This week, Odell Beckham Jr. was slapped with the dreaded “distraction” label. After the wide receiver freaked out late in the Giants’ Sunday loss to Washington, lashing out at a kicking net (aren’t those designed to take impact?) and storming up and down the sidelines, coach Ben McAdoo said Beckham “needs to control his emotions better and become less of a distraction to himself and to his teammates.”
This wasn’t branded as a distraction:
Neither was this:
But the game has changed, and now the sport is built to legislate emotion. Within hours of Matthew Stafford hollering and pointing during his two-minute drill in Week 1, pundits were gauging whether it was a good or bad show of emotion. Rarely can a player in today’s NFL express himself without having to hear criticism or praise from the masses.
Beckham compared himself to Russell Westbrook, saying: “He plays with a lot of emotion or passion, whatever you want to call it. It’s what’s best for some players and what’s not best for some players. You use it and just be smart.” Unlike Beckham, though, Westbrook doesn’t play a rigid sport that’s hellbent on sapping emotion out of the game. In addressing Beckham’s actions, Eli Manning said, “We don’t need to get fired up.” In Manning’s world and in the NFL, calm trumps passion.
In an era in which cameras are on all parties at all times, coaches, referees, media, and the league office have gotten into the business of ruling on feelings. But that’s the slipperiest of slopes, because a culture of good sportsmanship mandates leaves the door wide open for judging humanity.
One of the most visible manifestations is the ridiculous uptick in taunting penalties, which have become one of the stories of the young season, making the catch rule look positively sensical. Cleveland’s Terrelle Pryor was flagged for doing … something, and it cost the Browns a potential win. Carolina’s Trai Turner literally doesn’t know why he was flagged and fined for taunting. Most notably, Antonio Brown twerked in Week 1, and that, plus his colorfully decorated cleats, led to fines of more than $21,000. Last week, Brown had to change his shoes at halftime, but he has not twerked again. His former teammate, Emmanuel Sanders, has.
It could be worse: In 2013, the NFL floated the idea that a touchdown would be nullified if a player taunted before reaching the end zone. Thankfully, we only got the next-worst thing: a culture of joyless, soulless after-play routine in which anything other than a high five is deemed a potential penalty.
Referees are generally under more scrutiny than ever, and asking them to make judgement calls about celebrations and taunting puts them under even more pressure. Each second spent on the mechanics of a twerk is a second not spent figuring out if a guy actually caught a 50-yard bomb.
Making matters even worse is the fact that players are automatically ejected for two personal foul calls. And that’s where Beckham’s behavior worries the Giants. If he lashed out on the field rather than on the sideline, he could have been flagged and kicked out of the game. Giants center Weston Richburg, who was called for taunting last Sunday, was ejected and fined. Unsportsmanlike conduct is no longer a minor rule: It’s putting wins and losses in the hands of referees who may not like how a player is acting, and that seems wildly arbitrary.
It’s a rule of monumentally dumb proportions, but the sport’s tendency to judge expression extends beyond the field. Look at J.J. Watt, who was ripped for the crime of telling fans he’ll work hard to return from a back injury. The nit-picking is contagious.
One fear, apparently, is that players showing emotion on or off the field will trickle down to the lower levels of the sport: Jeff Fisher, a former member of the league’s competition committee, said that the NCAA asked the NFL to crack down on taunting. Listening to the NCAA? Now I’ve heard it all.
On to the picks.
Colts (-3) at Jaguars (London)
There’s a great story in Smithsonian Magazine about how the jaguars got back on track. To be clear, it’s about actual, literal jaguars. The football team is absolutely not back on track. A clear sign: When I was researching some Jags injury news this week, I discovered that Google has branded anything from the Jaguars’ website as “(satire)”:
More bad signs: The team is 0–9 when Blake Bortles throws for 300 yards. Worse: The first London game of the past two seasons has resulted in a firing. Last year, the Dolphins dumped Joe Philbin after their loss at Wembley Stadium, and the year before, the Raiders got rid of Dennis Allen after their stumble across the pond. That bodes ill for Gus Bradley, who hasn’t jump-started his much-hyped team.
The Colts, meanwhile, could crawl back to 2–2 with a win here and get back into the awful AFC South race, which should open up now that the Texans have lost J.J. Watt to a back injury. Take the OVER on hours you sleep in rather than watch this. Colts 27, Jaguars 23
Titans (+5) at Texans
Does anyone watch Texans-Titans games? Of their 28 meeting, 27 have come in the ho-hum 1 p.m. time slot. (For reference, just five of the 29 Cowboys-Giants games in that span have come at 1.) The Titans hold a narrow 15–13 edge in the series and mediocrity has defined the showdowns: Only once, in 2011, have both sides finished with a winning record in the same season. Texans-Titans is the closest thing the NFL has to NCIS or Burn Notice — something you know exists but have never actually seen. RedZone will only switch to this game when it absolutely has to. There’s a Wikipedia page for this “rivalry” that mentions only the 2010 Andre Johnson–Cortland Finnegan fight. (There’s also a Wikipedia page for the similarly dull Jaguars-Titans series, but at least those teams have met in a playoff game.) Anyway, the Texans are going to win big, even without Watt. Take the under on minutes watched. Texans 27, Titans 14
Bills (+5.5) at Patriots
Last week on Twitter, I asked in jest for suggestions on the worst quarterback Bill Belichick could build a game plan around and still beat the Bills. The most popular answer was Tim Tebow. Since I asked that, though, I’ve learned about the exchange that took place in the Patriots’ locker room this week:
Now I realize that I asked the wrong question. Here’s a better one: How many current Patriots could Belichick stick at QB and win this game? Sure, there’s Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett, but it’s possible neither is healthy enough to play on Sunday. And there’s Julian Edelman, a former college quarterback who would presumably take over as the emergency option if both guys are unable to go. But could Belichick get some single-wing offense going for Devin McCourty? Malcolm Butler? What about big Nate Solder? Remember Belichick’s incredible Lacrosse Magazine video, for which it seemed like he’d spent hours thinking of which Patriots would play which lacrosse positions? I bet he’s wondering now which of his nonquarterbacks could play the position. And maybe that kind of thought experiment will be actually prove valuable. Anyway, the Bills have 19 passing first downs in three games this year. That’s probably more notable than who plays quarterback for the Patriots. Patriots 24, Bills 14
Seahawks (-3) at Jets
Forty-five times in his career, Ryan Fitzpatrick has played a game without throwing an interception. Many of those games have occurred in spurts: He avoided picks from Weeks 7 through 9 last year, then again from Weeks 12 through 14. He also posted three-game pickless streaks in November-December 2014 and November 2013. When he does throw multiple interceptions, however, he always follows it up the next week with … more interceptions. Seven of the last eight times Fitzpatrick has thrown multiple interceptions in a game, he’s thrown a pick in his next contest, too. His consistency is almost stunning, and it should have Jets fans worried after he threw six interceptions last week. I suppose you could argue that he got it all out of his system, but I’m not ready to buy that just yet.
The Seahawks are just the sort of competent team that can take advantage. It’s easy to overlook the ability to travel cross country and function — if you’ve never traveled. Could you imagine playing a football game within 36 hours of crossing three time zones? You think traveling is easy, and then you realize you’re scarfing down a buffalo chicken wrap at 7 a.m. Not the Seahawks: They’ve actually adjusted well to traveling, as Russell Wilson is 7–2–1 against the spread in his last 10 in the Eastern time zone, including covering spreads of 11, 7, and 9.5 in that span. They don’t have many letdowns, though they could this week: Wilson says he’ll play, but he’s battling a knee injury and a lingering ankle problem. My bet is that the Seahawks will pick Fitzpatrick off so much that Wilson’s health won’t even matter. Seahawks 20, Jets 15
Browns (+7.5) at Redskins
Remind me why we think the Browns are historically terrible? Through three weeks, they’ve gotten run over by the Wentz Wagon (no shame there) and almost beat the Ravens and Dolphins. The Redskins, who were favored by 8 earlier this week, haven’t been favored by that much since October 2009 and haven’t covered a spread this high since — and I’m not making this up — Todd Collins led them to a win over the Cowboys in December 2007.
It’s usually safe to assume the Browns are bad, but they haven’t actually done anything on the field this season to justify sliding into the 2013 Jaguars’ role of comically large underdog in every game they play. The Browns came within inches of winning outright last week as 10-point underdogs to Miami! And though you wouldn’t know it from all the attention Terrelle Pryor got for seeing some time at QB in Week 3, rookie Cody Kessler posted the highest quarterback rating of any of the Browns’ three starters this year. Redskins 24, Browns 23
Lions (-3) at Bears
Both of these teams are bad. I think we’ve been sleeping on the Bears as the worst team in the NFL through three weeks. Their minus-38 point differential is lapping the field: The only team that’s even close is the minus-31 Bucs, who at least have a win and were blown out by 33 in one game. The Lions have defeated the Bears six straight times and have gone 9–2–1 against the spread versus the Bears since 2010. But this is not a normal matchup. Both teams are significantly injured and this game is going to be, to use a technical term, a shitshow. So I’ll take the home team. (In the interest of full disclosure: I picked the Bears to cover the last three weeks, too, because I’m an idiot.) Bears 24, Lions 20
Panthers (-3) at Falcons
Wait — are the Falcons good? Fifty-five percent of their drives have ended in a score, the best mark in the league by a comfortable margin, and they’ve turned the ball over fewer times than all but three teams. They also beat the Panthers last year even though they were objectively bad.
Few offenses scared defenders more than the Panthers’ 2015 unit, but that’s not the case this year. Cam Newton is getting some heat for holding on to the ball too long, and Minnesota’s Captain Munnerlyn said last week what we’ve all been thinking: Kelvin Benjamin is kinda the Panthers’ only good receiver. The Panthers will pull this out on a late field goal, but the Falcons will keep it close. Panthers 30, Falcons 28
Raiders (+3.5) at Ravens
The Raiders’ ability to give up deep passes is almost impressive at this point: They’ve allowed 12 deep receptions this year on 19 attempts, which, if you’re new to football, is terrible. They’re also allowing an NFL-worst 14.5 yards per catch, but there’s some good news: The Raiders’ insistence on giving up comically long touchdown passes won’t be a problem in Baltimore, because only two teams have worse yards-per-catch averages than the Ravens’ 10.2.
The Baltimore Sun’s Jeff Zrebiec offered an interesting theory this week, essentially saying that Baltimore’s 3–0 record might be preventing any big changes in the lineup, including, for instance, deemphasizing Justin Forsett or benching Jeremy Zuttah. “Winning ugly shouldn’t be an excuse for accepting the status quo and I don’t think the Ravens are doing that,” Zrebiec wrote. “But winning certainly gives some players a little longer leash.” The Ravens have been a terrible 3–0 team and are due for a clunker at some point, and this week they face a team whose greatest weakness they’re incapable of exploiting. Unrelated tweet I loved this week for its absurdity:
Raiders 27, Ravens 23
Broncos (-3.5) at Bucs
The headline “Buccaneers want Jameis Winston to throw less” isn’t a good sign. It also appears to be wishful thinking, since all of their games have fit the same profile: the defense gives up a lot of points and Winston has to throw a billion times to keep up. Despite what the Bucs want, Winston appears fast-tracked for the Drew Brees role — and I don’t mean the Super Bowls and the dominance; I mean the 2016 Brees who’s passing for lots of yardage and touchdowns and then losing. Last week, Winston joined a distinguished list of players to throw for 400 yards and three touchdowns in a loss. Since 2010, Brees has done that four times, as has Tony Romo. Let’s save Winston before it’s too late.
Meanwhile, dating back to last year’s playoffs, the Broncos have covered five straight games. And they’ve done so resoundingly: They were actually underdogs in four of them, but won each of those outright, then covered a six-point spread against Indy by winning by two touchdowns. The Broncos are playing fierce defense, and will win, but I think Jameis will deliver something of a comeback game, keeping this close and maybe inspiring us to start comparing him to Drew Brees in a good way. Broncos 23, Bucs 20
Rams (+8) at Cardinals
OK — what is Fisher’s point? If Case Keenum is never injured, Jared Goff will never play? Every starting quarterback ever got the job because of some butterfly effect. Fisher’s comment isn’t a justification for not starting the no. 1 overall pick; this explanation is wrong and just plain confusing.
The Cardinals have struggled as much as Fisher, so this game comes down to whether you think Arizona is ready to get hot. The Cards obviously mailed in last week’s loss at Buffalo, but when they’ve done that in recent years, they’ve been fine shortly thereafter. This team has specialized in streaks: In 2013, the Cardinals won four in a row starting in Week 8, then another three in a row after one loss. In 2014, they won six in a row in October and November. In 2015 they won nine in a row from October until December. I think they’ll start heating up soon, just not soon enough to blow out the Rams. Cardinals 25, Rams 21
Cowboys (-3) at 49ers
I thought about picking the Niners at home here. Dez Bryant is out with a hairline fracture in his right leg and skipped an MRI and some team meetings, and no one seems to know how long he’ll be gone. The Cowboys are probably overconfident after beating a crappy Bears team. Dak Prescott is messing with people’s heads at drive-throughs:
I’m not picking the 49ers, however, because I’ve seen this:
Cowboys 28, 49ers 16
Saints (+4) at Chargers
Last week the Chargers blew what should have been a resounding win against a bad Colts team, but it’s not all bad news, because Chargers fans can buy a Jason Mraz–themed shirt. Wait, I guess it’s all bad news.
Brees has 1,062 passing yards in three games, but the Saints look lost at, like, 20 other positions, and are 0–3. Saints fans like this team too much: Locally, their Monday Night home game in Week 3 outdrew the presidential debate, even though nationally the game was the lowest-rated Monday Night game in history. New Orleans fans need Pelicans season to start because — wait, never mind, they shouldn’t watch the Pelicans either. Just go outside and get some fresh air, people. Chargers 31, Saints 30
Chiefs (+5.5) at Steelers
The Chiefs have struggled to stop the run and sack the quarterback, and they’re going to need to do both of those things on the road against the Steelers. Le’Veon Bell returns from suspension this week, and he and DeAngelo Williams need to be neutralized if the opponent stands a chance. Further, Ben Roethlisberger needs to be taken down before he can throw bombs to Antonio Brown or Sammie Coates. The Steelers aren’t much better in this department, as these two teams are among the worst in the league in sacks, but that matters far less against the Chiefs, who throw shorter passes than anyone in the league. Limiting their offense is about keeping the plays in front of the defense and tackling well, and we know Pittsburgh can do that. Steelers 27, Chiefs 17
Giants (+5.5) at Vikings
Manning was asked this week if the Vikings, who are 5–3 against him all time, have his number. He answered with an elaborate bit about how it’s possible that Sam Bradford and Linval Joseph have his phone number. This actually happened. Eli is an absolute weirdo, and he’s owning his role as the last Manning in the NFL.
As discussed, Manning’s quasi–Norm Macdonald shtick contrasts sharply with Beckham. On the field, this does not seem like a team that’s primed to keep it close against one of the NFL’s best, so you may think I’m crazy for picking the Giants to cover on the road, but remember two things: The Vikings haven’t really had a breakout offensive performance (they’ve scored 25, 17, and 22) and the Giants are capable of making a few defensive plays to keep this close. Maybe Eli finally has some of the Vikings’ phone numbers. Vikings 22, Giants 21