Let's kick off this week with Ten Bold Pronouncements before venturing into the Heart of Darkness.
- Peyton Manning cannot win in the cold. Drew Brees cannot win on the road. Tony Romo chokety-choke-chokes in the fourth quarter. Put the three reputations together and you have the world's worst situational quarterback. Can you imagine this Frankenstein accidently setting his own underwear on fire in the fourth quarter sleet after leading his team to the Super Bowl?
Romo's choketastic tendencies, in the news again after his two fourth quarter interceptions in the Cowboys' 37-36 loss to the Packers, is a 90% smaller deal than his bashers suggest but a 10% bigger deal than knee-jerk apologists would have you believe. Romo interception spin control is already in effect: Jason Garrett claims that Romo changed the play that led to the second interception at the line of scrimmage, while tape analysis suggests that Cole Beasley ran his flat route improperly, which resulted in the interception. Other quarterbacks throw interceptions, Romo throws majority decisions with dissenting opinions.
Too many Monday mornings begin with explanations of why Romo's interceptions weren't completely his fault. They start to sound a little like your brother-in-law's justifications of why he needs you to spot him rent money: Most are somewhat legit, but the sheer volume of them are damning evidence that there is more to blame than bad luck and bad company. Few interceptions or losses are completely the quarterback's fault, but after years of responding to irrational hecklers, Romo's explicators sometimes protest too much. Romo is a high-risk, high-yield quarterback, and games like Sunday's are part of the risk.
The same can be said of Manning in the cold: He proves it is not a problem until the next time it's a problem. He does not freeze like a wedding statue the way Boston barstool smart-alecks might suggest, but if you don't see a little dropoff, you ain't lookin'.
- As for Brees and the Saints, I have no idea what their problem is on the road. The Rams, who upset them 27-16 on Sunday, are easier to figure out. They have the best front four in the NFL and not much else. If Robert Quinn and the Rams pass rush get an opportunity to take over the early part of a game, they can produce shocking upsets with just a little help from the other 18 starters. Jeff Fisher needs to get these guys some help. Oh hey, he may have a top five pick in the draft to work with thanks to a Redskins trade two years ago! (We'll get to those guys later).
- Jay Cutler had a Jay Cutler game in the Bears' sloppy 38-31 win over the Browns. He misfired on some awful interceptions early, then settled down to rocket passes into windows few other quarterbacks would even think were open. Cutler, like Romo, will mix good days with bad, but Marc Trestman made the right choice by not getting romantic about crafty Josh McCown. Fans can fall in love with the feisty ol' backup; coaches need to stick with the players capable of running the offense at full capacity.
One thing McCown proved in the last six weeks is that the Bears wasted the 2011 and 2012 seasons with Caleb Hanie and Jason Campbell as backups. Both of those seasons may have turned out differently if Trestman's offensive predecessors had not dialed back to a 1930s high school offense whenever Cutler got hurt.
- One of the determining factors in Gary Kubiak's firing was owner Robert McNair's desire to keep Case Keenum in the starting lineup until the end of the season. Kubiak wanted to give Matt Schaub a few more starts, perhaps fearing diminishing returns with an inexperienced quarterback at the end of his rope.
Well, Keenum is progressing backwards. He threw two interceptions, got sacked four times, and was dumped for a safety in a 25-3 loss to the Colts. Keenum has thrown one touchdown and five interceptions in his last four games. He is clearly regressing; in the Colts loss Keenum reached that Geno Smith stage, where he looks downfield and a giant question mark appears over his head. Perhaps Kubiak, an actual coach who (when not hospitalized) spent his days in meetings and practices with Keenum, had a better handle on his young quarterback's capabilities and confidence than the Texans owner. In fact, in most cities an owner who insists on selecting the starting quarterback, then fires anyone who stands in his way, would be branded "meddlesome." But I have been told many times that I don't understand the Texans at all.
And before you claim that I have a Redskins-Texans double-standard, there's a difference between benching a former undrafted rookie who still has not won an NFL game and telling the face of the franchise that you will pull a quarterback off the waiver wire before you let him touch a helmet again in 2013.
- Come to think of it, the Texans and Redskins could have saved us all a lot of aggravation with the following trade: Mike Shanahan and Kirk Cousins for Gary Kubiak and Matt Schaub.
- Back to the Packers for a moment. If they had signed Matt Flynn the moment the Raiders released him on Oct. 7, they would be closing in on a division title right now. Given the start in the Vikings tie (plus a few more weeks to get re-acclimated to Mike McCarthy's system), Flynn would probably have won that game. Pencil in one more win among the Bears, Eagles or Giants games (the last two were closer than their scores but got out of hand because Scott Tolzien had no chance of engineering comebacks), and the Packers would be 9-5, perhaps with the Bears a game lower in the standings.
No one is drinking any Matt Flynn Jell-O shots, just as we knew better than to shotgun cans of McCownbrau. All the Packers needed was baseline backup competency in the month between Rodgers' injury and Flynn's readjustment to his role. They did not get that, even though they knew in training camp that the backup situation was a problem. They dragged their feet and let Flynn go to Buffalo for a few weeks. It may have cost them the playoffs.
- It gets boring to rehash the same talking points week after week, but the Patriots keep playing the same football game, so we are stuck. Eight of the last 10 Patriots games ended either in overtime or with some variation on the last-second Tom Brady mystical-incantation end zone heave. Magic being what it is in the real world, the Patriots are 4-4 in these last-second games.
If the Patriots were any other team, playoff imposter alarms would be blaring in our ears. The Patriots deserve more benefits of the doubt than any other team, but it is discouraging to see them using those benefits up in mid-December.
- The Chiefs have scored 167 points in their last four games, some of them on returns but most on offense. Alex Smith has thrown 14 touchdowns and two interceptions in his last five games; just as critically, he has endured just eight sacks during that span. The Chiefs appear to have morphed in the span of just a few weeks from a defensive-first team that gutted out 23-17 wins against bad opponents into a Broncos lookalike.
But the Chiefs have not changed quite as much as it looks. When they faced a string of third-string quarterbacks, their defense appeared to be a rival of the Seahawks. In the past five weeks, they have faced the Broncos (twice), Chargers, Redskins and Raiders, the 16th, 24th, 26th and 32nd ranked defenses in the NFL. The Chiefs offense has gotten a little better, but their opposing defenses have gotten a lot worse.
The Chiefs are a very good team with a habit of playing similar opponents in bunches: first the third stringer brigade, now the belly-up defenses. The streaks of similar opponents distort their real strengths and weaknesses. The important thing to keep in mind as their stats and reputation settles is that they have clinched a playoff berth and are more balanced than most of the AFC contenders right now. In a week when most of the powerhouses lost, taking care of business against a bad opponent means a lot. And finding multiple routes to victory could be a key factor in a conference led by ponies with one outstanding trick each.
One last nugget on the Chiefs, courtesy of researcher Chase Stuart. The Chiefs scored 56 points but executed just 51 plays on Sunday. The last team to score more points than their play total was the Colts in a 49-14 win over the Texans in 2004. Only two other teams have accomplished the feat since the merger.
- The Seahawks beat the Giants 23-0. When is the last time you thought about the New York Giants? Unless you live in the New York area, it has probably been weeks, though you may vaguely remember some weird issue involving down markers late in the Sunday Night Redskins game you watched in a leftover turkey coma. For a New York team, the Giants do a great job of stinking quietly, and they timed this shutout loss to coincide nicely with some Romo drama and Mike Shanahan's decision to go over Victoria Falls in a giant manila envelope.
- The Cardinals are now 9-5, having won an overtime thriller against the Titans. I did not watch a single moment of the game, which ran concurrent with Packers-Cowboys and other late games of note; for all I know Carson Palmer sprouted wings and flew around the stadium after the win. The Cardinals remain a wild-card darkhorse thanks to wins by the 49ers and Panthers. One of these weeks, the Cardinals are going to win 56-10 and sneak into the sixth seed in the NFC playoff picture. And Mandatory Monday will lead that week with a feature on why the Cowboys struggle in December. We're part of the problem, and unapologetic about it.
Thinking too hard about the Redskins will make you insane.
The Redskins are no longer a football team. They are now a Lovecraft monster, a demon from some abysmal pit awakened by dark alchemy. Work too hard to unravel their horrific secrets and you are reduced to a gibbering lunatic.
The Shannyverse, the immersive virtual realm of Redskins logic (also called Shannyrim) is seductively fascinating. It is governed by rules just similar enough to the real world to make you feel grounded, yet it is just slippery enough to seize your psyche and never let go. Watching the Redskins is like playing Dungeons and Dragons in the 1970s: It can turn normal teenagers -- like the young Tom Hanks -- into delusional loons.
There are even well-educated adults across America who refuse to refer to the Redskins by name. If that's not a sign of serious Voldemort-level mojo, nothing is.
To enter the Shannyverse, where all-powerful owner-wizards conspire with conniving, spellbinding quarternymphs to thwart long-suffering paladin-coaches at every turn, you must first negotiate last week's dense thicket of tangled disinformation. Mike Shanahan stated at a press conference that he was benching Robert Griffin strictly for health and safety reasons -- insisting at one point that he was being completely honest, which is always a good sign. Meanwhile, Shanahan minions leaked a strafing barrage of rumors which accused Griffin of everything from bad throwing mechanics to paint-your-own-pottery parties with Dan Snyder to insisting that teammates watch his Gatorade commercials instead of the previous week's game film. So we approached Sunday's game 100% certain of Shanahan's straight-faced dishonesty, yet tainted by the accidental swallowing of some or all of the Griffin innuendo. The phenomenon of trying to believe two mutually exclusive things at once is called "cognitive dissonance." It can cause mental and emotional anxiety, making it easier to hear the whispered call of Shantulhu.
Once we adjusted our eyes to the askance Redskins worldview, we were ready to watch Kirk Cousins take the field against what could be the worst pass defense in the NFL. The Cowboys pass defense ranks below the Falcons in most measures, but the Falcons spent the season handing quality games to the likes of Geno Smith (three touchdowns, zero interceptions), Mike Glennon (four touchdowns, zero interceptions in two games), and Matt Flynn (a 75% completion rate). Cousins is a better quarterback than any of those three at this point in his career, and Shanny dusted off the old easy-to-use rollout playbook for his new apprentice. Cousins threw for 248 yards and two touchdowns by halftime, dropping several deep passes into the arms of receivers covered by rookies Robert Alford, Desmond Trufant, Paul Worrilow, Joplo Bartu, Zeke Motta and Olkoth Xexonath.
It was a fine performance for Kirk Cousins; the second-year quarterback could be in line for a Best Supporting Actor in Someone Else's Power Trip award. But it was also a 100% predictable performance, and for all Cousins' heroics, a spate of Redskins fumbles and defensive lapses left the team with just a 20-17 halftime lead. Shanahan's prefabricated effort to make Cousins look as good as possible was partially derailed by the fact that Shanahan assembled an awful top-to-bottom team, a fact he is trying hard to distract us from with all of these theatrics. Undaunted, Terry Bradshaw leapt with both feet into sheer madness during the Fox halftime show. He suggested a quarterback controversy and praised Cousins' superior defensive reading ability based on 20 passes against a defense that relies on more rookies than most teams put on the field at once in the second preseason game. Almost on cue, Cousins threw two interceptions in the second half.
Now, here is what you need to understand about the Redskins-Falcons game: It was horrendous. There were nine turnovers (seven by the Redskins) and 16 penalties. During one second-quarter sequence, the teams traded turnovers on three consecutive plays, and the Falcons committed a penalty near their own goal line on the fourth play. The Falcons, a terrible red zone team, settled for one 18-yard field goal and were stopped on fourth down at the one-yard line on another series, though a Cousins interception gave them the ball right back for a touchdown after they were stuffed. The Redskins would have lost handily, given the exact same performance by Cousins and his teammates, to about 25 other NFL teams. If either the Redskins or Falcons were playing the Seahawks, the final score would be about 47-6.
In other words, projecting Cousins' performance against a comically inept defense into something worth benching Robert Griffin or offering a first-round pick for (as Shanahan suggested might happen last week, sounding like a delinquent father offering his kid a new dirt bike before skipping town with the grocery money) is absolute blabbering-at-the-bus-terminal madness. BUT WE HAVE NOT REACHED THE TRULY CRAZY PART YET.
Cousins roared back from an ugly second half on the Redskins final drive: 10 completions, the last one a touchdown to Santana Moss to cut the Redskins deficit to one and set up an extra point to force overtime. But Shanahan did not kick an extra point. He placed the ball in Cousins' hands and tasked his protégé to execute a rollout pass in the corner of the end zone. This would be a challenging assignment for Tom Brady. As encouraging as Cousins' efforts were on Sunday, as bad as the Falcons defense is, asking him to thread a two-point conversion needle was the textbook definition of an unrealistic expectation.
Shanahan explained after the game that his plan for the two-point conversion was to line up, check the defense, and only run the play if he liked the defensive look; if he didn't like what he saw, he would call a timeout. Shanahan stormed off in a huff moments later when asked about all of the leaked Griffin tales, so we did not get further elaboration on his late-game reasoning. Since the only way to determine Redskins truth is to take the arithmetic mean of Shanahan's official statements and the juicy rumors that appear on ESPN on Monday, then throw them both away and struggle to imagine something that makes an ounce of sense, we might as well just conjecture on what Shanahan was really thinking on that two-point conversion.
- Since player health, not victory, is now Shanahan's primary concern, it makes sense to avoid overtime, which amounts to just 15 more minutes of potential injuries. In fact, the Redskins would ensure even greater on-field safety by just kneeling three times and punting, but punting remains one of the most dangerous things the Redskins do.
- The guy responsible for texting the "Two-point decisions are made by Kyle Shanahan, not Mike" leak to the proper media insiders forgot to charge his cell phone.
- Shanahan plans to be Jeff Fisher's offensive coordinator for the Rams next year. Since the Rams possess the Redskins' No. 1 pick thanks to the Griffin trade, Shanny has incentive to actively tank games.
- Cousins' success was not having its desired effect on Griffin, who spent the game eagerly engaging his coaches and teammates on the sideline, offering support, and being professional. Since Shanahan wanted to project the image of a scowling, discontented Griffin, he needed to do something that would make his former starting quarterback miserable; losing the game was just collateral damage. Next week, Griffin will have a Cam Newton towel permanently fastened to his head to better sell the "sulking malcontent" angle Shanahan is selling with all of the energy that he is not expending pretending not to sell it.
The deflated expressions of Redskins players after the game said it all: The Redskins played hard-if-sloppy all game, but after the failed conversion they looked like they were ready to throw a kickball exhibition. Shanahan dangled hope in front of his players, then crushed it under his heel on a whim. It looked less like coaching than calculated spite. There is nothing you possess that I cannot take away, he said, twirling his moustache and tossing the Elixir of Healing into a volcano.
Maybe I am being too harsh. Perhaps there is some real logic underpinning all of Shanahan's decisions. There must be some way of interpreting the last eight days in Redskins history that does not begin and end with a self-destructive ego trip. But Shanahan's official remarks are illogical. His on-field decisions are illogical. The rumors sound like the work of a malfunctioning Random Scandal Generator. There is no way to assemble this contraption into something useful. And the more you think about it, the crazier it becomes.
Don't think too hard. Don't look too close. The madness will end in two weeks. Do not let the Redskins take you down with them.