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Judging Week 7 NFL overreactions

If you finished bagging the leaves early enough Sunday that you got to watch the early window NFL games, you had yourself a treat. Wild finishes, comebacks, close games and star-caliber performances on every screen you could muster.

The Lions pulled out an impossible victory over the Falcons with a last-second touchdown. The Steelers held off the Titans in a battle of the unbeatens. The Panthers made the Saints sweat it out. Baker Mayfield beat Joe Burrow in a back-and-forth battle of No. 1 picks. Heck, for a little while it looked as if the Jets might upset the Bills.

And also, the Cowboys played.

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If you missed the Cowboys’ game, congratulations. It was pure garbage. Sunday’s early window slate was a museum hall filled with Picassos and Rembrandts, and the Cowboys’ 25-3 loss to Washington was a spot on the wall where somebody sneezed. They were out of it almost immediately, falling behind 2-0 — quarterback Andy Dalton fumbled into the end zone on a sack — and never really challenged.

Dallas ended up with 142 total yards, which is a lower number than the individual Sunday yardage totals of Davante Adams (196), A.J. Brown (153) and Alvin Kamara (148). The Cowboys possessed the ball for 23 minutes, 36 seconds of the game’s 60 minutes and had 12 first downs to Washington’s 21. They were outclassed, uninterested and embarrassed.

In short, they were practically begging to lead this week’s overreaction column.

Mike McCarthy will be one-and-done in Dallas

Oh, there are plenty of excuses. Dallas is missing four starting offensive linemen and its starting quarterback. Backup quarterback Andy Dalton got knocked out of the game because of a concussion on a dirty hit and was replaced by rookie seventh-round pick Ben DiNucci. The Cowboys clearly have not picked up new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s scheme, which must involve some sort of hyper-advanced calculus that Nolan just invented this past March or something.

There are plenty of reasons why the Cowboys are 2-5 and ahead of only the Giants in the historically weak NFC East, but regardless of any or all of them, they expected to be a lot better than this.

The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. Look, Jerry Jones’ reputation as an owner who fires coaches willy-nilly is outdated and, frankly, was never really deserved when you look at the history. And no one likes to admit a mistake. But if we get to the end of the season and the NFC East champ has only six or seven wins and the Cowboys aren’t it? They would have to be considered the biggest failure of any team in the league.

Mike McCarthy’s tenure in Dallas is off to a rocky start, as the Cowboys are 2-5. Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

McCarthy was brought in, after a year off from coaching following his firing in Green Bay, to replace longtime coach Jason Garrett. The issue with Garrett was that his teams were generally good but not good enough. McCarthy was supposed to get them over the hump. This team has somehow got itself stuck under the hump.

Admitting a mistake can be tough, but isn’t it worse to double down on one? We have more than half a season to go, but if the Cowboys get to the end of it and still look like this lackluster bunch that hasn’t connected with the new staff, it’s not at all wild to think McCarthy could end up being a footnote in team history.

The Patriots need to bench Cam Newton and find out what they have in Jarrett Stidham

Newton was terrible on Sunday, for the second game in a row, and he didn’t have two weeks’ worth of COVID-related rust to blame this time. The 49ers scored 33 points in Foxborough — five more than the total number of points the Patriots have scored over their past three games combined. In those three games, New England has turned the ball over 11 times and scored only two touchdowns. The run game that was so impressive in the season opener mustered only 94 yards on the ground Sunday.

Newton didn’t even finish the game — it was so out of hand in the fourth quarter that Bill Belichick put Stidham in at quarterback. Asked after the game whether Newton was still the starter going forward, Belichick said, “Yeah, absolutely.”

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But the Patriots are 2-4, in third place in the AFC East, 2.5 games behind the first-place Bills, whom they play next week in Buffalo. If they lose that game, they could be too far behind to think about the postseason. And if that’s the case, they need to think about whether they need to draft a quarterback or find one in free agency. Knowing what they have in Stidham could help them make that decision.

The verdict: OVERREACTION. As long as he’s healthy — and he insists he is — Newton still gives the Patriots the better chance to win. They have a run-based offense, and the running threat Newton presents enhances the run game when it’s working. New England isn’t out of it yet, and a win next week in Buffalo would change the narrative.

What it does at quarterback next year remains a mystery. Newton is on a one-year deal and Stidham hasn’t shown much, so all options are on the table. But a team that has won its division 11 years in a row and 17 of the past 19 isn’t in a position to give up on its season and think about the future while it’s still mathematically alive in the playoff race.

While his old team was getting smoked by the Niners, Brady was in Vegas throwing four touchdown passes in a 45-20 victory over the Raiders. (He ran one in, too.) Nine different players caught passes from Brady on Sunday. Four different Bucs caught touchdowns. He’s not even using Mike Evans, really. The leading receiver in Sunday’s win was Scotty Miller.

But the rich get richer, and last week the Buccaneers agreed to terms with Brown, the former Steelers, Raiders and Patriots receiver who’s serving an eight-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Brown, who was the best receiver in the NFL not long ago, is eligible to join the Bucs in Week 9 assuming no more league discipline is coming.

The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. Brown is a luxury in Tampa, not a necessity. Coach Bruce Arians can say whatever he wants about “Tom had nothing to do with this,” but the facts are that Brady and Brown have stayed in touch and Brady was so impressed with Brown in the one game he played with him last season that he’s eager to work with him again.

What that means for the rest of the Buccaneers’ receivers is anyone’s guess. Brady probably will keep throwing to whomever’s open, and more games where he spreads it around like this are likely with or without Brown. What it means for the Bucs’ competition probably isn’t very good. If Brown is even 80 percent of what he was two or three years ago in Pittsburgh, he’s the final Infinity Stone that should empower Brady to wipe out half the universe with a snap of his fingers. Or at least get the Bucs to the Super Bowl.

After a week in which outside speculation (though no inside information) had Mayfield in danger of being benched for Case Keenum, the Browns’ quarterback started Sunday’s game against the Bengals 0-for-5 with an interception. Worse, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. left the game early because of a knee injury.

Mayfield rebounded and went 22-for-23 after that rough start, including 21 completions in a row, with five touchdown passes. The last of the five put the Browns ahead for good with 11 seconds left after Burrow had put the Bengals ahead a minute earlier. It was the kind of game the Browns need to see from Mayfield — one in which he put the team on his back and delivered in the clutch without his running game carrying him and without his best receiver.

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The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. What are we talking about here? Mayfield isn’t going to complete 21 passes in a row and throw five touchdowns every week. And the Browns’ offense will function better when running back Nick Chubb returns from injury and they can lean on the ground game. But Mayfield’s coaches have stood by him through the tough parts of this season, and they believe he can be the quarterback they need him to be.

Sunday was evidence that they might be right. The Browns are 5-2 and in the hunt for the postseason. There’s no reason to do anything with Mayfield but keep working to make him better and more consistent. Which is their plan, and has been all along.

Todd Gurley is the reason the Falcons lost Sunday

Let’s set the scene: Atlanta trailed Detroit 16-14 with the ball at the Lions’ 10-yard line and just over a minute to go in the game. The Lions had used all of their timeouts, which meant that the Falcons could run down the clock run to almost zero, call their own timeout, and kick a winning chip-shot field goal.

Instead, Gurley ran 10 yards for a touchdown — he tried to stop at the goal line — to put the Falcons ahead. A 2-point conversion gave them a 22-16 lead, but it also left Matthew Stafford the 1:04 he needed to take the Lions down the field for the winning touchdown.

It was the Falcons’ third loss this season in a game in which they had at least a 98% chance to win, according to ESPN’s win probability metric. The other 31 teams in the NFL have played a total of four such games this season.

The verdict: OVERREACTION. I never like the idea of not scoring when you’re behind. The short field goal is nearly automatic, sure, but it’s not actually automatic. What if the snap goes wrong? What if it’s blocked? You’re behind and you have a chance to take the lead, you do it. Plus, there’s nothing in the rules that says the Falcons’ defense isn’t allowed to stop anybody in a big fourth-quarter situation.

The Falcons told Gurley not to score there, so yeah, that’s a bonehead play by him. But it’s tough to rein in a player’s instincts (especially one who scores as much as Gurley does) to get to the end zone. And again, they were behind in the game. If they were tied or ahead, I see the logic. But when you’re behind and you have a chance to take the lead, I have always thought the right thing was to do it.

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