Corey Griffin

You decide

Imagine, if you will, that you’re a Los Angeles sports fan. Life isn’t too bad. The Kings have won two Stanley Cups since 2012. The Clippers are exciting, with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and the DeAndre Jordan saga. And there’s even competitive college football, mostly thanks to UCLA in recent years, but USC is still a thing.

Now, imagine you’ve been told the NFL is returning to L.A. The joy. Oh, the joy. Professional football after 20 long seasons in the desert. But which team will it be? There are three franchises vying for your undying affection, all of whom have ties to the city: The Oakland Raiders, the St. Louis Rams and the San Diego Chargers. Normally, the NFL would tell you who to cheer for, buy tickets for and love regardless of the repressed knowledge that you’re watching hundreds of young men sacrifice their physical and emotional well-being for the enjoyment of faceless masses and the enrichment of 32 elderly, almost entirely white men.

But there’s a catch. This time, you get to choose the team for whom you’ll root. Let’s say, in our thought experiment, Roger Goodell wants you to pick the NFL’s next Los Angeles team. The only rule is it has to be of the three interested parties, and you can’t suddenly decide that you’d like Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Jay Cutler to be the quarterback of the Rams. The rosters, the salary caps, the front offices and coaching staffs – they are what they are.

You decide: Chargers, Raiders or Rams.

Who do you want? Who would you choose? Of course, you may or may not already be a fan of one of these teams – entirely feasible considering the Rams and Raiders once called L.A. home as did the Chargers, before they moved two hours (HAH!) down the coast. Also some of you may or may not be fans in the cities in which these teams currently reside and thus rightfully biased to want them to stay. For the sake of argument, though, let’s just leave all that fandom at the door. How would you, how should you make this choice?

Let’s start by breaking down the criteria for what a new, or free-agent NFL fan, should want in their team.

First, you’ll want a team with a viable starting quarterback. In today’s NFL, the quarterback is the beginning and the end — without whom long-term success is incredibly difficult, if not impossible. The Raiders, with Derek Carr, and Chargers, with Philip Rivers, have just that. Although he’s approaching his 34th birthday, Rivers is still one of the five to seven best quarterbacks in the league. Despite facing pressure on 37 percent of his dropbacks, Rivers is still completing 69.8 percent of attempts while on pace for career highs in completions, yardage and touchdowns. Carr, on the other hand, is just 23 games into this NFL career but is already showing signs of being one of the better young passers in the league. In a smartly designed offensive system, Carr is efficient, decisive and more accurate than most expected. Most importantly, he’s cheap thanks to his rookie contract, which allows the Raiders to build out the rest of the roster with expensive free agents. Unfortunately for the Rams, Nick Foles doesn’t quite fall into the category of cheap, young, developing talent or established veteran. He’s somewhere in the middle and almost definitely will not be the Rams’ starting quarterback when they make any serious playoff run.

Next, you’ll want a team that’s fun to watch. This is hard to define because everyone has different tastes. Some, like yours truly, get unbelievable, possibly impractical joy out of watching 300-pound defensive linemen move with the agility of a scatback. Others enjoy long touchdown runs or passes or a defense that simply imposes its will on the other team.

When it comes to overall excitement, it’s hard to beat the Rams, who have two of the most exciting players in all of sports right now. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald, one of those dancing 300-pound bears I love so much, and running back Todd Gurley are physical marvels. There’s no way they should be able to accomplish the feats they do on a regular basis. Yet, Sunday after Sunday, there’s Gurley splitting a lane and running 71 or 55 or 48 yards nearly untouched for a score. With Le’Veon Bell hurt, Gurley might just be the best running back in the league after five career games. Oh, and he’s coming off a torn ACL. Not to be outdone, Donald is the guy for whom Vines, gifs and embedded Twitter video clips were made. There’s nothing like watching him overpower an offensive lineman 30 or 40 pounds bigger than him or shoot past that same lineman with a twitch quicker than an itch to bury an unsuspecting running back or quarterback. The Raiders and Rams have their own versions of excitement – rookie Raiders wideout Amari Cooper and second-year linebacker Khalil Mack are amazing, and watching Rivers operate San Diego’s offense at peak efficiency is like watching Rembrandt paint a masterpiece. But for total excitement, it’s hard to top the Rams.

Also, let’s be honest, you want a team that looks good. I’m not talking about style points on the field. I’m talking looks as in jerseys, pants and color scheme. You want to root for a team that wears stuff other teams’ fans want to buy. And there’s nothing as iconic or as beautiful as the black and silver of the Raiders. Sure, the Chargers and Rams have throwback jerseys that belong in the upper echelon of upper echelon of jerseys, but their day-to-day stuff pales in comparison to the intimidating vista of the Raiders’ historic garb. The pirate logo, the way the sun shines off the silver helmets and contrasts with the pitch-black jerseys. Even their road whites are strong, and they’re just made up of essentially two main colors. There’s no debating this.

Also, while we’re on the subject of the Raiders’ looks, it’s hard to ignore the built-in fan base that comes with that franchise. The Black Hole is historic. It’s epic. It’s written in the annals of NFL Films and essentially already enshrined in Canton. Gameday atmosphere matters – a lot – and you want a fan base that isn’t going to take five years or a Super Bowl run to be all-in.

But really, we’re just dancing around the biggest issue. It’s great to be exciting. It’s great to wear cool jerseys and sit next to a screaming maniac wearing spiked shoulder pads who either had too many lattes or too many Steel Reserves. The most important thing you want in your new NFL team is a winner. It’s not just an L.A. thing. It’s an everywhere thing. It’s an American thing. We don’t want to pay money to watch a team suck.

This presents the most interesting debate of all. Of the three, the Chargers have the best player at the most important position. They also have a below-average and oft-injured offensive line and a defense that’s once again one of the worst in the league. And, perhaps most importantly, they’re probably going to fire their coach after this season. You don’t want to adopt a one- or two-player team with an uncertain future, so the Chargers are probably out.

That leaves the two most recent L.A. inhabitants – the Raiders and the Rams. On one hand, the Rams are unquestionably the more talented team. They’ve got Gurley and Donald, as previously stated, and the defense is absolutely loaded. Also, wide receiver Tavon Austin is finally being utilized correctly, and he’s pretty damn exciting, too. But they don’t have a long-term answer at quarterback or on the sidelines, where Jeff Fisher continues to gain praise despite a thoroughly mediocre resume for the past decade.

Meanwhile, the Raiders have a genuinely exciting quarterback-wide receiver duo in Carr and Cooper, a good offensive line and a young, growing defense led by the scintillating Mack, who’s a couple two- or three-sack games from dominating postgame shows. Also, while the Rams play in the NFC West with Seattle and Arizona, the Raiders get the AFC West, where the Chiefs are stuck in perpetual mediocrity (or worse) and the Chargers are crumbling before our eyes. Yes, the Broncos have dominated the division for years, but with Peyton Manning aging out of the league, there’s room for change at the top.

Maybe the Rams will find their quarterback this offseason or the Chargers will find a defense and a way to protect Rivers, but until then, give me Carr, Cooper, Mack and the black and silver.

Just win, baby.

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    Nothing was the same

    Credibility is a hard thing to come by in a topsy-turvy league like the NFL. One week’s victor is the next week’s outright embarrassment, while only a select few teams consistently remain good.

    For the past four years, the New York Jets were anything but good, let alone credible or reliable. Under former coach Rex Ryan, the swings from week to week or sometimes quarter to quarter were wild and unpredictable. Last season, the Jets stunned the eventual AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers before their bye week. After the break, they lost by 35 points to the Buffalo Bills, who, mind you, couldn’t practice the entire week because their players were snowed into their homes. So you can understand why, with a rookie head coach and a quarterback room in some modicum of turmoil, the Jets weren’t exactly thought of as good by the general public entering the 2015 regular season.

    As often happens with preseason predictions, we were wrong. The Jets are good – good enough to go toe-to-toe with the New England Patriots on the road Sunday. Despite the loss, Todd Bowles’ group proved their 4-1 start wasn’t a matter of luck or convenient scheduling. Instead, the Jets have been remarkably consistent. Though seven weeks, New York is sixth in the NFL in point differential, fifth in turnover margin and first in total yards differential. In a mediocre AFC, the Jets are not only a legitimate playoff contender, but potentially a bigger threat to the Patriots or the unbeaten Cincinnati Bengals than any other team in the conference.

    This idea might catch some off-guard, or even strike others as outrageous. The Pittsburgh Steelers are about to add Ben Roethlisberger back to the NFL’s best offense and a surprisingly frisky defense, while the unbeaten Denver Broncos possess an equally terrifying defense and a much headier group of names on offense than the Jets, including quarterback Peyton Manning. But those offensive weapons have grown stale with Manning’s physical limitations even more readily apparent behind a bad offensive line. Truth be told, behind far better protection, Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has been more effective than Manning through six starts.

    Although hardly perfect – the Patriots dropped at least four potential interceptions Sunday – Fitzpatrick has played to the limits of offensive coordinator Chan Gailey’s system, in the best way possible. With solid pass protection in front and 6-foot-4 Brandon Marshall and 6-foot-3 Eric Decker as his primary targets, a fair amount of Fitzpatrick’s “mistakes” that would normally be incompletions or, worse, interceptions are saved by Decker and Marshall’s size and strong hands at the catch point. Gailey has also done an excellent job of using that size where it’s most inconvenient for defenses, particularly in the slot. Both Decker and Marshall have lined up in the slot on at least 24 percent of their snaps. Decker, in particular, has been a monster inside, averaging 2.58 yards per route run from the slot, fifth in the league according to Pro Football Focus.

    While the Jets have been dominant in the short and intermediate passing game, they’ve been less so downfield. Through six games, the Jets have attempted 28 passes of 20 or more yards but completed only five of them, the 31st-best ratio and ahead of only Kirk Cousins and Marcus Mariota. The low success rate is concerning, but not unexpected. It’s encouraging that Gailey continues to call for a downfield attempt two to four times a game. Despite Fitzpatrick’s limited downfield ability, the continued effort should keep defenses somewhat honest, allowing room for the most dominant aspect of the Jets’ offense to flourish.

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    The emergence of running back Chris Ivory this season has been both bountiful and beautiful for New York. Branded simply as a bruising, short-yardage back when he arrived in a 2013 trade, Ivory is a far more athletic and agile runner than he’s given credit for. Although he can still run someone over – just ask Donte Whiter – Ivory’s patience and vision are criminally underreported, as is his elusiveness in the open field. The concern, as it was in New Orleans and in college, is his ability to remain healthy for a full season. So far this year, Ivory has already dealt with strains in his quad, groin and hamstring, the latter of which visibly limited him in the first half against the Patriots. The Jets are expected to activate former New England back Stevan Ridley in time for Week 8, which should help ease Ivory’s load, especially once third-down back Bilal Powell returns to health, as well.

    The backfield trio allows Fitzpatrick and Gailey to keep the offense balanced – 210 pass attempts to 192 rushes thus far – which helps the Jets control the clock and the tempo. On Sunday, the Jets had scoring drives of 15, 14, 13 and nine plays and on the season, New York is sixth in time of possession. With no real big-play threat in the passing game, this manipulation of the clock helps keep the Jets in close games. Against the high-powered offenses in Cincinnati and New England, it also keeps New York’s defense from tiring out before the fourth quarter, something they were unable to do Sunday.

    Against the Patriots, the Jets’ defense did something it hadn’t done all season – surrender a lead in the second half. Entering Sunday, the Jets had outscored their opponents 68-21 after the second quarter and had yet to allow anyone to score more than seven points after halftime, a sign of a bright coaching staff able and willing to adjust their plan on the fly.

    As it did with Bowles’ defense in Arizona, the Jets’ success on defense starts in the secondary. Cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie are asked to play a heavy dose of press-man coverage on the outside, with slot cornerback Buster Skrine and safeties Marcus Gilchrist and Calvin Pryor ranging and moving throughout the formation based on the play-call. Revis has been his usual dominant self, limiting opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 36 this season and allowing 0.65 yards per coverage snap, according to PFF. While the Island understandably gets the headlines, the development of Pryor, along with the play of Skrine and Gilchrist, has made Bowles’ scheme sing thus far.

    In Arizona, Bowles used Tyrann Mathieu as his ultimate chess piece, a safety/slot corner hybrid who was just as likely to blitz off the edge as he was to drop into deep coverage or play press man against a 6-foot-3-plus tight end. While the Jets don’t have Mathieu, they use Skrine, Gilchrist and Pryor to fill his shoes in Bowles’ scheme. Skrine is primarily the nickel corner, although he has the ability to move outside. This flexibility allows Bowles to give the defense different looks regardless of situation. The Jets have made use of that by blitzing Skrine on 10 percent of his pass coverage snaps and he’s responded with six total pressures, more than all corners except one – Mathieu. This leaves Gilchrist to centerfield, a role in which he’s excelled after being a liability in San Diego last season. Gilchrist’s even play and good deep coverage skills have also allowed Pryor to flourish in his second season. After a rookie year in which he was clearly unprepared for the speed of the NFL, Pryor is taking much better angles to the ball-carrier and making sound open-field tackles. Known primarily as a “box safety” or run-stuffer coming out of college, Pryor’s coverage skills are much improved. It’s not a coincidence that once he left the game Sunday, Brady began to heat up over the middle of the field, attacking Pryor’s replacement, Dion Bailey.

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    Part of what makes New York’s secondary so potent is a domineering front line, particularly in the run game. Led by the unblockable Muhammad Wilkerson, the defensive line has spent much of the season toying with offensive linemen, stringing run plays out for dozens of horizontal yards before they or linebackers Demario Davis or David Harris come to collect. The Patriots respected the Jets’ run defense so much they only handed off five times in 61 plays Sunday. The consistent lack of success on early downs then forces offenses into obvious passing situations, which plays right into Bowles’ blitz-happy tendencies.

    Although the Jets’ sack numbers are lagging behind their overall pressure metrics, Bowles’ scheme is predicated as much on forcing the passer out of his comfort zone as it is bringing him down for a loss. By altering the quarterback’s throwing lanes or by rushing the decision-making process, Bowles and defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers dictate the terms of engagement. For the most part, the plan has worked as well as could be expected, with the Jets totaling 15 takeaways thus far, two more than they had all of last season.

    The concern up front is the lack of a true edge-rusher, something Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan chose not to address in their first offseason. Although Wilkerson is in the midst of a career year – he’s well on pace for a career high in sacks and his 31 pressures are second only to J.J. Watt among 3-4 defensive ends – New York’s inability to dynamically affect the pocket in under 2.5 seconds is evident against a passer of Brady’s caliber. Instead of selecting Vic Beasley at No. 6 in April’s draft, the Jets chose defensive linemen Leonard William, who’s been outstanding in his first season but isn’t a pure pass-rusher. Still, the Jets have managed 90 hurries and 39 quarterback hits through six games, indicators that the defense is not only affecting the quarterback’s decision-making process, but physically getting their hands on him. The law of averages suggests it’s only a matter of time before some of those hurries and hits translate into sacks.

    Much like the rest of their team, the Jets’ pass-rush is just a piece of a well-designed puzzle. The front seven and back end are symbiotic, with linebackers and defensive backs moving effortlessly throughout the field. On offense, the run game works off of the passing attack, which takes advantage of the room in the middle of the field created by safeties and linebackers creeping up to stop Ivory. It’s all a function of the Jets’ best trait – balance. There’s no one asset that stands out egregiously over the other. They’re sixth in offensive DVOA, second in defense and sixth in Football Outsiders’ variance metric, which, to put it simply, measures how consistent teams are from week to week.

    The Jets don’t have the high-end potential of the Steelers or the high-end names of the Broncos, but they do have a well-rounded group on offense and defense with an 83.2 percent chance of making the playoffs. Once they get there, it’s anyone’s game.

    Newton’s law

    The analogy is almost too perfect.

    Cam Newton, tongue hanging out, tugs at his apparently invisible silk (because you know it’s silk) white button-down shirt with both hands, peeling it open from the middle to reveal a Carolina-blue-and-black “S” stitched into a modified black triangle. He is Superman, you see, and he has just scored a touchdown, one of 11 he’s thrown or rushed for this season. The fans hiss and boo and Newton preens, taking it all in as the undefeated Carolina Panthers march to another win on the back of their MVP quarterback.

    Now, Newton might not be the first name that comes to mind when discussing MVP candidates, but then again, the notion of a “most valuable player” varies from person to person. Some think of it in the most literal sense, as the player most crucial to his or her team’s success. Others view it, in the NFL at least, as the quarterback with the best offensive statistics.

    Through five games, it’s hard to argue that anyone, be it Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Julio Jones or Rob Gronkowski has been more valuable to the success of his team than Newton. Behind an average offensive line, with his best receiver lost for the season in August and running back Jonathan Stewart once again failing to live up to preseason hype, Newton is the Panthers’ offense. Forget the “engine that makes the car run” metaphor. Newton is the fuel, the engine, the transmission, the frame and the paint job.

    His numbers won’t jump out to you – a 55.4 completion percentage, a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 8:4, and a QBR of 52.7 – but what Newton has done so well doesn’t show up in stat sheets. Under consistent pressure, Newton is standing tall in the pocket, reading defenses and going through progressions. Instead of taking off once he feels the blitz, Newton’s slides and movement within the pocket are markedly better. Newton is still a runner – it’s a dynamic part of his game that helps turn broken plays into first downs – but he’s more patient than he’s ever been and the result has been a more balanced, consistent passing attack.

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    Newton is also being asked to do more before the snap. In the second half against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, the Panthers moved to a no-huddle offense. It’s something they’ve used before this season, not to increase the pace, but to control the tempo and allow Newton to read the defense before calling a play. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula gives Newton the protections and alignments along with multiple plays to call. After coming to the line, Newton adjusts based on what he sees. Against the Seahawks, with the Panthers down 20-7 late in the third quarter, Newton checked at the line of scrimmage, moving tight end Greg Olsen from the left side of the formation to the right side. The move got Olsen away from safety Earl Thomas and into a one-on-one matchup with linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis. Newton’s new play called for play-action to his right, the same side as Olsen and Pierre-Louis, who bit on the fake. Olsen ran a wheel route up the right sideline, leaving Pierre-Louis slipping behind him, and Newton threw a perfect ball to Olsen, who went out of bounds at the one-yard line. Two plays later, the Panthers scored on a Stewart run to cut Seattle’s lead to 20-14.

    Watch Panthers vs. Eagles: Sunday, 8 ET on NBC

    That touchdown was part of a 21-point rally led almost entirely by Newton, with passes to Olsen, rookie Devin Funchess (after he’d already dropped three on the day), Corey Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, Ed Dickson and Stewart. Brady and Rodgers are heaped with credit for their ability to turn no-names into stars, but there isn’t a single player in Newton’s target list with the gifts of Gronkowski, Julian Edelman or Randall Cobb. Newton deserves credit for simply running a functional offense with that group, let alone one that can score three touchdowns in five drives while trailing on the road against one of the league’s premier defenses.

    Brady and Rodgers have better numbers, are better fantasy options and are better pure quarterbacks, but the MVP the award isn’t, or shouldn’t be, decided by the most touchdowns, sacks or wins. It’s about the player without whom his team simply could not succeed at a meaningful level. If you replaced Brady and Rodgers with league-average quarterback play, say Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Patriots and Packers would likely still be playoff contenders. If the Panthers were forced to replace Newton with a replacement-level talent, they’d be preparing to pick in the top five of next April’s draft.

    Maybe the fairy dust will wear off. Last season, Newton looked like a significantly improved passer in the first month of the season before regressing to the mean while dealing with multiple injuries. But if Newton continues to play at this level and make throws like he did to Olsen on the game-winning touchdown on Sunday, it’s going to be hard to keep him out of the conversation.

    Besides, who better for MVP than Superman himself?

    Orange crush

    Old habits can be hard to break. When it comes to the Cincinnati Bengals, and more specifically Andy Dalton, that means having difficulty believing in much of anything before January. The skepticism is understandable, but the Bengals’ 5-0 start, and Dalton’s play during it, have raised the antennae of doubters and cautious believers.

    Through five games, Dalton is on pace for career bests in nearly every statistical category, most notably completion percentage, touchdown-to-interception ratio and adjusted net yards per attempt. Some could tack this up to a lackluster list of defensive opponents thus far – only Seattle is higher than 18th in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA – but that would deny Dalton of deserved credit for his improved play.

    In his second year in Hue Jackson’s offense, Dalton is clearly more at ease. This has resulted in a quarterback more confident in both his pre-snap recognition and post-snap decision-making. Several times against Seattle on Sunday, Dalton picked out a one-on-one coverage on wideout Mohamed Sanu in the slot. Dalton moved running back Gio Bernard two steps to his left to pick up the blitz and, after the snap, slid left and hit Sanu wide open in the flat for a first down. Four plays later, noticing the Seahawks had emptied the middle of the field to account for a five-wide look, Dalton checked to a quarterback run, moved under center and sprinted five yards for the score. Individually, these are small plays, but the third-and-4 play was a crucial moment in the Bengals’ 17-point fourth-quarter comeback while the touchdown run is the kind of adjustment the best quarterbacks are deified for recognizing.

    Dalton’s improved comfort level and confidence have made their biggest showing in the Bengals’ deep passing game. Through five games this season, Dalton is the most accurate quarterback on passes of 20-plus yards, according to Pro Football Focus. While Dalton’s average arm strength still causes him to under throw receivers, his willingness to trust his receivers to win over a defensive back have resulted in big plays downfield. Multiple times this season, Dalton has made the decision to throw a deep pass when the wideout was still within three yards of the line of scrimmage. The result has been a league-leading 25 pass plays of 20-plus yards after the Bengals totaled just 35 in 2014, good for 31st among the 32 NFL teams.

    Is this real? Is Dalton turning the corner or is this just another stretch of “Good Andy” with a sour turn lurking just over the primetime horizon? The short answer is yes to the former and probably also to the latter, although to different extents.

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    Dalton is a flawed quarterback, and as explained last week, players tend to remain who they were aside from incremental improvements. The key to progression, specifically at quarterback, is a mixture of time, fit, scheme, and thus coaching, and surrounding talent. Since 2011, the Bengals drafted wide receivers A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Sanu, running backs Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill and tight end Tyler Eifert. Green quickly became one of the NFL’s best receivers, while Jones and Sanu are nice complimentary pieces. The difference this year is the development and health of Eifert. After missing all but a handful of snaps last season, Eifert provides Dalton with an easy safety valve over the middle while proving to be a bear for defenses in the red zone and up the seam. The diverse collection of skill position talent allows Jackson, the Bengals’ other most notable addition, to use Dalton within a controlled system without stressing his limited physical talent.

    The problem with Dalton is those limitations will always be present. Dalton’s arm strength is unlikely to improve after five years in the league and there were multiple “Bad Andy” moments in Cincinnati’s first five games. Against Seattle, Dalton’s second-quarter interception was a classic “Bad Andy” moment. He locked onto A.J. Green in one-on-one coverage on the right side, but the cornerback passed him off to the safety, who happened to be Earl Thomas. Thomas read Dalton’s eyes the whole way, leaping in front of Green for a pick in the end zone. If Dalton had checked the ball down to his running back or tight end, the Bengals could’ve settled for a field goal. If he looked over the middle, a wide receiver running a post route found an empty spot in the zone for a potential touchdown. Then, in the third quarter, under constant pressure Dalton struggled with his decision-making, even when faced with just two routes from which to choose.

    The difference this season has been Dalton’s ability to rebound from the mistakes instead of burying himself in a shame spiral. After the Baltimore Ravens returned a Dalton fumble for a touchdown in Week 3, he connected with Green for an 80-yard touchdown on the first play of the next drive. After a brutal third quarter against Seattle, Dalton led the Bengals to 20 points in five drives between the fourth quarter and overtime, including a perfect pass to a diving Eifert on the eventual game-tying drive late in the final moments of the fourth.

    It’s moments like this that give Bengals fans hope that Dalton has finally turned some sort of corner, but the truth is, Andy Dalton is always going to be a flawed, physically limited quarterback. Yes, he’s playing better, but with a healthy group of receivers and tight ends, an offensive system more conducive to his success and a defense that can rush the passer and has kept the Bengals in position to win every game this season. Will that translate to January?

    Only time will tell.

    What’s ailing the Eagles

    It’s easy to get caught up in the best-case scenario from April to August.

    “The quarterback is a really good fit for his new offensive scheme. Sure, the offensive line lost a player or two, but there’s ways around that. No deep threat? It’s OK. They’ll succeed in the short and intermediate game. Besides, they just spent a ton of money on running backs. They’re going to run the ball all the time! And have you seen that defense?! Oh man. Super Bowl contenders, for sure.”

    At least half, if not all of that, was written about the Philadelphia Eagles at some point from April to August. Sam Bradford was going to thrive with the best coach he’d ever had at the NFL level and a real supporting cast for once. There were holes at both guard spots, but center Jason Kelce and tackles Lane Johnson and Jason Peters and Chip Kelly’s scheme were enough to overcome a lack of talent. And if LeSean McCoy can rush for nearly 3,000 yards over two seasons under Kelly, imagine what DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews can do. Their north-south running styles were perfect fits for what Kelly wanted from his backs. With a revamped secondary and a frightening, fast and athletic front seven, the defense would be the best Kelly’s had in the NFL.

    Four games in, the Eagles instead look like one of the worst teams in the league, beguiled by missed kicks, poor play-calling, a shell-shocked quarterback and a dismal offensive line. But are they actually a bad team or just a team playing poorly?

    * * *

    The rushing game that was supposed to propel and pace this offense is essentially non-existent outside of a 123-yard effort in Week 3. At the heart of the failure are several factors, none of which hold priority over the others but rather swirl and intermix like water and soap in a sink.

    It starts with an offensive line that ranks 32nd in Football Outsiders’ stuffed metric and adjusted line yards, which means the line is helping its backs the least of any other unit in the league while also allowing the most runs to be stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. Kelly’s decision to jettison veteran guards Todd Herrmans and Evan Mathis, while failing to significantly invest in their replacements, has come back to haunt him. Allen Barbre, Andrew Gardner and Matt Tobin have been liabilities in both the run game and pass protection and their inexperience has led to communication issues across the five-man. Normally reliable veterans Jason Peters and Jason Kelce are having their worst seasons in recent memory, with Peters struggling to stay on the field.

    The inconsistency up front rendered Kelly’s preferred inside zone plays mostly ineffective. The sight of Barbre, Kelce or Gardner being pushed back into the ball carrier has become a regular occurrence. On Sunday against Washington, the Eagles showed signs of gaining ground inside, with Murray running for a season high 30 yards on a first-quarter jaunt between the tackles. It looked like a continuance on the work Mathews did the week before against a strong New York Jets defense, when he ran for 85 yards on 17 carries in between the tackles. Instead, Kelly spent much of Sunday’s eventual loss calling for sweeps and stretch plays or ignoring the run altogether. It was a curious decision that illustrates another problem in Philly’s run game – the play-calling.

    In Kelly’s first year in Philadelphia, the Eagles were unpredictable on offense. Kelly was just as likely to call a run as a pass and from any formation. The Eagles finished the year with 500 rushing attempts and 508 pass attempts. Last season, that ratio sank to 57-43 in favor of passing, part of the change due to an abysmal secondary that often had the Eagles playing catch-up. This season, the Eagles are running the ball just 38 percent of the time and after Sunday’s loss, Murray complained about not getting the ball enough.

    This is in itself, a catch-22. Due to Kelly the GM’s poor roster management – namely forcing Mathis out of Philadelphia over a philosophical disagreement – Kelly the coach is forced to make due with a sub-par group of interior linemen. This has forced him to shy away from interior runs, despite the fact that both Mathews and Murray are at their best when they stay between the tackles.

    The run game should be the base of Kelly’s offense. It’s needed to provide manageable down and distance situations for a passing game that succeeds mostly within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage. Without it, Sam Bradford has been nothing short of terrible.

    Part of the problem is Bradford’s lack of mobility coming off a twice-torn ACL. Defenses are testing him with blitzes in the A gaps and forcing Bradford to move within the pocket. Instead, Bradford often chooses to abandon the pocket, running to a side of the field and eliminating half of his reads. Bradford also appears to be having difficulty reading his progressions before the pocket collapses. Several times in the first half Sunday against Washington, Bradford failed to identify or anticipate an open receiver, thus resulting in a sack, a throwaway or a completion for far fewer yards than was actually available.

    Bradford has also struggled with accuracy, particularly in the intermediate areas of the field. On passes within 10 to 19 yards of the line of scrimmage, Bradford is completing just 34.6 percent of his attempts and has thrown three of his four interceptions. It’s possible Bradford’s struggles in this area and further down the field are related to a lack of trust in his twice-surgically repaired knee or an inability to generate strength in his lower half. But these aren’t new problems for the former No. 1 overall pick. In St. Louis, Bradford earned the nickname “Checkdown Sam” for his propensity to anticipate pressure and get rid of the ball to the underneath receiver. Since he entered the league in 2010, Bradford’s 5.19 adjusted net yards per attempt and 58.79 completion percentage are 29th out of 32 quarterbacks with at least 32 starts in that span.

    It’s worth noting Bradford has been besieged by drops this season. Eagles receivers, including running backs and tight ends, have combined for 14 drops, or 9.6 percent of Bradford’s attempts. Although it’s not reasonable to expect the Eagles to catch all of those passes, even seven more completions would take Bradford’s percentage to a reasonable 65.6 percent. Also, several of those drops have come at crucial points in the game, including Jordan Matthews’ on the game-clinching interception in the opener and a drop by Darren Sproles on third-and-6 midway through the fourth quarter Sunday. Sproles’ drop came at a time when the Eagles’ offense was picking up steam after Bradford and Miles Austin connected for a 39-yard touchdown to take the lead – one of four Bradford completions over 20 yards on the day. It also ended a drive that had moved 34 yards on seven plays and killed nearly three minutes of clock.

    The lack of consistency on offense has taken a toll on a defense that has been one of the league’s best at times, but has been hit by injuries at linebacker and suffered from spending too much time on the field. Kelly famously once said that time of possession is meaningless – the Eagles have finished every season under Kelly last in TOP and are 32nd again this year – but the defense has been visibly gassed in fourth quarters this season. On Washington’s final drive Sunday, the Eagles’ defensive line was stood up on most plays and quarterback Kirk Cousins faced almost no pressure during a 15-play, 90-yard drive that left just 31 seconds on the clock.

    Part of the issue Sunday, as it has been the entire season, was the Eagles’ secondary. With Byron Maxwell sidelined for all but seven snaps, Washington’s receivers regularly received free releases off the line of scrimmage. Some of that was due to clever designs by Washington coach Jay Gruden, but there were other times, namely on the game-winning touchdown, where Philly’s corners were giving far too much cushion.

    That said, given how he’s played so far this year, it’s unlikely Maxwell would’ve helped much. The former Seattle Seahawks cornerback is allowing an opposing quarterback rating of 145.4, just a shade off the perfect rating of 158.3. He’s also 68th out of 68 starting cornerbacks in Pro Football Focus’ yards per coverage snap metric, which measures how many yards a defensive player allows while in primary coverage. Expected to lead a physical, cover-3 defense, Maxwell has been consistently burned from every position – in press man, off coverage and in zone.

    With the secondary scuffling, opposing offenses have taken to quick, manageable passing attacks designed to negate the Eagles’ fierce pass-rush. It doesn’t always work – Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was besieged in the Eagles’ only win this year – but Kelly only needs to look to last season to see how a porous secondary can affect a defense in the long run.

    The current that runs beneath it all is Kelly’s unflinching belief in himself and the culture he’s attempted to create and foster inside the Eagles building. Mathis, running back LeSean McCoy and wide receiver DeSean Jackson were all victims of Kelly’s ascent in the Eagles’ power structure. With a rough start to this year, there have been more anonymous reports of player unrest and threats to Kelly’s job security. What those reports, and potentially disgruntled players, miss is that Eagles owner Jeff Lurie prides himself on organizational stability and Lurie is highly unlikely to fire Kelly after giving him total control this past offseason.

    The key going forward will be how much Kelly learns from Eagles’ struggles through the first four games and whether he adjusts not only as a coach, but as a general manager. It’s fine to prioritize “your guys” and “your system,” but it’s foolish to believe that all a player needs is “your system” to improve. Overall, Bradford has proven to be the same quarterback in Philadelphia he was in St. Louis – not surprising given that players rarely change or drastically improve after five seasons in the league, especially following two torn ACLs.

    In the NFL, talent is king above all else and the Eagles still have enough of it to reverse course this season with the right adjustments by Kelly the coach. Whether they correct course in the long term, however, depends on how flexible he is as a GM.

    Broken Phins

    The job of an interim head coach is incredibly difficult. You’re taking over a group of players in which you had minimal say selecting and things have obviously gone poorly enough to that point to necessitate a major, franchise-altering change at one of the organization’s most important positions.

    Dan Campbell takes over as the interim leader of the Miami Dolphins after a 1-3 start cost Joe Philbin his job. For all of Philbin’s faults, and he had several, Miami’s issues run much deeper than motivational tactics and practice habits. In order to correct course, Campbell will have to change the Dolphins’ identity on both sides of the ball.

    It starts on offense, where quarterback Ryan Tannehill has regressed in a one-dimensional attack under offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. Praised for his ability to apply Chip Kelly’s offensive principles to Miami’s personnel last season, Lazor’s play-calling this year has been scattershot at best and braindead at worst. Running back Lamar Miller, one of the most effective and efficient backs last season, has been an afterthought through four games. Miller has just 37 rushing attempts, four fewer than Le’Veon Bell has in two games and only eight more than Chris Ivory received in New York’s win over Miami on Sunday.

    As evidenced in Philadelphia, a consistent running game is crucial to success in Kelly and Lazor’s offense, which relies on pace but also the air of unpredictability. In this scheme, the offense is supposed to be able to run or pass out of almost every formation, keeping the defense in the dark before the snap and limiting the type of personnel it can play. With no ground game to speak of, defenses are keying on the Dolphins’ passing game and preying on a suspect offensive line, which has allowed a whopping 68 pressures thus far, according to Pro Football Focus. The added pressure has turned Tannehill into even more a one-read, short passing machine. Through four games, Tannehill’s 4.96 adjusted net yards per attempt ranks 27th with 65 of his 97 completions coming either within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage or behind it.

    In order to fix Miami’s offense, Lazor, and by extension Campbell, must find a way to make Tannehill more comfortable in the pocket while keeping defenses from blitzing without regard. That means re-establishing Miller and shifting the run-pass balance closer to last year’s 40-60 split from the current 27-63 ratio. It would also be wise for Lazor to re-install some of the zone read concepts and designed quarterback runs the Dolphins used after the bye week last season, an added wrinkle that created personnel mismatches and made use of Tannehill’s full skill set.

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    On defense, the problem is simpler at first, yet eventually more complex. Following their loss to the Jets on Sunday, the unit is dismal in almost every metric – 30th in yards allowed per game and 27th as graded cumulatively by Pro Football Focus. Despite signing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to a six-year, $114 million contract and devoting a staggering $32.4 million to their defense line this season, the Dolphins have just one sack. For comparison’s sake, the league-leading Broncos have 11 players with at least one sack.

    The easiest solution is to fire defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, whose read-and-react passive scheme negates the best, and most expensive, assets on Miami’s defense. Coyle has also come under fire from within his own locker room, with Suh reportedly outright disregarding Coyle following a closed-door meeting with the coordinator. Even if Coyle remains, the Dolphins must become a more aggressive, attacking unit up front to account for a thin and undersized secondary. That means abandoning Coyle’s preferred two-gapping method on the defensive line, where players are responsible for the holes on each side, and installing a one-gap system where Suh, Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon and Earl Mitchell are allowed to run upfield and attack the offensive backfield.

    The concern with playing more aggressively up front is it could leave the Dolphins exposed against screens, delays and cut-back lanes. If Suh or one of his fellow linemen were to blow an assignment or over-pursue up front, the entire defense could be exposed for a big play, particularly a secondary that struggles in man coverage. Unfortunately for the Dolphins, it’s a risk they have to take. Without a man corner like Darrelle Revis in tow, the Dolphins’ best bet to defensive success is to push the pocket and hopefully disrupt the timing between quarterback and wide receiver or tight end.

    It’s not an ideal fix, but then neither is trying to establish a run game behind a struggling offensive line missing its best player in left tackle Brandon Albert. Teams don’t stumble upon firing a head coach midseason. It’s the end result of bad drafting, poor roster management and a misunderstanding of the personnel available. The Dolphins check all three boxes, in addition to a head coach nearly the entire team had turned against.

    These are problems an interim coach probably can’t fix.

    Pants on fire

    Mistakes are difficult for everyone to admit, even more so when they’re attached to seven-figure severance packages. But it’s time for Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross to admit his biggest one yet.

    It’s time to fire Joe Philbin.

    In the three-plus seasons since hiring Philbin, the Dolphins have sputtered along, clanging their way to an uninspiring 24-27 overall mark, including a 1-2 start this year. A career coordinator before Miami, Philbin has often appeared out of touch and overmatched by the position, his even-keel demeanor instead coming off as bland and detached.

    After the Dolphins were “outplayed and outcoached” in Sunday’s 41-14 trashing at the hands of the Buffalo Bills, Philbin admitted to being out of answers. An offense that shed Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline in favor of DeVante Parker, Greg Jennings and Kenny Stills is averaging just 17 points per game through three weeks. Under pressure on over 40 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, quarterback Ryan Tannehill has regressed from his 2014 performance, forcing throws and failing to diagnose pressure before the snap.

    On defense, the problems are fundamental. The Dolphins’ tackling against the Bills was anemic, highlighted by the olé technique used on Charles Clay’s 25-yard touchdown. The pass-rush is no better. Despite the offseason addition of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the Dolphins are dead last in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate. Thanks in part to a total lack of push up front, a secondary that finished last season a respectable 16th in pass defense DVOA has slipped to 30th despite games against Kirk Cousins, Blake Bortles and Tyrod Taylor.

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    After an expensive and thorough offseason overhaul, the Dolphins entered this season with hopes of challenging the New England Patriots for the top spot in the AFC East. Instead, through three games this season the Dolphins have been outscored 57-17 in the first half of games, including deficits of 10-0, 17-6 and 27-0, a sure sign of a lack of preparation.

    That sort of letdown is normally enough for coaches to land on a burning hot seat, but Philbin and the Dolphins have been here before. Two seasons ago, Philbin survived the Dolphins’ bullying scandal despite the Wells Report painting him as woefully out of touch with the happenings within his own locker room. Last season, the Dolphins were also 1-2 and reeling from an embarrassing 34-15 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs with a trip to London on the schedule. Philbin vaguely threatened to bench Tannehill, a public-relations ploy which not even Tannehill took seriously.  After a brief revival where Miami won four of five, the Dolphins cratered down the stretch, losing five of their last eight games. Still, Ross ensured Philbin would return for 2015, preaching patience in the face of prolonged mediocrity.

    It’s not hard to understand why Ross would be reticent to fire Philbin. The former Green Bay assistant was Ross’ first major hire as the franchise’s majority owner. As the man largely credited with the development of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Philbin fit the mold of what Ross wanted in the team’s next leader – “a young Don Shula,” Ross proclaimed to be searching for. But in 51 games as the head coach of the Dolphins, Philbin has been closer to Dave Shula than his Hall of Fame father.

    Maybe Philbin and the Dolphins will beat the New York Jets in London on Sunday, earning yet another stay of execution for their head coach. And perhaps there will be another mid-season run as there has been in years past, but the point of hiring a head coach has always been to find a person capable of leading a franchise to a Super Bowl. After three-plus years of evidence to the contrary, is there anyone that feels confident Philbin will suddenly meet that standard in the next 14 weeks?

    If Ross’ answer to that question is “no,” leaving Philbin in place for the remainder of the season does nothing but prolong the inevitable. It’s simply time for the Dolphins to admit that Philbin was indeed, a mistake.

    * * *

    Philbin is far from the only coach facing some degree of heat from the media, fans and his own team. The following coaches are also in trouble, although to varying degrees.

    Be afraid

    Gus Bradley – Bradley and general manager David Caldwell are in a tough spot. They took over a franchise with just three winning seasons since 1999 and a roster with little to no young talent. Then they bet it all on quarterback Blake Bortles, a project at the game’s most important position. A preseason dynamo, Bortles has struggled again in the regular season despite improved talent around him. Bradley likely deserves at least one more year, but a third straight season with fewer than six wins could make him Caldwell’s fall guy.

    Jay Gruden – If Bradley deserves another year because of his quarterback, Gruden may deserve to go because of the way he’s handled his signal-callers. A strange hire in the first place, Gruden alienated Robert Griffin III from the outset then spent the next 19 games alternating between RG3, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy in deadly game of bad quarterback roulette. With the hiring of new GM Scot McCloughan in the offseason, Gruden’s clock is ticking – quickly.

    Mike Pettine – Pettine is a good football coach. He’s smart, he’s sensible and he helped lead a below-average Browns team to seven wins in his first season despite alternating between Johnny Manziel and Brian Hoyer at quarterback. He also deserves credit for the maturation of Manziel from assured NFL washout to at least a serviceable backup. The only reason he’s even in this group is the unpredictable nature of owner Jimmy Haslam and his reportedly combative relationship with GM Ray Farmer.


    Jeff Fisher – Of all the coaches on this list, not many possess the control within the organization that Fisher exerts. When he was hired, Fisher was allowed to hire his GM and given say over almost the entire organization. Fisher and the Rams showed continued belief in oft-injured former quarterback Sam Bradford, even passing on drafting a quarterback in the 2014 class of Manziel, Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr. Despite thoroughly mediocre results – 20 wins in his first three seasons and a 1-2 mark to start this year – Fisher appears safe, especially with his southern California roots and a potential move to L.A. on the horizon. Remember, Fisher has been through this before when Houston went to Tennessee.

    Tom Coughlin – Under Coughlin, the Giants have made the playoffs just once since 2008, a startling fact when you consider that quarterback Eli Manning hasn’t missed a game in that time span. Some of the blame falls on the shoulders of GM Jerry Reese and his poor drafts, but Coughlin escapes a fair amount of heat because of his two Super Bowl rings. If 2015 goes extremely sour, don’t be surprised if Coughlin decides to “retire” at season’s end.

    Gas is on, but the flame hasn’t clicked yet

    Sean Payton – Maybe Payton should be in the group above, but it feels like the tide in New Orleans is slowly starting to turn on Payton. A major part of the decision-making process with GM Mickey Loomis, Payton helped destroy the Saints’ roster and long-term cap flexibility in hopes of a desperate Super Bowl run in 2014. He also has the bounty scandal and allegations involving prescription drugs in his past. With an aging Drew Brees careening toward the end of his career and the Saints likely destined for a second straight below-.500 season ahead in 2015, it’s only a matter of time before Payton feels the pressure.

    Chip Kelly – This is probably the most obvious one, although maybe the least deserved. After back-to-back 10-win seasons, Kelly drew the ire of nearly everybody with his drastic offseason makeover and an 0-2 start brought the pitchforks to the gates of the Eagles’ facility. Still, owner Jeffrey Lurie isn’t known for rash decisions and he re-organized his entire franchise for Kelly this past offseason, something that can’t be understated in importance. Despite the public denouncements, Kelly is likely safe until at least the end of 2016.

    Mile High Marauders

    The best teams in the NFL identify early on where they’re good, where they’re deficient and how to amplify the former while masking the latter.

    For the past three seasons, the Denver Broncos have beaten teams mostly based on the knowledge inside Peyton Manning’s head, his comfort within the Broncos’ offensive scheme and the ability and strength still remaining in his right arm. For a variety of reasons – Manning’s weakened state, a sub-par offensive line and an unfamiliar scheme – those days might be ending.  After leading the league in point-differential, points scored and yards per offensive play from 2012-14, this year’s Broncos are ninth in point-differential, 10th in points scored and most alarmingly, dead last in yards per offensive play. It admittedly is a small sample size, but Denver’s 3.73 yards per play in 2015 is almost a full yard below the 31st-ranked team, the Carolina Panthers and 1.62 yards behind the Broncos’ opponent Sunday night, the Detroit Lions. Part of that is due to a poor running game – and, in relation, the offensive line – but Manning is averaging just 3.89 adjusted yards per attempt. To put that in perspective, Jacksonville Jaguars rookie Blake Bortles was last in the league in 2014 with a 3.81 average.

    Sample size notwithstanding, it’s not like Manning’s arm is suddenly going to get stronger. The Broncos’ offense might benefit from veering away from coach Gary Kubiak’s preferred West Coast scheme, but Denver must adjust in case Manning and the offense never approach their productivity of the last three seasons. Therefore, to reach their desired goal this season – a deep playoff run at the very least, if not a Super Bowl appearance – the Broncos may need to rely on something other than their high-powered offense. Luckily for Manning, the Broncos have assembled a defense capable of rivaling the Seattle Seahawks for the best in the league.

    Broncos vs. Lions: Coverage Sunday at 7 ET on NBC

    The biggest change comes from on high, where former Houston Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips replaces Jack Del Rio, who left to coach the Oakland Raiders. While Del Rio’s units were always strong – their lowest adjusted defensive DVOA was 10th in 2013 – Phillips is a defensive mastermind. Everywhere he’s gone, defensive units have taken massive leaps forward, particularly in pass defense. Phillips’ 3-4, one-gap system stresses speed and an aggressive, blitz-heavy style, perfect for a Broncos defense loaded with athletic edge-rushers, including Von Miller, and speedy inside backers. Although it’s only two games, Phillips’ unit is first in overall defensive DVOA and pass defense DVOA and sixth in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate. Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, Phillips’ former pupil in Dallas, is playing like he’s 29 again, registering seven hurries, six quarterback hits and two sacks thus far.

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    In Denver, Phillips also has his best secondary yet, including the league’s best cornerback triumvirate. Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, Jr. and Bradley Roby are all aggressive, lock-down corners, giving Phillips the freedom not to devote extra players up front to coverage and thus increasing Denver’s numbers advantage in the pass-rush. In the early going, each corner is allowing 1.09 yards or less per coverage snap, a PFF metric which registers the number of yards a defender allows while in primary coverage relative to his coverage snaps. Simply put, on average, the Broncos’ top three corners are allowing opposing receivers, tight ends and running backs to gain roughly one yard every time they line up.

    If the Broncos are going to make a Super Bowl run this season, they may not need Manning’s best. While Denver’s defense has been good in the past, it’s never had the ability to shut down an opposing offense simply by showing up. The last team that could do that was the 2000 Baltimore Ravens and before that, the early 1990s New York Giants and 1986 Chicago Bears. It’s far too early to connect this year’s Broncos’ defense to the greatest defenses of all time, but through two games, they at least appear plenty capable of carrying Manning and the offense to January.

    The tyranny of Rex

    The ballad of Rex Ryan is a tragedy.

    A tremendously likeable coach – and a good one at that – Ryan has inspired undying loyalty and adoration from fans and players alike at each of his NFL stops. In Baltimore, Ryan was so beloved, the Ravens declined to promote him to head coach for fear he would become too chummy with his players. After spending 2008 as John Harbaugh’s defensive coordinator, Ryan finally received his shot with the Jets, which began with back-to-back runs to the AFC title game before lurching off a cliff in agonizingly slow motion.

    Upon arriving in Buffalo, Ryan found an instant connection. The people of Western New York are largely blue collar and wear their hearts and affection for the beloved Buffalo Bills on their sleeves. After the franchise cycled through coaches every few years for the better part of two decades, Ryan represented the potential for meaningful, long-term change. Most importantly, the Bills’ fans and players liked Ryan – a major step up from the paranoid and dictatorial ways of former coach Doug Marrone.

    At his introductory press conference, Ryan promised fans he would end the Bills’ 15-year postseason drought, and he would do it this season. After the Bills demolished the Indianapolis Colts in Week 1, Ryan appeared well on his way. Buffalo’s defense, the most talented unit he’s coached in his NFL career, was swarming and unrelenting against the Colts and his decision to pick relative unknown Tyrod Taylor as the team’s starting quarterback appeared prescient. If only Ryan could secure a win over the hated New England Patriots, the Rex hysteria would reach a fever pitch, not only in Buffalo, but across the league.

    The win, along with the newfound freedom in Buffalo, opened Ryan up like a belt buckle on Thanksgiving. Ryan and the Bills sauntered into Sunday’s game against New England with the swagger of an unbeaten prizefighter. The official team store even sold inflation pumps, an idea Ryan no doubt supported, even if he was unaware of it.

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    But the talk, like it has many times in the past, fell flat. The Patriots dropped a 40-burger on a baby-soft Bills defense, and for the most part bottled up Taylor and Buffalo’s offense until a late spree made the final score, 40-32, appear much closer than the game actually was. It was Ryan’s 10th loss in 14 games against the Patriots since becoming a head coach and his eighth since 2011. Ryan marked the Patriots as the team to beat upon his arrival in both New York and Buffalo; again, he was schooled.

    When it was over, Ryan trotted out one of his familiar tropes from New York, taking the blame for the loss and admitting he was “outcoached” by Bill Belichick. While it was utterly true – Rex’s defense looked unprepared for New England’s up-tempo offense for the majority of the game – it also obscured the fact that Ryan’s Bills set themselves up to fail throughout the afternoon, thanks in large part to the sins of their teacher.

    * * *

    Ryan is an emotional man and he coaches, often, from his heart instead of his head. He identifies with his players not as pieces on a board, but as friends and even family members. That attitude, led to a frathouse environment in the Jets’ locker room, where discipline was lacking and players lacked accountability.

    In his final year in New York, no less than five players, including team leaders Demario Davis and Nick Mangold, publicly spoke about the team’s work ethic and poor practice habits. Quarterback Michael Vick admitted to not preparing for games and gave up his practice reps to third-string quarterback Matt Simms in the week before an embarrassing loss to the Chargers in which Vick appeared utterly uninterested.  Meanwhile, both quarterback Geno Smith and safety Calvin Pryor were late to meetings, with Pryor eventually acknowledging he didn’t take his job seriously in his first year. Despite this admission, Pryor continued to see starter’s reps for the majority of the season.

    MORE: Bills deal Cassel to Cowboys

    Ryan’s teams in New York were also among the most penalized in the league, something he’s carried over to Buffalo. Through two games, the Bills lead the league with 25 penalties for 253 yards. On Sunday, the Bills committed penalty after penalty, particularly in the first half and almost always at the worst possible time — look no further than the illegal block on the Patriots’ first punt of the game, a hold on a kickoff two series later and two unnecessary roughness penalties on the same punt on the next drive. In between those calls, Ryan tried to challenge a play was that not able to be challenged and, if successful, would’ve still left the Bills in fourth-and-9 at that own 29-yard line.

    But the most egregious failures, the ones that actually cost the Bills points that could’ve changed the entire outcome of the game, came in the final minutes of the first half.

    With the Patriots facing third-and-8 on their own 22-yard line and 4:50 remaining, defensive tackle Marcell Dareus burst through the Patriots’ line to sack Brady for a loss of seven yards. Ralph Wilson Stadium was raucous, until a defensive holding penalty on rookie cornerback Ronald Darby erased the play and gave the Patriots a first down. New England drove down the field, eventually settling for a field goal and killing 2:50 off the clock.

    After a touchback on the ensuing kickoff, the Bills started with the ball at their own 20-yard line. Buffalo, trailing 24-13, had three timeouts and 2:18 on the clock – more than enough stoppages and more than enough time to make a run trimming the deficit to three. Instead of playing aggressively, the Bills stuck to Ryan’s conservative tendencies. Roman called four runs and five passes, three of which went for less than nine yards. Ryan’s horrible game management skills also surfaced. By the time the Bills called their first timeout, Buffalo had gained just 26 yards and burned 1:27. Then, on third-and-14 from New England’s 46 and 16 seconds left, Taylor’s inexperience stung Buffalo. The former sixth-round pick rolled out of a clean pocket and into pressure. Instead of scrambling out of bounds, preserving the chance at another play or even gaining ground for a possible field goal attempt, Taylor hurled the ball off his back foot while fading to his left. It was picked off with roughly 10 seconds left and the Bills entered the half with no points and no momentum.

    It was a classic example of a game Jets fans experienced time after time over the past five years. The gutsy talk in the leadup giving way to a restrained approach in crunch time, the penalties coming in waves and always at the worst time and a defense that’s seemingly unable to stop the same Patriots attack it’s faced twice a year for over a half-decade.

    Ryan’s likeability often hides his flaws, especially early in his coaching tenures, but eventually the cracks show. As fun and bombastic as he can be, a smile can only go so far in the NFL.

    The Seahawks will be fine.

    The opening week of the 2015 season was a tad turbulent for the Seattle Seahawks.

    Star safety Kam Chancellor is almost two months and two games into a contract holdout with no sign of end or compromise in the immediate future. General manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll are subsequently under fire from within as Chancellor’s teammates support the holdout, both publicly and, reportedly, privately — players are said to have lobbied the powers-that-be to do whatever it takes to bring Chancellor back into the fold. Meanwhile, Chancellor’s replacement, Dion Bailey, fell down while in coverage on the game-tying touchdown in an eventual 34-31 loss to the St. Louis Rams in Week 1 – a game that saw quarterback Russell Wilson under endless harassment and ended when the Rams stopped a Marshawn Lynch run on fourth-and-2 in overtime.

    It wasn’t the ideal start for a franchise hoping to erase the heartache of Super Bowl XLIX. Combined with Chancellor’s continued absence and a looming date against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night, questions that would normally disappear into the background after one game are resounding with greater emphasis within the NFL’s echo chamber. And although the idea of outright panic is weeks and several more losses away, it’s worthwhile to examine the concerns that could become the building blocks of genuine worry.

    * * *

    At the heart of the public outcry is Chancellor, the NFL’s best strong safety and a player whose fearless physicality stands as the corporeal representation of Seattle’s defense. His continued absence has induced cries from fans and former players alike, claiming Chancellor is dishonoring himself and his teammates by not reporting for duty while under contract. Legally, the critics have ground on which to stand. Chancellor is in the second season of a four-year, $28M contract that made him one of the highest-paid players at his position. The Seahawks have the right to fine him an amount designated by the collective bargaining agreement for every day he misses, dating back to the first day of training camp.

    Seahawks vs. Packers: Watch Sunday Night Football at 7 ET on NBC

    The problem being that NFL contracts are not nearly as binding as they appear. Teams will terminate the non-guaranteed agreement whenever they feel the need to, be it due to injury, declining play or what they view as a bloated salary. The only money NFL teams are beholden to pay is the guaranteed amount, a number in itself that can be tied to either skill (quality of play) or injury. Despite an average annual value of over $7 million, only 27.9 percent of Chancellor’s total deal is guaranteed, a startlingly low number that ranks below the percentages for deals signed by safeties T.J. Ward, Ron Parker and Marcus Gilchrist.

    If NFL teams are not unreasonable to terminate contracts when they no longer appear useful to the organization, it stands to reason that players have a right to refuse to offer their services when they view the deal as no longer befitting their value – especially when the players are the ones potentially sacrificing years of their lives or of comfortable living due to the physical dangers of the sport.

    The conundrum puts both the Seahawks and Chancellor in tough spots. Schneider is loath to renegotiate big-money contracts with multiple years remaining, but every miscue by Bailey paints the organization further into a corner. If the Seahawks bend to Chancellor and his agent’s requests, they chance setting off a ripple effect that is sure to affect disgruntled defensive end Michael Bennett immediately, along with setting a new standard for disgruntled players down the road. If Schneider holds strong, and at least for this week it appears he will, he puts a large portion of his leverage and his negotiating power at risk every time the Seahawks’ defense takes the field.

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    Although Bailey’s stumble received the headlines, the unit was far from imposing against the Rams. After allowing a total of 32 20-plus yard passing plays in 16 games last season, the Seahawks gave up eight to the Rams on Sunday afternoon alone. Linebacker Bobby Wagner, normally the bastion of consistency and a linchpin in Seattle’s pass defense, played one of the worst games of his career, allowing four receptions for 105 yards, 80 of which were yards gained after the catch, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Cornerback Richard Sherman insisted Wednesday that Seattle’s Week 1 errors were easily correctable ahead of Sunday night’s showdown with the Packers – something Schneider and Carroll very much need to be true. If Chancellor’s absence is truly responsible for the overall drop in quality of play, any minor crack or fissure that existed against St. Louis will be magnified tenfold by quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

    * * *

    If the Seahawks’ secondary can be described as leaky against the Rams, the offensive line was an overflowing faucet of failure. According to PFF, Wilson was pressured 18 times Sunday, hit twice and sacked six times, all numbers that could’ve been enlarged if not for his mobility. The struggle extended to the rushing game, where Lynch gained 39 of his 73 yards after initial contact, per PFF. On that fourth-down stop in overtime, Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers was two full yards into the offensive backfield by the time Lynch received the handoff from Wilson, and he and Aaron Donald combined for the stop.

    Part of the problem stems from a loaded Rams front seven that was literally built to stop Lynch, Wilson and the Seahawks. Donald and his compatriots would be a bear for any reputable offensive line, but against a shaky group like Seattle’s, they’re practically unstoppable. The good news is the Seahawks only have to see St. Louis’ front once more in the regular season. The concern is that the Rams’ skilled collection of talent was not the only reason for the Seahawks’ problems.

    Of Seattle’s five starting linemen, none played even remotely well. Even former Pro Bowl tackle Russell Okung was dominated at the point of attack and pushed back several times by defensive end Robert Quinn. The rest of the group proved pedestrian at best and the Rams’ multiple looks and blitz patterns brought about a series of miscommunications, especially on the right side of the line. The Packers don’t possess a player like Quinn or Donald, but they racked up 17 pressures against the Chicago Bears in their opener and can rush the passer from a variety of looks.

    While much of the problem came from the men up front, Wilson also draws some blame. Facing a Rams defense that was religiously devoted to deep zone coverage and playing its cornerbacks several yards off the line of scrimmage, the Seahawks’ passing game lacked rhythm and refused to test St. Louis down the field. Wilson attempted just one pass over 20 yards and was 4 of 8 for 74 yards on throws 10 yards and longer, per PFF. Presented with underneath options several times thanks to the Rams’ off coverage, Wilson also hesitated to take advantage. Whether he was hoping for an opening downfield, Wilson’s refusal to take what was given put further pressure on the line and also resulted in multiple drives ending prematurely.

    Against the Packers, Seattle should be able to run the ball more consistently. Green Bay is down to only rookie linebacker Jake Ryan and converted outside backer Clay Matthews inside, further limiting a run defense that allowed the Bears to average 4.4 yards per carry on the ground in their opener. A sound running game will alleviate pressure on the line, eliminate some third-and-longs and potentially force the Packers to bring a safety down near the line of scrimmage. That could free up the middle of the field for rookie wide receiver Tyler Lockett and tight end Jimmy Graham. The two were added with the idea that their presence would force defenses to alter their coverages and create mismatches for them or for their teammates. In the opener, the Rams were able to remain steadfast in the secondary because the dominant front corralled Wilson and limited the Seahawks’ ground attack. The Seahawks must find a way to set the tone up and force Green Bay’s defense to react to their personnel instead of the other way around.

    * * *

    Even if they play their best game Sunday night, it’s plausible the Seahawks will begin the season 0-2. Rodgers and the Packers possess one of the NFL’s best offenses – even without injured wideout Jordy Nelson – and enough playmakers up front to take advantage of a shaky offensive line in obvious passing situations.

    Even then, panic would be rash. The Seahawks play three of their next four games at home, where the noisy cocoon of CenturyLink Field makes Seattle’s defense nearly impenetrable. And it seems illogical that Schneider and Chancellor won’t be able to hammer out their differences at some point in the near future. Recent reports have the sides roughly $900,000 apart, a number that could very well shrink if Bailey and the defense struggle in primetime against Green Bay.

    It’s wise to remember that only a year ago, the Seahawks appeared rudderless after seven weeks and trailed the division-leading Arizona Cardinals by three full games in the loss column after Week 11. Those Seahawks found their sea legs by midseason and ended up winning 12 games and the NFC West before advancing to a second straight Super Bowl. As of now, there’s no reason to think it can’t or won’t happen again.