Loving the Bills, Loathing the Browns
NFL Preseason Week 2 - Playing football for the Cleveland Browns in 2022 may be like trying to itemize tax deductions during a volcanic eruption.
If "distractions" are truly a thing, the 2022 Browns should have all the focus of a seventh-grader's research paper. Players should have so many other things on their minds that they drive past the stadium on Sunday mornings, pull into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame parking lot, scratch their heads, ask themselves "What am I supposed to be doing right now?" then suddenly remember, "Oh yeah. Football."
Distractions, of course, may not really be a thing. Indeed, the Browns did not look all that distracted when they lost 21-20 to the Philadelphia Eagles on a soggy afternoon yesterday.
The Browns didn't look all that spectacular, either. Third-stringer Josh Dobbs started in backups-on-backups action, lest the Browns give opponents any Jacoby Brissett film to study. The Browns offense was largely scrambling and silliness, their interior defense was soft serve, but Walkthrough isn't gonna pretend that the Browns played like they lacked the bandwidth after a tumultuous offseason to remember how to huddle or buckle their helmets properly. It was just preseason porridge.
Still, the Browns did not go about their summer like a normal football team. Distractions may not be real, but disruptions are, and the Browns dealt with a bunch of them. Installing an offense for a Pro Bowl quarterback while knowing a journeyman will also need something he can execute for multiple games? Disruptive. Watching a six-game suspension become an 11-game suspension? Disruptive. Losing your starting center in the preseason opener because Deshaun Watson had to be floated onto the field like a trial balloon? Disruptive. Joint practices with the Eagles suddenly turning into Senate judiciary meetings on Friday? Disruptive. Baker Mayfield's ghost haunting the roster until July? Disruptive.
Maybe the Browns successfully tuned out the "noise" (that's coachspeak for "an outraged nation begging for justice") and built a foolproof plan for going 6-5 or something under Brissett. Yeah, that totally sounds like a thing the Browns can do. This is the organization that turned Freddie Kitchens into Robespierre a few years ago, but perhaps now they have found their zen by closing ranks around an utter scuzzwad.
But I sincerely hope not.
Make no mistake: if biblical plagues strike the Browns, Walkthrough will microwave a bag of popcorn and root for the locusts and toads. I was willing to compartmentalize the sinner from the team and its fans—remember, the Saints, Panthers, and Falcons really wanted to be the Browns a few months ago—right up until Friday's consequences are for losers and repentance is for snowflakes press conferences by Scuzzwatson and his boss/enabler Jimmy Haslam. Joel Bitonio's "Cleveland against the world" comments did not help, either.
Watson's disgusting misdeeds may lie well beyond Walkthrough's jurisdiction, but supporting him and rooting for him through his remorselessness is a football crime, deserving of a football reckoning. When heavy rains fell just before kickoff of Eagles-Browns on Sunday afternoon, it was not hard to interpret the omen. Pour down, oh cleansing rain, for 40 days and 40 nights, washing away all traces of our putrescence. Just spare Jalen Hurts.
Cosmic righteousness, like distractions, may or may not be real. But the Browns have a way of manufacturing their own kismet. They'll trot Brissett on the field to execute an offense designed for a much better quarterback, with Donovan Peoples-Jones as his second-best receiver and a run defense that will keep opponents in every game. Yes, the Browns will run the ball well and notch plenty of sacks and interceptions. But you know what they will look like? The Baker Mayfield 2021 Bum Shoulder Experience 2.0, dreary also-rans that will need Scuzzwatson's late-season antiheroism to climb up to our Football Outsiders Almanac 7.8-win projection.
Wait 'till next year, Browns fans will cry. They have cried that every year since 1999, about Tim Couch, Butch Davis, Eric Mangini, Brady Quinn, Mike Holmgren, Johnny Manziel, Mayfield, and the Moneyball gang who made a pseudoscience of waiting until next year. But there's always another drama next year, surrounding Mayfield, Manziel, Kitchens, Hue Jackson, Odell Beckham, Haslam's latest quick-fix savior, Haslam's former quick-fix savior. Next year the Browns will be short on cap space and draft picks, and they will still need better receivers and defensive tackles if they hope to compete.
The Browns have sentenced themselves and their fans to another typical Browns season. In the past, they were the NFL's most lovable losers. Now the Browns are loathable, and their fans are left to choose between rooting for mediocrity followed by moral compromise or just watching the Guardians on Sundays. And while the Watson "distraction" will subside for a few months, that's unlikely to make the Browns better or more likable. They'll only become more forgettable.
Preseason Week 2 Quarterback Update
Only Walkthrough has the courage to tell you how young quarterbacks around the league are really doing, rather than waiting through four three-and-outs for one highlight against fourth-stringers and then declaring the head coach a moron for not instantly anointing him QB1.
Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars
Lawrence has looked like the Next Big Thing in spurts through two preseason games. He mixed fastballs with paint-the-corner changeups against the Steelers starters on Saturday night, adding a few pocket escapes and scrambles for good measure. Then the Jaguars kept stalling near the red zone (both on Saturday and last week), with Lawrence and Christian Kirk failing to connect a few times.
Lawrence is going to be helped immeasurably by his new coaches and supporting cast. But he will also be limited a bit by his new coaches (Doug Pederson without Frank Reich sounds more like Mick Jagger's solo albums than the Rolling Stones) and supporting cast.
Davis Mills, Houston Texans
Adequate from a clean pocket. Scattershot when pressured. Slightly less mobile than Nick Foles. Mills couldn't move the Texans offense against the Rams' 2.5th string for five series, but the Texans deployed the keep our starters in until they accomplish something preseason tactic, and Mills built a touchdown drive out of a pair of deep 50-50 balls against rookies before halftime. We're all playing along with the whole "Mills is a real franchise quarterback" thing because few are paying close attention, and those who are may be afraid that the Texans will toss Josh McCown onto the field when Mills flames out.
Kenny Pickett and Mitch Trubisky, Pittsburgh Steelers
Entering Saturday's game, Walkthrough gave Trubisky about a 90% chance of starting on opening day. That's down to 50%. Pickett led a touchdown drive with 1:05 to play in the half in which he not only delivered on-target passes to open receivers but managed the clock like a veteran. If Pickett demonstrates that he can be game manager, he takes away one of Trubisky's few advantages.
Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins
Given plenty of time to throw (no Maxx Crosby or Chandler Jones for the Raiders) but no one to throw to (no Tyreek Hill or Jaylen Waddle), Tagovailoa demonstrated that he can reset his feet and check down to his second to fourth read. Other than that, there was little to see on Saturday night. The evolution into Lefty Garoppolo continues, right down to the carefully spun reports of interception-fest practices.
Carson Wentz, Washington Commanders
Great pass. Awful pass. Pass that looks like a miscommunication between Wentz and his receiver. (Those never go away.) Sack because he held the ball too long. Repeat until fans start to wonder if the team would be better off with Taylor Heinicke or Sam Howell under center. Don't bother, they're already there.
Malik Willis, Tennessee Titans
A stare-down-the-first-read-then-run quarterback who would get sacked 50 times and complete 50% of his passes if forced to start right away. Mike Vrabel silenced the "wHy'D U BeNcH hIm?" crowd from last week by starting Willis and letting him play three non-productive quarters. All the cherry-picked Willis highlights you may have seen come from one drive before halftime; scramblers facing randos are bound to do something in preseason, given enough time.
We'll check back in on Willis next July. He'll be a deactivated QB3 for most of this season.
Desperately Seeking Buffalo Bills Skeptics
JOB OPPORTUNITY ANNOUNCEMENT: Anyone who can come up with an anti-Bills Super Bowl argument for 2022 will become an instant viral sensation.
We're not talking about some surly Jets/Dolphins fan theory, a trophy case tour from Tom Brady stans, or an injuries-can-happen appeal to ignorance disguised as wisdom. What the world needs now is a legit-sounding reason why the Bills should not enter the season as Super Bowl LVII favorites. The aspiring analytics guru, tape grinder, or sports talk gadfly who can craft a straight-faced anti-Bills argument will get more screen time than that gal-yelling-in-her-bored-boyfriend's-ear meme.
Football Outsiders Almanac won't provide that argument; the Bills are our Super Bowl favorites. Walkthrough ain't volunteering, either. The sportsbooks list the Bills at +600 to win the Super Bowl, so count the handicappers out. And chances are that no one is lining up to pick against the Bills after Saturday's 42-15 vivisection of the Broncos on Saturday.
Yes, it was Bills starters against Broncos backups in the first quarter. And the Bills' first-quarter tackling was suspect. First-round cornerback Kaiir Elam is a little huggy in coverage. But the Bills didn't let up when their backups entered the game. Their offense scored 28 points while only facing one third down the entire first half. (They converted.) Rookie James Cook looks great. Rookie Khalil Shakir looks great. Gabriel Davis looks like younger-bigger Tyreek Hill. The Bills appear to have backups or prospects at most positions who can outperform an average team's starters.
So where will the Bills doubters come from? Maybe, as friend-of-Walkthrough Nate Geary of WGN radio in upstate New York tweeted just after Saturday's game, the call will come from inside the house:
Nope. Didn't just take a post game call saying Case Keenum should be the starter. NOPE.
— Nate Geary (@NateGearySports) August 20, 2022
Geary told Walkthrough that the caller, who wanted to trade Josh Allen for draft picks, referred to Keenum as "Casey Kasem," so drunkenness may have been a factor. But perhaps we have reached sports talk Moneyball apotheosis: why bother trying to win a Super Bowl when a team can just keep winning the offseason resource-allocation RTS game?
No, the Bills skeptic will be a television analyst who draws the short straw in the name of embracing debate or some cred-seeking contrarian with a dream. This proud free thinker will declare Allen "overrated" and the Bills secondary and receiving corps "vulnerable." Justin Herbert, Bill Belichick, or Tyreek will be propped up as the boss destined to defeat the Bills before the final level. The laboratory-concocted but Cinnabon-smelling take will provide awesome content for a few hours sometime in the next three weeks, now that the preseason novelty has worn off.
And you know what? That anti-Bills contrarian is much more likely to be right than those of us following the flock, because even a prohibitive favorite like the Bills has only (checks Almanac) a 33% chance of becoming a true Super Bowl contender, at least according to our admittedly over-conservative calculations.
Saying that a team won't reach the Super Bowl is always a safe, high-percentage prediction. But that doesn't make it a wise one.
Trevor Penning, Romeo Doubs, and the Gradual Learning Curve
New Orleans Saints rookie left tackle Trevor Penning's training camp and preseason performances have been in the eye of the beholder. The reps where he's dragging his defender into the parking lot for a clobberin' at the end of the snap have been beautiful. The footwork lapses in pass protection have been ugly. Penning no longer feels the need to pick a fight with a defensive teammate in every single practice, which is a step in the right direction. But the impression Walkthrough gets watching Penning, a player we adored at the Senior Bowl, is that he's ready to feast upon some souls on run plays but will force the Saints to keep a tight end or running back in to block so Jameis Winston doesn't get creamed on third downs.
If the Saints were developing Penning to take his rookie lumps in 2022 and become their cornerstone left tackle for the rest of the decade, Walkthrough would be thrilled about what we have seen so far. But Penning will be an immediate starter protecting a quarterback likely to be wearing a brace on his left knee for a team in Win Now/Die Broke cap shape. The Saints cannot afford "great game except for two horrendous reps" performances in September, especially when they face the Buccaneers.
Green Bay Packers wide receiver Romeo Doubs is in a similar place. Doubs' preseason mix of highlights, dropped passes, and rookie mistakes are encouraging for his long-range future. But the moment he drops a bomb in the regular season, Aaron Rodgers will put him in target jail for a month. That will be no big deal if Christian Watson develops quickly, Sammy Watkins stays healthy, and Allen Lazard finally enjoys his breakout season. For a Super-Bowl-or-Bust team, three "ifs" equal a "nope."
Rookies expected to play significant roles on contenders don't have the luxury of a gradual learning curve. They need to eliminate their mistakes ASAP. Ja'Marr Chase did it. (Saving ya the trouble of name-dropping him as a receiver who overcame summertime dropsies, Cheeseheads.) Most take time. The Saints, in particular, don't have a lot of time to spare.
Matt Rhule is Cheating at Solitaire and Losing
Matt Rhule's gaslighting tactics are beginning to work.
Third-string quarterback P.J. Walker started for the Carolina Panthers against the New England Patriots on Friday night, with Rhule explaining (LOL) that he saw enough from Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold during joint practices to make his evaluations. Walkthrough began composing a paragraph about how important live-game reps against the Patriots starting defense would have been if Rhule wanted to properly, competently settle his quarterback competition.
Then we remembered: THIS SHOULD NOT BE A QUARTERBACK COMPETITION. AT ALL. Making Mayfield compete with Darnold is like making Matt Ryan compete with Nick Foles for the Colts job, or making Carson Wentz compete with Taylor Heinicke for the Commanders job. (Well, maybe that last one might make a little sense, but that's another conversation.)
Third-round pick Matt Corral replaced Walker after three series, flailed around for a half, then suffered a season-ending foot injury in the fourth quarter. Rhule traded up for Corral in the 2022 draft to satisfy ownership's quarterback-of-the-future mandate in the pre-Mayfield times. Corral was perfect for Rhule because he wasn't an immediate starting threat; Darnold could wash out in early autumn, Corral might run around and win a late-season game or two, and Rhule could plead "continuity" when begging for another year on the job. Upper management sniffed out this job-preservation gambit and fetched Mayfield, and Corral looked spectacularly lost in his preseason debut last week, but Rhule still gave the rookie extra playing time on Friday instead of giving the starter he acquired just after the Fourth of July Weekend some much-needed live action. And thusly the nominal quarterback-of-the-future was broken fresh out of the box.
Rhule thinks he is playing 4D chess but he is really just cramming rooks up his own rectum. It has gone from embarrassing to nearly dangerous. Walkthrough hopes Rhule tries to name Darnold his starter this week and David Tepper floats down from the sky on a hovercraft and fires him while he's still standing at the podium.
Five Takeaways from the Chicago Bears-Seattle Seahawks Thursday Night Puntfest
Some thoughts from earlier in the weekend:
- Walkthrough needs to see what the Bears offensive line looks like with Lucas Patrick at center and Riley Reiff at right tackle before we declare the whole "Justin Fields will thrive under the new regime" theory to be anything but pure wishcasting. Both the Chiefs and Seahawks first-team defenses obliterated Fields' protection in the opening series of the first two preseason games. Patrick is out indefinitely with a right hand injury (remember: center) and Reiff is 33 years old and on his third team in three years, so the cavalry could turn out to be two lame donkeys. Teven Jenkins, drafted to play right tackle in 2021, is apparently being switched to right guard and didn't look bad on Thursday, so there's that.
- The Seahawks draft class looks swell. Walkthrough favorite Boye Mafe has been getting into games early and making plays both as a pass-rusher and in pursuit. Kenneth Walker just underwent hernia surgery, but offensive tackles Charles Cross and Abe Lucas have both been impressive. (And it's not like the Seahawks are ever short on running backs.) Football Outsiders' Derrik Klassen noted on Thursday how ironic it is that the Seahawks suddenly figured out how to draft offensive linemen the moment Russell Wilson left. The glass-half-full take: Cross and Lucas will be experienced bookends by the time the Seahawks find a real quarterback.
- Bears rookie receiver Velus Jones fumbled the opening kickoff but later demonstrated his size/speed/elusiveness package on a 48-yard punt return. Jones started at receiver but caught just one 4-yard pass late in the second quarter. Jones was considered more of a prospect as a returner than receiver before the Senior Bowl. Let's hope the Bears didn't go fishing for a WR1 for Fields in the third round and end up hooking Cordarrelle Patterson instead.
- Bears rookie safety Jaquan Brisker broke his right thumb during the game. Brisker underwent surgery over the weekend and is out indefinitely. Running back Khalil Herbert has played well throughout the preseason but was carted off the practice field on Sunday. When it rains, it pours.
- Walkthrough attended the Santana/Earth, Wind & Fire concert at the Camden Waterfront instead of watching this dreary exhibition of mediocrity live, catching up with the replay on NFL+ on Friday morning. We stand firm behind this life decision.
Week 2 Preseason Awards
The only awards that matter for games that do not matter.
Defender of the Week
Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle T.Y. McGill is having a heckuva preseason. He notched two sacks against the Raiders last week, one of which was featured in Thursday's Walkthrough. (We slagged Alex Leatherwood for allowing McGill to breeze past him, because we're all about that negativity.) McGill followed that performance up with 1.5 sacks on Saturday against the 49ers.
Also, his sack dance is making "T" and "Y" gestures with his arms, so every sack is a little like dancing to the Village People at a wedding!
Make that four preseason sacks for T.Y. McGill. 📈 @Vikings
— NFL (@NFL) August 21, 2022
Offensive Line of the Week
Both the Buffalo Bills first- and second-team offensive lines spent Saturday night picking Denver Broncos defenders out of their cleats. So let's hear it for starters Dion Dawkins, Rodger Saffold, Mitch Morse, Ryan Bates, and David Quessenberry, as well as second-stringers Spencer Brown, Cody Ford, Greg Mancz, Bobby Hart, and Greg Van Roten.
Special Teamer of the Week
KaVontae Turpin left TCU as a 153-pound all-purpose back in 2018. He knocked around the Spring League, the Fan Controlled Football League, and the European League of Football for a few years, playing for teams such as the Panthers Wroclaw and the FCF Glacier Boyz. (Gosh, the name "Glacier Boyz" really makes you wanna watch some FCF, doesn't it? Sounds like a combination body spray/hard seltzer.) Turpin worked his way up to the USFL New Jersey Generals, then the Cowboys 90-man roster. And now that he returned a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown against the Chargers on Saturday night, Turpin is likely to land on the Cowboys roster as well. Glacier Boyz to Cowboys? That's what the preseason is all about, true believers!
Best Supporting Actor in Someone Else's Highlight
Keep your eye on New Orleans Saints quarterback Ian Book throughout this replay of Shawn Davis Jr.'s fumble recovery and runback for the Green Bay Packers.
— Green Bay Packers (@packers) August 20, 2022
First, Book drops to his knees and begins flailing for the loose football like he's chasing a cat running under a sofa to avoid its eardrops. Then teammate Nick Vannett and Packers defender T.J. Slaton slam into him. Everyone then leaps up to chase Davis except Book, who writhes on the ground thinking, "I bet Taysom Hill never had to put up with this sh*t?"