PHILADELPHIA — What was organic last season seems forced this time around.
In the wake of the Eagles’ collapse against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, coach Doug Pederson said his message to his players in the locker room was that the “pressure’s off of us.”
“Nobody on the outside world is giving us a chance to do much of anything,” he said. “Pressure’s off, so we can go play, have fun, relax.”
The Eagles famously rode the “underdog” theme all the way to a Super Bowl championship in 2017, complete with dog masks the players broke out following each upset win in the postseason — an image the Panthers used to troll Philly following Sunday’s meltdown.
During his epic parade-day speech on the Art Museum steps, center Jason Kelce rattled off a long list of players and execs who had been counted out, capped by a rendition of the chant, “No one likes us. We don’t care.”
It was an easy, natural identity for the Eagles to embrace, considering they were in fact underdogs in every playoff game they played.
It’s more difficult now that they’re the Super Bowl champs. This isn’t a team that is being discounted — not even after it blew a 17-0 lead to Carolina to fall to 3-4. The NFC East is still up for grabs. Most believe the middling division will come down to the wire and the Eagles will be right in the mix for the crown.
Pederson went on to offer some context around his messaging.
“Number one, I think no one has really given us a chance anyway,” Pederson said. “Whether we’re putting pressure on ourselves to perform, to play, whatever it is, live up to a certain expectation, I think that’s the point where I think that no one has given us that type of — maybe with the amount of injuries or whatever it is — given us much credit going into games.
“And I think sometimes we force issues. We try to press just a little bit instead of just — we don’t have to go searching for plays. When the plays come, let’s just make the plays that come to us, and right now, we’re not doing that. So I think that’s the pressure that’s off of us, and we just have to get back to playing and executing better.”
It’s a sharp pivot from the “embrace the target” mantra that he has been pushing since the offseason. Pederson stressed that this group is not going to sneak up on anyone and, as defending champs, will get the opponent’s best shot every week. It’s hard to sell that the Eagles are being dismissed now — injuries and slow start aside — when they’ve been favored in every game they’ve played to this point.
What stands out when you get past the fact that the message doesn’t fit are some of the phrases Pederson used in his explanation: “we try to press,” “we don’t have to go searching for plays,” “we force issues.”
“Sometimes I think players and coaches just put added pressure when they don’t have to, and that’s something that we’ve got to — it starts with me there, just to make sure we’re doing everything, even during the week, getting ourselves in position to win games,” he said.
What seems clear is that Pederson believes his team is trying to do too much and needs to find a way to relieve some of the pressure that is keeping them from performing freely.
It actually seemed like the joy and swagger the Eagles played with last season had returned last week against the New York Giants, and it spilled over for three quarters Sunday. The celebratory touchdowns were back. During one TV timeout, the Eagles’ kickoff unit formed a dance circle, with each player getting a chance to jump in the middle and show off his moves. The fun-loving, dominating squad was back … until everything evaporated in the fourth quarter.
NEW YORK — It was a Tuesday afternoon in early October and New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley was sitting in the back seat of an old-school yellow taxicab stamped with logos for Campbell’s Chunky Soup and the NFL’s Play Football initiative. This was supposed to be his off day, a respite from the craziness of a promising — but often frustrating — rookie season filled with losses.
Barkley was filming a commercial, and he was set to pop out of the cab to surprise the Cardinal Hayes High School football team in the Bronx.
As the young Giants star waited, he admitted to nerves. Barkley had been in the NFL for only a short time. Maybe the rookie would be an unfamiliar face.
“You never know. That’s embarrassing if nobody notices and is like, ‘Who is this cat?’” Barkley said.
It didn’t go that way. He was met with a reaction befitting a rising star.
It’s this vulnerability — and more — that makes Barkley such a likable and impressive addition to the Giants. At 21, he’s as self-effacing as he is talented, with the world seemingly at his disposal.
As an example, Barkley works with the Covenant House of Newark, New Jersey, to get tickets for every Giants home game for three homeless children. Then he goes out of his way — win or lose — to spend 15 minutes or so with them after the games.
All that attention he’s receiving from being the No. 2 overall pick in the draft and having early success hasn’t blurred his focus.
“So far, what I’ve seen is he has handled it like a real pro,” Giants running backs coach Craig Johnson said recently.
Barkley entered Week 7 leading all NFL running backs with seven runs of 20-plus yards. He was tied for the league lead with three rushes of 40-plus yards.
To Barkley, those are just numbers. After rushing for 130 yards and adding another 99 yards receiving last Thursday night, he was hardly content. In his estimation, it meant nothing because the Giants had lost 34-13 to the Philadelphia Eagles.
The jump cuts that made defenders look silly and the 50-yard touchdown weren’t any sort of consolation prize. Not for this rookie running back, who became just the second player in NFL history to top 100 total yards in each of his first six career games.
Barkley will have a chance to tie Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt’s record on Monday night (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) against the Atlanta Falcons. He has already proved capable of doing things on the football field through his first six games that leave everyone, including the opposition, in awe.
“Saquon is a beast,” Eagles running back Corey Clement said. “It’s hard not to say it. If I was saying anything otherwise, I’d be a hater.”
That’s what makes the situation in the Bronx all the more extraordinary. Barkley seems to be keeping it together despite all that has come at him over the past year — praise, fame, money, on-field success and a newborn daughter. His trademark smile, flashed for the teenagers during the commercial shoot when they trailed him with their phones, seemed sincere.
“That’s what it’s about,” Barkley said. “I was able to have genuine conversations with some kids, give them stories about how I got here, what drives me, what motivates me. That is something I want to continue to do.”
He took as much away from that moment as the young men he was there to advise.
Life was different at Penn State, where Barkley was the big fish in a small pond. He was a student tucked into a campus in central Pennsylvania, an amateur getting a taste of what was about to come.
“I was able to have genuine conversations with some kids, give them stories about how I got here, what drives me, what motivates me. That is something I want to continue to do.”
A lot has changed since. Barkley signed endorsement deals with Nike, Pepsi and Visa, among others. He’s financially set, and even bought a new home for his parents in his hometown of Whitehall, Pennsylvania, and vowed to save or invest all his paychecks, a la Marshawn Lynch and Rob Gronkowski.
Barkley quickly became part of a circle that includes Giants wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard. They have become fast friends, even hanging out before the draft. He has a close-knit team that begins with his family and childhood friends.
They’re all within a reasonable car ride. New York/New Jersey is Barkley’s new home. He lives in an apartment on the Jersey side with a picturesque view of Manhattan. His girlfriend, Anna Congdon, and their 6-month-old daughter, Jada, live with him.
The days of being a faceless star are gone. Barkley notices the stares, points and pictures when he’s out and about. He oddly doesn’t view himself as famous, but more as a recognizable face or body. He knows his every move matters — on the street, at home, or on the sideline.
“It’s different than in college. More of a spotlight. National attention,” Barkley said. “It reminds you that you have to be responsible. There are people that view you in a different way, look at you in a different way and you are a role model to some kids. You have an impact on kids. Little things like what you say. Things you’re doing. And you have to be aware of that.”
It’s all still strange, in a way you would imagine when people continually ask to see your quads and calves. That happens to Barkley more than he ever expected.
He’s had people approach him in airports and say, “Hey, nice legs.” He’s almost unsure how to respond. He usually just replies with a thank you. While the exchange is odd, he figures compliments come in different forms. This is his new norm.
Barkley believes being a father helps keep him grounded.
“He’s a good dad,” Barkley’s mother, Tonya Johnson, added. “He changes diapers. So far, so good. He’s doing what he needs to do.”
No matter how disappointing a loss might be, there are always those private moments when baby Jada looks at him without any idea he’s something special. The yards and touchdowns don’t matter to her or his family.
“[Fatherhood] humbles you. Brings you back down to life,” Barkley said. “Makes you understand what really matters. The spotlight, attention, all that doesn’t really matter. You go home to your daughter, even after a loss when you’re upset and you don’t want to talk to anybody. You see her crack that smile, and it changes your day.”
Shepard, who’s also a new father, has admired his teammate’s approach.
“He’s a great father to his daughter,” Shepard said. “Very family-oriented. That is what I admire most about him, how close he is with his family. He always talks about his daughter.”
Shepard says Barkley is sneaky funny. He talks a lot. Never shuts up, really, but is always upbeat, and there is rarely a dull moment when he’s around.
This is the beauty of Barkley, capable of being as measured and reserved when needed off the field, explosive and elusive when on it. As the football legend grows (and the early returns suggest he’s destined for big things), so will the pressure, demands and fame.
“I tell him, ‘Don’t think about what other people think of you,’” his mother said. “Think about what you would want for yourself, and you also have a child. Because people are going to judge you regardless. But you have a child, be the role model you want for your child.”
Barkley said: “There will be times when I mess up. I’m human, but I want to be a role model for the good things I do and the bad things I do. And the times I do make mistakes, learn from those mistakes.”
Beckham, who is just two lockers down, is an example of how difficult stardom can be. Beckham has compared it to living life as an animal on display at the zoo.
Barkley has said since he was drafted that his approach was to be himself.
The nerves before getting out of the taxi and surprising a high school football team? It shows he’s doing pretty well so far.
The unit put on its worst performance of the season with a national audience watching, allowing 551 yards in a 45-10 loss to the Chiefs. But the final score didn’t show just how bad it was. Then again, losing by 35 says a lot.
Players missed tackles all night, allowed Chiefs players to get wide open for scores and essentially looked like they were a step behind the other team all night. Even linebacker Vontaze Burfict, arguably one of the Bengals’ best defensive players, looked completely inept when matched up against the speed of the Chiefs’ offense. Burfict had only two tackles before leaving in the third quarter with a hip injury.
The Bengals have a problem, and it’s not going to go away. While they might be able to pull out wins when their defense is generating turnovers, they don’t match up well against any type of speed or quick-paced offense. On nights like Sunday, when the Bengals’ offense also isn’t clicking, the issue becomes even more obvious.
For whatever reason, the Bengals’ defense has not gotten going under new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, and it’s hard to say what percentage falls on the players vs. the scheme. There’s not exactly a solution waiting in the wings either.
The Bengals’ defensive line has failed to get any pressure the past two games, and both their linebacker and cornerback depth are razor thin outside of the starting players.
That’s not to say the offense shouldn’t take its share of the blame. The Bengals failed to capitalize on several breaks against a porous defense that came into Sunday’s game ranked last in the league. A kickoff that went out of bounds and an interception by Shawn Williams gave the Bengals good field position, but the offense responded by going three-and-out both times. Quarterback Andy Dalton threw a pick-six and couldn’t get the ball to anyone but A.J. Green.
That’s not to mention the head scratching aborted punt that resulted in a quick Chiefs’ touchdown, or the decision to punt with 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter when the Bengals were trailing 45 to 10. At that point, it seemed clear the Bengals had thrown in the towel.
The Bengals need to change their mindset, whether it’s a more aggressive scheme or a different approach. If there’s no savior on the roster, then it’s on the coaching staff to reassess what has gone wrong with the team in the past two weeks and figure out how to cater to the strengths of the players they have.
The Bengals couldn’t stop the Steelers in the final minute of last week’s loss, and they couldn’t stop the Chiefs at any point on Sunday. Unless they go back to forcing timely turnovers, it’s almost a given that the defense will cost them more games. The Bengals certainly have talent at key spots, and that’s why these performances are so puzzling.
If the Bengals want to be considered a legitimate playoff contender this year, they certainly have a long way to go before proving they’re in the conversation. So far, they haven’t proven anything yet.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The San Francisco 49ers brought back their all-white 1994 throwback jerseys for Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams. The Niners didn’t do much to conjure memories of that world championship season. As it turned out, going back to a 1980 look would have been more appropriate.
That’s because the 49ers didn’t do much to give themselves a chance against the heavily favored Rams. To be sure, the Rams are the better, healthier, more star-studded team and their undefeated record should tell you all you needed to know about the expected outcome against the Niners.
But given an opportunity to pull off an NFL-shaking upset, the 1-6 Niners turned the ball over four times, coming up with zero takeaways and falling into an early hole that eventually became a 39-10 blowout loss at Levi’s Stadium.
“It’s inexcusable,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “It’s impossible to win in this league when you turn the ball over like we are and we don’t get any [takeaways]. We had four today, 4-0, and I think it was 24 points off turnovers. In order for us to be able to play in a football game, we have to tighten up with the ball and get the ball.
“We have to fix the turnovers. Once we fix the turnovers then we have a chance to start playing football.”
The 49ers never had much of a chance in Sunday’s loss, as they wasted little time giving the Rams’ potent offense prime field position. Two of the offense’s first three possessions resulted in a C.J. Beathard fumble that gave the Rams the ball at San Francisco’s 44 and another from running back Matt Breida that gave it to the Rams at the Niners’ 21. Those giveaways resulted in an early 10-0 hole from which the 49ers could not recover.
Later, Beathard threw two interceptions, both of which also resulted in Rams’ touchdowns. Four turnovers, 24 Rams points, ball game over.
“It’s extremely frustrating because we know we’re a lot better team than that and we have just got to get it stopped,” Breida said. “We’re doing nothing but hurting ourselves and I feel like we’re the reason why we’re losing these games, so the sooner we get that corrected, I feel like we’ll be in a lot better direction.”
Meanwhile, the defense was again struggling to get takeaways despite a pair of golden opportunities provided by Los Angeles quarterback Jared Goff. One went through the hands of safety Jaquiski Tartt on a play that might have been a pick-six had Tartt secured it. Another came later when cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon and free safety Adrian Colbert collided as a catchable ball fell to the ground.
The Niners haven’t come up with a takeaway since the opening moments of a Week 4 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. The Niners have turned the ball over 14 times since without getting a takeaway of their own. That lack of production has come despite a consistent emphasis from coordinator Robert Saleh in practice.
“[We’ve got to] just keep attacking the ball, keep having that focus during the week which is trying to create fumbles, trying to get interceptions, not being satisfied with pass breakups and I think it will come,” Witherspoon said.
In this lost season, the sight of opponents coming up with fumble recoveries or interceptions while the Niners fail to get any of their own has become all too familiar. Injuries and other issues aside, the Niners’ whopping minus-15 turnover margin through the first seven weeks is the single biggest issue the team just can’t seem to overcome.
At minus-15, the 49ers are tied with the 1980 Niners for the worst turnover differential in franchise history at this point in the season. Jacksonville has the second-worst turnover margin and is still three better than San Francisco.
That negative turnover margin is the second-worst in the NFL through seven games since 2001, with only the 2012 Kansas City Chiefs posting a worse number.
The 49ers’ three takeaways are the fewest and their 18 giveaways are the most in the NFL.
The Niners had a minus-1 turnover margin in their first 14 quarters of the season. In the ensuing 14 quarters, that number is minus-14.
Sunday’s loss was the fourth time this season that the 49ers were minus-3 or worse in turnover margin. They’ve lost all four games.
The Niners are negative-54 in point differential off turnovers this season, worst in the league by 19 points.
Going into Sunday night’s game between Kansas City and Cincinnati, there had been 23 games this season in which a team was minus-3 or worse in turnover margin. Of those games, only two teams were able to overcome the turnovers and win and one more was able to come away with a tie.
For an injury-ravaged Niners team, finding victories figured to be hard enough without quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo but this team definitely doesn’t have the weapons to cancel out such mistakes in its current state.
While it’s easy to put the blame on Beathard — who has thrown an interception in eight straight starts, the longest streak by a starting 49ers QB since Steve DeBerg in 1979, according to Elias Sports Bureau research, and has at least one giveaway in every game in which he has played substantial snaps — the Niners’ problems run much deeper. Which is why Shanahan said after the game he intends to stick with Beathard moving forward.
“If it was just one thing, you’d say one thing. if it was just one guy, you’d say one guy,” Shanahan said. “But it’s an accumulation of a number of things.
“We need to get better. The better you get, the less you turn it over. We talk about the ball and work on going after balls as much as you possibly can. You don’t stop. You don’t wait for it. You keep preaching those same things and you expect it to get better the more you work at it and if it doesn’t, then you’ve got to find people who do take care of it.”
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Kerryon Johnson saw the hole open up on the left side of the offensive line. It was the first play Sunday afternoon and everything happened exactly the way the rookie from Auburn thought it might.
The blocks from his linemen and receivers were perfect. In the heat against the Miami Dolphins, the openings were there all day.
In the Detroit Lions‘s 32-21 victory over Miami, something big seemed possible for Johnson on every play. Give him a sliver of space and he can make something happen. Give him more room and better blocks and even bigger things can happen.
“In my mind, that’s great. That means I know what those guys up front are doing and I know our game plan is going to stay true to itself,” Johnson said. “So, it definitely gives me confidence, gives them confidence. The crowd energy goes up, our energy goes and then the key is to carry it through four quarters, which we did.”
They ran left, right and up the middle. They ran for short gains, medium gains and a 71-yard gain that Johnson said was his longest run since high school. The Lions registered 248 rushing yards against Miami, Detroit’s best total since Nov. 23, 1997.
Barry Sanders rushed for 216 yards that day (in another game in which Detroit won by scoring 32 points) in an era when Detroit was known more for its running than its passing. That’s not quite happening here with these Lions, even though Johnson’s 158-yard game was the most for a Lions back since Jahvid Best had 163 on Oct. 10, 2011.
Lions left guard Frank Ragnow has seen this before, when he was at Arkansas. His team faced Johnson’s at Auburn every year. It went about as well for the Razorbacks then as it did for the Dolphins on Sunday.
“He beat us up,” Ragnow said. “I’m not going to lie to you. He ran all over us at Arkansas. I definitely am not surprised by his success. He’s been talented in the SEC for a while.”
Four weeks ago against the New England Patriots, Johnson snapped the team’s four-year drought of 100-yard rushers, and he was even better Sunday. His emergence offers Detroit a different type of offensive structure, particularly when the Lions start fast. Johnson gained 106 of his yards in the first half.
“It allows us to be more dynamic,” running back Ameer Abdullah said. “Because now, obviously, you got a running back coming in who has 100 yards like that, they are going to focus on him. Then you can bring in a LeGarrette [Blount] or you can bring in me — they are bouncing around like, ‘How the heck are we going to stop all these guys?’”
This started in April, when the Lions convened for the first time under new coach Matt Patricia. He craved balance and physicality. A consistent, respectable run game, which the Lions never had under previous coach Jim Caldwell, makes play-action more effective. It keeps teams from dropping too many players into coverage against the Lions’ talented receivers.
It allows Detroit to manage the clock — and the potential outcomes, because a strong run game can wear down a defense. It is something the Lions hadn’t had in half a decade.
“It changes everything,” receiver Marvin Jones said. “Obviously, when you can run the ball, you control. And that’s the big thing. That’s what we did. You look at all of our wins — we’ve been able to do that and control the ball. That’s how it was today.
“We ran it whenever we wanted to, at will; and if we needed a play in the passing game, we threw it and made the play. To have that control is great and it’s a tribute to the line, the work that they put out throughout the week.”
Every Lions player mentioned the line after Sunday’s victory. General manager Bob Quinn invested so much in the line over the past three years since his hiring in January 2016: two first-round picks (left tackle Taylor Decker and left guard Ragnow), two highly-touted free agents (right guard T.J. Lang, right tackle Rick Wagner) and a third-round pick who has become dependable (center Graham Glasgow).
He spent this offseason changing the running backs, signing Blount and trading up in the second round to select Johnson. Both moves have worked. In Johnson, the Lions have found a stabilizer and difference-maker in the run game.
And it has led to more success and a confidence that the entire offense can be dynamic, because if Detroit can run, there are possibilities to do almost anything.
Johnson spent close to 10 minutes after the game sitting in front of his locker, taking well-wishes from teammates and ribbing from Blount. He sat there, clad in an Auburn shirt, ready to go. He wasn’t bothered that on the perfectly blocked 71-yarder in the second quarter, he got caught from behind.
“Look, since high school, I’ve been caught from behind enough times for me to know it’s just how it happens in life,” Johnson said. “You know, but I ain’t ran 71 yards in a long time, so I was proud of myself.”
In the best Lions rushing day in two decades, Johnson gave a glimpses of the team’s present and future — one that looks loaded with potential. That, more than anything else, is a reason not to worry.
On the Texans’ second drive, quarterback Deshaun Watson found Hopkins down the left sideline with Ramsey covering him. Hopkins beat Ramsey and reached out his left hand to make a one-handed catch for 31 yards.
“It’s what I’ve been saying since I got here,” Okung said. “I tell Mel every day, ‘Hey, you could be special, man. Just buy in and understand what we’re trying to do.’ And it makes complete sense when he goes out there why he’s having the sort of games he’s having.
“He’s a guy that understands the offense really well. He sets us up to have success up front. And when he gets past the defensive line — watch out.”
One of the reasons the Chargers (4-2) are riding a three-game winning streak is the play of Gordon. The Wisconsin product is third in the league in rushing with 466 yards, and fourth in yards from scrimmage with 745. He has scored nine touchdowns.
Gordon grounded out 132 rushing yards and three touchdowns in a win over the Cleveland Browns last week.
But what has been most impressive is Gordon’s ability to churn out yards when the defense knows the Chargers are going to run the football — on first down and in the fourth quarter.
“I think he’s kind of been [trending up] his whole career, little by little and just becoming more of a complete back,” quarterback Philip Rivers said. “Gosh, he’s just hard to tackle. He’s running hard and he has worked at it. I think it’s shown. I think he had a heck of a season last year, but he’s definitely running well.”
Gordon averages 5.3 yards per rush on first down — 2 yards better than the 3.3 yards per carry he averaged on first down last year. And he’s averaging a robust 8 yards per carry in the fourth quarter this season, helping the Chargers close out games late by keeping the chains moving.
“He has been driven to get his game to another level, and I think we’re seeing the benefit to that,” Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said. “He’s worked hard. He’s studied it.”
Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn was looking for a workhorse running back who could finish games when he took the job in January of last year, and Gordon has developed into that for the Chargers.
“I love the way he’s running,” Lynn said. “He’s inspiring our entire sideline, the way he runs when he gets violent.”
One of the reasons for Gordon’s success this season has been the addition of Mike Pouncey. The Pro Bowl center has brought a nastiness to the offensive line in the running game.
“When you have the athleticism and the power, you can run inside with Pouncey and you can the perimeter with Pouncey,” Lynn said. “And I love his mindset, his mentality. I think that’s contagious.”
Gordon played a full, 16-game season for the first time last year, finishing with 342 touches in 2017, No. 4 in the NFL. Gordon finished without a touchdown his rookie season, but since the start of the 2016 season he now has scored 33 — only Todd Gurley (34) has more.
“It’s just my mindset and the guys around me as well,” said Gordon, when asked about the frequency he’s getting in the end zone. “Those boys are willing to make it happen for me, so hats off to those guys for bringing me in there.”
Gordon is not worried about overuse, believing that he and third-down back Austin Ekeler can carry the running back load for the Chargers.
An undrafted rookie out of Western State Colorado, Ekeler has combined with Gordon to give the Chargers an explosive, 1-2 combo at running back.
Ekeler (470) and Gordon have 1,215 yards from scrimmage, and are pace to break last year’s NFL combined yards from scrimmage record for a running back duo of 3,094 yards set by Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram of the New Orleans Saints.
“Any time you have a back like Melvin, a big force doing what he does, he’s a hard guy to bring down,” Okung said. “You keep doing that over and over, guys start missing tackles. And before you know it, it’s a tough two, a tough three and then a big seven, a big 20. Mel is incredible.”
EAGAN, Minn. — For all the ways the Minnesota Vikings‘ offense has improved with the addition of Kirk Cousins, there’s one glaring outlier causing concern.
Since becoming a starting quarterback for the Washington Redskins in 2015, Cousins leads the NFL in fumbles with 37, having lost 16, also a league-high, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It’s an issue that’s not just limited to his NFL career. As a senior at Michigan State in 2011, Cousins’ eight fumbles were tied for the second-most in the Big Ten.
Cousins has six fumbles in the Vikings’ past four games, four of which were recovered by the other team. And with every turnover created by a Cousins fumble, Minnesota’s opponent was able to capitalize.
Two first-quarter fumbles recovered by Buffalo allowed the Bills to score on each ensuing drive in their Week 3 27-6 victory. Had Cousins not fumbled at the Rams’ 48-yard line during the two-minute drill during a 38-31 loss to Los Angeles, the Vikings would have had a shot to tie the game. In a Week 6 win over the Cardinals, Cousins was strip-sacked and safety Budda Baker returned it for a touchdown.
“When we talk about how we view quarterbacks, we talk about their touchdown-to-interception ratio, and very rarely do we talk about when guys fumble inside the pocket, which oftentimes is worse because of where the turnover takes place,” said former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Tim Hasselbeck.
Fumbles come with the territory of playing the position. The top-10 list of the NFL’s all-time quarterback leaders in fumbles features league MVPs and Super Bowl champions. Two current players, Eli Manning (119) and Tom Brady (117), rank eighth and ninth, respectively. But Manning is in his 15th season and Brady his 19th.
There’s a story behind every fumble. Sometimes the blame can be pinned on the quarterback for not getting the ball out on time or trying to run with a loose football. There may also be a breakdown along the offensive line or a running back or tight end not holding up in protection. The quarterback could also be holding on to the ball too long because his receiver didn’t get his head around quick enough.
It’s different for each fumble, but it’s an ongoing problem for Cousins.
“I’m concerned about all the fumbles. We’ve got to do a better job,” coach Mike Zimmer said after the Arizona game. “I think the two times, the two that I remember that he fumbled, both times guys were coming from behind him. He’s got to, when he starts moving up in the pocket, he has to be ready to put the ball [away], so we’ll address that.”
What does it mean when a quarterback is a habitual fumbler? Let’s start with something obvious. According to MockDraftable, Cousins’ 97/8 inch hand size puts him in the 70th percentile among all draft-eligible quarterbacks since 1999. So his hand size isn’t likely to be a contributing factor.
Several of the same factors contributed to the fumbles Cousins lost against the Cardinals and the Rams, which boil down to him not responding to pressure off the left edge and not moving up in the pocket despite having the time and space to do so.
Against Los Angeles, the Vikings had just crossed into Rams territory with a fresh set of downs with 1:29 left on the clock. Cousins took a snap out of the shotgun and dropped back deep — so deep that rookie John Franklin-Myers got around left tackle Riley Reiff and tomahawked the ball loose as Cousins drew his right arm back to pass. There was room created for Cousins to climb up in the pocket, which may have helped those in protection, but he did not react fast enough to move up.
Here’s how Cousins explained his fumble against the Rams:
“I’m waiting on my first read,” Cousins said. “Adam Thielen’s my first read, I’m trying to get him the football. I’m not going No. 2, No. 3, I’m seven-step (drop), one hitch, trying to get him the ball. And I did. And before I could get it to him, the ball was out. We’ll go back and say ‘Hey, we don’t want to be any deeper than 9.5 yards in the pocket.’ So any time you’re deeper than 9.5, you’re making it tougher on your tackle to let the pass-rusher run by the pocket.
“So can you shorten up your drop? Again, if you’re at 9.5, then you’re going to say, do your best to get back up to 8.5, but it is what it is … There were many drops throughout the game that I was at 9.5, there were a couple that I was a little bit past but didn’t have a fumble, didn’t get sacked. … No matter the play, stay no deeper than 9.5.”
A quarterback is typically going to sit 9.5 yards deep in the pocket on hard play-action, not dropping back out of the shotgun. Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo noted the balance of staying 7.5 yards deep, which helps the quarterback not have to “throw from a foxhole with guys in their lap” and also makes the job easier for the offensive line.
“If you’re 9.5 yards deep, then your tackle has no chance. None,” Hasselbeck said. “But if you’re 9.5 yards deep and a guy is making contact with you and you’re not climbing, to me that’s very fixable. That’s just getting trained to climb in the pocket.”
Fixing his depth in the pocket and being able to push up quicker on the initial climb is one remedy. Another is adjusting the clock in his head of when to escape the pocket before the up-field pass-rusher retraces his steps before trying to make a play.
“I think those are two very correctable things,” Hasselbeck said. “Those are easier than breaking the bad habit of running with one hand on the ball, which is not something Kirk does. He doesn’t escape out of the pocket and drop the ball the way some guys do.”
One of Cousins’ best qualities is his ability to make quick, accurate throws. He has mitigated a handful of issues (i.e. how much time he’s being given to throw) by getting rid of the ball quickly and playing fast.
“I could easily find five plays where I could say there is not a quarterback playing with better anticipation and quite honestly the quarterback play solves a huge mistake by somebody up front,” Hasselbeck said. “I think he’s done that. That’s probably as big of a compliment that you can give a quarterback.”
And even when Cousins is doing everything right by throwing on time, he may still get hit from behind while in the throwing motion. There isn’t much a quarterback can do in that situation, but finding ways to fix what he’s doing when his pocket depth and timing are the root of the fumbles could help Cousins remedy these ongoing problems.
“You can’t give up on plays or get your eyes down at the rush just to avoid fumbles,” Cousins said. “You’ve still got to be a quarterback, and you’ve still got to take your drop, try to step up, try to make plays, be a playmaker. At times you do that, you’re going to risk the occasional fumble. You’ve got to trust protection. You can’t drop back expecting protection to be loose and then you’re never going to be able to play. It’s a balance. When we look back at the fumbles, we’re going to try to really just focus in on the ones that I can control, that are correctable.”
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Rae Carruth, the Carolina Panthers’ 1997 first-round pick, is set to be released on Monday after spending the past 17 years in the Sampson Correctional Institution in Clinton, North Carolina.
Carruth, now 44, was convicted on Jan. 16, 2001, and sentenced to 18 to 24 years for conspiracy to commit murder of his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams, who died about a month after the shooting. At that time, there had not been any cases of an active first-round NFL draft pick who had been charged and convicted with such a crime.
Carruth’s release is a fresh reminder of that day on Nov. 16, 1999, when the plot to kill Adams and her unborn child unfolded on a twisting two-lane road in a posh Charlotte neighborhood. Adams was shot multiple times by Van Brett Watkins, who was hired by Carruth. Watkins was sentenced to a minimum of 40 years.
Chancellor Lee Adams, Carruth’s son, is now 18 years old. Chancellor Lee survived the shooting in his mother’s womb but a loss of blood and oxygen the night of his birth caused permanent brain damage.
One could argue the tragic shooting by the former Colorado wide receiver was the Panthers’ darkest hour, darker than the allegations of sexual and workplace misconduct that recently led founder Jerry Richardson to sell the team to billionaire David Tepper.
Richardson was never charged with or convicted of anything. Even though the NFL fined him after a lengthy investigation, he still was supported by many in the organization and in the city, and the story was in the news cycle only a few months. The Carruth story was the topic of conversation for more than a year and a half.
And, as several pointed out, somebody was murdered.
The city of Charlotte was in the infancy of being a pro sports town in 1999. The Panthers had been around three seasons, and despite the unprecedented success of making the playoffs in their second year and the brief playoff flirtation of the NBA’s Hornets, the national spotlight seldom shone here as it did in other markets with two major franchises.
The shooting and the ensuing trial brought CNN and other national news agencies to the city. Court TV broadcast almost every minute of the trial, which Carruth’s teammates followed daily in the break room at the stadium.
The trial didn’t reach the national scope of the O.J. Simpson case that took place in Los Angeles five years earlier. But it put Charlotte and professional sports in this market in the spotlight at a level it hadn’t experienced before.
Here are some key questions that arose from that dark moment in Panthers history:
What has happened to Carruth’s son, and will Rae have custody when he’s released?
Chancellor Lee has been raised by his grandmother, Saundra Adams, in Charlotte. This year, Carruth broke a 17-year silence when he wrote a letter to WBTV in Charlotte and apologized to Saundra for the death of her daughter. He asked whether he could have the “responsibility” of permanent custody for Chancellor after his grandmother dies.
“I promise to leave them be, which now I see is in everyone’s best interest,” Carruth continued after a public uproar over him seeking custody.
“When I revisit this [moment] … you just hope that Chancellor … you’re thankful he’s around,” former Panthers starting center Frank Garcia said. “His grandmother is a saint for raising him. She even tried to forgive Rae for Chancellor. She and he, those two individuals are what this story should be about. Unfortunately, it’s going to be about a guy that did a heinous crime.”
A source close to the situation wouldn’t say who will meet Carruth on Monday but made it clear Carruth will not be doing interviews.
How did the Panthers react?
Panthers general manager Marty Hurney, in his second year with the franchise in 1999, had to testify for the defense during the trial. He and other team officials have declined to comment for this story.
“That was without a doubt the most significant event in the history of the Panthers,” said Steve Beuerlein, Carolina’s starting quarterback at the time and now an NFL and college football analyst for CBS. “Obviously, it wasn’t to the most prominent person in the organization as it was with Jerry. There’s a big difference there. But somebody was murdered.”
Most players were in shock over what happened. They shied away from talking about Carruth, in part because few really knew him.
“Rae was a unique person,” Beuerlein told ESPN.com. “He kind of stuck to himself. I don’t know if he had any real close friends on the team.”
How did the city of Charlotte react?
“For better or worse, the mood across the city was excitement,” said Chris Fialko, who was Carruth’s second-chair co-counsel to David Rudolf. “I know that’s hard to say. But Charlotte had always wanted to be a damn world-class city, and all of a sudden we had a world-class trial going on.”
It was not a proud moment, obviously.
“That was by far the worst. … This is a big-time city now. There’s going to be big-time things happen that will be publicized. Unfortunately, it was a negative way of putting this city on the map,” Garcia said.
Why did this tragedy have such an impact?
The Panthers were three seasons removed from reaching the NFC Championship Game. They’d loaded up the roster with players such as future Hall of Fame linebacker Kevin Greene for a run at the Super Bowl. They fell short of the playoffs by one game, going 8-8.
“It was an exciting time,” said Beuerlein, who was selected to the Pro Bowl after passing for a career-high 4,436 yards and 36 touchdowns. “But this Rae Carruth thing was what the rest of the country saw with their first big exposure to Charlotte. … Obviously, it was a black eye as far as negative attention to Charlotte and to the team’s reorganization.”
It was more than surreal to others. It was real.
“Embarrassed,” Garcia said. “That’s the way we felt as players. We’d just come off a glorious two years with the expansion year in ’95 and ’96 going to the playoffs. The red carpet was rolled out everywhere. Something like this happens and that carpet gets pulled back … real quick.
“It’s like, ‘These animals are capable of this! Who knows?’ That’s kind of the feeling we got. We didn’t want to do much. We didn’t want to go out. We kept to ourselves.”
What’s a forgotten detail about the case?
That Carruth fled Charlotte after Adams died on Dec. 14, 1999, and he was found in western Tennessee on Dec. 16 hiding in the trunk of a friend’s car a day after he failed to surrender on murder charges in Charlotte.
“We assumed there was something to the story,” Beuerlein said this past week. “If he wasn’t hiding something, he wouldn’t be hiding in the trunk.”
Has Carruth been in touch with current or former Panthers?
There is one story shared by Beuerlein, who was surprised when Carruth reached out to him a couple of years ago via social media.
“I got a friend request from him,” Beuerlein said. “I had to see what he wanted. So I accepted. It was, ‘Hey Steve,’ something along the lines of ‘I don’t know if you remember me.’ I was, ‘I remember you for sure. How’s it going?’
“He said something along the lines of it’s been a tough deal, obviously, but I’m looking forward to getting out in a couple of years. Your name came up and I wanted to reach out to see how you’re doing. I never heard back from him again. But it was one of the most bizarre friend requests that I’ve had.”
Most current players were in their teens or younger when the murder happened and have heard of Carruth only through word of mouth. They aren’t aware that Carruth was the person who wore No. 89 before Steve Smith, the team’s all-time leading receiver.
“Until I came here, I didn’t know what happened,” said tight end Greg Olsen, who came to Carolina in 2011.
Did Carruth get paid by the Panthers or the NFL while in jail?
No. The organization, in conjunction with the NFL, quickly put Carruth on leave of absence without pay and called it a legal matter moving forward.
Panthers coach George Seifert and Richardson then made the decision to waive the receiver once Gene Brown, the team’s head of security, informed them there might be a connection with Carruth in Adams’ murder. They got the support of then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw, the head of the players’ union.
The Panthers used a morals clause in Carruth’s contract as reason for separating from the player, and the NFL suspended him indefinitely on Dec. 17, 1999.
Janitor and barber are among the jobs Carruth has held in prison. In 2014, he reportedly was making $1 a day as a barber.
Why should NFL fans today care about Carruth’s story?
At the time, no one in the NFL had dealt with a plot for murder situation involving an active NFL player.
“People were looking at each other like, ‘Really? Can somebody we know possibly do that?’ ” Garcia recalled. “As much as we wanted to put it out of mind, it was kind of the little constant reminder that the guy next to you, you may think you know him, but you really don’t know him well. You might want to get to know him better.”
“The real questions from our perspective was, ‘Could we have seen anything that might have indicated he was having that kind of trouble? Had he been acting any differently leading up to those days,'” he said. “When I look back at it, he was always just a little bit different.”