Week 3 Recap: Justin Fields Not Ready to Start; Chiefs in Trouble
Justin Fields is not ready to be an NFL starting quarterback. And Matt Nagy is clearly not the coach to get him ready.
Fields went 6-of-20 for 68 yards, with nine sacks for 67 yards lost, in the Chicago Bears' 26-6 loss to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. Yes, that adds up to three more sacks than completions and precisely 1 net passing yard.
What's worse, Fields wasn't as effective as even those putrid numbers suggest. His throws over the middle arrived late to blanketed receivers. Throws to the sidelines sailed on him. He held the ball too long and appeared to have no faith in his reads. He exacerbated sacks by trying to escape out of the back of the pocket, resulting in additional lost yardage. Worst of all, he didn't look all that quick-footed, getting chased down from behind while scrambling and sliding awkwardly at the ends of runs. His best play of the day was an interception nullified by defensive pass interference. He even bounced a pass off of left tackle Jason Peters' back at one point.
Fields did many things wrong. But Nagy did so little to put him in a position to succeed that he nearly guaranteed failure.
If there were any designed runs in the Bears game plan, Walkthrough didn't see them: most of the apparent zone-read plays looked like handoffs with option window dressing. If Nagy rolled the pocket for Fields, again: Walkthrough didn't see it (we tuned out at garbage time). The Bears were in the game until late in the third quarter, thanks to a defense that provided multiple third- and fourth-down stops, but David Montgomery rushed just 10 times, seven of them in the first half. Do you think the Bears might have tossed an end-around or some screens into the game plan to diversify their attack and create some easy completions for Fields? Nah. They just sent him out there with the same playbook that made Andy Dalton a laughingstock in Week 1 and got him injured against the Bengals.
Walkthrough has asserted since the start of training camp that Nagy is all but sandbagging Fields as part of an elaborate and ill-conceived employment-preservation tactic. But I assumed that the sandbagging would cease once Fields was forced into the lineup and became Nagy's only hope of keeping his job.
There's no way Nagy would sabotage his own future just to prove some elaborate point about how Dalton was the best choice to be the Bears quarterback all along, right? I'm about 75% sure he would never do such a thing. It's much more likely that Bears coaches neglected to create a robust Fields-centric offensive package and never bothered fast-tracking his development in any meaningful way because they were so invested in the "Dalton is our starter" narrative that they could not imagine a scenario where Dalton would be injured by Week 2—even though pretty much everyone else who follows the NFL could envision just that scenario.
Before you accuse me of being too hard on Nagy (admittedly a favorite punching bag around here), think back to how the Texans made Davis Mills (a blurry photocopy of Brock Osweiler) look semi-capable for a few stretches of the Thursday night loss to the Panthers. Nagy is getting out-coached by David Culley, for heaven's sake.
The McCaskeys need to take a cue from the 2018 Cleveland Browns: ousting the whole Hue Jackson regime in midseason salvaged Baker Mayfield's career before he got buried until a pile of bad ideas and conflicting coaching agendas. The sooner the Bears move on from Nagy (and general manager Ryan Pace, of course), the quicker the franchise can set about evaluating and developing Fields instead of using him as some sort of thought experiment, object lesson, or pawn in a chess game that a hopelessly overmatched head coach is losing against himself.
How to Think About the Chiefs' 1-2 Start
It's not difficult to pinpoint the Chiefs' biggest issues after back-to-back losses, including Sunday's 30-24 defeat against the Los Angeles Chargers. They committed two turnovers in a 36-35 loss to Baltimore on Monday night and four more on Sunday, while their boom-or-bust fastbreak defense isn't producing enough stops or turnovers to compensate for their mistake-prone offense.
The big question is not what is happening but how to interpret it. Mahomes still looks excellent when he's not trying too hard to shift into phantasmagoric yolo hyperdrive, all of the big names on offense and defense are healthy, and both of Chiefs losses came down to the wire against quality opponents. So is the Chiefs' 1-2 start no big deal? Some big deal? A very big deal? Here are a few templates to help make sense of what's happening.
The Andy Reid Eagles Template
The Chiefs have become an upgraded version of the 2006-2010 post-Super Bowl XXXIX heartbreak Eagles.
Reid's attention to detail lapsed in the late 2000s, and his commitment to the run completely disappeared. The Eagles still made the playoffs frequently thanks to big plays by their veteran stars, but every close game was a potential nightmare of clock mismanagement or some other form of sloppiness.
Likelihood: Low. It's hard to tell if this template even applies to the Chiefs, because Mahomes is far superior to Donovan McNabb, and because the Eagles had no weapons quite like Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce in the late Reid era. In fact, the Eagles template might simply be a variation on…
The Packers Template
The Chiefs have become like the Brett Favre-Mike Sherman Packers of the early 2000s or the Aaron Rodgers Packers of the late Mike McCarthy era.
The Packers started out 1-2 in 2003 and 2004 under Sherman (and went 0-3 when the wheels came off in 2005). They started 1-2 in 2006, 2012, 2013, and 2014 under McCarthy, plus 1-1-1 in 2018. Those Packers offenses became starring vehicles for their overzealous quarterbacks, sometimes to a fault, yet they often rebounded to make the playoffs because, well, look at who those quarterbacks were.
Likelihood: Moderate to high. Mahomes is clearly trying to do too much with some of his no-look passes and risky maneuvers at the ends of scrambles. The Chiefs defense has also bought too heavily into the belief that they can give up gobs of yards and big plays as long as they produce a few turnovers. The Chiefs need to act more like a supergroup than Mahomes' backup band.
If The Packers template applies, the Chiefs are now a 10- or 11-win team likely to fall victim to some flaw like a leaky run defense when they reach the postseason. That tracks, and it should be a major worry for Chiefs fans.
The Patriots Template
Nothing to worry about, folks! The Patriots went 1-2 to start the 2018 season but won the Super Bowl. They went 2-2 to start the 2017 season and won the AFC. Heck, what would September in the 2010s have been without an early-season loss or two and a PATRIOTS DYNASTY HAS ENDED storyline? The Chiefs are doing their version of the same thing and will stomp on the accelerator any minute now.
Likelihood: Moderate to low. The biggest difference between the 2010s Patriots and the 2021 Chiefs is their margin for error. The Patriots could noodle early in the year while counting on an easy divisional schedule to buoy them come playoff tiebreaker time, but there are no Jets in the AFC West this year.
There are other differences—those Patriots teams made far fewer mistakes, even in their losses—but "figure out solutions on the fly" tactics will likely force the Chiefs onto the road for at least part of the playoffs, which sends us straight back toward the Packers Template.
The Troll Template
Mahomes has been figured out, folks! It's over! The Chiefs are screwed for the rest of the decade!
Likelihood: Close to zero. But if it's true, Bills fans better start buying up those PSLs for the new stadium, because they're really gonna want a seat.
Game Spotlight: Rams 34, Buccaneers 24
What Happened: If you were looking for proof of concept for the "Matthew Stafford makes the Rams Super Bowl contenders" theory, well, this was it.
Stafford threw for 343 yards and four touchdowns. DeSean Jackson emerged from the duckblind he was hiding in for the first two games for a 75-yard touchdown. Sean McVay designed a nearly flawless game plan. Only the threat of Tom Brady magic kept the contest from becoming a laugher after the Rams scored touchdowns on four straight drives and added a field goal to take a 31-14 lead late in the third quarter.
What it means: The Rams allowed just one sack. Given time to throw against the fearsome Buccaneers pass rush (missing Jason Pierre-Paul, but whatever), Stafford completed six passes of 20-plus yards to four different receivers, and the Rams converted 10 of 15 third downs. Brady played well, but the Buccaneers running game was useless, and their passing game (without an injured Rob Gronkowski for much of the game) wasn't fast enough to compete in the track meet.
Most interestingly, the Rams were penalized just once for 4 yards. They have now been penalized just seven times through three games. That's not a sustainable pace, and it may be more of a random factor than a sign of superior coaching or discipline. But protecting Stafford from the Bucs without holding penalties and stopping the Buccaneers receivers without pass interference is impressive.
Combine the pass protection, run defense, and penalty-free football, and there is clearly more to the Rams than just Stafford, Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp, and Jalen Ramsey. It takes a complete team to convincingly beat the Buccaneers, and the Rams really look like one right now.
What's next: The Rams host the Cardinals, then face the Seahawks in a pair of games that should help us make some more sense out of the NFC West.
The Buccaneers visit New England next week in a game that some folks think is interesting or significant for some reason.
Quarterback Denial Index
A bad quarterback situation is understandable: teams are forced to start rookies, backups, and placeholder veterans all the time. Quarterback denial, or the belief that everything is A-OK despite evidence to the contrary, is inexcusable. The first step toward getting better is admitting there's a problem. After three weeks, here are the NFL teams least likely to take that step.
Honorable Mention: Carolina Panthers
Sam Darnold's "improvement" is 50% a distortion caused by the fact that the Panthers faced a pair of XFL-caliber opponents, 25% wishful thinking by draftniks who stumped for him in 2018, and 25% our national eagerness to blame anything bad that has ever happened on Adam Gase.
5. San Francisco 49ers
The best argument for keeping Jimmy Garoppolo in the lineup is the fact that Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, and Mac Jones all currently look like they still belong in college, and Trey Lance is probably less NFL-ready than any of them. On the other hand, the 49ers have been talking themselves into Garoppolo since before they traded for him, and Kyle Shanahan called every jet sweep and option concept he could dream up to get the 49ers offense moving in the second half (with Lance making some cameos). If the 49ers are using a protect-the-rookie game plan, they might as well use it for their rookie.
4. New York Giants
Daniel Jones hasn't committed a turnover in two games and has made some fine plays as a runner and deep passer. As a result, a somewhat-credible he's not the problem narrative is coalescing around him during the Giants' 0-3 start. That said, what the Giants did on Sunday practically broke the laws of thermodynamics: it's almost scientifically impossible to only score 14 points against the Falcons defense. It's foolish to hold Jones harmless from criticism.
There's a difference between not being the problem, not being one of the three or four biggest problems, and being part of the solution. Jones fits more squarely in the second category than the third.
Remember, Walkthrough is based in greater Philly, the home of the franchise-destroying he's not the problem quarterback narrative. But we'll get to you-know-who in a bit.
3. New Orleans Saints
Perhaps the most controversial team on this list. Jameis Winston keeps throwing touchdown passes to cap nine- to 12-yard scoring drives, the defense keeps providing turnovers, and the Saints keep winning. It all hides just how anemic their passing game really is. Sean Payton turned to Taysom Hill to execute his silly Wildcat package in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 28-13 win because Winston couldn't move the offense while nursing a one-score lead. A lack of weapons is a part of Winston's problem, but blaming the supporting cast is also a primary symptom of quarterback denial.
Walkthrough keeps comparing the 2021 Saints to the 2020 Patriots, and it keeps being true. If Winston doesn't improve, we'll be seeing more of the Lovechild as the weeks wear on, with predictable results.
2. Indianapolis Colts
Carson Wentz spent one-half of Sunday's 25-16 loss to the Titans throwing the ball away to avoid sacks, often simply bouncing them at the feet of a pass-protecting running back. He spent the rest of the time either getting sacked, tossing quick passes into the flats, or delivering risky downfield lobs. The Colts would have been utterly humiliated if not for three drive-killing Titans turnovers and the fact that Titans defenders were so eager to deliver the Wentz killshot that they gave up chunk yardage on screens.
This is the Wentz experience, folks. It's not that he renders the offense completely ineffectual, but that he takes the whole organization on a weekly rollercoaster ride regarding his health status and psychological state while playing just well enough to keep a strong supporting cast glued to the bottom of the playoff picture.
Or, as my wife said on Sunday morning when I explained that Wentz planned to play on a pair of sprained ankles: "He needs to spend less effort proving that he's tough and more effort proving that he's good."
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Ben Roethlisberger has become the walking embodiment of the Y.A. Tittle "Fallen Giant" photo. The Steelers understand this on some level, but they have reached the point that the Giants reached with Eli Manning in 2017 or so. The Steelers purposely avoided acquiring an heir apparent (Dwayne Haskins is Geno Smith in this scenario) in an effort to build one last contender, leaving them with no choice but to prop Roethlisberger up and hope their defense holds opponents under 16 points.
The Steelers are likely to become the 2021 Saints or 2020 Patriots next year, keeping games close with someone such as Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. But they could also collapse when Roethlisberger finally crumbles to dust the way the Giants did after years of procrastinating with Eli. The Steelers haven't had a multi-year stretch of truly dreadful football in living memory, but there's a chance that one is looming on the horizon, and that the seeds of that demise were sewn against the Bengals on Sunday.
Snack-sized news and notes from the weekend.
NFL Moves One of the Wild-Card Weekend Playoff Games from Saturday Afternoon to Monday Night
My fingers type "this is terrible for competitive balance" while my mind screams "this is terrible for my weekly content schedule!"
Dallas Cowboys Offensive Tackle La'el Collins was Suspended for Attempting to Bribe the League's Drug Test Collector
COLLINS: "Imma wrap this paper cup full of Mountain Dew in a pretty green portrait of Alexander Hamilton, and you're gonna pretend I don't smell like the stockroom of a Colorado dispensary."
DRUG-TEST PERSON: "You know, under the new collective bargaining agreement, you can't be suspended for marijuana unless you do something really stupid like…"
COLLINS: "Just take the soda and the 10-spot, pee boy."
Christian McCaffrey to Miss a Few Weeks with a Strained Hamstring
Running backs don't matter, unless you build your rushing and passing philosophies completely around one, then back him up with a fourth-round rookie.
Buffalo Bills to Sell PSLs to Pay for New Stadium
#BillsMafia members sheepishly begin duct-taping tables back together because they can no longer afford both season tickets and new dining room furniture.
Tua Tagovailoa Placed on Miami Dolphins Injured Reserve
Raekwon Davis named injured reserve captain. And yes, I plan to beat this joke until it's carcass can not be identified by forensic science.
Andy Reid Falls Ill After Chargers Loss, Leaves Stadium in an Ambulance
Per reports, Reid is OK. And Urban Meyer just had a great idea.
Defensive Player of the Week
It sure has been a big month for two-interception games by defenders! That'll happen when the NFL is full of unprepared rookie quarterbacks, zombie Ben Roethlisbergers, and the Atlanta Falcons. Cardinals cornerback Byron Murphy and Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson win the NFC and AFC versions of this week's awards for their two-pick performances. Murphy's pick-six in the Arizona Cardinals victory over the Jaguars turned a nip-and-tuck game into a rout, while Wilson did a fine job extending for a short Roethliswobbler and holding onto a ball that Big Ben thought he could throw straight through the defender's chest.
Offensive Line of the Week
The Rams' offensive line of 39-year-old Andrew Whitworth (Internet maritime law requires us to specify his age every time he is mentioned), David Edwards, Brian Allen, Austin Corbett and Rob Havenstein held off one of the best pass rushes in the NFL so Matthew Stafford could throw for 343 yards and one touchdown. The 39-year-old Whitworth even recovered a fumble by Tyler Higbee to keep an early-game drive alive! He's so awesome! And so old!
Special Teamer of the Week
Walkthrough used to call this the Justin Tucker Memorial Special Teamer of the Week award a few years ago, back when we were Monday Morning Digest. We stopped doing so because Tucker ended up winning his own award about once per month, and because a "memorial" for someone who is alive and active is a little weird.
Anyway: 66-yard game-winning field goal, longest in NFL history, one-hopped off the crossbar. 'Nuff said.
Honorable mention goes to Jamal Agnew of the Jaguars for his 109-yard touchdown return of a 68-yard Matt Prater field goal attempt—the Cardinals may be much improved this year, but Kliff Kingsbury is still a very handsome ninny—and to Andrew Dowell of the Saints for his blocked punt against the Patriots.
Mystery Touch of the Week
The Bills briefly tried to give away their eventual 43-21 rout of Washington by getting goofy before halftime. Dustin Hopkins' kickoff after a long Antonio Gibson catch-and-run touchdown bounced at around at the 20-yard line, and Bills return team just kinda stared at it like it was a punt. Hopkins raced downfield and grabbed the football, setting up another Washington touchdown.
So while it's officially a fumble recovery, Hopkins essentially returned his own kickoff. Eat your heart out, Justin Tucker.
Best Supporting Actor in Someone Else's Highlight
Grady Jarrett has been the Falcons' best defender for several years. But he remains a Falcons defender. So what happens when a 300-plus-pound defensive tackle squares off head-to-head with Daniel Jones doing his best Cam Newton impression at the goal line? Jarrett gets trucked, of course, because even in victory, the Falcons are the Falcons.
Did I just see Daniel Jones truck 305-pound Grady Jarrett? pic.twitter.com/D8DoFENZkj
— NFL Memes (@NFL_Memes) September 26, 2021
Burn This Play!
Check out the video of Darius Leonard's interception in the Titans victory over the Colts.
IND INT. It's Darius Leonard! #ForTheShoe
— NFL (@NFL) September 26, 2021
How do you think Tennessee offensive coordinator Todd Downing installed that masterpiece? "OK, I want the tight end to go straight into the middle of the field and then stop. And I want Jeremy McNichols to run to the exact same spot on the field and also stop. And Julio Jones, could you drift toward the same location too? No, don't run a route, Julio. Just sorta coast toward a spot near the hashmark, 3 yards shy of the sticks. That should result in about five converging defenders! Now Ryan, the tight end is your first read, McNichols the second, and Julio the third! This will BLOW THEIR MINDS on third-and-7!"
Walkthrough Sportsbook Sunday Same-Game Parlay and Prop-a-Palooza!
Walkthrough wagered on a five-flavor flight of props and parlays in Week 3 to shake up the routine a little bit. How did we do? More importantly, what on earth made us even consider such a strange assortment of wagers? Let's review a mostly successful Sunday:
Miami Dolphins +4.5 vs. Las Vegas Raiders AND final score OVER 44.5 at +260
Rationale: Walkthrough has been wagering on competent backups in their first starts of the year since before we could legally drive (and loooonnnng before we could legally wager). The low over, high payout, and four-plus points of breathing room made this same-game parlay too tasty to pass up against a Raiders opponent we had little faith in.
Result: Ah, the same-game parlay at its best! Sure, the Raiders pulled it out. But Jacoby Brissett proved capable enough to mount both an early lead and a fourth-quarter comeback, while a Dolphins defensive touchdown and a Raiders safety helped push the final score past the over before the overtime rolled around. WIN
Both Chargers and Chiefs to score 25-plus points: +150
Rationale: Betting the over (which landed at 54.5) would have been easy enough, but Walkthrough predicted a shootout between the Chiefs and a Chargers team that entered the game averaging a league-high 49.4 yards per drive. So why not juice the payout?
Result: Ugh. Those Chiefs turnovers were a killer, yet Walkthrough still had a puncher's chance at Hail Mary time. Anyone who bet the over felt the same pain. LOSS.
Baltimore Ravens Straight Up vs. Detroit Lions AND final score UNDER 50.5 at +145
Rationale: The Ravens at -7.5 against the plucky Lions felt like a backdoor cover waiting to happen. The over-under of 50 (teased up for parlay purposes) sounded a little rich: unless the Ravens scored around 34 points themselves, this game wasn't hitting the half-century mark. This same-game parlay gave me a strong payout for what amounted in my mind to a straight-up Ravens pick.
Result: This game played out exactly as expected! Except for the part where the Lions scored 10 fourth-quarter points to take a lead. And the part where Lamar Jackson needed to hit Sammy Watkins with a 36-yard pass on fourth-and-19 with no timeouts and 26 seconds left to set up a 66-yard desperation field goal. And the part where Justin Tucker bounced the game-winner off the crossbar and over like a ground-rule double. Otherwise, exactly as expected. WIN.
Russell Wilson Longest Completion OVER 38.5 (-120)
Rationale: The Vikings defense ranked 29th against deep passes in DVOA entering the game. If they couldn't stop Joe Burrow or Kyler Murray burning them with bombs, what chance did they have against Russell Wilson?
Result: The Vikings played a heckuva game in their 30-17 victory, thanks in small part to a classic Seahawks "get to 17 points at halftime and stop" game plans. The Vikings secondary also did a great job preventing Wilson from launching bombs to DK Metcalf or Tyler Lockett. But tight end Will Dissly slipped away from linebacker Erik Kendricks over the middle and rumbled for precisely 39 yards. There's a reason Walkthrough didn't just pick the Seahawks to win, folks. WIN.
Matthew Stafford + Tom Brady to Combine for Over 599.5 Passing Yards +105
Rationale: A shootout seemed likely, and this prop is built to withstand a "Stafford 350 yards/Brady 250 yards" situation if the "shootout" turned into "Rams playing catchup for the entire second half."
Result: The "shootout" turned into "Buccaneers playing catchup for the entire second half." Whatever. This money was in the bank midway through the third quarter. WIN.
Five units wagered, a total of 9.93 paid out: not bad for a Sunday's work. Plus, I leapt and cheered like a lunatic in a South Jersey tavern when Tucker made that kick. Moments like that are priceless.
Monday Night Action: Philadelphia Eagles +3.5 at Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys have scored 21 first-quarter points this season, so Walkthrough is taking them -0.5 to lead at the end of the first quarter before Kellen Moore runs out of cool ideas and the Cowboys start running curls-and-flats twice per drive.
You may have noticed that Walkthrough loves a good "longest completion" prop, and Jalen Hurts' over is way down at 36.5 yards, albeit with a -120 payout. Half the Eagles offense is moonshots to fast receivers right now, while the other half consists of quick screens to those same able-to-break-one receivers. This wager could take the sting out if a 90-yard Hurts bomb results in zero Eagles points again.
After that, Walkthrough wants little to do with this game. The Eagles will be without Jordan Mailata, while the Cowboys are coping with a minor COVID outbreak. After the Sunday you just read about, I see little reason to press my luck.