With Thanksgiving coming up this week, it's about time that our Monday recap of the NFL gives thanks for the many great moments that the league brings us each weekend. We know that this can be a pretty critical space some Mondays, and while we are usually loathe to suggest that we are anything but joyless automatons, football can be a pretty wonderful game. So let's celebrate the wildly entertaining things about this past week's action, even if it's not in our usual statistical wheelhouse.
11 Things We Loved About Week 11
1. Tim Tebow
Don't listen to the boss! Yes, Tim Tebow is confounding. No, the three-game winning streak the Broncos are currently on isn't solely because Tebow pulled the team up out of the muck and inspired every single player on the roster to up their game. And sure, the Broncos have played three close games (decided by a touchdown or less) in five Tebow starts and won them all. This probably isn't for real.
After acknowledging all that, so what? That doesn't mean it's not fun. We know that the Broncos aren't a great offense; you can't get five possessions that start inside the opposition's territory, as they did on Thursday, and come away with a total of three points. That's going to bite you in the ass at some point. But that 96-yard drive at the end of the game to beat the Jets? That's a real drive against a great defense, and it was virtually all on Tebow's shoulders. The "run to win" mythology has been pretty firmly debunked, but it certainly seems reasonable to believe that defenses might get tired in the fourth quarter after an offense pounds them with 30 run plays during the first three periods. The Jets certainly looked like a tired defense on that drive, and that might be a polite assessment, since Darrelle Revis appeared to shy away from contact on one Tebow run and Antonio Cromartie appeared to be slow-dancing with his blocker on the 20-yard Tebow touchdown.
The impressive thing about Tebow so far, for all the times we point out his shortcomings, is how effective of an NFL runner he is. His goal-line touchdown against the Chiefs last week was a great example, as he made three guys miss in an extremely tight space and created a hole for himself to plunge in for the touchdown. He's going to be able to extend drives by picking up conversions in short yardage, and with Tebow being such a difficult player to defend near the goal line, they're going to be effective in the red zone.
One point that needs to come up, though, is how the Broncos defense has improved during Tebow's time as the starter. During Kyle Orton's five starts, the team allowed 28 points per game; with Tebow at the helm, the defense has allowed just 21.4 points per game. It stands to reason that the Broncos would be allowing opposing teams fewer possessions with Tebow by virtue of running the ball so frequently, but that hasn't been the case, since the Broncos allowed just more than 11 possessions per game with Orton at the helm, 12.5 possessions per game during Tebow's first two starts in the traditional Broncos offense, and then 12 possessions per start in his three games running the option. Where Tebow's helped the defense is by leading an offense that avoids turnovers. The Broncos had 12 turnovers in five games under Orton, but they have just five in five games with Tebow, and three of those came during the disastrous Lions loss. The defense has also gotten Elvis Dumervil back into the lineup and seen Von Miller take his game to the next level, giving them a dominant pass rush and some form of a defensive identity.
In the end, though, as much as the defense has improved, the rest of the Broncos season is going to be a referendum on Tebow and the idea that a quarterback can succeed with his style of play. And this is where we part ways with Simmons; it's always fascinating when a team tries something totally different in an attempt to win football games, even if it doesn't work. It was great when the Dolphins rode the single-wing to success with the Wildcat a few years ago, but it was also fun when the Chiefs gave up on the 2008 season and used Tyler Thigpen as the point man in a Pistol offense, even if it didn't last beyond that season. If you've read this column every week, you know that we tend to applaud coaches who think outside the box and approach their options without being worried about what the fans or media think. The Broncos are trying something different and going all in with Tim Tebow and a style of play that the NFL has never seen. Don't forget to credit their defense, and don't automatically assume that Tebow is going to pull out every game in the fourth quarter, but let's not pretend that Tebow's subverting the medium of conventional football isn't fun, either.
2. Charles Clay
It's also always fun when players who line up in certain positions with clearly defined historical roles totally break out of those constraints and turn into matchup problems. That's how we end up with Charles Clay, the Swiss Army knife of the Miami Dolphins offense. As a fullback in a frequently unimaginative offense, Clay's role should consist of the typically bland duties that a fullback normally performs. You know, serve as a lead blocker, occasionally catch a pass on a wheel route out of the backfield for a rare first down while Dan Dierdorf pretends that you're some integral part of the lineup before not mentioning your name again, block some more.
Instead, the Dolphins see a player who caught 189 passes in four years at Tulsa and have turned him into an H-back. Clay still serves as a lead blocker, but where he really excels, strangely, is as a downfield receiver. The Dolphins split him out and threw him two long bombs against Brandon Flowers a few weeks ago — completing them both, mind you — and got him into open space again on Sunday, as Clay caught all four passes thrown to him, gaining 69 yards and scoring a touchdown. His big play was a 46-yard completion that saw Clay run a deep corner route and pick a hanging lob from Matt Moore out of the air before ball hawk Jairus Byrd could beat him to it. Most H-backs haven't run a deep corner route like that since they were in high school.
The Bills double-covered Brandon Marshall on Sunday and dared Moore to throw to his other receivers, and it gave him the opportunity to dial up Clay's number on some routes that other fullbacks or tight ends would rarely dream of running. Even if the Dolphins can't do very much about this season, finding a versatile player like Clay in the sixth round is a small victory and a good sign for the team going forward.
3. Matthew Stafford
As humans, we always try to ascribe a narrative to performances, even when there shouldn't necessarily be one. With Matthew Stafford's game last week, the narrative was simple; Stafford fractured his index finger against the Broncos, and since nobody talked about the fracture until after his four-interception fiasco a week later against the Bears, it's natural to assume that the finger injury cost him accuracy and would be a problem going forward. At the very least, it was something that we were concerned about heading into his game with the Panthers.
When Stafford threw interceptions to end each of Detroit's first two possessions on Sunday, it confirmed the narrative. Right? Well, maybe we all don't know as much as we'd like to think. Remember that Stafford was 21-of-30 in that same Broncos game in which he apparently suffered the finger injury, and then consider that he followed those first two possessions on Sunday by going 26-of-29 for 300 yards with five touchdowns and no picks. What happened? Did he rub his finger against Terrell Owens' knee for good luck? Did he re-break his finger and somehow get a weird Rookie of the Year effect from the fresh break? Or did we just read too much into the finger injury as the cause of his problems? Spoiler: It's that third one.
Of course, this takes us back to a much more joyous career path for Stafford. A week ago, we were beginning to get concerned that Stafford's brilliant play at the beginning of the season was fluky and that his inaccuracy was hidden by the sublime skills of Calvin Johnson. Now, his completion percentage is back above 61 percent, he's thrown 25 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions, and he has the chance to win a career-defining game next week by beating the undefeated Packers at home on Thanksgiving.
Stafford also got help from the unlikeliest of sources, a player who had been consigned to the NFL's scrap heap
4. Kevin Smith
After the Lions lost Jahvid Best to a concussion and Jerome Harrison to a brain tumor in October, they quietly added former starter Kevin Smith to the roster. Like his directorial namesake, you could sum up Smith's style by pointing a camera at the screen and not moving it whatsoever. After tearing his ACL in 2009, Smith had clearly lost a step and produced just 152 yards on 38 carries with a long run of just 15 yards.
And then out of nowhere on Sunday, Smith suddenly morphed back into the guy who carried the Central Florida program on his back and nearly hit 1,000 yards during his rookie season. He had five different plays go for 15 yards or more, including a 43-yard run that he followed up with a 28-yard scamper for a touchdown on the very next play. The first time he showed up on the screen on Sunday, it elicited a round of jokes about how the Lions were using players that had been buried worse than Jersey Girl. By the fourth time we saw Smith running into the open field, well, we'd exhausted our knowledge of Kevin Smith movies. While it came against the Panthers defense, a guy who everyone in or around the league had written off finished the day with 201 yards of all-purpose offense and three touchdowns. He deserves umpteen congratulations. And if you started him in your fantasy league, you either play in too difficult of a fantasy league or are a savant.
5. David Akers
A week after the 49ers kicker had what basically amounted to a perfect game, David Akers had a bizarrely notable first quarter against the Cardinals. Arizona was polite enough to play hot potato with the football, as their five drives produced 12 plays, two turnovers, zero first downs, and a total of 10 yards from scrimmage, but the 49ers just couldn't do much with their great field position. They turned the ball over to the super-reliable Akers, and the 49ers kicker — who had made his past 15 field goals and 23 of 28 overall — promptly failed to convert his first two field goal attempts. By the end of the first half, Akers was 3-for-6 with two blocked kicks and a miss wide right. If he had just been able to convert all six of his first-half kicks, Akers would have been able to set a record for most field goals in one half; the record is five and held by three players, most recently Rob Bironas in 2007. We don't have firm details on what the record is for most field goals attempted in one half, but if Akers doesn't now hold that record, he's probably tied.
6. Jerome Simpson
With A.J. Green sidelined, we expected the Bengals to run the Sam Bradford 2010 Memorial Checkdown Offense with Andy Dalton against the Ravens. After all, who was really going to be able to get past the Baltimore defenders and make plays downfield? Well, it was Simpson, who had his best game as a pro by slicing and dicing the overmatched Cary Williams for eight catches and 152 yards. Simpson had arguably the catch of the week, a leaping, juggling grab over Williams that saw him somehow bring in a difficult throw and keep his feet inbounds at the same time. Simpson has taken some flack from his coaching staff this season, but he's more than just a guy who benefits from double coverage on Green. On the other hand, while he might have had the best catch of the week, he was not involved in the most entertaining play of the
Browns Bengals-Ravens game. That belonged to
7. Hair Tackles
Torrey Smith, who was dragged down from behind by Pacman Jones' tugging on his dreadlocks. It's amazing that we could write the phrase " by Pacman Jones' tugging on his dreadlocks" without having somebody getting arrested as part of that process. But it happened! We're happy that Smith didn't get hurt, since the dreadlock tackle is a good way to simulate the effects of a horse-collar tackle without drawing a penalty, but it should probably be a sign that Smith needs to cut his dreads, since it might have cost his team a touchdown. Unfortunately, Smith has already said he's not cutting them. Then again, as long as nobody gets hurt, tackles by the protruding hair remain one of our favorite plays in football. It happens just infrequently enough to be wildly entertaining.
8. Blaine Gabbert
The most bizarrely hilarious play of the week, though, belongs to our favorite overmatched Jags quarterback. Facing a third-and-8 from the Cleveland 9-yard line while down 14-7, the Jags drop Gabbert back to pass, but Browns end Jabaal Sheard beats right tackle Guy Whimper to blow up the play. Sheard spins Gabbert around, and in the process, Gabbert makes one of the most confusing throws we've ever seen.
Literally, the throw confuses us. What was Gabbert thinking? In what scenario is it a good idea to frantically turn toward the sideline and desperately heave a pass eight yards backwards? How can that scenario involve being in the red zone? And even if Gabbert thought that he could somehow turn the pass into a forward one, he was still in the pocket and would have been called for intentional grounding! Actually, Gabbert only lost 14 yards on the fumble and would have cost his team 15 with the intentional grounding, losing a down either way. He saved his team a yard! Maybe he deserves more credit than we thought.
9. Jack Del Rio
OK, we got through eight spots of fun and games before we had to take umbrage with a coach's decision-making and clock management. With the game on the line on Sunday, Jack Del Rio failed to make one of the easiest timeout calls we can imagine a coach having to decide upon, and it cost his team a play that might have won them the game.
With four points separating them from the Browns, the Jaguars had a third-and-1 on the Cleveland 5-yard line with 46 seconds left. They had one timeout to work with, which left them the option of choosing to run the ball. They rightly chose to do that on the third-down play, and Maurice Jones-Drew plunged through the line for three yards, setting up first-and-goal from the 2-yard line with 41 seconds left.
Well, there were 41 seconds left when the whistle blew on the previous play, but Del Rio somehow decided to hold on to his timeout. The clock snuck down to 18 seconds before the Jaguars ran a play, and when the Browns stacked up MJD for 1 yard, the Jags were forced to use that final timeout with eight seconds left. That left them with a maximum of two shots to the end zone, and when Mike Thomas dropped what would have been the game-winning touchdown on third down, the Jaguars basically handed over a victory to the Browns.
Of course, the optimal moment to use the timeout would have been immediately after Jones-Drew converted for the first down. That would have left the Jaguars without timeouts, but they would have had first-and-goal from the 2-yard line with 41 seconds left. In that scenario, the Jaguars very comfortably get four plays off as long as Gabbert doesn't take a sack. If they want to run the ball on first or second down, they can do so and run a spike on the next play to stop the clock. In that worst-case scenario, the Jaguars still get three plays to score a touchdown, just like they did with Del Rio's actual timeout usage. In the best-case scenario, they actually get four plays to work with instead of three. That extra play could have won the game, but because Del Rio didn't know how to manage his timeouts at the end of the game, it cost his team an extra shot at victory.
10. Norv Turner
And while Del Rio appears to be a lame-duck head coach heading into an inevitable offseason firing, he's about to be joined by Turner, who pulled off a stupefying decision-making process at the end of the Chargers' 31-20 loss to the Bears. You might remember that we praised Jim Harbaugh last week when he decided to use a challenge on a marginal play right before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter, knowing that he was about to lose his right to challenge anyway. Somehow, Turner managed to pull off the absolute antithesis of Harbaugh's move.
When Matt Forte appeared to fumble as he hit the ground with 3:16 left in the game, Turner swept into action. Although Forte was ruled down by contact, Turner had the option of challenging that the Chargers forced and then recovered the fumble. Turner still had both his challenges and two timeouts to work with, so he had a variety of options and permutations to consider. For the ease of you, the reader, we will list these options below in order of desirability. We'll assume that Norv had to pick not knowing whether the fumble was actually a fumble or not, and that he knows the rules of football.
a. Turner throws his challenge flag, taking a risk on what was likely to be the last important, challengeable play of the game while giving his team a small chance at coming back to win if the fumble was valid.
b. Turner conserves his timeouts and doesn't challenge the decision that the runner was down by contact. Not ideal if Forte actually fumbled, but at least you've still got your two timeouts in the bank.
c. Turner takes a timeout to view several replays of the fumble before ascertaining clearly whether the ball was fumbled or not. This is clearly inferior to (a) because the challenge is basically a free bonus at this point; Turner will still lose a timeout either way if the challenge doesn't work, and with 76 seconds left, Turner will never use both of his challenges if he doesn't use one of them here. In fact, a timeout here without a challenge only leaves him with one timeout, so he would have to win his next challenge if he wanted to challenge a third time.
Those are the only three options any sane person would consider. An 8-year-old playing Madden would be able to figure this stuff out. Instead, incredibly, Turner didn't choose any of those options. He picked the worst from each box! Turner took a timeout without challenging the play, and upon seeing several replays showing that Forte was almost surely down before the fumble occurred, Turner still challenged the play anyway!
Let's review. Harbaugh used a timeout and a meaningless-to-him challenge to try to overturn a play that had a marginal chance of succeeding. He didn't get a chance to review many replays before making this decision, but he still made the best possible choice. Turner, meanwhile, used two timeouts and a challenge to try to overturn a play that was even less likely to go in his favor. He totally misused his resources, got plenty of chances to make the right decision the second time around, and still couldn't do that. Norv Turner manages the clock like he's trying out for the "before" section of a "lovable losing team" movie.
11. Giants Fans
For a team with a remarkable recent history of ripping its fans' hearts out during home losses to the Eagles, the final sequence on Sunday night is right up there with great moments like the Brian Westbrook punt return from 2003 and the, um, Mario Manningham fumble/DeSean Jackson-punt-return game from last season. Even after the Eagles scored to take a seven-point lead, the Giants still had a chance to drive down the field and tie it up. Of course, this was a Giants-Eagles game in New Jersey; the Giants don't get to have nice things. It's just the way it goes.
So let's give the Giants credit for keeping it interesting. How much fun is it to have a sequence in which Eli Manning takes an intentional grounding penalty, converts second-and-20 in two plays by picking up 64 yards, and then fumbles on the very next play from the Philly 21-yard line, giving the desperate Eagles a stunning upset win? The only way the Giants could have rubbed it in more would have been if they actually carried LeSean McCoy to the end zone at the end of his 60-yard run. Giants second-half fever! Catch it!
Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.
Previously from Bill Barnwell:
All Hail the NFL Freshmen
Ease Up Tampa Haters, Their Schedule Has Been Historically Tough
Vegas & the Packers' Quest to Go 16-0
Vegas Sportsbook Review: The Wynn
Ultimate Fighting Is Ready for Its Close-Up
Vegas & the Packers' Quest to Go 16-0
Vegas Sportsbook Review: Caesars Palace
The Hedge, the Tease, and the Life of the NFL Bettor
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