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NFL Halloween Special

We’re in Week 8 of the NFL season and it’s also Halloween weekend. So that feels as good a time as any to take stock and assess how everyone’s doing. Who’s scaring the living daylights out of the opposition? Who is spooking us out with their unexpected success? Who’s full of tricks and treats? For a bit of fun, I’m seeing which costume some of our favourite players and coaches should be dressing up in this weekend…

WEREWOLF – Carson Wentz

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On a normal Sunday afternoon, one particular quarterback is a mild-mannered individual and doesn’t really get – or deserve – much of our attention. But at night, under the bright lights of a primetime night game, he’s a man possessed, a beast howling at the full moon. And I’m talking about Washington’s Carson Wentz.

Wentz’s all-round stats are fairly middle of the road so far. After six games, he’s 18th in passing yards and 9th in touchdown passes, and he has thrown the fourth-most interceptions. But back in Week 6, on Thursday Night Football, the Commanders beat the Chicago Bears 12-7. As the score suggests, it was an absolute dog of a game and Wentz only mustered 12 of 22 for a measly 99 yards. However, don’t let that take away from the fact that the victory took Wentz’s record on TNF to 7-0: that’s the best Thursday night stats across any career in NFL history!

His previous six Ws all came while at Philadelphia, with whom he beat the Giants (x3), Jets, Panthers and Packers – averaging over 240 yards and boasting an impressive 15:2 touchdown to interception ratio. So Carson Wentz is the GOAT (of Thursday Night Football). Barking.

WIZARD – Joe Burrow

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The Cincinnati offense got off to a slow start this year, dropping to 0-2 with an all-new O-line that needed time to gel and a quarterback recovering from an urgent off-season appendectomy. But the 4-3 Bengals have taken four wins from the last five, and are now starting to look more like last year’s model than the less-impressive 2019 and 2020 editions.

The latest two-game spell, in which they scored 65 points against the Saints and Falcons, has seen Burrow in magical form, going 62 of 79 (78.4%) for 781 yards, six passing touchdowns and two rushing scores. Four of those passing TDs went for over 30 yards, with two going for 60.

Like a professor at Hogwarts, one flick of Burrow’s wand seems to make amazing things happen at the moment, so let’s see what sorcery he can provide against divisional rivals Cleveland on Monday’s Halloween Night special. He could conjure up another high-scoring win or it could all go up in a big cloud of smoke now that Ja’Marr Chase is out with a fractured hip.

ZOMBIE – Nathaniel Hackett

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Poor old Nathaniel. Everyone has such high hopes for Denver this year, with their high-octane attack being rounded out with the arrival of Seattle QB Russell Wilson in a blockbuster trade. But things have not gone well and, at the time of writing, there’s a real chance they could fall to 2-6 with a loss to the Jaguars at Wembley today.

Hackett is an offensively minded coach, having been an OC at Green Bay, Buffalo and today’s opponents Jacksonville, yet his offense has spluttered and fizzled. He’s taken stick for bad clock management (I wonder if he remembered to change his clocks last night) and his team rank dead last in points scored per game.

Broncos GM George Paton publicly gave his “100% support” a few days ago but more worryingly, CEO Greg Penner stopped short of guaranteeing the under-fire first-time HC will see the season out. Unless things turn round dramatically, Hackett feels like a dead man walking.

GHOST – Micah Parsons

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If you’re an opposing HC or OC, the last thing you want to see is Micah Parsons appearing out of nowhere to take your QB down. The Dallas Cowboy won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2021 and earned First-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors. His speed and strength helped him tally 13 sacks, 30 QB hits, 20 TFLs, three forced fumbles and three passes defended last years, and he’s already on pace to improve all those marks this year, with eight sacks, 14 QB hits, nine TFLs, two forced fumbles and two passes defended in just seven games. The guy’s a banshee.

His positional versality means that Parsons has a spooky habit of ghosting in undetected. This weekend, the interior linebacker goes in search of Bears rockslinger Justin Fields, the most-sacked QB in the league (27 in seven games). I have a feeling Fields will be haunted by Parsons all night.

DR FRANKENSTEIN – Brian Daboll

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There’s no doubt that Brian Daboll, the first-year Head Coach of the New York Giants, has had a monster start to the season. After the departures of GM Dave Gettleman and HC Joe Judge, it seemed like the former Bills OC was inheriting a bit of a mess. And yet he’s managed to take all the disparate components that were lying about and cobble them into a 6-1 team, their best start in 13 years. Other than Saquon Barkley, the cast is hardly stellar – Daniel Jones, Sterling Sheppard, Darius Slayton, Richie James, Daniel Bellinger – and yet he’s made the whole noticeably greater than the sum of its parts

Admittedly, he didn’t have to do much to be an improvement on Judge, but it appears his communication and relationship-building skills lie at the heart of the team’s transformation. Remember, this franchise went 4-13 last year, their fifth straight season with double-digit losses, and finished dead last in the NFC East.

With four 4th-quarter comebacks under his belt already, he’s definitely given this corpse of a franchise a jolt. No wonder he’s second favourite in the Coach of the Year stakes, just behind the (unbeaten) Eagles’ Nick Sirianni.

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Winless teams: should anyone hit the panic button yet?

We’re just two weeks into the fledgling NFL season and seven teams have yet to record a win. I don’t think it’s a hot take to suggest that three of them – the Texans (0-1-1), Panthers (0-2) and Falcons (0-2) – weren’t destined to set the world on fire this year. But the other four are arguably all playoff contenders in the AFC and clearly off to a poorer-than-expected start.

Last year, the Titans were the AFC’s top seed, the Bengals made a miraculous run to the Super Bowl, the Raiders reached the postseason despite the most tumultuous of seasons and the Colts only missed out on January football with an inexplicable loss to the Jaguars – hold that thought – in Week 18.  

With 16 weeks of regular season action still to come, none of these franchises should be freaking out quite yet… or should they? We’ve only seen one team this century – the 2018 Texans – fight back from 0-3 to reach the playoffs so it looks like now is the time to get that elusive W on the board.

Indianapolis Colts (0-1-1)

How are they faring?

Indy have a reputation for starting slow (they began 0-3 last year) and this has been another sluggish opening, with a loss and a tie. Even though they were both on the road, their games at the Texans and Jaguars should have eased the Colts into their campaign with a couple of straightforward divisional scalps. But somehow, they tied 20-apiece in OT with Houston, having overcome a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter, only for Rodrigo Blankenship to miss a 42-yard FG that would’ve sealed the comeback. They then found themselves on the wrong end of an embarrassing 24-0 shutout in Jacksonville – their eighth straight loss there – when they should have been wreaking their revenge for last year. And next up, it’s only the Kansas City Chiefs. Gulp! It’s important to note that three of the four AFC South teams have a sub-.500 record so all is not lost yet. But realistically, from Week 4, they need to start winning.

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What’s going wrong?

In the 24-0 “ass-whupping” (DeForest Buckner’s words, not mine) by the Jaguars, the defence let Trevor Lawrence do what he wanted, but the offence shoulders most of the responsibility. Matt Ryan, supposedly an upgrade from Carson Wentz, went 16-of-30 for 195 yards, 0 TDs and 3 INTs (passer rating: 34.0), while star running back Jonathan Taylor had just nine carries. The offensive linemen and wide receivers are offering nothing either. Yes, injuries to Michael Pittman Jr and Shaquille Leonard have played their part but I bet HC Frank Reich is starting to feel the flames on his derriere when he sits at his desk. The Colts need to show some fight, some urgency, if they’re to stop their season derailing completely before it’s even begun.

Panic-o-meter: Ominous (8 out of 10)

Las Vegas Raiders (0-2)

How are they faring?

On the opening weekend, the Raiders succumbed to the Los Angeles Chargers, losing 24-19. No shame in that, you’d argue. But they then chucked away a 20-point lead at home to the Cardinals, mustering just 48 yards of offence after the break before losing 29-23 in OT. Not so great. With the Chiefs setting an ominous pace, the Raiders are already two games off the top of the AFC West. But at least they stand a chance of turning the ship around this week, when they play the equally winless Tennessee Titans. Something has to give.

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What’s going wrong?

The blame for the slow start in the desert has been spread far and wide. For one thing, they need to get their new star wideout Davante Adams into the game more. He meshed well with his old colleague QB Derek Carr in Week 1 (10 receptions, 141 yards, 1 TD) but Adams went AWOL this weekend. Just two receptions for 12 yards (and a TD) this week is inexcusable. Then there’s the pass rush – or lack of it. A measly one sack in two weeks wasn’t what we expected from Maxx Crosby and the so-far invisible Chandler Jones, signed for $50 million in free agency. Heat is also being thrown the way of head coach Josh McDaniels who, like an anti-King Midas, turned a lead of 20-0 into an L on Sunday. By his own admission, “In the first half, we played the game the way we wanted to. But we lost control in the second half for sure.” They can’t afford for that to happen again or the Black and Silver will start to slip into the brown stuff.

Panic-o-meter: Concerning (7 out of 10)

Tennessee Titans (0-2)

How are they faring?

Despite being just one game back from the table-topping Jaguars, the 0-2 Titans look a shadow of the team that romped to the top of the AFC rankings last season. No one would have expected victory at the rampant Buffalo Bills, even though the 41-7 scoreline will have raised a few eyebrows, but it only piled on the misery after the opening week’s 21-20 loss at home to the New York Giants, which ended with kicker Randy Bullock missing a 47-yarder as time expired.     

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What’s going wrong?

Offensively, their big weapon – RB Derrick Henry – has yet to hit his stride, and the big man slumped to just 25 yards and a TD from 13 rushes (1.9 yards per carry) against Buffalo on MNF. QB Ryan Tannehill hasn’t faired much better and was actually benched in favour of rookie Malik Willis late in the third quarter at Orchard Park, having completed 11 of 20 for 117 yards and 2 INTs, one of which went back for six. Of their 11 possessions on Monday night, six ended with punts, three with turnovers and one, at the end of the first half, saw them let the clock run out with a minute and two timeouts up their sleeve. I’m not entirely sure what HC Mike Vrabel was thinking there. And rookie Kyle Phillips muffed a punt return for a second week in a row, which is never great.

While this is the Titans’ first 0-2 start for a decade, the season is still young and the whole AFC Conference is still wide open. With just three teams starting 2-0, there’s still everything to play for, especially with the similarly winless Raiders up next, but falling to 0-3 is not an option.

Panic-o-meter: Troubling (7 out of 10)

Cincinnati Bengals (0-2)

How are they faring?

The losing finalists of the previous season’s Super Bowl rarely set the world on fire but the Bengals are looking especially wobbly so far. They have lost two close games to walk-off field goals – a 23-20 OT loss to the Steelers (largely due to missed kicks hindered by a tight end standing in when the long snapper got injured) and a 20-17 defeat to the Cowboys. So on paper, they’re not that far away. Luckily, their AFC North rivals all lost this weekend too so they’re only a game behind the field. That means this week’s tilt against the Jets isn’t quite a “must-win” game. But it’s closer to being one than they’d like it to be, especially with the likes of the free-scoring Dolphins, Bills and Chiefs on the schedule. If they lose three straight to the likes to Mitchell Trubisky, Cooper Rush and Joe Flacco, then heaven help them when Allen, Mahomes and co. pitch up.

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What’s going wrong?

Cincy fans are at a loss to exactly what’s going on, probably because there are several factors at play in their sub-par start. Having failed to play a snap during the pre-season, the revamped O-line has yet to gel, which means the running game is stagnant and Joe Burrow is running for his life once again. After sustaining 70 sacks last year, he’s already been taken down 13 times in two games, which will put him on a similar path to Andrew Luck if he’s not careful, and he threw four interceptions in Week 1 against Pittsburgh. But it’s not all down to his lack of protection; Joey B’s also hanging on to the ball too long. Teams are also stopping the long, explosive plays that defined the Bengals’ high-octane offence in 2021, leaving Burrow to dink and dunk more than he’d like. Zac Taylor is also under fire for his highly predictable, ultra-vanilla play-calling and his seat is starting to warm up. It’s time to get creative, ZT!

Panic-o-meter: Unsettling (6 out of 10)

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Bengals finally sell stadium naming rights

It’s the end of an era in Cincinnati as the Bengals become the 30th NFL team with a stadium carrying the name of a corporate sponsor. Just Lambeau Field and Soldier Field remain as outliers… 

A partnership for the future

The list of NFL stadia for the coming 2022 season was updated twice in the last week. The Pittsburgh Steelers found a new corporate sponsor, with Heinz Field morphing into Acrisure Stadium after a $10 million per year deal was struck with the Michigan-based insurance company. But arguably more newsworthy was the decision by their AFC North rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals, to finally sell the naming rights to Paul Brown Stadium, which has honoured the franchise’s legendary founder since it opened in 2000.

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The rights have gone to Paycor, a payroll and human resources software provider. Paycor has been headquartered in the city for more than 30 years and the 16-year arrangement is an extension of an existing business relationship.

Even though the Bengals’ owner and president, 86-year-old Mike Brown, is Paul Brown’s son, the switch to Paycor Stadium wasn’t a total bolt out of the blue. He told reporters last month that selling the naming rights was necessary for his team to be able to compete.

“This is a move that I think my father would have agreed to. He was always for what’s best for the football team. This partnership allows the Bengals to continue to compete at the highest level in the NFL and exemplifies our long-term commitment to the community.”
Mike Brown, President, Cincinnati Bengals

Paul Brown died three decades ago, when the Bengals were still playing at their former home (Riverfront Stadium), so he never saw the arena that would bear his name. I guess we have to believe Mike Brown’s assertion that his father wouldn’t mind being usurped by a HR software business.

It’s all about the money, money, money

Despite their unexpected run to Super Bowl LVI, the Bengals generated “just” $458 million in revenue in 2021 – a league low. The franchise is apparently worth $2.8 billion, which is also the lowest in the NFL. Plus Mike Brown doesn’t have any outside business interests and therefore hasn’t got the same financial clout as his peers. 

While the terms of the Paycor/Bengals deal haven’t been disclosed, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincy will receive the first $60.5 million and then 70% of the remaining revenue, with Hamilton County receiving the other 30%. Whatever the absolute value of the deal, it won’t be anywhere near the $31.2 million per year being paid by fintech company SoFi for the rights to the Rams’ and Chargers’ stadium in Los Angeles for the next 20 years, or the $25 million a year that Allegiant Airlines is forking out in Las Vegas. But, as they say, every little helps.

“We’re a small-market team, we need the revenue streams that we can obtain. The fact that about 30 teams have naming rights and a revenue stream from that, and they have more revenue than we do to begin with. We have to do some things just to keep up.”
Mike Brown, President, Cincinnati Bengals

Why now for Cincinnati?

The move comes as the Bengals are looking to capitalise on one of the best seasons in their history. The team reached the Super Bowl for the first time 31 years and the front office clearly wants to keep this young, exciting and improving team together for years to come.

As part of a general drive by the franchise to generate much-needed income, this deal could help to fund contract extensions coming down the track for the likes of Joe Burrow, Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase (hence some initial social media fun about “PayJoe Stadium”). It might also contribute to the financing of a new indoor practice facility and some recently revealed renovation plans.

Similarly, Paycor has been increasing its profile since the company went public. Cincy’s Super Bowl run was perfect timing and the team’s on-field success was clearly attractive to the HR company.

“NFL stadium naming rights are a scarce asset. There are only 30 stadiums with naming rights in the U.S. and Paycor is now one of those 30. That was a unique opportunity, coupled with being a hometown team and a team on the rise, that we felt we had to take advantage of.”
Raul Villar Jr., CEO, Paycor

Sports Business Journal

And then there were two…

There are now just two NFL stadia remaining without naming rights deals with a corporate sponsor: Green Bay’s Lambeau Field and Chicago’s Soldier Field. So is either franchise likely to follow the Bengals and sell the name of their stadium?

The short answer is no.

The Packers are actually owned by local residents through a community-based model that is unique in the NFL. Back in 2015, team president Mark Murphy told shareholders that the naming rights to Lambeau Field (much like Paul Brown Stadium, named after the team’s founder and long-time coach Curly Lambeau) would never be sold.

“We will not sell the naming rights to the stadium. We will never do that. It will always be Lambeau Field.”
Mark Murphy, President, Green Bay Packers

Well, that seems fairly unequivocal.

As for the Bears, Soldier Field is more likely to change name at some point, but it’s far from a given. The league’s oldest home field is likely to undergo some major renovations in the near future, with proposals to make it a domed stadium for year-round use on the table. But those plans come with a hefty price tag of up to $2.2 billion, which increases the appeal of securing new revenue via sponsorship and naming rights agreements.

Even if the Soldier Field name is retained and a corporate sponsor added (along the lines of the Denver Broncos’ Empower Field at Mile High Stadium), there would be resistance. That’s because it was named in honour of those who fought and died during World War I and is considered by many to be a war memorial as well as a sporting arena.

“The people of Chicago don’t want their war memorial attached to a corporate name for money. It’s just not right. We’re Chicago and we’re Soldier Field, we’re not Jacksonville. There’s no tasteful way of attaching a corporate name to a war memorial. It’s a desecration.”
Pat Quinn, former Illinois Governor

So, there you have it. The Bengals have finally joined the fold and we now have 28 NFL arenas (SoFi Stadium and MetLife Stadium are shared) bearing the names of banks and financial institutions, car manufacturers, logistics businesses, energy companies, telecoms providers, even Hard Rock Café, all in pursuit of the almighty dollar. And given the unique situations in Green Bay and Chicago, I suspect that’s how it will stay for the foreseeable future. 

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The Watson Verdict: Six things to consider over six-game ban

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On Monday morning, Sue L. Robinson, the former federal judge independently appointed to rule on Deshaun Watson’s long-outstanding player conduct case ruled that he is to miss the first six games of the NFL season.

At the point of writing this, there has been no word on an appeal from the NFL, and the NFLPA as well as Deshaun Watson outlined that they would not appeal the decision yesterday prior to the judgment being revealed.

No matter the ruling, it was always going to be one that split opinion. There are those who will pledge ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and now point to two juries and an independently appointed judge and consider the matter closed after massive scrutiny. 

There are those who see there is no smoke without fire, especially as much smoke as 25 members of a class-action suit with their own stories, as well as another 25 or so who stepped forward but for one reason or another wasn’t part of the class action suit with their own stories, and will point to the fact that innocence beyond doubt or that missing six games in the highest-paid professional sports league in the world is justice when proof as a qualifier of guilt when it’s incredibly unlikely to obtain.

With the case being so high-profile and long-ranging as it’s waged over the past year and a half or so, there are a number of things to consider here when looking at the judgment through different lenses. Here’s six things we can take from the decision and Sue Robinson’s 16-page decision summary:

1. The judgment finds that Deshaun Watson sexually assaulted at least four masseuses in the eyes of the NFL

In the eyes of the Disciplinary Officer Sue L. Robinson, the League was able to meet the burden of proof via preponderance that Deshaun Watson committed non-violent sexual assault by means of its definition in the players conduct, namely “unwanted sexual contact with another person” through a series of undisputed facts.

Sue Robinson found the circumstantial evidence of insisting to use a medium/small towel (or a Gatorade towel) increased exposure, and asking therapists to focus on areas that not uncommonly triggered erections made the prospect of sexual touching more likely. She judged that as the therapists didn’t return for future messages it was clear to all that the touching was unwanted.

It was also noted that Watson’s complete denial of even trivial aspects, such as ever getting an erection even during massaging areas where getting an erection would not be uncommon, led to the consideration of the evidence that may not in itself be seen as wrongful in isolation.

Watson was also found to have violated conduct in two other areas. Namely that he acted in a way that posed a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person, and putting the NFL into disrepute.

This is why Watson and his team believe there should be no games in a suspension, as to suspend him is to assign guilt of sexual conduct at least in the eyes of the league’s conduct policies.

There is also contention about the classification of non-violent sexual assault as the definition seems to be defined from the same classification as violent conduct i.e. domestic violence. Many detractors will note that all sexual assault is violent conduct. However, in line with the policy – this was deemed to be an uncontested point.

2. Watson’s future conduct remains a concern

Take from this what you will, but a further point to the one about a lack of exoneration is that the judge deemed it necessary to bake in a restriction that all massage therapy is to be conducted by club staff.

At many points in the decision document, we see the mention of a pattern of egregious behaviour and in fact a particular quote in the conclusion says that the ‘pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL’.

Even if it could be considered almost a given to showcase ‘next steps’ and guaranteeing progress in terms of a players conduct, it is clear that there are concerns about his future conduct and of egregious patterns continuing.

3. The NFL’s past leniency costs them here and that needs to change

Recently, Calvin Ridley was suspended for a whole season for placing a bet on an NFL game, while De’Andre Hopkins was given the same six-week ban for violating the PED protocols. When you add into this that over at Major League Baseball Trevor Bauer was given a two-year ban under the MLB’s domestic violence protocol, it makes for a question of standards and precedents that the NFL sets itself.

However, in this judgment Sue L. Robinson outlines that it is because of the NFL’s previous suspensions for domestic or gendered violence and sexual acts has been 6 games, and the minimum 6-game suspension is only outlined for violent conduct. It was uncontested that Watson did not engage in violent sexual assault. 

Robinson found it important to impose the ‘most significant punishment ever imposed on an NFL player for allegations of non-violent sexual conduct’ due to Watson’s egregious pattern of conduct. She felt it was the maximum that could be handed down as, in her role as Disciplinary Officer, she has to find a ‘fair’ and ‘consistent’ punishment in line with similarly situated players.

In other words, the NFL should look at the conduct policy before any future cases arise and beef up the potential games and fines to be incurred and have it codified, as there was no case law or indication of anything from 6 games onwards for non-violent misconduct.

There will be more than valid calls for Roger Goodell to dismiss the notion of fairness in this instance (again, from an employment policy perspective) and pass down a harsher sentence to act as a deterrent and future signpost for offenders of the policy in the future. As to whether that would be deemed as valid in this instance with or without a stretched out legal battle with Watson and the NFLPA is something to consider also.

4. Watson stands to lose very little from this

With the Browns contract starting low and building its cap-hit later in the contract, Watson’s outlay for the suspension stands to be just $333,333.

Questions will no doubt be raised at the Browns front office as to whether or not they structured the contract that way. However, the argument can also be made that other ‘superstar’ contracts negotiated by the team are pushing the larger sums down the road. It simply seems too convenient in this case when the numbers are presented.

What’s more, sports-washing is a very powerful thing. Moments after the judgment was passed down, several Browns fans were cheered Watson as he came out onto the training field. The League has created an environment where offenders of various conduct categories are celebrated, and we see their misconduct forgotten about amongst fans so long as they ball out.

5. The Browns stand to lose little from this, too

When looking at this purely from a sporting perspective, as many imagine those in the Browns front office have been doing since March, the Browns are viewing the trade with optimism that it could prove effective in creating a play-off window as early as this January.

The question of ‘but at what cost?’ will be one to wrestle with for many, but when looking at it on paper, a six-game suspension is probably the top-end of what the Browns would find palatable from a sporting aspect. Watson will be out for the following games:

  • Week 1 at Carolina
  • Week 2 v Jets
  • Week 3 v Steelers
  • Week 4 at Atlanta
  • Week 5 v Chargers
  • Week 6 v Patriots

Before then returning to face the Ravens on the road and the Bengals on a halloween Monday Night Football. The schedule was almost made for his return as well and negate the impact of a suspension. If you believe in such conspiracies of course(!)

To face losing teams from last year in 4 of 6, and in both road games means that the Browns will feel they’ve a serviceable chance in the first third of the season in handling Watson’s absence at .500 or better.

All this while his contract is also at its lowest point.

6. This isn’t the end of it

As Sue L. Robinson found misconduct and gave a suspension, the NFL still has an opportunity to give Watson more disciplinary action via. appeal.

From what we’ve seen from sources around the NFL, the League did push for a minimum of a year as well as a fine, and stuck to their guns during ‘settlement negotiations’ on a suspension whilst Sue L. Robinson was coming to her decision.

The League has until 9am Thursday to submit an appeal directly to Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, who would then give the final decision. 

An appeal might not be forthcoming, mind.

This is the first major incident to be trialled using the new player misconduct procedure outlined in the latest collective bargaining agreement. As such, the optics behind the League approaching the commissioner to overturn an independently appointed judge at the first time of asking would be damaging to the always-fractured relationship between the League and their Players’ Association.

You can read Sue L. Robinson’s judgment by clicking here

Believeland Brits Podcast focused on the Watson verdict in their latest episode which you can listen to on your favoured podcast provider by going to its linktree: linktr.ee/believelandbrits

Our 2022 NFL Season Guide is now available to pre-order. With over 160 pages packed with previews, reviews and opinions from fans across the league and the UK, this is the comprehensive NFL UK fan guide written by NFL UK fans. Log on to www.full10yards.co.uk/guides/ and enter code FULL10 for 10% off your copy today.

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Checkmate: The NFL’s Top Chess Players

At first glance, there’s very little that football has in common with chess. Football is physical, violent and played at full speed, with each player trying to batter everyone standing in their way. Chess, on the other hand, is a battle of minds. It’s two opponents trying to out-think one another rather than pulverise them.

But if you dig deeper, football’s not just about who’s bigger, stronger or faster. There are game plans and playbooks, mental preparation and strategic analysis. And on the field, some positions – quarterback and defensive back spring most readily to mind – are a lot like chess. You need to read the whole field/board in front of you, know the capabilities of each player/piece, interpret your opponent’s plans and predict several moves in advance. 

So it shouldn’t be that surprising that quite a few NFL players enjoy a game of chess, and even use it to improve their football. And being athletes in a sport awash with rankings and data, there are naturally going to want to know who’s the best at the ‘royal game’.

So, who is the best chess player in the NFL?    

There has been little empirical evidence up till now, mainly because these guys don’t face each other very often. But last weekend, Chess.com ran a two-day online ‘rapid chess’ tournament called BlitzChamps. Six NFL players were invited to compete for a share of a $100,000 charity prize fund.

And our very first champion? Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Chidobe Awuzie.

Chess.com

Initially, Awuzie was up against Browns WR Amari Cooper and Giants outside linebacker Kayvon Thibodeaux in Group A. The much-fancied Cooper won both of his round-robin matches, but Awuzie also advanced to the semi-finals. This was despite a slip of the mouse that cost him one game against Cooper and a pre-programmed move that went wrong in the other. The banter between them after the blunder was one of the highlights of the event.  

Meanwhile, veteran wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, 49ers defensive end Arik Armstead and former Dolphins cornerback Will Davis (a late stand-in for Micah Parsons) made up Group B. Fitzgerald and Davis progressed to the semi-finals.

On the Sunday, Awuzie knocked out Fitzgerald 2-0. He needed just 18 moves to win the first game and while the second was closer, Awuzie was confident enough to risk pre-programming more moves, then sit back to watch them unfold. Amari Cooper triumphed against Davis in the other semi 1.5-0.5, winning one game and tying the other, to set up an AFC North rematch in the final.

Chess.com

After some back and forth, Awuzie exacted his revenge with a 2-0 win to claim the inaugural BlitzChamps crown. He also won $25,000 for the Awuzie Kickstep Foundation, while Cooper secured $22,500 for his chosen cause, The Barnyard.

So Awuzie, who has thousands of online games logged on Chess.com, has bragging rights over Cooper for now. But it won’t count for anything come Halloween, when the Bengals and Browns next meet on the football field.

How can chess help with football?

Another participant in the competition, rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux, is no stranger to chess. He even attributed part of his success to the game in his first interview after being drafted by the Giants.

The former Oregon edge rusher also told the Draft Network: “Chess is life and chess is football. You talk about your first move, and your first move is going to set up your second move, then your third move.”

Thibodeaux was drawn to chess by the chance to compete against his uncles. They didn’t take it easy on him and when he got tired of losing, he went online and taught himself more about the game.

Dallas’ Micah Parsons was originally down to compete this weekend but was seemingly unable to fulfil the commitment. He too has also spoken about the role chess plays in his football career. He even compares the various chess pieces with positions on the football field, claiming his role as linebacker equates to the queen, the most versatile piece on the board.

Naturally, he sees the king – the piece you have to defend at all costs to avoid defeat – as the quarterback.     

Who else is good at chess?

If we’re looking for players – other than the absent Micah Parsons – who might compete next time, Kyler Murray must be a hot favourite. The Cardinals QB has been playing chess since fourth grade and left Degan Elementary in Lewisville, Texas, as his school’s champion.

He mainly plays on the Chess With Friends app, but also took on Fitzgerald in real life when they were together in Arizona. Back in 2019, he told ESPN, “I think just I was born with the feel of just how to see things before they happen.” Handy for chess and playing QB.

Oklahoma Athletics

Apparently, Murray was disappointed not to feature in last weekend’s tournament. On finding out, the organisers sent a tweet asking him to get in touch. Alas, that offer wasn’t taken up. Fitzgerald joked that Murray probably shouldn’t be invited anyway, so that other people can win something for a change. So he sounds quite good!

Another quarterback, Joe Burrow, has played chess since elementary school and is another potential contender. Although relatively inexperienced, he and Awuzie have done battle in the Bengals locker room. His teammate may be Cincy’s – and the league’s – chess champion for now but I suspect Burrow won’t be content with that situation. He’ll be keen to ramp up his game and who knows, he may be able to give Chido and Amari a run for their money next time. 

Chess power rankings, anyone?


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Don’t Stop Believin’: The NFL’s Journeymen

If you don’t know the term, a journeyman is a player who turns out for many teams during his career, moving on with notable frequency for one reason or another. Such nomads typically sign a series of short-term contracts, maybe as a bridge quarterback on a team where the rookie isn’t quite ready, or as an emergency “gun for hire” covering an injured starter.

A few weeks ago, one of the NFL’s most famous journeymen, veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, called time on a 17-year career. It was one known less for its success – he famously never appeared in the playoffs – than for the many changes of uniform. The 39-year-old started for nine different NFL teams, the most by any player since at least 1950, and his maverick, gung-ho! style delighted and frustrated those fan bases in equal measure, depending on whether he was throwing six touchdowns in a game (which he did in 2014) or chucking a handful of interceptions.

The former Harvard star was a 7th Round draft pick by the St Louis Rams in 2005, after which he pitched up for the Bengals, Bills, Titans, Texans, Jets, Buccaneers, Dolphins and the Washington Football Team. His modus operandi was often to sign with a team, battle for a roster spot and then wait for the QB1 to get injured.

But now that Fitzmagic is out of the picture, which journeymen could we see plying their trade around the league in 2022? Here’s the Full10Yards top 5…


5. Dustin Colquitt (six moves since 2020)

Teams: Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs (2nd stint), Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland Browns.

Scott Halleran – Getty Images

If we’re being picky about the definition of a journeyman, we might not put Dustin Colquitt on this list at all, because the veteran punter spent the first 15 years of his career on one team, Kansas City. The University of Tennessee alum was acquired in the 3rd Round of the 2005 NFL Draft (wow, a punter in Round 3 – those were the days!), made it to two Pro Bowls and won the Super Bowl in 2019, when KC defeated the 49ers 31-20.

So far, so not a journeyman at all. But after Colquitt was released in April 2020, his resumé has read like a Grade A nomad. Signed by the Steelers in September but released six weeks later. Six days on the Bucs practice squad. Snagged by the Jaguars on Christmas Eve but waived on 5 January 2021.

Two days after that, Colquitt rejoined the Chiefs for their playoff run to Super Bowl LIV in Tampa but he remained – unused – on the practice squad. He spent much of last season with the Falcons, making six appearances before catching COVID and getting released, before joining his sixth team in two years (Cleveland).

The 40-year-old is currently the third oldest player in the league – after Tom Brady and Jason Peters – and is awaiting his next assignment. It doesn’t sound like he wants to hang up his cleats yet and, like all good journeymen, I bet his suitcase is packed and ready to go should the phone ring.

“As long as I’m getting calls, I want to play. My body feels good.
I feel like my mind’s still sharp and into it. As long as I’m helping
out on the field, I want to do it.”


4. Adrian Peterson (six moves since 2017)

Teams: Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals, New Orleans Saints, Washington Redskins, Detroit Lions, Tennessee Titans, Seattle Seahawks.

Ted S. Warren – AP Photo

Like Colquitt, Adrian Peterson was the epitome of stability for some time, beginning his career with a 10-year stint with the Minnesota Vikings. Drafted in 2007, he went on to become one of the best running backs of all time while wearing purple. He had 2,097 rushing yards (just nine short of Eric Dickerson’s NFL record) in 2012 and still holds the record for the most rushing yards in a game (296).

Basically, for a decade, he was a one-team man but in 2014, things started to change. Having played one game, he was suspended for the rest of the season due to child sex abuse allegations. He returned for a full campaign in 2015 but the following year, knee injuries restricted him to just three starts. 

Now in the back nine of his career, AP was released at the start of 2017 and has since spent time with six different teams: the Saints, Cardinals, Redskins, Lions, Titans and Seahawks.

The Saints had first dibs but despite inking a two-year deal, Peterson only played four times and was traded to the Cardinals mid-season. That stint only lasted six games, before he agreed a one-year deal with a Washington team hit by preseason injuries. He signed a further two-year contract in 2019 and played 31 times before being released.

In September 2020, Peterson pitched up in Detroit for a year, featuring in all 16 regular season games, but his increasing reputation as a wanderer has only been enhanced since. Spells on the practice squads of the Titans and Seahawks resulted in a total of three starts. In his one game for Seattle, however, he did score a touchdown, making him the only player to score rushing TDs for six different NFL teams.

“I take football as an avenue to different opportunities.
Football isn’t using me, I’m using football.”

Since January, Peterson has been without a team. He hasn’t retired yet but at 37, there are doubts about whether he’ll suit up again. If he does, it’ll probably be as a practice squad player for his eighth different franchise.

In the meantime, “All Day” has taken journeyman status to another level and switched sports! Watch out for his exhibition boxing match against fellow RB Le’Veon Bell at the end of the month.


3. Nick Foles (six moves since 2015)

Teams: Philadelphia Eagles, St Louis Rams, Kansas City Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles (2nd stint), Jacksonville Jaguars, Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts.

Mike Ehrmann – Getty Images

Nick Foles is up there with Peterson as the most successful of our group. The quarterback was picked in the 3rd Round pick of the 2012 draft by the Philadelphia Eagles and started six games as a rookie, after Michael Vick suffered concussion. Foles became the starter in 2013, throwing for 2,891 yards and 27 touchdowns, but broke his collarbone the following season. That injury kickstarted Foles’ travels.

In March 2015, he left for St. Louis where he endured an up-and down year (swapping in and out with Case Keenum). But when the (now LA-based) Rams drafted Jared Goff, Foles was off again, signing a one-year deal with the Chiefs. In fine journeyman tradition, he made just the one start.

His best move was to return to the Eagles in 2017 as Carson Wentz’s backup. Towards the end of the season, Wentz was in MVP form but tore his ACL against the Rams in Week 14. Our man stepped in and led the Eagles to Super Bowl LII, where they beat the New England Patriots 41-33. Foles is probably one of the least likely Super Bowl MVPs of all time, becoming the first player to throw and catch a TD pass in the season finale.

The following year, Foles played when Wentz was injured, including a loss to the Saints in the Divisional Round. But with itchy feet, Foles headed south, signing a four-year, $88 million contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars. However, he only started four games due to a shoulder injury and a spell of poor form that saw him benched. We last saw Foles in a Chicago Bears uniform, but he had just one start last year, when both Justin Fields and Andy Dalton were unable to play.

“Don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is a part of life. It’s a part of building character and growing.
Without failure, who would you be? I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t fallen thousands of times, made mistakes.”

But what of 2022? Foles will don his sixth different jersey – the blue and white of the Indianapolis Colts – as the backup to new QB1 Matt Ryan. But how much we see of him will once again depend on the health of the man ahead of him in the pecking order.


2. Brian Hoyer (nine moves since 2012)

Teams: New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots (2nd stint), Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots (3rd stint)

Fred Kfoury III – Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Brian Hoyer is a career backup, no question about it. He’s had just 39 starts over 14 seasons, and only two in the last five years. And yet he’s been a starter for eight different teams, the second-most in league history. Proper journeyman credentials!

His NFL life began in 2009 as an undrafted free agent for the New England Patriots. Naturally, with Tom Brady in the house, playing opportunities were few and far between so, while he spent three years at Foxboro, he made just 13 appearances (no starts), threw 27 passes and landed just one TD.

In August 2012, Hoyer was cut, sparking a sharp rise in Air Miles and hotel reward points. With Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich both injured, he came in to Pittsburgh as a QB4, backing up Charlie Batch for two weeks but didn’t play. He was picked up by the Cardinals two days later and finally made his first NFL start (go Brian!) before signing a two-year contract with the Cleveland Browns.

For a while, Hoyer settled in. He made three starts in 2013 and despite Cleveland drafting Johnny Manziel, 2014 was his busiest year. He played 14 games – 13 as starter – but with more interceptions than touchdowns, his contract wasn’t renewed.

The following year, he started nine times for Houston but was released once again. His first and only postseason start, a 30-0 Wild Card loss to the Chiefs in which he logged four INTs, probably didn’t help. From there, he played six games with Chicago but then broke his arm, and another half-dozen for San Francisco before being benched.

There are only so many teams in the NFL so, like many a journeyman, Hoyer returned to an old stamping ground in 2017. He signed a three-year deal with New England to be TB12’s understudy once again but, largely restricted to garbage time, he completed just five passes in two seasons. Having lost the backup role to Jarrett Stidham, Hoyer hit the road again, and signed an ambitious three-year deal in Indy. He logged just four appearances before returning to Gillette Stadium in 2020 for a third time, to do what he does best – bench-warming.

“I don’t think I would have lasted this long had I not been in New England
to start off with. From learning from Tom (Brady), Bill (Belichick)
and the guys in this organization, how to do things the right way,
I think allowed me to go on and have the career I’ve had.”

His initial one-year deal saw him make his long-awaited first start for the Pats (when Cam Newton caught COVID) and last year, he threw total of nine passes. Hoyer has since signed up for two more years… of watching Mac Jones from the best seat in the house.  


1. Josh Johnson (21 moves since 2011)

Teams (deep breath!): Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Francisco 49ers, Sacramento Mountain Lions (UFL), Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, San Francisco 49ers (2nd stint), Cincinnati Bengals (2nd stint), New York Jets, Indianapolis Colts, Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants, Houston Texans, Oakland Raiders, Washington Redskins, San Diego Fleet (AAF), Detroit Lions, Los Angeles Wildcats (XFL), San Francisco 49ers (3rd stint), New York Jets (2nd stint), Baltimore Ravens (2nd stint), Denver Broncos.

YouTube

With Josh McCown, who played for 12 NFL teams over 18 years, now applying for coaching jobs, we can assume his playing career is done, which means he’s not eligible to join our elite group. This paves the way for another Josh – Josh Johnson – to be hailed our undisputed King of the Journeymen.

Johnson’s unorthodox career has been spent primarily as a third-string quarterback. He’s only had nine career starts in the NFL and thrown 13 TDs since he was drafted in 2008 by the Buccaneers but his 14 different NFL teams (that’s nearly half the league!) are the most ever. Not content with that, he’s also played for the UFL’s Sacramento Mountain Lions, San Diego Fleet of the Alliance of American Football and the Los Angeles Wildcats of the XFL.

“They were opportunities for me to re-establish myself as a quarterback in this country.
I was blessed they were there. They helped save my career, and they helped me develop
when I wasn’t getting a lot of reps. You don’t get a lot of reps when you’re competing
for the third spot on the roster or when you’re the fourth guy. You can absorb a lot of information,
but you don’t really have the physical time on task. That’s what playing in those other leagues
was able to get me, and I benefited from it.”

Johnson’s first NFL appearance took place in September 2009, during the first of four consecutive years in Tampa. That was the longest stretch he’s ever been part of a team, and he hasn’t stayed more than a year anywhere else, other than two years during his third stint with the 49ers (he didn’t play).

His CV is littered with references to signing with teams and being released without anything meaningful happening in between. From 2012 to 2018, he joined the Niners (twice), Bengals (twice), Jets, Colts, Bills, Ravens, Giants, Texans and Raiders, but barely played a snap for any of them. He had four teams in 2015 alone but never saw the field.

In fact, when he turned out for Washington in December 2018 against the Giants, it was his first appearance for five years. But after four games, Johnson was off again, going (via Detroit) to the XFL’s the Los Angeles Wildcats. The season was curtailed by COVID but this is where you may have actually seen him play for a full four(!) games, throwing for over 1,000 yards and 11 TDs.

After more (non-playing) time in San Francisco, Johnson came in as the Jets’ emergency quarterback for the 2021 season and was called into action in Week 9 against the Colts after QB2 Mike White went down. He made 27 passes (about 13% of his career total in one game!) for 317 yards and three touchdowns. Johnson was then snatched up by Baltimore last December, and filled in against the Bengals in Week 16 because Lamar Jackson was injured and Tyler Huntley had COVID.

The latest chapter of Johnson’s career saw him ship out to Denver in March 2022 – his 21st change of employer in 11 years. And if that doesn’t prompt the Oxford English Dictionary to replace their definition of “journeyman” with a picture of Josh Johnson, I don’t know what will!  


Feature image credit: Bill Kostroun – AP Photo

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The ACC is the best Quarterback Conference in CFB

Last season we asked if the ACC was the best Quarterback Conference in College Football. The 2022 season kicks off in a couple of months, and it’s time to ask the same question again.

This is the last season that the ACC will be split into 2 divisions. As of 2023, there will be a new scheduling method to allow teams to play other teams at least once in the next 4 years. This could be a highly beneficial change for the ACC and makes things more interesting from next season.

Last year’s article focussed on the stats side of the debate, in terms of the amount of quarterbacks drafted from the ACC and how many have played at least one game in the NFL, however, this article is purely going to focus on the current quarterback crop in the ACC this year.

After presenting the case below, it is for the reader to decide whether the ACC is the ‘Best Quarterback Conference in 2022’.

Atlantic

The Atlantic division will be looking to bounce back in 2022, after having it’s nine straight ACC Championships streak snapped last season when Pittsburgh beat Wake Forest.

Wake Forest

Sam Hartman

A potential for the Heisman Trophy for the upcoming season, Hartman returns after an impressive season last year. He accounted for 50 touchdowns (39 passing and 11 rushing) and surpassed 4000 yards, as Wake Forest finished 11-3 but lost to Pittsburgh in the ACC Championship game. They will be looking to go one better this season, and with Hartman returning, they have a significantly higher chance of doing so.

Hartman may not be one of the most explosive quarterbacks in College Football, who will light it up with big plays downfield regularly, but he has the consistency and poise to find the yards needed to pick up an extra play, or even use his legs to get downfield.

Clemson

D.J. Uiagalelei

One of the players I can’t wait to see play in the upcoming season. Uiagalelei came into Clemson with high expectations, the replacement for Trevor Lawrence, but it just hasn’t turned out the way it was expected so far. His 2021 season saw him throw just over 2200 yards, but he finished with more interceptions than touchdowns (10 INT and 9 TDs). Granted Clemson weren’t at full strength offensively, but this was a player that not only took over from Trevor Lawrence at Clemson, but was meant to follow him to the top of an NFL Draft. He has the talent, and the ability to turn things round in 2022, but it perhaps won’t be as easy as that.

Uiagalelei’s position was questioned from when the season finished, with Cade Klubnik lurking in the wings to step up if it doesn’t go to plan at the start of the 2022 season. The hope from a Clemson perspective will be that Klubnik puts D.J. under enough pressure to push him to the levels that he was expected to reach. Coming into Clemson as a five-star recruit, this season becomes massive in terms of his development and that final push to become a top NFL Draft pick.

NC State

Devin Leary

The four-star recruit comes into the upcoming season as potentially the most exciting quarterback in the ACC, potentially the whole of College Football. Looking at numbers alone, there are many reasons why this could be the case. He finished with 3,433 passing yards, 35 touchdowns, and just five interceptions. The potential was there for him to be drafted in 2022, most likely around Rounds 4-5, but he decided to come back for the 2022 College Football season and this could easily see him becoming a more sought-after prospect by the time the 2023 Draft comes round.

The Atlantic Division has 3 of the most intriguing quarterbacks in the whole of College Football for the 2022 season, but Leary may well be the one that shows the most potential after just a glimpse of what he could do in 2021. The most exciting thing about Leary is that the 2021 season was the one he stepped up as a starter and took control of games, helping NC State finish 9-3. With that year under his belt, 2022 could well be his year.

Boston College

Phil Jurkovec

The 2021 College Football didn’t go as I had hoped for Jurkovec. He had the potential to be a key figure for BC and potentially help them reach a Bowl final at least. However, injury halted his progress in Week 2 and he missed a big chunk of the season. He did manage to start the last 4 games of the season, and his commitment to returning in 2022 will be a big boost for Boston College. With 5 players finishing with 150+ receiving yards, plus Zay Flowers and his 746 yards, and Travis Levy with 148 yards, Jurkovec will have plenty to aim for in the upcoming season. BC finished 6-6, but there’s easily the potential for wins to reach at least 8 or 9.

Louisville

Malik Cunningham

The rushing leader of the ACC in 2021, Cunningham showcased himself as an impressive dual threat quarterback. He was also 4th in the country with 20 rushing touchdowns, but backed up his quarterback potential with 2941 passing yards and 19 touchdowns. Despite these impressive stats, there will be expectation on Cunningham to rely more on his arm rather than his feet, thus reducing his mobility and staying within the pocket a bit more in 2022.

This could work one of two ways for Cunningham. He could struggle to contain himself and pick out his targets from the pocket, or he could thrive on the challenge and become an even better quarterback. There has been an abundance of quarterbacks who can do both successfully, but the progression of Cunningham as a quarterback will rely on him to be a better passer of the ball to show that he can do both things more productively.

Florida State

Jordan Travis

For the first time in a number of years for FSU, they have their guaranteed starter for the opening game of the season. Travis split time being a starter the past 2 seasons, but he now has the job on a permanent basis. He threw for 15 touchdowns last season, significantly better than 2020. This has showed his progress as a quarterback and shows he can throw just as well, if not better, than he can run. Travis should show more development as a passer next year due to this experience but that is heavily reliant on if he can stay healthy and not pick up any injuries.

Syracuse

Garrett Schrader

Although Schrader will be the starter come the opening game, Justin Lamson showed plenty of promise in his first substantial public appearance for Syracuse. This shows that if Schrader does continue to pick up niggles here and there (he missed the game with a hamstring tweak), then there is certainly a reliable back-up to him.

Schrader threw just over 1440 yards last season with 9 passing touchdowns. Although his numbers didn’t look significant, he was in a team that finished 5-7 for the year. His standout performance against Virginia Tech was the highlight of his season, followed closely by a personally impressive performance against Pittsburgh.

His performance against Virginia Tech led them to a 41-36 victory, but this was then followed by 3 quiet outings against Boston College, Louisville and NC State. He picked it up for the last game against Pittsburgh, throwing both of their touchdowns and having a 70.8% pass completion for the game.

The problem with Schrader seems to be consistency. He can have exceptional games like VT and Pittsburgh, but there are too many games where he doesn’t seem to be involved in precedings. This will need to change in 2022, or Lamson could well be getting the job early on in the season.

Coastal

For the last season as split divisions, the Coastal teams will be looking to back up their victory of Pittsburgh last year and try to make it two-in-a-row.

Pittsburgh

The intriguing part of Pittsburgh in 2022 will be their quarterback position. Kenny Pickett had an impressive year, following up his ACC success with a 20th Overall Draft Pick. The competition for the position should likely heat up as the season approaches between Kedon Slovis and Nick Patti, but Slovis looks the more favourable option to replace Pickett.

The USC transfer is starting to turn heads at the Manning Passing Academy, following on from throwing 2153 yards and having 11 passing touchdowns in 2021. His 2020 season saw him throw 1921 yards and 3502 yards in 2019, so there shows some consistency without being standout.

This is where it could get interesting in 2022. Slovis has big shoes to fill after Pickett’s pick-up in the NFL Draft, however he also has Redshirt Senior Nick Patti waiting to take over from Pickett. Patti has been used sparingly for the past 3 seasons, but he would have worked with Pickett often enough to know what is required to take over from him. The 2022 season will be extremely interesting from a Pittsburgh point of view, but Slovis should be the man to take the helm come the opening game purely based on more game time and more consistency in College.

Miami (FL)

Tyler Van Dyke

One of the most impressive quarterbacks in the Coastal Division, Van Dyke was consistent, reliable and made things happen to help guide Miami to a 5-3 record when he started. He had 2931 passing yards and threw for 25 touchdowns, and followed his quality season with 3 touchdown passes in Miami’s second Spring game.

Although his numbers may not have been as impressive as Pickett’s at Pittsburgh, he turned it on on the big stage to guide his side to victory of Pittsburgh with 3 touchdown passes. He also surpassed 400 yards in that game, before having at least 300 yards in his last 5 starts, with 4 wins and 1 loss.

The best thing about Van Dyke in 2021 was his ability to make big play after big play, ultimately resulting in him taking the starting role after Week 4. With the numbers he put up in 2021, a full season should see him build on such promise. With plenty of quarterbacks targeting the 2023 Draft, there’s no reason why Van Dyke won’t be high on that list.

Virginia

Brennan Armstrong

Another quarterback with plenty of potential, Armstrong was another one who has spent time at the Manning Passing Academy. Entering his fifth season, Armstrong is coming off the back of a highly productive season.

Armstrong ranked 4th amongst quarterbacks with 4449 passing yards, as well as having 31 touchdown passes. Despite Virginia’s mixed results in 2021, he surpassed 330 yards in all but one of his starts. However, this came in a victory of Miami.

Armstrong being back for his fifth season is a big boost for Virginia, and should hopefully help them progress on a 6-6 record they achieved in 2021. It turned out to be Armstrong’s breakout year so big things are expected of him in 2022.

Virginia Tech

The transfer of Braxton Burmeister to San Diego State has freed up the starting role for the 2022 season. Although Burmeister didn’t exactly put up big numbers, there will be pressure on whoever takes the role on to bring some excitement to Virginia Tech.

The two current candidates are Marshall transfer Grant Wells and South Carolina transfer Jason Brown. There seems to be more emphasis on Wells earning the spot come the first game of the season but he has plenty to do in order to hold the position down. Although he threw for 3532 passing yards last year, his interceptions were far too often and resulted in him having 13 INTs, albeit having 16 touchdowns.

He has the edge over Jason Brown, largely in part down to his experience compared to Brown. Brown only threw 108 times last year, despite coming off the back of a 3000+ yard season with South Carolina in 2020. With Virginia Tech looking to pick up more victories in 2022, there could be heavy emphasis on who can nail down the role permanently, and perform consistently.

North Carolina

Another team looking for a new quarterback for 2022, the Tar Heels lost Sam Howell to the NFL Draft, where he was chosen in the 5th Round by Washington. His 2021 season saw him throw for 3056 yards, with 24 touchdowns, so there will be big boots to fill for whoever steps in for him.

The two options come in the form of Jacolby Criswell and Drake Maye. Criswell edged it last season in terms of what he gave as back-up to Howell by throwing for 125 yards against Wofford, with a touchdown pass, but there was more reliance on the running game in that particular match-up.

Maye, on the other hand, threw for 89 yards in that game, but that was his sole appearance bar one incomplete throw against South Carolina. They are both coming into the season with minimal experience so there are still big questions who will earn the role full time for the season.

Georgia Tech

Jeff Sims

Sims goes into the 2022 season with plenty to prove. In 2021 he split the role with Jordan Yates, but after his grad transfer, this frees Sims to be the main man going into the upcoming season. Sims has yet to reach his full potential but showed significant improvement in 2021 compared to 2020.

He cut down on his interceptions but still threw 12 touchdown passes. His yards per pass attempt improved from the previous year and his completion percentage improved as well. There will need to be more improvements heading into 2022 from the Junior quarterback but showcasing his talents as the number 1 quarterback could be what he needs.

Sims is a capable runner, picking up 50+ yards in 3 of the last 4 games he started, so there is an option on the ground if needed to get him out of trouble but he needs to pick up the offense quickly in order for him to succeed. His occasional flashes of talent need to be more consistent and he needs to keep picking up plays with his arm rather than relying on his running.

Duke

Gunnar Holmberg

Holmberg has a big job to do in 2022. Duke were the only team in the ACC not to win a game against Conference opposition, going 0-8 in the process. He managed to throw for 2358 yards, but ended up with more interceptions than touchdowns (8 INTs and 7 TDs). There will need to be more consistency from him in 2022, he started well with over 250 yards in 4 of his first 6 starts, but then didn’t surpass 200 yards for the next 5 starts.

It’s a tough ask to expect much better from Duke in the ACC in 2022, but Holmberg now has a year worth of experience as a starter so this may work in his favour next season.

By Jake Tweedie @ACCUKAnalysis1

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This QB Didn’t Tie His Laces

How many people have a childhood nickname that just stuck? While the answer is probably a lot of you it’s doubtful that you’ve ever heard 100,000 people chanting that name. Not Denard Robinson though. 

Robinson earned the nickname “Shoelace” as a 10 year old in PeeWee football for his unwillingness to tie the laces on his cleats. His coaches didn’t like it and neither did his opponents. 

One of his PeeWee coaches said: 

“Kids would go for his shoes on tackles and he’d just come up to the huddle in just socks. They’d tie wristbands around his shoes and when that didn’t work, athletic tape. They even rolled his socks over his shoes. He was a marvel and he wasn’t even done with the sixth grade!” 

As he continued his high school career at Deerfield Beach High School in Florida the legend of shoelace grew. There was no Denard Robinson anymore, he was Shoelace. 

When he first started playing football Shoelace actually tried out for a spot as a defensive back but the teams defensive coordinator, former Bills DB, Manny Martin had an experienced secondary and didn’t think Shoelace was quite ready for varsity, despite his protests. As a result, Shoelace ended up under centre for the JV team as a 9th grader. Shoelace eventually became the Varsity team signal caller as a sophomore, a spot he held for his remaining 3 years. It was clear that he had that something special when you watched him play. Totalling almost 6,000 yards of total offence, all while finishing third in the state 100m. He ran a 10.44 time…all with his shoelaces untied. 

When it came to hitting the next level, Robinson was a highly touted recruit. ESPN had him ranked as the 7th ‘athlete’ in the country and teams like Georgia, Florida and Michigan had offered him before his senior season was over. After his initial offer from Michigan came in to play DB, he declined. He wanted to play QB and it wasn’t until a scout finally saw him pass that they decided to offer him at his preferred position. Shoelace could finally fulfil his dream of playing QB at the college level and on the 4th of February 2009 he signed his letter of intent to play quarterback for the Michigan Wolverines.

During his freshman season Shoelace had to compete with fellow freshman Tate Forcier and Junior Nick Sheridan. While Forcier was named as the starting signal caller after spring camp, the freshman ended up having a significant role as he appeared in all 12 games. Despite his first ever snap for Michigan being fumbled, Shoelace turned it into a touchdown, 43 yards to the crib. That’s money. Shoelace continued his dominance during his four years with the Wolverines, ending his career with 6250 passing yards and 49 touchdowns coupled with 4495 ground yards and 42 scores. He is also responsible for 8 of the 10 top yardage games in school history. Unreal. 

Shoelace left school as the only 1500 yard passer and rusher, most FBS 200 yard passing and rushing games, most Big-10 rushing yards by a QB (single game, single season and career) most Big-10 Player of the Week awards. To go with all these records Robinson was also voted the NCAA Football 14 cover athlete. Since that was the last game in the series until the 2023 instalment Shoelace can now find the copy of the game he was on selling for over $300 on the web. Valuable guy.

Going pro would be a different story. As his passing ability was limited Shoelace told teams he would be open to switching positions, and his 4.35 40 made him a very attractive prospect for NFL teams looking for that extra burst.

The Jacksonville Jaguars decided to draft Shoelace with the 135th overall pick in the 5th round. While he was listed as a running back the coaching staff in Jacksonville referred to him as “an offensive weapon”, think Taysom Hill or Corderalle Patterson. Shoelace struggled to get much playing time in the NFL and after his 4th season he signed with the Atlanta Legends of the ill fated Alliance of American Football where he appeared in 7 games where he had 66 yards and a touchdown coupled with 7 passes for 37 yards. And that’s all she wrote for Shoelaces in a playing capacity, but like all winners do, Shoelace landed on his feet.

In the summer of 2019 not long after Shoelace left the AAF he landed a job with the Jacksonville University Dolphins as an offensive analyst until the program discontinued less than a year later. In 2020, he was hired by his former pro team the Jaguars as an offensive quality control expert until Urban Meyer was hired and he moved to the front office. Most recently though Shoelace joined his Alma Mater as the assistant of player personnel of the Wolverines football program.

So we get to the end of this video and you’re thinking…did the shoelaces affect his performance? Actually yes, quite a bit according to ESPN’s Sports Science Analyst, John Brenkus, who said:

Without ever relying on laced up shoes for stabilisation, Robinson has built up greater interior foot strength, which allows his feet to absorb more force when stopping” 

This basically allowed Shoelace to stop on a dime, change direction quickly and absorb less wear and tear on his feet. Brenknus went on to say: 

“Like a barefoot runner, Robinson relies on his midfoot to make contact with the ground, dispersing and reducing impact of bodyweight forces by up to half, allowing Robinson to literally be lighter on his feet.”

So there you have it, if you want to be an NFL athlete, stop tying your shoelaces. Just run. 

This article can also be found in video format over at @KieranHorneCFB on Youtube and for more content from me be sure to follow my twitter also @KieranHorneCFB.

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Introducing: Josh Downs, WR, UNC

As we near the college football season, a player who has been appearing on many people’s radar is wide receiver, Josh Downs. 

Ahead of the 2023 NFL Draft, Downs’ name is rightly being thrown in with the likes of Jaxson Smith-Njigba, Kayshon Boutte, and Jordan Addison as a potential high draft pick.

Coming out of North Gwinnett High School, Downs was a 4-star recruit to the University of North Carolina in the class of 2020, where he was rated 21st at his position and 15th overall in the state of Georgia. In his first year, where he showed glimpses of promise throughout the season, Downs really came alive in the Orange Bowl against Texas A&M where he hauled in four catches for 91 yards and two touchdowns in the first real big performance of his collegiate career.

The Georgia native is coming off his sophomore season, where he opened eyes with an elite skill set. His blazing speed and ability to track the ball down field is clearly very impressive for his age, which explains why he was the clear favourite for quarterback Sam Howell in 2021, as they connected 101 times for 1,335 yards and 8 touchdowns.

Downs finished second in the ACC in yards and touchdowns, with transfer Jordan Addison the only name out in front. Nationally he ranked 10th in yards, 11th in receiving yards per game, and 6th in receptions per game – clearly proving he was amongst the elite of college football.

Going into the 2022 season Downs will be playing in a new system with a new QB, but it is clear he will continue to be a crucial part of the offense. His role will also to be expanded, and he’ll look to show versatility on the field, both outside and potentially in the backfield – that would be a big divergence from 2021, where he lined up in the slot for 95.4% of his snaps. 

Some scouts may have some slight reservations about the former four-star’s stature; Downs is listed at 5’10 and weighs around 180lbs by UNC. But his explosiveness makes up for that. Whether it’s route running, where his swift footwork allows for him to create in tight spaces, or whether it’s yards after the catch (YAC), with his ability to accelerate constantly creating separation. There aren’t many defensive backs that can handle his athleticism.

Josh Downs will be the X-Factor for the Carolina offense in 2022. Despite the new QB, there’s no doubt who their first read will be. Whether he’s lined up out wide, in the slot, or even in the backfield, expect something big whenever that ball hits his hands. Expect a lot of sleepless nights for Defensive Coordinators across the ACC in 2022.

By William Lane – @TheWillieLane

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Introducing: Kayshon Boutte, WR, LSU

‘Wide Receiver U’ is a title that a handful of schools have been fighting over in recent years. The likes of Alabama and Ohio State produce elite level wideouts year in, year out but one institution has set itself apart from the pack. 

LSU is a pass catching talent factory. With names like Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham Jr, Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase as some of the schools biggest exports in the past ten years, it makes sense that the best wideouts in the country flock to Baton Rouge. 

That brings us to Louisiana native and the current number one receiver in the country, Kayshon Boutte. 

As a five-star in the 2020 recruiting class Boutte was the second ranked receiver in the country and the top player in Louisiana. With offers from Alabama, Ole Miss and Colorado, Boutte was a highly sought after prospect who decided to keep his talents in state after seeing the previous WR class at LSU ball out. 

Boutte very quickly stepped up to be a top pass catcher after Ja’Marr Chase left early for the draft and Justin Jefferson was setting rookie records in the NFL. Donning the iconic number one jersey in his freshman season, he racked up 735 yards and five scores as the Tigers struggled during a covid hampered season. 

In 2021 Boutte only played in six games due to injury, but still managed to haul in 509 yards and nine scores in another down year for LSU. Despite the lower numbers Boutte was still grabbing headlines as he started to make himself known as a top player ahead of the 2022 season. Earlier this year he sat out of the Tigers’ spring game as he continued his rehab, but if anything that may have ramped up anticipation. 

The Westgate High School product possesses some elite talents that really echo the receivers that came before him. His fluid hips and perfect footwork allow him to put DB’s on skates as he climbs the field and attacks any throw that comes his way. If you pair that with his insane post catch balance and explosive playstyle you get a guy who looks like the perfect mix of Jefferson and Chase, a scary player. 

Boutte also had very competitive times in state level track events showing he has elite speed to attack every level on the field. Boutte will shine in the slot, out wide or even in the return game with the tools at his disposal. The biggest concern around him is injury worries but given the way he’s attacked his rehab this concern should be at the back of a scout’s mind. 

As LSU approach the 2022 season there is talk of Boutte putting on the number 7 following in the footsteps of LSU greats. The number 7 is a serious responsibility and if Boutte steps on the field at Death Valley wearing it, expect fireworks. Expect greatness. Kayshon Boutte is the best wide receiver in college football, the league should expect him too.

For more college football content and the video version of this article be sure to check me out on YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClPlBm-H2PzR7dF5jqm7mTQ

Check out my twitter too @KieranHorneCFB and remember to stay tuned into the Full 10 Yards socials @Full10YardsCFB