The Guardian

NFL with no quarterbacks? The league’s Covid-19 problems are just starting

The Denver Broncos were forced to play a back-up wide receiver at quarterback after Covid-19 hit the team. More chaos could be on the wayThere was no shortage of bemusement in advance of Sunday’s Denver Broncos-New Orleans Saints game. On Saturday all four Broncos quarterbacks were ruled out, Jeff Driskel because he tested positive for Covid-19, the others because they took their masks off around him and were therefore deemed “close contacts”. The Broncos naturally panicked. First they asked the NFL to postpone the game. Denied. Then they asked the league if offensive quality control coach Ron Calabrese, a former college quarterback, was an option given his familiarity with the team’s playbook. Denied again. Out of options, the Broncos finally settled on wide-receiver Kendall Hinton, an undrafted rookie practice squad member who had played some quarterback at college. We had no idea what to expect. Perhaps the Broncos would introduce some new brand of offense that would take the league by storm. Or … maybe not. It turns out watching an NFL team play without an actual quarterback is like watching a car being operated by someone who doesn’t know how to drive. They might know where to find the pedal but when it comes to making U-turns or changing lanes, watch out. To no one’s surprise, the Saints routed the Broncos 31-3. There is no way to overstate how much more enjoyable the build-up to this game was than the experience of watching it. Hinton, to his credit, took the field with grace. He is just a kid trying to get some action; he wasn’t begging coaches to make a positional switch. All told, poor Hinton completed one pass for 13 yards and threw two interceptions.And viewers learned an important lesson: watching an NFL game without quarterbacks is an awful, anxiety-inducing experience. There is a deeper lesson for the NFL. The league is a powerful, rich organization but it can’t outwit Covid-19, which is raging out of control in America. Positivity rates have surged across the country, and between 150,000-200,000 new cases are reported every day. It’s a terrifying and difficult time to try and squeeze in the remainder of an NFL season. The Broncos’ situation was unusual because it involved all of their quarterbacks but every team is being hit with Covid, despite strict protocols. There is no guarantee the Broncos’ situation won’t be repeated elsewhere.We’re only at the beginning of the holiday wave and already the quality of play and competitive balance has been severely impacted. The undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers lost their Thanksgiving mini-bye after the Baltimore Ravens’ Covid outbreak. The San Francisco 49ers will probably move to Arizona for three weeks after Santa Clara county, where the team is based, banned contact sports as Covid-19 rates surge in California. More players every week are missing games due to their appearance on the Covid list. This week stars such as Adam Thielen, Jonathan Taylor, Larry Fitzgerald and the reigning MVP, Lamar Jackson were among the lengthy list of players sitting out due to the virus. The NFL seems hellbent on finishing the season, no matter the health risks and watered-down quality of the product. The league has been aggressive with hefty penalties, hopeful they will serve as a deterrent. The Saints were fined $500,000 and lost a draft pick due to maskless locker room celebrations. The Patriots were recently fined $350,000 for events in October which led to Cam Newton and others testing positive. But despite the NFL’s precautions, it can’t control a pandemic. Given the minuscule chance of the league pausing the season or creating an NBA-style bubble, we should all prepare for a grim rest of the season. In the meantime, some advice to teams: Pick one of your quarterbacks and put him in isolation. Video of the weekCalling Kendall Hinton’s emergency start at quarterback a disaster may be an understatement. Thus, the NFL world let out a collective exhale when Hinton finally got his first completion in the second half. It was his only one of the day. Poor kid.> Kendall Hinton’s first career completion! BroncosCountry pic.twitter.com/UJzxirKSJS> > — Ryan Greene 📷 (@RyanCBS4) November 29, 2020 MVP of the weekTyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs. Hill put up the first-quarter of a lifetime which is saying a lot given the speedster’s already storied on-field career. With two minutes left of the first quarter, Hill already had 203 receiving yards, two touchdowns and one backflip. The Bucs made some nice defensive adjustments afterwards, but Hill still finished the game with 13 catches, 269 yards and three touchdowns. He also caught the pass that sealed the 27-24 win for Kansas City.It helps when the person throwing you the ball is Patrick Mahomes. He had a sensational game of his own with 462 passing yards. The consistent precision between Mahomes and Hill is magical … unless you’re the rest of the AFC tasked with slowing down these two. Quote of the week> Worth a reminder: the NFL is now on Sunday of Week 12, and it has yet to cancel a single game this season.> > — Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) November 29, 2020A strange, seemingly tone-deaf message from the NFL’s most followed reporter. No matter Schefter’s intention, his words highlight the chasm between the rah-rah-football-who-cares-about-risks-keep-the-money-flowing crowd and those who think it’s absurd that the league isn’t temporarily shutting down. Yes, the NFL hasn’t technically cancelled games. But this weekend alone they moved games; have a team with 18 Covid-19 cases and counting; other players with Covid, in James Conner and Mark Andrews, who have weakened immune systems; a team (the 49ers) whose county has banned contact sports. Oh, and another team who had to pick a practice squad wideout as its starting quarterback. Everything is just fine. Yelp. Stat of the weekJeremy Chinn scores on consecutive snaps. The Carolina Panthers safety demonstrated his smarts when he scored on back-to-back snaps against the Minnesota Vikings. The first was a sack and scoop, after Zach Kerr pounced on Kirk Cousins. On the very next snap, Chinn deftly stripped the ball from Dalvin Cook and scored once again. All in a minute’s work.> RT if you think Jeremy Chinn should win Defensive Rookie of the Year. @Panthers | KeepPounding > > (via @NFL) pic.twitter.com/vCmzGd3jTb> > — Sunday Night Football (@SNFonNBC) November 29, 2020Chinn not only became the first defensive player to achieve the feat, he also become the first Panthers defensive player to score two touchdowns in a game. The dazzling sequence elevated Chinn’s Defensive Rookie of the Year prospects, though Washington’s Chase Young will be tough to beat. Elsewhere around the league\– The Jacksonville Jaguars fired general manager Dave Caldwell after the team’s 27-25 loss to Cleveland, their 10th defeat in a row. Three years ago, the Jaguars were a quarter away from the Super Bowl, but that championship caliber defense has been dismantled since. Owner Shad Khan named former 49ers GM Trent Baalke as Caldwell’s interim replacement, which left San Francisco fans gasping given Baalke’s tumultuous time in the Bay. Khan did inform Doug Marrone and his coaching staff that they were safe throughout the rest of the season, according to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero.\– All hail King (Derrick) Henry. Again. Henry gashed the Indianapolis Colts for 173 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-26 Tennessee Titans win that could have playoff implications. It was Henry’s eighth straight 100-yard game on the road, putting him two games behind Barry Sanders and the NFL record. Many NFL teams have steered away from a featured back but if there were more rushers with Henry’s cocktail of power and vision, they would most likely chance their strategy. Luckily for Tennessee, Henry is one-of-a-kind.\– There are no more adjectives to describe the now 0-12 New York Jets. After Sunday’s 20-3 loss to the Dolphins, the path to 0-16 and drafting Trevor Lawrence is crystal clear: don’t fire Adam Gase. Gase’s genius coaching prowess was again on display, this time in the form of incessantly feeding 37-year-old Frank Gore like he’s Walter Payton in his prime. Some consolation for Jets fans: three of their young players: defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, offensive tackle Mekhi Becton and wide receiver Denzel Mims look like they belong in this league.\– The Detroit Lions cleaned house, firing head coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn, after their loss to the Houston Texans on Thanksgiving. No one was happier about this news than Lions fans, especially the Patricia part. To celebrate, a horde of Lions fans thanked Deshaun Watson for his four-touchdown performance that sealed Patricia’s coffin by donating to the Deshaun Watson Foundation. Many of the donations were for $13, the number of wins in the three-year Patricia era.\– Browns chief of staff Callie Brownson became the first woman in NFL history to coach a positional group in a game. Browson subbed for tight-end coach Drew Petzing, who stayed back in Cleveland to be with his wife after she gave birth to their first child.\– The 49ers pulled off a dramatic win over division stalwart Rams on a 42-yard field goal as time expired. The return of Deebo Samuel, Raheem Mostert and Richard Sherman were key as all three played important roles. So was a gutsy performance by the injury-laden defense and Nick Mullins, who overcame an early interception and led the game-winning drive. But the MVP of this one was Kyle Shanahan who dialed up a hell of a game to hand the Rams their first loss in their new palace. It was San Francisco’s fourth straight win over Los Angeles.

In praise of the magnificent, weird intensity of Philip Rivers

The Indianapolis Colts quarterback never makes the game look easy, but that just adds to his ragged charmPhilip Rivers is probably going to the Hall of Fame. The main obstacle is that he has played the entirety of his career at the same time as multiple other great quarterbacks. He has never been to a Super Bowl and has never even had an individual year where he was the clear-cut best quarterback in the league. Yet watching Rivers, in the twilight of his career and clearly not fully healthy, lead the Indianapolis Colts against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers was a reminder that he really is one of the greats.One reason that Rivers doesn’t quite get the love of those of his contemporaries is that he’s never been one who makes the transcendent look routine. In fact just the opposite: few other NFL greats make one aware of the amount of effort and energy that they put into everything he does. Even his throwing motion is ragged and agonized compared to the easy sling of a Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes.Every Rivers game (hard-fought win or brutal loss) is something of a wringer, including the Indianapolis Colts’ 34-31 overtime win over the Packers on Sunday. Before the Colts’ game-winning field goal, those who have watched Rivers down the years might have covered their eyes, like movie-goers spotting a necking couple in a Friday the 13th sequel waiting for something to go wrong. That is the book on Rivers: capable of putting up Hall of Fame numbers but always coming apart when the game is on the line. It didn’t help that until last year his fortunes were tied to those of the Chargers, a team whose misfortunes have become infamous. Even those who have come to dislike Rivers, a polarizing player due to his lack of postseason success and his on-the-field demeanor, may smile at the quarterback’s success with his new team, who are in a good position to make the playoffs.What’s that about his demeanor? Well, the thing about Philip Rivers is that he’s competitive, to comical proportions. He yells and hollers like he’s in an 80s hair-metal group (although the highly religious Rivers keeps it G-rated). He is prone to temper tantrums and his facial expressions have been a nonstop source of speculation, interpretation and memes. And that’s before we get to the bolo ties and the belt buckles. > Bolo tie. Boots. Belt buckle. > > Which Rivers look is your favorite? FashionFriday pic.twitter.com/fqRBDYB7eO> > — Los Angeles Chargers (@Chargers) March 30, 2018In other words, Rivers never looks like he’s merely out there to have fun: this is his job, he is at work, and there’s a lot of his plate. He has the frantic air of somebody putting up long hours at a highly stressful job, which is … accurate. It’s not always fun television, although there’s certainly drama to his games. It always made the Chargers’ last-minute disasters much more fascinating knowing that he would be part of it, that all of that intensity would go unrewarded by the Football Gods.The win over Green Bay felt like a too rare vindication for Rivers. It wasn’t easy, but it wouldn’t have felt right if it had been. There needed to be odds to overcome as well as a moment where it was very clear to the Colts how they could lose: the win required both building a comeback and snuffing a comeback partially put together by Rodgers, one of those quarterbacks who will have a much easier time to make the Hall of Fame (although he does share Rivers’ weird intensity). At the end of the game, Rivers, 38 years old and fighting through the pain of a foot injury, went 24-of-36 for a total of 288 yards, throwing three touchdowns and just a single interception. On Sunday, he got the individual stats and he got the team win. And if he didn’t make it look effortless, well, when had he ever promised that? Video of the week> Here’s the old “Offensive team fumbles into end zone on 4th down, defensive team seems to recover only to fumble, defensive team recovers again and safeties themselves, but safety is called back and play is ruled a touchback for defense” play Bengals WFT pic.twitter.com/ZU9l3jJwVP> > — John Breech (@johnbreech) November 22, 2020If you can’t figure out exactly what is going on in this highlight (lowlight?) during Sunday’s Cincinnati-Washington game, you are not alone. This is how it was officially recorded in the play-by-play:> Here is the NFL’s official description of that play in CIN-WAS. As succinct as it can be…. pic.twitter.com/nPre1kKHWi> > — Kevin Seifert (@SeifertESPN) November 22, 2020It was, as it turns out, a chaotic and event-filled game. Unfortunately for the Bengals, they lost starting quarterback Joe Burrow: he was carted off the field with a leg injury during what was a particularly costly 20-9 loss. The No1 overall pick in this year’s draft appeared to confirm he won’t play again this year shortly afterwards:> Thanks for all the love. Can’t get rid of me that easy. See ya next year✊> > — Joey Burrow (@JoeyB) November 22, 2020It was a devastating moment, one that (in what seems to also be an ongoing theme this year) distracted from one of the more positive stories in the league. Washington’s win ended up being the first for quarterback Alex Smith in two years. Smith, as you may recall, has returned to the league despite an injury that put his life at risk. MVP of the weekDerrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans. Sometimes the MVP is less about overall performance and more about coming through when your team needs you most. It’s hard to name a running back who is more important to his team than Henry, and he reminded everyone of that fact with this 29-yard rushing touchdown that clinched an overtime win over the Baltimore Ravens.> DERRICK HENRY CALLED GAME > > (via @NFL)pic.twitter.com/hYeLwF2xGX> > — SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 22, 2020 Quote of the week“I had a dream you were playing for the Panthers,” \- Tamicha Drake to her son, NFL quarterback PJ Walker, around this time two years ago.The moral of the story? Listen to your parents. Walker, when his mother had that dream, was with the Indianapolis Colts and had never appeared in an NFL game. His most recent experience was with the XFL’s Houston Roughnecks, back when that league still existed. Yet, there he was this Sunday, fulfilling his mother’s dream by starting for a sidelined Teddy Bridgewater against the Detroit Lions.Despite his last-minute call-up, Walker threw for a touchdown and for 258 yards, which ended up being enough to secure the victory. Stat of the week1-0. That is now Taysom Hill’s record at starting quarterback. When the New Orleans Saints officially went with the super-utility Hill as the starter, bypassing nominal quarterback Jameis Winston, it instantly made their game against the Atlanta Falcons compelling. The gamble paid off, as Hill ran for two touchdowns while throwing for 233 yards in the 24-9 win, although those hoping he would show off his arm with a successful end zone toss will have to wait another day. One imagines Hill will start the Saints’ next game with Brees not scheduled to return until Week 14. Elsewhere around the league\– How not to pull off an onside kick, courtesy of the Jacksonville Jaguars:> Here’s the onside kick “attempt” by the Jagspic.twitter.com/xJnExClpXw> > — Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) November 22, 2020The Steelers, well, they ended up being able to guess a lot of the Jaguars’ moves, and beat them 27-3, improving Pittsburgh’s record to 10-0.\– It looks like it’s between the Jags (1-9) and the Jets (0-10) for the No1 overall pick in next year’s draft. The Jets, for once, weren’t awful in their 34-28 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, for whom Justin Herbert once again looked like a future star of the league.\– The only scoring in the first half of the game between the Cleveland Browns and the Philadelphia Eagles came from a Sione Takitaki’s pick six and the subsequent extra-point by Cody Parkey. Still, somehow, the score ended up being 22-17 to Cleveland at the end of a rather more eventful (if not necessarily entertaining) second half. The Browns crawled their way to second place in the AFC North thanks to that win, combined with the overtime loss of the Baltimore Ravens to the Tennessee Titans. Maybe this is actually going to be Cleveland’s year …\– The Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson threw for 344 yards and two touchdowns, going 28-for-37. He didn’t get sacked at all and was untroubled in the second-half as the Texans added two field goals, which was enough to keep the Patriots at bay. Houston won 27-20. Meanwhile, New England lost running back Rex Burkhead to what could very well be an ACL tear.\– More injury news! The Titans lost inside linebacker Jayon Brown to an elbow injury. He has accumulated 76 tackles so far this season, so this could be a key loss as the Titans aim for a playoff slot.