NFL Week 7: Mourning in America

How the Packers overcome the loss of Aaron Rodgers, What’s wrong with the Ravens, and are the Browns trying to lose? (again)

In 1992, A quarterback with the first name Brett had to unceremoniously enter the game after the well-established Packers quarterback was injured. The rest as they say, is history.

In 2008, after three years of being the backup to one of the greatest QB’s of all time, The Packers finally turned the keys to the franchise over to a heralded PAC-10 QB who inexplicably fell in the draft. The rest as they say, is history.

Fast forward to last week, and interestingly enough, we have a combination of last two big QB changes for the Packers in play: A PAC-12 QB with the first name Brett who inexplicably fell in the draft had to unceremoniously enter the game after three years of being the backup to one of the greatest QB’s of all time. (I think the Packers need better writers. Did they think we wouldn’t notice them recycling old scripts?)

So are the Packers going to be ok? I think the answer is yes. This is not a situation where the backup comes in and they have to pair down the offense. With starter reps, gameplanning to accentuate Brett Hundley’s best throws and his style, and an offensive side that should be motivated to prove that they are not just the product of Aaron Rodgers’s greatness, I am confident that you will see competent quarterback play from Brett Hundley.

Just keep this in mind too: Yes, it’s hard to know how just how good Brett Hundley is, but even if Hundley were top 5 QB in the NFL, it still wouldn’t have justified the Packers playing him. So sitting 3 years is no knock on Hundley- Rodgers is just that good. Don’t forget, this is also the same offense that made MATT F***ING FLYNN a star with Rodgers in absentia. So I wouldn’t be surprised if Brett Hundley is a Dak Prescott 2.0, as the skill set is similar- though “Matt Flynn as a Packer” 2.0 wouldn’t be too bad either.

So R-E-L-A-X, fans of America’s team! The Packers will be fine.

(Wait, did I just call the Packers “America’s team?” Yes I did, because despite the adopted moniker, “America’s team” isn’t owned by the Cowboys. Yes, they have held the mantle for certain stretches, but right now the data indicates that the most liked team is the Packers. The idea of the Cowboys as America’s team right now is all hat, no cattle.)

Now, on to a team that may not be fine: The Baltimore Ravens.

As I wrote in my AFC North preview, something is not right with the Ravens, and it comes down to their personnel. Sure, they have some good players, every NFL team does. What they just are devoid of is their usual wealth of all-pro talent. Could it be that Ozzie Newsome has lost his touch a little? I don’t know if there has been a shift in the way they evaluate players, but their recent draft history has been sub-par, at least when holding them to the standard they set for themselves in the previous two decades.

Last week’s loss to the Bears at home was actually a lot worse than it looked. If not for a incredibly fluky kickoff return for a TD and a punt return for a TD, (when was the last time a team pulled off both in the same game?) the Ravens would have essentially been blown out by a Bears team that didn’t want to have to throw the ball. Now John Harbaugh is a good enough coach to keep them in most games, but coaching can only take you so far. This team is in trouble- Joe Flacco clearly isn’t 100%, they can’t stop the run without Brandon Williams, and they’ve sustained the most injuries of any team in the NFL. It’s one of those situations where you can be tricked by seeing players like Suggs or Flacco look the same in uniform, and therefore you expect them to play the same. But don’t be fooled. Ray Lewis isn’t walking through that door! And neither is the 2012 version of Flacco and Suggs. So until further notice I’m looking to fade this team any chance I get, starting this week. How will the Ravens score an offensive touchdown against the Vikings on the road when they couldn’t sniff at one at home against the Bears?

Now I would be remiss if I didn’t take the chance to make a natural segue from talking about teams that are in trouble and bringing up the Cleveland Browns. Is there something more to this team than just their usual ineptitude? It may sound crazy, have reason to believe that after a certain point last season, they weren’t really trying to win games like they should have- and the proof is in the results.

After all, in 2016 the season didn’t start terribly for the Browns. Does anyone remember how they were up 20–0 Week 2 against the Ravens? Or Week 3 when they missed a 46 yard FG to win the game as time expired, and they eventually lost in OT to the Dolphins? Or Week 4 when it was Browns 20 Redskins 17 in the 4th quarter of a game they lost 31–20? They could have easily been 3–1, and there would be absolutely no reason to throw games so early in the year. However, once they got throttled by the Patriots to push their record to 0–5, that’s when a couple of things happened that made me suspicious.

Exhibit A- Week 6: Titans 28, Browns 26

It was actually 28–13 Titans when the Browns scored with 2:07 left to make it 28–19. Now the last thing you want to do is go for two here- if you miss it, you’re down 9 and it remains a two score game, virtually guaranteeing you have no chance at a comeback. Here you clearly kick the XP, make it 28–20, and give your team a chance down one possession at the end. It’s a no-brainer, right? So what did the Browns do? They went for two here. And missed it. Which means they are still down two scores. Worse yet, THEY ACTUALLY RECOVER THE ONSIDE KICK- and drove for another TD! Hence the final score. My guess is that Hue Jackson was thinking he would go for two twice, either winning it in regulation or bust, like a preseason “no overtime” mentality. Isn’t that a version of tanking though? I think you could argue yes. Or was this just an innocent, boneheaded decision? Either way, this wasn’t a shining moment to put on Hue Jackson’s coaching resume.

Exhibit B- Week 8: Jets 31, Browns 28

Here the Browns were rolling 20–7 against the equally hapless Jets. What happened in the second half? It was as if Hue Jackson gave the worst halftime locker room speech in history, because they came out for the second half and got steamrolled. The subsequent drives to start the 2nd half were: Touchdown Jets- Browns Punt- Touchdown Jets- Browns Punt- Touchdown Jets. The only time in the 2nd half the Browns showed any life was when the score was 31–20 Jets, the Browns getting the ball down 11 with 4 minutes to play, and then finally scored a TD with 11 seconds left. Yes that’s right, the Browns executed a perfect “4 minute drill” on themselves!

Did you see the sense of urgency to win this game? Because I sure didn’t.

Exhibit C: Ravens 28 Browns 7

This is another game where the Browns were leading at halftime 7–6, only to get dismantled 22–0 in the second half. Are you starting to get suspicious yet?

This was the last game that the Browns were competitive in until week 16, when they stunned the Chargers and broke their 14 game losing streak. Winning that game did not hurt their draft status though, as they still had a game up on the 2-win 49ers. However, they still needed to lose the season finale against the Steelers week 17, who for the most part were playing their backups. And with Landry Jones prominently involved, suddenly the Browns had a really good chance of beating the Steelers, which would have counter-productively made them lose the #1 overall pick. So what happened in this game? Oh, just something I’d like to call EXHIBIT D.

The Browns were up 14–7 at halftime, and the game was tied 21–21 with 1:12 left in the 4th when Terrelle Pryor caught a 42 yard pass to give the Browns 1st and goal at the Steelers 5. So of course what happens on the very next play?

Isaiah Crowell fumbles. Steelers ball, and we are headed to overtime. So yes, the Browns somehow found a way to blow this. What a shock.

But wait, there’s more! So if the fumble wasn’t suspicious enough for you, the Browns take the opening kickoff of OT all the way down to the Steelers 2, where they somehow find a way to lose 14 yards on a WR screen play:

This ends up forcing them to settle for a FG, giving the Steelers a chance, and surprise surprise, the Steelers methodically march down the field to win the game. So taking into consideration all the results throughout 2016, to me the preponderance of evidence suggests that after a certain point in the season, the Browns really didn’t want to win games. And they especially didn’t want to win the last game, which would have cost them the #1 pick. So losing in the manner in which they did was the perfect ending for the Browns organization- they played their rivals as tough as anyone could be played without actually winning the game, which would have cost them their #1 overall draft status, and they also didn’t go 0–16 and closed out the season looking competitive.

So why am I bringing this up now? Because I think we are set for their tanking to happen all over again. At 0–6, the Browns are past the point of realistically making the playoffs, and it was at this point last season that winnable games started to unravel for them. My hypothesis is this: I think there is an implicit acceptance within the Browns organization that once it looks like there is no chance for the Browns to win a championship, it will help the team in the long run to lose games. It’s not that absurd a philosophy, as the concept of “tanking” is so prevalent the NBA that it forced them to adopt a lottery format for their draft. Since the NFL doesn’t have a lottery, tanking makes perfect sense. The problem is that tanking is not an acceptable philosophy in the NFL, and if the organization isn’t on board, coaches and players will not be secure enough in their jobs to be able to pull it off. I think the Browns are different, in part because they run their team differently, favoring advanced analytics and unorthodox draft strategies. Now I don’t have outright proof that the Browns are trying to lose- but in the NFL, not doing everything you can to win is a way to lose in and of itself, and I think that’s what the Browns are most guilty of. From their incoherent playcalling, to the questionable way they are jerking their quarterbacks around, to the lack of ball protection, (The Browns are -9 in turnover ratio, worst in the NFL, because of course they are.) everything indicates to me that we are going to see another repeat of 2016 in Cleveland. And if the Browns are going to be self-destructing in games going forward, we might as well be ready to take advantage of it, don’t you agree?

Alex Brigandi has been a in-game reporter with STATS LLC since 2002 and has analyzed the NFL from a betting perspective in Las Vegas since 2007. You can contact him on twitter with any questions, comments, or syndication requests.
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