The NFL can be a fickle league. Nobody roots for coaches to get fired or players to be benched, but those consequences are a fact of the football universe. We saw Texans coach/general manager Bill O’Brien get fired after Week 4 and Falcons coach Dan Quinn follow him out the door the following week. They’re not the only ones who have come up for discussion; search for any player or coach on social media after a bad game or even a bad moment and you’ll read about how they need to be benched, fired or excommunicated in order for their team to finally get things right.
Of course, most of the time, we’re overreacting. Every week, there’s at least one player or coach who is brought up as a possible candidate to be dumped but has no chance of being let go anytime soon. We also use the word “benched” as a one-size catch-all when it just doesn’t apply. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield struggled against the Steelers and was replaced by Case Keenum in the fourth quarter of a blowout, but he was pulled from the game because he has a rib issue and was taking hits in a lost cause, not because of his performance.
Let’s work through the various coaches, players and executives who have been on the hot seat over the past few weeks. What’s going on with them? Is there any chance that their team is about to make a move? And since we don’t want people to lose their job, what can they do to get back on track? I’ll start with the hottest seats and work my way down to the folks who don’t really have anything to worry about:
Jump to a guy on the hot seat:
Kirk Cousins | Sam Darnold | Kenyan Drake
Clyde Edwards-Helaire | Nick Foles | Adam Gase
Dave Gettleman | A.J. Green | Baker Mayfield
Matt Patricia | Carson Wentz | Mike Zimmer
Seats are aflame
Adam Gase, coach, and Gregg Williams, DC, New York Jets
The entire Gase era in New York has felt like a game of “Can you top this?” for weird, oft-unforced errors. The latest came this week, when Williams blamed some of the defense’s struggles on the offense. Gase responded after Sunday’s 24-0 loss to the Dolphins by suggesting that he wasn’t happy about his defensive coordinator’s comments.
Now, most defensive coordinators wouldn’t typically throw their offense under the bus for their defense’s problems, but after watching Sunday’s game, the former Saints defensive coordinator might have a point. Williams’ defense allowed three touchdown passes to Ryan Fitzpatrick early in the game, but the Jets intercepted Fitzpatrick twice, held the Dolphins to a lone third-down conversion and won the turnover battle. They still lost by 24 points.
Gase’s offense has been comically bad, but even the numbers undersell just how poorly the Jets have played. They have scored seven touchdowns in six games, which is bad, but take a closer look. One of those touchdowns was a pick-six. Two were scores in the final two minutes of the game when they were trailing by multiple touchdowns. One was a 46-yard Sam Darnold scramble for a touchdown on a play when none of his receivers were open. Another was a 69-yard Jamison Crowder touchdown on a third-and-7 screen where the Bills missed two tackles. Plenty of teams score touchdowns on scrambles and in garbage time, of course, but the Jets virtually only score those sorts of touchdowns.
At 0-6, the Jets are now the only winless team. Over the next three weeks, they will play the Bills, Chiefs and Patriots before their Week 10 bye. The ESPN Football Power Index (FPI) gives the Jets a 51.2% chance of hitting their bye at 0-9. They have a 57.4% chance of finishing with the first overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, which would theoretically give them the right to draft Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. (I say theoretical because they were once burned by a quarterback unexpectedly staying in college for one final season the last time they had the first overall pick.)
Even among 0-6 teams, the Jets are particularly awful. They’ve been outscored by 110 points, the ninth-worst mark for any 0-6 team since the merger. After the game, veteran back Frank Gore was fuming that the team didn’t get its offense going until the fourth quarter and that it can’t afford to wait until the final quarter again next week. The second-saddest thing about that phrase is that Gore was highlighting a quarter where the Jets were shut out as the offense they need to embody in the weeks to come. The saddest thing is that Gore was right, as they looked much better in the fourth quarter than they did at any point earlier in the game.
If they did want a glimmer of hope Sunday, they could have looked toward the opposite sideline, as the 2019 Dolphins were one of the eight teams with a worse point differential after starting 0-6. Brian Flores’ team started 0-7 and then won five of its last nine games. After blowing out the 49ers and Jets in consecutive weeks, the Dolphins are now 3-3. They’ve gone from embarrassingly bad to average in a year.
Of course, the Dolphins got there by amassing draft picks, committing to their rebuild and keeping the faith with Flores. The Jets appear set to the keep the faith with Gase, but I wonder if it’s for another reason …
The fix: In most cases, I want to try to come up with a scenario where a player or coach could turn things around. Here, though, I think the Jets might be smarter than they seem. The best thing for their future is to finish with the worst possible record and draft Lawrence. With that in mind, the best thing for the organization might be to keep Gase around through the end of the season, given that the overmatched coach hasn’t come close to winning a football game this season. It would take an unlikely 6-1 or 7-0 run after the bye for Gase to keep his job for a third season, but his best chance to make it through the year might be to keep losing and make the job so toxic that nobody else would want it, even on an interim basis.
Very hot seats
Zimmer’s Vikings have a win, but at 1-5, it came over a fellow 1-5 team in the Texans. Zimmer, 64, has built the Vikings into an excellent defense since he became the coach in 2014, but with the team rebuilding its secondary and starting the season without star pass-rusher Danielle Hunter, they can’t seem to stop anybody on that side of the ball in 2020. They are allowing opposing teams to score 2.85 points per drive, which ties them with the Cowboys for the second-worst defense in football.
Sunday added to their totals, with the previously winless Falcons dropping 40 points at home in Raheem Morris’ debut as Atlanta’s interim coach. Matt Ryan threw for 371 yards and four touchdowns, with Julio Jones running through arm tackles and past stalled defenders for 137 yards and two scores. In key situation after key situation, Ryan had no trouble finding an open receiver for a big gain.
On Atlanta’s first touchdown of the game, the Falcons faced a third-and-11 at the edge of the red zone. Ryan had as many as four viable receivers open for a catch, and despite the fact that he drew the attention of two defenders in quarters coverage and had one of them commit (uncalled) illegal contact, Jones managed to easily shake the defense for a 20-yard score. This just can’t happen.
Matt Ryan throws it to an open Julio Jones, who easily gets across the goal line for a touchdown.
The Falcons were able to get mismatches throughout the game. Jones converted a third down against cornerback Harrison Hand, who was playing his seventh defensive snap as a pro. Ryan found Brian Hill out of the backfield for a big game when he was matched up against defensive end Yannick Ngakoue on a sim pressure. The Vikings struggled with picks and communication, leading to Hayden Hurst going totally uncovered on a fourth-and-1 leak concept for a 35-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Oddly, one thing Zimmer has been criticized for is the least of his issues. The former Bill Parcells disciple took flak for going for it on fourth-and-short twice over the past two weeks, and I have no issue with either call. The decision to go for it last week on fourth-and-1 to try to seal the game against the Seahawks was an easy call, especially given how effective Minnesota had been on the ground.
The Vikings then failed on fourth-and-1 early in the second quarter while trailing 10-0 Sunday when Mike Boone was stuffed on a direct snap from the 1-yard line. Again, I don’t have a problem with it. The Falcons’ defense has been awful, and Minnesota was already trailing by 10 points. It was going to need points to win the game. You can take issue with the decision to use Boone on a direct snap as opposed to a different playcall, but that would be on Gary Kubiak, not Zimmer.
While the raw numbers dislike the Vikings, advanced metrics are a little more generous. They ranked 15th in defensive DVOA heading into Sunday’s loss, and while they’ll drop after the Falcons lit them up, this defense is closer to league average than it is to awful. Minnesota has played one of the toughest slates of opposing offenses in the league, including the Falcons, Packers, Seahawks and Titans. Seven of the 11 defenders who started in the wild-card win over the Saints in January weren’t in the lineup Sunday. I don’t think Zimmer has done all that bad of a job given the circumstances.
The fix: The problem for Zimmer is that it’s easier to fire him than it is to fire the other people who show up later on in this list. Assuming that the Vikings don’t make a move during their bye week, things get a little easier after they play the Packers in Week 8. The next five games are the Lions, Bears, Cowboys, Panthers and Jaguars. If Zimmer can turn things around over that stretch, the team should move forward with him.
If he gets embarrassed by the Packers and loses a couple more divisional games, though, a 1-8 start could lead to change. Firing a coach one year removed from a playoff victory seems harsh, but both Brad Childress and Leslie Frazier were fired in the year after playoff appearances, including an NFC title game for Childress.
Let’s get to a player and talk about one of the league’s most exciting backs from 2019. Drake came into the season as a borderline first-round pick in fantasy football as the focus of a potentially dominant Cardinals offense. In advance of Monday night’s game with the Cowboys, Drake has instead been … ordinary. His 85 carries have produced 314 yards and just two touchdowns, but most notably, he has caught just six passes for 22 yards. He has barely been a part of the passing attack.
In addition to the missing receptions, Drake hasn’t been hitting any big plays. The former Dolphins back hasn’t run for more than 16 yards once all season after hitting an 80-yard touchdown against the Seahawks a year ago. Big plays can just be random and require reps. Derrick Henry didn’t have a play longer than 16 yards before Sunday and then rolled off a 94-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter against the Texans and a 53-yard catch-and-run in overtime. Drake hasn’t looked great, but one big play breaking his way probably would change our perception.
In the process, it has been his backup who has been more impressive. Chase Edmonds‘ 19 carries have produced 95 yards and a touchdown. More significantly, Edmonds has basically absorbed all of the receiving work out of the backfield, as the third-year man has caught 18 passes for 129 yards and two more touchdowns. Edmonds has run 71 routes to Drake’s 81, but the two were at an even 15-15 split during last week’s win over the Jets.
Drake fantasy drafters — as well as the man himself — have a few reasons to be optimistic. The Cardinals have actually been slightly better when their offense has had him on the field, with the Cards averaging 0.12 EPA per play with him on the field and Edmonds sidelined and 0.11 EPA per play in the opposite scenario. Drake’s role also really hasn’t declined, as he has played between 65% and 71% of the offensive snaps in each of the first five games.
What is concerning, though, is that Edmonds’ role is growing. Edmonds jumped from playing one-third of the snaps over the first three weeks of the year to 37% in Week 4 and 45% against the Jets. It would be one thing if the Cardinals had been in a situation in which they were trailing and wanted to throw Edmonds the ball, but they were leading from start to finish against Gase & Co. They were more willing to use Drake and Edmonds on the field at the same time, and when they do, the Cardinals seem happy to throw the ball to Edmonds. Drake is a free agent after the season, so the Cardinals would not be upset if Edmonds broke out, given that the 2018 fourth-rounder is on his rookie contract through the end of 2021.
The fix: Drake needs to produce a couple of big plays, either as a runner or receiver. His schedule over the next two weeks is friendly, as he gets a Cowboys team that hasn’t been able to do much at all on defense and then a possible shootout with the Seahawks. Kliff Kingsbury can help by dialing up some screens or designed passes to get Drake more involved in the passing game.
Let’s go with the first running back taken in this draft class. Edwards-Helaire isn’t in danger of being cut or removed from the roster, but his current role in the offense is clearly under threat after the Chiefs added Le’Veon Bell last week. The LSU product hadn’t been an every-down player over the first month of the season, and the Chiefs dropped his snaps down to 60% during the Week 5 loss to the Raiders. Darrel Williams, who hasn’t been effective this season, assumed a larger role and was rotating with Edwards-Helaire throughout the second half.
As great as Edwards-Helaire looked during that Week 1 win over the Texans, he just hasn’t been an effective runner over the ensuing four games. The first-rounder has carried the ball 56 times for just 206 yards and eight first downs. The only back with at least 40 carries over that time frame who has run for first downs less frequently is Melvin Gordon. Edwards-Helaire also doesn’t have a run of more than 17 yards since the opener.
If you don’t break big plays or move the chains, the one thing you need to do is score touchdowns, and Edwards-Helaire hasn’t even been doing that. Every back with more than five carries inside the 1-yard line this season has scored at least one touchdown on those carries, with those regulars combining to score on just under 38% of their carries with 5 yards to go. The only exception to the bunch is Edwards-Helaire, who has failed to score on seven carries inside the 5-yard line, including six in the opening game against the Texans alone.
If you want to blame a struggling Chiefs offensive line for Edwards-Helaire’s issues, it would be fair. His backups haven’t been good, and the line has also struggled to protect Patrick Mahomes. I’ve found red zone performance and goal-line performance to be mostly random from year to year, and I suspect that Edwards-Helaire would score a couple of times if Andy Reid gave him seven more carries inside the 5. In the long run, I still think he is going to be just fine.
In the short term, the Chiefs didn’t sign Bell to have the former Steelers and Jets back sit on the bench. I would expect him to take Williams’ role and immediately take 35-40% of the offensive snaps as the lesser end of the running back rotation. For fantasy purposes, though, Bell’s touches might be more valuable. The Chiefs can split Bell out as a receiver and stretch teams with their Empty package, which they’ve used only 16 times this season. Bell will probably get a significant cut of the goal-line work and do better than Edwards-Helaire, in part out of sheer randomness. The three-down lead role Edwards-Helaire seemed set to enjoy after Damien Williams opted out is certainly up in the air.
The fix: Bell is inactive for Monday’s game against the Bills as a result of the COVID-19 protocols, so this is Edwards-Helaire’s chance to make the Chiefs think twice about handing a significant workload to Bell. He needs to succeed near the goal line, and it would help if he could break off a big play or two. That’s tough against what is typically a stout Bills defense, but injuries have the Bills ranked 27th in DVOA before the game.
The good news for the Giants is that their stop of Kyle Allen on a 2-point try inside the final minute sealed New York’s first win of the season. It also led safety Jabrill Peppers to do two celebratory backflips, and while we’ll never personally know the joy of winning an NFL game, the idea of doing two backflips to celebrate a one-point win over Washington to make it to 1-5 seemed sadder than not doing any backflips at all.
The bad news is that the core of talents Gettleman expected to build his team around continues to struggle. Fourth overall pick Andrew Thomas was benched for the first quarter of Sunday’s game, and while it was later revealed to be for a violation of team policy, the fact that most onlookers originally thought it was a straight-up benching for poor play should tell you how Thomas has played to start his career. Despite being taken before Mekhi Becton, Jedrick Wills and Tristan Wirfs, Thomas hasn’t been up to their standards at left tackle this season.
Gettleman’s other first-rounders aren’t blowing anyone away. Gettleman traded up to grab Deandre Baker in 2019, but the Georgia corner was one of the worst regulars in football as a rookie before being charged with armed robbery and losing his job in September. Saquon Barkley, who saw his 2019 season compromised by a high ankle sprain, is out with a torn ACL. Dexter Lawrence has been a solid two-down defensive tackle and came up with a hit on Allen to seal up the game Sunday, but that’s not something you need to use the 17th overall pick in the draft to find.
Most crucially, quarterback Daniel Jones seems lost. There are moments when he seems to click and does something special, like the 23-yard touchdown pass he dropped in for Darius Slayton or his 49-yard run in the second quarter. There’s no doubting Jones is a talented athlete.
Daniel Jones pulls the ball back on the fake handoff, then takes off for a 49-yard gain.
Giants fans who were hoping to see signs of growth from Jones in 2020 would also be generous to suggest he is even playing as well as he did a year ago. He continues to have little feel for the opposing pass rush and seems frozen in the pocket while taking hits. His decision-making is spotty and occasionally disastrous, as we saw Sunday, when a pressured Jones threw up a prayer into triple coverage in the end zone for a Kendall Fuller pick. The Giants were able to take advantage of short fields to score 34 points against a disastrous Cowboys defense last week, but they scored 13 points on six meaningful drives on Sunday.
The fix: The Giants need to show signs of life on offense, particularly in the red zone. Jones & Co. have turned just 25% of their red zone trips into touchdowns, a figure that only the Jets have failed to match this season. Red zone performance is inconsistent, which should help the Giants regress toward the mean out of sheer randomness in the weeks to come, but if Jones doesn’t look like a franchise quarterback at the end of the year, Gettleman is probably going to walk. Scoring touchdowns in the red zone will help this offense look more professional and give Jones more confidence.
When they franchised him this spring, the Bengals hoped that they would be getting back the Green who once terrorized opposing defenses and looked like a future Hall of Famer. The guy who has shown up this season hasn’t been anything close. Through five games, Green had caught just 14 passes on 34 targets for 119 yards, averaging a dismal 3.5 yards per target. Only two players since 1992 have averaged fewer than 3.5 yards per target over a full season.
After Week 5, Green seemed like he might be on his way out of town sooner rather than later. Against the Ravens, his only target came on an interception, and he was then criticized for failing to try to tackle Marcus Peters before leaving the game with a hamstring injury. Green had been playing about 68% of the snaps over the first month of the season, and his snap count fell to just 42% in the Ravens game. There was serious talk of a Green trade if the Bengals could find a suitor, although it was going to be difficult to find one for even the prorated portion of Green’s $18 million franchise tag.
Then, on Sunday, we finally saw glimpses of the old Green. The 2011 first-rounder caught eight of the 11 passes thrown in his direction for 96 yards. It wasn’t a perfect day, as he dropped a bomb from rookie Joe Burrow that might have resulted in a 44-yard touchdown, but that pass was also underthrown and brought Green back toward defending corner Rock Ya-Sin. Overall, this was a big step in the right direction for the 32-year-old.
Crucially, Burrow repeatedly looked for Green in the fourth quarter when the game was on the line, including a fourth-and-9 conversion that kept Cincinnati’s hopes alive before a Burrow interception. It’s easy to tweet that Green’s washed up or ready for retirement, and based on his numbers through the first five games of the year, it would have been hard to put up much of an argument. It’s telling that Burrow looked toward Green and not any of his other weapons late in the game. Blowing a 21-0 lead against the Colts has to be a disappointing loss for Cincinnati, but seeing signs of life from its star wide receiver is a positive to take away from the contest.
The fix: More games like Sunday. Green’s size and catch radius is still a mismatch for smaller corners, and the Bengals were able to take advantage of that on slants and other in-breaking routes. Ya-Sin isn’t the fastest corner in the league, but it’s also a good sign that Green was able to create a touchdown opportunity by running past him.
Very few of the players on this list are on winning teams, let alone teams that are 5-1. Foles is the exception. Superficially, you could try to manufacture enthusiasm about what he did to help the Bears win Sunday against the Panthers. While he did throw an interception, the former Super Bowl MVP threw a touchdown pass and snuck one in on the ground. Any game in which you’re kneeling at the end is typically a victory, and Foles kneeled three times to end a 23-16 win.
At the same time, Foles was not holding up his end of the bargain. He was 23-of-39 passing for just 198 yards, an average of just over 5 yards per attempt. Nobody has thrown more ducks than Foles this season, and while he has usually managed to have two or three defenders run into each other while they try to pick the pass off, he finally had one of those ugly throws intercepted by Jeremy Chinn. Foles’ CPOE (completion percentage over expectation) for the week was negative-5.9%, and by the NFL Next Gen Stats model, his 39 pass attempts produced a total of 0.1 EPA. Chicago’s receivers didn’t always help him out, as there were a number of drops, but he was lucky to leave the game with just one interception.
Avoiding turnovers is going to be what keeps Foles in the lineup. The Bears only benched Mitchell Trubisky once he started to really struggle with giveaways. Trubisky had three picks in seven or so quarters of football when the team benched him for Foles. The 31-year-old has exactly one interception in each of his first four games, but not for lack of trying. The Bears haven’t moved the ball well at all in each of Foles’ three starts, although the defense has done enough to win games against the Bucs and Panthers over the last two weeks.
While I suspect Chicago’s coaching staff and front office would like to tell you that there is a coherent plan here, the reality is that they’re just going to react to what they see that Sunday. Foles isn’t playing well, but as long as he gives the Bears enough of a chance for their defense to win them games, he’s going to keep the job. If Foles struggles to protect the football, they will push Trubisky back into the lineup.
The fix: Stop throwing up desperate passes into double/triple coverage. Foles doesn’t need to propel the Bears to victories with heroball. They are going to win by relying on their defense and protecting the football while hoping David Montgomery or Allen Robinson breaks a big play.
Matt Patricia, coach, and Bob Quinn, GM, Detroit Lions
For the first time since last season, the Lions managed to get an early lead without losing it shortly thereafter. It’s unclear whether the franchise would have seriously considered making a move with Patricia or Quinn if they had lost on the road to Jacksonville (1-4 heading into the game), but the possibility was worth exploring. It seemed like the Jaguars had the Lions where they wanted them when Jacksonville fell down 17-3 at halftime, but Detroit added 17 points after the break and slowed down Gardner Minshew‘s primary options in a 34-16 victory.
The most promising thing for the Lions is that we saw Patricia make a change on the defensive side of the ball. During his time in Detroit, the Lions have been one of the most man-intensive teams in the league, eschewing zone coverage to try to lock down opposing receivers across the field. The Patriots are the only other team in the league that has played more man coverage since Patricia joined the Lions, but his former employers have Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones and Jason McCourty.
Detroit has invested heavily at cornerback by signing Justin Coleman and Desmond Trufant as free agents before drafting Jeff Okudah with the third overall pick in 2020, but the three are yet to take a snap together. The Lions have been down to backup corners for most of the season, and while that would typically lead coaches to play more zone coverage and take responsibility away from those cornerbacks, Patricia isn’t a typical coach.
Before the bye, despite missing all three of his cornerbacks for some of the time, Patricia continued with the man coverage, playing man-to-man 71.3% of the time per ESPN’s coverage analysis. That was the highest rate in football by more than 8 percentage points. In Detroit’s first game after the bye on Sunday, though, Patricia flipped the switch and played man just 39.9% of the time, the lowest man-to-man rate of any single game in the Patricia era.
The Detroit offense has been inconsistent, and the Lions still seem entranced by whatever leads to bad teams, giving Adrian Peterson 12 to 15 carries for 45 to 60 yards each week, but the defense has been at fault for blowing most of their leads. Yes, rookie running back D’Andre Swift dropped a would-be touchdown pass in the end zone that would have won the game in Week 1, but the Lions’ defense allowed the Bears to score three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to come back and win the game, all while playing man coverage with replacement-level cornerbacks. It’s possible that they just go back to their old ideas next week or whenever they get Trufant and Coleman back from injury, but I’m hoping that this is a new, flexible side of Patricia.
The fix: More variation on defense and more Swift, who carried the ball 14 times for 116 yards and two touchdowns during Sunday’s win. The schedule is actually pretty light for the Lions over the next few weeks, as a game against the Colts is surrounded by matchups against the Falcons, Vikings and Washington. Getting back to form and topping .500 by the end of that run would probably be enough to earn Patricia a fourth season at the helm.
The guy on the other side of the field might be the one in more trouble after Sunday. Wash stayed on staff after Gus Bradley was fired and was the defensive coordinator when the Jaguars rode their dominant defense to the AFC Championship Game in 2017, but nine of the 11 starters from that defense are gone, including all five of the Pro Bowlers. The Jags are rebuilding and have used each of their four first-rounders since that loss to the Patriots on defense, so Wash’s job is to mold the young talent into possible stars.
Injuries have denied Wash the steady services of two of those first-rounders in edge rusher Josh Allen (who sat out Sunday’s loss to the Lions) and corner CJ Henderson (who returned after missing a game with a shoulder injury), but even by rebuilding standards, the Jags haven’t been good. They ranked last in defensive DVOA and pass defense DVOA heading into Week 6, then allowed the Lions to run for 180 yards on 39 carries on Sunday. The prior week, Wash’s defense allowed Deshaun Watson to throw for 359 yards and three touchdowns, albeit with two picks. The week before that, the Bengals became the only team all season to throw for 300 yards and run for 200 yards in the same game.
The scary thing for the Jags is that this was supposed to be the easy part of their schedule. They’ll face the Chargers in Week 7 and then hit their bye. Afterward, they get what could be a very difficult run of offenses with the Texans, Packers, Steelers and Browns. This is a young defense, so the Jags are obviously hoping they will get better as the season goes along, but any improvement might be masked by the difficulty of their schedule in November.
The fix: Trust Doug Marrone. The Jacksonville coach said after the game that he had no intention of firing Wash as long as he was in control of that decision. At the same time, history is lined with coaches who said they didn’t want to fire their assistant coaches and then did so when it was absolutely necessary to keep their own jobs. Marrone, who has gone 12-26 over the past three seasons, is a hot seat candidate himself. Unless Wash can turn around a struggling defense, both might be in trouble.
These guys are all only in modest danger or no danger of having their situation change, so I’ll mostly be discussing why that’s the case.
Let’s start with one of the most disappointing quarterbacks of the season. For the second time in 2020, Cousins posted big numbers in garbage time, but it wasn’t before putting the Vikings’ defense in an impossible bind. The Michigan State product threw three interceptions against the Falcons, and while the third pick wasn’t his fault, the first two were bad decisions. Four quarterbacks had posted a Total QBR of 80 or more against the Falcons this season. Cousins finished the day with a 28.
Really, he has had four solid games mixed with two disastrous performances against the Falcons and Colts, during which he has thrown six interceptions. He now has 10 picks in six games, which is as many as he threw in 16 games in 2018 and three more than he threw over a 15-game campaign last season. Cousins himself suggested that he wouldn’t finish the season as the starter if the interceptions continued.
While Cousins has struggled, the stats are a little misleading. Two of his picks were on what amounted to Hail Mary plays. A third came on a pick-six in which it looked like Justin Jefferson ran the wrong route. Seven interceptions is still too many if you throw out those three, but the numbers aren’t quite as bad as they seem.
More than anything, I’m not sure I see what benefit the Vikings are going to get from benching Cousins. The only other quarterback on the active roster is Sean Mannion, who has three picks on 74 career pass attempts and threw two in a Week 17 start for the Vikings a year ago. Cousins has $21 million in fully guaranteed base salary due next season and $35 million in 2022, which becomes fully guaranteed if he is on the roster three days into the 2021 league year. Unless the Vikings want to eat $41 million in dead money next year or somehow find a trade partner for him, they’re going to be in the Cousins business for years to come. Benching him now isn’t going to solve anything.
The fix: Play another game or two. Cousins should be better after the bye, given that his next six games include five middling-or-worse defenses outside of the Bears. Getting away from the subpar performance should help matters. The Vikings should keep disastrous guard Dru Samia out of the lineup and use more play-action, given that Cousins’ play-action rate has dropped by about 5 percentage points.
Garoppolo, on the other hand, seemed to turn things around Sunday night against the Rams. Look at his final numbers and you see a solid performance, as he went 23-of-33 passing for 268 yards with three touchdowns. It was the sort of bounce-back Garoppolo might have been hoping for after being benched for health and performance reasons a week ago.
If you watched the game, of course, his performance wasn’t quite as effective as those numbers might seem. Garoppolo missed a number of receivers with inaccurate throws, put others in a position where they couldn’t gain YAC and nearly tossed at least one critical interception. He made some excellent throws, but the inconsistency was a problem. He doesn’t feel the effects of the high ankle sprain at times and makes tight throws over the middle of the field, but when the ankle does bother him, his passes sail and create interception opportunities.
There was talk of the 49ers making a change at quarterback on a more significant basis after Garoppolo struggled in Week 5, but it’s not realistic. Garoppolo was really benched for playing poorly with an injury as opposed to just straight-up playing poorly. The first guy off the bench for the 49ers heading into the season would have been Nick Mullens, but the 2018 part-time starter was benched after a disastrous run of turnovers against the Eagles. Benching Garoppolo for third-stringer C.J. Beathard doesn’t make sense.
Unlike Cousins, the 49ers could cut their ties with Garoppolo after the year, although it wouldn’t make sense unless they had an obvious replacement. San Francisco would owe only $2.8 million in dead money if it cut Garoppolo, saving $19.1 million on its cap in the process. Kyle Shanahan reportedly wanted to reunite with Cousins in the past, and the 49ers could swing a trade with the Vikings if they cut or trade Garoppolo, but is absorbing that much in guaranteed money really worth it for what might be the same quarterback? I don’t think Garoppolo is going anywhere.
The fix: Rest. Garoppolo will be better once his high ankle sprain heals. The problem is that the 49ers don’t have their bye until Week 11, meaning Garoppolo will have to go up against the Patriots, Seahawks, Packers and Saints before he can finally take a week off to heal.
While Wentz has also had his issues with turnovers, there’s just no logical or realistic way for the Eagles to make any significant changes at quarterback. He would hold $59.2 million in dead money if the Eagles decided to make a change after this season, and while that can be reduced by a trade, they would only be in shape to do that if they could trade Wentz after June 1. I don’t see a team waiting until after June to make a franchise-altering trade at quarterback.
Being stuck with Wentz isn’t really a problem. His giveaway spike has been drastic and unprecedented given his prior interception rates, but the second overall pick from 2016 is doing this in an offense with virtually none of its other starters remaining. By the end of the game against the Ravens on Sunday, Wentz was joined by just one other summer starter in center Jason Kelce. The Eagles are down their five other best offensive linemen, at least two starting wide receivers, their top two tight ends and their best running back after Miles Sanders was injured.
Despite this, Wentz nearly had the Eagles back in the game. He was playing heroball and making it work during a furious fourth-quarter comeback, where he went 10-of-20 passing for 93 yards but threw two touchdowns and mixed in a long pass interference penalty. It’s one thing to do that with DeSean Jackson and Zach Ertz. It’s another with Travis Fulgham and Richard Rodgers. Wentz isn’t perfect, and he made mistakes Sunday, but he has kept the Eagles competitive over the last few weeks.
The fix: Get the starters back around Wentz and hope that the interception rate regresses toward the mean. Philly’s next three games are all against the NFC East, so Wentz will be facing weak competition in the near future.
Likewise, the Falcons are going to struggle to move on from Ryan, who showed Sunday that he wasn’t part of the problem. Ryan finished with 371 passing yards and four touchdowns in a rout of the Vikings. It was a good way to finally claim Atlanta’s first win and rebound after a rough stretch for the 2016 league MVP. While the defense was mostly to blame for Atlanta’s disastrous 0-5 start, Ryan missed his fair share of throws. Passes that could have either put the Falcons up by more early or sealed up victories were narrowly short or long.
Ryan got back on track, but even if he hadn’t, it’s difficult to see the Falcons moving on from their starter anytime soon. They would owe nearly $50 million in dead money on their cap if they cut or traded Ryan before June 1 next year. A post-June 1 trade would create $23 million in room, but again, who is waiting until after June to trade for a starting quarterback unless they’re absolutely desperate?
The earliest the Falcons could realistically move on from Ryan, 35, is 2022, when they could free up more than $15 million in cap space. The end of next year is when we might actually want to have a serious talk about Ryan’s future. Until then, it’s really an academic conversation.
The fix: Get short fields. Atlanta has routinely inherited long fields from its defense over the past few seasons. On Sunday, with Morris’ defense intercepting Cousins three times, the Falcons got the ball four times on Minnesota’s side of the field and scored three touchdowns and a field goal. The Falcons’ defense doesn’t need to be good, but if it can create a takeaway or two to help out the offense, it’s going to give Ryan a much better chance of winning.
Joe Flacco went 11-of-24 passing for 71 yards in the first three quarters of Sunday’s game against the Dolphins. The Jets will welcome Darnold back into the starting lineup the moment he’s ready to make a return, because while the former USC star has been inconsistent, he at least gives them a shot.
The fix: Get healthy. There’s no sense in Darnold playing at something less than 100 percent for a Jets team going nowhere. After that, what happens next depends on where the Jets finish in the draft order.
As I mentioned in the intro, Mayfield was benched Sunday because he was clearly less than 100 percent and taking hits the Browns didn’t want him to take. Pittsburgh’s front seven dominated that game, and there was no sense in exposing Mayfield to more rib shots. Cleveland has a fifth-year option for Mayfield in 2022 that it will need to exercise next offseason, a move that isn’t guaranteed given his inconsistency.
His questionable future makes it more important that the Browns gather as much information as possible on him as a starter and long-term contributor before this offseason. He followed three great games against the Bengals, Washington and Dallas with two middling performances against the Colts and Steelers. What comes next is a lighter run against the Bengals and Raiders before the Week 9 bye.
The fix: Get the ribs right. It wouldn’t be the worst thing for the Browns to sit Mayfield on Sunday behind Case Keenum given the competition, but every rep from Mayfield is more information for the Browns.
Let’s finish with another quarterback who impressed on Sunday. It looked like the Colts would have to put the game on Rivers’ back when they went down 21-0, but the veteran responded with his best performance in an Indy uniform. He went 29-of-44 passing for 371 yards with three touchdowns and a pick, leading touchdowns on four drives out of a five-drive run to put the Colts back in front of the Bengals. For whatever chatter there was about his arm after he threw two interceptions against the Browns, he was 4-of-8 for 114 yards with a touchdown, that pick and a QBR of 96.3 on deep throws Sunday.
In the long term — after 2020 — the Colts are likely going to move forward with another quarterback. In the short term, talk that they might consider benching Rivers for Jacoby Brissett seemed unlikely. Indy already made the move to replace Brissett with Rivers this past offseason, and while it liked Brissett as a backup, Rivers offers a much higher ceiling with his ability to pick apart opposing defenses. I still like the idea of the Colts trading for Sam Darnold as a 2020 backup and 2021 starter, but Rivers’ performance would have been better than anything Darnold has done so far this season.
The fix: More games like Sunday.
Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home
On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.
Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.
Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.
The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.
“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”
Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.
“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.
Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.
“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”
The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.
“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”
That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.
The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.
On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”
There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.
“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”
For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.
“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”
Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.
“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”
There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.
“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”
Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.
Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.
“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”
With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.
“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”
Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.
Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment
The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.
Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.
“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.
The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.
Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.
“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.
Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”
The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.
Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.
“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”
Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.
The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls
With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.
At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.
What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast
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