Each week, the Washington Post’s Mark Maske provides in-depth Monday morning NFL analysis with “First and 10,” a dissection of the league’s most important developments from a weekend of action.
First and 10: Oct. 31
1. Dak does it again | 2. Don’t play for the OT FG
3. Bengals’ bold plan to avoid playoff disappointment | 4. Cam Newton’s complaints
5. Noise from Josh Norman, Richard Sherman | 6. Wade Phillips okay
7. Jags’ Bortles regressing | 8. Titans are looking up
9. Trade deadline talk | 10. Illegal hit on DeSean Jackson?
The Cleveland Indians are on the cusp of a World Series crown.
The Cleveland Browns are doing their best to balance it all out.
If the Browns were going to win a game this season, the popular thinking went, the time to get it done was Sunday. They were playing at home. The opponent was the far-from-imposing New York Jets and their interception machine of a quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Browns actually had a relatively competent NFL passer in charge of their own offense, with Josh McCown returning to the lineup.
McCown did his part—sort of—by throwing for 341 yards and two touchdowns. But he also threw two interceptions. The Browns didn’t get a running game going on offense. Their defense failed to intercept a single Fitzpatrick pass, a relatively remarkable development itself, and the Browns lost to the Jets, 31-28.
That puts the Browns, at 0-8, halfway to a winless season. The optimism of the offseason, when players were talking about how different things felt with Coach Hue Jackson in charge, is long forgotten. The Browns have been through so many quarterbacks this season that they’re recycling them now, with McCown reassuming the starting job.
It’s actually difficult to figure out at this point which of their remaining games the Browns have even a reasonable chance of winning. They host the Dallas Cowboys this coming Sunday. They face the Pittsburgh Steelers twice. Those games seem pretty well out of reach.
The Browns also face the Baltimore Ravens and the Buffalo Bills on the road. They host the New York Giants, Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers. All of those teams are flawed. But they’re also all better than the Browns.
Jackson has done a commendable job of keeping the Browns competitive in most of their games this season. But they didn’t capitalize when they had chances to win. And it has reached the point at which it would be a pretty major upset if they avoid a 0-16 season.
… AND TEN
Prescott was not at his best against the Philadelphia Eagles. Nowhere close to that. He threw an interception in the end zone. He missed wide receiver Dez Bryant for what should have been an easy touchdown throw.
But when crunch time arrived and the Cowboys needed it most, Prescott delivered. He threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Bryant late in regulation to send the game into overtime. And then he threw a five-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jason Witten in overtime to give the Cowboys a 29-23 triumph.
“I saw a wide-open Witten, just doing exactly what he does and getting open,” Prescott said in an on-field postgame interview with NBC. “That was a great way to get our first one together.”
The Cowboys, with Prescott starting in place of Tony Romo, are on a six-game winning streak and have a record of 6-1. Prescott won his rookie-quarterback duel with the Eagles’ Carson Wentz. He has been a special player on what could be shaping up as a special team. There is simply no tinkering with that.
“Winners are guys who get the job done even when they aren’t at their best,” former Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy said on NBC after the game. “That was Dak Prescott tonight.”
Indeed it was.
It would be football malpractice at this point for the Cowboys to even consider going back to Romo.
Romo, working his way back from the compression fracture of a vertebra in his back that he suffered during the preseason, did some practice-field throwing last week. There is no indication that he is on the verge of being able to play in a game any time particularly soon. But he could become an option sometime in the coming weeks. It’s an option the Cowboys should ignore as long as they and Prescott are playing like this.
The Cowboys have something potentially great going with Prescott. They are quite possibly the best team in the NFC at the moment.
“You can’t say enough great things about the young man,” Witten told NBC. “He just came in since Day 1 and really just embraced this role. Going into this opportunity, he’s taking full advantage of it. That’s a good defense we went against. We just kept grinding. We stayed with it [and] as a group, made some big plays when we needed him to.”
Romo has been a very good player for the Cowboys for quite some time. He was an MVP-caliber quarterback as recently as the 2014 season. But he has played in only four games since the start of last season. His latest injury gave Prescott a chance. And Prescott has established himself not only as the Cowboys’ quarterback of the future, but also as their quarterback of the present. It’s not as if they could play better with Romo at quarterback.
“We just take it one play at a time,” Prescott said. “We knew the defense was gonna make stops to give us an opportunity to get back in it. And they did exactly that. The defense won this game. And it was a great one.”
That’s exactly what Washington Redskins Coach Jay Gruden did Sunday in London. And it cost him dearly, as kicker Dustin Hopkins missed a 34-yard field goal attempt with a little more than two minutes remaining in overtime and the Redskins ended up tying the Bengals at 27.
The Redskins had a second-and-four play at the Cincinnati 13-yard line. They’d just gotten a 16-yard run by tailback Robert Kelley. The Cincinnati defense appeared weary. But Gruden, undoubtedly wary because the Redskins just had committed a holding penalty, took his foot off the gas and opted to turn things over to his usually reliable kicker. The Redskins followed a second-down kneel-down by quarterback Kirk Cousins with a third-down field goal try.
Maybe Gruden should have learned from the Arizona-Seattle tie a week earlier, when kickers Chandler Catanzaro of the Cardinals and Stephen (not Steven) Hauschka of the Seahawks both missed short field goal attempts near the end of overtime.
The next NFL coach to face a similar situation almost certainly will have those misses in mind.
The Bengals have been lambasted and ridiculed for their inability to win in the postseason with Marvin Lewis as their coach and Andy Dalton as their quarterback. But those who have mocked Lewis and Dalton have forgotten what a laughingstock this franchise once was. At least the Bengals have gotten to the playoffs consistently with this regime.
Repeating that will be a difficult task this time around. The tie in London left Cincinnati with a record of 3-4-1 halfway through its season. The Bengals remain firmly in the division race, with no one running away with the AFC North. But their struggles in the first half of the season are leaving a wild-card spot as a fallback option a long-shot possibility.
The Bengals certainly had their chances Sunday after using a strong start to the second half to grab a 10-point lead in the third quarter. But they couldn’t hold on in regulation, and they ended up being fortunate in overtime to escape with the tie.
4. Newton’s complaints: This NFL season began with the on-field officials drawing criticism for their lack of penalty flags against the Denver Broncos for a series of helmet-to-helmet hits on Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
The issue came back to the forefront Sunday when Newton complained following a victory over the Arizona Cardinals that he feels he isn’t being properly protected by the officials and he intends to take up the matter with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
This isn’t baseless complaining by Newton. It’s justified. Newton absorbed a low hit Sunday by the Cardinals’ Calais Campbell that wasn’t penalized. And many knowledgeable observers say his size, strength and reputation as an aggressive runner are working against him.
NBC analyst Rodney Harrison said during the network’s broadcast Sunday night that Newton is being victimized by defensive players without being protected by officials in the same way that the NBA’s biggest and strongest player, Shaquille O’Neal, once was grabbed and shoved by overmatched opponents without getting fouls called.
“You look at his size,” Harrison said. “It’s like they treat him like he’s Shaq. He never gets any calls.”
Sherman is only a few weeks removed from getting away with a blatant pass interference penalty against Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones, a missed penalty that cost the Falcons a chance to win in Seattle. If he experiences a few calls he doesn’t like, Sherman should consider that a case of things evening out.
Norman spent much of his day Sunday grabbing Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green and shoving his hands into Green’s facemask. The calls against Norman were legitimate. They were obvious, in fact. He plays a physical style that worked at times Sunday. But when it didn’t, the only culprit was him, not the officials.
6. W. Phillips okay: It was a relief to hear that Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was not seriously hurt in his sideline collision with the Chargers’ Melvin Gordon. Phillips was taken from the field on a cart and underwent tests at a nearby hospital. But the Broncos announced later that Phillips “checked out [okay]” and was released from the hospital, and is expected to be at work Monday. He is one of the game’s true gentlemen in addition to being among the league’s greatest-ever defensive coaches. The scene was a vivid reminder that even the sideline can be a hazardous place to be on an NFL game day.
7. Jags, Bortles regressing: The Jacksonville Jaguars fired offensive coordinator Greg Olson on Saturday. But it’s tough to believe that will be the last of the significant changes by what has been one of the league’s most disappointing teams this season.
Thursday night’s 36-22 loss at Tennessee dropped the Jaguars’ record to 2-5. They trailed the Titans, 27-0, in the first half.
The Jaguars hoped to be competitive this season with quarterback Blake Bortles building on last season’s success and the defense using an infusion of young talent to do its part. But Bortles seems to be in regression. Analysts call his fundamentals and decision-making lacking, and he’s thrown nine interceptions this season to go with a dozen touchdown passes.
There was talk earlier this season about Coach Gus Bradley’s job being in jeopardy. That quieted followed a Week 4 triumph over the Indianapolis Colts in London. The Jaguars steadied themselves with two straight victories following their 0-3 beginning. But now they’ve lost two straight games. Owner Shahid Khan said publicly after the Tennessee game that he’s not considering a head coaching change. But his considerable patience is being put to the test.
They’ve won three of four games since a 1-3 start and are 4-4 halfway through their season. Quarterback Marcus Mariota was terrific Thursday night, throwing for 270 yards and two touchdowns. He had some issues early in the season. But he has rectified them and now has 14 touchdown passes, six interceptions and a passer rating of 95.1.
The Titans are not an honest-to-goodness playoff team yet, although a postseason berth this season cannot be ruled out as a member of the pitiable AFC South. But they’re not far away. They made the right moves in the offseason by trading down from the No. 1 overall choice in the NFL draft to build around Mariota. They were wise to give Mariota a running game by adding DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. Now they’re well on their way to being a contender.
In an alternate NFL universe, the Cowboys could make their quarterback decision sooner rather than later and trade Romo. But the chances of that actually happening, with Romo yet to play this season and the Cowboys needing a viable backup whether Romo or Prescott is the starter the remainder of this season, are next to zero.
The Browns have said they’re not trading left tackle Joe Thomas. There has been speculation about a deal involving San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Torrey Smith, perhaps to the Eagles. Such a trade wouldn’t exactly shift the balance of power league-wide. But at least it would be something.
10. Hit on D. Jackson: There was some debate as to whether an illegal-hit penalty should have been called on Bengals safety George Iloka for his helmet-to-helmet hit Sunday on Redskins wide receiver DeSean Jackson.
But a helmet-to-helmet hit is illegal only in certain circumstances in which the player who absorbs it is deemed defenseless; one such case is a receiver in the process of making a catch.
In this case, the officials apparently ruled that Jackson already had completed the process of making the catch and had established himself as a runner. A helmet-to-helmet hit on a ball carrier is legal.
That was the view of Mike Pereira, the NFL’s former vice president of officiating who is now a rules analyst for Fox. Pereira wrote on Twitter: “In the Washington game, Jackson was a runner, he was not defenseless. It is not a foul.”