Halloween is coming up on Saturday, so it might not be too surprising that the NFL delivered a Week 7 full of mysteries.
The week started and ended with dramatic comeback victories, and in the middle, we had a half-hour of sheer chaos at the end of the early-afternoon window on Sunday. Fans of the Bengals and Falcons might not consider blowing late leads to be something new or inexplicable, but the Browns and Lions fans who benefited might not know what to do with themselves after heartbreakers actually went their way.
Let’s run through the unsolved (or misunderstood) mysteries of Week 7 and try to get to the bottom of what actually happened. We’ll start with the last thing we saw — Sunday night’s overtime thriller in the desert:
Jump to a Week 7 mystery:
How did DK Metcalf catch Budda Baker?
How did Todd Gurley forget to fall down?
Why did Daniel Jones fall down untouched?
How did Davante Adams end up wide open?
What is Garett Bolles talking about?
What’s wrong with Cam Newton?
How did a team finally topple the Seahawks?
One of the few rules we’ve been able to count on this season is that the Seahawks always seem find a way to come out on top, regardless of how weird or unlikely the path they take to get there. Last year, the formula for them to win close games was maddening. They would bumble around for two or three quarters, ask Russell Wilson to bail them out in the fourth, and then claim a narrow victory.
It has been different in 2020. Wilson has been playing at an MVP level. The defense has not. Despite ranking 26th in defensive DVOA, though, it has been the defense that has come up with stops when the game was on the line. Bobby Wagner came up with a fourth-and-goal stop to seal the win over the Patriots in Week 2 and a fourth-and-1 stop to extend the game and hand the ball back to the offense against the Vikings in Week 5. Their pass rush came up with a pair of three-man pressures to end the game against the Cowboys in Week 3.
The defense did more of the same in Sunday night’s 37-34 overtime loss to the Cardinals. While the Cardinals were able to move the ball throughout the game, Seattle’s defense came up with big plays. It stuffed the Cardinals early in the game on a goal-to-go series after DK Metcalf‘s instantly legendary chase-down of Budda Baker. It picked off Kyler Murray in the fourth quarter when the score was 27-24. After a Seattle touchdown, the Seahawks stopped the Cardinals on third-and-12 with 3:02 to go and forced them into a long field goal. In overtime, they held up on third-and-3 with 25 seconds to go and forced Arizona into another long field goal attempt.
The issue with that formula is that it relies upon the offense and special teams to be nearly perfect, and they weren’t. Wilson threw three interceptions, including one in overtime to set up the Cardinals with a short field. A game-winning touchdown from Metcalf in overtime was called back for holding. A leverage penalty on Benson Mayowa gave the Cardinals a new set of downs with 3 minutes to go, which Arizona then used to score a touchdown and turn its final drive into one that needed a field goal as opposed to a TD. (The Patriots’ and Cowboys’ drives were ones that needed touchdowns as opposed to field goals as a product of failed 2-pointers, missed extra points and safeties from muffed kickoffs.)
ESPN Daily podcast: Bill Barnwell on a wild Week 7
Among the teams with a clear and obvious shot at winning the Super Bowl, none have a more obvious weakness than the Seahawks do with their pass rush. They rank 29th in the league in both sack rate and pressure rate. They look better by ESPN’s pass rush win rate metric, but in Week 7, their 20% PRWR was the worst of any team in the league. Pete Carroll’s defense failed to sack or even knock down Murray as a passer once across 48 dropbacks. By the end of the game, the Seattle front seven was running on fumes as Murray and Chase Edmonds ran around them. The Cardinals, meanwhile, were able to heat up Wilson with sim pressures late in the game, preventing the MVP favorite from delivering the knockout blow.
Seattle has just $3.7 million in cap room, but in a year in which Wilson is playing out of his mind, it has so much to gain from solidifying that pass rush. The Seahawks should try to make a move before the Nov. 3 trade deadline, but it’s a position they also can try to address as veterans hit the market afterward. Last year, the Chiefs might have only claimed Terrell Suggs on waivers to try to keep him away from the Ravens, who were Suggs’ desired destination. Instead, he found himself playing meaningful snaps in the Super Bowl for Kansas City. General manager John Schneider has to find his Suggs, because with this current defense, Wilson has little margin for error.
It was a quiet game on offense from Metcalf, who saw heavy doses of Patrick Peterson and finished with two catches for 23 yards, but he helped swing seven points for Seattle with an incredible tackle on Arizona’s star safety. I’ll let the dots break down what happened here:
D.K. Metcalf reached 22.64 MPH and traveled 114.8 yards to chase down Budda Baker on his 90-yard interception return (Baker’s top speed: 21.27 MPH).
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 26, 2020
Metcalf also has six inches on Baker, so despite the fact that he started the play more than 10 yards away from Baker at the time of the interception, the wide receiver was able to make up the ground and bring down Baker yards short of the end zone. The Seahawks then kept the Cardinals out of the end zone on four goal-to-go attempts to keep the score at 13-7. Baker, who didn’t have an interception in any of his first 50 pro games, picked off an Andy Dalton pass last week and then nearly had a 98-yard pick-six this week. He took the near-miss in stride:
DK HAWKED MY ASS… #RESPECT
— Budda Baker (@buddabaker32) October 26, 2020
What was Kliff Kingsbury thinking in overtime?
For most of the game on Sunday, the Arizona coach did a pretty good job with his game management. He was right to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line on that post-interception possession, given how many points the Cardinals were likely going to need to beat the Seahawks.
While Arizona’s drive down 10 in the fourth quarter wasn’t particularly fast, Kingsbury also was right to take the points off the board after Mayowa’s penalty and try to score a touchdown, something other coaches wouldn’t have done. It’s true that you need a field goal and a touchdown to tie the score in some order, but once you get the ball deep into opposing territory, you want to take advantage of that drive to get your touchdown. The Mayowa call gave the Cardinals the ball inside the red zone, and the Cardinals were right to use that moment to go after the touchdown they needed.
Kingsbury’s handling of the situation in overtime, though, left a lot to be desired. After the Cardinals got a big play out of Edmonds and a first down out of Murray, they had the ball on Seattle’s 18-yard line with 3:36 to go. Spikes aside, each of their offensive plays since the Mayowa penalty had produced a minimum of 6 yards and an average of 13.5 yards. They were gashing an exhausted Seahawks defense, and while they were in field goal range, they were close enough to really be in what would be considered as chip shot territory. Running more plays would have included the risk of a turnover, but Arizona also could have scored a touchdown or burned enough time off the clock to prevent the Seahawks from having a shot at winning the game if Zane Gonzalez missed his try.
Instead, things went pear-shaped. Kingsbury apparently called for Murray to move the ball to the left hashmark, but tight end Darrell Daniels missed his block on Seahawks safety Ryan Neal and Murray lost 5 yards. Now, the Cardinals were facing a 41-yard field goal as opposed to a 36-yard try. Arizona then sent Gonzalez onto the field and had the clock run all the way down before frantically calling timeout to avoid a delay of game. In the process, they iced Gonzalez, who hit his first attempt. I’m not sure icing the kicker is a real thing or has a meaningful effect, but instead of trying to move the ball to pick up the lost yardage, the Cardinals sent him back out and saw their young kicker miss his would-be game winner.
On the final offensive snap of the game, Kingsbury sent out a surprising playcall. Arizona had a third-and-3 on the Seattle 30-yard line, which would result in a 48-yard field goal if the Cardinals didn’t pick up any yardage. With 25 seconds left in the game, it had enough time to pick up a completion for a first down, spike to stop the clock, and kick an easier field goal. Instead, Kingsbury’s playcall saw three receivers run vertical routes, with Murray trying a low-percentage throw on one of the three to Christian Kirk for an incomplete pass.
Murray did have Larry Fitzgerald matched up against a linebacker in Bobby Wagner underneath on an option route, but it was surprising to see Kingsbury not send out a higher-percentage pass concept to try to create an easier field goal. In the end, Gonzalez hit the 48-yarder to win an epic game. It wasn’t the only back-and-forth battle from this weekend …
How did Todd Gurley forget to fall down at the goal line?
The Falcons and Lions both have a habit of losing close games in crushing fashion, so when the two get together, the results are usually infuriating. In 2014, the two teams played out one of the worst endings I’ve ever seen in London. In 2017, trailing by four points with 12 seconds left from the Atlanta 1-yard line, the Lions managed to complete a pass and still lose; a screen to Golden Tate was ruled a touchdown, but when Tate was marked a half-yard short of the goal line on review, the resulting 10-second runoff ended the game. (If you miss NFL crowds, watch this clip, listen to the bellowing boos when the call is reversed, and hear the referee say “By rule, we would go back to a running clock” as if he simultaneously hopes it’s going to placate the Lions fans and knows it’s going to make them even madder anyway.)
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the 2020 matchup produced another wild ending. Late in the game, the Falcons trailed by two points and faced a first-and-10 from the Detroit 10-yard line. Since there was only 1:12 to go and the Lions were out of timeouts, unlike the Cardinals, the Falcons were in a position where they could kneel twice and kick a chip shot to win. Younghoe Koo would have been attempting a 28-yard field goal, and over the past decade, kickers have hit from that range approximately 97% of the time. Koo was also kicking indoors and would have had the ability to call out his preferred hashmark to Matt Ryan.
Instead, just one play after Gurley had fumbled (and recovered his own fumble), offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter chose to hand the ball to the veteran running back. Gurley broke through the line, and when Lions safety Will Harris halfheartedly tried to tackle him, Gurley broke the tackle and proceeded toward the end zone. He was about to score the most damaging touchdown of his career. If he had just gone down at the 1-yard line, the Falcons could have continued to run the clock down and kicked an even easier field goal.
If anyone should know what to do in this situation, of course, it’s Gurley. You might argue that an athlete can’t resist the urge to score a touchdown and put his team ahead when the game is on the line, but Gurley did just that twice in the 2018 season. He turned down a touchdown in October to seal up a win over the Packers, and then did it in a more marginal situation later that season against the Lions, to the point in which the Rams actually sent Gurley back out to score the touchdown.
This time, though, Gurley realized that he needed to fall down one moment too late. It was as if Harris’ disinterest in tackling him reminded Gurley that he didn’t want to score. Gurley tried to stop himself and keep the ball out of the end zone, only for his momentum to carry the ball over the plane of the goal line. We were left with the bizarre image of a running back trying not to score the lead-taking touchdown while the opposing defense celebrated by throwing up the touchdown symbol.
Todd Gurley bursts up the middle toward the end zone and tries to stop himself from scoring in an attempt to run time off the clock, but the ball breaks the plane of the goal line for a touchdown.
To be clear, I don’t fault Gurley for scoring. Koetter never should have given Gurley the ball in the first place. In that Packers game two years ago, the Rams only needed to kneel after Gurley’s run to wrap up the game. In this game, the Falcons still had to kick a field goal, which has a few moving parts. Once the Falcons gave Gurley the ball while they were trailing, they can’t expect him not to run the ball in.
I’d like to say what happened next seemed preordained, but it wasn’t like what happened next was easy. The Falcons converted a 2-pointer to make it 22-16. The Lions drove downfield with three completions, including a miraculous catch from Kenny Golladay for 29 yards with three seconds left on the clock. (If you’re a Falcons fan wondering why that catch didn’t result in a runoff, it’s because the decision stood as called.) Matthew Stafford then hit T.J. Hockenson for an 11-yard touchdown to tie the score, only for Danny Amendola to be called for unsportsmanlike conduct after the play. The Lions were actually left with a 48-yard extra point to win the game, which Matt Prater hit to seal up a tragic turn of events for the Falcons.
Why did Daniel Jones run 80 yards and fall down?
Gurley didn’t fall down when he wanted to. Jones, on the other hand, fell down when he wanted to stay up. With the Giants trailing 10-7 in the third quarter of the Thursday night game against the Eagles, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett called for a zone-read concept with Jones and running back Wayne Gallman. The zone-read has been in the NFL for a decade now, and the concept is simple. Jones reads the defensive end on the line of scrimmage as he goes to hand the ball to Gallman. If the end stays outside, Gallman gets the football. If the end crashes inside, Jones keeps it and runs outside.
One common defense for the zone-read is to do what is known as a scrape-exchange, where the defensive end crashes inside and a linebacker or safety at the second level exchanges gaps with that defender and scrapes outside to take the quarterback. My suspicion is that the Eagles were handling the zone-read this way, but while Brandon Graham cut inside to go after Gallman, safety Rodney McLeod … followed him inside. Suddenly, Jones had daylight, and he ran for a long time.
After running for about 60 yards and topping out over 21 mph, though, he tried to reach for the afterburners to get the rest of the way, only to find out that the afterburners were not functioning. Jones began to lose stride and eventually fell to the ground untouched. It was a shame, too, as I don’t think he really needed to get faster; we’ve heard stories of players using the giant screens in the end zones to see where players are behind them, but as someone who doesn’t typically run 60 yards untouched, he didn’t know how many steps he had on the Philly defense and felt like he needed an extra gear.
DANIEL JONES. 80-YARD RUN.
— NFL (@NFL) October 23, 2020
Jones was understandably the subject of punchlines the following day, although that’s a little harsh. I don’t think I could run 80 yards without falling down, and as I noted on Twitter, the ghost who tackled Jones would be the Cowboys’ best safety. No less of an authority on athletic brilliance than Patrick Mahomes also suggested he would struggle to run all the way on a 92-yard keeper for a score. The Giants eventually got the ball in the end zone later on the drive, so Jones’ blunder didn’t mean all that much in the long run.
Instead, it has actually distracted from more meaningful problems. Jones continues to be a turnover machine, and while he wasn’t really the one to blame for a second-quarter interception, the second-year quarterback continues to struggle developing any sort of feel for opposing pass pressure. His comfort level in the pocket can be a blessing in comparison to other quarterbacks who struggle to keep their eyes upfield, but he takes too many unexpected hits, and those hits lead to fumbles. Graham strip-sacked Jones after he held the ball for 3.6 seconds late in the fourth quarter, with Philadelphia recovering to seal its one-point victory.
It’s way too early to make any sort of bold proclamations about new Giants coach Joe Judge, but the way the Giants lost this game has to be disheartening. Judge came into town this spring as a disciplinarian who preached that the Giants would focus on fundamentals and be a blue-collar football team.
After the Giants went up 21-10 with a little over 6 minutes to go in the game, they seemed to forget everything Judge had been preaching. They committed five penalties on defense and added a sixth on special teams, which had been Judge’s specialty in New England. Cornerback Ryan Lewis somehow got beat deep on the first drive while staring into the backfield when the Eagles desperately needed a big play downfield. Evan Engram dropped what would have been a drive-extending pass from Jones with 2:14 to go. Judge can’t turn Jones into Mahomes or Kyler Fackrell into Lawrence Taylor, but the 38-year-old has suggested he can make a difference by getting the Giants to do the little things right. With a chance to upset a division rival, the Giants did every little thing wrong, and that dashed their chances a lot more than Jones’ slip-up.
Early in the season, it looked like the Patriots had found a bargain at quarterback. A healthy Newton ran over the Dolphins in Week 1 and produced a massive game against the Seahawks in Week 2, coming within a yard of beating one of the league’s best teams. Newton wasn’t quite as effective in Week 3 against the Raiders, and after contracting the coronavirus before the following week’s game against the Chiefs, he sat out for three weeks.
Since returning to the field last Sunday against the Broncos, the former league MVP has been awful. In consecutive losses to the Broncos and 49ers, he has gone 26-of-40 passing for 255 yards with five interceptions. His Total QBR over that time frame is just 12.5, a figure which only Joe Flacco failed to hit over that same window. Most of Newton’s production against the Broncos came in the fourth quarter, but he didn’t even make it to the fourth quarter on Sunday, with Bill Belichick benching his starter for Jarrett Stidham.
If it’s possible, Newton looks worse than even those numbers would indicate. The 31-year-old was making accurate passes downfield earlier this season, but he looks totally out of whack over the past two weeks. He has developed a sudden habit of one-hopping throws, even on short passes out into the flat. His CPOE (completion percentage over expectation) hasn’t been terrible — he is 2.5% below expectation over the past two weeks — but his passes have been all over the place.
It would be easy to chalk up Newton’s play to a recurrence of an old injury and suggest that his surgically repaired shoulder or foot are giving him problems, but neither seems likely. He has still shown zip on some of his throws when necessary. The Auburn product’s foot injury caused him to sail passes a year ago, so the problems he’s having now are the exact opposite. There were suggestions that Newton might have injured his hand in the Broncos game, and in terms of his inaccuracy, that sort of injury would make the most sense. If his hand really was injured, though, it seems likely that we would have heard about it by now.
It seems more plausible that Newton isn’t 100 percent as he recovers from a debilitating virus. While some of the players around the league who have contracted COVID-19 have been able to get past it while remaining asymptomatic or showing only mild symptoms, the virus doesn’t always impact each and every player the same way. On Sunday, we heard about the story of Jaguars running back Ryquell Armstead, who was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list before the season began. Since then, the 23-year-old has been hospitalized twice and dealt with serious respiratory issues. He’s now expected to miss the remainder of the season.
It’s also fair to point out that the Patriots really don’t have much around Newton right now, especially when they lose players to injury. Against the Broncos, the Pats were without one star guard in Shaq Mason. On Sunday, the Pats lost their other starting guard, franchise-tagged Joe Thuney, after 23 snaps. Wide receiver N’Keal Harry was knocked out of the game after taking a hit on a crossing pattern, while Julian Edelman was a nonfactor and appears to be playing at well less than 100 percent. New England’s top receiver at the moment is Damiere Byrd.
At the same time, even given the issues around him, Newton is not playing well. The problem is that Belichick doesn’t really have an alternative. Stidham is 11-of-23 passing for 124 yards with three picks in two substitute appearances. Brian Hoyer was benched midway through his spot start against the Chiefs. Newton has a much higher ceiling than either of Belichick’s other options, which is why the legendary coach said Newton would continue to be his team’s starter. Unless Newton can raise his floor, though, Belichick is going to have plenty of time in January to film more sandwich commercials.
Who is playing quarterback for the Cowboys?
It’s getting dark awful early for the Cowboys, who followed their 38-10 loss to the Cardinals by losing 25-3 to the Washington Football Team on Sunday. It’s just the second time in the past 15 years that they have lost by 21 points or more in consecutive weeks, with the previous instance coming when Ezekiel Elliott was suspended in 2017.
Elliott is still around, but while playing behind four backup offensive linemen, the franchise runner could muster only 51 yards from scrimmage on 13 touches. Dallas is instead missing quarterback Dak Prescott, and when Jon Bostic laid out Andy Dalton with a cheap shot in the third quarter, the Cowboys were down their veteran backup for the remainder of the game. Bostic’s hit was brutal and uncalled for, but given that Dalton was 9-of-19 passing for 75 yards with an interception before the injury, I don’t think it cost the Cowboys the game.
Dalton was replaced by rookie seventh-round pick Ben DiNucci, who proceeded to fumble twice across his first five snaps. He mixed in a nice honey hole completion to Amari Cooper against Cover 2 in between the fumble and finished 2-of-3 passing for 39 yards, with Dallas mostly preferring to hand the ball to Tony Pollard in what amounted to garbage time.
If you had not heard of DiNucci before, I can’t be too angry at you. The 23-year-old started his career at Pittsburgh, where he spent part of his time backing up Nathan Peterman before moving onto FCS powerhouse James Madison. DiNucci was only a freshman when he played behind the former Bills starter, but even for the most hardened Cowboys hater, “former backup to Nathan Peterman” must evoke some small sense of sympathy for America’s Team.
Seventh-round quarterbacks are almost always developmental types who rarely play during their rookie seasons. Since 2000, only two quarterbacks chosen in the seventh round have started games in their first season out of school. One is Ryan Fitzpatrick, who threw eight picks on 135 pass attempts for the 2005 Rams. The other is John Navarre (Cardinals), who made one career start. It would be asking a lot of DiNucci to start with a full complement of offensive pieces, let alone without four starting linemen or his starting tight end.
If Dalton is not able to play next Sunday against the Eagles, though, DiNucci will be doing just that. The only other quarterback on the roster is Garrett Gilbert, who was signed off Cleveland’s practice squad two weeks ago and has six career pass attempts in six pro seasons. The most experienced quarterback the Cowboys have left who knows their scheme is offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, who started two games for Dallas in 2015. The former Boise State standout might be their best option at the moment.
After Sunday’s 43-16 loss to the Chiefs, Denver’s left tackle was asked about the difference between his team and the guys in the other locker room. Bolles responded with the following:
— Sean Keeler (@SeanKeeler) October 25, 2020
Now, I understand that Bolles isn’t going to hear this question and respond by trashing his own quarterback. There’s nothing to be gained from being brutally honest and suggesting that Drew Lock might not be on a level with Chiefs backup Chad Henne, let alone Patrick Mahomes. Denver’s most significant offensive weapon left standing is Melvin Gordon, who might be the third-string running back if he were transplanted onto the Chiefs’ roster. Bolles shouldn’t mention any of that, but I also think comparing the two teams in terms of their explosiveness is probably not the path I would have chosen.
Leaving the quote aside, this game was a reflection on how far the Broncos still have to go, and how they might have wasted time this offseason. They didn’t bring in much competition for Lock, and while the second-year quarterback looked good for most of the game against the Patriots last week, he threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter and added two more in the snow on Sunday. The first one was more egregious, as he faced a big blitz and threw late off his back foot. His quick out was neither quick nor out, and Daniel Sorensen jumped it for a pick-six. The second throw was off his receiver’s hands and into Tyrann Mathieu‘s, but it was a pass Lock threw behind KJ Hamler.
General manager John Elway also signed Gordon to a two-year deal, and he mixed in two fumbles while scoring a garbage-time touchdown. The former Chargers back had the ball knocked out of his hands on a third-and-18 checkdown, then launched the ball over Lock’s head on a flea flicker and into the hands of Frank Clark. Gordon missed last week’s Patriots game with strep throat and also was cited on DUI charges. He might have been losing time in this game to Phillip Lindsay, who carried the ball nine times for 79 yards and looked like the far superior back, only for Lindsay to be knocked out of the game with a concussion. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Broncos voided Gordon’s $4.5 million guarantee in 2021 as a result of his DUI and his middling on-field play.
Ironically, one of the bright spots for the Broncos on offense has been the play of Bolles. The former first-round pick had few fans in Denver after committing a staggering 34 holding penalties from 2017 to ’19, 15 more than any other player. The Broncos declined Bolles’ fifth-year option and expected the Utah product to be in a fight for his job at camp, but when Ja’Wuan James opted out, Bolles was left in the lineup almost by default.
In what’s now a contract year, though, he has surged forward. He has committed only two holding penalties, and while that’s in a league in which offensive holding calls are down across the board, he has a team-best pass block win rate of 91.6%. Bolles suddenly looks like a possible building block on a team that has had precious little go right on offense in 2020. He needs to keep this up for a while longer before shedding his old tags as a problem, but his performance is a reminder that players improve at different rates and don’t have an easy cutoff point for success or failure. His quote, on the other hand, is a reminder that players aren’t always the best liars.
Why is Carlos Dunlap selling his house on Twitter?
A steady producer for the Bengals over the past decade, Dunlap’s feud with the organization has escalated dramatically. After serving in a three-down role over the first four weeks of the season, he complained publicly when defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo told the Florida product that he would be moved to a part-time role for Cincinnati’s Week 5 game against Baltimore. Dunlap played 46% of the snaps that day, was in for 45% of the snaps against the Colts last week and then played just 22% of the snaps in Sunday’s back-and-forth loss to the Browns.
Dunlap didn’t take the further reduction in snaps well. First, he got into an argument with Anarumo at the end of the game. After that, he decided to take things a step further by putting his house up for sale on Twitter. “~6000 sqft city view with huge balcony. 4 bedroom. 4.5 bathroom. In one of the best school districts for sale,” Dunlap wrote in the now-deleted tweet. “Do your market analysis and make me offer. Serious inquiries only with proof of funds! Owner is willing to sell furnished or unfurnished!”
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a football writer to see that Dunlap wants to be cut or traded. He might not get his wish. The Bengals are on the hook for Dunlap’s $7.8 million base salary, which has just under $4.6 million left with 10 weeks to go in the 2020 campaign. Teams like the Seahawks need edge rushers, but Dunlap is a more expensive option than other possible edge trade candidates given that base salary, which might make a trade difficult. The Bengals could cut him, but ownership might not want to reward him for rocking the boat. Given that possibility, it’s not a surprise that Dunlap escalated his complaints before the trade deadline.
Quietly, another Bengals stalwart has joined Dunlap in the ranks of the barely there. Geno Atkins missed the first four games of the season with a shoulder injury, and in the first two weeks after his comeback, he played 29% of the defensive snaps. On Sunday, that figure fell to 22%. He is coming off his worst season as a pro, but the 32-year-old had 39 sacks from 2015 to ’18 and should still offer something as an interior disruptor.
Atkins hasn’t raised the same sort of fuss as Dunlap, but his contract might be even more difficult to deal. The Georgia product has $6.5 million in prorated base salary left in 2020. The Bengals might just end up getting a late-round pick to get Atkins off of their books, and teams like the 49ers and Raiders could be interested in valuable pass-rushing depth.
How did Davante Adams end up wide open on a 45-yard touchdown?
I am always fascinated when a superstar receiver ends up totally uncovered in the middle of a big game. It’s easy for us on the outside to wonder why that happens. Every highlight of that play is going to include some announcer saying “How is he that wide open?” I wanted to understand why Adams, who was in the middle of a 196-yard game, was running totally free in the secondary for a 45-yard touchdown. The answer was more about the Texans than about the Packers star.
In 2013, before Bill O’Brien even arrived into town, the Texans tried to revamp their safety position by signing Ed Reed and using a second-round pick on his eventual replacement, South Carolina safety D.J. Swearinger. Neither move worked. Reed was a disaster in seven games with the Texans before being cut, while Swearinger was cut after two seasons with the team. The Texans then took cornerback Andre Hal, a seventh-round pick out of Vanderbilt, and converted him to free safety, where he started for three seasons.
In 2018, they signed Tyrann Mathieu to a one-year, $7 million deal. Shortly thereafter, Hal announced that he was dealing with Hodgkin lymphoma. While he made a full return and served as a third safety for the Texans, he retired after the season. Mathieu impressed, but he left for a multiyear deal with the Chiefs, where he helped them win a Super Bowl. The Texans signed Tashaun Gipson to a three-year, $22 million deal to take Mathieu’s place, but the former Jaguars starter battled through back and wrist injuries in his first season and was cut after the 2019 season.
While the Texans had filled one safety spot with Justin Reid, they needed a player to start alongside him. Enter Eric Murray, who had excelled on special teams with the Chiefs before spending a year with the Browns. Neither the Chiefs nor Browns seemed confident in Murray as a regular safety, but O’Brien gave Murray a three-year, $18 million deal to start. After three games, O’Brien tried to sign Earl Thomas to take over as free safety, only to spark the reported player disenchantment that eventually led to his stunning firing one week later. (Murray is nominally a strong safety, but Reid is versatile enough to play both free and strong safety and would have likely moved to the strong safety spot if Thomas did sign.)
Murray has stayed in the lineup and allowed a passer rating of 117.1 in coverage, meaning he turns every target into roughly your typical Russell Wilson pass attempt. Because the Texans haven’t had Gareon Conley, lost Bradley Roby to injury, want to try 2019 second-rounder Lonnie Johnson Jr. at safety and have had to rely on guys such as Vernon Hargreaves and Phillip Gaines for meaningful snaps, Murray found himself playing slot corner for stretches on Sunday.
Packers coach Matt LaFleur unquestionably noticed. There were a couple of times early in the game in which the Packers came out with 11 personnel, split their tight end out as a receiver, and saw Murray come down toward the line of scrimmage as a cornerback. LaFleur got Adams aligned against Murray on a prior third down, but he made the mismatch count later in the game.
On third-and-4 from the Houston 45-yard line, the Packers lined up Adams on the line of scrimmage in a reduced split, just to the inside of Darrius Shepherd. The Texans responded with Murray across from Adams and Gaines across from Shepherd. I would be shocked if Aaron Rodgers saw this and even considered going anywhere else with the football. Within a half-second of the snap, it didn’t matter. Shepherd ran a quick out to draw Gaines to the outside and allow Adams a free release against Murray. Within a half-second, Murray had been erased from the face of the earth:
Aaron Rodgers airs out a pass to Davante Adams, who gets into the end zone for a 45-yard touchdown.
Adams actually beats Murray twice on the play. He gets so open so quickly that Rodgers’ throw forces the star receiver to slow down and spin to catch the pass. Then, after Murray uses that slowdown to catch up, Adams turns his speed back on and accelerates away from Murray to score.
Is this Murray’s fault? It depends on how long your view is of the situation. On this play, he does not do anything to stop Adams. This could and probably would have played out exactly the same way if the Texans had sent out 10 men and simply not covered Adams at all. This was essentially a route against air.
At the same time, though, why on earth do the Texans have their strong safety one-on-one against one of the best receivers in football on third down? I can count the number of safeties I’d want to trot out in the slot against Adams on third down on one hand without needing all of my fingers. The Texans don’t have a lot of solutions in their secondary with Roby and Conley out, and the Packers can help try to dictate mismatches with how they line up their personnel, but a lot of smart defenses manage to avoid lining up their worst coverage safety against superstar wideouts on third down. The Texans are not in a position to do that.
In the big picture, though, the fact that Murray is even in this situation to begin with is an organizational failure. Swearinger was drafted 12 picks before Mathieu, who could have become a franchise cornerstone. Missing on Swearinger led the Texans to short-term solutions in free agency like Mathieu and Gipson, and trading away draft picks prevented them from adding more players to address the weakest positional room on their roster. When O’Brien gained personnel power, he ignored the typical market value of players like Murray and paid a premium for a guy who was then overmatched for his new role. All those missteps led to a matchup where one of the best receivers in football was running free for a long touchdown. Usually, that happens because a defensive back falls down. This time, it was an organization.
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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