Of all teams and of all nights, the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers on Thursday night momentarily put to rest the NFL’s issues with dull football and heinous midweek games. The Rams beat the Niners in a 41-39 thriller, the third NFL game with at least 80 points since the start of last season. It’s no coincidence the explosion happened for teams led by Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan, two youthful and creative coaches.
The game provided intrigue unto itself, but there was a subplot underneath the action, and it stemmed from those coaches. Before the season, the game could have been labeled The Kirk Cousins Bowl.
Both McVay and Shanahan coached Cousins during their tenures as Redskins offensive coordinators, and both are known Cousins admirers. Both appeared to be potential suitors for Cousins in the upcoming offseason, in the event the Redskins do not sign him to an extension or place a third consecutive franchise tag on him at the price of $34.5 million. McVay had a former first overall pick whose confidence had been shattered in his rookie season. Shanahan had a stopgap in Brian Hoyer.
Thursday night’s performance, then, further shifted the 49ers into the driver’s seat to sign Cousins should he become available. It is a long season, but it appears McVay has already found his quarterback in Jared Goff. Against the 49ers, Goff completed 22 of 28 passes for 292 yards, three touchdowns and zero turnovers. For the season, Goff has completed 70.4 percent of his passes for 817 yards with five touchdowns and one interception.
Goff has been so good that the Rams, at this point, should no longer be considered suitors for Cousins. Despite Hoyer throwing for more than 300 yards, the same is not true for the 49ers. Hoyer is a journeyman who has had success in limited chances, but he’s nobody’s idea of a franchise quarterback. If the Rams are set with Goff, it gives the 49ers the inside track to pursue Cousins.
This is, of course, all highly speculative. Plenty of teams will need a quarterback this offseason, the 2018 Redskins included, and so the 49ers will still have plenty of competition for Cousins should he reach free agency. There are still 13 games left for Goff to disprove his excellent start. But Thursday night’s game boosted the 49ers’ odds over the Rams, because it further reduced the likelihood the Rams would need a quarterback.
McVay and Goff already appear to be a magnificent coach-quarterback marriage. Goff, who lost all seven of his starts in an ill-fated rookie season under Jeff Fisher, felt comfort with McVay from the time they first talked. “There was instant chemistry,” said Tony Franklin, Goff’s offensive coordinator at Cal. “From the moment that he met him and they started talking ball, it clicked. He knew exactly what he was talking about. His brain was the same. He was incredibly confident with the hire.”
Goff’s improvement and comfort with McVay can best be seen in his long throws. In seven games last season, according to Pro Football Focus, Goff completed only 4 of 17 passes thrown at least 20 yards in the air, attempting a deep pass on just 8.3 percent of his throws. Goff has thrown deep on 15.9 percent of his throws this season, about double the rate of last season. He has completed nine — most in the NFL — out of 13 passes at least 20 yards downfield.
At the start of the season, the number of NFL head coaches known to esteem Cousins with a possible need for a quarterback in 2018 was two. After three weeks, the number seems to be down to one. McVay has his quarterback of the future in Goff, which fortifies Shanahan and the 49ers as the favorites to land Cousins should he become available.
>>> The last thing the NFL needs to worsen its ratings problem is an attendance problem. The appearance of stadiums matters for television viewers. A full, raucous stadium enhances the television experience. Empty seats make it worse. Thursday night, Levi Stadium looked like it hosted a preseason game.
The NFL has been shortsighted about attendance for years. Out of arrogance and an apparent belief the public would ceaselessly crave its product, it gouged fans with ridiculous parking prices, restricted tailgating rules, cooked up hard commutes to locations far away from city centers and brought about the preposterous invention of PSLs.
The logical result of such disregard for consumers surfaced last night: a nationally televised embarrassment. The 49ers gave their fans every reason to stay home, up to and including building a stadium an hour away from San Francisco. Thursday night, they did.
Franchises have priced their tickets and parking for maximum revenue when they should be pricing them for maximum attendance. They have taken a massive fan base for granted. Teams need to create and retain fans, both for a healthy future and for the televised product. At present, their decisions are keeping fans at home and quite possibly shrinking their fan base.
>>> Researchers determined Aaron Hernandez suffered from “severe” CTE, as Rick Maese, Marissa Payne and Mark Maske write. According to a lawsuit filed in federal court against the Patriots and the NFL, the former tight end suffered the disease at the level of a 67-year-old man. It’s likely the lawsuit will not affect the league. But the big headlines will surely further damage the sport of football. It’s another log on the fire, and one that makes the conflagration larger and brighter.
Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel called the diagnosis “a chilling moment for a sport that is trying everything to both make the game safer and convince young athletes, and their parents, it is worth playing.” Michael Rosenberg says there’s still too much we don’t know to start connecting dots.
>>> Penn State’s Saquan Barkley will be the next running back to be picked in the top 10 and the player who will continue the wave of rookie running backs impacting the league. Pete Thamel has a great look at how Barkley compares to Ezekiel Elliott, another Big Ten product. Right now, it’s easy to envision Barkley ending up with the Colts — a team likely to pick at the top of the draft with a quarterback in place and desperate for playmakers.
>>> Rookie wide receiver Zay Jones cost the Bills a chance to beat the Panthers last Sunday when he just missed a last-second catch at the goal line. He’s moving on from the play, as Leo Roth writes.
>>> Drew Magary argues the NFL should legalize holding. The idea sounds crazy, but I like it and think there’s a lot of merit to it. He describes it as more of a tweak to offensive holding than a total elimination. The league has artificially boosted offense with rules changes before. This is a logical extension of that idea that would also decrease penalties.
>>> Lions rookie linebacker Jarrad Davis remained out of practice following a concussion he suffered during Monday Night Football after Odell Beckham drilled him with a crackback block. The Lions aren’t saying it’s a dirty hit, per James Hawkins.
>>> Best bets for the weekend
Ravens-Jaguars (London), Under 39½: The Ravens do not score almost by design, relying on excellent defense and conservative special teams; Joe Flacco has thrown just two passes of more than 20 yards in the air through two weeks. The Jaguars do not score much, either; Blake Bortles is their quarterback.
Texas (+13.5) at Patriots: Houston has extra rest after playing on Thursday last week. With the health statuses of Rex Burkhead and Rob Gronkowski up in the air to varying degrees and Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola out, Tom Brady could be without a security blanket against a dangerous pass rush. Deshaun Watson isn’t about to beat Bill Belichick in New England in his second career start. The Patriots offense will be conservative enough for Houston to keep it within two touchdowns.
Season record: 0-0