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This Week in Football – Transforming teams, fixing onside kicks and the hot seat

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The easiest, laziest way to start off a discussion about transformation would be to invoke the words of Franz Kafka, making some empty allusion to Metamorphosis and building a comparison from there.

However, the best reference point for a transforming being is the New England Patriots.

There’s a lot to hate about the Patriots, but their success can’t be argued with, and the fact that they’ve been able to win constantly illustrates that.

Over the course of that successful run their identity has changed multiple times, from a defense-first team to the Tom Brady Show and back to a defense-first team. In Brady’s early years he wasn’t the biggest reason why New England was winning Super Bowls (don’t confuse that with not being important at all). Then there was a long stretch extending all the way to the recent past in which he was the biggest key in the team’s success, which helped establish him as what many consider to be the greatest quarterback ever.

The 2019 version of the Patriots are different again, though. Brady has been good, but hardly “best in the business” good. He’s got a passer rating under 100 through five games despite throwing just two interceptions and has the second-worst QBR of his career.

Defensively, though, New England has been elite. It ranks No. 1 in defensive DVOA this season and has allowed two offensive touchdowns in five weeks.

The ability to transform and adapt, both long term and over the course of a season, is a huge indicator for success.

The Patriots are the prime example, but you can see this for several other contending teams. The Green Bay Packers have transformed from a team predicated on Aaron Rodgers making miracles to a defensive-minded team that just needs the offense to do enough to win. Then, when the defense struggled in the second half against the Dallas Cowboys this week, a commitment to the running game on offense helped keep the Packers afloat and carried them to their fourth win of the year. In a critical moment, the Packers adapted and it led to success.

Then there’s the Los Angeles Rams, the reigning NFC champions, who have run into a rough spot in the last few weeks.

Coach Sean McVay has earned the moniker of a boy genius wunderkid, which has been deserved because of the success he’s had in turning the Rams around and building them into an offensive powerhouse. But when his system has stopped working it’s exposed his team.

They were not equipped to win a slugfest last season, which cost them the Super Bowl. This season, with a weaker offensive line and a running back that’s both crucial to the offense and can’t be trusted, they’ve dropped two games in a row and are facing an identity crisis.

Seriously, look at Todd Gurley’s numbers this year. He’s got four touchdowns in the last two weeks, but he’s also topped out at 16 carries and 19 total touches in a game this season. That offense revolves around Gurley’s ability to be productive, but if he can’t even get 20 touches in a game they need to find a new approach.

Transformation and adaptation are the larger concepts at play, but they’re not the only ones that need to be considered. Things like versatility, reliability and depth are important too. The Patriots have enough in all of these categories to know they can win multiple types of games. The same goes for the Packers. The Seattle Seahawks are another great example, as they’re built (in some cases, anyway) to be able to win games because of their defense or offense (read: Russell Wilson).

Los Angeles hasn’t proven it can do that. The Kansas City Chiefs had injury issues this week, but even in that tough situation couldn’t adapt enough to win a primetime game at home.

Hate New England all you want, but that franchise has laid the blueprint for longstanding success. Having the greatest coach of all time helps, but the ability to change your identity has directly led to contending for a Super Bowl nearly every year since the turn of the century.

Even on a week-to-week basis, if you can’t have faith that your team can adjust its tendencies and deviate from your identity to survive a tough game, your shot at winning the biggest games probably isn’t as big as you think it is.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

*Onside kicks are worthless. They shouldn’t be, considering they’re both exciting and an essential part of football strategy. It’s hard to plan for Tulsa’s kind of kickoff recovery. But with the new kickoff alignment rules, onside kicks have become fruitless.

There needs to be a solution to this problem. In fact, there is a solution, but the NFL apparently isn’t ready for it.  As ESPN’s Kevin Seifert pointed out after a failed onside kick by the Chiefs on Sunday night, the Broncos made a proposal for an alternative to the play but had it shot down in the offseason. It would be a one play, 15-yard conversion attempt for the kicking team’s offense. If the offense converts (starting at the 35 and needing to reach the 50), it stays on the field. If not, the opposing team takes over. And you can only run the play under certain conditions.

A similar rule, requiring 12 yards instead of 15, was in place in the short lived but never forgotten Alliance of American Football. This is the natural progression of the rule and it would do the NFL well to implement a variation of it. The league is already moving closer and closer to neutralizing the kickoff in general, so it would make sense to replace a worthless play with one that would bring plenty of excitement and countless new possibilities. The NFL is a reactionary entity, but it would benefit all parties if it would at least consider giving teams a better chance to keep the ball in desperate situations. Another example of the AAF being ahead of its time (rest in peace, Sky Judge).

*It’s frustrating to watch, but you can make the argument that the NFL and its referees have actually done a good job with the pass interference reviews. It sounds ridiculous because every week there are challenges and, while some are definitely questionable, no rulings ever change. That’s probably a good thing. If the new review rule was implemented to get rid of “clear and obvious” mistakes in rulings, such as the infamous blown call in last year’s NFC Championship Game, not changing things constantly is the proper way to handle it. That’s a frustrating concept to wrestle with. Sunday night’s Colts-Chiefs game featured one of these plays, with Indianapolis flagged for offensive pass interference and having the call stand on review despite being a ticky-tack call at best. It’s fair to ask if the rule should have been implemented in the first place, which plenty of people would answer with a resounding “No.” But if the Rams-Saints debacle is the bar, this rule will rarely turn into an actual overturn. To the letter of the law, that’s the correct approach.

*Revenge games for pass rushers were a major headline in Week 5, and arguably the best one in the league came up flat in his. Khalil Mack of the Bears and Justin Houston of the Colts both had an opportunity to make a statement versus their respective former teams. Mack finished with three tackles and no sacks against the Raiders in London. Houston, meanwhile, dominated a broken down Chiefs’ offensive line to the tune of four tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack. What makes the disparity in the two revenge games even wilder is that Houston had far less help in racking up his production. The Bears were missing standout defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, but that’s still one of the best defenses in the game in terms of talent (and just in general). The Colts were missing multiple starters, including their two best defensive players. Mack’s chance to get back at the team who traded him under arguably understandable but ultimately laughable circumstances was a dominant storyline all week, but the Houston return to Arrowhead Stadium ended up being much more notable.

CHRISTIAN McCAFFERY DID WHAT THIS WEEK?

Christian McCaffery worked on his resume as the best skill position player in the NFL this week. That included plenty of highlight plays against the Jaguars, like this one where he took flight.

This was one of three touchdowns for McCaffery in Week 5, a game in which he also had 176 rushing yards and 237 total yards from scrimmage on just 25 touches. That’s over nine yards per touch for a running back. Carolina took care of business against Jacksonville at home, and with Kyle Allen at quarterback they have rattled off three straight wins. While Allen has done what’s been asked of him, McCaffery has put the offense on his back and carried it lately.

By the way, that wasn’t the only standout touchdown of McCaffery’s day.

Oh, yeah, and he showed off some juggling skills.

Watching his highlights is worthy of an all-day affair. If you called CMC the best running back in the league right now, it would be difficult to debate you. If you called CMC the best offensive weapon in the league right now, it would be hard to debate you on that, too.

FOOTBALL FOLLIES

To start this week, we take a look at Aaron Rodgers’ postgame press conference and a bizarre question that perplexed the Packers’ quarterback.

The bit itself isn’t particularly funny, in fact it’s pretty dumb. Rodgers plays it off as coolly as he can, and it creates a “The Office”-like level of uncomfortable humor that you don’t get often with NFL pressers. Apparently “Scoops Callahan,” the mock reporter here, is actually a Dallas radio host who has done this before. Don’t quit your day job, Scoops.

We also need to address this situation from Sunday’s Bills-Titans game.

You feel for Bills rookie tight end Dawson Knox, because every man knows this kind of pain. On the other hand, you can’t help but laugh. Low brow humor is still humor.

WEEKLY TOP 5: COACHES ON THE HOT SEAT

It can feel unbecoming to speak about another man’s job, but for better or for worse that sort of talk comes with the territory for NFL coaches. We’re five weeks into the season and it’s clear that some coaches are in danger of not just not making it to 2020 but of not even making it through 2019. These five are going to need rapid turnarounds to save their jobs, and even that may not be enough.

  1. Jay Gruden, Washington Redskins – We’ve reached the portion of Gruden’s tenure in when he’s being asked about his job during press conferences. The writing is on the wall, and while Washington has been dysfunctional for years he’s clearly running out of leash quickly. The Redskins are 0-5, and even that doesn’t quite describe how bad they’ve been. WRITER’S NOTE: Gruden was fired Monday morning.
  2. Dan Quinn, Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons have been one of the biggest disappointments in the league this year. They’re just 1-4 this year and gave up 53 points in a loss to the Texans this week, which is a tough look for a defensive-minded coach. Atlanta has too much talent to play as poorly as it has for large parts of the last several seasons.
  3. Adam Gase, New York Jets – Most first-year coaches aren’t on the hot seat immediately, but Gase hasn’t done anything to improve the Jets. Losing your starting quarterback obviously hurts, but they have one offensive touchdown in their last three games. Gase was a questionable hire from the jump and hasn’t done anything to repair the negative image he created at his last job.
  4. Freddie Kitchens, Cleveland Browns – This is a combination of a few themes on this list, both a new coach and also not getting the most out of the talent on the field. The Browns built up a lot of hype during this offseason and have been an average team to start the year. The have a lot of areas they need to work on, but Kitchens needs to show better game management to prove he’s the right guy right now.
  5. Zac Taylor, Cincinnati Bengals – Another new coach, and while it may seem unfair, this year has started off even worse than was expected for the Bengals. They were widely predicted to finish last in the AFC North but have somehow still disappointed. The only time before this year that Taylor called plays was in 2016 at the University of Cincinnati when the Bearcats averaged just 19 points per game. The Bengals need to show more potency than that if Taylor is going to stick.

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