Cam Newton Shows You Can Go Home Again
NFL Week 11 - Andrew: Hello and welcome back to Scramble for the Ball, where this week finds your humble Scrambleteers gazing wistfully at a two-touchdown "second debut" from a certain colorfully-bedecked character, and wondering "what if?"
Bryan: Who said you can't go home again? There's just something right about seeing Cam Newton in Carolina blue once more, and he looked just like the Cam of old in his limited goal-line work. Considering the Panthers still have $17 million in dead cap from Newton's replacement, Teddy Bridgewater, and are on the hook next season for $19 million for Newton's replacement's replacement, Sam Darnold, it is low-key hilarious that the answer to Matt Rhule's ongoing quarterback search might well be the guy he didn't want to begin with.
Andrew: I don't know if it's the case in American sports, but it's a bit of a cliché in soccer that you should never go back—that players who were successful in a previous spell at a big club shouldn't return, for fear of souring those memories. That has been somewhat less the case in recent years—look at Cristiano Ronaldo returning to Manchester United, Zinedine Zidane's repeated successful tenures as head coach at Real Madrid—but it was always stated in cautionary, almost reverential tones when I were a young'un.
Bryan: It has been very hit-and-miss here in real football, too. Fran Tarkenton's return to the Vikings in the 1970s was a smashing success. Randy Moss' return to the Vikings lasted four games before he was waived, and pretty much everyone outside of Minnesota has already forgotten that happened. I wouldn't say they soured memories, precisely, but getting back together with your ex is always a tricky proposition to manage.
Andrew: Now there is one of the few mistakes I have managed to avoid to this point in my life. I guess it helps when the people they brought in to replace you didn't exactly work out. I'm as big a Teddy Bridgewater fan as just about anybody, but he clearly wasn't quite the answer for the Panthers last season. As for Sam Darnold, the less said about that decision, the better. I'm genuinely intrigued to see how that all works out, because the on-field fit makes a ton of sense.
Bryan: I'm pretty sure Darnold has made Panthers fans long for Bridgewater once more, so a reunion with Newton fit that perfect Venn diagram between "makes a ton of sense" and "freaking hilarious." That's exactly where Scramble would like teams to land, so thank you, Carolina, for giving us this moment.
Andrew: Even the limited version of Newton that we have seen over the past few seasons can execute the offense Carolina is trying to run, and he's getting to start doing so in November without all the wear and tear of September and October beating him down. I was enjoying the talk of somebody bringing Philip Rivers back just after the clocks changed; we might instead have found Newton's perfect season.
Bryan: And, of course, Carolina is in the quagmire that is the NFC playoff race, and had been fading fast. If Newton can stabilize the offense, that defense is strong enough to make them serious contenders. This isn't a novelty signing to try to win a fanbase back, but a calculated move at a time when they really needed to make a calculated move.
Andrew: In short, this feels just like the successful Panthers teams under Ron Rivera: defense playing at a very high level, with Newton getting just enough out of the backs and receivers to make them a legitimate threat. They didn't get there in the usual way, but this team is right out of that vintage.
Bryan: It's a shame the other NFC contenders don't have franchise legends just sitting there, not occupied with other teams, ready to ride in on a white stallion to turn things around. Frank Gore's too busy with his burgeoning boxing career and being old and not very good any more to bolster the San Francisco backfield!
Andrew: I do wonder what a Drew Brees return at this stage of the season would look like, were the Saints to find themselves in a quarterback crisis. It's clear that Brees didn't have a full year in him anymore, but maybe the added freshness of coming in midseason would allow him to make it through the playoffs. Though of course, the Saints already have their returning veteran in all-time franchise rushing leader Mark Ingram! Maybe it's an NFC South thing.
Bryan: In that case, can the Falcons recall Julio Jones? I mean, they need receiving help in the worst way. Of course, Jones is banged up, but even a hobbled Jones on one leg may be a stronger threat than Christian Blake.
Andrew: I wonder how many Titans fans would even object to that, assuming the compensation was appropriate. That trade hasn't really worked out for the player or for either team.
Bryan: I think you have to judge the Falcons the early winner of that trade, simply because Jones hasn't really been able to be on the field much. The two sweetest words in the English language: De Fault.
Andrew: It does help that the trade was never really meant to help them right now, so we're yet to really see the value they gained from it. I guess he's about as close as you get to a Falcons legend who is still active, too. Not sure anybody's clamoring for the return of Vic Beasley.
Bryan: Yeah, not every team has an obvious candidate. What, the Buccaneers are pining for the return of Kwon Alexander to do ... something, presumably? Some teams don't have a ton of stunning alumni around the league, either because they have kept all their superstars for the short term, or they didn't have any good players to begin with.
Andrew: Or in Tampa Bay's case, because the current team is by far the best in recent franchise history and its few weak spots have been weak spots since the heyday of Ronde Barber. You jest, but Kwon Alexander might be the best option for a returning former Bucs player. None of the defensive backs from the Mike Smith defense are going to solve their current injury-blighted weak spot.
Here's a question, though, while we're on the subject of the Buccaneers: if you're a Patriots fan, is Tom Brady the veteran you bring back? Last season, the answer to that question would presumably have been a strong "yes." Now, Brady's 44, and the Patriots are on a four-game win streak with a first-round rookie quarterback who just had the best game of his career in a 45-7 demolition of another playoff contender.
Bryan: Now, that is a question worth debating some. I think there's a large group of Patriots fans who would say no, if only because they're enamored with Mac Jones—the Monday morning talking point on the various shows was that Jones was having a better first season as a starter than Brady did, which, no, not yet. Jones is coming off of the best game of his career by far and has had positive DVOA in five of his last seven games, so he's definitely trending very positive, but he's still in negative numbers for the season and had below-average games against the Chargers and Panthers before last week blew everyone out of the water.
I think if we're talking a long-term swap—come back, Tom, all is forgiven—the Patriots would probably be better off not doing it. Presumably, eventually, age will happen to Brady. Science backs me up on this. And the Patriots look like they have found a solid quarterback, even if his ceiling is still to be fully explored. At this point, you roll with that, because you have to keep him developing, and you take advantage of his rookie contract, and so on and so forth. But if we're talking just for the rest of this season, a late-year reinforcement that magically doesn't impact salary cap and stuff? Sit down for a couple months, Mac. You get your job back next year, and can watch the great one do it.
Andrew: It wouldn't generate nearly the same headlines, but I wonder whether they would be better off adding a different former player who was a little lower-profile, say a Brandin Cooks type? Broadly, I think this sort of discussion is a good argument for a much later trade deadline. I suspect it would be much more intriguing if, say, Houston was listening to offers for Cooks from the Rams post-Robert Woods and the Raiders post-Henry Ruggs, while those teams are playoff contenders and the Texans are clearly out of things. It's much easier for a team to convince itself it's still in contention in late October than late November.
Bryan: I'm not sure I'm going to agree with that one. While it's fun to see Newton pop back up as a late-year addition, I really do get annoyed when watching baseball and seeing a team unload basically everyone even halfway competent halfway through the year, and then struggle through the rest of the season with essentially a AAA-level roster. And watching players play in a strange uniform for half a year before they move on again really enhances the feeling that you're rooting for laundry. Bringing Newton back has a level of continuity; seeing Cooks go to the Raiders and then hitting free agency again feels more mercenary than I generally like—not that Brandin Cooks has exactly stayed in one place long enough to generate a "he's our guy" fanbase!
Andrew: With another sidelong glance at Mark Ingram, and as a fan of another of Cooks' former employers, I can say that I definitely get where you're coming from. What other players do we have who are clear choices? I guess Zach Ertz, though that's a bit odd because the Eagles only traded Ertz a few weeks ago. Are there other current players Eagles fans would like back? Malcolm Jenkins, even though Jenkins is already in his former home in New Orleans?
Bryan: I'm sure they wouldn't mind seeing Jason Peters come back around, even though both Jordan Mailata and Lane Johnson are playing well. Maybe one of the three could kick into guard for the rest of the year.
Andrew: I get the sense that Eagles fans felt Peters was done when he left, especially given his injury record, so unless he's coming with a TB12 Wayback Machine, they're probably fine without him.
Bryan: The 49ers wouldn't mind at all if DeForest Buckner came back to finish out the 2021 season. Javon Kinlaw has been fine, and I know that resigning Buckner would have cost the 49ers the possibility to re-sign George Kittle or Fred Warner and so on and so forth, so I'm still OK with the initial trade. But man, with Kinlaw out, having Buckner back in the middle of the defensive line would help significantly, he said, still remembering James Conner slashing through the middle of the defense like it was made out of swiss cheese.
Andrew: It's funny to think about, but the answer to this question for the Browns is probably still Joe Thomas, even though he isn't active. Are there any active players on other franchises who even had success on the Browns? Does Josh Gordon count? Joe Schobert?
Bryan: Joe Haden, maybe? I don't think he'd be one of the Browns' top corners at this point, but he'd be useful in some packages at the very least. I'd argue for the Return of the Alex Mack, but JC Tretter has center covered just fine. But those are, what, two, three regimes ago?
Andrew: If I'm the Jaguars, I'm looking wistfully at what Allen Robinson has achieved without a competent quarterback and wondering what might have been with Trevor Lawrence. Though I guess I'm looking even more wistfully at Jalen Ramsey and what might have been but for the expert management of Tom Coughlin.
Bryan: Any Chiefs Defender Which Got Away would be nice, with Justin Houston probably being the one they'd most like to bring into the fold; the one-two punch of Houston and Chris Jones was quite enjoyable in 2018 and likely would be again in 2021.
Andrew: On the subject of Chiefs defenders, I wonder whether Tyrann Mathieu is the answer for the Cardinals. Again, they're a team that is much better now than they were while most of their former players were around.
Bryan: With the injury to J.J. Watt, maybe you're looking for Calais Campbell instead.
Andrew: Campbell is a good shout, though another player who is no longer quite at the peak of his powers.
Bryan: Well, I would assume that most players on their second or third team aren't quite at the peak of their powers, simply because you're more likely to try to move heaven and earth to keep someone if they're at the top of their game. And Campbell is having a pretty darn good year for a 35-year-old!
Andrew: Watt leads us onto the Houston Texans, and I'm really not sure.
Bryan: For the Texans, you have to look at Watt. And DeAndre Hopkins. And Will Fuller. And Duane Brown. And Kareem Jackson. And Benardrick McKinney. And Jadeveon Clowney. And Nick Martin. Heck, if we could find a quarterback, we might make the argument that the Houston Exans could beat the Houston Texans. And I suppose you have Brian Hoyer, Case Keenum, and Taylor Heinicke to pick from.
Andrew: Ryan Fitzpatrick, too, if we're assuming health, which we have to do in the case of Watt. Watt's the greatest player in franchise history, but simply can't stay healthy for more than a season at a time anymore. Hopkins is definitely The One Who Got Away, courtesy of General Manager Bill O'Brien. And yes, the former Texans squad would handily dispose of the current incarnation.
Who would you take for the Jets?
Bryan: Well, Leonard Williams is still playing at a high level for the other New York team, but somehow I don't think the Jets are a star run defender away from competency at this point in time.
Andrew: It probably doesn't help that we're trying to think of people who had success their first time around, either. Not many current players have had actual success on the Jets. Sheldon Richardson?
Bryan: Demario Davis is another option; I'm sure Robert Saleh would like to have a solid middle linebacker to help run his defense.
Andrew: Davis was underrated on the Jets, but I feel like he really came into his own after the move to New Orleans.
Bryan: All the more reason for a triumphant return now! The underrated player who went out to find his fortune, only to come back A Man. In theaters everywhere next Summer.
Andrew: Other obvious candidates? I feel like the Vikings are pretty happy with how the Stefon Diggs departure turned out, since it landed them Justin Jefferson.
Bryan: Certainly, but if we're just bringing someone back rather than undoing deals, they could have Jefferson and Diggs! And Adam Thielen too. Good luck stopping that trio.
The somehow-revitalized A.J. Green to Cincinnati? Or maybe Andrew Whitworth, because while Jonah Williams and Riley Reiff have been solid, Whitworth is still Whitworth.
Andrew: I feel like Whitworth would be Rob Weintraub's choice there, though I can't say with 100% certainty. Detroit's interesting, because it could be Matthew Stafford but probably isn't. You could justify Quandre Diggs or Darius Slay.
Bryan: If he hadn't just gotten hurt, Ndamukong Suh is another shout, though again that feels like three eons ago after all Detroit's turnover since then.
I was going to say that I found a team that wouldn't bring back anyone in the Buffalo Bills, but no, I forgot—Jason Peters played for them from 2004 to 2008, and he'd probably plug back in over Dion Dawkins or Daryl Williams if he came back.
Andrew: Stephon Gilmore might have been a choice, too. Gilmore was the DPOY a couple of seasons ago, after all, and as a 49ers fan should know, you can never have too many good cornerbacks.
Bryan: As a 49ers fan, I'm not sure what having even one good cornerback would look like anymore, but that's hopefully a story for the Joe Thomas draft in a month or so. Fingers crossed.
Andrew: No, I'd guess that even teams such as the Bills and Browns who are far better now than at any point in the past 10 years could find somebody they'd like to be reunited with, and that's part of the fun of the sport. It may be primarily the laundry that we root for, but it's not just the laundry—every team has some fond attachment to guys who now play in different uniforms, and we get to imagine the fun "what ifs?" of them playing in our favorite colors again. Some of us—Saints fans with Mark Ingram, Panthers fans with Cam Newton, heck, even Patriots fans with Jamie Collins—even get to see that happen.
Bryan: Call it karmic balance for the existence of the Houston Texans. Sorry, Rivers.
Keep Choppin' Wood
During overtime of Sunday's tie game, the Pittsburgh Steelers twice drove into Lions territory seeking what would have been a game-winning field goal. However, first Diontae Johnson then Pat Freiermuth fumbled the ball back to Detroit, denying their team that opportunity, on what was a sloppy game all around by the Steelers offense. Johnson's was the more impressive play, but also the more egregious mistake, whereas Freiermuth's fumble with just 10 seconds or so on the clock had arguably had the most direct impact on the outcome. We can't separate them, so this is a joint award.
John Fox Award for Conservatism
Down by 11 points against the Titans, Sean Payton and the Saints faced fourth-and-goal from Tennessee's 1-yard line. In order to complete the comeback, it was very likely that the Saints would have to succeed on at least one all-or-nothing attempt from this distance—either this fourth-and-goal, or a later two-point conversion. Payton went with the conservative, somewhat contradictory decision: by playing it safe with a field goal on fourth-and-1, he thereby placed all his chips on a future attempt from a yard farther out. In fact, it ended up worse than that, as an Adam Trautman false start meant the two-point conversion required 7 yards rather than 2. The Saints failed, dropping them to 5-4 in a tight NFC wild-card race.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
A lot of weird stuff happened on Monday night. The 49ers had only two non-kneeldown possessions in the first half yet led 21-7 at halftime, giving them a very healthy 10.5-point per drive average. The Rams, with both Von Miller and Aaron Donald active, got only one hit on Jimmy Garoppolo, and that came from safety Taylor Rapp. However, the weirdest 25 seconds of the game may be this bizarre piece of commentary from Steve Levy:
whats this play by play announcer talking about?
spiking the ball on "the analytics community" because… THEY WENT FOR IT ON 4TH DOWN & SCORED A TD… instead of… punting?? pic.twitter.com/xPSYkoJ9lu
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) November 16, 2021
Sure, if "the analytics community" is notorious for one thing, it's calling for coaches to punt more often on fourth-and-makeable in plus territory. For what it's worth, most fourth-down models had that decision as something of a toss-up—turns out, being up 24-7 in the fourth quarter with possession in opposition territory is a really favorable spot to be, and not much will improve those odds for any team that isn't the Falcons—but pretty much every analytics guy we can find loved Kyle Shanahan going for it in that situation, and the resultant touchdown. Teams should do that more often!
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
Um, Kevin Stefanski. On your opening drive, the Browns steamrolled all over New England's front, with D'Ernest Johnson rolling for 58 yards on the way to the opening score. It seemed like, just maybe, you found a matchup advantage. You're first in rushing DVOA, the Patriots were 17th in rush defense DVOA. You just signed your guards to bajillion dollar deals. Your quarterback has a gimpy shoulder. You just saw your top receiver walk. Pound the rock all day and all night until the Patriots prove they can stop it, right? Well, no. Two of your next three play calls were passes. Seven of your next nine play calls were passes. Ten of your next 13 play calls were passes. And then, all of a sudden, you were down 24-7, and the run game was no longer really an option if you were going to catch up. Um. What happened, exactly?
'Ah, Man, Another Unforeseen Bill' Fantasy Player of the Week
Wait, Bills running backs are allowed to be fantasy-relevant? When did that happen? And it's OK if it's Matt Breida, and not Zack Moss or Devin Singletary? I'd like to ask someone to triple-check that one for me. Breida scored not one but two touchdowns this week, the first he has been active since Week 2. This fulfills the contractually obligated "random Buffalo running back success week," taking the torch from Antonio Williams' two-touchdown day from Week 17 last season. Like Williams, Breida should fade back into obscurity; he hasn't been relevant at all since leaving San Francisco in 2019 and that should continue into the future.
Matt Breida x2‼️
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) November 14, 2021
Garbage-Time Performer of the Week
The Browns opened their game against the Patriots by beating them up on the ground, but then went away with it long enough for New England to open up an insurmountable lead. That didn't stop D'Ernest Johnson from racking up a statline, mind you! Johnson ended up leading the Browns in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving targets, all while taking 19 of their 20 carries; it's fair to say that Johnson was essentially the entire Browns offense on Sunday. He had six catches for 65 yards and 12 attempts for 35 more yards in the second half, a valiant effort in a clearly lost cause.
Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
In a week of big blowouts, we're looking for a team that we haven't yet covered for this spot. That rules out the Browns, Falcons, and of course the Jets. The Raiders, however, suffered their biggest defeat of the season, 41-14 to the Chiefs on Sunday night. It has been a rough few weeks for them, losing their head coach and No. 1 receiver because of off-field issues. From leading the division two weeks ago, they have dropped into third place, a mere half-game ahead of the Denver Broncos. They have also sunk into the bottom 10 of DVOA, where they rank 21st or lower on each of offense, defense, and special teams. At least they got another touchdown each from Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow, who are tied for the team lead with 494 receiving yards apiece. Renfrow in particular is enjoying the best season of his professional career, while Waller has the fifth-most receiving yards of any tight end. It's scant consolation from a difficult few weeks, but the Raiders do have enough pieces on offense to get back into contention, even if only for a wild-card spot in a wide-open AFC.
Game-Changing Play of the Week
Sammy Watkins maybe should have just stayed in bed on Thursday. Early in the game against the Dolphins, he short-armed a touchdown pass, possibly because he wanted to avoid running into the wall at the end of the field. Alright, fair enough; it's just Miami, Baltimore shouldn't have any problem scoring against Miami, right? Well, cue the fourth quarter, with Baltimore still down 9-3. Plenty of time to make a comeback, and here's a nice, big catch-and-run by Watkins up the middle to help set the Ravens up...
THIS DEFENSE IS FOR REAL! Xavien Howard forces the fumble on Sammy Watkins and returns it 49yrds for the TD!!! pic.twitter.com/y4PnYu1Me2
— FinCuts (@FinCuts) November 12, 2021
... yeah, maybe he should have just taken a rain check on this one.
The Dolphins season is already more or less over, though I suppose any sort of comeback narrative you could come up with would start with a massive upset over the Ravens. For Baltimore, however, this loss is a big deal. It only knocked them from second to third in the AFC standings, but it also means they're only a half-game above the Steelers in the division, with the Bengals and Browns each a further half-game behind; it's a very close race, and losing to the Dolphins isn't exactly how you run one to the wire here. In addition, it's a conference loss, which is particularly bad for tiebreakers. The Ravens are currently 4-3 against the AFC. The Titans are 5-1, with two games against the Texans, one against the Jaguars and, yes, one against the Dolphins coming up. The Titans are now almost assuredly going to have the conference tiebreaker over Baltimore, so if the Ravens want homefield advantage, they're going to have to not only catch Tennessee's 1.5 game lead, but pass it. If they can't, this loss to Miami will loom huge when they have to play, say, the Chiefs or Patriots in the first round of the playoffs rather than taking a week off.
Bryan: A point of clarification: in the double survival league, our goal is to find teams that win, not just teams that don't lose. Neither of us thought the Steelers could possibly lose to the Lions and, to be fair, we were both right! The tie, however, counts as a failed pick for both of us—which, coupled with Andrew's Baltimore pick, means I have re-taken the lead, for now!
Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week
Records to Date:
Andrew: In case it wasn't already clear that my picks right now are cursed, the Saints and Titans managed to perfectly thread the needle of the Titans failing to cover, but the Saints still not winning the game, giving me the worst of both worlds. This is why I despise making predictions. This week, I'm taking the Colts to make a game of it against a Bills squad who have been feasting on cupcakes since their bye week. The fact that they lost to the lone out-of-division cupcake gives me encouragement that they aren't quite the force they looked when disposing of the Chiefs in Week 5, and the Colts are good enough to lose respectably by less than the touchdown margin. Indianapolis (+7) at Buffalo.
Bryan: Let me foretell the Vikings-Packers game for you. The Vikings are going to jump out to an early double-digit lead, probably off of a Green Bay special teams miscue—they are, after all, the only team in the league who have had a seven-point lead in every single game they have played. They'll blow the lead by halftime but get it back in the third quarter, and the game will come down to the wire at the end. That's every Vikings game. It has been every Vikings game for years. With Aaron Jones out and Dalvin Cook set for a big day against a Packers defense that, while solid, is susceptible to a big day on the ground ... I'm going to take Minnesota (+2.5), and hope that Green Bay's inevitable game-winning field goal attempt comes with them down a point or two rather than tied.
Double Survival League
Records to Date:
Bryan: ATL, BUF, CAR, CHI, HOU, IND, JAX, LAC, LV, NYJ, PHI, SF, TB, TEN
Andrew: CHI, CLE, DAL, HOU, JAX, LAC, MIA, NO, NYJ, PHI, SEA, SF, TB, TEN
Bryan: Picks are getting a little tight as we take the turn into the last portion of the schedule; there's some tricky finagling to do to fit the last 14 teams into appropriate slots. It means I'm somewhat stuck taking a pair of teams coming off of significant losses and hoping they bounce back this week, just in order to keep from completely blocking myself off later in the year.
Even though Ben Roethlisberger should be back from the COVID list on Sunday night, I still like the Los Angeles Chargers to beat the Steelers. Roethlisberger's absence explains why the Steelers couldn't finish the deal against the Lions, but it isn't enough, alone, to explain why they let the lowly Lions hang with them. The Steelers had real trouble tackling D'Andre Swift (yes, he had a low-DYAR game, but he forced seven missed tackles), and I expect that to extend to Austin Ekeler as well. Joey Bosa should live in the backfield and Justin Herbert should be able to find some holes downfield, if the Chargers' offense decides to kindly give him an attempt or two. Plus, the Steelers have about 10 key players who are, at least, questionable, going on or off the COVID list or dealing with a variety of moderate to severe injuries. Not all 10 will miss the game, but there's enough uncertainty there that I'm OK taking the Chargers now rather than taking up a slot in Week 14 (against the Giants) or Week 17 (against Denver) which can be used for lesser teams.
I'm less confident taking the Las Vegas Raiders over the Cincinnati Bengals, but frankly, I'm beginning to run out of options there. I'm not taking Vegas over Dallas, Kansas City, Cleveland, or Indianapolis, which just leaves the Bengals, Broncos, and Football Team. Frankly, I don't like any of those matchups, with the Raiders appearing to have begun what has become their annual second-half slide into irrelevancy. But then, the Bengals haven't looked like the same team that jumped out to a 5-2 start either, and I'm not sure their defense can slow Derek Carr and Darren Waller down, while the Raiders' pass rush should be able to do just enough to keep Las Vegas on top in this one.
Andrew: My picks have been mostly set from here out, with some room to allow for catastrophic events. Though frankly, going 0-3-1 with Buffalo, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore against Jacksonville, the Giants, Detroit, and Miami was catastrophic enough for my taste. That means I'm picking Cleveland to bounce back from their blowout in Foxboro with a victory over a Lions squad who couldn't quite overcome the Mason Rudolph Steelers, and San Francisco to hold serve in what should be the easiest remaining game on their schedule against the Jaguars. I swear, if I don't find a win for the Jaguars but instead lose two other teams to upsets by them...