Inside this column
- Trouble with Zach Wilson
- Aaron Rodgers’ Continued Brilliance
- Texting with Wes Welker
- Justin Fields, Kyler Murray, Tyler Huntley and More
One of the top personnel men in football had a damning comparison for New York Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson a few weeks ago.
Colt McCoy with a better arm.
However, upon seeing Wilson on Sunday against Miami, he might be closer to Joey Harrington.
The comment by the personnel man was part of a larger discussion about this year’s rookie class of first-round quarterbacks. It wasn’t a pretty discussion. It hasn’t been a pretty year. Trevor Lawrence has been basically awful in Jacksonville, especially in terms of accuracy. But at least he has the Urban Meyer excuse.
Zach Wilson Destined for Backup Career?
Mac Jones has been fine, but he screams “game manager.” Trey Lance hasn’t played enough and the times he has played have been rough as he makes the huge leap in both level of play and from playing so little in college.
The only quarterback who received strong praise for potential was Justin Fields, whose development as a passer has been promising at times. But that’s maybe because he has so much to learn coming out of the Meyer-based system he played in at Ohio State. Still, the personnel man saw a real chance for Fields to break away from the group of five first-round picks because of both his physical ability and leadership qualities.
But when it came to Wilson, there was a lot of silence. There was nothing terribly wrong, but there was nothing that sparked inspiration.
“He looks like a backup. He’ll know what to do to get you through a game and start once in a while. That’s what you saw with Colt (McCoy) this season … but there’s nothing there to get excited about,” the personnel man said.
McCoy has gone from third-round pick in 2010 to 12-year journeyman. He has played for five teams, including currently with Arizona. That’s a respectable career.
It’s not what the Jets are anticipating out of a guy they took at No. 2 overall and who they traded up to get. They appear to have a guy who gets sacked at an alarming rate (34 with 308 attempts is brutal), doesn’t produce when he throws the ball (only 6.2 yards per attempt) and gets intercepted a lot (11 so far).
If you interpret those stats, that’s a combination of someone who doesn’t process very well, is afraid to throw and makes mistakes when he does throw it. Worst of all, Wilson looks downright scared at times. Again, that gets to the Harrington comparison. Harrington was the No. 3 pick in the 2002 NFL Draft. For those who don’t remember, Harrington was a wonderfully nice guy who was drawn to throwing the safest, least-threatening pass possible in the most pressurized situations. He was, as he became known, “Checkdown Charlie.”
While it’s unfair to draw any final conclusion about a rookie quarterback this early in his career, Wilson’s performance against the Dolphins was troubling in its complete homage to Harrington. In particular, two plays at the end of the game with less than three minutes remaining was exceedingly disappointing.
Down by a touchdown and facing a second-and-8 play, Wilson was flushed from the pocket and limited to a one-yard gain on the scramble. On third down, Wilson threw short into the flat, missing a pass behind running back Michael Carter.
It was damning display of inadequate courage given the circumstances. Yes, Wilson had been pressured all day (he was sacked six times). But this is a young quarterback who is not understanding how to test his limits in situations where there is little risk.
The Jets left Sunday with a 3-11 record. That’s bad. What’s worse is that they have a quarterback who didn’t seem to understand the point. When you’re already out of the race, there should be no fear. There should be no backing down from second-and-long or third-and-long at the end of a game.
There should be an attempt to learn something, even if that means making a mistake. The Jets certainly seemed to get the fearless concept early in the game, such as when they ran a third-and-long lateral play from Jamison Crowder to Braxton Berrios. It was an almost bizarre call in some ways; the kind of play you might otherwise save for a big game. Instead, the Jets took chances like someone playing on house money.
Wilson should have taken that same type of chance at the end of the game. Instead of letting a pass fly on second down, he tried to run. On third down, he went underneath. This is a situation where an interception wouldn’t have meant anything to Wilson or the Jets in the grand scheme of the season. Again, even a mistake could have been lesson.
Instead, he was afraid to try.
Counter that against what the Dolphins are seeing from Tua Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa was far from great on Sunday. He had two interceptions that helped set up 10 points for the Jets, including a pick six in the fourth quarter. The difference is that Tagavailoa is learning what he can and can’t do — and so are the Dolphins.
The same is true with Lawrence in Jacksonville. Again, Lawrence hasn’t looked good on the way to throwing 14 interceptions this season. That included four in a shutout loss to Tennessee. At the same time, Lawrence has a chance to learn from failure, hopefully the way Peyton Manning learned when he set the rookie record for interceptions.
What the Jets appear to have in Wilson is a guy who looks small in the pocket, as if the game is simply too big for him.
Aaron Rodgers: MVP So Far
I’m generally not a big fan of making a decision on awards before I have to, but as long as you keep an open mind to change, there’s no harm in discussing it along the way. To anybody with a pulse, it’s obvious that Dallas Swiss Army Knife defender Micah Parsons is the Rookie of the Year. He looked like a cornerback in coverage on one play Sunday. He’s ridiculous.
With that said, let’s discuss a crowded field for Most Valuable Player. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers is starting to pull away despite some self-inflicted burdens. This is the year where Rodgers not only tried to force his way out of Green Bay, he also didn’t show up for the offseason program, AND he pulled an arrogantly dishonest stunt over Covid vaccination that cost him a game that the Packers lost.
At the same time, brilliance is brilliance. Green Bay has the best record in the league at 11-3, Rodgers has only four interceptions and leads the league in quarterback rating while operating behind an offensive line that has been riddled by injuries all season.
So, while some people could make the argument that Rodgers has done plenty of things to create tension in the Packers organization, he has been singularly brilliant on the field. While there is still room for someone like Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Matt Stafford, Jonathan Taylor, Kyler Murray or Dak Prescott to make up the difference, Rodgers gets the nod as of today.
And that’s quite an accomplishment, especially considering the self-inflicted circumstances.
Texting With Wes Welker
San Francisco wide receiver coach Wes Welker is one of the great stories in NFL history. He went from undrafted to being one of the leading wide receivers of his time and being one of the leading targets for both Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
The great trivia about Welker is that the first points he scored in his NFL career came while subbing for Miami kicker Olindo Mare during a 2004 game at New England. Mare got hurt late on a Saturday and the Dolphins didn’t have time to find a kicker to replace him.
The left-footed Welker hit a 29-yard field goal, an extra point and looked smooth in the process. On Sunday, when Carolina lost kicker Zane Gonzalez to injury in warmups, the Panthers went through chaos looking for a replacement. The impromptu tryouts looked like something from TikTok.
Suffice to say, that served as a reminder to yours truly and Welker of that day in 2004. So, I reached out.
JC: When you hear about a kicker getting hurt in pregame like Carolina yesterday, does it make you remember that game at New England? And what do you remember most about that day?
Welker: “When I saw them trying to figure out who the backup was, it made me think, it’s not as hard as those guys made it look! Lol! I didn’t think it was that big of a deal that day. I did it most of my life up to that point.”
This and That
- I thought the same thing as Andy Nesbitt of For The Win on Monday night, that Chicago coach Matt Nagy should have taken the opportunity to rip into the refs at the expense of getting kicked out of the game. That was especially true after the terrible personal foul call against defensive back Teez Tabor. At this point, Nagy has nothing to lose. He knows he’s getting fired. In fact, it might be the kind of move that impresses another owner one day as long as Nagy doesn’t completely lose his mind. Nagy already had one unsportsmanlike penalty from the first half and could have gone out in a blaze of glory, standing up for his team in the face of terrible officiating. Instead, Nagy went out with a whimper that exemplifies his time as the Bears coach.
- Speaking of the Bears and having already mentioned Justin Fields, the absolute highest priority for Chicago is to hire an incredibly strong technical coach in terms of all facets of quarterbacking. Whether that’s a head coach or a quarterback coach, the Bears need someone who is very strong. Fields has the work ethic and intelligence to take advantage of his physical skills. But there is so much he has to learn and/or fix that it’s almost overwhelming. This is the problem quarterbacks have coming out of the Urban Meyer/Ohio State offense. There are simple, fundamental things they don’t learn, such as knowing that a screen pass has to be thrown no matter what, whether that’s to the receiver or into the ground. When the design of the play is to allow defensive line penetration to set up the play, the quarterback cannot then attempt to improvise. It simply doesn’t work. Furthermore, the hitch in Fields’ throwing motion makes it hard for him to throw into tight areas of the field, such as in the red zone. It can be fixed, but he needs a good coach.
- Back to Kyler Murray and Arizona. It’s worth noting that he and Arizona have crashed the past two weeks, particularly on defense. But that’s tied to the offense. That was excusable against the Rams in Los Angeles on Monday night. It wasn’t against Detroit on Sunday. A big part of the problem is that the Cardinals defense is predicated on getting early leads with their offense. That’s going to be a problem without Deandre Hopkins or a real running game. As good as James Conner has been this season, the Cardinals running game is still predicated on the combination of its spread attack stretching the opposing defense and the need for defenders to account for Murray’s running ability. With Hopkins out and Murray obviously banged up, the ripple effect has been devastating.
- Tyler Huntley has done a nice job the past two games subbing for Baltimore starter Lamar Jackson after helping the Ravens beat Chicago in a game earlier this season. Huntley helped keep Baltimore within three points combined of Cleveland and Green Bay the past two weeks. Considering the Packers have one of the top four passing defenses and the Ravens were a two-point conversion from beating them, Huntley has been something of a revelation. What he has revealed is a deeper issue. He has been excellent passing against the blitz and good on third down. Those two areas where Jackson has been bad throughout his career as a passer. However, Huntley has also exposed a troubling trend for Baltimore. He is averaging only 5.9 yards per pass attempt, which is way below what competitive teams need when they throw the ball. Worse, Jackson has averaged only 6.3 yards per pass attempt his past seven games after averaging 9.1 yards in the first five games of the season. That’s a huge gap. Frankly, both 5.9 and 6.3 yards per pass are almost unplayable. Conversely, 9.1 yards is MVP/Super Bowl winner stuff. That’s a long way of saying let’s not get carried away with Huntley just yet. But we also need to understand that Jackson is reaching a critical point in his career where the Ravens either have to be all-in to making it work or have to move on. There’s not much in-between with Jackson because his skill set is so unique.
- Generally, I don’t care about play-by-play announcers and analysts. Yes, there are some who are great, like Al Michaels, Ian Eagle, Tony Romo and Kevin Harlan. Most are just window dressing. However, listening to FOX game analyst Aqib Talib is really disappointing. Part of it is that he’s not very good, but that’s understandable for a guy just breaking in. The issue is that while he’s genuinely enthusiastic about the job, it’s staggering that he has nothing to say. Here’s one of the most emotionally edgy, driven players of his era. He has amazing stories for days locked in his head and he doesn’t unleash them. On Sunday, he was calling the Arizona-Detroit game and wide receiver A.J. Green made nice catch for the Cardinals. Talib was teed up for a quick story about playing against Green. Talib just let the moment get away.
- Speaking of Talib, his play-by-play partner is Gus “Always Excitable” Johnson. Johnson is fun because his schtick is so honest and genuine. It’s along the lines of former NFL ref Ed Hochuli turning every penalty call into a legal summation. It’s over the top, but you somehow get drawn in. Johnson can make a Jacksonville-Houston game feel like a Super Bowl game. Putting that aside, Johnson at least twice pushed the idea of Arizona defensive coordinator Vance Joseph being a head coach, going so far as to twice compare him to a “young Marvin Lewis.” The problem is Johnson conveniently overlooked that Joseph has already been a head coach and got fired. There’s nothing wrong with that fact. There are plenty of head coaches who got fired after their first job, including Bill Belichick, Marv Levy, Dan Reeves and Andy Reid. Even plenty of completely awful head coaches, like Dave Wannstedt, got second chances after being fired. But to ignore the fact that someone failed the first time is convenient editing that ultimately undermines both the person making the pitch (Johnson, in this case) and the candidate (Joseph). It would have been far better for Johnson to talk about what Joseph learned and how he plans to improve from his first head coaching experience.
- Atlanta rookie tight end Kyle Pitts has been good so far and has a chance to break the rookie record for receiving yards by a tight end. Still, he hasn’t exactly been what was expected, especially for a guy who lines up as a wide receiver most of the time. Pitts has been consistent, but also pedestrian in the second half of the season. After back-to-back 100-yard receiving games, Pitts has gone eight weeks without topping 77 yards and has only one touchdown for the season. Additionally, Pitts gets pulled a lot in the red zone, where he should be a dynamic weapon. The upside is that you can still see the athleticism that could one day make Pitts a modern version of Tony Gonzalez or Kellen Winslow Sr. But Pitts definitely needs to get stronger and has to at least show that he can line up at the end of the line like a normal tight end, if only for show. Right now, Pitts can be covered by cornerbacks and safeties and that’s not acceptable for his size.
- Dear young coaches: The Dolphins fake punt in the fourth quarter Sunday against the Jets was among the strangest and worst decisions of the year. Based on coach Brian Flores’ reaction, I’m not sure he even called it. But when you’re up seven at home in the fourth quarter against a bad team with a rookie quarterback, there is no need to gamble on a fake punt. Sure, the Dolphins still won. But it was a lot more frenetic than it should have been.
- Saquon Barkley’s one-hand catch was really cool, but to steal and alter a phrase from Spike Lee’s famous commercial with Michael Jordan, it’s all in the gloves.
- Detroit linebacker/defensive end Charles Harris has had a remarkable year with 7.5 sacks, including 1.5 against Arizona on Sunday. In his first four years after Miami took him in the first round in 2017, Harris had a combined total of 6.5 sacks. So, is Harris closer to the flop from Miami, the breakout for the last-place Lions or just a mediocre player getting stats for a bad team? That’s a big question for everybody in the NFL as Harris gets set to hit free agency this offseason.