampa Bay, +4.8
8. L.A. Rams, +4.6
9. New England, +2.6
10. Las Vegas, +2.5
11. Arizona, +2.0
12. Cleveland, +1.7
13. Tennessee, +1.0
14. Green Bay, +0.6
15. L.A. Chargers, +0.4
16. Denver, -0.1
17. San Francisco, -0.4
18. Carolina, -0.8
19. Baltimore, -1.2
20. Minnesota, -1.5
21. Miami, -2.3
22. New Orleans, -2.9
23. Detroit, -3.1
24. Chicago, -3.38
25. Atlanta, -3.42
26. Seattle, -3.6
27. Washington, -3.9
28. Pittsburgh, -4.3
29. Jacksonville, -5.9
30. N.Y. Jets, -6.3
31. N.Y. Giants, -6.4
32. Houston, -8.4
8. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Blur!
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