Week 11 has come to pass and plenty of QBs are making the headlines. We’re getting to the business end of the regular season when performances and wins are just that bit more crucial as everyone races to January.
Roll up, roll up and read all about it!
Running up that Hill
A full 35 years ago, Kate Bush released the single ‘Running Up That Hill’ – a very early premonition of Week 11 of the 2020 NFL season. Well done Kate, now can you please give me the Super Bowl winner?
Talking of Super Bowl winners, the New Orleans Saints have moved into the NFC #1 seed position without their Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees. The man who led the Saints to their seventh consecutive win did it in his first-ever NFL start. Stand up and take a bow, Taysom Hill.
Like any QB in their first start, Hill took a half to adjust to being the every snap starter, as opposed to a Swiss-Army-knife-type role. The 30-year-old former BYU product settled down in the second half; on the opening 10-play drive, he went 4-of-5 and scored the TD himself.
Hill added a second rushing score in the final period, but he did lose a fumble, squandering an opportunity to stretch the lead. Saints Head Coach Sean Payton loves Hill for his versatility and after this performance, he knows that he has a dual-threat QB who brings a very different set of skills (said in a whispering Liam Neeson voice) to Drew Brees.
The Saints will have a dilemma in a few weeks when Brees comes back from injury. In the meanwhile, look for stock in the Taysom Hill fan club to shoot up exponentially. The Saints have a legitimate shot to represent the NFC in the upcoming Super Bowl. Question is: who will be taking the snaps if they punch a ticket to Tampa?
Raiders Carr service
Ever since his potential MVP year in 2016, Derek Carr has had all the critics. And while it’s taken a while and a couple of head coaches since then, could Carr be recapturing the same form?
For those that are fairly new to the sport, Derek Carr’s 2016 potential MVP season was cut short due to a horrible leg injury when the Raiders (then in Oakland) were charging towards the playoffs. While we won’t go into any depth about the calibre of QBs in their Wild Card game with Houston, all you need to know is that it seems a small tragedy that we couldn’t see what Carr would have been able to lead that team to, and how his career may have played out so differently.
28 TDs and just 6 INTs helped Carr lead the Raiders to a 12-3 record and, if he’d played the full season, he would have season highs in completions, passing yards and first downs.
Fast forward four years and a relocation to Las Vegas, Derek Carr is challenging for all–time highs in pass completion percentage, TD passes and passing yards, and a career low in interceptions. The Raiders are 6-4, coming off a tough loss at home to Kansas after beating them at Arrowhead in Week 5. They have also recorded wins against the Saints and Browns, but are we sleeping on the high level of play that Carr and the Raiders are bringing?
Carr has thrown TDs in all but one game this season, had passer ratings in the 100s for seven games and has taken care of the football, acting as the “game manager” when required. With the run game taking over in the last few outings, the balance of the team on offence is working very well as they have put up 30 points in six of their 10 games thus far.
Yes, as things stand, they are still on the outside looking in terms of Wild Card aspirations but their next two match-ups against the Falcons and Jets could see them improve to 8-4, putting them well in with a shout of playing January football for the first time since 2016. They are once again a top 8 scoring offence and have a top 10 rushing attack, which beautifully supports Carr’s playing style.
Let’s not also forget HC Jon Gruden’s (and OC Greg Olson’s) part in all this too. He has been fairly hot and cold through his second stint when talking about Derek Carr’s future aspirations as the signal caller for the Raiders, so much so that they brought in Marcus Mariota from the Titans as back-up. Derek Carr’s contract also indicates that the Raiders may have been happy to let Carr go come the end of the season as he only counts for $2.5m against the dead cap in 2021, saving $20m or so.
Carr’s current contract, which was signed in 2017, is proving to be very valuable for the Raiders at the moment, considering the numbers that are being flung around the league right now and it will continue to do so with the cap number going up.
But in this current vein of form, Carr has the confidence, the weapons and the supporting cast to still be playing in January this season, and the Raiders’ front office may have interesting talks with Carr in the offseason if they see enough from this season’s production to renegotiate. After watching both games against the Chiefs, touted as the best team in football, it’s not hard to see Carr go in for a service/MOT and be good for another couple of years.
Burrowing our heads in our hands
Put yourself in the shoes of a Bengals fan for a moment. Our coach, 26 games into his NFL career, has only won four times and never on the road. Our top pass rusher had a tantrum till he got the trade he was after. The haul from our best-ever free agency went down injured, one by one, like a slow-motion game of skittles. Our franchise-tagged WR1 came back after 18 months only to under-deliver big-time. It all sucks.
Ah well, at least we have our No.1 draft pick. Our star quarterback. The face of our franchise for the next decade. Our one shining ray of light in an otherwise gloomy landscape.
Nope, not any more we don’t. The fickle finger of fate saw to that.
The beyond-worst-case scenario came to pass early in the third quarter of Sunday’s 20-9 loss to the Washington Football Team. Having seen their QB throw for over 200 yards and a TD in the first half, Cincinnati fans watched in horror as Joe Burrow went down clutching his knee and didn’t get up, after a jumble of bodies bent his standing leg in a most unpleasant way. (CBS did not show a replay.)
With more sacks than Lord Sugar on The Apprentice, we are at least used to seeing Joe get clobbered, bounce back up, shrug it off and go again; not this time. After being carted off, he was soon ruled out of the game and then Joe himself tweeted that he’d be back next year. With a fuller diagnosis pending, there’s talk of a torn ACL and MCL but, suffice to say, it’s season over.
Supporters who have been screaming for better protection in the echo chamber of social media immediately switched to a “I told you so” rhetoric, while HC Zac Taylor was at pains to say the O-line wasn’t at fault and has been improving in recent weeks. They’re all moot points now anyway, as the team’s 2020 campaign is effectively dead in the water.
If ever inspiration were needed that he’ll be back in due course, Burrow only needed to look across to his opposite number, Alex Smith. But for now, it’s next man up and that man, Ryan Finley, has already failed his first audition. Coming in for the benched Andy Dalton last year at 0-8, he lost all three of his appearances with 2 TDs, 2 INTs and a shabby 47% completion. And in his hollow, meaningless cameo at FedEx Field, he went 3-of-10 for 30 yards, while Washington scored 13 unanswered points. Behind him, practice squad QB Brandon Allen won one of his three games for the Broncos last year, but ended up with an even lower 46% completion rate. It’s not looking good.
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So now what? Sleepwalk through the rest of the season with Finley and finish 2-13-1? Well, that’s the Cincy way and the most likely outcome. It will guarantee the Bengals a top 3 draft pick – probably putting themselves in the market for offensive linesman Penei Sewell or maybe a trade back for more picks – but will further alienate an already disgruntled fan base in the process. And unless he gets something out of these last six games, who knows whether Coach Taylor will even be in a position to make that pick.
A second option for Cincinnati might be to find a better replacement than Finley right now. With the likes of Nick Mullens, Jake Luton and PJ Walker (see below) already playing, there aren’t many spare back-ups out there. But could they try to tempt Jameis Winston out of New Orleans, now that Taysom Hill has won the contest to replace Drew Brees? It’s a thought (and just about believable enough to have been the subject of an April Fool’s joke last year). Or…. deep breath… they could give Colin Kaepernick a call.
It’s all too much to think about right now; everything’s just too raw and I’m off to lie down in a darkened room. But decisions, big decisions, need to be made… and quickly.
The Cowboys ride again
Following the loss of Dak Prescott, the last month of Cowboys football has been a fairly miserable experience by all accounts, yet with Andy Dalton returning under centre to face the Dalvin Cook-led Vikings in Week 11, two playmakers rose from the shadows to provide some hope for a division that’s still very winnable.
CeeDee Lamb, the 17th overall pick in this year’s draft, provided one of the catches of the season with a 4-yard touchdown grab that saw him diving backwards, twisting in the air and snatching the ball for the score.
The rookie has been a bright spark in the darkness of a post-Prescott world, notching 629 receiving yards and 4 TD grabs in his 10 games. In combination with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, Lamb has proved to be a valuable asset in the slot and has already overtaken the franchise record for receptions by a rookie, with 48.
Now, story lines on the offence wouldn’t have been much of a surprise if you had told most Cowboys before the season, especially after Dak Prescott set off at the blistering pace he did. What would have come as more of a shock would be news that Donovan Wilson, the second-year, sixth-round safety out of Texas A&M, made two huge plays for a defence that has struggled mightily all season long for splash plays.
The 25-year-old created two huge fumbles, one from Kirk Cousins on the blitz that McCarthy challenged successfully after it was ruled down by contact, and one coming on an earth-shattering, ear-ringing, helmet-popping hit on Dalvin Cook.
Cook, who had torched the Cowboys for parts of the game, ran an F-route that led him into the heart of the defence. That’s where he was cracked by the marauding Wilson, who laid an inch-perfect strike that saw his helmet make contact with the ball and jar it loose.
Wilson has just 27 tackles this season, but such big-play ability will be more than welcomed in a defence that has given up an average of 232 passing yards a game.
Whether Wilson can keep up that rate of form is still very much to be seen, but if this defence can play as hard and with as much spirit as they did on Sunday night, the Cowboys might still have a shot at this woeful NFC East.
No Teddy but PJ’s on: it’s time to dream
In stark contrast to the aforementioned Ryan Finley, another back-up quarterback was called into action on Sunday, but to much greater effect. Step forward PJ Walker, who made his first NFL start for the now 4-7 Carolina Panthers in place of the injured Teddy Bridgewater. It was a game-time decision to go with Walker after Teddy tested his knee in the warm-up, but he oversaw a more-than-comfortable 20-0 shutout against Detroit.
Holding a team to 185 total yards and no points is a decent accomplishment, even if that team is the lacklustre Lions, and the Panther’s D hassled Matthew Stafford all afternoon. Brian Burns notched two sacks and, flying the British flag, Efe Obada got himself another in his best season to date.
But the former XFL quarterback needed to hold his own too, and that he did. His full debut saw him complete 70% of his 34 pass attempts for 258 yards, including a 52-yarder to DJ Moore, with whom he quickly established a rapport (seven of 11 targets for 127 yards).
The 25-year-old’s only TD throw, a 17-yard pass to Curtis Samuel, was overshadowed a little by two head-scratching interceptions, both in the end zone. Sure, he wasn’t perfect and that could have been a problem if his defence hadn’t bossed the game but in the end, the Panthers did enough on both sides of the ball to snap a five-game losing streak. Not bad for a team with Bridgewater, Christian McCaffrey, Russell Okung, Donte Jackson, Uncle Tom Cobley and all standing on the sidelines. It also continues Walker’s own 13-game winning run, which spans the end of his college days, his brief XFL career and now the NFL.
PJ’s journey to this point has been unconventional. After four years at Temple (during which current Panthers HC Matt Rhule oversaw a major turnaround) with 10,000 yards and 74 TDs to his name, he went undrafted before being picked up by the Indianapolis Colts as a free agent in 2017. He was cut and re-signed a dozen times before Andrew Luck recommended Walker to his dad, who just happened to be the Commissioner of the XFL. Duly signed to the Houston Roughnecks, Walker was the leader in passing yards (1,338) and TDs (15) after just five games, and was hotly tipped to be the inaugural season’s MVP before the fledgling league became untenable under COVID-19 restrictions. Moving to Charlotte, NC, and back under Rhule’s wing was a no-brainer.
His two prior appearances for Carolina were inauspicious. He logged a brief 1-of-4, 3-yard cameo against Atlanta in Week 8 while Bridgewater was temporarily off the field, and saw out the fourth quarter against the Buccaneers last week after Teddy sustained his current injury, going 2-for-4 for 12 yards.
But Walker’s first start went like a dream… just like the one his mother apparently had a couple of years ago while he was still at Indy – about him playing for the Panthers. Spooky.
One of the lighter-hearted moments from the weekend’s action now.
Mike Williams had a 39-yard touchdown pass from a golden lock-less Justin Herbert. But on review, you can see that the Jets safety seems to come down and take out his own player tracking Williams, thus providing a clear runway for Williams to approach and land in the end zone.
We all know that the Jets are tanking for Trevor, but guys, don’t make it so obvious!
There hasn’t been much to smile about since Adam Gase has been the pilot for this Jets team and regardless of whether you think Trevor Lawrence is going to fix that, the good days seem a long haul away.
Dunlap tires out Kyler Murray
Fresh off the latest copyrighted play – the “Hail Murray” – Kyler Murray was riding on the crest of a wave of popularity, and his Cardinals had the opportunity to use the platform of Thursday Night Football to showcase their skills, against a historically poor Seahawks defence.
Seattle had a decent offensive performance, led by the early MVP front runner Russell Wilson, but it was not the offence that stole the show in the first game of Week 11. Cue Carlos Dunlap and the Seahawks defence, who had, it seemed, been playing a 10-week game of hide and seek, only to be told in Week 11 to come out of the cupboard under the stairs.
Dunlap, who toiled in Cincinnati for 10.5 seasons, including a five-year playoff streak (where the Bengals lost their first game each year), had an early sack on Murray, and then delivered the play of the game.
On 4th-and-10 at the Seattle 27, and trailing by 7, Murray must have felt a wave of deja vu as he dropped back, moved out of the pocket to find a spot to launch a deep ball, before BOOM! Down he went under a marauding Dunlap, and it was game over.
The Seahawks were looking like a one-and-done play-off team but now that they have Carlos Dunlap, there is hope. Remember, we may be in an era of 5k QBs and 120-catch WRs, but the adage remains: “Defence wins championships”. Just ask Sith Lord Belichick.
The Saints go marching in…
Everyone stop what you’re doing. The Saints defence has arrived.
In a week where New Orleans and national media attention was firmly on the Taysom Hill vs Jameis Winston starting debate, DC quietly stole the limelight with his defence’s dominant performance against Atlanta on Sunday night.
After letting Atlanta take the lead early on, the Saints defence then stepped up a couple of gears and held the Atlanta offence to four punts, two INTs and exactly zero points. Dominance.
Ever since that absolute beat-down of the Bucs in Week 9, the Saints D has been leading the way to allow the offence to find its rhythm. Now they have Michael Thomas back, you can’t imagine they’ll miss Drew Brees too much, especially with Hill under centre.
Atlanta turned the ball over three times in the game, which is exactly how a good defence can impact a game, namely getting the ball back in the offence’s hands. Matt Ryan was obliterated by the Saints’ pass rush. He was sacked an incredible nine (yes NINE!) times and ended the game with a measly 19.2 QBR. Cam Jordan had himself a day with three sacks and three tackles for loss.
New Orleans has won seven straight and only one of their remaining six games is against a team with a winning record (Chiefs at home). Would 13-3 do it for the NFC #1 seed?