Illustration by Brad Beatson.
San Francisco (-3) at St. Louis
There’s no such thing as destiny in the NFL. Careers are byproducts of luck just as much as skill—think of the talented young quarterback stuck behind a shitty offensive line, a running back hit by injury after injury, players who find success as cogs in the right machine or don’t. For all of the narratives that assume winners are tougher or more mentally prepared or more virtuous or simply more “clutch” than losers, a great deal of football comes down to an oddly-shaped ball twisting one way or another in the air.
I was reminded of this while reading Slow Getting Up, Nate Jackson’s memoir of six years spent on the relative fringes of professional football. (Everyone says it’s great; everyone is right. Go read it.) Jackson finds himself on the Broncos after Bill Walsh does him a favor and gets him traded to Denver; six years later he’s out of the league because Mike Shanahan gets replaced by Josh McDaniels, who wants to “go in another direction.” Running throughout the book is a thread of players getting opportunities because someone else got hurt, having their careers end after getting hurt themselves, being a part of a team with a locker full of clothes one minute and being cut or traded the next.
Case in point: Alex Smith. Your may not think of him as some storm-tossed child of misfortune, but look at it from his perspective. In 2011 Smith did his job very fucking well—his 49ers went 13-3, he had his most efficient season ever (an amazingly low percentage of his passes were intercepted), and beat the Saints in the playoffs with a last-second touchdown throw to Vernon Davis. Heck, they might have made the Super Bowl had Kyle Williams not fumbled twice on punt returns during the NFC Championship—just some bad luck there, especially considering Williams was filling in for an injured Ted Ginn, Jr.
In 2012 Smith is even better, completing 70 percent of his passes—then he gets a concussion and reports it like he’s supposed to, which leads of course to Colin “Dude Who Hangs Out At The Tattoo Shop Talking About His Christian Metal Band” Kaepernick replacing him and playing so well the 49ers decide they don’t need Smith anymore. And that is why he is now enjoying the smoky nuances of Kansas City barbeque. That isn’t to say that Kaepernick’s stepping in for Smith is seedy or immoral or anything—this is the NFL, these things happen. But he’s clearly one of the many, many victims of pure dumb chance.
Now it’s Kaep’s turn to suffer at the hands of dumb chance. The dude is bigger and faster and stronger than Smith and has a more powerful arm, but in the last two weeks he’s completed only 26 out of 55 passes, gotten sacked six times, thrown four picks and no touchdowns… you get the idea. He’s not suddenly terrible, but for one of those games he was playing Seattle’s impossible-to-beat-at-home defense and for the other he was without Davis, Michael Crabtree, or any other pairs of familiar hands.
The 49ers may get Davis back this week, but they’ve lost Patrick Willis to a groin injury and Aldon Smith to a drug problem. The silver lining from their perspective is they get to play the Rams, who have looked extremely bad two weeks in a row. Sometimes you lose football games because of bad luck, but sometimes your guys just fall over each other and miss tackles and just in general look like a buncha horse parts.
PICK: San Francisco
Pittsburgh (-2.5) at Minnesota, but really they’re playing in England
Speaking of a buncha horse parts, here’s the NFL’s continuation of its longtime effort to build a fanbase for handegg in London, despite the immense logistical problems involved and the English being fairly disinterested in the process. “‘Ello, ‘ello! I’m ‘Oger Goodell, mate. Crickey! ‘Ere are some good ol’ winless teams for ya, gov’ner! They’ll be playin’ a sport that takes too long and has too many stoppages and that no one fully understands, not even the Yanks who love it, innit? Fancy a biscuit? 帮助我了解你的文化!”
“New York” Giants (+4.5) at Kansas City
The Giants may have caught some bad breaks, but in general their 0-3 start has been about them just being lousy at the game of football in the National Football League. To wit:
Then, after a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, seven-sack, 0-38 loss, safety Antrel Rolle said on his radio show that the Giants weren’t fighting for each other on the field, and receiver Hakeem Nicks was all like, “I can’t throw it to myself.” Fortunately, the New York media usually shows restraint when players on a losing team appear to be criticizing each other. It will all be fine. Or Mike Francesa will personally fire everyone in a couple weeks. Either way.
PICK: Kansas City
Baltimore (-3.5) at Buffalo
One rule that Slow Getting Up proves is that the playing memoirs of benchwarmers are always more interesting than those of stars. Hall of Famers have legacies to preserve, broadcasting jobs to hold onto, celebrity golf tournaments to host—they have no incentive to air dirty laundry of any kind, and anyway people would rather read rehashings of their old victories and rivalries that have by now been told a thousands times in slow motion.
Guys like Nate Jackson (or Ball Four’s Jim Bouton), on the other hand, don’t have anything to lose, so they can let fly with stories about masturbation and depression and rants about how the league should let the players smoke pot. Which isn’t to say that Jackson is a reckless, unhinged blabbermouth—but if he is motivated by careerist impulses at all, I imagine he’s influenced by his burgeoning status as an ex-jock truth-teller rather than some hope that he’ll return to the NFL as a coach or broadcaster. Some bridges are worth burning. Some bridges don’t go where you want to go.
Arizona (+2.5) at Tampa Bay
This game is going to be the football equivalent of when your mom is saying goodbye to a lady she doesn’t like and it takes like a million years because the lady is trying to get your mom to sign a petition or something and your mom is declining via a bunch of excuses that double as passive-aggressive comments on the lady herself, and mooOOOOommm, we have to go! But then you’re just in a van with your mom.
Indianapolis (-8.5) at Jacksonville
Another line that is downright disrespectful to the Jags, another week of taking the points. Jacksonville might go 0-16 this season, but is it possible they’ll go 0-16 against the spread? Maybe, since they can’t seem to throw blocks without literally falling down:
Seattle (-2.5) at Houston
Arian Foster got money for playing college football, which isn’t unusual or wrong in any way and in fact should probably be widespread and official and how are we even still talking about this. But Foster admitted it in an interview, which was noteworthy, especially since he was notably unapologetic about it:
“I really didn't have any money. I had to either pay the rent or buy some food. I remember the feeling of like, 'Man, be careful.' But there's nothing wrong with it. And you're not going to convince me that there is something wrong with it."
It’s practically a cliche to talk about Foster’s “eclecticism” or how he’s a “thinking man’s NFLer” or whatever. (This Sports Illustrated mini-profile that shows him visiting Occupy Wall Street in 2011 checks all the boxes pretty well.) He does seem to have a broad range of intellectual interests, but I’m sure he’s not the only guy in the league who writes poetry or thinks the NCAA’s phony amateurism regime is terrible for players. He is, however, one of the few guys talented enough to be publicly eccentric without being labeled a “distraction” and passive-aggressively fussed about by Mike Florio.
Cincinnati (-4.5) at Cleveland
I’ve said it before and I imagine I’ll say it again: poor Brandon Weeden. After a tough first two games against the Dolphins (who are now 3-0) and the Ravens (who haven’t allowed a touchdown after getting hosed by the amazin’ Broncos in the season opener), he busts his thumb and has to sit on the sideline. Then David “Is My Name Really David? I’m Pretty Sure It’s Brian” Hoyer comes in and toss three TDs against a lousy Vikings defense, and now everyone is all like, “Brandon? Uhhhmmm, we’ll see if he gets the starting job or not when he comes back from injury.” Poor, poor Brandon Weeden.
PS: The phrase “Poor Brandon Weeden” returns over 3,400 Google results.
Chicago (+3) at Detroit
Nate Jackson was friends with Jake Plummer in Denver, and naturally in Slow Getting Up he touches on the ugly way that the quarterback got chased out of town. In case you’ve forgotten how that went, the Broncos won 13 games in 2005 and Plummer had his most efficient season ever. But the team drafted Jay Cutler in the first round in the following draft and the fans naturally started clamoring for a shiny new quarterback. (Jackson calls this “John Elway Nostalgia” and says that Denver is always pining for a superlative quarterback that can take the team back to the misty, legendary days of the 90s.)
In 2006 the team was 7-4* when the inevitable ax fell and Plummer got benched for Cutler… who went 2-3 as a starter while the Broncos missed the playoffs… then got traded to Chicago for Kyle Orton after two rocky seasons and an embarrassing attempt by coach Josh McDaniels to replace him with Matt Cassel. Orton wasn’t all that great either, and then there was that whole Tim Tebow thing. Plummer famously retired after the 2006 season to hang out and play handball, and I doubt he regrets leaving that insane circus behind. Meanwhile, Cutler is finally behind a decent offensive line on a team that could get to the playoffs. I’m happy for him. He’s gone through a lot of shit.
*Yeah, I know wins are a shitty metric by which to judge QBs. Still, why make a drastic change when things are going well?
Philadelphia (+10.5) at Denver
Meanwhile, for running two decent quarterbacks out of town and inflicting Tebow on everyone, the Denver fans and media get rewarded with Peyton Manning, who seems to be treating the 2013 season like a victory lap. Life continues to be unfair.
Dallas (-2) at San Diego
This game is the going to be the football equivalent of a couple of golf visor–wearing bros playing beer pong and getting increasingly into it as a crowd forms until one of them is so belligerent he is literally barking while trying to take his polo shirt off in an instinctive gesture of machismo, only he is so drunk and the shirt is so tight that it becomes kind of this comical thing of his head being stuck in the shirt while his smooth abs are exposed, and people are laughing openly at him which is only getting him more enraged, which is making it harder to get his shirt off, etc.
PICK: San Diego
“New York” Jets (+3.5) at Tennessee
I’ve gotten unusually far in this column this week without mentioning that football is a brutal, inhumane sport. Let’s remedy that with this disturbing gif of Jermichael Finley stumbling around after taking a shot to the head:
Jesus. I’m glad I don’t play football. At least Finley will receive a modest NFL pension in 30 years.
PICK: “New York” Jets
Washington (-3) at Oakland
Oh, and also:
Sorry about the loss RaiderNation. I don't remember much ! Good hit by whoever it was. I heard our team fought well .. We will be back!
— Terrelle Pryor (@TerrellePryor) September 24, 2013
Terrelle Pryor doesn’t remember a bunch of the game because he got hit so hard. That’s bad, y’all. It’s unclear whether Pryor is going to start on Sunday. He tweeted later that day that he was good to go, so… yeah, another three decades or so until that modest pension, guy. Godspeed.
New England (+2) at Atlanta
The Sunday night game this week promises to also be one of the best. Both teams are banged up, but the Falcons are really up against the wall—if they lose, they’ll be 1-3, and all of a sudden at risk of missing the playoffs. On the other side, Tom Brady is yelling while holding his own head, which is also yelling:
Miami (+6.5) at New Orleans
While clicking around through stories previewing this game, I came across this from ESPN:
“The quarterback matchups only get tougher for [Ryan] Tannehill. After producing back-to-back wins over Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts and Ryan of the Falcons, Tannehill must now square off against Drew Brees in New Orleans. Brees is off to another good start for the high powered Saints (3-0). It will be up to Tannehill to keep pace with Brees, a tall task. Tannehill has beaten some good quarterbacks early in his career, but potentially outdueling Brees would be the biggest to date.”
Reading that, you’d get the impression that quarterbacks compete against each other like tennis players or boxers, which is obviously insane. If the Dolphins lose, it won’t say anything about Tannehill’s ability relative to that of Drew Brees, it will simply mean that the Saints defense beat Tannehill, or (more likely) that the Dolphins couldn’t stop Brees’s offense from marching over them. Or it might just mean that one team got lucky. I’m excited either way.
PICK: New Orleans
Previous week’s record: 7-8-1
Overall record: 25-21-2
Lines taken from FootballLocks.com