Are the Giants and Raiders already tanking?
The Giants had a great plan this offseason. Instead of blowing up last year’s 3-13 team, they would just surround Eli Manning and Odell Beckham with better talent. Just sign left tackle Nate Solder, draft Saquon Barkley No. 2 overall instead of a quarterback, and the G-Men will be back on top.
The Raiders had a good plan, too. Jon Gruden was going to rebuild the team, but they could still be competitive with Jordy Nelson and a new veteran secondary.
Less than two months into the season, both teams are bailing out.
Gentlemen, start your tanking.
The Giants waived the white flag at 1-6, getting a jump start on the rebuilding process by trading cornerback Eli Apple to the Saints and defensive tackle Damon Harrison to the Lions. Other expensive players likely not to be back, such as Janoris Jenkins, Alec Ogletree, and Olivier Vernon, could also be moved by the Tuesday 4 p.m. trade deadline, though their contracts could complicate matters.
As usual, the Giants are fighting back against the “tanking” narrative.
“The giving-up-on-the-season narrative, I really think that’s disrespectful to the guys in the locker room,” coach Pat Shurmur said on Wednesday.
“We’re not throwing in the towel at all, man. I honestly think that’s disrespectful to us players,” cornerback B.W. Webb told reporters. “We don’t go into any game thinking we’re just going to throw it away. We fight every week. There are people out there playing for their families, their kids, for each other. It’s disrespectful when we hear that, somebody say we’re tanking or something like that.”
This is the common response from players and coaches whenever tanking comes up, and it’s understandable. But no one is accusing the actual football team of tanking. The coaches and players know they are still being evaluated on every snap, and can still earn a job on next year’s Giants, or with another team.
But the Giants’ front office is definitely tanking — which, in a vacuum, isn’t a bad thing. Get rid of veterans who don’t have a future with the team, and give more playing time to younger players who need to develop. Of course, the team won’t be offering any refunds on season tickets despite its subpar product.
The Giants’ most glaring issue is at quarterback, where Manning is looking close to washed up at 37. Barkley is a great player, but he can’t do much for the Giants when they’re trailing by 21 points each game.
The Giants may regret passing on Sam Darnold or the other first-round QBs, but it looks like they’re not going to make the same mistake twice. Tanking this season can get them in line for Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, an early projection for the No. 1 pick. Considering how expensive it can be to trade up in the draft, losing games now and getting the No. 1 pick organically is the way to go.
But it still must be jarring for the veteran players to see the front office start to dismantle the team with nine games to go.
“Anything could happen at any moment,” Ogletree told reporters. “Our job is to come in here and focus and do what you can while you’re here. You never know when your last snap for this team could be.”
As for the Raiders, they gave the appearance this offseason of trying to be competitive this season. They added or kept a bunch of veterans, becoming the NFL’s oldest team — Nelson, Doug Martin, Martavis Bryant, and Marshawn Lynch on offense, and Leon Hall, Rashaan Melvin, Marcus Gilchrist, and others on defense.
But Gruden was brought in to tear the team down to the studs and remake it in his image for the next 10 years. The 2018 season was sacrificed right before it started when Khalil Mack was traded to the Bears, and now Amari Cooper is gone in a trade to Dallas. The Raiders may not be done by Tuesday’s deadline, with cornerback Gareon Conley and safety Karl Joseph also on the block.
To little surprise, the Raiders are 1-5, with a lucky overtime win against the Browns keeping them from being winless.
“Nobody was happy when we traded Khalil. And nobody is happy that we traded Amari. How could you be?” tight end Lee Smith said. “You never, ever want to trade elite, homegrown talent. But Coach Gruden is thinking long term. It’s no secret that he got a 10-year contract. And having five first-rounders in the next two years is pretty good.”
The Raiders got two first-rounders from the Bears, and Gruden actually did quite well to get a first-rounder from the Cowboys for Cooper. Add in the Raiders’ own first-rounders the next two years — which could be a top-five pick this year — and Gruden is loaded with five first-round picks in 2019 and 2020.
And wouldn’t you know it, 2020 just happens to be the year the Raiders are moving to their shiny new palace in Las Vegas.
It’s hard not to be cynical and connect the dots that Gruden and the Raiders are tanking now, gutting the roster and gearing up for a big splash in Vegas.
Even quarterback Derek Carr isn’t safe. The Raiders easily could draft a quarterback next year and release Carr with little salary-cap penalty — or, more plausibly, draft a quarterback next year, play Carr for one more season at $20 million, then trade him in 2020 and let the new guy take over in Vegas.
“I think many of us realize we won’t be here next year,” one Raiders player told The Athletic. “We are just waiting to see if we will be here next week.”
Cooper doesn’t come cheap
Speaking of that Cowboys-Raiders trade, the Cowboys better hope that Amari Cooper develops into a top-five receiver, because they’re certainly going to be paying him as one.
Armed with the worst wide receiving corps in the league — Cole Beasley, Allen Hurns, Deonte Thompson, and Michael Gallup — the Cowboys made a classic desperation move to get Cooper.
They gave up their first-round pick, which likely will be somewhere in the middle of the round. They only owe Cooper $414,000 for the rest of this season, but he’s under contract for a $13.924 million fifth-year option next year, which the Cowboys pretty much have to pick up after giving up a first-round pick.
In theory, the Cowboys could part ways with Cooper after 2019, but more likely they’ll be forced to pay him a top-of-the-market receiver contract, which is currently at $17 million per season.
All this for a 6-foot-1-inch receiver who is a two-time Pro Bowl selection but has been decidedly average for the past two seasons. And Dak Prescott presents a chicken-and-egg dilemma for the Cowboys — is Prescott struggling because he has no receivers, or are the receivers no good because they have Prescott?
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett predictably found himself having to defend the move this past week, and he played up the fact that Cooper just turned 24 in June.
“If we were to get him in the draft next spring, you would say, ‘Boy, is there any receiver who is as good as a guy like Amari Cooper?’ ” Garrett said. “He’s 24 years old, has a bright future, goes about it the right way, and it feels like he fits into the culture of our team, the kind of guys we want to have, the cornerstone players we build here over the last few years.”
Cooper had better be, because the Cowboys are going to pay a lot for him.
Some trends have developed
■ Teams are averaging 35.9 passing attempts per game, which is the most in history (post-1970 merger). A decade ago, that number was 32.4 per game. An increase of 3.5 passes per game doesn’t seem like much, but that’s 56 more passes per team, or 1,792 more passes for the season.
Not only are teams passing more, but they’re getting more out of it, too. The 7.5 yards per attempt this year is the highest of all time.
■ Conversely, teams are averaging just 25.5 rushing attempts per game, the fewest in NFL history. A decade ago, that number was 27.6, which equates to 1,075 more rushing attempts.
■ And teams aren’t feeding the workhorse running back like they used to. Todd Gurley is the only player averaging 20 carries per game (20.6). In 2008, four players averaged 20 per game, led by Michael Turner (23.5). And in 2003, 12 players did it, led by Ricky Williams (24.5).
■ But here’s the most interesting stat: While teams are running less than ever, they’re also running better than ever. The 4.32-yard average carry this year is the highest in NFL history. Credit teams picking their spots better with the run game, and the proliferation of run-pass option plays that are tough to defend.
■ The new kickoff rules haven’t quite created a touchdown-fest that the NFL was hoping for (though the changes were really about player safety). The league is averaging 23.2 yards per kickoff return, which is sixth-highest of all time and significantly higher than the past two seasons, but still trails each of the 2011-15 seasons. The NFL has seen three kickoff return touchdowns this year, for a pace of seven, the same total as in 2016 and ’17.
But the kickoff rules, which don’t allow players to take a running start, have definitely affected the onside kick. Teams have recovered just 2 of 20 onside kicks, or 10 percent. That’s less than half the recovery rate of last year, 20.7 percent. And between 2010-17, teams recovered 15.4 percent of onside kicks.
In-season official business
Fascinating story on Thursday, with the NFL firing one of its officials in the middle of the season for the first time. Hugo Cruz, a down judge and an NFL official since 2015, was fired for a history of subpar performance, per a source. Officials are graded on every play in every game and held to high standards, and Cruz had not been meeting them for a long period, according to the league.
Officials usually are quietly dismissed at the end of a season, but the NFL took the unprecedented step of firing Cruz now. Though his firing was about more than just one call, the final straw was a missed false start on a Chargers touchdown against the Browns in Week 6. Cruz did not work a game in Week 7. Interestingly, he hasn’t worked a Patriots game since 2015.
The NFL Referees Association said it will challenge the termination with a grievance.
“The NFL has a troubling history of knee-jerk reactions with an eye on public relations, and clearly it has not learned from past mistakes,” the association said in a statement. “The NFLRA will protect the collectively bargained rights of all officials and will challenge this reckless decision through the grievance process.”
Chad Kelly learned a hard lesson this past week: Seventh-round picks don’t get a long leash.
Kelly, the nephew of Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, was gaining traction with the Broncos. The last pick of the 2017 draft, Kelly had a solid preseason this year, beat out Paxton Lynch for the backup quarterback job, and had fans clamoring to see him play with Case Keenum struggling as the starter.
But Kelly’s tenure ended abruptly, the Broncos releasing him less than a day after Kelly was arrested for first-degree criminal trespass. Kelly was hostile and aggressive at Von Miller’s Halloween party, had to be escorted out, then bizarrely entered an unknown home and sat next to a woman on her couch.
“He was the backup. He made a mistake and we had a long discussion about how to handle it. It was to waive Chad,” coach Vance Joseph said. “It’s as simple as that.”
If Kelly were the Broncos’ starter, or if they had made any sort of real investment in him, he would still likely be with the team. But Kelly, who literally was Mr. Irrelevant, wasn’t worth the headache. He also has a history of trouble, getting kicked off of his high school team, and also at Clemson University. The Broncos gave Kelly his chance, and Kelly couldn’t handle it.
It’s getting ugly in Denver
The Broncos’ ownership situation is getting messy. Owner Pat Bowlen is struggling with severe Alzheimer’s, and he appointed a three-member trust to oversee the Broncos and determine which of Bowlen’s heirs will gain control of the team when he dies. Now the issue is going to court. Bill Bowlen, Pat Bowlen’s younger brother, filed a lawsuit in Colorado on Thursday to remove the three-person trust “due to their failure to uphold Pat Bowlen’s wishes and act in the best interest of Pat Bowlen, his family, and the Broncos.”
Two of Bowlen’s daughters, Beth Bowlen-Wallace and Brittany Bowlen, have expressed interest in the team, and it is believed that Brittany, 28, is being groomed to eventually take over.
Cheer up, Justin Tucker. The Ravens kicker missed an extra point in the final minute of his team’s 1-point loss to the Saints last Sunday, but the PAT is no gimme anymore. Between 2011-14, NFL kickers missed a total of 26. Since the play was moved back in 2015, kickers have missed 242 extra points . . . If Damon Harrison is active for the Lions this Sunday, and makes it through the entire season healthy, he will accomplish a rarity — playing in 17 games, since his former team, the Giants, haven’t had their bye, and the Lions had theirs in Week 6. Per Pro Football Reference, seven players in NFL history have played in 17 games, most recently safety Will Allen in 2013. Harrison would basically be playing one week for free, since players earn a game check during their bye week . . . A tell-tale sign of desperation: The Bengals and Jaguars each held players-only meetings this past week . . . The Patriots are one of five teams that hasn’t attempted a 2-point conversion this year (Bills, Bears, Chiefs, Seahawks) . . . The Buccaneers’ pass defense has been remarkably bad. Opposing QBs have compiled a 125.8 passer rating vs. the Bucs, with 18 TDs, 1 interception, and 327.5 passing yards per game . . . Don’t be surprised to see plenty of blitzes from the Patriots Monday night. Bills quarterbacks have a league-low 22.8 passer rating against the blitz (5 interceptions, 10 sacks, and 56 pass attempts). If the quarterback just throws the ball straight into the ground every time, his passer rating is 39.6.