The Ray Rice Suspension Further Reveals the NFL’s Moral Emptiness

By now, you’ve likely read a great deal about Ray Rice uppercutting his fiancee’ in an elevator in February, seen the footage of Rice dragging her unconscious body from said elevator, heard about the NFL’s light discipline for him and its general cluelessness regarding how that would be perceived.

You’ve probably read the great column by Tomas Rios, or the number of excellent columns churned out by SBNation’s writers and numerous writers at other media outlets. Perhaps you wanted a woman’s perspective on the matter, and read Jane Coaston, Erin Gloria Ryan, or someone else. If you’re not a reader, or if you just really like watching well-articulated, justifiable outrage, you’ve seen Keith Olbermann’s video excoriating the league for its decision:

Even ESPN, that mainstream media outlet so deeply invested in the NFL’s success, had columnists taking the league to task over the message this suspension sent. (Their television arm didn’t handle it quite so well, to the point where another employee blasted them.) And the league itself seems utterly clueless about the message they have sent regarding their value system and their regard for domestic violence and the well-being of women as important matters (again, so did their television arm). High-ranking members of the Baltimore Ravens organization have chosen to characterize Rice’s decision to punch a woman he evidently loves enough to marry so hard she was knocked unconscious as a “mistake” and have made an effort to spin him as a good guy; this is after that bizarre press conference in May where they trotted out Janay Rice to apologize for causing Ray to punch her, and where Ray Rice said, without irony, “Failure is not getting knocked down; it’s not getting back up,” about himself.

All this is a long way of saying I don’t have a fresh take on this, just that I find the whole thing both troubling and unsurprising. The two-game suspension makes perfect sense for a league that cares about image and PR first and substance second somewhere far down the list. All I can really say is: Don’t be like them.

I find it troubling that I have spoken to men I believe to be otherwise intelligent about domestic violence and other problems women face, and how many of them think Janay Rice really does bear some fault here, how many of them fail to recognize the way abuse damages people and locks them in a cycle of fear and control, how many of them fail to even attempt to understand the perspective of women in these situations, and how many of them in general react to matters like this, or to any discussion about the levels of intimidation and threats of physical harm women live with every day, with the same narrow-minded, condescending perspective: “I’ve never seen anything like that or dealt with anything like that, so they must be exaggerating.” They might as well say “Bitches be crazy, amirite?”

Don’t be like them, and don’t be like the NFL.

The NFL will squeeze fans for higher and higher ticket and merchandise prices, they’ll squeeze the taxpayers to pay for new stadiums that will make teams even more money, they’ll sign television deals in the billions of dollars, and then they’ll lock out the players and cry poverty.

The NFL will beat their drums to make a big show of ruining a team’s season over player safety (even if an arbitrator with every incentive to rule in Goodell’s favor said the punishments he handed out essentially represented a temper tantrum on his part), but when it comes to real action on player safety, they’ll also do their best to silence the public talk about CTE and concussions and to squeeze retired players in their attempts to receive medical care and damages in their concussion lawsuit. (How many ex-players have to commit suicide in order to leave their brain to research before the NFL does something meaningful?)

They’ll call October breast cancer awareness month in the NFL; they’ll decorate everything in pink; they’ll even donate ALMOST TEN PERCENT of pink-based revenues to a charity that spends SOME MURKY PERCENTAGE of that on breast cancer research, care, and prevention! But the message from the actions of the league’s disciplinary office (i.e. Roger Goodell) is that violence against women is somewhere lower on the scale of awful transgressions than the following:

  • violence against a player on the field of play
  • smoking marijuana
  • accidentally taking a diet pill
  • or my favorite, getting free tattoos in college, while no NFL team held the player’s rights and he was not under contract or even eligible for the NFL yet

The league office was already hypocritical, corrupt, and morally bankrupt; now it’s been exposed as clueless, insular, and lacking basic human empathy as well.

Don’t be like the league.

Post-script

If I had the chance to ask Roger Goodell a question, I don’t even think it would be a question per se. Just a request for an admission. A futile request for the truth from a consummate hypocrite, sure, but a request: I’d ask Roger Goodell to admit he doesn’t care.

Mr. Goodell, admit you don’t care about the health of the players. Admit you don’t care about the players at all as human beings. Admit the conduct policy is about you being able to arbitrarily put players in their place (a bad look for a white man in a suit making money hand over fist off a labor force that’s over 70% black). Admit that this is the reason Josh Gordon will get a year suspension and you won’t do anything to Jim Irsay.

Admit you don’t care about your own hypocrisy. Admit you don’t care about the double standard. Admit you don’t care about domestic violence. Admit you don’t care about women, players, or fans. Admit the only thing you do care about is that $44,000,000 paycheck and keeping the catbird’s seat that allows you to collect it.

Well, that and the image of appearing you care.

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The Top 10: Interior Defensive Linemen

Of all the NFL’s positions, interior linemen on both sides of the ball might be the most overlooked by fans. They generate virtually no fantasy value, and practically nothing on the regular stat sheet as well. This seems silly since they are working harder than every other player on the field, getting into a wrestling match on 100% of plays. Offensive linemen generally get to help each other out, but defensive linemen are on their own when it comes to their gap responsibilities. Many of these interior defensive players get double teamed, which unsurprisingly leads to a disparity of highlights and gaudy stat lines. However make no mistake about it; many of the best players in the league are on the interior defensive line, and are a big factor in allowing their teammates to make plays by attracting so much attention from the opposition.

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The Top 10: Cornerbacks

NFL Network’s top 100 list has now been running for a few years, and it consistently draws grumbles around the country from more knowledgeable fans. While the rankings are voted by the players, the process of gathering the votes seems mediocre at best; each player is asked to list their top 15 players in the league. There is no weighing of votes by position, as each player’s vote seems to carry equal value. (For example, it would make more sense if the ranking of receivers was weighted more heavily by the cornerbacks who cover them.) Defensive linemen and offensive linemen would likely have the best idea of who the toughest players were at their opposing positions. And the coaches, who may have the most important opinions of all, are not involved at all!

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Jaguars “Wanted: Talent”: Marqise Lee and Telvin Smith

One of the league’s youngest franchises, the Jacksonville Jaguars didn’t take long to make a mark in the NFL after their founding in 1995. They made the playoffs in four of their first five seasons and played in the conference championship twice. Ah, to be young again. Fast-forward fifteen years.: It’s been six years since the Jaguars were in  the playoffs, and about the same time since they drafted a player of note (i.e. the 2007-2012 classes) for the right reasons. Justin Blackmon certainly makes headlines, albeit for how long he will face league suspension – indefinitely! – more than his play on the field. Thanks for the memories, Blaine Gabbert, and fare thee well in San Francisco.

Head coach Gus Bradley is known for his defensive scheme, but instead of selecting linebacker Khalil Mack with the third overall pick, the Jaguars took University of Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles. They then used their next three picks on the offensive side of the ball. Nevertheless, they managed to snag a very intriguing prospect in linebacker Telvin Smith. We’ll turn our attention to him a bit later. First up, let’s take a brief look at the multifaceted receiver from USC, and I don’t mean South Carolina, Marqise Lee.

 

ROUND 2, PICK 39

Marqise Lee, WR, USC

As a sophomore, Marqise Lee dazzled college football fans with his electric speed and chemistry with quarterback Matt Barkley, grabbing an astounding 118 receptions for 1,721 yards. He was awarded the Biletnikoff trophy as the nation’s top receiver and looked primed to be a top-10 pick if he could maintain anything close to this production. None of this came to fruition, as Lee spent most of his junior season hobbled by an ongoing knee injury. It didn’t cause him to miss many games, but if you watch any tape from 2013, you are likely to see him limping towards the sideline at some point. To his credit – and bravery, or foolishness – Lee continuously returned to the field of play. His production plunged to only 57 receptions and 791 yards. He dropped more balls than he had in the past, as well.

For this post I have watched all six 2013 game tapes available at Draft Breakdown, and four from Lee’s award-winning 2012 campaign. Lee has tremendous awareness on the field and makes a number of toe-tapping sideline grabs. In his best game of 2013 (against Stanford) he does it twice. On this play he’s initially well covered but works back to the quarterback to make a difficult catch. Later in the 1st quarter, he makes a similar catch, this time with his momentum going out of bounds, for a touchdown. It doesn’t look like a catch until the replay confirms it. And again, this time from 2012, his awareness of the sideline and concentration as the ball sails past a defender allows him to haul in a pretty reception.

Lee’s game needs work in a few area. When a cornerback is physical with him, results are mixed. Both here and here he is shoved out of bounds shortly into his route. He isn’t a player you will necessarily trust to win “50-50″ balls against tight coverage, but given that he’s not a big-body WR at only 6’0”, any ability to do so down the road will simply be a bonus. In 2012, the endzone fade makes a few appearances, but with his knee injury in 2013 we didn’t see this play so much. At full health, I believe he has the leaping ability to, at the very least, force opponents to consider the fade as a possible weapon. Additionally, Lee showed amazing chemistry with 2012 quarterback Matt Barkley, the kind he simply did not possess with Cody Kessler in 2013. His catch technique comes and goes as this video demonstrates – including some of those receptions in that video is picking nits, but overall, it does show where he needs some work.

Where Lee really shines is after the catch. Every slant route is in danger of becoming a touchdown. Against Arizona in 2012, Lee put up a game for the ages with a staggering 16 receptions for 345 yards and two touchdowns. On the first of these touchdowns, he catches the ball and zooms 37 yards for a touchdown with near inhuman acceleration. The second touchdown is déjà vu all over again, as the great twentieth-century philosopher, Yogi Berra, was fond of saying. Lee didn’t lose this ability in 2013, as this play in the Las Vegas Bowl demonstrates.

Another exciting aspect of his game is the “quick-twitch” ability of his lower body. I labeled this play “joystick” as it looks more like a video game than real life. Lee is extraordinarily nimble and can pull the chair out from under a defensive back with ease. He can change direction with fluidity and without loss of speed. Of course, this speed also stretches the field vertically. Lee would be the perfect compliment to Justin Blackmon, but alas…

 

ROUND 5, PICK 144

Telvin Smith, LB, Florida State

One of my favorite players to watch on tape, Telvin Smith will need to bulk up from his svelte 218-lb. frame in order to be an every-down player. He was already turning heads at Jaguars rookie minicamp in May among coaches and teammates alike. “If he gets to 230, watch out,” said fellow rookie [running back] Storm Johnson. Watch out, indeed. Smith flies around the field from sideline to sideline and to my eye was the most exciting player to watch amidst a champion Florida State defense not lacking for talent (or excitement).

The first play I want to show you against Miami is perfect. Smith diagnoses the run immediately, then lowers his pad level and attacks the outside shoulder of the fullback, which allows him to meet the running back several yards behind the line of scrimmage. He doesn’t make the tackle, but the referee rules that forward progress has been stopped and whistles the play dead. On this play, his aggressiveness catches him running directly into a pulling guard, which opens up a very nice cutback lane. On the very next snap of the game, Smith takes himself out of the play by mirroring the runner with a step to the right. This allows the same guard to “shield” the path to create another lane for the runner. Here Smith takes a more patient approach with an excellent result.

Missing tackles is a problem Telvin Smith has from time to time. Sticking with the Miami game for one last play, he is responsible for covering the flat to the left side (of the defense). A hop and a stutter-step to the right by the runner leaves Smith tackling air. This time against Boston College, overpursuit in the flat here allows the fullback to take a swing pass in for a touchdown. An end-around in the Pittsburgh game similarly leaves Smith grasping air as he overpursues freshman sensation Tyler Boyd (look for him in, er, 2016).

One play in particular against Clemson is interesting. Just a split second after this reception in the flat, Smith meets the runner for what should be a nice tackle for loss. He fails to make the initial tackle as the runner shakes him loose. Keep watching. Rather than remain on the ground sulking in defeat, Smith hops right back onto his feet and manages to make the tackle which eluded him earlier. It’s a wonderful hustle play. It also shows why he needs to add about fifteen pounds.

While it remains to be seen if he can put on this much weight without losing speed, I will now turn to plays which showcase Smith’s dynamism. His ability to read and react is top notch. While Boston College racked up yards in the running game against Florida State, Smith filled his gap and made plays the entire game. Here he wades through traffic using his teammates as protection to bring down running back Andre Williams (now a New York Giant) for no gain. Note the patience displayed on this play in order to slip through a hole for a similar result. If he doesn’t make the play there then Williams is likely facing a one-on-one with the safety on the outside.

Proper run defense calls for both relentless aggression and patience. The great linebackers in the league know when the situation calls for one versus the other. There is no guideline for when to be aggressive and when to be patient before the snap. A linebacker must intuitively understand when to employ these completely different tasks. Telvin Smith gets it. In the first play of the game against Pittsburgh, he explodes right at the snap through the ‘A-gap’ to bring the runner down for a loss. In the Duke game, he violently attacks the H-back’s chest on this play and the aggression allows him to defeat the attempted block.

As for pass defense, the Jags will almost certainly use Smith in coverage packages. He wasn’t tasked to run with tight ends or receivers downfield very often in college. In the short to intermediate area, he must be accounted for. Here is a good example of him matched up on a running back and defensing a pass. His speed underneath makes him a threat on plays like this (or this) to intercept passes for a touchdown. Smith’s jam on the slot receiver in this play renders the pass ineffective. And, last, he finds a way to the receiver on this screen pass, shedding a block in the process.

 

THE WRAP UP

Jacksonville signed a few defensive linemen in Red Bryant and Ziggy Hood to help bolster their run defense. Bryant is nominally a defensive end, but at 332 lbs. (or bigger) he cannot be mistaken for a pass rusher, and is typically shaded just inside the tackle to eat up blocks. Another former Seahawk, Chris Clemons, was brought in to man the LEO position on the opposite side. Toby Gerhart was acquired to add some punch to the running game. It helps that he’s also a plus catching the ball out of the backfield. None of the free agent signings made a big splash; Jacksonville will rely heavily on rookies and second-year players to play a lot of snaps.

The organization wants Chad Henne to start at quarterback as #3 overall pick Blake Bortles learns from the sideline. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if Bortles is the starter from week 1. Initially, I intended to write this piece about the team’s pair of second-round receivers, Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson. Upon deeper examination I am bearish on Robinson. He’s a bit stiff in the hips, and that effect is only exaggerated when watching him immediately after Lee.

Third-round guard Brandon Linder will bring size and athleticism to the trenches, but he needs a good deal of work technically. Aaron Colvin (cornerback) was injured during the Senior Bowl practices and is a better player than his draft position indicates. He’ll start the season on the PUP list. Defensive end Chris Smith was another Senior Bowl standout. His tape is underwhelming, but if anyone can make him into a player. Gus Bradley can. Storm Johnson was an essential cog in UCF’s BCS run. He joins teammate Blake Bortles and has a shot at winning the backup running back role in spite of his seventh-round status.

Gil Brandt thinks the Jaguars are a potential playoff team. I don’t. Well, unless Bortles is the next Brunell, Lee and Robinson pair up to match Smith and McCardell, and Joeckel is the next Boselli, and all of that right away. More likely is yet another year as a bottom-feeder. As for 2015, that’s a different story, and as with many things in life, “It depends.” The Jaguars’ only rival in the contest for least talent in the NFL last season was the Oakland Raiders. Time will tell if this recent draft class, along with the class of 2013, is enough to turn this franchise around. In the meantime, at least they will be one of the more intriguing teams to keep an eye on during the preseason.

Is this the year the AFC East becomes competitive?

Betteridge’s Law of Headlines suggests the answer is “No,” of course. But I have reason to believe, even if the division race ends up becoming another laugher the Patriots have locked up by December, that the other three teams are at least taking the right approach to building a contender. After a decade-plus of Patriots dominance, only occasionally interrupted by fluke ACL tears and standings tiebreakers, the other three teams have realized something New England has known since installing Tom Brady in the driver’s seat: the offensive passing game is the key to consistent long-term success.

Let’s look at what each of those other teams has done to upgrade their passing game this offseason.

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49ers “Gone to Carolina”: Brandon Thomas and Bruce Ellington

In three seasons under Jim Harbaugh, the San Francisco 49ers’ worst result has been a loss in the conference championship. Not bad, huh? Oh, and talented young quarterback Colin Kaepernick angered his peers by inking a flexible, team-friendly, six-year contract extension that will supposedly revolutionize the way teams pay superstars. In related news, Cam Newton is working on his curveball. With all of this success, you would think everything is coming up roses in San Francisco, but not so fast. Talks have stalled on an extension for coach Harbaugh in what amounts to a dick-measuring contest between he and general manager Trent Baalke. Go figure.

The 49ers one-upped themselves in the 2014 draft with twelve total picks, after picking eleven times in 2013. All of these picks are quite a luxury as the 49ers are one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. The team used several of its six picks on the first two days addressing needs with safety/corner hybrid Jimmie Ward, center Marcus Martin, and inside linebacker Chris Borland (All-Pro NaVorro Bowman will miss significant time following a gruesome knee injury). I’ll briefly discuss them along with a few other picks in the conclusion. Our feature prospects are mid-round selections Brandon Thomas and Bruce Ellington.

 

ROUND 3, PICK 100

Brandon Thomas, OT/OG, Clemson

At a workout for the New Orleans Saints, Brandon Thomas tore his ACL and is very likely to “redshirt” the 2014 season for the 49ers. He almost certainly would have been selected in the second round without this misfortune. Thomas played left tackle as a senior and was projected as a guard in the NFL by most draft sites. If he fully recovers, I believe he can play both tackle and guard. It’s nothing new for the 49ers to use picks on injured players; they used two of their eleven picks in 2013 on Tank Carradine (ACL tear) and Marcus Lattimore (knee explosion), both of whom missed all of last season.

For this article, I looked at Thomas in the Orange Bowl against Ohio State, along with contests against Syracuse, South Carolina, and Georgia Tech. We’ll only be looking at pass protection in the latter two games, because I watched Thomas through Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd’s tape. Always watch the left tackle, #63.

Thomas’ best game tape comes against Ohio State. He sets the key block on Clemson’s first touchdown by cracking down on the defensive tackle and then moving to the second level to shield a linebacker from the runner. Throughout the Orange Bowl, Clemson runs behind Thomas and he does not fail to deliver. Here he gets under the defensive tackle and blows him off the ball, creating a running lane. Watch him shove a linebacker deep into the second level here, and tell me this later play does not give you déjà vu.

In pass protection, Thomas often displays great feet, agility, and everything else you need from a tackle. Here is an example of perfect technique in pass protection: He quickly slides outside, creates a strong base, and stonewalls the pass rusher upon contact. You can see both his speed and strength facing Jadeveon Clowney on this play. Once again, perfect and perfect. All of these are plays you want to see consistently from an offensive tackle.

What you do not want to see is a tackle getting beaten on inside rush moves. Here we see Clowney swim right past our man with an incredible burst. Thomas does not have an answer. He has a similar result when facing Chargers second-round pick Jeremiah Attaochu here, where Attaochu crashes hard inside, and Thomas is immediately beaten. Later in the game, Attaochu gets Thomas to cheat inside with a step in that direction before exploding around the edge for a near sack.

Thomas has a few other lapses in pass protection. For example, he gets no depth when dropping into his stance on this play, and the result is a safety. He barely moves off of the snap here against Syracuse, and the defensive end unloads on Boyd. Later in that game, it looks as if Clemson’s entire line is on the wrong page facing a stunt. Boyd again takes the punishment. Rather than properly kick out, Thomas lunges at the Georgia Tech defensive end here. These issues are less problematic than his proclivity to get beaten inside a few times each game.

The good news is that he can stop an inside rush, and he does tend to rally well in general. If you recall Clowney defeating Thomas inside earlier, note that Thomas reacts in time to stop him here and here. Thomas’ strength allows him to rally here, where Clowney initially gets in a strong bull rush. You don’t want a tackle allowing two or three free shots at your quarterback each game in the NFL. Thomas is not perfect in pass protection, but he has no athletic limitation to prevent him from playing tackle. With a full recovery from his ACL tear, there’s a good chance we will see him starting somewhere along the 49ers offensive line in 2015.

 

ROUND 4, PICK 106

Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina

Don’t let Bruce Ellington’s 5’9″ stature fool you; he plays much taller. It’s all in his 39.5″ vertical. After all, we are talking about a basketball player here. In the four games I watched– Wisconsin, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Missouri– Ellington dropped exactly one ball. As we’ll see shortly, this is rather spectacular, given the degree of difficulty on many of his receptions. His ability to concentrate and make the tough catches is nearly unparalleled in this draft class. The only negative plays other than the one drop all came in blocking, and he is not a poor blocker overall. Sit back and enjoy the show.

As with Brandon Thomas, Bruce Ellington saved his best game for last with six receptions for 140 yards and two touchdowns against Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl. Oh, he also threw a touchdown pass. On the first play of the game, Ellington runs a post from the slot and shows toughness in bringing the ball down through contact. Here he simply runs a deep post for a touchdown, showing off that 4.45 speed. Look at the adjustment he makes on this ball for a catch around his feet. Speaking of spectacular catches, take a look at him tipping a ball to himself here. Keep the tape rolling to see a touchdown on the next play.

Missouri featured one of the top defenses in college football in 2013. Nobody told Bruce Ellington:

  • He catches this ball in traffic even though he bobbles it initially.
  • Does this look incomplete? Initially, yes. The replay shows his incredible field awareness and concentration, and, yep, it’s a touchdown.
  • Fourth quarter. Three minutes remaining. Down a touchdown. A diving catch over the middle. Overtime? Please. Touchdown.

In the Arkansas game, Ellington catches two touchdowns and this deep ball. Neither touchdown is particularly special. Both occur near the end zone and Arkansas decides not to cover him. Facing Vanderbilt he makes this pretty over-the-shoulder deep catch from the slot. Double coverage? No problem, Ellington splits them and makes a very difficult catch through contact for a touchdown. All he does is make plays.

I suspect he will find a way to get on the field even with Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, and newly acquired receiver Stevie Johnson (among others) battling for receptions. If nothing else, I expect Ellington to be a preseason sensation, and to make his mark in 2015. I didn’t show any problems with his game because he didn’t show any in what he was asked to do. The only issue, I suppose, is that he’s limited to primarily playing in the slot, and he isn’t six feet tall. His fearlessness in traffic and great hands remind me a lot of Anquan Boldin. And he’s out to take his job.

 

TO INFINITY AND BEYOND

As I said earlier, the 49ers addressed some needs with their first several picks. Jimmie Ward is a safety who can be pressed into service at cornerback and should provide the 49ers with a formidable safety duo for years and years with pro bowler Eric Reid (both were born in 1991). Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde was my highest graded runner in the draft and his selection could very well mean the end of Frank Gore’s long tenure in San Francisco. Wisconsin middle linebacker Chris Borland has big shoes to fill as he’s the likeliest candidate to step into NaVorro Bowman’s role until he returns. The good news is that he’s an experienced player; the bad is that he isn’t NaVorro Bowman. Zone Reads video analyst and contributor Needle made a video on each Carlos Hyde and Chris Borland; I recommend checking out both.

Third-round pick Marcus Martin will almost certainly be the opening day starter at center. Thirty-five year old Jonathan Goodwin had been the starter at center the past three years, but the team let him leave in free agency. Fourth-round cornerback Dontae Johnson is 6’2″ and ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at the combine. He flashes ability in coverage here and there, and given the lack of depth at the position will likely make the team (or, you know, get claimed by Seattle). Defensive end Aaron Lynch will face an uphill battle to make the 53-man roster, but he does have some ability. I have not seen tape on the remainder of the 49ers’ draft class.

The 49ers have done a masterful job of both developing young players and retaining their star veterans. Look at this list: Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis, Joe Staley, Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Colin Kaepernick, and Eric Reid. All of them were drafted by the 49ers. (It’s a completely different story down the street in Oakland.) Unless Blaine Gabbert is pressed into action (the horror, the horror), the 49ers have the talent to make another run at the Super Bowl.