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Week Seventeen Crystal Ball: It's Q&A Time
Talking Titans, Commanders and Brian Daboll
My friends, the penultimate week of the NFL season is upon us and there are still 24 teams fighting for 14 playoff spots. Assuming there’s no shortage of snacks, it should be a fun two weeks.
There have been plenty of surprises this year, both good and bad, and many questions have been answered about various teams and players. That said, there are a few things worth discussing as we head into the postseason. We’ll start by addressing these three queries:
What in the world is going on with the Titans?
Tennessee beat the Packers on November 17th and was sitting in the catbird seat at 7-3, seemingly primed for another playoff run. Fast forward six weeks and, after Thursday night’s loss to Dallas, the team is 7-9 and needs to beat Jacksonville (7-8) next week to win the AFC South Division and reach the postseason. Wow.
What went wrong? Well, some will point to sidelined players as the Titans lead the NFL in games missed due to injury. Like being friends with TOMMY BIRD, that’s nothing to brag about.
To wit, Tennessee is 1-3 with quarterback Ryan Tannehill on the shelf this season, the same record they have with their anchor, center Ben Jones, on the sidelines. Adding further insult to these injuries, star running back Derrick Henry missed the Cowboys game with a bad hip.
While this attrition is certainly a factor in the Titans’ struggles, I also think it’s fair to point to the midseason firing of general manager Jon Robinson as an additional catalyst for the 0-6 slide. He was dismissed December 6th, two days after Tennessee fell to the Eagles to drop to 7-5, the team’s second consecutive defeat.
Robinson was in the middle of his seventh season at the helm when he was let go, a notable stretch that saw the Titans reach the playoffs four times, even making it to the 2019 AFC Championship game. Putting things in perspective, the team was in the midst of a seven-year playoff drought when Robinson arrived in 2016.
We can usually get an idea of how the firing of a coach impacts a team but how about the dismissal of a general manager? Remember, Robinson is the man who picked almost all of the players on the roster, so it is reasonable to imagine the players asking, “What does firing the guy who picked me say about how the team feels about me as a player?”
Of course, I’m going solely by what I know with my limited understanding of the situation. I don’t live in Tennessee, I don’t know anyone from the organization, I don’t know any of the journalists who cover the team. Heck, I’ve never even tasted Nashville hot chicken, but I hear very good things.
A more informed source, former NFL personnel guru Mike Lombardi, believes that Robinson’s handling of the team’s backup quarterback situation may have been a major factor in the GM’s departure. Lombardi writes here that making rookie QB Malik Willis the backup to Tannehill was a major mistake. Here’s an excerpt:
Former general manager Jon Robinson's decision to keep Willis as the No. 2 could not have been well received in the building. It certainly had to create a lack of alignment between the coaches and the personnel people. There was no chance (Head Coach Mike) Vrabel or his staff felt safe with Willis entering the game if something happened to starter Ryan Tannehill—from after the draft and before the season.
Great food for thought from an expert.
Will the Commanders make the playoffs?
Probably not given how hot the Packers are but, postseason or not, it’s been quite a successful year in DC. You see, success is relative, folks, and nowhere on Planet Earth is that statement more accurate than when talking about this franchise.
As we sit, the record is 7-7-1, which would mark Washington’s third consecutive season with at least seven wins. That may not sound like a big deal to the average sports fan but, putting it into context, this streak marks just the third time since 1992 that the team has won seven games for three straight years.
Read that last sentence again because, sadly, it’s not a misprint.
In 1999, Washington won 11 games under Norv Turner, followed by seasons of eight (Turner, interim head coach Terry Robiskie), eight (Marty Schottenheimer) and seven victories (Steve Spurrier). Then, under Jay Gruden from 2015-18, they earned nine, eight, seven and seven wins, respectively.
That, folks, is a long walk in the desert and, guys like FATBACK and yours truly simply aren’t physically - or mentally - built for that kind of strenuous endeavor.
Hopefully that explains why, at .500, I think the Commanders are on the right track. The defense is quite good, special teams have performed well, and even the struggling offense has its bright spots. Antonio Gibson, Terry McLaurin, Brian Robinson and Curtis Samuel are all major contributors, and the unit’s focus on ball control has helped the defense.
Interestingly, despite scoring just 19 points per game, the team leads the NFL in average time of possession per game, an important metric for a DC team that isn’t going to beat you regularly with the big play.
Of course, on-field performance aside, the 2022 campaign is a success because of the November 2nd announcement that owners Daniel and Tanya Snyder initiated the process to sell the football team. Sure, the statement said that the Snyders are “exploring all options” but that’s like me claiming to be open minded when I look at the dessert menu. I ain’t ordering the fruit platter, kids, and the Snyders won’t do anything short of selling the entire burgundy and gold enchilada.
Though I don’t have a personal relationship with the owners, I did have a highly positive interaction in 2000 when THE CHIEF retired after a distinguished career at Caterpillar Inc. I reached out to the Washington PR department and, within days, a nice letter from Mr. Snyder showed up on my dad’s doorstep. Pops was dumbfounded.
That letter left a positive impression on me though, since the early 2000s, it’s been difficult to support ownership. The won-loss record of 165-225-2 (.421) is tougher to swallow than a sleeve of dry Oreos and the oft-reported off-field shenanigans are just as painful to digest.
Thankfully, there is light at the end of the tunnel for my Commanders fans and, for once, it does not appear to be an oncoming train. I’ll thoroughly enjoy these last two games but, truly, the 2023 season can’t get here fast enough.
Is Brian Daboll the Coach of the Year?
People will talk about schemes and personnel and lots of other things when it comes to the rookie head coach but, to me, it comes down to this: he has gotten the New York Giants to buy in to his program and to believe in one another and in themselves. That, at its essence, is what coaching is all about and Daboll has done a tremendous job of flipping the 2021 script in year one.
Now let’s look at some quotes from members of the Giants organization, courtesy of The New York Post.
“I actually didn’t know how cool he was until he got the opportunity to speak to the team as the head coach. He might not look cool, but he’s much cooler to talk to than you would think. But looks can be deceiving.’’
“He demands perfection, and he makes sure everyone knows what the mission is. He has everybody’s respect. For a first-year head coach to be doing what he’s been doing …’’
“He’s done an unbelievable job. I’m happy for him and I’m happy to see us respond and play for him the way he deserves.’’
Who is speaking? Well, it’s Giants players Jay Bromley, Olivier Vernon and Justin Pugh, respectively, talking to the Post about then-NYG head coach Ben McAdoo in 2016. A year later, McAdoo was regularly ridiculed by the media and out of a job, fired after just 28 games as head coach.
I’m not suggesting a similar fate will befall Daboll, just issuing a word of caution as it’s important for fans, the media and Giants management to keep in mind that the NFL is a year-to-year league. Daboll could have some struggles in year two as coaches often do and I don’t think his job should be in jeopardy if that occurs.
As for my vote, it goes to Carolina interim head coach Steve Wilks for navigating a difficult situation and keeping the Panthers in the playoff hunt. He inherited a mess when Matt Rhule was fired and has steadied the ship despite starting three different quarterbacks. His 5-5 record should be applauded and, unlike Las Vegas in 2021, I hope Carolina decides to give their interim head coach the full-time gig.
I’m not holding my breath.
With those questions (sort of) answered, let’s take a look at this weekend’s games with THE GURU at 143-94 (.603) for the year. We’ll begin with the College Football Playoff semifinals.
In the 4 pm ET game - the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl - I’ll take second-ranked Michigan (13-0) over third-ranked Texas Christian (12-1). The Horned Frogs move faster than the flu through a kindergarten, but I think the Wolverines benefit from their appearance in last year’s CFP…
…at 8 pm, I love #1 Georgia (13-0) over #4 Ohio State (11-1) in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The Bulldogs are too good and too deep to stumble against the talented Bucks. Kirby Smart is taking the Saban blueprint to another level.
In the 1 pm window, here’s who I’m taking:
Philadelphia (13-2), at home, against Nola (6-9). Hurts is doubtful but I like the cut of Minshew’s jib and think the Birds rise up either way to clinch homefield advantage throughout the postseason.
My beloved Commanders (7-7-1) vs. the visiting Browns (6-9). I think this will be hard fought but expect the DC running game to wear down Cleveland. Throw in a couple of big play-action throws from Carson Wentz and the home team gets the win.
Host Tampa (7-8) escapes against Carolina. All signs point to a Panthers upset but I’m going to give Brady the benefit of the doubt.
Dee-troit (7-8) lays the wood to Chicago (3-12) in front of the Michigan faithful. Eight wins would be quite the accomplishment for Dan Campbell & Co.
Jacksonville (7-8) in Houston (2-12-1). The Texans and Jaguars both compete every week but Jacksonville just has more talent at this point.
Four more home teams: New England (7-8) vs Miami (8-7), Kansas City (12-3) vs Denver (4-11), Atlanta (5-10) vs Arizona (4-11) and the Giants (8-6-1) against the Colts (4-10-1).
At 4-ish, I like:
San Fran (11-4) at Las Vegas (6-9). The Niners are hitting their stride at the perfect time, and I don’t know quite what to make of this Raiders outfit.
Seattle (7-8), at home, against the Jets (7-8). Both teams have surprised to the upside this season, but the Seahawks seem just a touch more dependable. The Jets will be heck to deal with in 2023.
Green Bay (7-8) over visiting Minnesota (12-3). Like some pork roll on a tailgate griddle, the Pack is getting hot at the right time.
The host Chargers (9-6) over the Rams (5-10) in the battle of LA. Herbert & Co. What a difference a year makes, eh?
In the night games, I’ll take a pair of home teams: Baltimore (10-5) against resilient Pittsburgh (7-8) on Sunday and Cincinnati (11-4) vs Buffalo (12-3) on Monday. I just cannot pick against Burrow & Co. right now. The man is electric.
If you’re looking for info heading into the games, here is the schedule, including TV listings and broadcaster pairings; team standings; team and individual statistics; and the updated injury report.
Also, in case you need it, here’s a photo that may explain my love of encased meats. Note the shirt.
That’s all for this week folks. Happy New Year and God bless!