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This Week in Football – Raiders rolling, Bears bombing, linemen liquored up

OUR TOP STORY

At the 2019 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference the Raiders received an honor that seemed outlandish to many. Their trade of Khalil Mack to the Bears for two first-round picks, a second rounder and a third rounder was named the “best transaction” of the sports year.

Take a moment to consider that. The trade was wildly panned at the time because Oakland was giving up one of the best players in the NFL for a handful of lottery tickets. The Bears, meanwhile, seemed to be opening an immediate window to contend for Super Bowls by adding the missing piece to a rising defense.

The Raiders were a team with an unproven general manager, a coach that was mocked endlessly for numerous reasons and a fairly barren roster (or so it seemed). The Bears were viewed as a team on the rise with an elite defense and a hot, young coach.

For the 2018 season the narratives all held true.

NFL storylines don’t often end in one year, though.

It’s still too quick to judge either end of the trade as a bona fide winner or loser, but this year has shown us two teams trending in starkly different directions, and the one going up right now appears to have the brighter future.

Maybe the nerds got this one right.

Jon Gruden has the Raiders cooking right now. Sure, Year 1 was a mess, but despite a slow start and a brutal stretch of 48 days without a home game this season he has them on the cusp of a playoff spot. Derek Carr is figuring it out with the pieces around him on offense, which includes rookie running back Josh Jacobs.

Jacobs has 923 rushing yards and seven touchdowns through 10 games. He was also selected with one of the first round picks the Bears traded to them.

The Raiders aren’t one of the game’s elite teams right now, not close, but they’re moving the needle. They’re a legitimately competitive team with a coach who has things figured out and a roster that’s clicking.

That was Chicago just a year ago. Mitchell Trubisky, while far from great, was at least serviceable. The running game was successful, the whole offense was somewhat productive at least and the defense was menacing.

It’s hard to say any of that about the Bears anymore.

Trubsiky is among the league’s worst quarterbacks, the defense is constantly exhausted because it’s always on the field and coach Matt Nagy is apparently at Freddie Kitchens levels of in over his head. Our feelings about Nagy and his gross incompetence are well-known and oft-repeated.

What makes this all sting is that Chicago isn’t in a good position to draft another quarterback of the future, considering it has minimal draft capital in the near future. The Bears may be stuck with a lame duck quarterback while the clock is ticking on their still largely affordable defense.

Everyone wants to have an instant reaction, which is facilitated these days by how easy it is to espouse an opinion. The 24-hour sports news cycle gives us a chance, as fans, to hear a ton of different perspectives nonstop, come up with our own ideas and shout them off into the void. It’s easy to fire off a quick joke to get in some laughs and maybe a retweet or two. The Raiders became something of a victim of that culture. The Bears were a beneficiary at first.

And then, suddenly, things changed. The butt of the jokes flipped. We’re now focusing our attention on the nation’s third-largest city and it’s annually disappointing football team, which has dotted a historically mediocre existence with occasional blips of hope and promise.

This isn’t intended to be an out-of-touch roast of social media or a hit piece on the Bears (even though they may deserve it). Instead, the goal is to remind ourselves that sometimes we need to look long term instead of being trapped in the moment. Fans often can’t see the forest for the trees.

Losing a legendary player for the sake of adding high-risk assets is risky and runs counter to most conventional wisdom, but the Raiders have shown us that if you have a plan it can still pan out. And mind you, they haven’t even realized their full potential with their young pieces yet. Their other two first-round picks, Clelin Ferrell and Johnathan Abram, haven’t made much of an impact whether due to performance or injury. But they’re getting there. They’re ascending.

By the way, that franchise player who’s one of the best in the league, the centerpiece of this whole long-term vision versus short-term comedy dilemma? He had no sacks, no pressures and no tackles on Sunday Night Football this week. He has just 5.5 sacks this season, with only one since Week 4.

While it would be fun to make him a punchline, 10 weeks in year two of what should be a long tenure in Chicago is not enough to completely write someone off. He might rebound soon and make all the takes about his demise seem foolish.

After all, that’s what his old team is accomplishing right now.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

*It’s time to eulogize this year’s Cincinnati Bengals. It’s not fair to stop at calling them the worst team in the NFL this season. The Bengals deserve credit for being the best at being the worst. The Dolphins have won multiple games this year, which is largely stunning giving everything they’ve been through. In spite of Adam Gase, the Jets have looked more competent since Sam Darnold returned from his bout with mono. Even the Redskins somehow picked up a win this year. None of them have been as abominable as the Bengals, who looked for one week like they may be even competent, then tanked that stock almost instantly. The roster is dreadful and it’s impossible to give a fair evaluation to coach Zac Taylor after one season, as bad as it is, given the roster turmoil Cincinnati has faced. He might not be the guy who leads the Bengals to their next era of success, but he sure was the right guy to help steer the tank this season. Pour one out for Cincinnati, the first team eliminated from postseason contention.

*We’re not talking enough about Michael Thomas making history. The Saints’ top target has the most receptions ever by a player through 10 games with 94. He also leads the NFL with 1,141 yards receiving so far this year. That’s absurd on both counts. He’s put up those numbers while catching balls from two quarterbacks, which is a tough factor when you’re trying to put up consistent numbers, regardless of how good those two quarterbacks are. He’s on pace to shatter the single-season receptions record, which is a huge accomplishment even in this era of pass-first offenses. It’s not that he doesn’t get any respect, because he does. But a lack of flashiness and a minimal ego has kept him out of most negative spotlights and allows him to cook cornerbacks without a ton of fanfare. He deserves that attention, though, because he’s been uncoverable this season.

*The Buffalo Bills may finally have an offense. It’s a work in progress and isn’t Super Bowl caliber for now, but the Bills are starting to figure things out. It all starts with the young quarterback, Josh Allen, who doesn’t have the natural throwing ability of the league’s best passers, but has been far safer with the ball lately. He hasn’t thrown an interception in the last five games, and through 10 games he has more touchdowns and fewer picks than he had in 11 starts a year ago. It helps to have a rejuvenated John Brown who can sprint past most defensive backs and catch the moonshot passes than Allen regularly heaves downfield. In fact, Brown is thriving in that role; he’s second in the AFC in receiving yards, only coming in behind Travis Kelce. Plus the running game is still effective, to the tune of being in the top 10 in efficiency this year per DVOA. Buffalo’s defense is still the better of the two units, but the offensive isn’t a liability anymore. In reality, it’s a big reason why the Bills currently hold the first wild card spot in the AFC playoff picture.

LARRY FITZGERALD DID WHAT THIS WEEK?

Larry Fitzgerald laid out one of the best defensive players in the NFL this week.

Fitz isn’t just one of the most respected players in the NFL, he’s one of the smartest players, too. He’s never shied away from blocking, and on this play he does a whole lot more than just chip San Francisco’s Nick Bosa. That is a huge man who is looking to inflict damage on every play, but he was leveled by one of the oldest receivers in the league. There aren’t many wide receivers who would throw a block like that, but Fitzgerald isn’t any average wide receiver. It’s fun to watch smaller guys lay the wood now and again.

STAT OF THE WEEK

This week’s stat comes courtesy of Mina Kimes on Twitter, who pointed out just how excellent the Ravens’ defense has been.

Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ offense have deservedly grabbed all the headlines recently. Jackson is an MVP candidate while the offense as a whole is among the best and most fun in the NFL. All the while, the Baltimore defense has played like one of the best in the game and has hounded some of the best quarterbacks in the league. This isn’t all because of Peters, of course (and Kimes points that out in an additional tweet), but it illustrates that the whole team is hitting its stride at the same time. The records don’t reflect it for now, but the Ravens are playing like the best team in the AFC at least, if not the whole league. That’s thanks in large part to an excellent and still improving defense, not just having the potential MVP at quarterback.

Additionally, we have a bonus stat this week, courtesy of Chris Novak on Twitter.

It truly seems like every Chargers game since 2006, when Philip Rivers took over as their starting quarterback, has ended in the same fashion. It’s both heartbreaking and outrageously funny. There’s a reason NFL fans all over the country lose their minds when L.A. has the ball late in a close game. It generally ends with the Chargers marching down the field before Rivers throws an inexplicable interception. It’s remarkable how insanely consistent he is with this. It’s not easy to wake up every Sunday (or Monday, in this case) and know that if you’re down late, your quarterback is going to make fans of 31 other teams laugh uncontrollably and make you want to sob.

FOOTBALL FOLLIES

Generally, it’s both funny and fortunate when a touchdown is called back or overturned but the player who scored celebrates anyway. It’s a little dramatic irony sprinkled into our football Sundays. The Quenton Nelson/Colts offensive line celebration in Week 11, however, was so good that it should have convinced the officials to uphold the original ruling on the field.

Nelson came in as a fullback on the goal line, took a handoff and was obviously stopped short, but the initial ruling was a touchdown. Hence, the celebration. Jacoby Brissett said after the game that he almost cried when the score was taken off the board because of how good the celebration was. We’re with you, Jacoby. It’s a simple premise with tremendous execution.

WEEKLY TOP 5: COACH OF THE YEAR CANDIDATES

By this point in the season we know who the contenders are for the postseason and even the most realistic Super Bowl contenders, too. As much as it’s a goal of This Week in Football to call out terrible coaching, it’s also important that we praise the coaches who have surpassed expectations and/or helped their team become a viable threat.

  1. John Harbaugh – The Ravens, in one season, completely overhauled their offense to fit their electric quarterback, fought through some early season growing pains and are now playing as well, if not better, than all 31 other teams. This might be the best team Harbaugh’s had, and he’s got a Super Bowl ring already.
  2. Kyle Shanahan – The last two weeks have been relatively tough for the 49ers, with their first loss of the season followed by a close win over the Cardinals. San Francisco is far from a perfect team, but Shanahan has gotten the most out of a group with a limited starting quarterback, a somewhat no-name running back committee and no true No. 1 receiver (although tight end George Kittle is effectively that). It helps to have a great defensive coordinator, too.
  3. Jon Gruden – The case for Jon Gruden actually being good has already been made here, but we should also acknowledge that he deserves some awards recognition. The Raiders were left for dead by nearly everyone and the world had largely hopped off the Derek Carr bandwagon. Now Oakland is on the cusp of a playoff berth.
  4. Matt LaFleur – LaFleur is in his first year with the Packers, but there’s precedent for a rookie coach winning the award right away. In fact, the last two coaches of the year were in their first year at the helm (Sean McVay in 2017 and Matt Nagy in 2018). He drops down the list here because, unlike those other two, he inherited a hall of fame quarterback. Still, the Packers went from aimless and struggling a year ago to genuine contender this season under LaFleur.
  5. Bill Belichick – If the award just went to the best coach in the game in general, Belichick would win almost every year. This year he actually does fit the commonly understood criteria for the award, though. Tom Brady’s age is finally showing and the Patriots have had to change from a quarterback-led team to a defense-first team. Not only that, they’re 9-1 as a defense-first team a year after their defensive signal caller left for a new job.

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