The last days of the Andy Reid era are finally upon you, Eagles fans. When Reid booted longtime confidant and short-time defensive coordinator Juan Castillo out onto Pattison Avenue during Philadelphia's bye week, he scapegoated one of his strongest allies to distract the teeming hordes from the serious problems with his football team. (The time to fire Castillo was during the offseason.) He pinned his hopes on the possibility that new coordinator Todd Bowles would keep the defense strong while Michael Vick's astronomical turnover ratio regressed to the mean and delivered a competent offense in the process. He fired Castillo because he didn't have a viable replacement for Vick.
The problem with firing Castillo is that the move eliminated the last distraction for the Eagles. There aren't any more excuses for Reid, Vick, or the third member of the Philadelphia troika whose disappointing play over the past couple of years might lead to his departure from town. Nnamdi Asomugha has been a better player than Vick has this year, but the ease the Falcons had in beating Asomugha for the game's defining long touchdown pass on Sunday said a lot about how the Eagles haven't gotten the final puzzle piece they were looking for when they signed him in the summer of 2011.
Some plays are harder to diagnose than others. Julio Jones's 63-yard touchdown from Sunday is one of the easier ones. Watch the play and you'll see Asomugha get caught in no man's land on a go route up the sidelines by Jones. He doesn't jam Jones at the line of scrimmage, and while Asomugha often relied on his proprioception to use the sidelines as a weapon in Oakland, Jones runs right by him and has a downright easy path to a touchdown. It's not just that Asomugha gets burned; it's that he doesn't even get near Jones. That makes it such a remarkable play.
Over the past year and a half, when Asomugha's been involved in that sort of ugly play, it's often come attached to some sort of excuse from the team (or, to be fair, from people like me). When you get a player like Asomugha, who was so good in Oakland for so long, everybody's natural inclination is to try to find ways to justify his presence at a disaster. Oh, that's not Nnamdi's fault; there was miscommunication and the play wasn't his responsibility. Or it was really safety Kurt Coleman's fault. Or it was Juan Castillo's fault for shifting Asomugha out of his traditional role and into the middle of the field. Now Castillo is gone, and Asomugha just had someone blow by him up the sidelines for an easy touchdown. As tempting as it is to blame everything on Coleman all the time, even he wasn't responsible for this one.
It's not fair to say that Asomugha's been a bust in Philadelphia, since he has put together stretches of above-average play and helped make the life of opposite corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie easier. But when the Eagles signed Asomugha, they weren't signing a guy playing at that level; they went into the market and gave Asomugha a five-year, $60 million deal expecting to get Nnamdi Asomugha, the guy who shut down an entire side of the field for the Raiders for three years. Since he arrived in town, it has felt like we've all been waiting for the real Nnamdi to show up, like he's some schematic change or settling-in period away from being the superstar cornerback most everyone expected him to be. After Jones made him look so ordinary on Sunday, it feels easier to just accept that he's never going to be that player in Philadelphia.
Just as Reid is handicapped by his paucity of alternatives on the offensive side of the ball with regard to Vick (whose well-publicized issues were covered several weeks ago), there's not much he can do about Asomugha. For whatever strengths Bowles has as a defensive coordinator, he can't implement a new defensive scheme that's designed to give Asomugha more help in a matter of a few days. There's nobody behind Asomugha on the depth chart who would offer anything resembling Asomugha's level of play, and the safeties playing at the back end of the scheme are still erratic and prone to costly mistakes. And even if Asomugha did play at his expected level of performance, Philadelphia's pass rush remains virtually nonexistent; on Sunday, their two sacks of Matt Ryan represented the first time since Week 3 that the Eagles took down an opposing passer for a loss. Their sack rate is at just 3.4 percent, a figure that only the Jaguars look up toward. Last year, even with Castillo at the helm, they were operating with an 8.8 percent sack rate. More pressure means less time for receivers to get open downfield, which reduces the burden upon Asomugha and those safeties.
The particularly damaging thing for Reid is that he's moved more and more into a personnel role over the past few seasons, notably winning a power struggle with former team president Joe Banner this past year that forced Banner out of the organization and to the ownership group that eventually bought the Browns. More so than five or 10 years ago, the decisions to sign Asomugha and lock up Vick after his breakout season fall on Reid's shoulders. And because of those moves and how they haven't worked out, Reid is virtually out of cards to play. He can try to rebuild around a new core this offseason, but if the rumors are true, Reid won't be at the helm if the Eagles don't make the playoffs this January. He'll shuffle through his offensive-line options once or twice more over the next few weeks, but the only move he has left this season is to go nuclear and bench Vick for Nick Foles. (And if that move works, Reid deserves a lifetime contract.) For whatever space the Castillo firing granted him, Reid seems to be unable to extricate himself from Asomugha and Vick, the stars he expected to be his lead players on either side of the ball. When the curtain draws on the Reid era — and right now there's somebody holding the rope and gesturing like it's time to start pulling — his bets on Vick and Asomugha will serve as two of the biggest reasons why the Dream Team never fulfilled its promise on paper.
Even the Heart Palpitations Are Bigger in Texas
When the Giants came back to beat the Cowboys in Texas during Week 14 a year ago, the difference between winning and losing amounted to about four feet. Tony Romo overthrew Miles Austin by about that margin on what would have been a game-sealing third-down conversion. Of course, those few feet ended up being all the difference in the world to the Giants; that victory gave them a chance to win the division with a second triumph over the Cowboys in Week 17, and once the Giants got into the playoffs, they continued their hot streak and promptly won the Super Bowl. It's hard to imagine such a small margin in one game having such a huge impact on a season, and it's even more difficult to imagine the Cowboys and Giants deciding a game upon an even smaller gap.
Of course, that's exactly what happened on Sunday. Dez Bryant's stunning catch on a Hail Mary came down to about three inches of finger striking on the wrong side of the chalk at the back of the end zone, a difference that negated a stunning Cowboys comeback and restored a narrow Giants victory. For whatever impact the win will have on the fate of these two teams come playoff time, the important thing is to not erase everything you learned about them from the first 59 minutes and 50 seconds of the game.
Take the concept of resiliency, an important value for teams in the "Nobody Believed In Us" era of leaguewide motivation. If Bryant's hand stays inbounds and the Cowboys win, the vast majority of stories after the game would fete Dallas for being so resilient after going down 23-0 within 17 minutes, with their surprising mental toughness fueling their stunning comeback before culminating in the biggest surprise of all, Bryant's career-path shifting catch. Just as Bryant responded to the adversity produced from his early fumble on a punt return by coming up with the game-winning catch when his team needed him the most, the struggles and rough patches that marked the early stages of Bryant's career were now about to give way to the stardom his talents seemed to predict, thanks to the healing powers of his game-winning catch.
Bryant's hand didn't stay inbounds, and so now it's the Giants who are resilient. They're the ones who withstood the Dallas onslaught and went from having a 93 percent Win Expectancy with four minutes left in the second quarter to trailing 15 minutes later without batting an eye. Because they've overcome adversity throughout Tom Coughlin's tenure, these weathered veterans of two playoff runs believed in themselves, executed when they needed to, and came out on top when it really mattered. And that Bryant kid was out of bounds, so who cares?
What should you actually take away from the game? Well, if you want to walk away with just one thing, remember how great the Dallas defense was against one of the league's best offenses. Rob Ryan's group had an excellent game despite losing elite inside linebacker Sean Lee to a season-ending toe injury last week. Allowing 29 points doesn't sound particularly impressive, but consider where those points came from. One touchdown came on a Jason Pierre-Paul interception of Tony Romo. New York's other touchdown came on a drive that started on Dallas's 31-yard line, thanks to another Romo interception. The Giants had three other drives that started in Dallas territory, including one that began on the Cowboys' 15-yard line, and Dallas was able to hold the Giants to field goals on each of those drives. Contrast that with the Cowboys, who didn't begin a single possession inside Giants territory all day.
Otherwise, when the Cowboys defense had something resembling normal field position, they shut down the Giants. New York had 10 meaningful possessions that began on their side of the field, with an average starting field position right in front of the 20-yard line. Those 10 possessions produced a total of six points. Six! Dallas held Ahmad Bradshaw to 3.5 yards per carry, shut down the passing game after an early big play for Rueben Randle, and allowed the Giants just 11 first downs while stopping them on 12 of their 15 third-down conversion attempts. That's downright heroic work against this offense, a performance that will be forgotten because of how it was affected by starting field position and Bryant's near-miss at the end of the game.
In reality, it's just lazy to assign football teams metallurgical properties. Teams are as resilient as their luck and their execution, and while the Cowboys were able to work their way back from a devastating early deficit, the Giants were just a tiny bit better in the fourth quarter. About three inches better.
Jeromey Stoked, Caught a Pass Today
Before I get to the league's more notable coaching decisions, a quick aside to document and even honor one of the more bizarrely dismal performances I've ever seen from one player on a single snap. Chargers right tackle Jeromey Clary has been one of the worst regular starters in football over the past several years, especially in pass protection. Because the Chargers are run by A.J. Smith, they gave Clary a four-year, $20 million deal before the 2011 season and promptly watched him lead the team in sacks allowed for the fourth consecutive season (per Football Outsiders).
With that all being said, it's not a surprise that he allowed a hurry of Philip Rivers on a key third-down play just before halftime against the Browns. When Rivers tried to avoid the on-rushing Jabaal Sheard and get the ball out of his hands, Sheard tipped the attempted pass up into the air. Despite the visible protests of Rivers, Clary promptly caught the pass, 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and then advanced it forward two yards for a cumulative eight-yard loss. The completion forced the Chargers to use their final timeout and turned a 33-yard field goal attempt into a much more difficult (especially in awful conditions in Cleveland) shot from 43 yards out. It's a stunning piece of awful work.
The natural argument against railing on Clary for catching the pass is that he was in the heat of the moment and wasn't thinking. Well, to some extent, that's true, but you know what's also true? An offensive lineman is taught to never catch a tipped pass. In virtually every scenario, with perhaps a fourth-and-short play aside, it's going to be better for a blocking lineman to bat the ball down than it will be to have him catch and carry it. The risk of a turnover from a guy who doesn't carry the ball is enormous, and the possible upside — the likelihood that he's going to waltz through the defense and gain significant yardage without injuring himself — is minimal. And in a league where ballcarriers can stop themselves on the 1-yard line and eat up the remaining clock, as Brian Westbrook did several years ago, Clary should know the game situation and realize how stupid it is to catch a ball 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Thank You for Not Coaching
This was actually a very impressive week for the league's assembled book-abiders and risk-avoiders, as gusty conditions in many stadiums east of the Mississippi forced teams to be more aggressive on fourth-and-short in and around the red zone. That's the play-calling location where the vast majority of points thrown away by teams pop up, and while their aggressiveness did not often come by choice, it was a sight for these sore eyes.
Fear not, though, because some of our old favorites still managed to put together curious decisions, even in games where they were otherwise intelligent. Let's start with Pat Shurmur, who went for it on fourth-and-short early on and converted it with a Brandon Weeden sneak. That drive finished with a Trent Richardson touchdown run, one that served as the margin of victory and Cleveland's only score in a 7-6 affront to televised football.
Shurmur made up for it, though, with one of the lowest-reward challenges you'll ever see. On the very first play after the score, Philip Rivers threw a pass from his own 18-yard line to Robert Meachem for six yards. The catch looked a little off, though, and Shurmur promptly threw his challenge flag. In the first quarter. Of a 7-0 game. To get six yards. On first down. Deep in San Diego territory. Shurmur's challenge, per the calculator at Advanced NFL Stats, did not improve his team's chances of winning by even 1 percent.
For that incredibly tiny improvement in his chances of winning, Shurmur ran the risk of not being able to challenge a game-changing turnover at some point over the next 45 minutes of action were he to lose a second challenge. It doesn't matter whether Shurmur is 100 percent sure he'll win this first challenge or not; it's like being granted two wishes and using one of them to have a genie take out the trash for you.
Pete Carroll had a generous challenge of his own during his team's narrow 28-24 loss to the Lions on Sunday. His challenge came on a third-and-8 with 6:38 left in the third quarter and the Seahawks protecting a three-point lead on their own 45-yard line. There, Matthew Stafford was able to find Titus Young for a nine-yard gain and a first down, but Carroll was unsure about the catch's validity and chose to challenge. Sounds reasonable, right? Well, I left out one important fact: The referees had also called Brandon Browner for a defensive holding penalty on the play, one that the Lions declined but could choose to accept if the challenge was upheld and the pass was ruled incomplete. Since both scenarios give the Lions a first down, and defensive holding is a five-yard penalty, the difference between challenging and not challenging here is a grand total of four yards. With three offensive downs still to come before any field goal attempt, those four yards mean nothing. Even worse, Carroll was wrong and the Seahawks didn't even win the challenge!
The Bears, finally, were able to get lucky and make a comeback to beat the Panthers despite themselves at times on Sunday. Lovie Smith made a bizarre decision early in the fourth quarter, when he chose to kick a field goal on fourth-and-5 from the Carolina 15-yard line while trailing, 19-7. You'll note that a field goal would only make the score 19-10, keeping the game in two-score territory with a limited amount of time available. The Advanced NFL Stats calculator suggests that the Bears should have gone for it if they thought their chances of succeeding were better than 31 percent, a figure that they were likely ahead of. They ended up being bailed out by a Cam Newton pick-six several minutes later, which combined with their offensive touchdown on the ensuing drive to give the Bears the lead.
Of course, it wouldn't be much of a column without Ron Rivera. The embattled Panthers coach faced a tough decision on the opening drive of the game on Sunday, as his Panthers came up just short on third down and were forced to face a fourth-and-1 from the Carolina 49-yard line. Because they're the Panthers and that's what they do, they decided to punt and play the field-position game, a move that stood out as even weirder when Carolina promptly went for and converted a later fourth down. When Rivera eventually does get fired, Panthers fans might rejoice at first, but they'll later get to thinking. "Sure, he wasn't a great coach," one of them might say, "but at least he played by the book and never went for it on fourth down. That I can respect."
Rivera Runs Through It
Finally, another quick take on what seems to be the league's easiest target. During this past week of upheaval in Carolina, Rivera began to leak and then implement plans to move the Panthers into a more conventional offensive setup, removing much of the zone-read package that they highlighted last year and replacing it with a traditional power-running attack. The team also suggested that they would use Jonathan Stewart as their featured back at the expense of DeAngelo Williams, who is reportedly on the trading block. Well, to be fair, Rivera has a very specific plan: "I want to see one guy pound and get a rhythm, then see the other guy pound and get a rhythm."
That speaks to just how desperate Rivera is to keep his job — and how lost he is in actually figuring out why the Panthers are struggling. Carolina's running game is hardly the problem with their team; they were seventh in yards per carry (at 4.6 yards per pop) and 11th in rushing DVOA heading into Sunday. With their new plans in place, the Panthers faced an admittedly excellent Chicago run defense and ran for just 119 yards on 36 carries, an average of 3.3 yards per attempt. Take out Cam Newton's runs, and Carolina's expensive backfield used that power-running scheme to average just 2.6 yards per carry.
There's an old Bill James corollary that holds that bad organizations blame their problems on their best player. The Panthers are approaching their issues in a similar way. They're removing the unique aspects of their offense that played to Newton's strengths a year ago, concepts that have since become nearly ubiquitous around the league, and are replacing them with a conventional alignment that minimizes Newton's responsibilities and places a heavier load on their injury-riddled offensive line and tight ends. Moving Newton out of the shotgun and under center will also make it more difficult for him to scramble and/or go through his reads as a passer, which should offset any gains provided by the more traditional play-action opportunities in the power scheme. It's reminiscent of how the lesser Jim Mora tried to shoehorn Michael Vick into being a conventional quarterback by forcing him to play in a traditional West Coast offense during their time in Atlanta.
If the Panthers are really going to turn things around, it's not going to come through abandoning the things that they do best and pretending that their best player is responsible for their problems. In reality, they need to get healthier, dump the bad contracts from the Marty Hurney era, and draft better so that they have more depth to weather injury crises like the one they're currently going through. Those are organizational issues that can't be fixed by changing the offensive scheme, so while there's not much Rivera can do to fix them, the changes he's making are scapegoating the wrong guy and actively making his team worse.