So, this turned out to be the wrong weekend to attempt my first unaccompanied face-climbing expedition to Yosemite National Park.
Being an inexperienced outdoorsman who is dangerously out-of-shape even for walking a flight of stairs, I found myself halfway up a cliff face with no food or equipment, surrounded by hungry mountain goats. I called the park rangers for a helicopter airlift and an Extra Value Meal, but it turned out there was some sort of "government shutdown" going on. By the time I bribed the mountain goats with prominent mentions in this introduction and scrambled down the mountainside, it was already the fourth quarter of Broncos-Cowboys, and I had no idea what was going on, except that Tony Romo choked as usual.
But seriously, even a basement-dwelling NFL troll like me knows that "nonessential" government services are currently shut down. So folks in government departments with names like "Defense" are furloughed, but your all-important Monday musings on Kris Durham arrive right on schedule. "Essential" is a tricky concept, in an era when many of us could more easily endure a week without running water than running Internet access. Nothing is "essential" until you really need it, and no one is really "nonessential," except maybe producers of television shows like Pregnant Teenage Pageant Mom Cupcake Wars.
Some NFL teams have services that appear to be nonessential. They may have even shut those services down. Week 5 taught us just how long a contender can survive without pass protection or a first-quarter offense, or a quarterback who goes ten passes without drilling a defender in the torso. The answer, which may be a lesson to the rest of America, was not very long. Here's a rundown of some critical services from around the league, their "open, shut or limited" status, and just how important these services really are to their teams.
Dallas Cowboys Romocare
Function: A sprawling, complex, controversial battery of duties and services under the auspices of Tony Romo, including passing, scrambling, decision making, Peyton-dueling, fourth-quarter comebacking and late-game disaster causing.
Status: Open. The Cowboys would not have come within 24 points of the Broncos without a quarterback as good as Tony Romo. Thanks to Romo, they came within three points in a 51-48 classic that you had to see to believe. This was a game where a non-highlight reel of incomplete passes and insignificant runs would actually be shorter than the highlight reel.
Essential? Yes. Romo's raw numbers do not do justice to how well he played, though 25-of-36 passing, 506 yards, five touchdowns and a two-point conversion in the fourth highest-scoring game in NFL history -- plus one interception -- tell a pretty convincing tale of excellence. The deeper you delve into Romo's numbers, let alone the game tape, the better his performance looks.
The Cowboys were 4-of-6 on third-down conversions. It's not the 66.7 percent conversion rate that is impressive; it's the fact that the Cowboys executed 54 offensive plays but only wound up in six third-down situations! The Cowboys punted once, and Dez Bryant fumbled once, but the team scored on its other eight possessions before that fateful interception. Romo was never really stopped for 57 minutes and 56 seconds, and the Broncos rarely were in position to stop him.
Of course, the Cowboys needed nine scoring drives to win, not eight. The Danny Trevathan interception was the second play Romo made that conceivably could be called a "mistake" on Sunday; taking a sack on third-and-goal was the other. How many quarterbacks made only two mistakes on Sunday? Well, Peyton Manning only made one, and he got more help from his running game, so there's your problem.
Romo led two fourth-quarter drives to take the lead on Sunday before getting stopped the third time. No one else has been close to getting even one opportunity. If you are the type of person who blames Romo for a loss on Sunday, ask yourself if the best emotional response for a breathtaking 51-48 game filled with lead changes and mesmerizing offensive performances is to seek someone to "blame." You may be missing the parts of football that are fulfilling, exciting and fun.
The Cowboys and their divisional foes now have a combined 5-14 record. Romocare does not have to be a perfect solution to help the Cowboys cruise to a division title in the NFC Eek.
Seahawks Bureau of First-Quarter Offense
Function: The Seahawks had scored just ten first-quarter points, entering Sunday's game against the Colts. Few noticed, because the Seahawks defense had allowed zero first quarter points, but their early-game austerity was bound to cause problems.
Status: Limited Service. The Seahawks scored 12 first-quarter points, but two came on a blocked punt, and three more came on a "drive" that was really just a 24-yard Marshawn Lynch run.
Essential? Absolutely. The Colts offense was helpless on its first three drives, but one defensive mistake on their fourth drive yielded a 73-yard touchdown by T.Y. Hilton, while a blocked, long field goal attempt gave the Colts a 14-12 lead and (just as critically) life. Many twists and turns later, the Colts had a 34-28 victory in a game that would have gotten away from them early, if their opponent wasn't such a slow starter.
Until the Seahawks get some healthy bodies back on the offensive line, their offense will consist of (a) Marshawn Lynch trucking clinics, some of which will only return him to the line of scrimmage, (b) Russell Wilson runaround plays, which result in occasional magic, and (c) Wilson lobs along the sideline, which have a shockingly high success rate but still do not represent sound, bread-and-butter plays for a Super Bowl contender. Luckily, the Seahawks can get through the next few weeks (Titans-Rams-Cardinals) with just these plays until their line heals. By the time the Seahawks face better opponents in November, they will not be asking their defense to be perfect until Wilson and Lynch can string together a few miracles.
Texans Effigy Smokejumpers
Function: These heroes fly in helicopters to the scenes of mass quarterback jersey burnings, then leap into the blaze to extinguish the flames and explain to Texans fans that there are worse fates than watching Matt Schaub play quarterback -- like third-degree burns, or going through life as the kind of person who burns the jerseys of people who make honest mistakes.
Status: Open. After Sunday Night's 34-3 debacle, the risk of Schaub jersey fires destroying vegetation across the Southwest is just too great to risk a closing. Also, there were times when Schaub was playing so terribly that he might accidently set his own jersey on fire. Schaub threw three interceptions, but the 49ers defense dropped a few others.
Essential? Yes, in the short term. The long-term solution is education. Matt Schaub is a 32-year-old quarterback whose peak lasted from 2009 until roughly last year, when he began noticeably fading. He is on the decline, and that decline looks like it will be swift. Most quarterbacks have already declined by the time they are 32, so there is no real mystery about why he looks so bad lately. Texans fans need to make peace with the fact that the Schaub Era rapidly is running its course. It's not a cause for rebellion. It's just nature.
The Texans also need to learn the same lesson, fast. The surest way to prevent Schaub fires is with a new quarterback.
Dolphins Offensive Line Emergency Management
Function: The Dolphins allowed 18 sacks through four games, entering their matchup with the Ravens. Left tackle Jonathan Martin, and particularly right tackle Tyson Clabo, adopted an all-too-lenient policy of allowing pass rushers to get to Ryan Tannehill.
Status: Shut down. The Dolphins allowed six more sacks in a 26-23 loss.
Essential: Absolutely. Critically.
On the Dolphins' second-to-last possession, with the score tied 23-23, Terrell Suggs bull-rushed Martin straight into Tannehill for a four-yard sack on first down. After an incomplete pass, Suggs and Elvis Dumervil obliterated Martin and Clabo, meeting for coffee and doughnuts atop Tannehill's torso on third down. A 4th-and-20 punt gave the Ravens the field position they needed to get their typically sputtering road offense into field goal range.
On the Dolphins final possession, Tannehill got flushed from the pocket on fourth down but uncorked a miraculous 46-yard pass to Brandon Gibson at the Dolphins 34-yard line. Out of timeouts, Tannehill clocked the ball on first down, then dropped to pass on second down, hoping to get the Dolphins into comfortable field goal range. Dumervil rocked Clabo backward and sacked Tannehill for a five yard loss that kept the clock moving. The hurrying Dolphins could get nothing going on 3rd-and-15, and Caleb Sturgis' 57-yard field goal attempt was not close.
So the Dolphins' pass protection cost them a game in which the rest of the team played well enough to win. It could also cost the Dolphins a quarterback prospect. Tannehill is up to 24 sacks this year. A young quarterback does not have to get injured to be ruined by sacks; he can develop happy feet, a too-fast pocket clock, and other bad habits that are hard to break. The Dolphins must solve their protection problem before it not only nullifies their promising start, but starts to define their future.
Broncos Strategic Pass Rush Initiative
Function: The Broncos recorded just 11 sacks in their first four games, though it is hard to notice the difference when the score is 52-20.
Status: Shut Down. The four sacks the Broncos registered against Romo are misleading; they were coverage sacks against a quarterback who often had time to download new ringtones while he stood in the pocket.
Essential? Yes. The Broncos don't want to get lured into weekly 1980's NBA games. Fortunately, Von Miller returns in two weeks, and the Broncos get the Jaguars next week. The only way Broncos linemen get pancake blocked in that game is if they fall over laughing.
Colts Bureau of Rolling Knives and Measures
Function: The Colts traded a first-round pick for Trent Richardson hoping he would be a "rolling ball of knives" that added power and danger to their running game. It was either a wise stimulus investment or fiscal irresponsibility, depending on your political orientation, or whether you think Jim Irsay selfie pictures are funny or a reason to start hoarding gasoline and peanut butter in a bunker.
Status: Limited Service. The knives only roll once per game.
Essential? Yes. Richardson rushed 18 times for 56 yards, and most of the runs were hardly threatening. In fact, when the Colts needed a tough goal-to-go touchdown, they called on Donald Brown instead of Richardson.
But Richardson had a defining moment. Facing 3rd-and-5 and nursing a three-point fourth-quarter lead, the Colts gave Richardson the ball. He sliced through the initial tackle and knifed for ten yards. The run got the Colts into Adam Vinatieri's range, earning them three more points while (just as critically) milking two-and-a-half more minutes against an opponent out of timeouts.
The Colts need more from Richardson in the future than 56 yards and one third-down conversion, of course. But Richardson gives the Colts the ability to run, on obvious passing downs, against the NFL's best defense. Everything that makes the Colts less predictable makes them more dangerous. Except Irsay dyed-hair selfies.
Bengals Long-Range Targeting System
Function: The Andy Dalton-A.J. Green smart bomb was the primary weapon in the Bengals arsenal for two years, but adjustments to their offensive policy -- plus some glitches in the missile guidance system -- may be making Operation Red Rifle obsolete.
Status: Shut down. Way, way down. Dalton was two-for-two on deep passes against the Patriots, but the official play-by-play has a generous interpretation of what "deep" means. One of those passes netted 12 yards, the other 28, and neither were to Green. (An official "deep" pass travels 15 yards past the line of scrimmage, so the 12-yarder is either a reporting error, or Jermaine Gresham backtracked after catching the ball. Unfortunately, I don't see every 12-yard catch of every game!) Granted, it was raining for much of the Bengals victory, but quarterbacks usually uncork more than one 20-yard attempt per game in a blizzard.
Essential? Yes. Oh sure, the Bengals can beat a contender at home in a downpour with only their pass rush, some turnovers, and a bunch of 12-yard passes to the tight ends once in a while. But the lack of deep capability killed them last week in Cleveland, and it will kill them again if Dalton and Green cannot reestablish long-range communication.
New England Headquarters of the Polish and Italian Receiver Embassies
Function: There were midweek rumors that ambassadors-without-portfolio Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola finally would return to the field for the Patriots.
Status: Open and Shut Down. Amendola played, catching four of the nine passes thrown to him for 55 yards. Gronkowski did not. Getting half their foreign ministers back on a rainy day against a great defense was not enough for the Patriots, who lost 13-6.
Essential: Yes. The Tom Brady Patriots scored six points. They were one-of-12 on third downs. Unless you live on the South End and have a Tedy Bruschi shrine in your bedroom, you cannot seriously imagine the Patriots challenging the Broncos right now.
The key to the Patriots' offensive resurgence was never Amendola, who is just another dink-and-dunk target. The key will be Gronk, who gives Brady the opportunity to complete more than one pass per game over 21 yards. (At times it looked both the Patriots and Bengals were playing in a swimming pool full of margarine.) In Gronk's absence, now that other tight end options failed, the Patriots have been giving meaningful snaps and targets to Michael Hoomanawanui, ambassador to the tiny island nation of Hawaii. Which is one of our staunchest allies in the Pacific, but still …
Wait, Hawaii's a state? Whatever. The Patriots need their tight end back.
Lions Family Services
Function: Provides counseling and other resources for the NFL's most dysfunctional on-field family, the Detroit Lions.
Status: Open. Sure, Ndamukong Suh performed a drive-by swiping of Aaron Rodgers' facemask, but the Lions committed just seven penalties and zero turnovers in their 22-9 loss to the Packers. For once, the Lions lost without looking like they needed an intervention.
Essential: No. The Lions do not need counseling. They need Calvin Johnson. With Johnson and Nate Burleson hurt, the Lions tried to build their offense around Kris Durham. Durham is a 6-foot-6 practice squad denizen who spent most of last season inside a case reading "In Case of Titus Young, Break Glass," though he did have a one-handed catch against the Packers after Young left the reservation. His size, coupled with the fact that he can barely crack the active roster for a team whose receivers go triple-cray or wreck their cars on pizza runs, tells you all you need to know about Durham's hands. Durham caught three of the eight passes thrown to him (including a meaningless touchdown), dropped several others, and spent a long afternoon proving that few non-quarterbacks in the NFL are more "essential" than Calvin Johnson.
The Cutler Superfund
Function: A special task force dedicated to cleaning up Jay Cutler messes.
Status: Shut Down. Cutler cleaned up his own mess after the first play of the game, a pitch to Matt Forte, somehow went haywire. Cutler's other fumble was a strip sack caused by awful pass protection. Cutler threw for 358 yards and two touchdowns, was sharp when he was not getting pummeled, completely fooled the Saints on a read-option run, and kept Smokin' Jay behind bars all afternoon.
Essential: No, because the Bears can self-destruct in other ways:
- Failing to adjust to Rob Ryan's outside blitzes for most of the first half.
- Getting called for an ineligible receiver downfield on a red-zone pass, when rookie Kyle Long forgot NFL rules and began blocking downfield as if he thought the play was an off-tackle run.
- Dropping a perfectly thrown pass on fourth-and-2 in the fourth quarter (Earl Bennett was the culprit).
- Jumping offsides on one of the most obvious "draw them off with a 4th-and-1 hard count" plays in history in the fourth quarter. The Saints had two timeouts left and a two-score lead. They had just punted on 4th-and-1 near midfield on their previous series. They tried to lure the Bears offsides on fourth-and-short earlier in the game! Did the Bears really think the Saints suddenly found the stomach to gamble in a game situation where gambling was least logical?
The Cutler Superfund is just too narrow in scope. It should be expanded to clean up other Bears logic spills.
Packers Junior Running Back Achievers
Function: A young scholars program for Eddie Lacy, Johnathan Franklin, and Michael Hill, the three rookies the Packers must now rely upon at running back.
Status: Open: Lacy rushed 23 times for 99 yards. Franklin fumbled, which is turning into a problem for him.
Essential: Yes. Randall Cobb gained 67 yards on a draw play, and the Packers appeared to be back where they were last season, when a wide receiver moonlighting as a third-down back could be their leading rusher in any given week. But Lacy had some meaningful carries early -- he was 13-for-53 in the first half -- and provided clock-killing services late. Packers fans know the drill: Aaron Rodgers does not need a great running game to excel. He just needs any running game to excel.
Titans Department of Ball Security
Function: The Titans committed zero turnovers during their 3-1 start. Sustainable fuel source for a surprise season, or non-renewable commodity with a dangerous overreliance factor?
Status: Closed. The Titans suffered two interceptions and one wacky special teams fumble in their 26-17 loss to the Chiefs.
Essential: Absolutely. The Titans started the game with five three-and-outs. They have no running game except for quarterback scrambles, and Ryan Fitzpatrick completed just five passes in the first half. Their two touchdowns came on a broken play where Chris Johnson suddenly found himself with the ball and a head start, and on a 42-yard post-interception drive. The Titans are only good enough to beat a decent team when they are playing mistake-free football, and they only had a month of that in them.
Federal Giants Reserve Bank
Function: This is the vault that the Giants have been withdrawing from to cover for injuries for years. This season finds them dangerously overdrawn: backups Trumaine McBride and Will Hill were pressed into starting service in the secondary, Jim Cordle made the second start of his career at center (he was the Giants third center of the season), and perennial Tom Coughlin toothache Brandon Jacobs got pressed into service at running back when David Wilson got hurt. Could these reserves, and others, perform as well as the backups who helped the Giants win a Super Bowl two years ago?
Status: Shut Down. Jacobs fumbled. McBride struggled. Hill made eleven tackles, but most of them were clean-up efforts. One of Eli Manning's interceptions occurred after his hand struck Cordle's helmet; it's never a good sign when the center is close enough to the quarterback to affect the throwing motion.
Essential: Yes. The Giants had a solid opportunity to beat the Eagles; they held Michael Vick to just six completions, then got a reprieve from the most dangerous read-option tactics when Vick pulled a hamstring and pokey Nick Foles entered the game. Instead, the Eagles won a 36-21 laugher thanks to turnovers and coverage mistakes. There is no mystery to why the Giants are so terrible this year: they simply have no talent beyond their five or six big-name veterans.
The Giants won't be competitive again until they get a talent influx. They cannot get that from the waiver wire or their own practice squad pipelines, because those sources are officially dried up.
Department of the Inferior
Function: An unnecessary pork barrel project designed to appease constituencies in outposts like St. Louis and Phoenix.
Status: Open. A visit from the Jaguars stimulated the Rams, making them look like a functioning football team again in a 34-20 win. The meeting also breathed life into the Jaguars offense, in much the same way that building a sad little aquarium and Single-A baseball stadium "revitalizes" a downtown with no tax base. (In other words, there are now four blocks where you will not get mugged the moment you leave your car, and Justin Blackmon caught five passes for 136 yards, so huzzah.) Carson Palmer and Cam Newton combined for six interceptions in a 22-6 Cardinals victory, but it is easy to put a governmental spin on that: positive defensive growth indicators!
Essential? No. In fact, Mandatory Monday went to press before the conclusion of Raiders-Chargers. There is nothing in this world more essential than a good night's sleep.
You know what other unessential service is still operating? Air Farce One, the airplane that flies failed quarterback prospects around the country in search of new jobs. Air Farce One is preparing to jet Josh Freeman to Oakland, Buffalo or some other exotic travel destination.
What, you have never heard of Air Farce One? These are your tax dollars at work! Click here and arm yourself with knowledge.