Melissa’s Monday Musings Week 15: The Good, The Bad and The Underappreciated

Many thoughts on an NFL Sunday that started with anticipation over Aaron Rodgers’s return and ended with Diddy’s pledge to win Super Bowls with Colin Kaepernick as the owner of the newly available Carolina Panthers….

Over the course of this odd season, this column has gradually had a heftier “bad” section and a lighter “good” one as injuries and controversies have taken center stage. While Week 15 was certainly not devoid of these pitfalls – because duh, football – there was much to inspire positive, fanatical adrenaline and emotion. You know, the stuff that drew us to the NFL in the first place.

The Good

On a Chicago sports radio show the other day, the hosts asked Bleacher Report analyst Matt Miller, ‘Who will be next year’s Jaguars?’ This question has become more commonplace as we further juxtapose the now 10-4 Jags to last year’s 3-13 version. The Jags are legitimately a powerhouse franchise after striking gold in two consecutive drafts (Jalen Ramsey, Leonard Fournette), investing wisely in free agency (Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye) while already housing a strong wide receiver corps and complementary back in Chris Ivory. Plus, decent years of Blake Bortles memes he’s a perfectly acceptable quarterback when so many of the other pieces are in place.

The Jags have also experienced a cultural shift under Tom Coughlin and Doug Marrone and are my current pick for team you don’t want to face in the playoffs (especially if your name is Tom Brady because the Jags are the only AFC defense that has the makeup to engulf the future Hall of Famer). Any of the league’s lower end organizations would love to see such a turnaround. But the more apt question should probably be ‘Who will be next year’s Rams?’

Not many teams will be able to acquire the talent en masse to reshape an entire defense the way the Jags have the past two seasons yet some teams already have a blueprint waiting to be optimized. That was the Rams last season, a 4-12 disaster led by an uninspired coaching staff that happened to house the most disruptive defender in football (Aaron Donald), a top flight rusher (Todd Gurley) and a possible franchise quarterback (Jared Goff).

What Sean McVay and Wade Phillips have done with this organization is should serve as a model for owners and GMs that will be interviewing candidates in a few weeks. Sure the Rams added beastly LT Andrew Whitworth, who and ex-Buffalo WRs Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins, but it is McVay’s vision and playbook that has not only turned around the franchise but led them to officially snatch the NFC West baton from the Seahawks after crushing Seattle at home 42-7.

It was a crucial win that blew away the notion that it’s impossible to play in Seattle and has Los Angeles well positioned for the playoffs. But mostly it was the confirmation of a transformation under McVay. The Rams needed an offensive firepower mind. As a result of choosing McVay, they have scored at least 32 points in ten games this season.

McVay’s mastery is reminiscent of Jim Harbaugh marching into San Francisco in 2011 and transforming a 6-10 team into a Super Bowl contender with much of the same players. He was the right head coach to awaken Alex Smith and the offense, and Vic Fangio was the right coordinator to mold a loaded defense.

Offensive masterminds like McVay and Harbaugh don’t grow on trees but there are so many rosters full of talent that simply choosing the right visionary can change the trajectory. The disparity between that uninspired retread and coaching guru is often larger than two seemingly different players at the same position, particularly when you factor in culture and game management.

So who are next year’s Rams? With a smart coaching upgrade it could literally be any of 10-12 teams with a serviceable quarterback. The 49ers are in the driver’s seat given that they already found a quarterback to execute Kyle Shanahan’s scheme. They are probably just a wide receiver and cornerback away from being a playoff contender. But Jimmy Garoppolo may not be Jimmy Garoppolo had he not been groomed in the fancy factory of excellence known as The Patriot Way, which is the point. Get the right people to run the right system and you maximize your talent. It seems like such a simple formula but here we are about to fire another 6-9 head coaches and keep another 10 who are consistently outcoached. Does Sean McVay have any friends because he has been as much a game changer as anyone in the league this year?

– After Jesse James’s apparent game-winning touchdown to seal the Steelers win over New England, I started having false visions about the Patriots losing in the divisional round and what that would mean for Tom Brady’s future. WRONG. Brady ultimately wins. He always wins. With the win and Antonio Brown’s injury, Brady takes the driver’s seat in the MVP race (if he wasn’t there already).

– While James’s catch being overturned was devastating for the Steelers, it was good for societal harmony because not being able to define a catch is the only thing that unites the football zeitgeist.

– Good luck not smiling at this incredible standing ovation for Teddy Bridgewater who saw game action for the first time since January 2016 as the Vikings were blowing out the Bengals. Case Keenum’s genuine giddiness at Bridgewater’s moment is particularly heartwarming.

– Same for the moment the Steelers unveiled quite the surprise to an emphatic crowd at Heinz Field – Ryan Shazier sitting in a luxury box.

– Tony Romo’s ability to explain breakdown the intricacies of a play in mere seconds (for example, why a play is the WRs fault or what Tom Brady is thinking) is just phenomenal. Would hate to lose him in the booth but he would be so intriguing as a coach.

– Love the way the Bengals are handling Marvin Lewis’s upcoming departure. Lewis has given 15 years to the organization, with spots of success, so if he wants to frame it as “mutually parting ways” so be it. However, I would love to see defensive coordinator Paul Guenther coach the final two games, given that he is a possible replacement candidate. With nothing to play for, the team is becoming increasingly flat. Maybe some new blood, even if temporary, would given them a pulse.

– Kudos to Beth Mowins who called the Dolphins-Bills game on CBS, her third regular season game of the season. Beth will be this week’s guest on The Football Girl Podcast.

– I thought ESPN’s special edition of Sunday Countdown from Pittsburgh was a huge improvement over its regular product. It strategically had a College Gameday feel, capturing the magnitude of the game through fired up fans, guests on site and special features catered to the matchup. One Steelers piece focused on the team’s tradition of playing Styx’s Renegade as a second half anthem was followed up by ex-Steelers DE Brett Keisel singing it on set The Countdown cast also felt more connected outside of the stiff Bristol studio. Cool stuff.

– In the fourth quarter of the Raiders-Cowboys affair, Dak Prescott ran a sneak on 4th an 1. The chains made it too close to call so ref Gene Steratore pulled out an index card to measure the first down. Prescott was short by a paper-thin margin but the methodology was highly entertaining.

The Bad

– Selling your team is one way to end an investigation into disturbing sexual misconduct allegations. For Jerry Richardson, it’s also a dramatic admission of guilt. Clearly someone (or multiple people) was empowered to go to SI, who published the explosive report. (I find it doubtful that any reporter would organically say, ‘I want to investigate NFL owners for harassment. Let me start with Jerry Richardson.’” But alas here we are and the big question is who’s next because #MeToo has clearly entered the sports world.

– Diddy has already lobbied to buy the Panthers. Not sure if he’s serious but how about this as a criteria for the new owner: Under 50, African-American or female, did not donate $1 million to Trump’s inauguration.

– Unexpected cheat shot from Panthers LB Thomas Davis in the form of helmet to helmet to Packers WR Davante Adams on an interception return. It was a brutal, dimwitted, unnecessary play and should rightfully result in hefty fine.

When I posted video showing a visibly upset Davis, most Packers fans angrily responded that he was “acting” or because he’s been fined in the past that he intentionally wanted to take out Adams. I understand that this response came in the aftermath of the brutal hit but I can’t imagine Davis was putting on a show. A former Walter Payton Man of the Year winner, Davis has long been one of the NFL’s most notable good guys. I find it near impossible to believe that Davis, in the half-second of allotted reaction time, preemptively thought, “I’m going for his head.” While some illegal hits are clearly dirty, I think many are a product of players’ inability to adjust their positioning in the moment. Especially for older players like Davis who played with a different rulebook when they entered the league.

– Tyrod Taylor showcased a big bag of tricks to guide the Bills to a close win over the Dolphins and keep the Bills entrenched as the no. 6 seed. Can someone please explain again why the Bills temporarily turned to Nathan Peterman in the midst of a playoff race?

– A new report surfaced that Andrew Luck may now need corrective surgery after complications from the January surgery to repair his torn labrum. Luck’s career is getting very dicey.

– The technology laden NFL had to use an index card to measure a first-down. What a joke

The Underappreciated

These are players of varying skill level that I consider underrated.

Lesean McCoy: Congrats to McCoy on surpassing 10,000 career rushing yards. The NFL has a constant influx on new superstar running backs. Some last longer than others. But McCoy has been productive, and at times spectacular, for nine years now.

Brett Hundley: Hundley’s time as a starter was instantly overshadowed by Rodgers’s dramatic return. But Hundley deserves a lot of credit for keeping the team afloat by going 3-4. He was especially impressive in back-to-back comeback wins over Tampa Bay and Cleveland.

Keenan Allen: Perennially overlooked because of location, Allen is second behind Antonio Brown in receptions (88) and third in yards (1197), but he is tops in the league in third down catches.

Frank Gore: Regular readers of this column know my intense love for Gore. Just a reminder that the 34-year-old has not missed a game since December 2010. The Hall of Fame awaits.

Case Keenum: Keenum has received accolades for his admirable job assuming the team from injured Sam Bradford, But when you consider that he’s playing on a one year, $2 million contract, the accolades are not enough.

Brock Osweiler: Osweiler is the best Broncos quarterback, not that it should be an award. He has shown more command of the pocket in limited opportunity and given the right environment, could be servicable. Perhaps that environment is Denver.

Rob Gronkowski: Without Gronk and his ability to get open up everywhere from up the seam to straddling the sidelines, the Patriots lose to the Steelers.