First, some housekeeping. Our Friday “Las Vegas Leans” column produced a 4-0 record vs the spread and was sound advice for fantasy players who gave us a read. This will probably jinx any positive vibes I have going (no counting money while sitting at the table) ☺ for the following weeks but, nonetheless, it’s still my plan to weigh in with my opinion each Friday on select games. Take it for what it’s worth.
Thursday night’s game produced both good and bad news for Bengal fans
It was very clear that Cincinnati fans have reasons to be excited about their new quarterback. Unfortunately, it was also pretty evident that the rest of the Bengals roster is not ready for primetime. Joe Burrow showed moxie and he showed poise. Last year’s Heisman Trophy winner showed us that the game is already slowing down for him, going 37 of 61 through the air without an INT (first time a rookie has done this since 1950 according to the Elias Sports Bureau). Sure, Burrow’s season will still not be without up’s and downs, but the evidence is quickly mounting that the Bengals have found the hardest thing to find at any level of football and this budding star fell right in their laps. It’s not about Burrow’s numbers as much as it is about the feel you get by watching him and knowing that what he’s doing is exactly what you’re looking for in his development. He has the “it” factor and he “gets it”. I’m really not going to give the Bengals much credit for drafting Burrow. They didn’t have to out think anyone or out maneuver another team to get him. They just lost more games than anyone else in the previous year. Parity is the premise of how the league works. It’s a case of “just turn in the card”, when you’re on the clock, which is what the Bengals did.
After two games, it’s obvious to me that Joe Burrow is their best player. What is also obvious is that this team is deficient of talent virtually everywhere else. My question to the Bengals front office is what have they been doing the last five years when it comes to team building? Their offensive line is simply not up to NFL standards and they have clearly needed to upgrade from AJ Green at WR for the last couple years (John Ross was a mistake). The Bengals defense is void of size/bulk and physicality. Against Cleveland, their tackling was so poor that it made me wonder if their defense didn’t just pack it in halfway thru the 4th quarter. The Browns ran the ball right down their throats, especially in the second half, without much resistance at all.
I just don’t see where the talent is on this roster. Minus Joe Mixon (who is really good), I don’t see any difference makers. Thursday night showed me they have way less talent from 3-53 than the Browns who they will face twice a year. Where is the urgency to upgrade their personnel and give Burrow and the overall team a fighting chance? This is an old school ownership whose family structure has not changed their elements/process of team building. The Bengals have never allowed any team builder, with an independent eye or a track record for identifying talent, to come in and remake their roster from top to bottom. I know they have very good people involved, but I think some refocused direction and input will be needed for them to move ahead. How about just a reassessment of their own process on how they are assembling their team? Certainly having the QB now in place should motivate the organization to change how they both acquire and evaluate talent. If the Bengals organization doesn’t change how they do things, I think Joe Burrow’s future in Cincinnati is gray, when it really should be so bright. So bright in fact that everyone in southern Ohio should be wearing shades and dancing to work on Mondays.
The NFC West is going to be a dogfight
After two weeks, it’s easy to make a case for three of the four teams in this division making the playoffs. It’s also easy to come to the conclusion that last year’s Super Bowl participants, the San Francisco 49ers, are probably the odd team out.
Seattle has the best player in the conference, and maybe in the entire league. Russell Wilson’s first two weeks have been nothing short of historic. He is completing 83% of his passes, has only 11 incompletions, and has tossed 9 TD’s already. Wilson has also become the best deep ball thrower in the NFL while leading his team to a 2-0 record. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick called him under-rated after last week, another example of Belichick being out of touch for say….the last five years. ☺
Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay has been the best coach in the NFC for the last two years. His game plans, his team’s focus and execution, and his ability to put players in the best positions to have success has been really impressive. While also leading his team to a 2-0 record, I see maturity with McVay. I also see leadership and I see confidence in the eyes of his players. McVay has them believing and buying into what he’s selling. He seems to have a combination of qualities that gets guys to play above their talent level.
The Arizona Cardinals are the most fun team to watch in the NFL because they have such an explosive offense. QB Kyler Murray is fast becoming “must watch TV”. No talent evaluators are out looking for 5’10” QB’s but Murray might have a chance to sustain the success he has enjoyed over the first two weeks. I love their aggressive approach. The addition of WR DeAndre Hopkins as another weapon seems to have given this offense some completeness but don’t sleep on their defense either. The Cardinals play hard, are well prepared, and with their offense scoring points, the defense can stay in pass rush mode. I think newly paid DB Budda Baker vs SF TE George Kittle was fun to watch in week 1, these battles with the opposing teams TE’s are going to be looked at as an asset to the Cardinals defense this year. The Cardinals are now the team that nobody wants to prepare for on either side of the ball.
I questioned the 49ers remake of their roster this offseason before any NFL games were played. Now, after only two weeks, injuries have affected San Francisco’s chances to make the playoffs this year. I think head coach Kyle Shanahan will find a way to get the most out of backup QB Nick Mullins and his skill set. Mullins is actually not a big drop off from what Shanahan was getting out of Jimmy Garoppolo. In my opinion, their bigger concerns are being without TE George Kittle and having zero playmakers from the perimeter at WR. Those two things might just be too much for one of the league's best play callers to overcome. I don’t think their win vs the Jets really reassured them of good things to come, rather it was more of a referendum on how bad the Jets really are. RB Raheem Mostert, who is relied on both the run and pass game is questionable himself with an ankle. After their run to the Super Bowl last year, did anyone really think that the 49ers would be looking up at the rest of the NFC West so quickly into this season?
BROWNS MAY HAVE FOUND THE FORMULA
This offseason, I loved the Browns addition of OT Jack Conklin, a former first-round pick from Tennessee. Conklin may not be as athletic or talented as you’d like at that position, but he adds attitude and toughness. He plays on the edge of his competitive spirit with a touch of nastiness mixed in. Conklin, now teamed with Joel Bitonio, the Browns other tackle, who is very similar in style and presence, give them what really is the start of a culture change. They both are now really the identity of what the Cleveland Browns are all about. RBs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are getting a lot of kudos this week, and rightly so. They put up good numbers last Thursday night against the Bengals. However, this team’s identity starts up front. This is a very underrated group outside of Cleveland and when you add in the veteran presence of center JC Tretter as a communicator and orchestrator of the big boys, they become a force for an opposing defense to deal with. The Browns offensive line helps not only a much-improved running game but also now allows for a play action passing game be effective. This will give their QB, Baker Mayfield, a chance to be good. He’s not Drew Brees, he’s not Russell Wilson, he’s not Joe Burrow but he does have a chance to be at a level just below them. He is limited physically and he needs a scheme that he understands and believes in. I think the Browns are on the right track and can build on what they did in the Bengals game. Unlike Joe Burrow, Mayfield has the talent around him to succeed, within reason, NOW. If he is to have a future in Cleveland, the Browns need to use Mayfield’s strengths and allow him to play like he did last week.