Since the turn of the 21st century, NFL ratings have steadily increased, and Tuesday Morning Quarterback has gotten steadily longer. Then a year ago this time, I took a year off to complete my next book. Untoward things happened in TMQ’s absence. Donald Trump was elected. Waffle-flavored Oreos came into existence. And NFL ratings went down for the first time in the century.
No Tuesday Morning Quarterback, NFL ratings decline—you don’t seriously think those events are unrelated! We are about to find out. Tuesday Morning Quarterback is back, creating a falsifiable hypothesis: if NFL ratings rise during the 2017 season, we’ll be sure that the lack of TMQ caused the 2016 NFL ratings nosedive. That’s how the philosophy department at Tuesday University views it, anyway.
For those readers who don’t know TMQ, this column offers a mix of football commentary plus politics, culture, science, and sports-and-society. The format may appear undisciplined. But there’s actually a tightly structured master formula that, let’s see, must be around here somewhere.
A few details on TMQ are below. For now, let’s open with a proposal to solve two problems at once: Colin Kaepernick should sign with Google.
Future historians will ponder what it means that Google and other major money-hungry corporations have become, as a Wall Street Journal oped recently supposed, enforcers of “left wing conformity.” The Googler’s memo may have been sophisticated or may have been way off-base. But the company’s instinct to oppress dissent while imposing thought control, rather than to engage ideas and refute arguments, is the same instinct big organizations always have. Over in the NFL, that instinct results in anger regarding Kaepernick’s dissent against the American flag.
Kaepernick has started 64 games in the NFL, including a Super Bowl, and at 29 is relatively young. Baltimore, Indianapolis, Oakland, and other teams could benefit from having Kaepernick on the roster. He did not play well in 2016, but football is a team game—no one on the 49ers played well last season.
Those crying doomsday regarding Kaepernick’s unemployment skip over the fact that Kaepernick is a zone-read guy, and that the zone read has gone from red-hot to stone-cold. A zone-read quarterback seeking a job in today’s NFL is like a low-post power forward seeking a job in the today’s three-ball NBA. Robert Griffin III, is also unemployed, is also a zone-read guy, and is an evangelical Christian from a military family. So there’s no right-wing political barrier to signing him: NFL coaches just don’t want zone-read guys. Neither Griffin nor Kaepernick throw particularly well from the pocket, and pocket passing is the all rage right now. The Ravens’ offense, for instance, is all-pocket all-the-time.
Still, quarterback is football’s most valuable position. If Derek Carr goes down again, does anyone seriously believe the Raiders will stand a better chance with E.J. Manuel than they would with Kaepernick?
Whatever one thinks of Kaepernick’s comments about the flag, his opinions are political speech, to which he has every right. The United States methodically mistreats “black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said, while American police officers are “getting away with murder.” The substance of these opinions can be debated but in free-speech terms, inarguably, they are protected political views.
Free speech safeguards the airing of political, artistic and scientific opinions, but does not shield anyone from consequences that may follow speech. Imprisonment for free speech is proscribed, but loss of popularity or income is not. Kaepernick, Marshawn Lynch, Michael Bennett and other NFL figures who would not stand during the National Anthem should be credited for expressing their conscience, but have no basis to complain about the aftereffects. Donald Trump spoke warmly of white racists, then became furious when his stature was damaged by his own speech: That’s wanting it both ways.
Those who paint Kaepernick as some sort of victim want, like Trump, to have it both ways: that a person can express provocative views yet incur no consequences for expression.
Football coaches who might sign Kaepernick know they would be inviting demonstrators, counter-demonstrators, media hysteria and other sideshows. Considering how competitive the NFL is in the first place, isn’t it logical for football coaches to avoid such distraction? So respect Kaepernick for taking a political stand—but expect him, as did others before him who took stands, to face the music. Don’t demand that Kaepernick receive a special exemption from the ramifications of his own actions.
The Kaepernick situation and the white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville don’t have any direct connection, yet both show that even after a two-term African-American presidency, the United States is a long way from being post-racial.
“The National Football League holds up a mirror to American society. Ours in an outsized nation, and in the NFL, the most outsized of athletic leagues, we see a reflection [of the nation’s] ongoing racial story.” That’s from my 2015 book The Game’s Not Over, which continued, using 2015 statistics, “When the nation looks into the NFL mirror, it beholds African-American males earning substantial incomes while serving as heroic figures to the mass audience. Whites all over the country cheer for black NFL stars, holding them up to their children as persons to be emulated. That’s a clear positive. The nation also sees a league with 70 percent African-American players compared to 15 percent African-American head coaches, 10 percent African-American general managers and no African-American owners. In muscle-power roles, professional football is completely merit-based and post-racial: management and economic power is different. All one need do to visualize the genuine-but-halting character of U.S. racial progress is inspect an NFL sideline.”
Now for the starting point of every Tuesday Morning Quarterback season: an A.F.C. preview:
Baltimore. The most entertaining play of 2016 professional football came at the close of Bengals-at-Ravens. Baltimore led by 7 and faced 4th-and-8 on its own 23 with a few seconds remaining: any outcome other than a blocked punt touchdown would secure the day for the hosts. John Harbaugh, a former special teams coach who knows the rulebook, instructed all his players to hold, so punter Sam Koch could stand in the end zone whistling a merry tune whilst the clock ticked toward double-naughts.
Multiple flags flew, as Harbaugh knew they would. Holding in the end zone was enforced, and the safety made the final score Baltimore 19, Cincinnati 14. There was no free kick as the deliberate holding prolonged the down enough for time to expire. Network announcers did not realize what was happening, even though Harbaugh had called a deliberate safety (sans deliberate holding) at the conclusion of the Baltimore-San Francisco Super Bowl (back when the 49ers actually represented San Francisco).
But the NFL has changed the rules for this season, so that “intentional multiple fouls to manipulate the game clock” will result in unsportsmanlike conduct and the clock reset to the previous time. So Harbaugh won’t be able to pull this particular rabbit out of his hat again. But a deliberate safety in the closing seconds remains a good tactic, depending on the scoreboard.
A few weeks later, Harbaugh bungled a special teams call in the endgame, leading to the defeat that conked out the Nevermores’ season. At New England on Monday Night Football, Baltimore trailed 30-20 and faced 4th-and-1 on the Patriots 20 just before the two-minute warning. Harbaugh sent in the placekicker, who cut the margin to 30-23. The hosts recovered the onside kick and drilled the clock with power runs behind six offensive linemen. (Set aside that the Patriots won by using precisely the tactics Atlanta would fail to employ a short time later in a similar circumstances in the Super Bowl.) The lesson: Harbaugh should have gone for it on 4th-and-1.
Coaches in Baltimore’s situation like to do the “safe” thing by taking the field goal. But down 10, the trailing team must record a touchdown. At the New England 20, Baltimore was only 20 yards from the touchdown it had to have. If the Ravens take the field goal and then recover an onside kick, they’re at midfield and must advance at least 50 yards. Go for the touchdown while close and then, if recovering an onside, the tying field goal can be launched from long distance.
Of course a team trailing by 10 points in the endgame is likely to lose no matter what tactics are chosen. But the bold chain-of-events (go for it on 4th-and-1; then get a touchdown; recover the onside; launch a long field goal as time expires) is a better venture than the “safe” chain-of-events (take the field goal; recover the onside; advance 50 yards). Football coaches like to do what’s “safe” because this is what fans, sportswriters, and announcers expect, thus reducing the coach’s exposure to criticism. Also the field goal shrinks the margin of defeat, enabling the coach to say, “We went to New England and only lost 30-23,” which is what Harbaugh was able to say after resorting to “safe” tactics.
Buffalo. The league’s longest playoff drought didn’t just happen. The Bills worked hard at being bad.
The coaching reins were handed to the buffoonish Rex Ryan, who arrived at Buffalo with a career losing record, though a reputation as a great coach. (Just ask him!) The season prior to Ryan, the Bills had the NFL’s fourth-ranked defense. Rex promptly fired the defensive coordinator in order to bring in a crony, switched the scheme from the successful, conservative 4-3 front with Cover 2, to crazed blitz-wacky fronts with defensive linemen in coverage.
The Bills dropped from 4th in the league in defense to 19th; and from 1st in sacks to 25th.
At the start of last season Buffalo added Rex’s buffoonish twin Rob. The players performed as if no one was in charge, with defensive backs turning to shout at each other during plays. Rex fielded a top defense at the Jets in 2009 and 2010, but had stellar defenders Shaun Ellis, David Harris, Jim Leonhard, Bart Scott, and Darrelle Revis in his prime. His reputation as a coach is based on a brief spate of good luck with superb players acquired by someone else. Like the 45th president, Ryan is good at only one thing—self-promotion. Perhaps it’s no surprise Ryan was the opening act for Trump’s GOP-primary rally in Buffalo.
General manager Doug Whaley, fired last spring, regularly reached on draft day: Top choices wasted on busts, panicky trade-ups for Sammy Watkins and Reggie Ragland. Whaley paid a king’s ransom to obtain the pick used on Watkins. The next two players selected at the same position, Mike Evans and Odell Beckham Jr., became Pro Bowlers: the guy picked immediately after Watkins was Khalil Mack, the 2016 defensive player of the year.
And after overspending in the draft, Whaley overspent on contracts. His deals pay Charles Clay, Marcell Dareus, Cordy Glenn, and Jerry Hughes as if they were among the NFL elite, though none has ever started a playoff game. (Here is the indispensable Bill Barnwell on the NFL’s all-overpaid squad.) Whaley offered Dareus a $60 million guaranteed extension though he wasn’t even a free agent: the defensive tackle has celebrated by taking every other down off, when isn’t suspended or so out of shape he can barely jog. The New England Patriots don’t draft particularly well either, yet get superb effort from players. One reason is that Bill Belichick, who is in effect the Pats’ general manager, does not tolerate goofing off. Buffalo rewards it!
Since taking the conn, new management has given the heave-ho to players in whom previous management invested three recent number-one draft choices, two number-twos and two number-fours. This 17th consecutive year of housecleaning must be a record in NFL annals. But for new coach Sean McDermott and new general manager Brandon Beane, the moves lower expectations: “You can’t possibly expect us to win in 2017 with the mess we inherited.”
Cleveland. Cleveland entered the draft with a cornucopia of extra picks, and desperate for a quarterback—yet passed on Patrick Mahomes II and Deshaun Watson, quarterbacks that other teams were willing to make king’s-ransom trades for. Perhaps the operative factor is that the other teams (Houston and Kansas City) are winning teams and Cleveland is a losing team.
Cleveland ended up with five picks in the first three rounds in 2017, 2016, 2015, and 2014. Twenty high draft selections in four years—no NFL franchise has ever posted such a streak. Dallas had 19 high picks in the 4 years after the Herschel Walker trade, and the yield was a multi-ring dynasty team. Cleveland’s yield so far is the league’s worst record and still no quarterback.
Lots of high picks aren’t worth much if the front office opens the window and throws them out. Browns drafting was exemplified by 2014, when the team used their ninth overall pick to trade up one spot to number eight. With that pick, they selected Justin Gilbert. Who turned out to be a bust. Cleveland traded up and choose a bust! From 2011 to 2014 the Browns posted an amazing six blown first-round choices—Gilbert, Phil Taylor, Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson, Barkevious Mingo, and Johnny Manziel. But don’t worry, Cleveland already has six choices in the first three rounds of 2018, so more blown picks are coming.
The NFL’s worst teams of the new century are the Bills (no playoff appearance in this century, the league’s longest drought) and the Browns (no playoff appearance since 2003, the second-longest drought). In calling the Browns and Bills terrible, I do not mean to take anything away from how bad the Rams and Jaguars are!
Riding those two worst non-postseason-appearance streaks, Buffalo and Cleveland have stockpiled draft choices the way Scrat stockpiled acorns in the Ice Age flicks. In April 2018, the Browns and Bills will combine for four first round choices, five second round picks and three third rounders. Normally, winning teams are the ones that bank draft selections to the next spring, knowing that rookies would have trouble making a winning team’s roster anyway: stockpiling picks makes sense for perennial contenders. Yet at present, the two worst NFL teams are the ones that have banked the most draft choices. Why not spend them now in an effort to—what’s the phrase I am looking for?—win some games.
It’s hard not to conclude that the tanking strategy—deliberately lose, while fattening the owner’s wallet—has expanded from basketball to professional football. Buffalo and Cleveland are tanking by deferring draft picks to future years. For their parts, Jacksonville and Santa Clara appear to be tanking by not spending salary cap room.
Tanking is more attractive in the NFL than the NBA, since almost all revenue to football owners comes from national television, while in basketball, home ticket sales and local television matter. The Chargers are about to play in a 30,000-seat stadium that would be considered small for high school football in parts of Texas. Yet because of national TV rights fees, LA/B in its vest-pocket stadium will be just as profitable as the Cowboys and Giants in their enormous stadia. No matter how poorly the Bills and Browns perform, ownership in Cleveland and Buffalo will enjoy almost exactly the same revenue as that of the Patriots and other well-run franchises. In the NFL, victory is not essential to profit.
Although you’d assume the primary motive of any professional sports club is winning, this is not always the case. Later in the season as TMQ turns to why coaches order punts on 4th-and-1—veteran Tuesday Morning Quarterback readers know there is some slight chance I will fulminate against punting on 4th-and-1—this column will explore the circumstances in which winning is not the NFL coach’s first concern.
Is that mindset expanding to NFL owners? Deliberately losing in order to make the season more profitable for the owner is changing professional men’s basketball from a competitive league to one in which a handful of elite teams play to win while the rest are essentially performing exhibitions. Will there be an NFL future in which clubs like Buffalo and Cleveland offer what is in effect an all-exhibition-game slate? There’s no law of nature that says the NFL must remain so popular.
Live look from the Bengals practice facility.
Cincinnati. Marvin Lewis enters his 15th season as head coach of the Trick-or-Treats, exceptional longevity in the contemporary NFL. His tenure raises a basic question about teams that aren’t tanking—is the goal to be pretty good year after year, or is the goal to win a championship? If it’s the former, then Lewis is a success, with a 118-103 regular season record at Cincinnati and fabulous regular season performances for the hometown faithful: the Bengals’ 2015 comeback, overtime victory, from a 7-24 fourth quarter deficit versus Seattle, was among the most exciting athletic events ever staged in Ohio. But if the goal is to win a title, then Lewis’ tenure with the Bengals has been a huge disappointment. He is 0-7 in the postseason.
Once the playoffs commence, Bengals players get the yips, while Lewis goes into his shell, changing gameday decision-making from conservative (his normal setting) to ultra-conservative (his postseason setting.) In a playoff loss at Indianapolis, for example, Lewis ordered a punt on 4th-and-short, in Colts’ territory, even though Cincinnati was trailing. Later, still trailing, the Bengals punted on 4th-and-short from midfield. Cincinnati won’t prevail in January until its coach plays to win, which has not happened yet.
Andy Dalton, fiery during the regular season, grows timid in January, and his record reflects this. During the regular season Dalton has thrown 142 touchdown passes and 82 interceptions, a nice ratio. In four postseason starts he’s managed just one touchdown pass versus six interceptions. When Lewis orders playoff punts on 4th-and-short, Dalton trots passively off the field—rather than go berserk, as Brett Favre would in such a situation. If the 2017 season comes down to Lewis sending out the punt unit on 4th-and-short, Dalton needs to go berserk.
On the plus side, with unusually fast players in wide receiver John Ross, cornerback William Jackson, tailback Giovani Bernard, and defensive end Jordan Willis, the Bengals will be able to field more speedsters than one of those episodes of The Flash in which Barry Allen, Reverse Flash, and Zoom all time-travel to the same place.
Denver. Vance Joseph’s opening move in Denver was not pawn to king’s pawn 4, but showing the door to Wade Phillips. Sure your defense won the 2016 Super Bowl with one of the all-time best performances, holding the top offense of that season to three net points. (Carolina scored 10 while the Denver defense recorded a touchdown.) But what have you done for us lately? Under Phillips, Denver’s defense was fourth against points in 2015, then after free agency losses, fourth against points again in 2016. So get lost! Don’t let the screen door hit you on your way out! You’re a bum! Sorry, that was your dad.
The tenacity of Phillips’ Denver defense was all the more impressive because in 2015 and 2016, the low-voltage Broncos’ offense frequently put defenders on the field. Denver was 28th in time of possession last season. Yet the defense, often barely grabbing Gatorade before trotting back in following a three-and-out, still posted great numbers. Phillips is now defensive coordinator for the Rams. It’s his 20th coaching position, which does not make him weird, rather, makes him normal in the realm of football coaching. Tuesday Morning Quarterback has $20 that says the Rams’ defensive numbers will improve in 2017 while the Broncos’ numbers decline.
Joseph is one of several rookie head coaches this season taking over at the top of their profession despite having never been a head coach at any other level. It’s hard not to suspect the reason he did not try to keep Phillips was to focus the limelight on himself. Otherwise league insiders might have whispered, “It’s the Phillips defense, not Vance Joseph, that’s making the Broncos win.” This dilemma will solve itself should Denver have a losing season.
Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, now Denver’s general manager, is derided in some quarters as a pretty boy, but he been among the league’s best executives, so maybe his hiring of Joseph will prove adept. Elway took the heat on an extremely unpopular decision to move Tim Tebow, a judgment that led to Denver winning a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning at the helm. Currently the Broncos labored under the league’s smallest sum of “dead money,” salary cap charges for players no longer on the roster. That’s good management. (Note the Jets are awful, and yet still carry $17.6 million in accounting charges for players they don’t even have.)
Houston. In a series of transactions the Texans sent the Browns two number-one draft picks and a second-round choice for Deshaun Watson, Carlos Watkins, and getting rid of Brock Osweiler. The latter aspect, which saved Houston salary cap space, boiled down to Osweiler and a second-round draft pick to Cleveland for the fourth-round choice used to obtain Watkins. Perhaps unfairly to Osweiler, Texans management blamed the quarterback for a fizzled-out 2016 season: Houston was willing to part with a second-round draft pick to offload Osweiler’s contract and to get him off the property. This allowed Moo Cows coach Bill O’Brien and general manager Rick Smith to remove the remainder of the $37 million guaranteed to a quarterback who had started only a few games and then been benched by his previous employer.
Something-for-nothing trades—I’ll give you a player and a draft pick if you promise to give me nothing—have become common in the NBA, where front office types make their reputations by getting rid of ill-advised guaranteed contracts. In 2016, for instance, the Cavaliers sent a number-one draft selection and Anderson Varejao to Portland. Cleveland wanted to shed Varejao’s salary cap amortization. Portland only wanted the draft choice—the Trail Blazers immediately waived Varejao. In 2017, Toronto, desperate to unload an ill-advised megabucks guarantee to DeMarre Carroll, sent him and first- and second round draft choices to Brooklyn for Justin Hamilton. The Raptors immediately waived Hamilton—that is, Toronto traded a starter and two high draft picks for nothing at all, just to unload a contract. Does the Osweiler deal signify that this sort of accounting-trick transaction will become common in the NFL? Perhaps a market in salary cap futures could develop.
Tuesday Morning Quarterback has a high opinion of Deshaun Watson, who started 32 college games, went 9-2 versus ranked schools, and appeared in consecutive national championship tilts. During the latter, Watson threw for 825 yards and put up 75 points versus college football’s top-rated Alabama defense. Football is a team sport; Clemson surrounded Watson with good teammates. Still, his performance under national primetime pressure was excellent—while Mitch Trubisky, the quarterback selected ahead of Watson in the draft, was 2-3 versus ranked teams. TMQ feels Watson has the words “franchise quarterback” pretty much stenciled on his forehead; he shows the same poise under pressure that made Joe Montana a star.
Watson could make the Texans the AFC’s most dangerous team, especially since Houston’s excellent defense this season hopes to field a finally-good Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt together. First the Texans must learn to perform beyond the AFC South: in the past two seasons, Houston is 10-2 inside the division, 9-16 outside.
Indianapolis. There in joy in the Colts camp—New England is not on this season’s schedule. Andrew Luck is 0-5 versus the Patriots, 46-25 versus all other teams. New England is on a 223-100 scoring run against the Colts, highlighted by blowing them off the field in the 2015 AFC title contest.
Schedule has been a leading factor in Luck’s career. He arrived at Indianapolis when the AFC South was weak, and the Colts posted a 16-2 division record in his first three seasons. In the two most recent campaigns, the Colts are 7-5 in the division and looking mortal. Last season Indianapolis lost home-and-away to Houston, and even dropped a game to woeful Jacksonville. When Indianapolis ended 2016, out of the playoffs, by squeaking past the 3-13 Jaguars on a touchdown with 9 seconds showing, head coach Chuck Pagano celebrated wildly, as if he’s just won the Super Bowl and a Nobel Peace Prize at the same time.
Indianapolis has not protected Luck well. The offensive line has been in regular turmoil and rarely a draft priority for Colts management, who in recent drafts have favored defensive backs over linemen, tending to leave Luck exposed. The 42 sacks Indianapolis allowed in 2016 was the most by any team that did not have a losing record. If center Ryan Kelly has lingering injury issues, 2017 could be a long season. In five years, Luck has played with five starters at center; a sixth would not be a good sign.
Center is the NFL’s overlooked position. The league devalues center in the draft: in the last decade, only a handful of centers have been chosen in round one. All recent round-one centers have been success stories—Kelly, plus Travis Frederick, the Pouncey twins, Alex Mack, and Eric Wood. Yet front offices and head coaches continue to downplay the position. Things just have not been the same at Indianapolis since the departure of center Jeff Saturday, a sure Hall of Fame entrant someday and, more importantly, the 2007 Tuesday Morning Quarterback Non-Quarterback Non-Running-Back NFL MVP.
Kansas City. The two most recent drafts have seen four king’s-ransom trades for quarterbacks: by the Rams (Jared Goff), the Eagles (Carson Wentz), Texans (Deshaun Watson), and the Chiefs (Patrick Mahomes), plus a princess-bride trade for a signal callers by the Broncos (Paxton Lynch) and Bears (Mitch Trubisky). This, though Andrew Luck in 2012 was the last consensus everybody-wants-him player at the position.
One reason for the trade action is the Whiteboard Analytic of the NFL, a super-secret, insiders-only key to NFL success which will be disclosed in shocking detail in an upcoming Tuesday Morning Quarterback. Another reason is economics. Midcareer quality quarterbacks who reach free agency are drawing around $25 million annum. Newly drafted round-one quarterbacks can be had for four or five seasons for about the same amount. That’s mighty attractive: Barnwell breaks down the numbers.
To get into position to nab Mahomes, the Chiefs swapped two number-one choices and a third-round pick. By the old Jimmy Johnson draft value chart from around 1990—the right-hand column—that was a swell trade, with Kansas City surrendering a value of 1,500 to receive 1,300. According to the salary-cap-adjusted chart devised by the insightful football commentator Chase Stuart—left-hand column at the same link—the trade was a fiasco for the Chiefs, who gave up 33.1 to get 19.9. (TMQ loves pseudo-scientific stats that have decimal points.) Stuart’s chart recognizes that modern cap accounting makes newly drafted guys, locked in for four to five years at relatively low pay, more valuable than they were in Johnson’s day.
Mahomes, who his father was an MLB pitcher, has a wicked strong arm. If he plays well for Kansas City, no one will give a fig about the picks surrendered. The worrisome indicator is his 13-16 record as a college starter; quarterbacks who were losers in college then became winners in the pros are rare birds. The complication is that Mahomes toiled at Texas Tech, whose defense allowed 44 points per game and where a basketball-on-grass view of tactics led to 2016 finals (these are actual scores!) of 68-55, 66-59, 59-45, 54-34, 45-44, and 45-37. Versus Oklahoma, Mahomes threw 88 times for 734 yards—and the Red Raiders lost. Mahomes thus holds a lifetime pass to the 700 Club: not the religious show, rather, one TMQ’s highly exclusive doorman clubs for players and teams that win the statistics and lose the game.
Acquiring Mahomes may be good for the Chiefs long-term but may create a quarterback controversy short-term, and no coach wants that. Shortly after swinging the Mahomes trade and cutting wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, an Andy Reid favorite, Chiefs general manager John Dorsey was fired, while Reid got a contract extension. Best guess is that a steamed Reid went to the Kansas City ownership suite and said it’s him or me.
The Old South Loses Yet Again—or, Is This a Win? Sometimes bad events lead to good outcomes. The Charlottesville rioting created a political context in which statues of Confederate generals could be removed from public squares and placed in museums where they belong. Mayors and governors, including conservative mayors and governors, have for some time wanted to be rid of these eyesores: Charlottesville forged a consensus on action.
No more stone generals on horseback can appear to be yet another loss for the Old South, but maybe is a blessing. The preposterous illusion that the Confederacy was noble does not merely generate hard feelings by African-Americans (though that’s bad enough); this preposterous illusion harms whites, too. “There’s a southern accent where I come from,” sang the Florida-born Tom Petty, “The young ‘uns call it country / the yankees call it dumb.” Why do yankees call it dumb? Because the accent is associated with romanticizing the Confederacy, the dumbest idea in North American history. (This is different from whether southern states should have had a legal right to secede; on that topic, your columnist commends the excellent 2015 book, The Law of the Land, by Yale Law School professor Akhil Reed Amar.) So stop romanticizing the Confederacy!
Bringing down the statues—with the concomitant admission that there is nothing, other than personal courage, worth commemorating about the Confederate States of America—will help the New South prosper, which will be good for everybody, including southern white males. Petty sings, “With one foot in the grave / and one foot on the pedal / I was born a rebel.” Lyrics of his Rebels express a sentiment the coastal elite finds convenient to ignore—that even if the North was in the right, the destruction visited on the Old South was heartless overkill: “They called us all rebels, burned our cornfields and left our cities level / I can still feel the eyes of those blue-bellied devils.”
But it’s a century and a half later and a lot has changed. Born with “one foot in the grave / and one foot on the pedal” encapsulates the self-defeating notion that collapse of the Old South binds southern whites today. The Old South was horrible! The New South is capable of outstanding achievements; white male conservatives of the New South are capable of outstanding achievements. Letting go archaic illusions regarding the Confederacy will help.
As the statues topple, next should be new names for military bases, such as Fort A.P. Hill, whose front gates honor Confederates. Ambrose Hill and others like him should always be in the history books: honoring their names, in order to attract southern whites to support the U.S. military, no longer is necessary. Next as well should be the outlandish “shrines” to the Confederacy that are maintained by the National Park Service, such as the Stonewall Jackson Shrine not far from the Charlottesville rioting. Thomas Jackson got his nickname by leading men to die for the desire of southern aristocrats to hold slaves. There’s no aspect of “shrine” to this.
And let’s not exempt the victorious states. Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College honors its graduate Roger Taney (Dickinson ’95, in this case 1795), a horrible man who ruled, in the Dred Scott case, that human beings could be property so long as their skin was black. Taney should always be in the history books—but not exalted by an institution of higher learning.
Goodbye to the Confederate Flag, Too. Old South sentimentalists contend that waving the Confederate flag does not venerate slavery, but rather the courage shown by men who knew they were fated to die. Fair enough—it is a battle flag, after all. But would those men who were fated to die want their descendants to cling to a preposterous illusion? The solution is a new symbol of Southern pride. Artists, get to work—create a flag of pride for the New South, one all can embrace.
Tambako the Jaguar
Jacksonville. There has yet to be an NFL London contest between teams that were both contenders at kickoff—British enthusiasm for gridiron football is restrained in part because the NFL has yet to play a consequential game across the pond. Last season’s London overtime tie between Cincinnati and Washington made test-match cricket seem exciting. One reason the London games are consistently letdowns is that the Jaguars have made the most appearances. And look who anchors the NFL London slate this season!
Jacksonville has been in the top-five portion of the NFL draft for six years running—they are 22-74 during that span—and in the lottery section of the draft for 10 years running. Ye gods. Jax used the NFL’s second overall choice in 2013 on Luke Joeckel, the fifth overall choice in 2012 on Justin Blackmon, and recent high number-one picks on Blaine Gabbert, Tyson Alualu, and Eugene Monroe. All these were either pure busts or major disappointments. Draft mistakes don’t have to come at the top. In 2012, the Jaguars spent a third-round choice on punter Bryan Anger, a very high selection for a punter; then waived him after a few seasons. Jacksonville picked Anger when Russell Wilson, Josh Norman, T.Y. Hilton and Danny Trevathan were all sitting on the board.
TMQ is rooting for backup guard Luke Bowanko to make the Jax roster. Who is he? The player Jacksonville got in trade for Gabbert. Taking into account transactions to acquire the pick that brought Gabbert to the Saint Johns River, the Jaguars used first- and second-round draft choices on Luke Bowanko.
Late last season the Jaguars cashiered their head coach, bringing in Doug Marrone, who has a career losing record. Anyone could have one off year, but Marrone has been a head coach for six years and hasn’t won. Perhaps there is a reason. (Marrone took charge by eliminating the ping-pong table from the Jacksonville locker room.) Inexplicably, general manager David Caldwell—the guy who chose Blake Bortles over Khalil Mack—kept his job. Jax was fifth in passing defense in 2016, a solid stat, but this was partly because opponents often had big leads and stopped throwing in the fourth quarter. Note to the Atlanta Falcons: teams with big leads should stop throwing in the fourth quarter.
New Jersey Jets. Over less than a decade, Jersey/B has invested multiple high draft choices, and traded players, in quarterbacks Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, Bryce Petty, and Christian Hackenberg—and is still so flummoxed at the position that Josh McCown may start in 2017. Last season’s signal callers now are understudies elsewhere—Smith at Jersey/A, Ryan Fitzpatrick at City of Tampa. Should either take the field and perform well, the Jets’ humiliation will grow.
Last November, the Jets lost at home 9-6 to the Rams, who would finish 4-12. Trailing 9-6 with 4:52 remaining, coach Todd Bowles had Jersey/B punt from midfield. “Darling, we’ll always have the Rams-Jets game, it seemed like time stood still.”
In three 2016 contests the Jets failed to record a touchdown; Jersey/B was 2-0 versus the Bills, 3-11 versus all other teams. Last Christmas Eve, trailing 41-0 in New England, Bowles had the Jets kick a field goal from the Patriots’ 11. This was done to keep a shutout off Bowles’s coaching record.
Los Angeles Chargers. Recent NCAA men’s Final Fours have been played at a too-big scale, in football stadia. Moving to Los Angeles, the Chargers will return the favor by performing at a too-small scale: their home games until 2020 will be in the 30,000-seat StubHub Center, a soccer facility. Not to put too fine a point on it, but ultra-laid-back Angelinos did not support the Los Angeles Rams (version 1.0) or the Los Angeles Raiders. Last season the Rams (version 2.0) returned and drew a healthy gate, second in the NFL in home attendance. Can the Chargers draw in L.A. too? They won’t find out until 2020, which maybe is just as well.
Philip Rivers enters his 12th seasons as the Bolts’ starting quarterback, quietly compiling one of the best same-team streaks in NFL annals. Rivers has 314 career regular season touchdown passes, placing him eighth all-time—how many who follow football would guess Rivers is near the top in an all-time statistical category? The problem is that across a long span, Rivers has posted only four playoff wins. During the regular season, he throws 1.8 touchdown passes per contest: once the lights come on in January, Rivers’s production drops to 1.2 touchdowns per game. The Chargers have just one postseason victory in the last eight seasons. Considering the Chargers are in the stacked AFC West—Kansas City, Oakland, and Denver—the chances of them breaking that streak this year aren’t good.
Know Your Meme
Miami. The Chicago Bears front office will be warily scanning Dolphins’ box scores, hoping Jay Cutler plays poorly; otherwise the Bears front will look bad for having given Cutler the heave-ho.
But why did Jay Cutler forsake the broadcast booth to sign with the Dolphins? Every washed-up NFL jock thinks there’s a sweet deal awaiting him, mumbling inanities at high pay as a broadcast color man on CBS, ESPN, Fox, or NBC. Cutler actually had such a deal and forsook it. (“Forsooth”—is that the past tense of forsake?) The $10 million he will make for looking handsome and bewildered in the Dolphins’ huddle exceeds what his best-case broadcast income would have been for several years. Still, down the road if another booth deal doesn’t materialize—a long line of washed-up NFL jocks will form for Cutler’s forsaken position—the Vanderbilt grad may wish he’d kept the garish sports-jacket on when he had the chance.
During the offseason the Dolphins waived Dion Jordan, in whom previous management invested first- and second-round draft choices. Jordan barely played in the NFL, starting one game in three seasons. But then he barely played in college either, and still became a high first-round selection. The Dolphins’ faithful wake up each morning relieved that general manager Jeff Ireland—the guy who drafted Jordan, along with other boneheaded calls—is gone.
The Dolphins in recent seasons have acquired an aura of low-key pastel colors, like walking versions of Miami architecture. Last season the defense finished 29 of 32; the season before, 25. It won’t matter how many quick-release short curls and shallow crossers (favorite pass routes of Adam Gase) Cutler completes if defenders can’t stop anyone.
New England. Though Bill Belichick has never drafted particularly well, he has a keen eye for undrafted free agents and gents that other teams will surrender at bargain prices. In New England’s Super Bowl win, 9 of the 22 Patriot starters were undrafted, released by other teams, or acquired for low draft choices: David Andrews, Martellus Bennett, Alan Branch, Malcolm Butler, Chris Hogan, Dion Lewis, Shea McClellin, Rob Ninkovich, and Eric Rowe. That’s nearly half a championship squad composed of players other teams didn’t want. In the Super Bowl, the Patriots put up 442 net passing yards to a receiving corps consisting of two undrafted free agents, a 7th-round draft choice, two fourth-round selections, and one high pick.
Who are Josh Augusta, Adam Butler, Austin Carr, Cole Croston, Jacob Hollister, David Jones, Harvey Langi, Max Rich, and Damarius Travis? Undrafted nobodies who Belichick signed in May. Every other NFL team passed on them. How long until one becomes a starter for the defending champions?
Halfway through the 2016 season, Belichick traded star linebacker Jamie Collins. Sports pundits said this doomed the Patriots’ defense; the Patriots’ defense finished first against points, not missing Collins one iota. As Jenny Vrentas showed, Belichick didn’t like that Collins was grousing about his contract rather than memorizing game plans. Whoosh, gone—leaving a message to any other Patriot not paying attention. Rather than start in a Super Bowl victory, Collins got to dress like a Tootsie Roll for the Cleveland Browns. That ought to have a deterrent effect on future Patriots whiners.
Because Belichick plays the Bills, Dolphins, and Jets a total of six times per season, he spends long hours staring at film of these teams, and identifies players the Bills, Dolphins, and Jets don’t know how to use properly. Belichick spirited the undrafted Wes Welker away from Miami, then taught him to master the “pivot” route as no wide receiver had before. (The undrafted Danny Amendola and 7th-round Julian Edelman have mastered that route now. Fun fact: in high school, Wes Welker scored 80 touchdowns, kicked 35 field goals and made 22 interceptions, yet received no recruiting offers from top programs.)
When the buffoonish Rex Ryan let Alan Branch and Chris Hogan go, Belichick snapped them up—they weren’t good enough for the pitiful Bills, but they cracked the lineup of football’s best team. This offseason, Belichick got Stephon Gilmore and Mike Gillislee from Buffalo for the highway-robbery price of some money and a fifth-round draft choice. With the Bills, Gilmore often looked dazed and hesitant, owing to buffoonish coaching. With an Elvis on his head, he will play like a future Hall of Famer. This offseason Jersey/B cut linebacker David Harris, who wasn’t good enough for the dysfunctional Jets. Now he starts for football’s best team, and don’t be surprised if Harris has a Pro Bowl season.
Belichick seems to prefer low-drafted or waiver-wire gents over athletic celebrities: Possibly because the unwanted respond to coaching, Exhibit A being Tom Brady, a sixth-round pick. Sometime this season, Tuesday Morning Quarterback will spell out Belichick’s formula for the exceptional results he gets. These days nothing is covert—well, save what Ernie Adams is up to. Belichick could write the column himself, revealing all, and it wouldn’t matter, since the rest of the league is either too vain or too foolish simply to do exactly what the NFL’s best coach does.
Oakland. The Raiders began the 2016 season in fine feather. Scoring a touchdown to pull within one of New Orleans with a few seconds remaining, rather than kick a PAT and proceed to overtime, head Jack Del Rio—Jack of the River to this column—went for the deuce and victory. Most NFL coaches would stick to the “safe” thing to avoid criticism for what the sportsyak world inevitably calls a “huge gamble.” (A coming TMQ will explain why going for two in most cases is actually playing the percentages.) The successful deuce set an aggressive tone for the season.
Then the season ended on a bummer, with Oakland, having risen to 12-3, losing two straight following an injury to Derek Carr. If he’s healthy again, the Raiders will field a power team with several of the league’s best players: Carr, linebackers Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin, blocker Kelechi Osemele, and receiver Amari Cooper. The addition of tailback Marshawn Lynch seems like a thank-you to the Oakland fans the Raiders are determined to abandon. But if Lynch has anything left, he will add an extra dimension to an already-strong roster.
Bold as Jack of the River seemed in the opener, he was as petty after the late collapse. On New Year’s Day, in the regular season finale, the Raiders gasped for air in Denver: victory would have given them a bye then a home playoff date. Instead Oakland scored only six points, a gigantic bummer. Afterward Del Rio blamed offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, firing him. But not only had quarterback Carr gone down with a broken leg just before the Denver game, his backup went out injured too: Oakland played most of the contest with a third-stringer behind center. Blaming-shifting is as essential in the NFL as in Washington D.C. and Del Rio had to find a scapegoat.
On the season, Musgrave’s Oakland offense was seventh in scoring: suddenly after one game he’s a bum, get out of here! On the season the Oakland defense was a liability, finishing 26th, yet defensive coordinator Ken Norton kept his job. Now Musgrave is the quarterbacks coach for the Broncos and presumably will feel highly motivated to defeat Oakland in two 2017 tries.
It’s said holding could be called on almost every NFL down. This foul should be easiest for officials to enforce when the hold is versus edge rushers, of whom zebras get a good view. Yet in every NFL contest there are plays when a blocker wraps his arms around the edge rusher and . . . no flag. If holding on the fringe of the pocket is to be tolerated—the league has taken many steps to increase protection of quarterbacks—this should be plainly stated, rather than a mysterious no-call. And no edge rusher was held more often in 2016 than Khalil Mack.
Pittsburgh. Things should go well for the Steelers until the week before Christmas, when New England comes calling. The Flying Elvii have defeated Pittsburgh four straight, outscoring the Steelers 146-85, as part of an 11-3 run versus Pittsburgh.
It’s not just that New England rules the contemporary NFL—Mike Tomlin folds versus Bill Belichick. In last season’s AFC title contest, the Patriots employed a quick-snap, five-wide look on offense with an eight-man press front on defense. Though both are standard tactics, Tomlin was surprised by them: New England jumped to a 10-0 lead, keying a walkover. Why was Tomlin surprised by quick-snap five-wide on offense and press fronts on defense? Because New England had not done either the previous week versus Houston. Tomlin studied film from that game and prepared for more of same.
Once when I was coaching the middle-school affiliate of a large public high school, the high school coach gave me a tip. If one week you are playing a team you will beat, then a week later playing a team that can beat you, use the game against the team you will beat to plant thoughts in the mind of the coach of the team that can beat you. Especially, show actions that make the second coach prepare, then when you play his team, do something completely different. This is fine coaching advice—and Tomlin walked into such a disinformation campaign.
One of the keys to Belichick’s success—at kickoff of the Pittsburgh at New England tilt, he was coaching his 11th conference title contest, the most ever—is that New England varies its game plans more, from week to week, than any other NFL team. This is no secret. Yet Tomlin was expecting an environmentally conscious recycled game plan and instead got looks that had nothing to do with the Patriots’ previous outing. The media narrative about the New England win was that Le’Veon Bell was hurt while Antonio Brown did too much boasting on social media and Tomlin didn’t crack the whip. But the media likes to interpret NFL outcomes in terms of the personalities of stars, rather than pay attention to game plans and down-and-distance decision-making. Belichick excels at the latter.
Will Martavis Bryant be reliable this season for Pittsburgh? He is the new Randy Moss in more ways than one—incredible talent, erratic behavior. Bryant will make your day or break your heart, as Joel Buchsbaum, first king of the draftniks, once said of Moss.
New England looms, but otherwise league schedule-makers love them some Pittsburgh: in 2017, as in 2016, the Steelers have no West Coast trips or at-Denver date.
Tennessee. In 2016 the Flaming Thumbtacks went 5-1 versus teams that reached the playoffs, an outstanding result in what this column calls Authentic Games. Yet Tennessee missed the postseason. The Titans clobbered the mighty Packers, then, playoff bid on the line, lost to the lowly Jaguars on Christmas Eve. Sure, the injury to Marcus Mariota complicated the picture—but serious teams defeat bad teams in late December, even if understudies must trot on.
The week before the Mariota injury, at Kansas City, Tennessee honked a field goal to win as time expired. But Andy Reid had called one of those infernal last-second “icing” timeouts. On the bonus try, you know what happened. TMQ hates the last-second icing time out. Jeff Fisher once claimed it would be impossible to write a rule that would eliminate the icing timeout just before a field goal snap, but not eliminate timeouts called for other reasons. TMQ thinks such a rule is not impossible: When Team A is in field goal formation, Team B cannot call time out after officials give the ready-to-play signal.
Visually, the worst game of the 2016 season was Jax at Nashville, one of those infernal Color Rush contests. The Jags wore their Colonel Mustard unis—in the library, with the lead pipe!—while Tennessee sported monochrome baby blue. The game looked so bad in visual terms, teams of children frolicking in pajamas, that it created a negative vibe around the whole season’s Thursday night slate. Tennessee plans to ditch the pajamas-style unis for 2018. The NFL should ditch the Thursday night schedule, which is too much, and dilutes the product.
Tuesday Morning Quarterback Fast-Forward Preview. Over the course of the football season, this column will introduce many aspects of its quirky worldview.
In sports, among them are obsessions with: punting on 4th-and-1 (this form of folly actually bears on international events as well as sports, but you’ll have to wait for the proof of that); thinking the blitz is overused and more likely to backfire than succeed (a running item is titled Stop Me Before I Blitz Again); distaste for weasel coaches; strong distaste for the NCAA (this is a common feeling, in my case the focus is not on paying players rather on the pitiful graduation rates of big-deal college football and men’s basketball); concern that the traumatic brain injury issue is all too real but the harm done is to youth players not to the NFL; concern about public subsidies to the billionaires who sit upon the thrones of the NFL; concern that there is no law of nature that says football must remain popular—prizefighting proved its own worst enemy; football could, too.
Outside of sports, TMQ’s quirky obsessions include holiday creep (seen any Christmas decorations yet?); that the rich should stop giving to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, giving instead to colleges for average people; that talk of manned Mars flight is nonsense with foreseeable propulsion technology; that the “security” details surrounding government officials down to the county level are there to make the officials seem important; and that time-travel plots have become common in Hollywood because time travel relieves scriptwriters of producing material that makes sense.
Also, we’ll have a new obsession for 2017: that the high-level-traitor plots that have become common in Hollywood helped elect Donald Trump.
For the first couple Tuesdays, this column will be nearly all football. As the season unfolds, content on politics, culture, science, and economics will unfold.
Now, for the uninitiated, let’s introduce the cognomen that TMQ bestows on many NFL teams.
Arizona Cactus Wrens: Cactus wrens are state bird of Arizona, where cardinals are rare.
Baltimore Nevermores: “Awk, no one is open,” quoth the raven, in the town of Edgar Allan Poe.
Buffalo Williams: More formal than Bills.
Cincinnati Trick-or-Treats: Owing to the Halloween look.
City of Tampa Buccaneers: Tampa Bay is a body of water, the city name is Tampa. Green Bay Packers is okay because that’s the city name.
Cleveland Tootsie Rolls: Nodding to the color scheme.
Houston Moo Cows: Nodding to the lovely cattle-inspired logo.
Indianapolis Lucky Charms: The horseshoe on the helmet.
Jersey/A and Jersey/B: The “New York” Giants and “New York” Jets not only do not play in New York, neither even has a practice facility there. First to decamp to the Garden State, the Giants get the Jersey/A designation. Here is the New York Times on the Jersey/A and Jersey/B concept.
Kansas City Flintstones: Check the logo.
LA/A and LA/B: New for the 2017 season. The Rams and Chargers both play in the City of Angels this season, and as the Rams decamped first, they get the coveted /A designation. Also, TMQ now retires Les Mouflons as a nickname for the Rams (whose curved-horns logo suggests the Old World sheep).
Las Vegas Sinners: A placeholder for the Raiders’ nickname once their move occurs.
Miami Marine Mammals: Dolphins are not fish, so this team cannot be squished.
Minnesota Hyperboreans: Large men from the cold north in Greek legends.
New England Flying Elvii: The helmet logo is an airborne Elvis. After Talmudic debate with readers, I decided the Latin plural of Elvis is “Elvii.” Please do not write me about this.
New Orleans Boy Scouts: Referring to the fleur-des-lis, not their style of play.
Philadelphia Nesharim: This team has the sole NFL logo that faces right to left, the way Hebrew is read. After Talmudic debate, readers voted that nesharim is eagles in Hebrew. Please don’t write me about this either.
Pittsburgh Hypocycloids: That’s what the thing on the helmet is.
Santa Clara 49ers: The team now plays an hour’s drive from San Francisco. The Bills are however not the Orchard Park Williams because they perform in the same county as Buffalo.
Seattle Blue Men Group: Self-explanatory.
Tennessee Flaming Thumbtacks: Check the helmet logo.
Then there’s the Washington franchise, whose name is highly offensive. Not just the R*dsk*ns part—though, trademark rules aside, it is deep arrogance on the part of the NFL to have a team in a publicly subsidized stadium in the nation’s capital blasting out an ethnic slur. American Indians were not just mistreated; thousands were held as slaves: TMQ will return to this later in the season.
The “Washington” part is offensive too, as this team practices in Virginia and performs in Maryland—there is nothing “Washington” about it, other than its insatiable demands for subsidies and special treatment. TMQ refers to the R*dsk*ns as the Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Persons.
Calling Kaepernick’s Barber. Michael Vick was denounced for saying that if Colin Kaepernick wants another job in the NFL, he should get a haircut. TMQ found this a serious proposition. There are lots of athletic young men who would give practically anything for an NFL roster spot. Coaches scanning free agent lists ask themselves, and not unreasonably, “Is this guy totally committed to football?” To endure the NFL, you must want it really bad. Kaepernick’s visible-from-orbit hair can, not unreasonably, make a coach wonder, “If he won’t just go to a barbershop, how badly does he want to play?”
Fans of the microaggression hypothesis might say that being retro-Afro, Kaepernick’s hairstyle is a political statement rather than a fashion statement. Yet no one says this about the hairstyles of NFL performers such as New England’s Stephon Gilmore, who wears very long braids. Kaepernick’s hair has gotten so vast the helmet must be uncomfortable—maybe pressure from the helmet makes him forget the plays.
Offseason Football-Like Substance. Storm 73, Gladiators 59 in Arena League playoffs. The game featured 19 touchdowns, one field goal, 635 total yards passing and 26 total yards rushing. Going into the Arena Bowl, Dan Raudabaugh of the Soul led the league with 82 touchdown passes (the season record for touchdown passes in the NFL, by Peyton Manning, is 55). Four teams can boast they made the Arena League playoffs. The Arena League has five teams, meaning the entire regular season was played to eliminate the Valor.
Next Week: TheNFC preview, plus maybe, just possibly, why Atlanta should have run up the middle in the fourth quarter in the Super Bowl. Matt Ryan could have knelt for the entire fourth quarter and Atlanta would have won! Also, Hidden Plays of Super Bowl LI.
See you next Tuesday.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard