Ultimatums are useless for some teams.
Take the Lions. They are always in need of an intervention, except during those long eras when they are in need of extreme unction. Yelling "Stop doing stupid things!" at the Lions is like screaming at a preschooler to act mature. They will shrug off their foolishness and play to their potential, occasionally -- starting just before halftime on Thanksgiving, for example -- but then lapse back into their worst habits an hour, week or month later.
Then there are the Ravens, who won't achieve offensive consistency and don't care. They have been making the playoffs on defense, special teams and a bomb or two per week since the dawn of the millennium. Why change? The Ravens will be the Ravens no matter what the circumstances; given a do-or-die situation, they sometimes do but often die, and you are never sure which one is which until after the final gun.
And of course there are the Cowboys: too talented to fall below .500, but too organizationally inept to rise above it. The pressure is always on the Cowboys, and it never matters, because if the pressure is always on then it might as well never be on. Give the Cowboys one more chance to fly straight, avoid coaching blunders, play sound defense and organize their offensive playmakers into something coherent? They ran out of chances three years ago. They just haven't realized it yet.
The Lions, Ravens and Cowboys all won on Thanksgiving, and we have had time to digest (to coin a phrase) their victories. All three remain part of a cloudy playoff picture, and all will do what they always do, no matter what the rest of the NFL does -- the Lions and Cowboys rising and falling to the beat of their own biorhythms, the Ravens striving to win by final scores of 3-2. They are all figurative wild cards, with the chance to be literal Wild Cards. They cannot be repaired, improved or motivated, only braced for.
But many other playoff and Super Bowl hopefuls need a kick in the pants. They need to fix specific problems -- or else watch promising seasons slip away. December is the season for ultimatums, because there is no next month: Get better, get smarter, or else you will go home earlier than you hoped.
Here are some Week 16 ultimatums. Not every team will heed them, but then, not every team can make the postseason.
Eric Berry blitzes from the edge. We get it. Derrick Johnson dogs the blitz but drops into underneath coverage. We get that, too. Quentin Demps and/or Marcus Cooper will be isolated in man coverage against a wide receiver on many plays. We've seen it. Peyton Manning has seen it. Philip Rivers has seen it. Good quarterbacks have figured out all of coordinator Bob Sutton's defensive wrinkles. It's time to iron things out.
Cooper is the cornerback you see running behind Eric Decker on several of those highlight-reel touchdowns. By the standard of seventh-round rookies who were cut by the team that drafted them, Cooper is awesome. He even picked off a Manning pass on Sunday. But Cooper is in the crosshairs, because Sutton wants Berry to blitz (eliminating half the potential safety help) and prefers Brandon Flowers in the slot (where he can also blitz sometimes). Opponents know where to find Cooper, and when they are not picking on him, they are looking for Demps -- or for the wide-open spaces left in the middle of the field, when Johnson and other linebackers execute Sutton's blitz choreography.
The Chiefs offense has made great strides in the last two weeks, but a defense that rated among the league's best when facing Jeff Tuel and Jason Campbell has been exposed as just a notch above ordinary. Sutton appeared to dial back the blitzes a little on Sunday, but the Chiefs defense requires more of a reimagining. They got many of the matchups they wanted, with Peyton Manning wobbling passes up the sidelines and throwing two picks, but they were still gouged for five touchdowns. Rivers knows what he can do against this defense in Week 17. Andrew Luck has taken notes for Week 16. Robert Griffin and Mike Shanahan still have what it takes to poke at the weaknesses the Broncos have exposed. If the Chiefs don't evolve, it will be a long December and a short January.
The Geno Smith saga is a complex tale of conflicting forces: the element of surprise, the importance of a young quarterback developing quickly, the short-term needs of a head coach, the long-term needs of a general manager, the quality of a supporting cast, the quickness with which opponents adjust and, finally, the fragile self-confidence of a young player who, yes, arrived under the sports world's brightest heat lamp with a reputation for fragile self-confidence.
However you parse the rise and fall of Geno Smith, the fact is that he now drops to pass and looks downfield as if gazing for the first time at Narnia. He doubts everything, including his own ability to plant and deliver a football. The Jets mercy-benched Smith about two weeks too late, but Matt Simms (not surprisingly) was no better in a 23-3 loss to the Dolphins. Mark Sanchez is rehabbing an injury, and if the coaches call Dave Garrard's number, he will hurl himself down a flight of stairs to avoid the assignment.
So the Jets quarterback situation will never be good again in 2013, and yet the Jets still have non-ridiculous playoff possibilities. If they hope to squeak in as the AFC's sixth seed, Marty Mornhinweg must make his passing game more passer-friendly.
The Jets don't execute many wide receiver screens. They don't spread very often and allow their quarterbacks to throw five-yarders to soft spots. They employ some read-option window dressing, but not much, even with the mobile Smith in the backfield. Some of the Jets play designs are downright bizarre. Early in the Dolphins game, Smith executed a little play-action waggle -- the kind of easy pass to a crossing tight end that teams use to get quarterbacks comfortable -- except that no tight end crossed the field for Smith to throw to! He ended up uncorking an ugly pass across his body. Tight end Jeff Cumberland may have gotten tied up in his block somehow; Smith should not have heaved the ball in some random direction, but you could watch football for five years and never once see a tight end waggle without the tight end.
In short, the Jets do few of the things that teams with inexperienced, struggling quarterbacks do to reestablish timing/confidence and get the playmakers on the edges involved. Santonio Holmes and Stephen Hill, the starting wide receivers, have caught four combined passes in the last three games. Much of that is on Smith. Some of it is on Mornhinweg, who needs to call the tunnel screen now and then to counteract blitzes and defensive fronts stacked against the run (and to keep Holmes from floating off to Planet Santonio again, as things go sour).
Winnable Raiders, Browns and Dolphins games are on the horizon, for a team whose defense is good enough to produce 16-13 sloppers. A .500 finish would be a positive organizational step, regardless of whether Smith or Simms is the one doing the finishing. Another collapse would cause another crisis of confidence, and a crisis of confidence got the Jets into this mess in the first place.
Adrian Peterson's 211-yard performance against the Bears surprised no one. He rushed for 73 yards in the first half, which was practically a win for the Bears run defense. He rushed for 88 in the second half, which was a problem because the Vikings resorted to Matt Cassel at quarterback, and the Bears should have had little trouble holding onto a 20-10 lead. He rushed for 51 yards in overtime, which was disastrous for the Bears; he got the Vikings in field goal range once, watched a successful attempt get nullified by a facemask penalty, then hammered out a pair of 11-yard runs on his next possession to set up a second field goal.
Peterson will be Peterson, but a run defense as bad as the Bears' snowballs into other problems. Cassel threw for 243 yards with the help of play-action and drawn-in safeties; the Bears defend the run so badly that it makes them vulnerable against the pass. Short-yardage situations become big-play opportunities for opponents who know they can blow the Bears line off the ball, and two of Peterson's biggest runs came on third- and fourth-and-short. Opponents now dictate their offensive terms to the Bears, even when those opponents cannot decide who is playing quarterback.
There is no easy way to fix a run defense late in the season. Mel Tucker faces some problems that cannot be solved on a whiteboard; he just does not have the bodies. If Tucker cannot manage some kind of spackle job, Cutler's return won't do a lick of good, and the Lions will win the NFC North despite themselves.
Carson Palmer now sports a classic, 1970's, sleazy moustache. Watching him endure five sacks and several other crushing hits in a 24-21 loss to the Eagles was like watching Faces of Death. The Cardinals offensive line is a wreck, and it will keep a team with zero margin for error out of the playoffs.
Bruce Arians is notorious for leaving his quarterbacks in the crosshairs, but he is trying to protect Palmer. The Cardinals use lots of three-tight-end formations, with Rob Housler, Jim Dray and Jake Ballard on one side of the formation, and Larry Fitzgerald alone on the other side. The formation makes it easy for the Cardinals to run up the middle -- defenders to the tight end side must worry about C, D, E and double-Q gaps -- but also provides extra protection on pass plays.
The problem with the Cardinals' three-tight-end attack is that it involves three Cardinals tight ends. Housler is adequate, though he dropped a key third-down pass. Dray scored a touchdown, but it was one of those touchdowns backup tight ends score because no one covers backup tight ends. Ballard is on his last legs. When the Three Tight Amigos are on the field, Michael Floyd and Andre Roberts are not, and Palmer is at risk of getting smothered by his own bodyguards. When Palmer gets his full complement of wide receivers, he never looks fully comfortable, and the passes he does get off hover in the air like parade floats.
So Arians faces a Catch-22. He also faces the toughest division in the NFL, if not all of professional sports. The Cardinals probably won't make the playoffs, but they need to keep Palmer healthy so he can play the mentor role to some 2014 draftee. After the Cardinals draft a quarterback, they should draft some all-purpose tight ends.
The Patriots have been outscored 41-14 in the first quarters of their last five games. No problem, right? They can come roaring back and win 34-31 whenever they want! They are a weak first-quarter team that turns into an average second-quarter team, a pretty good third-quarter team, and the best team in the NFL late in the fourth quarter and overtime. Brady rules!
Spotting good opponents 24-0 leads and bad ones 17-7 leads is not a good postseason business model, of course. The Patriots are turnover- and mistake-prone early in games, and that will haunt them in the playoffs. Give professional spoilers like the Ravens a ten-point lead in January, and they won't give it back without a dogfight, no matter how many adjustments Bill Belichick makes or how many spells Brady casts.
The Patriots faced this exact problem against the Panthers three weeks ago. They don't want to face it again next month.
In the interest of fairness, we cannot criticize the Patriots after a win without criticizing the Broncos after a win. The Broncos made a huge special-teams error for the second consecutive week. Every third deep-sideline pass by Peyton Manning looks like something from the Geno Smith November nightmare reel. The secondary, weak for most of the season, looked awful, despite the return of Champ Bailey on Sunday; the Chiefs dropped a few deep passes to make the Broncos defense look a little better. The Broncos pass rush took Sunday off against one of the league's most sackable quarterbacks.
The last two Broncos games looked an awful lot like last year's playoff loss to the Ravens. Defenders Keyvon Webster and Chris Harris channeled Rahim Moore, as they leapt and dove for passes on the Chiefs' final drive; they were lucky that drive ended at the 13 yard line and not in the end zone. Late-game Broncos clock management also got hinky, though no one knelt to force overtime. The Broncos somehow executed a 12-play, four-first-down drive that used up less than three minutes, leaving the Chiefs with a timeout to spare (three offensive penalties kept the clock stopped). From kick-return touchdowns to long overtimes, the Broncos are replaying variations on the Mile High Miracle over and over again. Maybe they are exorcising demons, but they could be lapsing into bad habits.
Just as the Patriots force themselves to play catch-up, the Broncos keep opponents in the game: Brady-Manning, yin-yang, liver-onions. Both the Broncos and Patriots learned last year that nothing in the playoffs is guaranteed. The AFC will go to whichever team heeds its ultimatum … or to the dark horse who punished both for not listening.
While many teams needed ultimatums in Week 13, a few got the message before it was delivered. Here are some teams which did exactly what they had to do to pivot and position themselves for the postseason.
San Francisco 49ers: Throw to Someone Else OR ELSE. Michael Crabtree is back! And Colin Kaepernick eventually found him for a 60-yard strike that helped open up a 23-13 victory over the Rams that was too close to comfort for a half. Before and after Kaepernick connected with Crabtree, the 49ers offense was its usual progression of low-nutrient handoffs and short tosses to Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. But one 60-yard pass to Crabtree per game -- and the coverage that takes away from Boldin and Davis -- can go a long way for a team with an outstanding defense.
Indianapolis Colts: Bench Trent Richardson OR ELSE. The Colts offense looked pretty terrible in their 22-14 win over the Titans; Adam Vinatieri probably needed extra ice bath time after kicking five field goals. Also, Richardson saw roughly as much action after his high-profile benching as before: his five carries for 19 yards match the 5-to-8 carry, 2-to-22 yard output of the previous four games. The Colts are talent poor at the skill positions without Reggie Wayne, and getting Donald Brown slightly more involved will not make them any richer. The Colts need a good Richardson, not a benched Richardson.
But the Richardson benching sent a message and set a tone. I know, I know: Sending messages and setting tones are sportswriter Ouija board bibble-babble. But if ever a team needed a ceremonial rereading of the corporate mission statement, it's the Indianapolis Colts. There has been a lot of on-field tomfoolery in recent weeks, and it's not easy for leadership to restore order while insisting that a player averaging 2.9 yards per carry is still a starter. Cutting the managerial nonsense is a first step toward cutting the rank-and-file nonsense. The win over the Titans was not pretty, but it was a no-nonsense win.
(Note: Mandatory Monday goes to press before the 4 a.m. Jim Irsay Witching and Tweeting Hour and should not be held accountable for any post-deadline Irsay nonsense.)
Carolina Panthers: Keep Calm and Carry on, OR ELSE. Don't change, Panthers. You are beautiful just the way you are. The Panthers engineered another efficient blowout of a bad team, this time a 27-6 defeat of the Buccaneers. Panthers blowouts are as revealing as narrow Panthers wins: the team is efficient in all three elements of the game, shrugs off miscues, and does a fine job keeping weak opponents rolled onto their backs in the second half. This is a team without a weakness, and everyone from Ron Rivera and Cam Newton down to the numerous rookie defenders play (and coach) with confidence.
Some strange mental conditioning keeps us waiting for the Panthers to fall completely apart. It's not going to happen, and it is time to stop waiting for it. The Panthers can make a deep playoff run simply by continuing to be the Panthers.
There are many good reasons to watch two bad teams in December. Long-range analysis, for example: people will start asking draft questions in about six weeks, so it is a good idea to know who Fozzy Whittaker is and what he is capable of. "Expectation reset" is another reason: Watch Browns-Jaguars, and your mental palate is cleansed for Saints-Seahawks, allowing you to appreciate how truly great both teams are.
The best reason to watch two bad teams in December is that you have no choice: Someone in a Bernie Kosar jersey (possibly Bernie Kosar) commandeers a nearby television, and all the Patriots fans in Philadelphia cannot wrest it from him. So while Eagles-Cardinals, Jets-Dolphins, Panthers-Bucs and (later, when the Jets game went to quadruple ugly-time) Patriots-Texans occupied most of Mandatory Monday's early-game attention, I watched lots and lots of the Browns-Jaguars game.
It was awesome.
The Jaguars won, 32-28. There were three lead changes in the fourth quarter. Josh Gordon caught ten passes for 261 yards, despite missing part of the game with a brief injury. It was the best football game in the continental United States on Sunday, and there were a lot of great games.
Here are some game notes from the most meaningless game a fan could ever love. Think of the following as Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About A Jaguars-Browns Game But Were Afraid to Ask.
Bad Plus Bad Equals … Not So Bad. High-scoring games between bad teams can give the false impression that the teams -- or at least the offenses -- are actually good. There was no such problem in Jaguars-Browns. On the first play of the game, Chad Henne threw a simple rollout waggle to tight end Clay Harbor. Harbor fell down untouched and coughed up the football, which skittered around until Danny Noble fell on it.
That set the tone for the game: nothing would be easy and little would be pretty. Several Henne passes landed in empty expanses of turf, as if he and the receiver were trying out the playbook for the first time. The Browns answered with ugly interceptions and shotgun snaps that flew five yards over Brandon Weeden's head into the end zone. Jaguars running back Jordan Todman dropped a screen pass. Gordon, for all his heroics, let a potential game-tying bomb fall between his hands in the final seconds. These were bad offenses facing roughly-equivalent bad defenses. But a kind of equilibrium occurred that made the game entertaining and made some basic scouting concepts clear: rookie cornerback Dwayne Gratz is not suitable for single coverage against Gordon, for example.
Flavors of Bad. As Tolstoy once said, bad quarterbacks are all bad in their own ways. Henne is mediocre, in the best and worst senses of the word. He smears ordinary borderline competence across the entire Jaguars offense, never elevating the team but never dragging them further down, either. Henne completes exactly the passes a quarterback must complete to remain employed, no more and no less.
Brandon Weeden, by contrast, is a study in extremes. He looked like Dan Fouts in the first quarter, heaving deep passes to Gordon and Jordan Cameron. Those of us who tease Weeden for his advanced age and cluelessness sometimes forget that he is a big dude with considerable arm talent. Alas, he went through a seven-play sequence late in the second quarter that featured two interceptions and a strip sack. Weeden-versus-Henne was boom-and-bust versus slow-and-steady, except that the boomer has already busted, and the slowness isn't steady enough.
Descent into Badness. Maurice Jones-Drew and Willis McGahee appeared in the Browns-Jaguars game like old friends we have lost track of. MJD threw an option pass that made all the highlight reels, and in the first half looked like his old self, cutting quickly and breaking tackles. But MJD runs behind an awful line: after 51 yards in 12 first half carries, he gained just 26 yards on 11 second-half carries. Jones-Drew is aging rapidly; let's face it, carrying the load for the Jaguars is not going to make you any younger.
McGahee, meanwhile, changes by not changing at all. He's like that old Pearl Jam song: "Elderly Running Back Behind a Weak Offensive Line in a Small Market." The Browns line is better than the Jaguars line, and McGahee grinds out the 3-to-5 available yards up the middle for the 2013 Browns just as he did for the 2011 Broncos, 2009 Ravens, 2005 Bills, and 1956 Packers. It's not exciting, but it's adequate, and it's as much or more than Trent Richardson would have done.
Bad, but Not Yet Nationwide. One of the most encouraging developments for the Jaguars in recent weeks -- besides winning games -- is the emergence of rookie Ace Sanders. Sanders has 20 catches for 189 yards in three games, playing the pesky slot-possession role that he excelled in at South Carolina. The Jaguars deployed Sanders creatively against the Browns: he ran a reverse, lined up in the backfield for a screen, motioned to fullback to catch a short flat pass on a critical third down, and did other Percy Harvin impersonations. Sanders probably plays the role that was earmarked for Denard Robinson, but Robinson is a converted quarterback trying to learn to be an all-purpose player. Sanders was an all-purpose player in college. He is fun to watch, and if the Jaguars turn the corner, he will attract some attention.
The Browns did not provide similar surprises or wrinkles, though they did insert defensive lineman Billy Winn as a goal line fullback. Winn has not yet carried the ball, but 13 other Cleveland Browns have this season, including three quarterbacks, a reserve defensive back (Josh Aubrey, on a fake punt), and two running backs who now play for other teams. Winn should get a carry or two down the stretch. It will make Browns games more interesting. And he's likely to do as much or more than Trent Richardson would have done.
The Jaguars-Browns classic was followed by yet another gem between two awful teams: the Falcons' 34-31 overtime win against the Bills in Buffalo. But a man can only take so much excitement in one afternoon. I cannot wait to watch the film on Tuesday.
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