Sorting the Sunday Pile: Conservative Garrett sinks Cowboys again, Cam is clutch and more Week 7

Why do you play the game? You play to try and tie. Those are not the immortal words of Herm Edwards. Herm wanted to win. But maybe they could be the words of Jason Garrett, who for the second time in three weeks decided to play for a tie and received just punishment from the Football Gods, a group of deities often lacking in benevolence. 

The punishment for Garrett this time came in the form of a doinked field goal from Brett Maher, who’d made his last 16 kicks in a row. Maher didn’t have to be kicking when or where he was — the Cowboys had stormed back thanks to Dak Prescott executing in crunch time, but then Garrett yanked his foot off the gas with Dallas down 20-17 and speeding toward the red zone for a potential game-winning touchdown. 

After getting in Maher’s field goal range on a completion to Cole Beasley in the middle of the field, the Cowboys had about five real time minutes to plan things out as the officials reviewed whether Beasley caught the ball (he did). The offense came out and ran a draw to Ezekiel Elliott for a couple of yards and then let the clock wind down for a field goal attempt as they called their final timeout. 

It was stunningly conservative. With 12 seconds left on the clock, the Cowboys could have spiked the ball immediately to stop the clock at 11 seconds. Then they could have run a quick play depending on the coverage, as Tony Romo explained on the CBS broadcast.

“See if you spike it, there’s 11 seconds, you throw a slant, take a shot down the field if they get in there. If they drop everybody way deep you just hand it off and do the same thing. If it’s cover 1, man, you take a shot to the end zone.”

At that point Jim Nantz (correctly) pointed out the math felt like you could run two plays instead of a draw.

“Yeah if you spike it and you have a timeout,” Romo continued. “You come out and say quarterback gets two plays. We’re handing it off if they drop way deep otherwise we’re throwing it down the sideline to our big guy.

The irony of Romo, Garrett’s former quarterback, explaining the problem with the conservative coaching here shouldn’t be lost on anyone. Garrett chose a “safe” 47-yard field goal by running the draw over the possibility of a. improving field position, or b. taking a shot to the end zone for an outright win. The latter also gives you the possibility of a defensive pass interference penalty, which would increase the Cowboys’ win probability just as much as a completion down the field.

Two weeks ago against the Texans, Garrett played to tie too, punting from Houston’s side of the field, a decision his boss lamented immediately after it happened.

Playing for the tie is just his style at this point. He’s hyper-conservative when it comes to fourth-down decision making, even though his team converts at the highest rate in the NFL (75 percent) since he took over in 2011, so it’s no surprise he would be conservative in these spots as well.

Garrett went for it on fourth early in this game and failed. You could almost guarantee Garrett was going to shrivel up a good bit throughout the rest of the game after seeing that. When he did late in the field goal situation, it left Dallas with a 47-yard look. Following a false start by the offense, it was a 52-yard attempt that bricked off the upright. Any closer and it probably goes in.

The Eagles lost early Sunday afternoon, the Giants stink and play in Atlanta on Monday — Dallas was left for dead a few weeks ago and would have been leading the division with a win over Washington. Instead the Cowboys are 3-4 and in a precarious position. Push the envelope a little bit and maybe the Cowboys are 4-3 or 5-2. They better hope they’re not asking themselves what two more wins would do for their final record once the playoffs come around. 

Cam Is clutch, deal with it

One major hallmark from the 2018 NFL season is the ability of any team to storm back from a deficit in pretty quick fashion, but the Panthers storming back from 17-0 against the Eagles to win the game 21-17 is the kind of comeback you don’t expect to see, because the Panthers aren’t an offensive juggernaut and the Eagles are the defending Super Bowl champs with a dominant defense. And yet it was Cam Newton, who spent the first three quarters struggling, suddenly turning on the afterburners and getting white hot in the fourth quarter to lead the Panthers to what could ultimately be a surprising springboard game for Carolina.

Newton was a dreadful 8 of 16 for 59 yards with no scores or interceptions with the Panthers trailing 17-0 and the third quarter winding down. The Eagles had just scored to ice the game, in theory. From the 33-second point of the third quarter to the end of the game, Newton went 17 of 23 for 210 yards and two touchdowns, with Curtis Samuel rushing in from 14 yards out for the other score. 

Carolina blitzkrieged the Eagles defense; it was a perfect microcosm of Newton’s game. There are many people — both Panthers fans and casual observers of professional football — who don’t care for Newton. Fine, whatever. He has an outlandish personality, wears silly hats and is very often misunderstood. 

But here is one reality no one can ignore anymore: Newton is clutch as hell. He’s been that way for a while, dating back to his college days, when he lead Auburn and Gene Chizik to a national title in Gus Malzhan’s offense. Newton has produced since the second he arrived in the NFL, but people legitimately don’t want to see him succeed and spend time tearing him down when he goes cold.

That’s part of the Cam Newton Experience, though. Sometimes he’s cold and missing receivers high, sometimes he’s scorching hot. The hots outweigh the colds, because that is how it works for a player who once went 15-1 and won MVP, coming up just short in the Super Bowl against a historically good Broncos defense. His response to that loss only furthered the polarization of Newton, but people get far too caught up in the window dressing with football players.

Newton is a stud, a gamer who steps up in big spots. With this victory, Newton has 15 comeback wins in his career. That’s more than Aaron Rodgers (13) and Andrew Luck (13) and tied with Terry Bradshaw, Joe Namath and Troy Aikman. Newton now has 17 game-winning drives, putting him just two behind Rodgers (drafted in 2005). 

The Panthers’ defense elevated its game at the right time on Sunday as well, and the combo gave the Panthers another win. They moved to 4-2, staying well within striking distance of the division-leading Saints (5-1). 

Newton will never lead the league in passing yards, but he remains the most dangerous and versatile red-zone threat in the NFL. He’s also completing 65.6 percent of his passes, by far the highest percentage of his career. Carolina hasn’t played that well this year, but they’re stacking wins. If the defense figures things out and the offense finds a groove, watch out. 

You don’t want a Hall of Fame-caliber QB with an MVP on his resume catching fire and stalking you down.

Jaguars are imploding

The Jaguars are a relatively new franchise, but they spent a large portion of the club’s history being terrible, so it’s impressive, in a bad way, for the Jags to set a record for futility in 2018. Specifically, Jacksonville managed to go scoreless in the first half for the third straight game on Sunday, something Jacksonville had never done before. In an age of high-scoring offenses, that’s sub-optimal. And in a year when the Jags were supposed to compete for a Super Bowl title, it’s even less ideal for Jacksonville to be benching Blake Bortles at halftime for Cody Kessler.

It happened though, and it begs the question why Jacksonville didn’t want to trade for someone like Teddy Bridgewater earlier this offseason. They were certainly one of the top teams who could have used the quarterback help. I get the idea of not wanting to create psychological issues for Bortles by bringing in another potential starter — as soon as Bortles struggles, people would demand Teddy, or whoever — but if you’re a legitimate Super Bowl contender, you have to prepare for all contingencies. The Saints did it and they have Drew freaking Brees.

Could the Bortles issue be causing defensive players to become disgruntled? According to Mark Long of the Associated Press, the locker room was “imploding” following the loss, with Calais Campbell having to restrain fellow defensive lineman Yannick Ngakoue after a massive screaming match that erupted among the players.

Many players declined to talk about what happened, but Jalen Ramsey admitted “it ain’t right” for the Jags right now.

“You all walk in here, you all see how it is in here, you all see how we vibe with each other, you all see how we vibe toward the coaches, you all see how it is,” Ramsey said. “It is no secret what’s going on here right now. Ain’t nobody going to say it because we can’t. But it ain’t no secret what’s going on and it ain’t right right now.”

It’s worth noting the defense is terrible for Jacksonville right now too. Rodney Harrison ripped them as “soft” on NBC prior to Sunday Night Football, and he might not be wrong. Despite ranking as a top-10 unit by DVOA coming into this weekend, the Jags have now given up 90 points over the last three weeks, all losses. Just as in the last two games, they got down early and got off their gamescript, being forced to let Bortles throw a ton.

Or in this case, being forced to let Kessler throw a ton. 

Quick reminder: Jacksonville used a top-five pick on Leonard Fournette two years ago instead of picking a potential quarterback. Deshaun Watson was connected with the Jags in rumors and Patrick Mahomes was sitting there as well. This isn’t hindsight science. The Jaguars were in the market for a future long-term answer at quarterback with Bortles coming off a nightmare season (he would nearly be cut in training camp in favor of Chad Henne) and instead took a running back with their top pick. 

It worked out nicely last year, but with Fournette battling a hamstring injury — and being inactive against the Texans — Jacksonville decided to trade for Carlos Hyde while leaning on T.J. Yeldon. Their short-term shove hasn’t netted long-term results with the defense struggling to remain consistent.

Fortunately for Jacksonville, the Texans don’t have a big lead (one game up) and the Titans lost in London on Sunday morning. Unfortunately for Jacksonville, life doesn’t get easier. The Jaguars draw the Eagles at home next week before their bye. A road trip to Indy follows, with the Steelers at home next and a game in Buffalo after that. Anything worse than 2-2 would derail the season completely. 

Expect some kind of players only meeting over the next two weeks as Doug Marrone’s team tries to — in his words — galvanize off this loss and make another playoff run. 

Great week for the Steelers

Pittsburgh didn’t play on Sunday, with the Steelers sitting at home on their bye, but things could not have gone better for the Steelers in Week 7. It started with the frisky Browns losing another overtime game, this time in Tampa, coughing one up to the Buccaneers 26-23. Hue Jackson’s said he wants to take more control over the offense, which looked pretty “meh” against a terrible Tampa team.

I don’t read too much into it though — it was obvious the Bucs would have some kind of dead-cat bounce here after firing Mike Smith last week. Dudes like to keep their jobs and whatnot. Of note, Nick Chubb didn’t do anything incredible, but still managed 80 yards and a touchdown for fantasy owners. I don’t know if you can buy low after that, but his hype train should at least have cooled down some after Friday’s news of Hyde being dealt to Jacksonville. I had people telling me they got offered Mike Evans for Chubb. It was a dynasty league, so I don’t think you take it, plus there were draft picks involved. Point being, people are hot to trot on Chubb and I think he can keep putting up digits. Go try and trade for him. 

The Browns should be a little concerned about their ability to close games, but they sure are keeping things close. 

Four (!) of those games have gone to overtime. Imagine how good they’ll be when they fire Hue Jackson and hire Lincoln Riley this offseason.

Baltimore had an even worse beat than Cleveland, with the Ravens spending most of the day beating the Saints, before giving up their first second-half touchdown of the season. Then they gave up their second second-half touchdown of the season and were suddenly losing. 

Fear not! Joe Flacco stormed down the field on the heels of several penalties and hit John Brown with a bomb that tied things up. Well, it would have tied things up except Justin Tucker decided that the moment was a good time for the first missed extra point of his career. The Saints would win after recovering an onside kick, leaving Tucker — and anyone holding a Ravens -2.5 ticket or perhaps, ahem, needing the Ravens ML to cash a three-game parlay — looking absolutely stunned.

The Bengals created no such drama, getting blasted by a bajillion points in Kansas City on Sunday night. The Bengals had zero answers for Patrick Mahomes

Pittsburgh sat at home and will wake up on Monday a half game up in the division after starting the season in pretty terrible fashion. This was a very good week for Pittsburgh. 

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