This week, we go for a double deep dive!
First, Sean Tyler looks at those players on the comeback trail after some serious time out of the game…
IT’S ALL COMING BACK TO ME NOW
Before the 2020 season, who was your pick for Comeback Player of the Year? Gronk reuniting with Tom Brady in Tampa after ‘retiring’? How about JJ Watt, who lost half of 2019 to a torn pec? Or maybe one of the in-form QBs who got crocked, such as Matt Stafford and Ben Roethlisberger?
All valid choices, for sure, but what about those who have been out even longer? Cincinnati’s AJ Green missed the last 18 months, Jerick McKinnon of the Niners was out for two years and Aldon Smith is back after five years away from the game. Let’s take a closer look at the varying degrees of success these players are enjoying after their lengthy layoffs.
The jury’s still out: AJ Green
It’s been a year-and-a-half since we’ve seen Bengals wide receiver AJ Green, who missed all last season with a high ankle sprain and before that, the final seven games of 2018 with turf toe. The franchise tag slapped on him for the 2020 campaign is a one-year, prove-you-still-have-it arrangement and on current form, it’s probably just as well.
Much was made of the anticipated improvement in the Bengals’ offence with Green’s return, along with that of LT Jonah Williams – who missed his rookie season – and of course, the drafting of franchise QB Joe Burrow and Green’s heir apparent, Tee Higgins. When healthy, Green is a top-five WR talent but ‘when healthy’ is a massive caveat these days, given his lack of availability over the last couple of seasons.
The 32-year-old has more than 9,000 career yards and 63 TDs, and his 3,273 receiving yards on passes of 20 or more yards rank third among all wideouts since he was drafted back in 2011. But the lack of a proper preseason to build up rapport with his rookie QB has meant a sluggish start this time around.
During the first three weeks of the campaign, Green hauled in just 13 catches for 119 yards and then, in the Week 4 win over the Jaguars, he brought down just one of five targets for a mere 3 yards. His current catch percentage of 46% and average reception of 8.9 yards are way down on his career averages (58% and 14.7 yards respectively) so something’s clearly not clicking with the seven-time Pro Bowler.
Citing lack of separation and a reduction in pace, some are already saying that Green is washed up. Others (including Green himself) think he’s just rusty and needs a little time to get up to speed, get comfortable with Zac Taylor’s system and gel with Joe Burrow. Even taking the lack of a preseason into account, it hasn’t been the most auspicious of starts. After a quarter of the regular season, doubts about whether he should have been traded while the going was good persist.
I’m not holding my breath but it would be nice if he rediscovered his mojo this weekend against old foes Baltimore, where he has a reputation as ‘the Raven killer’. His 227-yard, two-score game in 2015 was a particular highlight, prompting HC John Harbaugh to say: “One of these days, we’ll figure out how to cover AJ Green. It’d be nice if we did it once before he retires.”
As a massive fan, I sincerely hope that things turn around for Green soon, and that he sticks it to the Ravens at least one more time. I’m in cloud cuckoo land, I admit, but it’s nice to dream.
A promising start: Jerick McKinnon
With Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman both out with knee injuries, one guy to prosper in the midst of the Niners’ injury crisis is Jerick McKinnon – ironically now known for his own knee issue. Along with Jeff Wilson, the pass-catching running back was, unusually for him, the last man standing in the RB room.
McKinnon, who left the Vikings as a free agent and signed a four-year, $30 million contract with the Niners two years ago, spent both 2018 and 2019 on the sidelines, initially with an ACL tear and then with a setback during his recovery. The 49ers have renegotiated his deal, paying him less than a million this year after forking out £15m for the two years he sat out.
Exactly 966 days after he last took the field, McKinnon scored in his first game back, the 24-20 Week 1 loss to the Cardinals. He rushed three times for 24 yards and caught three passes for 20 yards and a TD. Then, against the Jets, his three runs netted 77 yards and a score, including a ridiculous 55-yard burst on a 3rd-and-31. That left him with 121 yards and two touchdowns from nine touches. Not too shoddy a start.
Last week, returning to the dreaded MetLife turf to face the Giants, he had 14 rushing attempts for 38 yards and another TD, as well as 39 yards from three catches. Alas, he sustained bruised ribs for his troubles and madee way for Wilson in the fourth quarter but he suited up against the Eagles to rush for 54 yards and his fourth TD of the season, as well as 43 more yards from seven catches.
While McKinnon’s 193 rushing yards are nothing to write home about yet – he’s only 28th in the league – his average of 7.0 yards per attempt was the best among all RBs until Sunday’s loss to Philly. Even so, his current average (5.7) is still seventh-best in the league, ahead of the likes of Dalvin Cook, Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara. In 2017, McKinnon recorded 991 all-purpose yards and on his current trajectory (296 yards), he’s on track to easily break the 1,000 mark. Pretty decent when you consider how long he’s been out, how banged up the rest of his team is and how he’s currently relying on second- and third-choice quarterbacks.
I always liked McKinnon at Minnesota and hope to see his successful return continue on the West Coast.
Back to his best? Aldon Smith
Now 31, Aldon Smith was drafted #7 overall by the 49ers in 2011 and was on track to be one of the NFL’s best edge-rushers, posting 33.5 sacks in his first two seasons. That second year, he set the Niners’ season record with 19.5, but then it all went south.
The defensive end went off the rails big time and built up quite the rap sheet, with driving under the influence, weapons and domestic violence offences, as well as NFL substance abuse violations, among his litany of misdemeanours. He also slept rough and spent time in rehab. The Oakland Raiders picked up his contract in 2015 but only got nine games out of him before he was suspended by the league, initially for a year but then indefinitely. Since November 2015, he’s been in no-man’s land.
But give Smith his due, he’s sorted himself out and got back in shape, thanks in part to the Merging Vets and Players programme, which helps military veterans and professional athletes deal with their issues through exercise and peer support. Having been reinstated by the NFL, he was picked up by the Dallas Cowboys in March 2020.
He immediately repaid their faith in him, logging a team-high 11 solo and combined tackles, two QB hits and his first sack of the season during the 20-17 Week 1 loss to the LA Rams. He notched five more tackles against Atlanta and then, against the Seahawks in Week 3, Smith went nuclear with three sacks, four QB hits, four tackles, two tackles for loss and a tipped pass (see the clip below).
Two more tackles in the loss to the Browns leaves Smith with 22 so far, and he was also setting the early pace across the league with four sacks after three weeks. Myles Garrett and Za’Darius Smith have since nipped ahead with five but Smith’s right behind them on the leader board.
Getting the chance to return to professional football and finish what he started, Smith’s redemption could be one of the most unexpected success stories of the season. He’s started like he means it, so watch this space.
The 2nd part of our deep dive takes us to Houston for some analysis and reaction to the departure of Bill O’Brien. Euan De Ste Croix from “Turn up for Watt” podcast with the words…….
The End of The O’Brien Era, Unfulfilled Potential and Chances Spurned
As the Texans announced Bill O’Brien departure, after his team lost their 4th opening games of 2020, there was a tangible sense of relief. As what seemed an inevitable decision, arrived earlier than most had expected. Rumours of player disconnect swirled, after much of the regime had been littered with a patented resiliency but this season seemed different. No longer could the myriad of off-field decisions continue to be masked.
A popular hire, when appointed in 2014, O’Brien credibly steered his litany of quarterbacks to respectable outcomes. Although by his own admission didn’t care for the talents of Brock Osweiler, he managed to reach an admirable play-off defeat to the Patriots. Though his team was lead by a staunch defensive unit, a team that were “just a quarterback away”.
Entering 2017, for a second consecutive year, O’Brien benched his Quarterback amidst the season opener. Cue the emergence of the missing piece, as Deshaun Watson’s electrifying run shattered records, to only to tear his ACL and miss the remainder of the season. That promise was enough to earn O’Brien extension which coincided with the hiring of Brian Gaine as his chosen GM pairing, after Brian Ghutenkunst, turned them down to return to Green Bay.
Unbeknown at the time, the conclusion of the 2018 season was the beginning of Texans unravel, from a potential of contender to their current state. The primary failing being the inability to take advantage of Watson’s rookie contract. This combined with O’Brien ridged approach to play calling which lead to much inconsistency and Watson not realising his full potential.
The later years will be remember for Bill shouldering additional responsibility and his team’s talent eroded as result. Personified by heavy handed trades, the team continued buy high, sell low and the defensive talent was drained at the expense of investing in an offensive scheme that underwhelmed.
Now the pivotal task of cleaning house , namely the removal of Jack Easterby being equally essential as nailing the next General Manger hire. If Houston are to realise there current chance of re-defining their franchise, it will need to be achieved independently of its past. This team requires a GM of pedigree, qualified to evaluate personnel whilst and building a winning culture. And will ultimately have to be resourceful in order to maintain competitiveness, considering cap and draft picks expended.
The biggest organisational mistake of the the O’Brien hire was not aligning it with a new GM, which generated continual rift that distractions. Similarly, the ownership should questioned whether an intervention should have occurred last season, post the Chiefs play offs defeat, not allowing the trade of DeAndre Hopkins. Equally, allowing the unsuccessful acquisition of Nick Caserio to deter their search from filling that position, was also a turning point that could have altered much that transpired.
Ownership, O’Brien and the many who have fallen foul of the decisions, that were made with the best interest of the team, should all take their share of blame. The attention will turn to potential candidates and there are a plethora of young offensive minds and personnel executives who will be vying for these coveted role with a franchise passer already in house.
The team owe it to Watson to get these hires right and position this team to be successful and allow him to realise his potential, that’s been continually hemmed in. This franchise has spurned the respective primes of both Deandre Johnson and JJ Watt, adding Deshaun to that list would be the gravest error of them all.
Look out for another deep dive next week, and don’t forget our Tuesday Takeaways articles, where there’s more reaction to the latest NFL action.