Anquan Boldin and Wes Welker were chopped liver. They were overpriced. Getting old. The perennial contenders they played for thought they could get along without them. So Boldin was traded for a box of clipboards, and Welker was handed a like-it-or-lump-it contract with "Lump It" written at the top.
The Patriots and Ravens both made their own receiver-less beds, and they've been sleeping in them for six weeks. The 49ers, beneficiaries of the Boldin trade, also folded some hospital corners. They let Randy Moss walk, allowed tight end Delanie Walker to slip away and shrugged off Michael Crabtree's minicamp foot injury. A few injuries, arrests and prospect flameouts later, three of the NFL's top contenders entered the season with receiving/tight end corps that were shockingly weak and thin. Rarely has so much been asked of the likes of Kenbrell Thompkins, Deonte Thompson and Quentin Patton -- not to mention Michael Hoomanawanui, Marlin Brown and Vance McDonald -- by teams with so much at stake.
The three receiver-challenged contenders all took a calculated risk that their young prospects would get better, some injured veterans would return, and their running games and defenses would get them through the start of the season. By the playoffs, they would have all have deep, versatile receiving corps again. After six games, it is still not clear if the risks were worth it. The Ravens look less like the Super Bowl team of 2012 than the sloppy street fighters of seasons past. The Patriots just won a gem, and they keep finding ways to conjure close wins, but they have not looked so vulnerable since Tom Brady was injured in 2008. Everything the 49ers accomplish comes with an asterisk, after what the Seahawks did to them; one notch below excellence, and they might not even get out of their own division unscathed.
Meanwhile, reinforcements have been slow to arrive. The last six weeks in Foxboro have been a Gronk tease. The 49ers are crossing their fingers about the eventual returns of Crabtree and Mario Manningham. Jacoby Jones returned Sunday, but the Ravens have problems that one Super Bowl hero cannot solve, unless that Super Bowl hero's name rhymes with golden. Let's take a closer look at this receiver-poor trio of contenders, after two more close wins and one worrisome loss on Sunday. Have their prospects really developed? Has anyone surprising stepped up? And if veterans are charging to the rescue, can they arrive in time to make a difference?
New England Patriots
Sunday's Receivers/Tight Ends (times targeted): Julian Edelman (11), Aaron Dobson (10), Kenbrell Thompkins (6), Michael Hoomanawanui (4), Danny Amendola (2), Austin Collie (2).
Total Production: 22 catches, 246 yards, one nearly miraculous touchdown in a 30-27 corker of a win over the Saints.
Recent Developments: Amendola returned last week but got knocked out in the third quarter of Sunday's game. It appeared to be a rather severe head injury.
Rob Gronkowski is currently sealed inside a box with a flask of poison and a radioactive isotope. According to quantum mechanics, he is simultaneously totally healthy and too injured to play. Also, according to Belichick's Uncertainty Principle, the act of asking about Gronk's health status changes his status. We will not know if he is playing until after he has played, and only through indirect observation.
Positives: Amendola made an impact during his return to the lineup. He can outsmart inexperienced defenders and gives Brady a nifty-shifty slot guy to pair with Edelman. Amendola suckered aggressive Saints rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro into playing too short on a deep pass, but Brady tossed the throw beyond Amendola's outstretched arms.
Dobson is starting to overcome his early-season drops and make something of his size-speed package, though his 4th-and-6 drop late in the game showed that he is a far cry from Deion Branch. Thompkins looks better with a little more experience and a little less hype and pressure. Hooman knows his role.
Negatives: Dobson is not yet a 4th-and-6 target nor a good 10-pass-per-game option. Thompkins made the catch heard around the NFL world on Sunday, but he still has too many puppy-dog moments, where he misses a big play by inches. A prime example from the third quarter on Sunday: He beat his defender to catch a short slant, broke into the open field, then tripped over his own feet while making a move.
Many seemingly great plays by the receivers are really Acts of Brady: Hooman converted a 3rd-and-18, but only because his quarterback bought time in the pocket, checked down to his fourth or fifth option, and found the reserve tight crossing the field all alone. The final touchdown drive was all Brady: the tempo of the drive, the clever spike fake-out pass to Dobson, the accurate-but-dropped passes in the waning seconds, and the dagger to Thompkins.
This year's Patriots passing game too often deteriorates into a screen pass expo, and Sunday was no exception. The Patriots were in a similar situation in 2009, when Randy Moss stopped pretending to care and the Gronk era had not yet begun. Brady can complete eight passes to drive 80 yards for a touchdown, but asking him to do it constantly, with little or no deep capability, is a great way to go 10-6 and get in real trouble against a good playoff defense.
Long-Term Prognosis: The Patriots -- with Tom Brady at quarterback, at home, in good weather -- got the ball after a Drew Brees interception at the Saints 20 and handed off six times, with one short dump-off pass mixed in. They settled for a field goal that kept Brees and the Saints within a touchdown. If you have been rationalizing that the Patriots receiving corps is just fine, because the team is 5-1, that six-handoff drive was evidence that Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels disagree with you. The final touchdown and end result provide plenty of solace, but it doesn't erase all the offensive problems that made heroics necessary. Brady will not often get three opportunities to win in the final three minutes.
Gronk's likely/eventual/probable/possible/theoretical return, coupled with a somewhat blessed start, will keep the Patriots in the playoff driver's seat, even though Amendola may be out again for a while. Even with Gronk back, the Patriots may look too much like they did in 2009 and not enough like they did 2010-12.
With only one clearly superior team in the whole AFC, maybe 2009 will be enough. Or maybe some team like the Chiefs will do what the Ravens did to them in the playoffs that year.
Sunday Receivers/Tight Ends (times targeted): Marlon Brown (7), Dallas Clark (6) Tandon Doss (6), Torrey Smith (4), Jacoby Jones (4), Billy Bajema (1).
Total production: 15 catches, 305 yards, 2 touchdowns in a 19-17 chore of a loss to the Packers.
Recent Developments: Jacoby Jones is back after missing four games. Tight end Ed Dickson is also back to round out the tight end rotation.
Positives: Jones' return gave Joe Flacco one more viable, deep sideline threat, and also helped the kick-return unit. Dallas Clark remains very effective on short timing routes in the middle, and his one-handed touchdown catch kept the Ravens in a game they had little business staying in. Doss and Brown are both exceptional size/speed specimens who are starting to come around.
Negatives: The Ravens have no true number-one receiver, no reliable third-down receiver and no one besides Clark who is consistent over the middle. Yes, those were all Boldin's jobs. Torrey Smith has put up some big numbers in past games but disappears for long stretches, Jones is not fully reincorporated into the game-plan, and Flacco too often has to force-feed the inexperienced Brown in critical situations. Check out this red zone sequence in the third quarter after a great catch-and-run by Brown:
First Down: Brown catches the ball in the corner of the end zone but cannot get both feet in bounds -- incomplete.
Second Down: Brown catches a short slant but is hammered immediately for a minimal gain.
Third Down: Flacco scrambles, cannot find a receiver, and drills the ball to Brown in the front of the end zone. The pass is well defended.
Long-term Prognosis: The Ravens have major problems on the offensive line, so they cannot get by on their old bomb-or-bust philosophy. Eugene Monroe replaced Bryant McKinnie at left tackle on Sunday, and the results were ugly. Who would have thought that a player acquired on the cheap from the Jaguars would be an inadequate solution for a major problem?
The Ravens are resorting to full-house backfields and other primitive tactics, and they are still capable of mixing 19-17 wins with 19-17 losses. But a team with a bad offensive line needs reliable safety-valve targets. The Ravens have a wily, creaky tight end and a bunch of talented teases. It's not the right formula for success, and the problem won't be solved this year.
San Francisco 49ers
Sunday's Receivers/Tight Ends (times targeted): Vernon Davis (11), Anquan Boldin (8), Kyle Williams (2), Jonathan Baldwin (2), Vance McDonald (1), Marlin Moore (1).
Total Production: 8 catches, 180 yards, and 2 touchdowns for Davis; 6 catches for 59 yards from the others in a 32-20 sausage grinder of a win over the Cardinals.
Recent Developments: Davis is back from a hamstring injury, as you may have noticed, since this game's highlight reel is all him. Crabtree and Manningham are in various stages of rehabilitation and may both arrive late in the season. The 49ers contacted the Browns about Josh Gordon, and they may pick up the phone again now that Brandon Weeden is just closing his eyes and heaving the ball at random linebackers.
Positives: Davis. He is the player the Patriots are waiting for in Gronk, and a better version of the one the Ravens lost when Dennis Pitta got hurt. The superstar tight end is both a matchup nightmare and a tendency breaker who provides big passing plays from run formations -- a big deal for a team that wants to hammer the ball like the Niners. Boldin caught just three passes, but one was a third-down conversion at the start of the Niners' epic, 89-yard, 9:32, second fourth-quarter drive.
Negatives: When the second-through-fifth receivers and backup tight ends are thrown a total of six passes in a close game, that's a problem. Boldin drew a lot of coverage from Patrick Peterson, so it was up to the other receivers to get open. If Davis had not dragged the whole stadium away in his truck, Sunday's game would have gotten away from the 49ers; the game was much closer than the score.
Long-term Prognosis. The 49ers are entering a soft patch in their schedule, Titans-Jaguars-bye, and their receiving corps needs it. There were too many 3rd-and-long draw plays and attempts to find Bruce Miller in the end zone on Sunday. It wouldn't take the Seahawks to beat the 49ers, the way they are playing right now; any team more talented than the Cardinals, more consistent than the Rams and less fatalistic than the Texans could do it. Many teams on the late schedule fit that description, so the cavalry needs to saddle up.
Like the Patriots, the 49ers enjoyed a late drive that absolved many sins. The Patriots had their sudden cross-field flight; the 49ers pummeled the Cardinals for ten minutes with the Frank Gore equivalent of a Neil Young guitar solo. It worked, and it can keep working until the 49ers are 6-2. Like the Patriots, but unlike the Ravens, the 49ers are surviving their receiver crisis some with bruises and questions, but with enough wins to stay in good position for a playoff run.
They must be very happy that they traded for Anquan Boldin.
Do-it-Yourself Offensive Coordinator Kit
Do you have what it takes to be an offensive coordinator? Do you own a visor and a headset? Do you have delusions of grandeur, a borderline personality, or other clinical neuroses? Are you the head coach's son? An old crony? Have you mastered the phrase, "yes, Mister Schiano, sir?"
Well you don't need any of those qualifications with the Mandatory Monday Do-it-Yourself Offensive Coordinator Kit. The step-by-step instructions below will have you calling plays and developing strategies like your favorite team's offensive guru in no time!
Pittsburgh Steelers: Channel your inner Todd Haley by staying awake for 72 straight hours, listening to Anthrax and freebasing Dippin Dots. Lock yourself in a room, and doodle a game-plan onto the walls with sidewalk chalk. (Do not destroy the room. This is offensive coordinating, not method acting.)
Assemble the collection of maniacal screen passes you scribbled into any old order, like William S. Burroughs did with the pages of The Naked Lunch. Make sure, however, that you space out the two Antonio Brown southpaw option passes you devised in your sleep-deprived haze. Use the lateral screen pass to Brown that turns into a pass to bobbly-wobbly Felix Jones early in the game. Save the pass where Brown motions right, takes an end around, about-faces, and runs out of bounds just before passing for late in the game, when the bugs crawling on your arm start speaking in riddles.
Use handoffs the way a writer uses the spacebar. Hope that Ben Roethlisberger can shrug off defenders in the end zone and turn safeties into less-damaging plays. One Roethlisberger bomb and an inept opponent later, you have your first victory of the season -- which is not the same as having your first reason to be confident about your skills and/or sanity.
Washington Redskins. Your superstar franchise quarterback is indestructible, so do not worry about your terrible offensive line or the opponent's pass rush. Let him spend the game running for his life and trying to drive the length of the field, on pistol play-action passes that no longer fool anyone. At times, your overmatched offensive linemen will turn to watch him while he scrambles, instead of blocking for him. Can you blame them? The kid is just too dynamic not to watch, even when he is getting thrown to the turf, taking shots along the sideline, fumbling near his own end zone and developing the bad habits that come from having zero confidence in your teammates.
Don't concern yourself with trying to stay in the game. Your defense and special teams are too terrible to allow that to happen. Just keep doing what worked last year.
Kansas City Chiefs. Bore your opponent to death. This will be easy, as Alex Smith is your quarterback, and he is about as exciting as saltines. Force-feed the ball to Jamaal Charles to demonstrate Charles' Law: The more touches Jamaal Charles gets, the more effective the Chiefs become, and the less interesting Charles becomes.*
Get Kevin Brock and Junior Hemingway as involved in the offense as possible without accidently chloroforming yourself. On 3rd-and-2, have Smith run an I-formation bootleg option for a first down; groggy fans and defenders will think they are hallucinating. Repeat against bad opponents until undefeated.
New Orleans Saints: It takes skill to burn just 78 seconds in two late-game possessions when you are trying to eat the clock. Take at least one shot at the end zone, so your opponent has both a timeout and the two-minute warning at its disposal. If you have a slow-developing oddball play that you use to kill the clock, like a bootleg by a pokey quarterback, execute it as awkwardly as possible, so you lose five yards without burning any meaningful extra time.
And now for the master's secret. Punt 42 yards and out of bounds, to give your opponent extra yards and seconds.
Detroit Lions: Joseph Fauria, jump ball in the end zone, all day, every day.
Philadelphia Eagles: Run Nick Foles up the middle for a touchdown, just to prove to Greg Schiano that you are nutty enough to try it. Follow that with lots of inside and outside zone runs to LeSean McCoy. These plays look like read options, but they are not, because Foles has nothing to read, and McCoy has no options.
Eventually, the Buccaneers will load up and tee off on the runs. That's okay. Keep doing it. Your opponent is coached by a crazy person, so impulse control is not their strong suit. Just when the defenders are foaming at the mouth like their rabid coach, switch to play-action passes. Line Riley Cooper up against the rookie playing through an infectious disease and DeSean Jackson up in the slot, so Darrelle Revis is covering whoever. Touchdowns ensue.
Late in the game, on 4th-and-inches, in easy field goal range, when three points will put you up two scores, run a draw-them-offside play. Bet you it works.
Tennessee Titans: You are the Titans, so your only source of scoring -- especially against a great defense like the Seahawks -- is fluky, non-repeatable plays. So try the following:
Chris Johnson no gain. Ryan Fitzgerald scramble. Chris Johnson no gain. Punt. Chris Johnson loss of four. Chris Johnson gain of three. Maybe Kendall Wright does something. Interception. Injure the opponents' kicker, so the punter/holder must kick and the ball boy must hold. Return the botched snap for a touchdown! Continue the Johnson plays and scrambles until you have lost. Don't worry, the game won't last long.
Next week, you may need to resort to a drop kick.
New York Jets: Start the game with a successful read option. Abandon the read option for the rest of the game. Abandon the run completely in the second half, even though you are only trailing 9-6. Make situations as difficult as possible for a rookie quarterback facing a veteran defense with a legendary coach. Watch in wonder, as the nation's bipolar Geno Smith evaluations once again flip instantaneously from manic to depressive.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Linger. Fake a punt. Go for it on fourth down. Kick some field goals. Remember, it is nearly impossible to embarrass yourself, but you can make gamblers across America happy. (Anyone who takes the favorite when the spread is historic needs to call one of those hotlines.) When trailing 35-19 in the fourth quarter, act like you are leading 35-19 in the fourth quarter. Execute a slow, time-consuming drive that burns five minutes. Cover that spread! Cover that spread! But make sure you go for it on 4th-and-3 at the 11-yard line; don't want to make your goal too obvious.
Oakland Raiders: Place a promising prospect in the backfield behind an offensive line so bad that … my God, is that Andre Gurode at center? I thought he retired in 2010! Yes, he has been starting for a few weeks, but that one game was at 2 a.m., so it did not really register that Andre Gurode was the Raiders center. Oh, and he is playing hurt. So is Tony Pashos, who also blipped off my radar screen around 2008 but keeps resurfacing. Sheesh.
Let's start over.
Place Terrelle Pryor behind Andre Gurode and Tony Pashos, and surrender immediately when facing any truly good defense. Nothing will matter: not pistol formations, not scrambles, nothing. No one will be open, and no one will be blocked, so the best Pryor can do is run around, absorb ten sacks and throw the ball away over and over.
Late in the game, combine a holding penalty, a delay of game, and two sacks to set up 3rd-and-48 from the Raiders 12-yard line. Call a screen pass. Pryor will bounce it off defender Allen Bailey's butt. It will actually be one of the better opportunities he has all day.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Commit five holding penalties, replacing 33 yards of positive yardage with 50 negative yards. Face enough 3rd-and-longs, and even the most promising rookie quarterback will make a few mistakes. Keep in mind that you hate your head coach and don't want to put up too much of a fight once the opponent takes the lead.
Say it isn't so! Not another "Redskins name" story! But this one is different. No misquoted in-laws. No borrowed outrage. Just a compromise that can satisfy everyone, plus a little Mandatory Monday-style history lesson. The best way to honor all Native Americans is to start by honoring one.
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*Charles Law is not an example of the "run-to-win fallacy" -- the cause-effect error which states, "Team X wins when Running Back Y gets 25 carries," when it should be, "Running Back Y gets 25 carries when Team X wins." Charles Law accounts for both catches and runs and is built on the solid logical foundation, [CHARLES > NOT (CHARLES), for all elements of the set CHIEFS ROSTER]. Romeo Crennel and Todd Haley tried unsuccessfully to challenge this logic, costing one his job and the other his sanity.