Don’t Get Mad at Players Who Skip Bowl Games

Jake DeWitt

Earlier this week Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and Baylor running back Shock Linwood announced they would skip their respective bowl games to focus on preparing for the 2017 NFL Draft. By doing so they join LSU running back Leonard Fournette as high-profile draft prospects prepared to forgo one last chance to suit up with their collegiate teammates in exchange for significantly reduced risk of injury leading up to the event, which occurs from April 27-29 in Philadelphia, PA.

Their decisions have sparked mixed reactions in the sports industry. Former Ohio State University standout – and current Dallas Cowboys electric rookie running back – Ezekiel Elliot tweeted he “…would do anything” to suit up one more time with his teammates. Others, including noted NCAA critic and ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, said they support the athletes’ decision to skip the bowl games to concentrate on the future.

Every person is certainly entitled to his or her own opinion, but who are we to criticize the personal health and financial decisions made by those who sacrifice themselves for our entertainment, and the benefit of the NCAA? Not to mention, all of these players have their names atop respective school and conference record books. Their resumes are already set!

All of these players missed at least one game earlier in the season. Anyone who’s played sports understands the increased susceptibility to injury while competing with a preexisting injury. Fournette and McCaffrey are projected as first-round picks by NFL draft experts, while Linwood is a day two or three candidate. If any of them were to suffer an injury or a setback in the bowl game, they would potentially lose tens of millions of dollars. Not convinced? Look at former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith. He was projected to be a top-ten pick in the 2016 NFL Draft before suffering a gruesome knee injury in a meaningful bowl game. Smith was eventually selected by the Dallas Cowboys early in the second round, but lost nearly $18 million over four years.

NCAA athletes are not paid for their hard work. Most do not have money to fall back on, especially if they forgo their senior seasons for a shot as a professional football player. Yet, the NCAA makes hundreds of millions of dollars off their blood and sweat each year. What’s the difference between a student that drops out and starts a major tech company, and an athlete that wants to protect his or her future? Nothing. Don’t forget: we also tend to neglect the lack of commitment from college coaches who accept new jobs before finishing out the season (see: Tom Herman). Coaches receive far less criticism than athletes.

The only valid argument I’ve heard against skipping bowl games is such that the decision might give the indication that a player is willing to “quit” on his team. For example, after a couple of years in the NFL these players will be playing in the so-called “contract year,” after which the player can hit free agency in search of the best offer. Does that mean if the team is out of playoff contention in Week 13 the running back will avoid contact on the field, maybe scuttle out of bounds rather than finish the run with authority, or forgo the final quarter of the season altogether? It’s possible, sure. But, I suspect the leadership in an NFL locker room capable of convincing players otherwise. It seems that the decision to skip the bowl games won’t hurt these backs’ on-field resumes, but their answers to specific questions in the NFL Draft interviews could play a significant role in what round they’re selected.

Don’t be mad at players for skipping meaningless, non-New Year’s Day bowl games while you revel in the glory of your high school contests. You can’t blame anyone for taking the money in that situation. I understand it decreases the attractiveness and hinders the viewership of a game, but that’s not for us to decide. Our only decision is to watch, or not. The decisions of these backs should only highlight the fact that there are too many bowl games, period. But that’s another conversation.

If you feel like tuning in, Baylor will take on Boise State in the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl on December 27th, Stanford plays University of North Carolina on December 29th in the Hyundai Sun Bowl, and LSU draws Louisville in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Eve. But while you’re watching lackluster action, ask yourself “what benefit could any of these running backs reap by playing in a meaningless bowl game?”

 

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Green Bay is Positioned for a Playoff Run

Jake DeWitt

After jumping out to a 4-2 start, the Green Bay Packers dropped four straight and were on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. Suddenly, consecutive victories over the Eagles and Texans have the Packers back to .500, just two games back of the Detroit Lions for the lead in the NFC North. With only four games left on the schedule, however, Green Bay has its work cutout with upcoming contests at home against Seattle, on the road in Chicago, at home against Minnesota, and on the road in Detroit. Fans of the Green and Gold are hoping the Packers’ matchup with the Lions in Week 17 on New Year’s Day will have the division title on the line.

For Week 17’s matchup to have any sort of significance, Green Bay will need to win each of the next three games, or win two and get some help. The mantra from head coach Mike McCarthy should be “one game at a time” heading into the Week 14 matchup against the Seahawks. At 8-3-1, Seattle appears to be the most dominant team in the NFC, with the exception of Dallas. If – and that’s a big if – the Packers can pull out a victory this Sunday against the Seahawks, they will have a ton of confidence and momentum heading into a string of divisional matchups. Running the table would give the Packers a 10-6 record, which is usually good enough to make the playoffs with at least a Wild Card berth.

With Minnesota losing six of its last seven games, it would seem the Vikings would not be in contention for postseason play. However, a hot 5-0 start helped the Vikings weather the storm and now sit at 6-6. They are still very much alive with games remaining against the Jaguars, Colts, Packers, and Bears. Not counting Green Bay’s wins and losses, the Vikings’ opponents have a combined record of 11-25 heading into the Colts’ tilt against the Jets on Monday Night Football. Their Week 16 contest against the Packers at Lambeau Field will have a playoff atmosphere, especially since Minnesota upset Green Bay 17-14 in Week 2.

At 8-4, the Lions’ division lead is very, very cushy. Detroit boasts a four-game win streak over New Orleans, Jacksonville, and Minnesota twice. But, buyer beware: its upcoming schedule is much more fearsome. After a home tilt against the 3-9 Bears, the Lions have to travel to MetLife Stadium to face the 8-4 Giants, and then to the Big D as likely underdogs against the 11-1 Cowboys.

It’s very conceivable that Detroit would enter Week 17 against Green Bay with a 9-6 record. If Green Bay takes care of business against Chicago and Minnesota, but loses to Seattle, it would enter Week 17 with an 8-7 record. Assuming Minnesota goes 2-2 over its next four games, a win over Detroit in Week 17 could propel Green Bay to 9-7, and an NFC North division title since it would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Detroit.

If, however, Minnesota goes 3-1 over its last four, the NFC North would be locked into a three-way tie for first place. That’s where it gets messy. Detroit would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Minnesota, Green Bay would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Detroit, and Green Bay and Minnesota would be split at 1-1. If the aforementioned scenario plays out, Detroit’s and Green Bay’s conference record would be 7-4, and Minnesota’s would be 5-7. Green Bay would win the division title based on the tiebreaker criteria.

Of course, its still possible two NFC North teams earn postseason berths with several teams within one game of each other in the NFC Wild Card race. But, the Packers should not hold out hope for luck and good fortune. Minnesota’s recent struggles and Detroit’s tough remaining schedule give Green Bay a solid chance to make their own luck and pave their own way into the playoff picture.

Stats courtesy of ESPN.com

Is It Time for the Bengals to Make A Coaching Change?

Jake DeWitt

Heading into Week 13, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis touts a career record of 115-101 in the regular season, which registers the third-best winning percentage in franchise history at .532, trailing only Bill “Tiger” Johnson (1976-1978) and Forrest Gregg (1980-1983). Since taking the reins of a franchise in shambles in 2003, Lewis has led the Bengals to the playoffs seven times in 14 years. His seven playoffs appearances match the combined total of the franchise since it joined the National Football League in 1970. In doing so, Lewis led the Bengals to AFC North Division titles in 2005, 2009, 2013, and 2015, as well as second place finishes in 2012 and 2014.

Lewis’ ability to draft well has left the Bengals with a plethora of talent over his 14-year stint. Below are some of the most notable names whom Lewis is responsible for bringing to Cincinnati.

  • Carson Palmer (2003)
  • David Pollack (2005)
  • Jonathan Joseph (2006)
  • Andrew Whitworth (2006)
  • Frostee Rucker (2006)
  • Domata Peko (2006)
  • Leon Hall (2007)
  • Keith Rivers (2008)
  • Anthony Collins (2008)
  • Andre Smith (2009)
  • Rey Maualuga (2009)
  • Michael Johnson (2009)
  • Kevin Huber (2009)
  • Jermaine Gresham (2010)
  • Carlos Dunlap (2010)
  • Geno Atkins (2010)
  • AJ Green (2011)
  • Andy Dalton (2011)
  • Dre Kirkpatrick (2012)
  • Kevin Zeitler (2012)
  • Mohamed Sanu (2012)
  • Marvin Jones (2012)
  • George Illoka (2012)
  • Tyler Eifert (2013)
  • Giovani Bernard (2013)
  • Jeremy Hill (2014)
  • William Jackson III (2016)
  • Tyler Boyd (2016)

Yeah, that’s a pretty solid list of players. So, the question that every Bengals fan is asking is: why the hell haven’t great drafts translated to playoff wins?

In his seven playoff appearances, Lewis failed to win a single game in the Wild Card round, including each of the last five years. 0-7 in all. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a team that’s great on paper and backs it up with a few division titles. Last year the Bengals appeared poised to turn that streak around after posting a 12-4 record in the regular season. However, an injury to Andy Dalton in the first half brought their season to a screeching halt.

This year, a defense that lacks positional redundancy and depth has failed to stop the run. The Bengals entered the season hopeful that AJ Green, Tyler Eifert, and 2016 second-round pick Tyler Boyd could mitigate the loss of wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu in free agency. Yet, Boyd failed to learn the offense as quickly as many had hoped, Eifert was inactive for the first six games as he was rehabbing a foot injury. While the team is hopeful Green can return before the end of the season after suffering a torn hamstring in Week 11, there’s no point in risking future injury if the Bengals are out of the playoff hunt. To make matters worse, Bernard suffered a torn ACL in Week 11. Cincinnati isn’t mathematically eliminated yet, but they would need to win out and get some help to make the postseason.

Clearly injuries have played a significant role in the Bengals’ inability to reach their full potential. Many players, including former Cincinnati running back Corey Dillion, have been calling for coaching change for years. There’s no doubt in Lewis’ ability to draft well, but it’s what he’s not able to do once he acquires the talent. Sure, he lost assistant coaches Mike Zimmer (Vikings), Hugh Jackson (Browns), and Jay Gruden (Washington) over the last several years, but that doesn’t matter when you’re the man responsible for the product on the field.

Much like the Rams’ situation with head coach Jeff Fisher, it seems like it’s time for the Bengals to make a change. He’s widely considered one of the most successful coaches in franchise history, and is certainly credited with turning around a franchise left depleted under the tenures of Bruce Coslet and Dick LeBeau. Still, the franchise cannot waste another season in the prime of Green, Bernard, Eifert, Hill, and Dalton’s careers. The Bengals need to move on, and sooner rather than later to get a head start on the future direction of the franchise.

Stats courtesy of pro-footballreference.com

 

What’s Wrong With Thursday Night Football?

Jake DeWitt

The NFL ratings have not slacked because of anthem protests by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and company. The NFL ratings have not slacked because of the increased awareness of concussions. The NFL ratings have not slacked because of poor commentators.

No, none of those theories have any validity whatsoever. What is causing the dip in ratings, you ask?

First, the quality of football during primetime games (Thursday, Sunday, and Monday nights) has been awful. After watching the Cardinals and Seahawks play an entire regulation and overtime period only to end in a tie, I wish I was one of the countless Americans to change the channel after the first half. Both teams struggled offensively in what should have been an exciting game on Sunday Night Football.

The games have been ultra sloppy, especially on Thursday nights. Teams simply do not have enough time to prepare for a Thursday night game after playing a grueling, exhausting game just four days prior. Players that suffer injuries on Sunday have virtually no chance to recover in time for a game on Sunday. Not only does this lead to some of the best players sitting out, but players who are not fully recovered (but not injured) tend to commit more penalties since they fatigue much quicker. They are also more prone to sustaining an injury for the same reason. All teams are required to play one game on Thursday night each year, but for a league that claims it is committed to player safety, forcing teams to play two games with less than a full week of rest in between isn’t just unrealistic, it’s unhealthy and unsafe.

Next, people have more ways to follow games. Sure, I bet the NFL is accounting for viewers streaming games live on Twitter. Non-television viewers cannot account for an 11% dip in ratings alone. What’s happening is that more people will simply follow a game by reading Twitter feeds, checking the scores of their fantasy lineups, catching ten-second clips on Snapchat, or simply catching the highlights (*read* lowlights) the next day. The last thing the NFL should have done provided fans with more ways to follow football other than sitting on the couch the old fashioned way.

Third, the sequence of an NFL game is absurd. How can anyone tolerate a commercial/kickoff/commercial combination without becoming disinterested? There are far too many commercials to keep this need-it-now, short-circuited culture engaged! If you check your TV guide you will find a three- to three-and-a-half hour block dedicated to a single football game. You know how much action, on average, is in a single game? Just 11 minutes. Yep, that few. If you divide that by two (offense and defense), the typical player will spend less than 6 minutes on the field.

You know what else chaps my ass? We still don’t know what a catch is because the NFL and its referees cannot consistently enforce what it claims is a catch. Players are being flagged for celebrating at a record pace in what has become the No Fun League. The “Color Rush” uniforms are visually oppressive. The league continues to shoot itself in the foot when it comes to doling out punishments for domestic violence. Roger Goodell – the judge, jury, and executioner – is a dictator when it comes to discipline. It’s time for the owners to discipline him. It’s hard to embrace a league that focuses more on testing for marijuana use than holding its employees accountable for abusing women.

Lastly, it’s an election year. The presidential debates notched historically high ratings because more people are bigger fans of the two moronic candidates than they are of tuning into a sloppy football game during the week.

I write this post as I watch the Week 8 Thursday night matchup between the Jaguars and Titans. Exhilarating, right? If you take a look at Neil Paine’s post on FiveThirtyEight, you’ll see that this Jags-Titans matchup is just the fifth-worst primetime game of all-time, and just the third-worst matchup between the two teams ever! (The worst and second-worst games between the AFC South foes came in 2014 and 2015, respectively.) I’ll need some self-reflection tomorrow to determine why I bothered to stay awake until midway through the third quarter.

Don’t blame an American being an American for a lack of viewership. Don’t blame fans for tuning into other programs. Ratings are just a disguise for the deeper issues with the NFL. Its soft stance on domestic violence, inconsistent officiating, and unattractive play sequence deserve attention. The NFL needs to fix itself.

 

 

 

The Vikings Should Trade Teddy

Jake DeWitt

As we all know by now, Teddy Bridgewater suffered a serious knee injury in the final week of August. After a successful surgery, the team placed Bridgewater on Injured Reserve, ending his season before it really began. All indications so far point to a full recovery for the team’s franchise quarterback.

On September 3rd the Minnesota Vikings made a trade that was viewed as highly questionable by some NFL experts. In a move reeking of desperation, Vikings GM Rick Spielman sent a 2017 first-round pick and a 2018 conditional fourth-round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles for oft-injured Sam Bradford. The 2018 draft selection can become a third-round pick should the Vikings extend their season to the NFC Championship Game, or increase in value to a second-round pick should the Vikings win the Super Bowl.

LeVaughn Nelson previously posted why the trade makes sense for both teams. The Vikings are undefeated, and Carson Wentz – the Eagles’ second-overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft – has turned out to be the sensation Philadelphia was hoping for. Bradford and Co. head to Philadelphia this Sunday for a Week 7 matchup.

Several of the Vikings’ key players have been placed on IR since the trade, including future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson, left tackle Matt Kalil, right tackle Andre Smith, and safety Michael Griffin. They’ve tried to mitigate their sudden lack of depth by signing veterans like offensive tackle Jake Long and running back Ronnie Hillman. Quite frankly, those players are bandaids trying to stop the bleeding of multiple gunshots.

What moves can the Vikings make to bolster their roster before the NFL trade deadline takes effect at 4:00 p.m. EDT on Saturday November 1st? Here’s my hot take: trade Teddy Bridgewater to the Cleveland Browns.

The Browns are a dumpster fire that may not smolder until the end of the 2017 NFL Draft. Cleveland will likely hold the top pick, and spend it on an NFL-ready quarterback like DeShaun Watson. Or, Cleveland could acquire Bridgewater, a proven NFL quarterback, in exchange for a couple players that could help the Vikings win the Super Bowl. Sam Bradford has proven to be a viable quarterback in Mike Zimmer’s system, and he earns a salary that’s pretty average for a quarterback playing as well as he is. The Vikings should go for it all with Bradford this season and next.

With that, Cleveland should send left tackle Joe Thomas and cornerback Joe Haden to the Vikings in exchange for Bridgewater, left tackle TJ Clemmings, and a 2019 first-round pick. Acquiring Bridgewater would allow the Browns to target another player key to future success with their high draft picks in each of the next three drafts. Much like those great Dallas Cowboy teams from the 90’s, Cleveland’s future success could rely on one monster trade and solid drafts.

You’re probably thinking: 1) Why would anyone trade for an injured player? And 2) Is trading for a player on IR even permitted by league rules? Like I said, Bridgewater is an above average quarterback that has shown improvement each season. I looked into the NFL rules on trading players on IR, and could not find anything prohibiting a deal from taking place. As long as both teams understand the risk and agree to the trade, I believe the league will allow the transaction.

Bradford is the real deal in Minnesota, and those purple fans should embrace the opportunity to achieve football immortality. Cleveland needs to stockpile draft picks and quality players to return to the dominance the franchise has not witnessed since the 60’s. This trade needs to happen, and the clock is already ticking.

 

NFL Kicker Rankings

Jake DeWitt

Tier 1

1. Stephen Gostkowski (New England Patriots)
The Patriots’ all-time leading scorer will go down as one of the greatest kickers in NFL history. The 11-year professional has made 87.3% of his field goal attempts, and boats a career long of 57 yards – which is pretty impressive given the fact that half his games are played in less than optimal weather in Foxboro.

2. Dan Bailey (Dallas Cowboys)
Dan Bailey has nailed 90.4% of his field goal attempts in his six years with Dallas. He’s remarkably solid from 50+, having made nearly 75% of such attempts.

3. Justin Tucker (Baltimore Ravens)
Tucker is arguably better than both kickers ranked above him. His success rate from 50+ is just 63.6%, but that’s largely because the Ravens have confidence in Tucker’s ability to convert those attempts. His career long of 61 yards came back in 2013.

4. Steven Hauschka (Seattle Seahawks)
The nine-year veteran is really entering his sixth season as the full-time kicker. He attempted 13 field goals or less each year from 2008 to 2010, but has since solidified his position as an elite kicker with Seattle. With the Seahawks, Hauschka has converted 89.2% of his attempts. He’s especially good from 40-49 yards, converting 80% of such attempts. His career long is 58 yards.

Tier 2

5. Graham Gano (Carolina Panthers)
6. Chandler Catanzaro (Arizona Cardinals)
7. Cairo Santos (Kansas City Chiefs)
8. Adam Vinatieri (Indianapolis Colts)
9. Mason Crosby (Green Bay Packers)
10. Matt Prater (Detroit Lions)
11. Brandon McManus (Denver Broncos)
12. Blair Walsh (Minnesota Vikings)
13. Chris Boswell (Pittsburgh Steelers)
14. Matt Bryant (Atlanta Falcons)
15. Josh Brown (New York Giants)
16. Roberto Aguayo (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
17. Nick Novak (Houston Texans)
18. Dan Carpenter (Buffalo Bills)
19. Sebastian Janikowski (Oakland Raiders)
20. Nick Folk (New York Jets)
21. Mike Nugent (Cincinnati Bengals)

Tier 3

22. Jason Myers (Jacksonville Jaguars)
23. Josh Lambo (San Diego Chargers)
24. Dustin Hopkins (Washington Redskins)
25. Phil Dawson (San Francisco 49ers)
26. Connor Barth (Chicago Bears)
27. Greg Zuerlein (Los Angeles Rams)
28. Caleb Sturgis (Philadelphia Eagles)
29. Andrew Franks (Miami Dolphins)
30. Ryan Succop (Tennessee Titans)
31. Patrick Murray (Cleveland Browns)
32. Cody Parkey (Cleveland Browns)
33. Kai Forbath (New Orleans Saints)

Stats not updated since time of writing (Courtesy of NFL.com)

NFL Right Tackle Rankings

Jake DeWitt

Tier 1

1. Lane Johnson (Philadelphia Eagles)
2. Ryan Schraeder (Atlanta Falcons)
3. Mitchell Schwartz (Kansas City Chiefs)

Tier 2

4. Bryan Bulaga (Green Bay Packers)
5. Marcus Gilbert (Pittsburgh Steelers)
6. Zack Strief (New Orleans Saints)

Tier 3
7. Morgan Moses (Washington Redskins)
8. Bobby Massie (Chicago Bears)
9. Derek Newton (Houston Texans)
10. Joe Barksdale (San Diego Chargers)
11. Donald Stephenson (Denver Broncos)
12. Andre Smith (Minnesota Vikings)
13. Eric Winston (Cincinnati Bengals)
14. Marcus Cannon (New England Patriots)
15. Doug Free (Dallas Cowboys)
16. DJ Humphries (Arizona Cardinals)

Tier 4

17. Jordan Mills (Buffalo Bills)
18. Riley Reiff (Detroit Lions)
19. Rick Wagner (Baltimore Ravens)
20. Menelik Watson (Oakland Raiders)
21. Jack Conklin (Tennessee Titans)
22. Jeremy Parnell (Jacksonville Jaguars)
23. Mike Remmers (Carolina Panthers)
24. Ja’Wuan James (Miami Dolphins)
25. Demar Dotson (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
26. Rob Havenstein (Los Angeles Rams)
27. Marshall Newhouse (New York Giants)

Tier 5

28. Ben Ijalana (New York Jets)
29. Austin Pasztor (Cleveland Browns)
30. Joe Reitz (Indianapolis Colts)
31. Trent Brown (San Francisco 49ers)
32. Garry Gilliam (Seattle Seahawks)