Raiders Save Season with Wild Finish

Week Seven began with one of the season’s wildest and most enjoyable games as the Raiders – trailing by 10 in the fourth quarter – salvaged their season (for the moment, anyway) by rallying for a 31-30 victory over Kansas City (gamebook).  The win improves them to 3-4 and keeps them two games behind the Chiefs in the division (a loss would have spilled them four game behind).

As the score suggests, this was an offensive fireworks display.  The two quarterbacks (Alex Smith and Derek Carr) combined for 422 passing yards.  And that was just the first half.  By game’s end, the two teams had combined for 930 total yards (748 of them passing yards) and 7 touchdowns.  They also combined to go 14 for 28 on third down, and 1-for-1 on fourth down.

The teams combined for 8 plays over 30 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown pass to from Carr to Amari Cooper (Cooper finished with 11 catches for 210 yards and 2 touchdowns) off a “flea-flicker,” and a deflected almost-interception that landed right in the arms of the Chiefs’ Albert Wilson for a 63-yard touchdown.  It also featured one of the wildest finishes that I’ve seen lately – so the enjoyment factor of this game was pretty substantial.

Derek Carr has now started 53 NFL games, and led his team to fourth-quarter, come-from-behind victories in 13 of them.  Slightly more than half of his 25 career wins have been in this kind of game.

Kudos for the Raiders’ Defense?

By game’s end, Kansas City had put up 30 points, scored 3 touchdowns, racked up 425 yards, and averaged 7.1 yards per play.  Not necessarily a defensive performance that you would be inclined to celebrate.  Yet the Raider defense did prevent the Chiefs offense from controlling the game on the ground.

Boasting the fourth ranked running offense in the NFL (at 134.8 yards per game), and facing a Raider defense that was struggling to stop the run (they entered ranked twenty-first allowing 117.2 yards per game), the Chiefs wanted very much to run some clock and keep Carr’s explosive offense on the sidelines.

They opened the game with four straight running plays (gaining only 10 yards) and ran five times (for 12 yards in their opening drive), but never were able to establish their ground game. Rookie running back Kareem Hunt broke off one run of 34 yards, but managed just 54 yards on his other 17 carries.  The talented running back – who has already picked up more than 100 yards in the second half alone of a couple games this season – carried 11 times in the second half of this game for just 39 yards (3.5 per carry).  KC finished the game with just 94 rushing yards, and only controlled the clock for 30:36.  They scored points, but kept leaving Oakland time to answer.

The Longest Eight Seconds

But all of that was just prologue.

The game had 23 seconds left, and Oakland was still down 30-24.  They faced a third-and-10 on the Kansas City 29.  Carr slid slightly to his left in the pocket and launched a pass toward the pylon at the left corner of the end zone.  For the second straight play, the Raiders had two receivers in the area of the pass.  But his time the deeper receiver (Jared Cook) was far enough behind the other receiver (Seth Roberts) that the two didn’t collide.  Cook elevated, made the catch, and tumbled into the end zone.  Touchdown.  The game – for the moment – was tied, and there was much rejoicing in the stadium as everyone awaited the extra-point.

As it turned out, the celebrating was a might premature.  There was actually a lot of football left on this night.

As they kept watching the replay, it became apparent that Cook’s rear end had plopped to the turf while the football was still on the half-yard line.  There were eight seconds left, and Oakland had first-and-goal.

Michael Crabtree would get the first opportunity.  Lined up wide right, Crabtree raced into the end zone where he was met by KC defensive back Marcus Peters.  Carr delivered the ball, and Crabtree gave Peters a gentle push that sent Peters’ legs out from under him.  Crabtree caught the pass, but flags flew immediately.  Offensive pass interference.  Now there were three seconds left, and Oakland had first-and-goal from the 10.

Was it a penalty?  Well, it was a push.  Crabtree did extended his arms to gain separation.  In honesty, you frequently see worse than that get ignored.  But there was a push, so the call was mostly legit.

Before Carr even delivered the next pass (which was high and off the fingertips of Cook in the end zone) there was already a flag in the end zone.  Ron Parker had been called for holding Cook.  There were all zeros on the scoreboard clock, but the Raiders would get one un-timed down (since a game can’t end on a defensive penalty).  First and goal from the five.

Was it a penalty?  Well, Parker didn’t truly impede Cook, but he did latch on and go for a bit of a ride.  Frankly, he was more staggering and holding on for balance than trying to keep Cook out of the end zone.  Not the worst hold I’ve ever seen, but yes.  A penalty.

Now it would be Cordarrelle Patterson – lined up in the slot to the left – working against Eric Murray.  As Patterson streaked past, Murray latched on to him and hung with him to the back of the end zone, where he pushed Patterson over the line as the ball was arriving.  Some of the Chiefs were starting to celebrate, but most saw the flag on the ground.

That holding call brought the ball back to about the two yard line – almost exactly where it was ten minutes ago after Cook’s first catch – where Oakland would have yet another untimed down.

Now they would go back to Crabtree – lined wide left this time.  Derek rolled to his left and delivered a strike to Crabtree just a step beyond the same pylon that Cook had fallen in front of.  He collected the pass, and the game (finally) was over.

The win broke a four-game Raider losing streak, during which they had not scored more than 17 points.  It was the first time since Week Two that the Raiders had looked like the Raiders.  They have put themselves a bit behind in the playoff chase, but there is still a lot of football to be played.

Rematch in the Fog

Last February, the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons got together in Houston for that Super Bowl thing.  In a game for the ages (discussed here), the Patriots trailed 21-3 at the half, and 28-9 through three quarters before rallying to a 34-28 overtime win.

Last Sunday night, they re-convened in Foxborough for a regular season re-match.  The story-lines this time, though, were slightly different.  The defending champion Patriots began the season with their re-built defense not really ready for prime time.  In a 2-2 start, the Patriots allowed 32 points and 456.8 yards per game (132.8 of them rushing yards).  In their previous two previous games, they had held Tampa Bay and the Jets to 14 and 17 points respectively.  Progress, yes, but against two fairly middling offenses.

The Atlanta narrative was more concerning.  After a 3-0 start, the Falcon’s had lost their two previous games at home against Buffalo and Miami, scoring just 17 points in each.  So they hit the turf as a team searching – a little bit, anyway – for answers.  They wouldn’t find any that night.  At least not early.

Fixing the Falcons

Thirty minutes into the game, the teams headed for the locker rooms with the Patriots holding a 17-0 lead.  The once dominant Falcon offense had managed just 130 yards and 7 first downs.  Quarterback Matt Ryan had completed just 9 of his first 16 passes – only 2 of them to All-World receiver Julio Jones for 30 yards.

This offensive brown out had many people scratching their heads.  The answer proved to be fairly fundamental.  The Falcons’ difficulties traced to a struggling running game.

People may not remember that during the Super Bowl, the Falcon’s set the tone with their running game.  Five of their first nine offensive plays were runs – gaining 56 yards.  They hit the halfway mark of that game with 86 rushing yards.  They were especially effective getting around the corner.  Nine times they tested the edge of New England’s run defense in Super Bowl LI, averaging 7.6 yards per.

Anyone who remembers the Falcon offense from the end of last season, will remember the great energy that surrounded it.  That energy came from the very aggressive, explosive running game.  As good as Ryan and Jones are – and they are both plenty good – the key to the Atlanta offense is their running game.  When it misfires, the whole Falcon offense looks out of sync.  That was the story of the first half.

Even though Atlanta finished the game scoring just 7 points in a 23-7 loss (gamebook), the second half proved much, much better – and it began with the running game.

After their initial first down of the third quarter, the Falcons ran on four consecutive plays for 34 yards.  Atlanta pushed on for 90 rushing yards in the second half – 56 by Devonta Freeman – and the passing game responded with Ryan hitting 14 of his last 17 passes.  Even though only 7 points came from them, all three of Atlanta’s second half drives lasted at least 10 plays, all gained at least 55 yards, and all ended in the red zone.  They missed a 36-yard field goal when Matt Bryant hit the left upright.  Another drive fizzled when the Falcons failed on fourth-and-goal from the one – so things could have been much better.  Now 3-3, the Falcons trail 4-2 New Orleans by one game in their division. They are still very much in the discussion.

Coming Together in New England

As for the Patriots, they are now suddenly 5-2 and a half-game ahead of Buffalo in their division.  Their victory depended on two significant achievements.

First, the new-look defense was surprisingly successful in eliminating the big play from the Atlanta offense.  Even in the second half the Falcons managed only two plays of more than 20 yards – and they were just barely over 20 yards.  One of Freeman’s runs gained 21 yards in the third, and one of Ryan’s fourth-quarter completions went for 22 yards to Justin Hardy.  Ryan’s 14 second half completions totaled just 123 yards.  Jones finished the game with 9 catches, but none of them for more than 16 yards.

The other important thing they did was run the ball.  Thirty six times they probed the Falcon run defense, racking up 162 rushing yards.  This is becoming a growing concern for the Falcons.  After holding the Packers to just 59 rushing yards in Week Two, their rushing yards allowed has risen every game since.

New England finished with 34 minutes and 5 seconds of ball control.  For all of their early season vulnerability, the Patriots seem to have figured some things out.

And the Fog

What ended up being a very well-played, informative game was played against the strange backdrop of an intense fog that rolled in from the bay.  It was thick enough to make punts and arching passes something of an adventure.  The players were mostly unaffected, but the fog took its toll on the spectators.  TV audiences – thanks to the crawling spidercams – were treated to what was undoubtedly the first broadcast in NFL history that showed almost the entire game from the quarterback’s perspective.

An interesting view for anyone who ever wanted to read coverage.

Carson Wentz and His Monday Night Party

As the Washington Redskins took the field last Monday Night, their defense was something of a puzzle.  They had surrendered 113 points through 5 games (22.6 per), holding only one opponent under 20 points.  Yet, they had the eighth-ranked run defense in the league, allowing only 88 yards per game, with only Kansas City rushing for more than 97 yards against them.  Meanwhile, opposing quarterbacks held only an 81.8 passer rating against this defense.  They had not – and still have not – allowed more than 298 net passing yards in any game.  The Skins were dropping the quarterback on 7.7% of the passing attempts against them.  Through the season’s first 5 games, they had allowed only 10 offensive touchdowns to be scored against them (they have also seen two fumbles returned for touchdowns against them).

So – in spite of the points they had allowed – this was a pretty accomplished defense.

Moreover, even though they allowed 30 points to Philly in the season opener, they did some very good things defensively.  They allowed the Eagles just 58 rushing yards (only 2.4 yards per rush).  They limited the potent Eagle offense to just 2 touchdowns.  Philadelphia was forced to kick 3 field goals and added a defensive score in the win.

Game-Planning Wentz and the Eagles

In that first game, the Redskin defense briefly lost track of receiver Nelson Agholor when quarterback Carson Wentz looked like he had been sacked.  But Carson made one of his miracle escapes and lofted a prayer up the seam that Agholor pulled in for a 58-yard touchdown.  Other than that play, the Eagle receivers didn’t really hurt Washington.  Nelson caught 5 other passes that afternoon, but for only 28 more yards.  Alshon Jeffery – the other primary target – finished with just 3 catches for 38 yards.

So the plan coming in was to play aggressive man coverage with one deep safety (Montae Nicholson).  They would challenge those receivers to win their matchups, chase Wentz around with a generous sprinkling of blitzes, and assign a spy (yes, Carson Wentz is a dangerous enough runner that Washington assigned him a spy – usually linebacker Mason Foster), and take their chances at stopping the running game again.

For 26 minutes and 31 seconds on Monday night, the Redskin defensive plan worked like a charm.  Through their first 25 offensive snaps, Philadelphia had run the ball 11 times for 42 yards (15 of them from Wentz himself), and had been flagged for 3 penalties, costing them 23 yards.  Of Wentz’ first 11 drop backs, only 3 passes were completed for just 30 yards.  One other throw had been intercepted, and 3 other attempts had ended in sacks of the quarterback (giving back 24 of the yards).  With halftime creeping up, the Eagles had scored 3 points while moving the ball just 25 yards in a positive direction (once the penalties were weighed into the equation).

For their part, cornerbacks Quinton Dunbar, Kendall Fuller and Bashaud Breeland – hardly household names – held up excellently in coverage.  While, on the Philadelphia sideline, the Eagles had unwittingly played into Washington’s hands.

Philadelphia and the Running Game

Since that first game, Philadelphia had re-invested in the run.  In the five games since, they had totaled at least 101 rushing yards in each game, including the 214 they racked up against the Chargers in Week 4.  The Eagles came into the game ranked fifth in the NFL in running the ball (132.5 yards per game on 4.4 yards per carry), and they intended to run against Washington.

In Week One, tight end Zach Ertz caught all 8 passes thrown to him as Washington simply could not cover him.  As the Week Seven game began, Ertz was watching from the sidelines as blocking tight end Brent Celek saw most of the action.  With about three minutes left in the first half, Ertz had not even had a pass thrown his way.  Everything was working out as well as Washington could have hoped.

But Then

Of course – even if man coverage is the game plan – you can’t only play man coverage.  Sometimes you have to drop into a zone.  With the Eagles facing second-and-16 on their own 36 with just 3:29 left before the half, Washington dropped into a zone.  Carson Wentz exploited it.

Alshon Jeffrey lined up to the right behind speedy rookie Mack Hollins.  Both attacked vertically up the seam for about 15 yards, when Jeffery broke his pattern to the sideline.  When cornerback Breeland bit on Jeffrey’s out-route, it left safety D.J. Swearinger all alone with Hollins.  Wentz hit Hollins in stride, sending the rookie on to his first career touchdown, igniting Philadelphia’s turnaround, and beginning what would be a nightmare second half for Swearinger.  All of a sudden, a game that Washington was in control of was tied at 10, and Philadelphia was beginning to reconsider its approach.

Before the half would end, Ertz would catch both passes thrown to him for 50 yards and a touchdown.  By game’s end, Ertz had caught all 5 passes thrown his way for 89 yards.  In the two games played against Washington this season, Zach Ertz caught all 13 passes thrown his way for 182 yards.  Most of the damage came with Swearinger trying to chase him down, but he also proved too much for Foster in the odd times that Mason tried to cover him.

Washington came in with a great plan with one tiny flaw.  No one on their team can cover Ertz.  In watching the tape, I actually think he was open every time he went out for a pass.

As to Wentz, all through his 3 for 8 start I don’t think he was ever confused by what he saw.  The initial trouble was getting a receiver open.  Throughout the entire game, Wentz seemed ready for whatever the Washington pass defense showed him.  Carson is a toolsy quarterback, but his understanding of the passing game is quite advanced for a second year guy.

Signature Moments

The rest of the game would serve as notice for anyone in the football world who hadn’t yet heard of him that Carson Wentz is a force to be reckoned with.  He finished the game with a 126.3 passer rating and 4 touchdown passes – beating every coverage Washington threw at him.  He also memorably scrambled for 63 yards, leading the Eagles to their 34-24 victory (gamebook).  The win included a signature play in both the passing and running aspects of Carson’s play – calling cards to remember him by, as it were.

The Pass

There is 9:49 left in the third – Eagles now ahead 17-10.  They face third-and-goal at the 9 yard line.  Washington defensive end Terrell McClain almost makes a game saving play.  Bull-rushing his way past center Jason Kelce, McClain has Wentz in his grasp.  Almost.  Once again, Carson twists out of the way.  With Matthew Ioannidis and Mason Foster sandwiching him in, Wentz manages to flip the ball over the head of Foster with just enough juice to get it up the sideline in the end zone where Corey Clement gathered it in.

Linebacker Zach Brown’s adventure on that play more-or-less epitomized the night for Washington.  Clearly expected to cover Clement on the play, Brown blitzed immediately.  It was as Clement and Brown passed each other going in opposite directions, that Zach realized his error.  He pivoted quickly and began pursuit of Corey, but that only earned him the best view in the house of Clement’s touchdown.

The Scramble

Now it’s the fourth quarter.  There is 14:55 left, and Washington has fought back to make it a 24-17 game.  The Eagles are on their own 27, facing a third-and-8.

Washington blitzes.  As they did almost all night, the disciplined Eagle line picked-up the blitz, but gave ground as they did so, resulting in the Washington pass rush completely encircling Wentz.  For nearly two seconds, it seemed inevitable that Carson would be discovered at the bottom of a very large pile of bodies.  But then – somewhat miraculously – Wentz shot out of the cluster of humanity and sprinted 17 yards to the 44 for a back-breaking first down.  Moments later, Agholor would weave his way through another broken zone defense to haul in the clinching touchdown.

A funny thing about that moment.  While escape looked impossible, Wentz was never in any real danger.  All of his offensive linemen were there in between him and the Redskins.  They weren’t all standing, and in some cases they were just barely between, but I think the only hand laid on Carson during that whole progression was from Zach Brown (again) who reached over running back Wendell Smallwood and managed to put a hand on Wentz’ back.  In essence, his line formed a kind of cocoon around their franchise quarterback – from which Carson exploded at the first glint of daylight.

Love for a Lineman

Nothing in football happens in a vacuum, and all success on the gridiron is team success.  There were many names trumpeted as heroes of this contest – and there were many who played extremely well.  One name that probably won’t get any mentions is right tackle Lane Johnson.  He spent most of the afternoon lined up against Washington’s best pass rusher – two time Pro Bowler Ryan Kerrigan, who recorded 11 sacks last year – and made him disappear.  Kerrigan did get a half sack in the first quarter.  On that play, Ryan lined up over left guard Steve Wisniewski and slipped around him to get to Wentz.  As far as I remember, that was the only time that Kerrigan lined up inside.  He spent the rest of the game outside, trying (unsuccessfully) to work his way around Johnson.

Tapping the Brakes

It was a magical night for Carson Wentz and the (now) 6-1 Eagles.  But before we start reserving his spot in Canton and marking the Eagles down for home-field advantage, let’s hold on to a little perspective.  Carson has played 23 impressive games as a pro, and you can see why the organization is optimistic for the future.  But it is just 23 games.  Carson has yet to play a meaningful December game, much yet a playoff game.  It’s an auspicious start, but it’s just a start.

As for the Eagles, 6-1 is an excellent start.  But six wins won’t get you anywhere.  The most challenging part of the season lies ahead.

Remember, the NFL is still a week-to-week league – even for Carson Wentz and the juggernaut Eagles.

Life After Mr Rodgers

Week Six became an official week of mourning in Wisconsin when Aaron Rodgers went down and out with a broken collarbone.  The expectation is that Rodgers will miss the rest of the season.

I don’t intend to chronicle every major injury that occurs during the season, but a few weeks ago when Houston lost J.J. Watt for the season, I pointed out that his loss went beyond his on the field contributions.  The same is true for Rodgers.  Like Watt, he was the face of his franchise and one of the marquee faces of the NFL.  Any team that loses its starting quarterback faces a long season.  When that quarterback is, arguably, the best in the game, it casts a pretty long shadow over the rest of your season.

I fully believe everyone in the Green Bay organization completely understands the magnitude of this loss.  To their credit, they are not whining or looking back.  They have saddled up the new man and expect to win games with him.  It was evident in the post-game press conference (after last week’s 26-17 loss to New Orleans[gamebook]) that Head Coach Mike McCarthy truly expected his team to win that game.  One of the best signs to come out of the New Orleans game is the resolve of the coaching staff.  This will not be a lost season.  It was also heart-warming to watch the Green Bay faithful embrace the new guy.  There is another very interesting development to come out of this game.  But first let’s introduce the new guy.

Let the Brett Hundley Era Begin

Drafted in the fifth round (#147 overall) in 2015 out of UCLA, Brett Hundley started for the Bruins in his freshman year.  After three seasons at the Bruin helm, Brett passed on his senior season to enter the draft.  In 1241 college passes, he completed 67.4% of them for almost 10,000 yards (9,966 to be exact), a 75-25 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and a 150.8 passer rating.

He also ran for 30 touchdowns (in 40 games) and caught a touchdown pass – so Brett has some tools.

Before this season, he had only appeared in four games, completing just 2 of 10 passes with an interception.  This season he appeared in the end of the Week Four victory over Chicago, completing his only pass for 0 yards.  Then, a week ago Sunday, he saw his first extended action in the NFL against Minnesota.  The results were less than inspiring (18 of 33 for just 157 yards with 3 interceptions).

Making his first start, Brett led the Packers on touchdown drives in two of his first four possessions last Sunday.  Halfway through the second period, Green Bay led 14-7.

It was downhill after that – and ultimately there wasn’t enough production from Brett and the passing game.  The first half ended without a completed pass to either of Green Bay’s top two receivers (Jordy Nelson or Davante Adams), and Hundley finished the day 12 of 25 for just 87 yards, with no completion longer than 14 yards.

But alongside Hundley’s growing pains was another very interesting development.  The resuscitation of the Packer running game.

Yes, That Was the Packers with 181 Rushing Yards

Last year’s 10-6 team ranked only twentieth in rushing, and didn’t crack the 100-yard mark in any of their playoff games.  They had no runner that managed even 500 yards for the season.  The last Packer team to have any real commitment to the run was the 2014 team, led by their last 1,000-yards rusher, Eddie Lacy (that team went 12-4, losing the NFC Championship Game to Seattle in overtime).  When you have a passer like Rodgers, it’s hard to commit strongly to the run.

But now, with one Aaron on the shelf, the Packers have to run the ball.  And Sunday afternoon a new Aaron emerged.

Hello Aaron Jones

The Packer’s fifth-round draft pick this year was invested in running back Aaron Jones from UTEP.  Like Brett, Aaron skipped his senior year after 35 college games and 4,114 rushing yards (a 6.3 average per carry).  He ran for 33 touchdowns and caught passes for 7 more.  He first came to the nation’s attention when he chalked up 125 yards in a Week Five win in Dallas.  But Sunday was his coming out party as well.  In his first game as the centerpiece of the offense, Jones showed great burst and finished with 131 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.

With 44 yards from Hundley, the Packers piled up 180 rushing yards through the first three quarters.  But the passing game’s inability to convert those yards into points forced Green Bay to shelve the run game in the fourth quarter.

Heroes on the Line

But while Jones was good and Hundley had his moments, the revelation of this game was Green Bay’s offensive line.  Mostly recognized only as the big guys protecting Rodgers, this group has been generally under-appreciated.  Right guard Jahri Evans has been named to 6 Pro Bowls, but the rest of the group has combined for only one such honor (David Bakhtiari last season).

Given, now, the chance to run the ball as the main cog of the offense, the entire line – including the less recognized Brian Bulaga (RT) and Corey Linsley (C) showed that they could possibly be a dominant run-blocking line.  Particularly impressive, I thought, was left guard Justin McCray.  Undrafted out of Central Florida, the rookie lineman opened large holes in the middle of the Saint defense, and pulled with great authority.  In the long run, his emergence might be as important as any on an otherwise disappointing day in Green Bay.

Also worthy of note is tight end Martellus Bennett.  Not the most enthusiastic blocking tight end I’ve ever seen, Bennett is, nonetheless, quite effective.  On most of the productive running plays, it was Bennett who was neutralizing New Orleans’ star defensive lineman Cameron Jordan – including Jones’ two longest runs of the afternoon (his 46-yard touchdown sprint in the first quarter, and his 21-yard run around right end in the third).  On that last run, Bennett was one of three tight-ends on the right side and was pivotal in opening up the sideline for Jones.

Bennett also threw my favorite block of the game.  On the play before the 21-yard run, Martellus lined up on the left side and tossed DE Trey Hendrickson to the ground like he was a stuffed animal.  Bennett is an excellent receiving tight end – and apparently a better blocker than people may realize.

For this to have much meaning, Hundley and the passing game will have to gain enough effectiveness to allow the running game to pound people for the full four quarters.  But if Green Bay can mount a top-ten running game to go with the air attack once Rodgers gets back, this could bode very well, indeed, for the Packer future.

Meanwhile in New Orleans

The flip side of this story isn’t so rosy for the Saints, who won the game but were pushed around in the run game again.  Now allowing 114.2 rush yards a game (dropping them to twentieth in the league), and now allowing 4.9 yards per rush (ranking them thirtieth out of thirty-two teams), run defense remains a persistent shortcoming for this team.  In the six games they’ve played so far, only the Dolphins and the Lions have failed to run for at least 119 yards against them (and neither of those teams tried very hard).

In watching them play, it doesn’t look like a problem that will just go away.  The two inside linebackers, Craig Robertson and A.J. Klein are much better in coverage.  Against the run, neither shows great instinct. Neither distinguished himself as a tackler, either.  Starting right defensive end Alex Okafor is very quick on the pass rush, but is undersized and a liability against the run.  By the second half, Hendrickson was playing in his place on running downs – with only marginal improvements.

As long as the offense can put points on the board and force other teams to keep throwing the ball, the Saint defense should hold up pretty well.  But, eventually, this will rise up and bite them.

Quarterbacks with Question Marks

On the previous Sunday evening, the Kansas City Chiefs had roughed up the Houston Texan’s defense for 450 yards.  They pushed them around on the ground to the tune of 127 yards (107 by super rookie Kareem Hunt) and another 323 through the air as oft-maligned quarterback Alex Smith completed 29 of 37 passes for 3 touchdowns and a passer rating of 130.2.  The 42-34 victory left them at 5-0 with a seemingly unsolvable offense.

As they took the field last Sunday afternoon, they were bludgeoning opponents on the ground, racking up 156.2 yards per game and an unheard of 5.7 yards per carry.  When they wanted to throw, Smith was producing a 125.8 passing rating (for the season) – a performance that included completing 76.6% of his passes with no interceptions.  For five games, the Kansas City offense had its way with the rest of the NFL, scoring 32.8 points per game.

And then they ran into a buzz saw.  For the first 30 minutes, the Pittsburgh Steelers dominated Kansas City the way that top 25 NCAA teams dominate Division II teams in their home-coming games.  As they walked into the locker room at halftime, the Steelers had controlled the ball for 21 minutes and 41 seconds, outgained KC 232 yards to 6 (no that is not a misprint) that included a 116 to minus-2 differential in rushing yards (that is not a misprint either).  They held a 16-1 edge in first downs.

While the Chiefs would play better in the second half, they ended the game with just 251 total yards and a 19-13 loss (gamebook).  The heretofore unstoppable Alex Smith finished with an 88.6 passer rating.

What happened?  The short answer is Le’Veon Bell, but the full answer is more complex than that.

After losing commitment to the run in their previous week’s loss, the Steelers wielded Bell and their offensive line like a cudgel.  Bell finished with 179 yards on 32 carries, and the Steelers team finished with 194 yards on 37 carries.  Although they didn’t score on all of them, Pittsburgh had three different first-half drives that all lasted at least 6:19 – two of them lasting 12 plays.  To their credit, the Kansas City defense never did completely implode.  But neither could they get themselves off the field.

Here is what always happens when one team’s offense pushes the other team’s defense around in the first half – and I’ve seen this hundreds of times.  This is, in fact, what had happened to Pittsburgh the previous week.

The only chance the pushed around team has is to have early success running the ball.  After the Steelers chewed up the first 6:19 of the game, Kansas City gained 4 yards on its first two runs.  Then, after the Steelers ran off another 6:25 of the clock, the Chiefs came out throwing and never got back to the running game.

I point out that there was no need to abandon the running game.  At the point that they gave up on the run, they were only trailing by six with three full quarters to go.  But NFL teams don’t seem to have the will to counter-punch with the running game unless they see early returns.  Even though the quarterback has been sitting cold on the sidelines for 12:44 of the first 15:05 of the game, all NFL coaches seem to feel the irresistible urge to get back into the game by throwing the football.

Kareem Hunt entered the game with 609 rushing yards on 97 carries through his first 5 NFL games.  He finished Sunday carrying the ball only 9 times the whole game, even though KC never trailed by more than 9 points.

How did the Steelers – who came into the game allowing 136.6 rushing yards a game and 5.1 yards a carry – muffle the powerful Kansas City running game?  They stopped the first three runs and let Kansas City turn off their own running game.

Alex Smith

With the decision made to go to the air, the fate of the Chiefs rested on the arm and head of Alex Smith.  In a game eerily similar to the playoff game they lost to Pittsburgh last year, Alex threw the ball pretty well.  Last January he was 20 of 34.  Last Sunday he was 19 of 34.  He lost 18-16 last January.  He lost 19-13 on Sunday.

Let me be clear about this.  It is unfair to pin this loss on Alex Smith.  Pittsburgh dominated this game on both sides of the line of scrimmage.  But, because the KC defense managed to hold the team in the game, Alex – as he did in the playoff game – had late chances to win the game.  In particular, there were two throws – two plays that were there to be made – that Smith just didn’t make.

There was 2:31 left on the game clock.  The Chiefs had second-and-10 on the Steeler 15.  Alex did get pressure.  Mike Hilton came free on a blitz.  But standing all alone in the left corner of the end zone was Demarcus Robinson.  Smith overthrew him.  That drive ended in the field goal that made it a 19-13 game.

Then, with 1:11 left, Smith and the Chiefs had the ball again, second-and-10 from the Steeler 40.  Again, it was Robinson breaking clean over the middle.  And, again, Smith’s throw was too high.

As Kansas City has surrounded Alex with more and more offensive playmakers, we are finally beginning to see the quarterback that Smith can be.  More than just a game-manger, Alex Smith is a craftsman with plus mobility.  He makes excellent decisions, he makes them quickly, and he delivers the ball with great accuracy.  Most of the time, anyway.  There is no mental or physical reason why Alex couldn’t lead his team to a championship.

Except that he hasn’t.

With Smith, it’s all about the playoffs now.  However great his regular season is, everyone will be waiting for him to play in January the way he plays in September and October.

(Footnote: Kansas City played last night and suffered a stunning 31-30 loss to Oakland.  Even so, Alex was back to the Alex Smith of the first five games.  He finished his evening 25 of 36 for 342 yards and 3 touchdowns.  His passer rating for the evening was a stellar 127.3 and he still hasn’t thrown an interception this season.  We’ll have more to say about this game later, I suspect.)

Cam Newton

Last Thursday, Cam Newton’s Carolina Panthers fell to Philadelphia, 28-23 (gamebook).  Again, pinning the loss on Newton would be unfair.  Like Kansas City, Carolina’s running game was also inhaled by Philadelphia’s dominating defensive front.  For the game, every Carolina ball-carrier not named Cam Newton was held to 9 yards on 14 carries – an almost mind-numbing stat.

Still, Newton’s final line was disappointing.  Throwing 52 times, Cam completed 28 for just 239 yards (Carolina had only one play of twenty yards in the game).  Newton offset his one touchdown pass with three interceptions – a 48.5 passer rating.  More than just the numbers, though, this game brought to the surface all the questions that I (and others) have about Newton.

Mechanics

Always a point of discussion with Newton is his inconsistent mechanics.  More than any quarterback I watch, Cam is content to throw flat footed.  There were probably ten Newton throws last Thursday thrown without Cam planting his feet and getting his body behind the throw.  When you see his tosses sail high or fall well short, usually you will see Cam throwing flat footed.

Superman in the Backfield?

Everyone knows that Cam has a thing for Superman.  Many of his self-congratulatory antics connect him with his boyhood idol.  But sometimes in the back field he acts like he thinks he really is Superman.  None of the other mobile quarterbacks will stay rooted in the pocket as it begins to close in on him.  They will spin out and move the pocket away from the pressure.  Even the less mobile quarterbacks will at lease retreat a few steps from the chaos directly in front of them.  Failing all else, they will cover up the ball and take the sack.

One of Newton’s curious quirks is that he will stand planted on his spot and try to throw the ball over the top of linemen that are almost standing on his toes.  There were at least a half-dozen throws that Newton made in that game where he tried to throw over a lineman that was standing in his kitchen.

His first interception came on such a throw.  About half-way through the second period, Eagle defensive lineman Fletcher Cox got under Panther guard Trai Turner and pushed him right back into Newton’s face.  Watching the replay, I actually think that Turner was stepping on Newton’s foot when Cam threw the ball.  Certainly, he was close enough that Cox could reach over Turner and still hit Newton’s arm as Cam made the pass – which fluttered duck-like until Eagle cornerback Rasul Douglas gathered it in.

It is almost as though Newton expects all those linemen to bounce off his chest like so many bullets.  But even that won’t put a crease in the brow of Cam’s offensive coordinator as deep as his other recurring quirk.

Not Going Through His Progressions

Much was made of the Panthers losing star middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to a possible concussion – and understandably so.  Kuechly is a force.

Less was made of the fact that Philadelphia also lost their starting middle linebacker.  Jordan Hicks had hurt his ankle at some point of the first half and didn’t play in the second half – and with his exit came a complete change in the Eagle defensive scheme.

Throughout the first half, the Eagles rushed with four, played tight man coverage and left Hicks to spy Newton.  With Hicks out of the mix, the Eagles became almost a 100% zone team in the second half – a defense they don’t run nearly as well.  Combined with the tiring of the pass rushers, Cam Newton had myriad opportunities to exploit holes in the Eagle zone.

Except that he never looked for those opportunities.  Perhaps rattled by the early game pressure, Newton spent most of the second half deciding – I think off his pre-snap read – where he was going to go with the ball.  One of the strangest habits he fell into was never looking to his right.  Of his 32 second half passes, 21 were thrown to the left – and on most of those he never even looked at what was going on to his right.  I will give you my two favorite examples:

There was 13:51 left in the third quarter.  The Panthers trailed 18-10, and had the ball first-and-10 at their own 35.  Newton executed a play-fake to Jonathan Stewart that completely fooled the entire left side of the Eagle defense.  Everyone over there came crashing into the Panther backfield, including safety Malcolm Jenkins (who would have made the tackle in the backfield) and cornerback Jalen Mills.

Lined up in the slot, Devin Funchess made a slight fake like he was going to block, and then popped clear in behind the Eagle defenders that raced heedlessly past him.  But Newton never looked.  He was already throwing the ball to Kelvin Benjamin on a short curl into a soft spot of the zone – a perfect throw, by the way, that Benjamin dropped.

But my favorite play occurred during Carolina’s first drive of the fourth quarter.

There is 13:30 left on the game clock, and the Eagles hold a 28-16 lead.  The Panthers are first-and-10 on their own 42.  After Benjamin and Russell Shepard switched sides, Cam had Shepard wide to his left, with tight-end Ed Dickson in the slot to that side.  His two most explosive receivers – Funchess and Benjamin – were now to his right.  Newton, of course, never looked to his right, as he dropped a nicely thrown 3-yard pass to Shepard who found a soft-spot underneath the zone coverage.

Even more compelling than the routes Benjamin and Funchess were running, was the defensive reaction to the play.  On the offensive left side, the Eagles were playing an “active” zone.  As Dickson ran his deep bow-out, the secondary closed on him.  As Shepard curled under the zone, it flowed to meet him.

On the offensive right side, the defense was, technically, playing zone.  But mostly they just stood and watched.  Cornerback Patrick Robinson, who had the short zone, jogged back about three steps and watched.  Mills had the deep zone, so he dutifully dropped to his required depth – but did little else.

Benjamin raced all alone to the right flat.  Robinson was – technically – within 15 yards of him, but didn’t even look at him, much less follow him.  A quick toss to the right flat would probably have been good for 12-15 yards.  Meanwhile, Funchess ran untouched and un-regarded right up the seam.  Mills watched him streak by without even a wave.  But Newton had already made up his mind, and settled for the 3-yard pass to Shepard.

For quite a while I puzzled over Cam’s compulsion for the left side, until it occurred to me that looking and throwing to the left is the easiest play for a right-handed quarterback to make.

Analyzing Newton

Here’s my take on Cam:

Newton is an enormously gifted football player.  Arguably he is the most gifted quarterback anywhere in football.  That can be a double-edged sword.  I don’t believe that Newton has ever struggled at any level of football – including the NFL where he was setting records in his very first game; and where two seasons ago he almost led this Carolina team to an undefeated season.  Since anything athletic has always come easily to Cam, it’s only natural that he wants football to keep coming easily.

Being a starting quarterback in the NFL is a great ride, and nobody enjoys the ride any more than Newton.  Whether he’s preening for the cameras after a first-down, or organizing team photos on the sideline while the game is still going on, or whether he’s directing teammates’ touchdown celebrations, the fun part of the NFL means an awful lot to Newton.  And – since his talents are such that he usually completes his passes even if he is standing flatfooted, or throwing with a lineman in his face, or even if he hasn’t scanned the field – it can be a little hard to impress upon him the importance of these techniques.  They become skills that less gifted quarterbacks have to develop to compete.

Newton will continue to enjoy significant success in the NFL, just on his athleticism alone.  But Cam won’t be a great quarterback until he embraces the discipline that greatness requires.

Offense from Defense

Six weeks into the 2017 NFL season, the scoreboard shows that – of the 444 touchdowns scored so far – 402 have been scored by the offensive team (276 TD passes and 126 TD runs).  But Week Six was noteworthy – in part – for touchdowns racked up by special teams and, especially, defense.  Of the 34 defensive touchdowns scored this season, 10 were scored in Week Six.  Of the 8 special teams touchdowns scored this season, 5 were scored this week.

These two alternate touchdown sources contributed to one of the most entertaining games of the season last Sunday when New Orleans held off a late Detroit rally to “escape” with a 52-38 victory (gamebook).  That game alone contributed 4 defensive touchdowns and 1 special teams score – with four of these five alternate scores occurring in the game’s last 24 minutes.

Along the way, the Saints may have become the first team ever to score 50 points while going just 2 for 12 on third down (including 0 for 7 in the second half).  It is also surprising in that superstar quarterback Drew Brees suffered through his worst statistical game of the season.  Hitting the field with a 108.3 passer rating for the season, Brees – who had thrown no interceptions on the seasons and was averaging 7.47 yards per pass – tossed 3 interceptions in Sunday’s second half and averaged just 6.00 yards per pass on his way to a 78.2 passer rating.  His afternoon featured a goal-line interception for a Detroit touchdown that – for the moment – fueled the Lions’ furious comeback.

When your opponent rolls up 38 points, it’s rare that your defense is regarded as heroic.  Nonetheless, with the score against them inflated by a defensive score and a punt return for a touchdown, the Saint defense sacked Lion quarterback Matthew Stafford 5 times, hit him on 6 other pass attempts, deflected 12 passes, intercepted 3 and recovered 2 fumbles.  The Saint defense scored 3 touchdowns outright, and set up another.  In between, they saw Detroit make some plays – but on this day, the big-play New Orleans defense was more than a match.

After losing their first two games (to 4-2 Minnesota and 4-2 New England), the Saints have cobbled together three consecutive wins (against 4-2 Carolina, 3-2 Miami, and now 3-3 Detroit).  As you can see, New Orleans’ early schedule has been pretty challenging.  Things could get a little softer for the next few weeks.  They will line up Sunday against the 4-2 Green Bay Packers – but without their superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers who went down last week with a broken collarbone.  After that, they draw the Bears (2-4) and Buccaneers (2-3).  After yielding 1025 total yards in their first two games (with no turnovers), the New Orleans defense has only surrendered 821 over their last 3 (with 9 turnovers).

If the Saint defense has turned the corner – and if the offense stays as balanced as it’s been the last three weeks – this Saints team could hold its own in the highly competitive NFC South all the way into December.

Matthew Stafford

There are moments when sports become transcendent.  I’m going to waft a little poetic, here, for a few paragraphs – so if your tolerance for bad poetry is a little low, you might want to skip this section.

With the third quarter about half over, a fortunate deflection of a Stafford pass landed in the arms of Saints’ rookie first-round-pick Marshon Lattimore.  Twenty-seven yards later, Lattimore was being swarmed by his teammates after he had scored what seemed to be the back breaking touchdown.  With 23 minutes and 34 seconds left in the game, Detroit trailed 45-10.  Not only were they trailing, but they were paying a horrific physical price.

About four minutes before, safety Glover Quinn was lost after taking a knee to the head.  About two minutes later, the other safety Tavon Wilson went down for a while.  With six-and-a-half minutes left in the third – and with the Lions’ still 35 points behind – they lost their most explosive playmaker when Golden Tate went to the sidelines with an AC joint sprain in his shoulder.

And then there was the beating the offensive line took.  Already missing starting guard T.J. Lang, Detroit lost two more offensive lineman in the third and fourth quarters, as both Greg Robinson and Ricky Wagner suffered ankle injuries.  So, on top of everything else, Detroit faced a five-touchdown deficit with, essentially, three backup offensive linemen in the game.

In the midst of all of this adversity was battered quarterback Matthew Stafford.  Already hobbled by a bad ankle and a tender hamstring, Stafford endured a savage beating at the hands of the physical New Orleans defense.  Before the comeback even got up a head of steam, a shot to the ribs had Matthew flinching for the rest of the drive.

With every reason to sit their remaining healthy starters and just wind out the clock.  With no legitimate chance for victory, and no coherent reason to keep trying, the emotionally resilient Lions pulled their broken bodies off the Superdome turf and mounted a comeback for the ages – almost.

Pounded by free-rushers, and scrambling as much as he could on a bad ankle, baby-faced Matthew Stafford was every inch a man on Sunday afternoon.  Coming back for more every time he was belted to the turf, and with his limping teammates rallying around him, the Lions improbably reeled off 28 consecutive points – and did so in a span of just 14:15 immediately after they had lost their most explosive playmaker.

When defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson stepped in front of Brees’ quick slant and waltzed into the end zone, the Detroit Lions sat just seven points back (45-38) with still 6:41 left on the clock.  Immediately afterward, the Lion defense held New Orleans to a quick three-and-out.  There was still 5:23 left on the game clock as punter Thomas Morstead launched his kick to the left-corner of the end zone, where one final mistake would doom the Lions and their comeback.

On an afternoon when Detroit would surrender 193 rushing yards and would turn the ball over five times, their clinching mistake would involve neither.  Already having scored on a 74-yard punt return, Jamal Agnew now muffed Morstead’s punt.  As it rolled toward the end zone, Agnew raced after it.  He managed to scoop it up and advance it just enough out of the end zone to avoid the safety.  As it turned out, the safety might have worked out better.

Setting up on their own one-yard line, the Lions promptly surrendered their second in-their-own-end-zone touchdown of the game as defensive end Cameron Jordan hauled in his own deflection for the final points of the day.

The loss leaves Detroit 3-3, but still very much in the mix in the NFC North, where the Packers will have to soldier on without Rodgers.

In the end, it was just a loss, and the fact that they made a game out of it matters not at all in the standings.  If they had pulled the plug on the game at 45-10 and gone down quietly, it wouldn’t have hurt them any more in the standings.  But as it relates to the team going forward, the almost comeback is enormous.  On an afternoon when Stafford had – statistically – his worst game of the season (and one of the great ironies of Week Six is that the highest scoring game of the season so far featured the worst statistical games of the season so far for both star quarterbacks), Matthew’s uncommon toughness galvanized his team.

Detroit has some issues that need to be dealt with.  Their running game still isn’t a positive force for them, and for some reason they have a hard time getting started until the fourth quarter.  So Jim Caldwell and his crew have work to do.

But the heart of this team is something they will not have to worry about.

A Look at the Dandies

There were lots of story lines possible for Sunday’s Duel of the September Dandies.  The two quarterbacks were potential story-lines.  Los Angeles Rams’ second-year signal caller, Jeff Goff – a September sensation – was coming off a scuffling 48.9 passer-rating performance in last week’s loss to Seattle.  On the Jacksonville side, quarterback Blake Bortles had thrown 1 pass in the second half of the Jaguars impressive victory over Pittsburgh.  So a revenge of the quarterback’s theme could have been one story line.

More likely, this would be a story of the feature backs.  The Rams Todd Gurley was mostly ignored in the Seattle game (he carried 14 times), while Jacksonville’s dynamic Leonard Fournette racked up 181 yards against the Steelers.  Since neither defense had shown much ability to stop the run (the Rams came into the game allowing 133.6 rushing yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry, while the Jags were getting stung to the tune of 146.4 rushing yards per game and 5.4 per rush), it was easy to see both backs enjoying big afternoons.

Then, of course, there was the offensive shootout story line.  The Rams came into play averaging 30.4 points per game, while Jacksonville was scoring 27.8 points per contest.

In the end, none of those story lines proved decisive – all though all of them had their moments.

As to the quarterbacks, Goff had a fine bounce back day against a decidedly tough secondary.  He finished with a solid 86.2 rating day, although he threw only 21 times (just 7 times in the second half).  As for Bortles, he threw 15 times in the second half and 35 times for the game.  But, once again, it was obvious that Jacksonville’s passing attack is less than supremely dangerous.  Once the Rams pushed ahead in the fourth quarter, forcing the Jags’ running game to the sideline, it was clear how run-dependent they are in Jacksonville.

The running backs were a better story.  On Fournette’s very last carry against the Steelers the week before, Leonard streaked 90 yards for the clinching touchdown.  On his first carry Sunday, he sprinted 75 yards for a touchdown.  I’m not sure how many players have had back-to-back touchdown runs that totaled 165 yards or more.  Fournette is a threat from anywhere on the field.

However, after that initial burst, the Rams’ talented defensive line took over the game.  Leonard carried 20 more times during the game for a total of just 55 yards.

Gurley, on the other hand, never had that monster burst.  But he consistently found yardage between the tackles.  Todd finished with 116 yards on 23 carries (5.0 per), and proved to be the most consistent offense that either team was able to sustain.

As to the shootout story line, the first quarter ended with the Rams on top 17-14.  But things settled down surprisingly after the first 15 minutes.  In fact, after the first quarter neither team managed another offensive touchdown, as St Louis ground its way to a 27-17 victory (gamebook).

At the end of the day, though, it was the difference in the special teams that decided the game.  One great advantage the Rams have is two elite kickers – and both contributed to the win.  Punter Johnny Hekker did bounce one punt into the end zone, but finished with a 43.1 net punting average for the game.  Place kicker Greg Zuerlein added two field goals (one of them from 56 yards).

But it was the other side of the special teams game (when Jacksonville kicked to Los Angeles) that decided the game.  The Rams returned a kickoff and a blocked punt for the deciding touchdowns, while a shanked punt set up a field goal.  Jacksonville kicker Jason Myers also missed two field goals, although both of them were from more than 50 yards out – underscoring the value of having that long-range weapon.

In the game’s aftermath, I find myself not completely convinced by either team.  Remembering that these teams combined for a total of 7 wins last year (4 by the Rams and 3 by the Jags), it is impressive that these teams have achieved that total already this year (4 for the Rams and 3 for the Jags).  But both franchises have some growing to do before they could be considered among the elite teams.  Both have developed top running games, but both are less than astonishing in the passing game.  Both also seem a little vulnerable defending the run.  Jacksonville’s pass defense looks like it has risen to one of the better pass defenses in the league.  The Rams, of course, excel in the kicking game.

Both of these teams are clearly headed in the right direction.  It will be interesting to watch their development as the season progresses.

The One National Anthem Protest Thread that Everyone in America Should Read

This post is an open invitation for everyone who is affected by the recent National Anthem protest trend that’s sweeping across the nation’s the sport’s scene.  This simple protest has resonated in almost every community and as high up as the White House.  Balanced opinions on this divisive topic are hard to come by.  For a few minutes, I am going to ask the voices on both sides of the aisle to look clearly at the issue and the questions it raises.

And, of course, I am going to make recommendations.  I am not the oldest of old men, but, as the song says, “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.”

Disrespecting the Flag Disrespects All of America

Let me start off by saying that I truly don’t believe that the protestors intend to disrespect all of America.  In their minds they are issuing a call to action – a wake-up call, if you will, to those legions of Americans who seem unmoved (or at least unresponsive) to social situations that – if left unchanged – will erase more than 150 years of progress and destroy this country.  Although I don’t, personally, agree with the protest, the people who oppose it should begin by recognizing that the intent of these protestors is noble.  In their minds and hearts, they are trying to redeem this country.

That being said, though, the truth is that language – even symbolic language – means what it means.  Every time a new state is added to the union, a new star is added to the flag because the flag represents all of us.  It is the enduring symbol of every single American who ever has and ever will live.  Every patriot who bled out his life on a foreign shore – as did every policeman and firefighter who perished in the 911 attacks – had his or her earthly remains wrapped in the flag that you are protesting.  In its various versions it is the same flag that draped the caskets of fallen presidents Lincoln and Kennedy.  It is the same flag that raised over Iwo Jima.  It is as connected to the history and future of this nation – and to every individual in it – as any symbol could be.

Helpful, here, might be a few words from a pledge that we used to say in school (I don’t even know if this is being done anymore).  We learned, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands.  One nation, under God, indivisible.”

For good or for bad, that word – indivisible – connects us all to that symbol.  It connects us to that flag.  But even more than that, it connects us to the ideal that is America.  As you are probably aware, the pledge ends with the phrase “with liberty and justice for all.”

That, of course, is not the case in present-day America.  In truth it never has been the case, and possibly never will be.  It’s possible that a lofty ideal like that may forever elude any nation composed of flawed mortals.  But is that a reason to disrespect an entire nation?  Because it struggles to live up to its own idealized vision of what it should be?  Is it a just protest when the disrespect includes all the people (and there are really quite a lot of them) that have and are working for change?  Do the teammates that are standing (or kneeling) next to you deserve your disrespect? Does Barak Obama deserve your disrespect?  Does Abraham Lincoln?  Does Jackie Robinson?  Does the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King?  You know he died for this vision of America, right?  When he went to the mountaintop, what he saw there was the same vision of what America could be that the founding fathers had when they fought and died to make this little political experiment a reality.  Protesting a flag is not as simple as it seems.  A lot of people – good and bad – get caught in that deceptively complex protest.

On the Other Hand, These Protests are Clearly Protected Speech

Part of the fall out of these protests are attempts by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and President Donald Trump to snuff out the protests.  They need to understand that this cannot be done.  Any attempt at legislating this away will be swept out by any court challenge.  One of the amazing and terrific things about America is that Americans have the right to disrespect this country and anything connected with it.  There is no power in the land – including the President himself – that can legislate away the basic constitutional right of free speech.

And herein lies one of the great ironies of the entire debate.  In their haste to defend the honor of America and her flag, these powerful individuals are attempting far more damage than the protestors could ever inflict.  While the common protest is a simple show of disrespect, what Trump, Goodell and Jones (and probably some others) are trying to do would actually undermine some of the most cherished freedoms that those soldiers I mentioned earlier died to protect.  If allowed to stand, these legislations will begin to erode this government of the people, by the people and for the people until it becomes just another form of dictatorship.  So, my first bit of advice will be to all individuals, great and small, who want to see these protests stop.

How to Make the Protest Go Away

Last week, Vice President Mike Pence gained great notoriety by walking out of an Indianapolis game because some of the players knelt in protest.  These National Anthem protests have gotten headline time for the President and some others that I’ve mentioned.

If that is the point of all this – the national attention – then by all means keep denouncing and walking out.  Keep attempting to legislate it away.  None of these actions will bring the protests to a stop, but they will – for a while, anyway – keep your names in the papers.  If, however, you really want to see these protests stop, there is an exceedingly simple tactic that I recommend to you.

Ignore them.

Now, by saying this I don’t mean to suggest that all of this is simple attention-mongering on the part of the protestors.  I give them credit for more than that.  There is, however, no doubt that the attention lavished on these protests has fueled them like gasoline on flames.  At one point it started to turn into a competition over who could show the most disrespect.  I remember hearing of one of them who rode the stationary bike during the National Anthem.

It’s the society that the professional athlete is raised in.  Whatever he does, good or bad, is always attention-worthy.  When the attention stops, much of the motivation for protesting will go with it.  After all, what’s the point of sending a message over a channel that no one is listening to?

The best advice I can give to everyone on this side of the debate is to simply let it go.  Give them there protest.  I promise you that the Dallas Cowboys, the NFL, and the United States itself all have many problem that are far more pressing than a couple of football players that have decided to kneel during the National Anthem.

And Some Advice for the Protestors

I will begin by recommending a message of choice.  I’ve seen more and more teams doing this this year, but the first time I saw it done was last year by the Seattle Seahawks.  Instead of kneeling, they stood together with their arms linked.  Exactly what this gesture meant to them, I can’t say.  But this is what the symbolism of that moment said to me:

Here we stand together.  We are America.  We are of all her races and peoples.  We come from all backgrounds, from great privilege all the way down to heart-breaking want.  We understand that our country is far from perfect, but we face her issues together as teammates, as Americans.  We still believe in the ideal that is America, and we believe that as long as we stand together and work together there is no problem that we can’t overcome.

I found it to be an especially touching message.  In particular, it is a message of hope.  Kneeling can be easily seen as giving up on America.  To some extent it says that “until the rest of the people in this nation rise to my standards of what your behavior should be, I have nothing to do with you.  I am not a part of you.”  Disdain is rarely an effective method of fomenting change.  A message of hope that will work with people where they are and how they are is much more likely to move the county toward positive change.

Beyond this, though, I think the entire concept of the protest needs to be re-examined.

A Better Idea than Kneeling During the National Anthem

One thing you should be aware of is that the protest is now becoming counterproductive.  The protest has taken on a life of its own, and has now completely overshadowed the very important issue that lies underneath it.  Nobody is talking anymore about the young black lives that have perished under circumstances difficult to justify.  While this national wound continues to suppurate, all the attention is going to which football players are and aren’t kneeling during the National Anthem.  Once the protest crowds its cause out of the public consciousness, it needs to be re-examined.

Again, if this is about the attention, then by all means keep doing it.  As long as the powers that be keep trying to stamp out this act of expression, kneeling during the National Anthem should garner ample amounts of attention.  But a bunch of kneeling football players will never change America.  All of the sound and fury connected with these protests will never help heal America.  My challenge to you is to get off your knees and go to work.

Are there troubled neighborhoods in the cities you play in?  or in the cities that you grew up in?  Walk those streets.  Walk them with your teammates.  Be with the people in their troubles.  Initiate dialog.  Help lift the national vision.

Movie stars have never hesitated to leverage their celebrity to champion causes that they feel strongly about, whether it’s feeding children in Africa or pushing congress to spend more money on AIDS research.  While some athletes have embraced the opportunities presented to give back to their communities – and all cities that are privileged to have major league franchises have benefited considerably from the efforts of community-minded ballplayers – the influence that you can be for good is still a largely untapped resource.

If this issue is important enough to earn the focused attention of players throughout the NFL, then please don’t be content to kneel at the National Anthem.  Seek out people in your communities who will be forces for change as mayors and aldermen – and police chiefs, for that matter – and throw your support behind them.  Share your stories.  Share your concerns.  Share your hopes.  If the America of today is a nation you can’t abide being a part of, then help us to re-shape this country into something we can all be proud (or prouder) of.

All of this is difficult and sometimes uncomfortable work – and that, really, is the point that I’m getting at.

Protesting is – after all – an easy thing.  These days kneeling during the National Anthem is an easy action to take.  And for that reason it can never initiate lasting change.  Before you is an opportunity to be a significant part of the answer – and more importantly, to be a significant part of the healing.

But none of that will happen as long as you stay on your knees.

That Team from Carolina is Relevant Again

After losing a thrilling Super Bowl after the 2015 season, Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers stumbled out of the gate in 2016.  Hitting their bye week at 1-5, they recovered somewhat afterwards, but still ended the season 6-10.  The biggest tumble – statistically – came on the defensive end.  The 2015 team had finished sixth in both points and yards allowed.  They closed 2016 ranked #21 in yards and #26 in points allowed.  Their top ranked scoring offense also fell to #15.

The NFL, it seems, is more than just a week-to-week league.  It’s also a year-to-year league.

Shaking off the memory of last year as though it was a bad dream that never happened, the Carolina Panthers have re-emerged this season.  They sit at 4-1 heading into tonight’s intriguing matchup with the also 4-1 Philadelphia Eagles.  We’ve chatted about the Eagles a few times already this season.  Perhaps we should take a few minutes to get to know the 2017 Carolina Panthers.

The personnel is pretty much the same that took the field for Super Bowl 50.  It’s still Cam Newton at quarterback.  He is coming back from off-season shoulder surgery, and has been particularly sharp his last two times out.  Against the Patriots and Lions he completed 48 of 62 passes (77.4%) for 671 yards, 6 touchdowns and 1 interception.  That should be enough to keep the Eagles concerned.

Behind him is running back Jonathan Stewart (who has been playing through his own little injury – a badish ankle).  His top target in 2015 – tight end Greg Olsen – is still with Carolina, but not on the field these days – he is sidelined temporarily by a broken foot.  In his absence, the offense has gotten more balanced, as Newton has spread the ball around more evenly.

Cam has four receivers who have between 237 and 272 passing yards.  Of the four, only Devin Funchess figured prominently for the 2015 team (he caught 31 passes that year for 473 yards).  He already has 24 this year for 269 yards.  Leading the team in receiving yards so far this season is Kelvin Benjamin with 272 yards.  He was injured for all of 2015.  Behind him at 271 yards is venerable Ed Dickson, who began the year as Olsen’s backup.  His numbers jumped precipitously after his career afternoon in Detroit.

Until Sunday, Dickson’s career best had been only 79 yards – and he hadn’t done that since 2011.  He collected almost that many yards on one play Sunday.  With 6:14 left in the first quarter, Carolina faced a second-and-14 from their own 32.  Newton tossed the ball to Dickson between two defenders about seven yards beyond the line of scrimmage.  The supposed dump off pass turned into a 64-yard dash as several would-be tacklers failed to get the rumbling Dickson to the ground until he had brought the ball to the Detroit 4 yard line.

This was the centerpiece in a dynamic first half for both Newton and Dickson.  Although Carolina went into the locker room ahead just 17-10, Cam had lit up the Detroit defense to the tune of 15 for 17 for 237 yards.  Ed had caught 4 of those passes for 152 yards.  For a little context, in three full seasons in Carolina, Ed had never had more than 134 receiving yards in any of those seasons.

Both players had a bit more pedestrian second half.  Newton was a solid 11 for 16 for 118 yards, with just one of those passes going to Dickson for 23 yards.

Fourth Quarter Detroit

Once again, the fourth quarter belonged to Detroit.  Trailing 27-10 with just 8:58 left in the game, the Lions drove for 122 of the 133 total yards they would gain in the second half on their last two drives – both resulting in touchdowns.

Detroit had used two of its timeouts on defense during the Carolina possession in between the Lion touchdowns.  Holding the one last timeout, and with 3:32 still on the clock, Detroit elected to kickoff and try to hold the Panthers again.  It almost worked.  With 2:30 left in the game, Carolina faced a third-and-9 on its 24.  One more defensive play would give the ball back to Matthew Stafford with nearly two minutes left, needing just a field goal for a tie.  But one final completion from Newton to Benjamin down the left sideline for 17 yards sealed the deal (gamebook).

The Lions now sit at 3-2.  Both losses have been at home, but both have been razor-thin losses to two teams (Atlanta and Carolina) who are a combined 7-2 and look like they will be January heavyweights.  Next for them is a very dangerous New Orleans team.

Early Assessment

Both teams leave this contest with questions to answer.

Detroit has been excellent in almost all considerations, but a persistently non-existent running game threatens to derail their season.  In week two, they racked up 138 rushing yards against the Giants (in a 24-10 win).  In their other 4 games they have totaled 300 yards.  In the second half of Sunday’s game, their running line was 4 attempts for 5 yards.  That’s even more distressing when you realize that those rushes included one 12-yarder from Ameer Abdullah.  Detroit’s other 3 running plays in that half netted a loss of 7 yards.  This is an area that needs to be fixed if Detroit is ever going to compete with the big boys.

Carolina’s running game also ranks in the lower half of the league (they rank nineteenth, averaging 98.6 yards per game), but they haven’t typically struggled here.  In fact, they took the field Sunday having racked up 465 rushing yards through their first 4 games – a fine 116.3 per game.  They had gained 272 rushing yards in their previous two games.

But Detroit’s surprising run defense did an impressive number on them.  Carolina struggled to end the game with 28 yards on 28 rushes.  Even though Newton’s final three kneel-downs surrendered 6 yards, Carolina’s second half rushing totals of 13 yards on 17 carries is more than a little surprising.  In fact the two teams combined for only 18 rushing yards in 21 attempts – uncommonly low, even in this passing era.

More concerning for Carolina is the pass defense.  After a slow start, Stafford became the latest quarterback to enjoy a big afternoon at the Panther’s expense.  Stafford was 14 of 19 (73.7%) after intermission for 158 yards and the 2 closing touchdown passes – a 133.2 rating.  For the season, opposing QBs are completing 69.8% of their passes against the Panthers, tossing 7 touchdowns while Carolina has collected just 1 interception through its first 5 games.  The QB rating against them so far this season is an elevated 98.1.

In their defense, the last three quarterbacks they have lined up against are all pretty good – Stafford follows Drew Brees and Tom Brady.  But they need to come up with some answers.  They face another real good one tonight in Carson Wentz.

September Dandies

The beginning of every new season brings with it a few September dandies.  These are the teams that take the league by surprise.  Usually, they are teams that have been bad recently – Jacksonville, for example.  Sometimes, they are teams that have been pretty good, but are suddenly playing at an other-worldly level – like Kansas City.  It’s usually about this time of the season that these teams start coming back to earth.

Two of these dandies got a little splash of reality last Sunday.  Buffalo – off to a surprising 3-1 start – fell to Cincinnati.  The surprising Rams of Los Angeles (who had also been 3-1) had scored 142 points through their first four games.  But that gaudy offense came to a crashing halt Sunday at home to a still vulnerable Seattle team in a 16-10 loss (gamebook).

Saddled with an offensive line that has yet to come together, the Seahawks have exploited San Francisco and Indianapolis for 325 rushing yards in those two games, and only 221 yards combined rushing yards in the other three.  Against Los Angeles’ leaky run defense (which had surrendered 531 yards over their previous 3 games), Seattle managed just 62 yards on 25 carries.  Quarterback Russell Wilson has also been running for his life entirely too much.

On the defensive side of the ball, Sunday’s game was not dissimilar to most of the other games Seattle has played this year – significant yards given up, but few points. Seattle ranks just seventeenth in yardage allowed, but they are the fifth hardest team to put points on the board against so far this season.  On Sunday, the Rams had several opportunities to spin the scoreboard in what ended up as a frustrating loss.

Los Angeles turned the ball over 5 times, including an uncommon lost opportunity on their first drive.

Beginning on their own 38, the Rams marched smartly to the Seahawk 12 in just 6 plays – facing no third downs on the drive.  Then running back Todd Gurley broke around left end heading for the end zone, where safety Earl Thomas closed quickly on him.  Gurley was in the act of stretching the ball toward the end zone (and, in fact, the play was originally ruled a touchdown), but before it could get there, Thomas batted it lose.  On its way out of bounds, the loose ball struck the pylon and rolled through the end zone.  Ruled a touchback, the Rams couldn’t even get a field goal chance out of their impressive opening drive.

And so it went.  In addition to the turnovers, usually automatic kicker Greg Zuerlein shanked a 36-yard field goal to open the second half.  And, in a final indignity, with 8 seconds left and the Rams facing a fourth-and-10 from the Seahawk 20, quarterback Jared Goff found rookie third-round draft choice Cooper Kupp breaking clean over the middle in the end zone.  But Jared’s potential game-winning toss was agonizingly too high and wide and only grazed off of Kupp’s fingertips.  The Rams finished the game outgaining Seattle 375-241, but only had 10 points to show for it.

In what was, perhaps, the first high-stakes game of his career (first-place in the division was on the line), Goff finished 22 of 47 (46.8%) including just 14 of 32 in the second half (43.8%).  In many of those instances, Jared had receivers as open as you can expect to get against Seattle, but he couldn’t get the ball on target.

Whether this loss signals the beginning of the end for the Rams remains to be seen.  Los Angeles will get its chance to respond Sunday when they line up against Jacksonville in an early-season “Dandy” bowl.  When the schedule came out, not too many would have circled this Week Six game between Jacksonville (3-13 last season) and the Rams (4-12 last season) as a game of interest.  But so it is.

As I mentioned earlier, the NFL is a year-to-year league.

Introducing the New Jacksonville Jaguars

As I was watching the game, I tried to remember the last time I watched Jacksonville play.  It may actually have been their last playoff game following the 2007 season.  Surely, I must have caught one of their games in the last decade?

Anyway, if – like me – the Jacksonville Jaguars have flown beneath your radar for the last few years, you should know that things are a bit different there these days.

First of all, there is a newish head coach.  Jack Del Rio hasn’t been here since 2011.  The head coach during most of the lost years between was Gus Bradley.  In four almost complete seasons (2013-2016) his teams never won more than 5 games.  The team is now entrusted to Doug Marrone, who started to turn Buffalo around a few seasons ago.

The defense has been refurbished.  Last year’s first-round draft pick – cornerback Jalen Ramsey – has given Jacksonville an attitude in the secondary.  He has been complimented this year by the additions of cornerback A.J. Bouye (who was an important part of Houston’s very good secondary last year), safety Barry Church (who came over from Dallas), and defensive end Calais Campbell (who was in Arizona last year).

And now, all of a sudden, there is a semi-legitimacy to the Jaguar defense (semi-legitimate because they allowed 569 rushing yards over the three consecutive games before Sunday).

The offensive concept is kind of new, too.  Less passing from quarterback Blake Bortles and more handing off to this year’s first-round draft pick, running back Leonard Fournette.  At 240 pounds (listed) Fournette is constructed along the lines of the power backs of old – the kind that wears away at the will of the defensive secondary to tackle him in the fourth quarter.

The re-birth in Jacksonville has been somewhat hit and miss so far.  They have losses to teams that you should think they would have beaten (Tennessee and the NY Jets).  They’ve had one game where they turned the ball over 3 times – but that was the only game that they’ve turned it over more than once.  Only once have they gained more than 313 offensive yards, while serving up at least 371 yards on defense three times in their first five games.  So there is some work that still needs to be done there.

Last Sunday, they engaged in a very interesting matchup against a somewhat similar Pittsburgh team.  As the two teams hit the field Sunday afternoon, both featured high-octane running games and tough secondaries that challenge every pass.  Both also featured suspect run defenses.  The Jaguars had just been chewed up for 256 yards by the Jets (of all people).  The week before that Chicago (of all people) had drilled the Steelers for 222 rushing yards – although it should be noted that that was the only game so far that they had allowed more than 91 rushing yards.

The way this game was expected to play out, the two running games would take turns bashing each other’s defenses, until Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would take advantage of enough opportunities downfield to give Pittsburgh enough margin that Jacksonville would be forced into a passing game.  That story line never developed.

Instead, it was only Jacksonville that followed the expected game plan.  Of their 32 first-half offensive plays, 18 ended up being runs.  They gained only 3.3 yards per rush, but they kept running.  Meanwhile, Pittsburgh never did really get back to Le’Veon Bell, who carried the ball only 9 times in the first half.  Thinking that they could open up the running game with an early passing attack, Ben threw the ball 21 times in the first half, with mostly tepid results (12 of 21 for 152 yards and an interception).

The Steeler strategy further dissolved in the second half, when consecutive possessions ended in deflected passes that wound up as interception touchdowns for Jacksonville.  Suddenly, a game that was 7-6 at the half had turned into a 20-9 Jacksonville lead.  Things went downhill for Pittsburgh after that.  Bell finished the day with only 15 carries.  Ben ended up throwing 55 passes and getting 5 of them picked.

Meanwhile, Jacksonville kept running.  Fournette had 14 carries in the second half alone – the last one being the most memorable.  Leonard burst off left tackle for a game icing 90-yard touchdown run.  He finished with 181 of Jacksonville’s 231 rushing yards (on 37 attempts) in Jacksonville’s 30-9 conquest (gamebook).

Perhaps the most telling number to come out of that second half was 1.  That was the number of passes thrown by Jacksonville quarterback Bortles.  Once Jacksonville pushed to that 11-point lead, Blake never threw again – this includes hand-offs on a third-and-7 and a third-and-11.

There are, apparently, a lot of pieces in place in Jacksonville.  One piece, I guess, that they are still looking for is that quarterback.

Up next for the Jaguars is a very interesting game against another franchise that is trying to rise from the ashes – the now Los Angeles Rams.

Meanwhile, in Houston . . .

While the Jags are probably still looking for their quarterback of the future, Houston thinks they have found theirs.  Again.

Last year, that was going to be Brock Osweiler.  Two years before that it was Ryan Fitzpatrick.  Since about the midpoint of the 2013 season, when they finally figured out that Matt Schaub was not the man who would lead them to the promised land, they have cycled a lot of quarterbacks in and out of Houston.

The newest quarterback of the future is Deshaun Watson, the twelfth overall pick in this year’s draft.  Around him they have crafted a clever, deception-based offense.  I would guess that almost 40% of their offensive snaps Sunday night (at least until they were behind far enough that Kansas City knew they would have to drop back and pass) involved some end-around motion from a back or receiver circling back into the backfield.  This was sprinkled in with a significant amount of zone-read looks.

The effect on the Houston running game – at least on Sunday night – was significant.  Several times the backfield action proved just distracting enough to allow the Texans significant yards between guard and center.  For the evening, Houston piled up 144 rushing yards and averaged 6.3 yards per carry.

On the passing end, the numbers have been very kind to Watson.  Through the first 145 passes of his professional career, Deshaun carries a 100.7 passer rating.  This comes mostly through the virtue of his touchdown passes.  He tossed 5 Sunday night, and now has 9 over his last two games, and 11 over his last three.  It’s a very encouraging start, but Deshaun is far from a finished product.

His decision making – both in passing and in the read-option run game – was sometimes spotty.  He wasn’t intercepted on Sunday night, but that wasn’t through lack of opportunity.  Kansas City had a few should-have-been interceptions (two that would have been returned for touchdowns) that were dropped.  Understand, I’m not saying Deshaun performed poorly.  What I am pointing out is that the talented Mr. Watson is still a rookie quarterback, and there will be some growing pains along the way.

Speaking of Pain

On two of the most innocuous-looking plays of the season, during the game’s opening drive, two enormous presences in the Houston defense were deleted for the season.  On the game’s seventh play, and after a seemingly uneventful pass rush, dynamic linebacker Whitney Mercilus knelt on the turf.  Seemingly nothing major, Whitney suffered a torn pectoral muscle – ending his season.  Seven plays later, superstar J.J. Watt went down just a little awkwardly on another seemingly uneventful pass rush.  The result – a tibial plateau fracture that would require season-ending surgery.  Such is the thin, thin line between an outstanding season and another bad-luck finish.  Houston is a courageous team, led by a fine head coach in Bill O’Brien.  But they will be challenged to plug two larger-than-life holes in their defense.

Watt’s exit was possibly the most heavily covered of any in recent NFL memory.  The cameras followed every step of the way.  We saw JJ hobble to the sidelines.  We saw him going into and out of the medical tent.  Watched him limp into the locker room; saw the ambulance waiting grimly for him outside the locker room.  We had the haunting shot of JJ sitting inside the closed ambulance, his face framed perfectly through the back window by the emergency insignia of the ambulance door.  We even had drone coverage of the ambulance’s arrival at the nearest hospital.

Over-done?  I don’t think so.  In his few short seasons in the NFL, JJ has exceeded simple legendary status.  He is more than just the face of the franchise – not that that’s a small thing.  He is one of the faces of the league.  Even more than that, he is kind of a symbol for Houston itself – especially in the wake of the recent natural disasters in the area.  JJ Watt will leave a legend-sized hole in the Houston defense and in the entire NFL.

And Then There is Kansas City

While Houston was having one of its more heart-rending evenings of the young season, the Kansas City Chiefs kept on keeping on.  With their informative and entertaining 42-34 win (gamebook) the Chiefs are 5-0 and the last undefeated team in the NFL.

How will this play out?  They have looked unstoppable, but that kind of thing has been known to happen through the early weeks of a season.  Quarterback Alex Smith has been playing on a level that most didn’t believe that he had in him.  After 158 passes this season, Smith is completing 76.6% of them, averaging 8.80 yards per attempted pass, and he checks in with a convincing 125.8 quarterback rating that features a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 11-0.

Is he for real?  Are the Chiefs for real?  It’s too early, I think, to tell.  Their recent success – and the recent struggles of the Steelers (discussed above) sets up a very interesting contest this Sunday as Kansas City hosts Pittsburgh.  The Steelers are a proud franchise, not used to being picked on by the Jacksonville’s of the league, and they are bent on responding.  Pittsburgh is also the team that ended Kansas City’s playoff run last year, when they invaded Arrowhead last January and escaped with an 18-16 victory (gamebook).  In that game, Alex finished 20 of 34 for just 172 yards with 1 touchdown pass and one interception (a 69.7 rating).

Perhaps our understanding of both teams will be a bit clearer after next Sunday’s game.

Fixing the Brand

As the 2017 playoffs begin to crank up in earnest, the St Louis Cardinals will be relegated to watching.  A proud franchise who – not too long ago played in four consecutive Championship Series –  will be bristling over their second straight exclusion from the post-season dance.

All over Cardinal Nation, a host of voices will be raised to give guidance and counsel to the St Louis management.  I understand that mine will be a lonely voice, lost – no doubt – amidst the throngs clamoring for truckloads of money to be thrown at some high profile free agent or other.  I am not terribly concerned about these voices, because (usually) Cardinal management has a much clearer grasp on the needs of their team than the common fan.

This year, however, from their early comments I am concerned that John Mozeliak and his councilors may have missed the many loud messages that his team has been sending him.  So, as I acknowledge the fact that my singular plea for reason is liable to vanish into the great void of the blogosphere, I will nonetheless send forth my diagnosis of the club’s current issues and – as far as I am able – to at least hint at some sensible prescriptions.

It is important to note that none of this is as cut and dried as most fans (and bloggers) seem to think.  Contrary to many opinions, giving Miami whatever they want for Giancarlo Stanton is not really a prescription for success, either in 2018 or beyond.

This is, in fact, both a critical and challenging offseason.  St Louis has a handful of gifted players who must be added to the 40-man roster or be lost.  They, therefore, will be challenged with making critical decisions about the futures of the players already on that roster.  In many of these cases, the cases for and against these players is anything but clear.  The organizational challenge is to be right in deciding which young talents to embrace and which to part with.

None of this will be easy at all, as I will attempt to point out.

First Off, This is a Team in Transition

Most followers of the Cardinals are already aware that this team is transitioning from the veterans of the teams that went to all of those championship series.  For years, the organization has been stockpiling talent throughout its minor league system.  Now, that rich resource is beginning to re-shape the major league team.

Twenty-three percent of all plate appearances taken by the 2017 Cardinals belonged to players who opened the season in Memphis.  That percentage rose to 34% in the second half.  The pitching staff was less influenced, but still 16% of the innings pitched came from Memphis arms.  That figure also rose to 25% in the second half.

Make no mistake.  The youth movement is underway.  There had been similar displacement the year before, with the emergences of Aledmys Diaz and Alex Reyes.  St Louis is clearly rebuilding, and trying to remain competitive while doing so.

The answer to getting this team back into the playoffs – for all of the rebuilding – is actually comparatively simple.  They need to guess correctly on a closer.

Get Thyself a Closer

For as uneven as the Cardinals have been the last two years, they would have made the playoffs both years if they could have successfully filled one position – the closer.  With more stability in the ninth inning, this teams could easily have made up the one game they lacked in 2016 and the four they fell short of this year.  Cardinal pitchers appearing as closers finished 2017 with a 3.75 ERA – the worst showing for Cardinal closers since the fourth-place 2008 team finished with a 6.27 ERA from its closers.

It has become axiomatic throughout baseball – probably on all levels.  If you don’t pitch the ninth, you will not succeed.  This organization believed it had the ninth inning covered at the start of both of the last two seasons.  They had no reasons to anticipate the struggles Trevor Rosenthal would have in 2016 or the problems that Seung-hwan Oh would run into this year.

Swing the net out to include the eighth inning, and the story becomes even more compelling.  They lost 6 games this year when leading after 7 innings.  Even more telling, in games the Cards were tied after 7 innings, they were only 3-12 – by percentage the worst performance by a Cardinal team in this century

But the Cardinals already know they have bullpen issues.  And solving the eighth and ninth innings may well get them back into the playoffs, but won’t address the issues that will keep them from advancing once there.

It’s from this point on that I don’t think the organization is seeing clearly.

The Magical Impact Bat?

Among the primary targets this offseason, an “impact bat” seems to be high on the list.  Really?  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  I wouldn’t mind seeing an established bat in the middle of the lineup.  But who?  And at what cost.

The least intrusive path would be free agency.  But who would that be?  J.D. Martinez is probably the most established of the free-agents to be.  Would he come to St Louis?  Given the Cardinals’ track record of wooing elite free agents (not to mention the spacious ballpark), I’ll have to remain skeptical on this one.

What concerns me most is that they will go out and trade a whole bunch of promising players for a slightly upgraded version of Brandon Moss.  Is Josh Donaldson, for example, really worth surrendering the future of an Alex Reyes or a Sandy Alcantara?  Are you really sure we don’t already have that impact bat?  Can you say for certainty that the three-four-five spots in the Cardinal order come next July (or perhaps even June) won’t be Paul DeJong, Patrick Wisdom and Tyler O’Neill?  Look at some of the players on the team this year that got less than full-time at bats.

DeJong hit 25 home runs in 417 at bats.  Give him 500 at bats (around the norm for a starter) and Paul would have been a 30 home run man with a .285/.325/.532 batting line.  And he was a rookie this year.  There is a fairly good chance we haven’t seen the best of Paul yet.

Tommy Pham only made 128 starts, but finished with 23 home runs and a .306/.411/.520 batting line.  A .931 OPS sounds pretty “impact” to me.

Jose Martinez got only 272 at bats, but hit 14 home runs.  That would project to 26 home runs in a 500 at bat season to go along with his .309/.379/.518 batting line.  Are we really, truly sure that Jose couldn’t be a fulltime player.

Moreover, I think the “impact bat” is an over-rated concept, unless you’re running a Whitey-ball offense and your lineup is 7 jack-rabbits and one bopper.  Far more important is the depth of the lineup.

Consider:  in the offensively unimpressive first half, four of the eight Cardinal batsmen with the most plate appearances hit below .250.  Dexter Fowler finished at .248, Stephen Piscotty hit .240, Matt Carpenter scuffled in at .237, and Randal Grichuk hit the break at .215.  That’s a lot of outs sprinkled regularly through the lineup.  A “bopper” in the middle would certainly help, but with that many struggling bats, one “impact bat” won’t cure the problem.

Now consider: for the 44 games from August 6 through September 23, St Louis averaged 5.77 runs per game – an adequate offensive production, by anyone’s standard.  During that span – of the eight players getting the most plate appearances – only Carpenter (.244) was under .250 – and that just barely.  Nobody hit more than the 9 home runs that came off the bat of DeJong, but almost everybody hit some.  Most importantly, they weren’t making outs.  In almost all cases, a deep lineup is better for your offense than a concentrated one.

There is considerable pressure in the team to do something dramatic to push the team back into the playoffs.  Again, I am just one voice.  But if I had one of the best farm systems in baseball, I would trust it more.  I would give this system every opportunity to prove to me that the pieces I need are already at my disposal.  I’m not saying never trade from any of this surplus.  But I am saying don’t trade the future for a mess of pottage (no offense, Josh).

Wither Lance Lynn

In this post, I made most of my case for keeping Lance Lynn.  Since one of the comments made by the brain trust had something to do with shoring up the rotation (a goal I approve of), I have to wonder where they think they will get better value than Lance?  Remembering that he was in his first year coming off elbow reconstruction (the infamous Tommy John surgery), Lance’s 33 starts, 17 quality starts, 186.1 innings pitched and 3.43 ERA are quite impressive.

More than the numbers, though, Lance was a bulldog.  He even got hit in the head with a line drive and kept on pitching.  As the next generation of pitchers graduate to the majors, Lance would be a terrific mentor.

Yes, he faded at the end – which was disappointing.  Still, I am not at all convinced that, for the money and the years it would take to sign Lynn, they will find a better bargain out there.

Here’s a final note.  In a down year for free-agent pitchers, Lance will be a likely target for a certain division rival who is always scrambling for pitching.  He would be just what the doctor ordered for them.

My prediction here is that if they let Lance walk, they will regret it.

These are all important considerations, but the single most important failing of the 2017 team is one that I don’t think they are even aware of.

A Matter of Character

Throughout the course of the entire season, manager Mike Matheny would intone sentiments similar to this: time and time again, this team has shown me its character and its toughness; one thing I will never ever doubt is the toughness and character of this team.

The character of the team and its much-envied clubhouse was the foundation upon which the belief in the Cardinals’ eventual triumph was forged.  It is organizational bedrock.  The foundational doctrine upon which all decisions are based.

And it’s complete mythology.

In every way possible, the 2017 Cardinals tried to send this message to their manager’s office – and to their front office, too for that matter.  Character wins were almost non-existent in 2017.

They were 4-7 in walk-off victories, 5-9 in extra-innings, 24-29 in one-run games.  And two measures that I am fond of as revealers of character: they were 39-39 after losing their previous game, and 27-44 against teams with winning records – including losing 6 of their last 7 must-win games against Chicago.

As a point of reference, the 39-39 in games after a loss is the worst record for a Cardinal team in this century.  The 2007 team that finished 78-84 was 43-41 after a loss.  The 2006 team that snuck into the playoffs and won the whole thing after an 83-78 regular season was 43-40 after a loss (counting the playoffs).

By contrast, the 100-win 2005 team went 50-15 after a loss (counting the playoffs).  In fact, the three 100-win versions in this century (2004, 2005, 2015) combined to go 128-65 (.663) after losing their previous game.  There have been seven 90-win teams in this century so far.  After losing their previous game, those teams have combined to go 301-209 (.591).  There have also been seven 80-win teams in St Louis in this century.  Even they have managed to go 294-251 (.539) in games after a loss.

The utility of this metric is that it reveals precisely one of the principle failings of this year’s club – a frustrating inability to break out of losing streaks.  In my season wrap-up post, I documented several extended losing spells.  In most of them, St Louis needed to wait for a series against a pretty bad team (like Philadelphia) before they could pull themselves out of their tailspin.

As to the record against winning teams, think about 27-44.  That is a .380 winning percentage.  If you took a fairly good AAA team and had them play 71 games against average major league teams, this is about the record you would expect them to compile.  In fact, this winning percentage is also the lowest of any Cardinal team in this century, breaking the one-year-old record of the 2016 team that floundered along at 24-35 (.407) against teams that won at least as many as they lost.

I promise you that the talent gap isn’t that great between the Cardinals and the other winning teams in the league.  This points strictly to toughness.

Over the course of the entire century, St Louis is 766-566 (.575) after a loss, and 713-688 (.509) against winning teams.

So, who are the players who have routinely fallen short in these character games?  It’s time, I suppose, to name names.

Stephen Piscotty

Enduring the worst season of his career, Piscotty also routinely came up short in tough situations.  He hit .213 against winning teams (29 for 136) with 3 home runs.  This included a .179 average (5 for 28 – all singles) after the All-Star Break.  During the season’s second half he was also 10 for 57 (.175) in games after a loss, and just 3 for 24 with runners in scoring position.  Renowned for his prowess with runners in scoring position through the first two seasons of his career, Piscotty hit just .125 in the second half this year with ducks on the pond.

I don’t think anyone in the organization believes that 2017 will be a representative year in the career of Stephen Piscotty.  A combination of things conspired to derail his season early, and he never found his way back.  But, with talented outfielders rising through the system, the organization will now be forced to re-evaluate their commitment to Piscotty.  Further complicating the issue is that, should they decide to trade Stephen, they are unlikely to get full trade value.

Piscotty is a very cerebral player, and very likely to figure things out.  Whatever his future with the organization, Stephen is one player who could profit greatly by hitting the ground running next season.

Luke Weaver

This, I suppose, should be expected.  Rookie right-hander Luke Weaver was mostly a revelation during the last part of the second half.  But the young man still has some lessons to learn that the league’s better clubs are all too willing to teach.

Luke made 5 starts against winning teams, culling just 1 quality start.  He served up 6 home runs in 24.2 innings, compiling a 2-2 record with an 8.03 ERA and a .321/.381/.547 batting line against.  It will be interesting to see how quickly he learns and adapts.

Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman was a bit exposed – especially late in the season – by the better teams.  In 35 games (26.2 innings) against higher quality opponents, Matthew was pushed around a bit to the tune of a 5.06 ERA and a .284 batting average against.

Not So Cut and Dried

A few of the players on the team, though, defy an easy label.  In this difficult off-season, these will be the hardest decisions the organization will have to make, as guessing wrong will come with consequences.

Randal Grichuk

For the last two seasons, Randal has been the almost-emergent superstar.  In each of the last two seasons, his final numbers have disappointed.  But in both seasons he has shown enough hint of promise to earn another chance.

Grichuk finished 2017 with much the same totals as 2016.  The batting average fell a couple of notches to .238 (from .240) and the home runs dipped from 24 to 22.  He ended 2017 slugging .473 after slugging .480 the year before.  Overall, less than compelling.

But, he did hit .265/.303/.550 with 13 of his home runs in 189 at bats after the break.  So now, the organization has to decide if that was just a tease?  Or is it real progress?

He ended the year at just .218 (43 of 197) against winning teams, but hit 11 of his 22 home runs against them.  In the second half, he was 20 of 83 (.241) when playing winning teams, but with a .542 slugging percentage as half of those 20 hits went for extra bases – including 7 home runs.

In games after a loss, Randal checked in with a disappointing .201 average (36 of 179), including just .188 (15 for 80) in the second half – but again, with a .438 slugging percentage.

Randal mostly split right field with Piscotty in the season’s second half.  In Grichuk’s 34 starts the team was 22-12.  They were 13-18 in Piscotty’s 31 starts.

There is no question that Randal was productive in the second half.  His 13 home runs were only 3 behind team-leader Paul DeJong in 100 fewer at bats.  If the Grichuk of the second half had had a 500 at bat season he would have hit 34 home runs with his .265 batting average and .550 slugging percentage.

With Randal’s potential, you would hope for more than that.  But, if the Randal they saw in the second half is the Randal that they can count on seeing all of next year, I think they could accept that.

Matt Carpenter

Matt Carpenter’s entire season is tough to get a handle on.  On the one hand, he drew a career high 109 walks, leading to the second-highest on-base percentage of his career (.384).  On the other hand, his batting average continued to sink – down to .241 (30 points lower than his previous worst average).  On the other hand, he was apparently battling shoulder issues all season – perhaps accounting for much of that loss of production.  On the other hand, after playing in at least 154 games a year from 2013 through 2015, Matt has followed with two injury plagued seasons.  He also hit 23 home runs (his third consecutive 20-homer season) and slugged a solid .451.  His final OPS of .835 is still well above league average, but below either of his previous two seasons.

In his games against winning teams, Matt hit just .221 (49 of 222), but drew 38 walks, helping him to a .341 on base percentage.  He made 141 starts this year, with the team going 70-71 (.496) when he was in the lineup, and 13-8 (.619) when he wasn’t.

So did Matt have a good year or not? With the home runs and the on base, I suppose that I would have to call it good, but troubling.  By degrees, Matt is becoming more valuable for his ability to walk than for his ability to hit the ball.  And, by degrees, the team is starting to feel the loss of that big hit.

Carpenter is one of the team’s core members, and he will be on the field somewhere on opening day (barring another injury).  But a lot of elements in his career trajectory concern me.

Michael Wacha

While this was – in many ways – a triumphal season for Michael Wacha, he is still coming up short in these character games.  After suffering through three injury plagued seasons, an offseason workout regimen kept Michael on the field for 30 starts and 165.2 innings.  The anticipation is that his 12-9 record and 4.13 ERA will be marks to build on going forward.

It may, indeed, play out that way.  It is, nonetheless, true, that Wacha (who excelled against good teams and in stopper situations early in his career) continues to trend down in these games.

From 2013 through 2015, Wacha pitched in 40 games (35 starts) against teams that boasted winning records for the season.  He was 15-9 in those games with a 3.08 ERA and a .217 batting average against.

In 2013 and 2014, Wacha pitched in 12 games (10 starts) after a Cardinal loss.  He was 5-3 with a 2.88 ERA in those situations, holding batters to a .195 batting average.

In 2017, Wacha was only 2-6 in 12 starts against winning teams.  His 5.90 ERA was accompanied by a .296/.365/.502 batting line against.  He was 5-4 in 13 starts following a Cardinal loss, but with a 4.76 ERA.  Since 2015, Wacha is 4-10 against winning teams with a 5.70 ERA, and since 2014 he is 15-9, but with a 4.64 ERA in games after a loss.

Wacha is yet another enigma on this team.  Beyond the physical issues, there has been a palpable loss of mojo.  The spectacular hero of the 2013 playoffs has lost that big game feel.  Wacha is one of the players who could make a huge difference next year if he can channel his earlier self.

Carlos Martinez

In spite of the fact that he tossed his first two complete-game shutouts and crossed over both the 200-inning and 200-strikeout plateaus for the first time in his career, Carlos Martinez regressed noticeably in 2017.  After going 14-7 with a 3.01 ERA in 2015 (his first year in the rotation), and 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA last year, Carlos saw those numbers sink to 12-11 with a 3.64 ERA.  And the core difficulty that he had was with winning teams.

In his first two seasons in the rotation, Martinez had gone 12-9 with a 3.35 ERA against winning teams.  He had put together quality starts in 17 of his 26 starts against them.

He made 15 starts against winning teams this year.  Only 7 of those fulfilled the standards for a quality start.  Even though he has “stuff” the equal of any pitcher in the game, he was only 4-7 with a 4.28 ERA in those games.  He was just 1-3 with a 6.12 ERA with a .301 batting average against them in the second half of the season.  After allowing just 12 home runs in 166.2 innings against winning teams his first two years in the rotation, he served up 11 in 90.1 innings against them last year.

In all likelihood, this is just a bump in the road for Carlos.  But there were a couple of concerning developments that I noticed that need to be solved somehow, or Martinez will never realize his potential.

For one thing, Martinez continually tries to do too much.  His anointing as the ace of the staff this year may have fed into this tendency.  Especially in big games, he tries too much to give extra effort.  In a game that rewards players that learn to play within themselves, this will usually be counterproductive.

It was noted that Carlos complicated three consecutive late-season starts by throwing away routine double-play balls.  More than this, though, Martinez’ need to do too much affected his fielding for much of the season.  He dove, scrambled, and lunged for every near-by ground ball.  He probably caused nearly a dozen infield hits by deflecting grounders that would have been right to his infielders.

On several occasions, he even kicked at ground balls to his right, like a hockey goalie trying to make a skate save.  Now, I ask you, what good could come of that?  Who in the world could make a play on a ball that Carlos has deflected with his foot?

It’s all part and parcel of a young pitcher losing control of himself.

The other issue is even more concerning.  There sometimes – especially in big games – seems to be an emotional fragility to Martinez.  Something in his confidence seems to drain if the opposing team has early success against him.  He hasn’t fully mastered the ability to gather himself after bad things happen and continue to pitch within himself.

There is no better example of this than the game that sent the Cardinal season spinning toward its final destination (box score).

For ten batters on a beautiful Friday afternoon in Wrigley, Carlos Martinez was untouchable.  His 100-mph fast ball jumped and ran like a thing alive, and his slider was about eleven different flavors of filthy.  The defending champion Cubs – possessors of one of the most potent lineups in baseball – couldn’t touch him.  Five of the ten batters struck out, and four of the others hit groundouts.  Of his first 43 pitches, 30 were strikes.

Then Kris Bryant – the eleventh batter to face him – looped a fly ball to right on a 2-0 pitch.  It wasn’t hit terribly well or terribly far.  If this incident had happened at Busch, Piscotty would have probably been about a step on the track as he made the catch.  But in Wrigley it was just far enough to creep over that overhanging basket for a game-tying home run.

And with that, the air went out of Carlos Martinez.

The first 10 batters he faced got no hits.  Six of the last 16 he faced got hits.  After striking out 5 of the first 10, he didn’t strike out another batter.  While 30 of his first 43 pitches were strikes, only 31 of his final 57 made it to the strike zone.  None of the first 10 batters walked.  Carlos walked 3 of the last 16 and hit another as his once dominating slider flew wildly all over the place.

Carlos ended the affair lasting just 5.1 innings.  On a day that he started with devastating stuff, he ended serving up 7 runs on 6 hits and 3 walks.

Being “the man” requires uncommon mental and emotional discipline.  The next level for Martinez lies just beyond that barrier.

Let it be noted that in three years in the rotation, Carlos is 17-8 with a 2.96 ERA in games after a loss.  That includes his 4-3, 2.61 mark this year in those situations.

Better Than the Numbers Suggest

One player deserves mention in a better category.  His contribution was greater than his numbers might suggest.

Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler was the big free agent acquisition after being one of the drivers of Chicago’s championship the year before.  His final numbers were sort of ordinary (.264 batting average with 18 home runs).  He also hit just .225 (42 for 187) against winning teams, and .237 (52 of 219) in games following a loss.  Not overly impressive.

But Fowler’s season was a story of two halves.  Hobbled by a variety of injuries in the first half (mostly his feet), Dexter limped to a .248 average (albeit with 14 home runs).  He had hit .199 (27 of 136) against winning teams, and .201 (28 of 139) in games after a loss.

As his health improved, Fowler became a decided force for good throughout the second half.  He hit .288/.400/.488 after the break, including .294 with a .400 on base percentage against winning teams, and .300 with a .402 on base percentage in games after a loss.

The guy I saw at the end of the season is the guy I’m excited to see all year next year.

Setting the Bar

The Cardinals did have a few players who consistently rose to the challenge of the games against the better teams.  They should get a notice as well.

Tommy Pham

Tommy’s break-through season wasn’t limited to beating up on lesser teams.  Tommy hit .287 against over .500 teams with a .391 on base percentage.  He also hit .330/.451/.558 in games after a loss.  He also hit .305/.420/.514 with runners in scoring position.  Tommy had himself a year.

Lance Lynn

It’s probably fitting that I spend the last few paragraphs that I am likely to devote to the 2017 baseball season to Lance Lynn.  While the Cardinals repeatedly fell short against winning teams, Lance was 4-3 against them, with 4 other potential wins lost in the bullpen.  He posted a 3.09 ERA against these teams in 78.2 innings, with a .196 batting average against him.

Are we really, really sure we want to cut ties with him?

Final Word

Again, I am just one voice.  But the message clearly sent from the 2017 season is that this team’s greatest need is not some aging slugger to bat fourth.  The greatest gap between the Cards and the Cubs – and the other good teams in the majors – is the character gap.  If this were my team, this is the area that I would focus on first.

The Cardinals’ 2017 Season in Review

The story of the 2017 St Louis Cardinals season was very much like a drowning man continually fighting his way to the surface for, perhaps, one quick breath before sinking back down again.  At the end of the story – and the season – he finally goes down and doesn’t come back up.

In spite of a thrilling opening night win against Chicago (box score), the Cardinals began the season in a free-fall, cobbling together three straight three-game losing streaks.

On Sunday, April 16, the New York Yankees completed their three-game sweep of the Cardinals with a 9-3 victory (box score).  At this point, St Louis was 3-9 and quickly 4.5 games back (at that point behind the surprising Cincinnati team that was 8-5).

At this point, there weren’t many positives to hold on to.  The team was hitting .212 and scoring 3.50 runs per game.  Of the regulars, only Stephen Piscotty (.258) was hitting above .250 (although Jose Martinez, in limited playing time, had started off 6 for 12).  Among the scarier batting averages at this point, Randal Grichuk had started off at .182 (8 for 44), Kolten Wong was at .148 (4 for 27), Dexter Fowler started at .143 (7 for 49), and Jhonny Peralta was already on his way out.  The cleanup hitter on opening night, Peralta had started just 8 of the first 12, going 3 for 25 (.120).

(Peralta would hang on the Cardinal roster until June 13 when he would be released with a .204 batting average.  Later that month, Boston would sign him to a minor league contract.  He would play 10 games with Pawtucket in the International League, where he would hit .200 and be released again.)

The starting pitching – ironically enough – was the one aspect of the team that wasn’t terrible.  They contributed a 3.80 ERA at that point, led by Mike Leake, who allowed only 1 run through his first two starts.  Michael Wacha (3.00) and Carlos Martinez (3.57) had also pitched well, with Lance Lynn (5.23) and Adam Wainwright (7.24) struggling out of the gate.

The stunning development of this opening salvo was the failing of the bullpen.  Twelve games into the season, closer Seung-hwan Oh had one blown save and carried a 9.64 ERA.  He had served up 2 home runs in his first 4.2 innings.  The bullpen as a whole hit mid-April with a 7.34 ERA in 34.1 innings.

The First Bounce Back

But, beginning with three straight 2-1 victories against Pittsburgh from April 17-19, the drowning Cardinals pulled themselves back to the surface.  They would go 18-6 over their next 24 games, pulling into first place in their division for the only time all season.  After a 5-0 conquest of the Cubs on May 14 (box score), the Cards stood 21-15 and 1 whole game in first place. The run included a perfect 6-0 road trip through Atlanta and Miami.

During the streak, the Cardinals showed the first glimpse of the team we thought we would see most of the season.  They scored 5.13 runs per game during that stretch, hitting .285 as a team.

This run featured the last hot streak that Matt Adams would have as a member of the Cards.  He played in 18 of the 24 games, hitting .435 (10 for 23) and slugging .652 (2 doubles and 1 home run). Adams, of course, was later given to Atlanta, where – finally getting consistent playing time – Matt finished the season hitting 19 home runs and hitting .271 in 100 games as a Brave.

At about this point of the season, the first two contributors from Memphis arrived in the majors and began having an impact.

Exciting rookie, Magneuris Sierra played in his first 6 major league games, hitting .375 (9 for 24).  This was also the beginning of the Summer of Pham.

Cut from the big league roster in favor of Jose Martinez at the start of the season, Tommy Pham arrived from Memphis sending the clear signal that he would not be returning.  In his first 9 game back, Tommy hit a scorching .371 (13 for 35) that included 4 doubles and 3 home runs.  In those first 9 games, Tommy scored 8 runs, drove in 8 runs, and slugged .743.

This was also the beginning of a surprising transformation in Jedd Gyorko.  Having taken over at third base, and showing a surprising willingness to drive the ball to right field, Gyorko hit .363 (29 for 80) while playing 22 of the 24 games.  Thirteen of the 29 hits went for extra-bases (five of them home runs) leading to a .663 slugging percentage during this stretch.

Other hot hitters during this 24-game surge included Fowler, who slashed .295/.405/.623; Wong, who rebounded from his slow start to hit .294 and cement his place as the starting second baseman; Yadier Molina, who hit .288; and Grichuk, who showed some life with a .279 batting average and 2 home runs.

Of the prominent Cardinal hitters, the only one who really struggled during this stretch of games, was Piscotty.  Stephen, whose season was just beginning to unravel, hit .229 (11 for 48) during these games.

On the pitching side, the resurgence was led by Lance Lynn.  Four of his five starts in that stretch were quality starts, as he went 4-0 with a 1.86 ERA.  Leake’s hot start was still continuing.  He was 3-1, 2.59 while throwing 5 consecutive quality starts.  Wacha continued to do well (1-0, 3.28), and Martinez did okay (3-1, 4.06).  Adam Wainwright was still lagging at this point of the season.  Only 1 of his 5 starts was a quality start, and while his record was 3-0, his ERA sat at 4.40.

But the biggest change – and the one causing the greatest sigh of relief – came from the bullpen.  Disastrous through the first 12 games, the pen crafted a 2.58 ERA over these 24 games.  Front and center were the two lynchpins who handled the end-game responsibilities.

Shrugging off his early struggles, Seung-hwan Oh allowed just 1 run over his next 14 innings (0.64 ERA) and rattled off 10 consecutive saves.  Trevor Rosenthal added 3 saves and 4 holds with a 1.38 ERA while striking out 21 batters in 13 innings.

And Then Boston Came to Town

But, having finally broken the surface, the drowning man immediately went back down.  Into town came the Boston Red Sox.  While St Louis played some games against Milwaukee and Chicago during their surge, they primarily took advantage of lesser teams.  In a pattern that would repeat itself several times during the 2017 season, the surging ceased as the better teams showed up on the schedule.

Boston threw a first dash of cold water on the Cardinal flames.  They swept the two game series, with the second game serving as a template for a season full of agonizing defeats.

While Mike Leake was throwing 6 outstanding innings, the Cardinals were ready for Rick Porcello.  Porcello – who would end the season leading the majors in losses – served a leadoff home run to Fowler, and then 3 more runs in the second – the biggest hit being an RBI double from Wong.

But that would be it.  After two productive innings, the Cardinals would be done scoring, leaving the pitching staff to twist in the wind.  Boston finally broke through for a couple of runs against Leake in the seventh, but Mike still walked off the mound after 7 handing off a 4-2 lead to his red-hot bullpen.

Up to that point, the Cards had had multiple opportunities to administer the knock-out blow.  Wong had a runner at second with two-out in the third, but he struck out.  Leake, himself, led off the fourth with a double, and Fowler walked.  But Pham took the wind out of the sails by bouncing into a double play and Matt Carpenter struck out.  After Boston closed the gap in the top of the seventh, Molina had yet another opportunity to return the momentum to the Cardinal sideline with two-on and two-out.  He grounded out.

In another repeated development, the eighth inning would prove toxic to the bullpen.  This time it was Rosenthal – so hot recently – serving up the tying runs, and the game went into extra-innings.  Deep into extra-inning.

From the ninth inning through the twelfth, St Louis went 0 for 11 with one walk – Pham, who was promptly thrown out stealing.  Boston finally scored the winning run in the top of the thirteenth.  The Cards followed by putting one runner on base – Aledmys Diaz’ two out walk – in the bottom of the inning.  He was stranded as St Louis concluded the game without a hit over their last five innings and without a run over their final 11 innings.

This was only one loss (box score), but all of these elements would recur again and again.  The early lead not added onto.  The multiple opportunities for the knockout hit that would never come.  The late inning bullpen implosion – these were all the building blocks of the disappointing season ahead.

Beginning with this sweep, and continuing through a season-defining 0-7 road trip through Chicago and Cincinnati that ended on June 8, St Louis lost 17 of 22 games.  The losses included two more 13-inning losses against San Francisco and Los Angeles.  The San Francisco game was another signature loss (box score).  Matched against Jeff Samardzija (who would end the season tied for the National League lead in losses with 15), Carlos Martinez would throw one of the best games of his career, walking off the mound after 9 innings having given only 2 hits and no runs.  Unfortunately, the Cards never solved Samardzija either.  They wouldn’t score until the bottom of the thirteenth, when, already trailing 3-0, Stephen Piscotty would drive in a run with a two-out single, bringing Matt Carpenter to the plate as the tying run.  Seven pitches later, he would end the game with a fly-out.

Over the 22 games, the Cardinal offense disappeared again, hitting .226 and scoring just 3.05 runs per game.  Kolten Wong had just begun an offensive explosion that might have made a difference – he hit .381 over 8 games – but an injury sent him to the sidelines.  The disappearing bats though these games included Fowler (.214), Carpenter (.165), Jose Martinez – for the first time this season (.158), and Grichuk (.135).

On the pitching end, a lot of excellent starting pitching was wasted by the enfeebled offense and collapsing bullpen.  Carlos Martinez compiled a 2.35 ERA through 4 starts, but was just 1-2.  Lynn was 0-2 in spite of a 3.07 ERA in his 5 starts.  Leake took on some water for the first time this season, but still managed a respectable 3.74 ERA.  That, unfortunately, was good for only a 1-3 record.  Adam Wainwright’s ERA improved to 3.91 during his 4 starts – and even led to a 3-1 record.  Wacha hit the roughest patch from the rotation.  He was 0-2, 7.79 in 4 starts.

And then, of course, the bullpen.  Everyone but Oh (2.16 ERA in 8.1 innings) regressed during this stretch.  Rosenthal (4.91), Brett Cecil (5.40), Kevin Siegrist (5.68), Matthew Bowman (7.20), Tyler Lyons (7.50), and Jonathan Broxton (9.64) all had prominent hands in the 6.30 bullpen ERA that helped define that stretch of games.  Siegrist and Broxton would both finish the season out of the picture.  Broxton would be released on May 31 with a 6.89 ERA in 15.2 innings.  Once an elite late inning pitcher, Siegrist was never able to overcome recent injuries.  Philadelphia claimed him off of waivers on September 2.  Kevin held a 4.98 ERA with St Louis in 34.1 innings.  He pitched 5 innings with Philly, allowing 2 runs on 4 hits.

For all the good of the earlier 18-6 stretch, the Cards could never pull themselves out of their dive – another pattern that would repeat all season.  Fifty-eight games into the season, this team was 26-32, and back to 4.5 games behind.

Things brightened for a moment, as a visit from a bad Philadelphia team sparked a four game winning streak that narrowed the gap back to just 1.5 games, but that was just a pause.  St Louis went on to lose 8 of their next 11.  On the morning of June 25, they sat 33-40, 5 games behind in the division.

Not Dead Yet

Beginning with an 8-4 victory over Pittsburgh on June 25 (box score), the Cardinals began the most encouraging section of their season.  Over the next 44 games, this flawed and unbalanced team went 28-16 (a .636 clip).  If they could have sustained that pace through the whole season (and I am not implying that 44 games means that they could have sustained this pace through the whole season) they would have been a 103-win team.

Forty-four games is more than a quarter of the season.  It is a substantial chunk of the games played, and clarifies what this team needs to looks like for it to win.

The offense hit .272 and scored 5.30 runs per game over that long stretch of the season.

Tommy Pham played in all 44 of the games, hitting .338 with a .435 on-base percentage.  He scored 35 runs in those 44 games.  Kolten Wong chipped in with a .310 average – although, once again a variety of injuries held him to just 29 games.  Molina hit .299.  Jose Martinez was still limited to just fourth outfielder status, but in his 75 plate appearances he slashed .295/.413/.508.

Important to this run of offensive production were the contributions of Matt Carpenter and Randal Grichuk.  Mired in the worst season of his career, so far, Carpenter enjoyed his one sustained burst of offensive production during these games.  He only hit 1 home run during the 41 games he played, but he hit .284 and drew 30 walks (remember this was just 41 games) for a .418 on base percentage.

Grichuk didn’t awe anyone with his batting average (.263), but he hit 11 home runs and drove in 25 runs in the 37 games he played.  His .579 slugging percentage was second on the team during this stretch of games.  Second to a middle infielder who wasn’t even on the club when they broke camp.

In the middle of all of this offense was promising rookie Paul DeJong.  The best part of the Cardinal season corresponded almost exactly to that point in the proceedings when Aledmys Diaz was dispatched to Memphis and DeJong was implanted at shortstop.  During this 44-game run, DeJong played in 43 of them, hitting .304 with 12 home runs, 30 runs batted in, and a .589 slugging percentage.  In fact from the date that DeJong took over at short, St Louis went 48-39 to the end of the season – a .552 winning percentage that would have been good enough for a playoff berth could that have been sustained for the whole season.

Fading during this stretch of games were third baseman Jedd Gyorko (.232) and Piscotty (.178).  Stephen played in only 22 of the games before being sent to Memphis.

But the offense was only half of the story.  The team that would finish the season with a 4.01 overall earned run average, saw its beleaguered pitching staff rise to the occasion with a 3.17 ERA over these 44 games.  The team that would end the season without a quality start in any of its last 16 games, fashioned 26 during these games.

As the Cards hit their peak, the anchor of the rotation was Lance Lynn.  With 8 quality starts in 9 games, Lance was 5-1 with a 1.98 ERA in 54.2 innings during this run.  Right behind him was Michael Wacha.  Wacha’s season was very uneven, but very encouraging in spots.  This was one of those.  He threw 5 quality starts in 8 games, fashioning a 6-1 record and a 2.22 ERA.

This was also the part of the season where Adam Wainwright gave way to Luke Weaver in the rotation.  Adam went 5-0 with a 3.89 ERA over his last 7 starts.

Starting to seriously fade at this juncture of the season was April star Mike Leake.  While the rest of the team was jelling, Leake scuffled along with a 2-4 record and a 4.34 ERA.  Leake, at this point, was also not far removed from his trade to Seattle.  After a 9-12, 4.69 season in 2016, Mike was 7-12, 4.21 in 2017 – even after his strong start.  He finished up his season going 3-1 with a 2.53 ERA in 5 starts for the Mariners.

Most surprising were the continued struggles of presumptive ace Carlos Martinez.  During his 9 starts during this run, Carlos was just 3-3 with a 4.83 ERA.

Still, with the starters shouldering 255.2 innings over those games, the bullpen picked up only 133.1, and prospered to the tune of a 2.57 ERA.  Only 9 of 44 inherited runners (20.5%) ended up scoring.

Topping the list of achievers were John Brebbia and Tyler Lyons (both with 1.53 ERAs in 17.2 innings), and Matthew Bowman (1.80 in 15 innings).  Seung-hwan Oh did well (3.18 in 17 innings) but was already starting to fade.

Critical to this run of victories was Trever Rosenthal, who regained his ninth-inning job at this point of the season.  He ran off 8 consecutive saves, posting a 2.21 ERA over 20.1 innings.  Not, I think, coincidentally, Rosenthal’s season ended with the last game of this run.  After searching all season to find their ninth-inning guy, the Cards – who had finally clambered back into a first place tie at 61-56 on August 12 – would now have to go the last 45 games of their season without him.

The 28-16 run finished off with the Cardinals’ longest winning streak of the year – an 8-game run from August 5 through August 12.  In the second game of that streak, the Cards would erupt for 9 runs in the fourth inning, breaking open what had been a narrow 4-3 lead and sending them onto a comfortable 13-4 victory in Cincinnati.  Through the previous 110 games, St Louis had scored in double figures just 7 times.  Beginning with that game (box score), they would score in double figures 8 times over their last 52 games.  St Louis scored at least 5 runs in only 48 of their first 110 games (44%).  From August 6 on, they scored at least 5 runs in half of their games.

But it Wouldn’t Last

Of course, as soon as St Louis fought its way back into a first-place tie, they immediately hit the skids again.  Ten losses over the next 16 games pushed them back down to .500 at 66-66.  A couple of weeks before, they had been tied for first.  Now they were back to 6 games out.  The losses included two more to Boston, one of them won by Porcello.

For the season, the Cardinals – who always seemed to climbing out of holes – ended 152 games of the season trailing in the division.  They spent 59% of the season trailing by at least 3.5 games, and were 5 or more games out for almost a quarter of the season (23.5%).  Out of 162 games, they ended 2 tied for first, ended 5 others a half-game ahead, and 3 glorious games leading the division by one whole game.

Trailing again by six games, the Cards weren’t done yet.  Heading to San Francisco with 30 games left, the Cards put on one last furious spurt.  They would win 10 of the next 13 bringing them one last time to within reach of the division lead.  On the morning of Wednesday, September 13, they sat 76-68, just 2 games behind Chicago.

That last game – a 13-4 battering of Cincinnati (box score) – completed a 71-game stretch going back to late June during which the Cards had gone 43-28 (a .606 clip) – even including the 6-10 swoon just after tying for first.  Over this extended streak of games (nearly half a season) they had averaged 5.31 runs per game with a 3.56 team ERA.  They hit .283 with runners in scoring position.  They had gone 23-11 at home, and 20-17 on the road.  They were 20-9 in games after a loss.  They were 14-9 in opening games of series, and 18-4 in the second games of those series.  They were 11-5 when facing a left-handed starter.  They scored in double figures 12 times, and five or more runs 34 times, while allowing ten runs or more only 3 times and 5 or more just 26 times.

The stretch even included the Cards going 12-11 against winning teams.

While the final analysis of this team will focus on their very significant shortcomings, it should be remembered that this team played .600 ball for almost half of the season.  This was all after they had re-invented themselves with the additions of Pham, DeJong and Weaver.  And this is without, yet, fully realizing the impact Jose Martinez would have down the stretch.

Down One Final Time

After struggling for so long and so hard to make it back to the surface, the drowning man went down for the final time in the waning weeks of September.  A slight stumble in the second game of the Cincinnati series sent them into Chicago 3 games down with 16 to play.  Seven of those 16 would be against the Cubs, so everything was on the table.

But, beginning with that Friday afternoon contest in Chicago (box score), the Cardinals began the collapse that would leave them playing out the string at the end of the season.  They would lose 10 of their last 16 games – including 6 of the 7 against Chicago.  After all the ups and downs, they finished 83-79, 9 games behind.

The season ending collapse saw the sometimes dynamic offense putt to the finish.  They hit just .231 down the stretch.  Battling injuries all season, Dexter Fowler did what he could to lead this team.  He hit .333, driving in 12 runs over his last 12 games with a .625 slugging percentage.  Tommy Pham also finished strong – hitting .309/.424/.527.

But too many of the major players faded badly at the end.  Stephen Piscotty finished the season as the primary right fielder, but limped to the end with a .184 average.  Yadier Molina was hitting just .167 in 9 games until his season ended with him in concussion protocol.  Carson Kelly took over and hit .172 the rest of the way.  Kolten Wong ended his best-ever season hobbled by back issues.  He played in only 9 of the last 16 games, and struggled to a .138 average when he did play.

But the struggles of the hitters paled in comparison to the melt-down going on in the rotation.

Without a quality start over the last 16 games of the season, the starting rotation pitched only 70 of the last 142 innings.  The best of the lot ended up being Wacha, but at 0-2 with a 5.40 ERA over his last three starts his performance was a bit south of excellent.  Behind him, Jack Flaherty was 0-1, 6.75 in 2 starts and one relief appearance; John Gant was 0-1 with a 7.00 ERA, also in 2 starts and 1 relief appearance.  Carlos Martinez finished 1-1, 7.31 over his last 3 starts.  And the worst of the group were the two pitchers who had been revelations for most of the year.  Lance Lynn managed just 9.2 innings over his last 3 starts.  He was 0-1 with an 11.17 ERA.  Impressive rookie Luke Weaver – who fashioned the team’s very last quality start – finished 1-1 with an 11.37 ERA over his last 3 outings.

The last 16 Cardinal starters of the season compiled a 7.97 ERA with a .306 batting average against.

Behind them, the expanded bullpen did well enough, although Bowman gave up clutch runs in some important games.  They held a 3.00 ERA over their last 72 innings of the season, but were charged with 3 of the last 10 losses.  The late addition of Juan Nicasio added stability.  For too many of the last 16 games, though, the issue was already decided before the bullpen could have an impact.

Although the final image was of a team almost no hit on the last day of the season – on its way to finishing 9 games behind, the truth is that the gulf wasn’t that great.  In fact, if the youth movement had started a little earlier and some critical pieces of the puzzle had had just a little better luck with injuries (Wong, Fowler, Carpenter, Molina, Gyorko, Wainwright, Rosenthal, even Jose Martinez was slowed at the end by a bad thumb) this team – warts and all – would probably have made it to Arizona for the wildcard game.

Seeing them advance much farther, though, is difficult.  But the issues to address are things we’ll leave for the next installment.