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Dangers of Thursday Night Football and honoring the 1988 Bengals

The impact of Thursday night games, protecting the shield, honoring the ‘88 Bengals, giving credit to Nick Vigil and Dre Kirkpatrick, and more in the lead up to the Bengals vs. Ravens ‘Thursday Night Football’ game.

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James Brooks

The brutal part of every team’s schedule is the week they play Thursday Night Football. Coaches accelerate schedules, disrupt player routines, and in many cases, turn grunt-filled practices into quiet walkthroughs. Practices before and after games seem pointless — players are too sore to work on Monday after a Sunday game and you don’t want to work players the day before the big game. You’re getting nothing out of these sessions, leaving Tuesday as your only day for real work. Recovery time between games is significantly shorter, making Thursday Night Football more dangerous because chances for a significant injury increase. Last year the Seattle Seahawks lost six starters during a brutal 22-16 win over Arizona, prompting one player to say that “this shit should be illegal. It is not OK. It’s not OK. You can quote me on that.”


Remember when we lost Geno Atkins?

Players have complained about the league’s hypocrisy regarding player safety for years. “The NFL preaches player safety,” cornerback Richard Sherman wrote via the Players Tribune arguing against Thursday night games. “The league says it wants to do everything in its power to protect its players. But when it comes down to it, it’s not the players that the NFL protects. It’s the Shield.”

He’s right.

Look at how the league responded to domestic violence, specifically the case of Ray Rice who was arrested, for simple assault of his wife in February 2014. The NFL suspended Rice two games on July 24, 2014. TMZ released a video of the incident, showing Rice punching Janay Palmer inside an elevator on Sept. 8, 2014 and the NFL couldn’t indefinitely suspend Rice quickly enough. The NFL denied seeing the video. The Associated Press reported that the NFL received the elevator video in April. Did the NFL lie?

The league announced an independant investigation, headed by former FBI director Robert Mueller, who you might recognize as the man currently investigating Russian interference with the Presidential election in 2016. Per Mueller’s report, no evidence was found supporting the AP’s report that the league watched the video before it was publicly released, but added:

“League investigators did not contact any of the police officers who investigated the incident, the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office, or the Revel [casino] to attempt to obtain or view the in-elevator video or to obtain other information. No one from the League asked Rice or his lawyer whether they would make available for viewing the in-elevator video they received as part of criminal discovery in early April. And, after the initial contacts with the Ravens in the immediate aftermath of the incident, League investigators did not follow up with the Ravens to determine whether the team had additional information.”

The NFL botched their initial response with Rice, and when they were faced with significant criticism, they suspended Rice indefinitely (at the time). Why? To protect the shield. Naturally. There’s the anthem protests, bowing to mounting pressure from a President that’s misconstruing a message protesters are trying to convey. After several offseason meetings, the owners are literally stumped on how to proceed.

Thursday Night Football is a bad product. Yet, it makes the league money. Fox signed a five-year agreement earlier this year for broadcast rights at an average annual cost of $550 million per year, an increase from the $300 million CBS paid in 2014-15, and the $450 million signed in 2016 — with three fewer games.

“The NFL is a bottom-line business,” Sherman continues. “As long as fans are tuning in and advertisers are paying to be featured on Thursday Night Football, it’s not going anywhere. So I don’t know what the solution is.

“I guess this is what happens when you have people in suits who have never played the game at this level dictating the schedule. I’d like to put Roger Goodell in pads for a late game on a Sunday, in December, in Green Bay, on the frozen tundra — then see what time he gets to the office on Monday morning, knowing that he would have to suit up again on Thursday.”

While the league is understandably being led by the decaying corpse of greedy men, Sherman should direct some frustration at the NFL Players Association. Disciplinary issues heavily favor the NFL — who dish punishment with randomized sentencing and minimal player representation. Players universally gripe about Thursday games and the league continues anyway. Players aren’t being heard. If they were, they could seriously consider one solution where the league makes money and the players are happy. “Maybe the league should take away one preseason game and add a second bye week for each team, which would occur before its Thursday game,” writes Sherman. “That way, at least teams would have a full week to recover and prepare.”

The NFL is a body of hypocrisy. They’ll claim player safety under public pressure, but their conduct suggests otherwise. Making the game “safer” isn’t for player safety, it’s for protecting the brand.

Here’s the irony: We’re hypocrites too. Yep. Because we’ll complain about it... while watching it.

Boomer Esaison

Honoring the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals. On Thursday, Cincinnati will honor the 1988 Bengals, the last squad to reach a Super Bowl and arguably, their most popular. Thursday’s celebration will include highlights, messages, and a halftime ceremony during Cincinnati’s game against Baltimore.

“We look forward to visiting with the players from the 1988 Super Bowl team,” said Bengals President Mike Brown in a press release. “That was a very exciting season and we had a great run. The players on that team will always be special to our fans and me.”

I loved this squad. They had personality, swagger, and a rap song (released the following year).

The ’05 or ’15 teams had flavor, sure. Carson Palmer, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Chad Johnson, Chris Henry, and Rudi Johnson were a lethal combination — behind an offensive line that featured greats like Willie Anderson, Richie Braham, Eric Steinbach, Levi Jones, and the jolly Bobbie Williams. Odell Thurman was the Vontaze Burfict before Vontaze Burfict, along with the promise of David Pollack with Pro Bowl corners Tory James and Deltha O’Neal.

Even they couldn’t match the romance we have for that ‘88 team. They aren’t just memorable, they’re legends.

I was 10 years old when the Bengals reached Super Bowl XXIII, which became my “how I became a fan” moment, as I wrote in 2015.

Despite decades of life experiences accumulating an infinite amount of memories, January 22, 1989 is like an ink pen on a crossword puzzle. My tiny sausage fingers clutched the maroon-colored pillow like a security blanket. Running my finger over a cigarette burn with a distinctive sensation, my heart was racing and my body was a tremble commonly mistaken for a minor seizure... or a lottery ball.

There with only 39 seconds remaining in the game.

(Earlier) with 3:20 remaining in the fourth quarter, placekicker Jim Breech converted a 40-yard field goal to snap a 13-point tie and give Cincinnati a 16-13 lead. San Francisco was called for a hold on the ensuing kickoff, placing the 49ers on their own eight-yard line. It was surgical; not the west coast offense; it was the Ohio River Offense. Joe Montana completed an eight-yard pass to Roger Craig and then a seven-yarder to tight end John Frank -- who would later become an otolaryngologist. Montana took what the overconfident Bengals defense, clearly in prevention, had given him. Jerry Rice snagged a seven-yarder in the flats, and another 17-yarder on the sidelines. Before we knew it, San Francisco crossed midfield and continued marching down the field.

It became evident that (either)... 1) the 49ers were going to tie up the game and send it into overtime or 2) they were going to score a touchdown to win the game.

With 39 seconds remaining in the game, San Francisco crushed Bengals fans (again) when Joe Montana fired a strike to John Taylor, giving the 49ers a 20-16 lead and the eventual win.

Ugh. Brutal.

Not everyone will be on hand during Thursday’s celebration, notably Boomer Esiason will be missing. But nearly 50 players and coaches are confirmed, including Sam Wyche, Ickey Woods, James Brooks, Anthony Munoz, Max Montoya, Bruce Kozerski, Bruce Reimers, and Joe Walter. Fun fact: Other than Munoz, the Bengals’ starting offensive line from that squad had two seventh-round picks (Montoya and Walter), an eighth (Reimers), and ninth (Kozerski).

The ‘88 team is one of three to win 12 regular season games, one of two to reach the Super Bowl, and the only Bengals crew to rank first in scoring offense.

It wasn’t just their success that made them great — it was their personalities and individuality. Ickey Woods, a rookie, danced. James Woods dazzled. Boomer slung wicked passes and sported Maverick-like sunglasses. Eddie Brown toasted defenders with a 24 yards per reception average. Brown was also joined by Boomer, Brooks, and tight end Rodney Holman at the Pro Bowl, representing the league’s first-ranked offense — this was only the second, and final time, that Cincinnati’s overall offense ranked first.

According to the team’s press release, fans will have the “opportunity to meet” players from that squad, obtain an autograph, and the first 10,000 fans will earn an exclusive hat.

As Mike Brown gets older (turned 83 this August), he’s using these opportunities to reminisce. Last year the Bengals celebrated their 50th anniversary of existence, honoring legends during halftime ceremonies at home games, erecting sculptures in eight cities around the region, and listing the top 50 players (voted on by fans and the media) on the team’s website.

Brown addressed fans in a letter. “This season will mark the Bengals’ 50th season in Cincinnati. Since we were formed in 1968, we have enjoyed great support – first at Nippert Stadium, then at Riverfront Stadium, and now at Paul Brown Stadium. Throughout all those years, there has been one constant: you, our fans. We appreciate your support, and I say ‘thank you’ on behalf of the entire organization. We look forward to celebrating our team’s history with you this season.”

It was a tremendous gesture. Former players were honored. Older fans reminisced with younger folks about how good some of these players were.

Now if we can only get that Ring of Honor.

Momentum is always the victor in key moments. On the second play of the 2018 season, Colts defensive tackle Al Woods played the role of Geno Atkins, forcefully shoving rookie center Billy Price aside. Unable to step into this throw, Dalton’s pass had no power behind it and the ball hung in the air.

Despite Joe Mixon’s panicked effort to make an amazing catch, cornerback Kenny Moore returned the interception 32 yards to the seven-yard line. Two plays later, Carlos Dunlap harassed Andrew Luck into a poor throw that linebacker Preston Brown intercepted. Save for the field position change — going from the CIN-37 to the CIN-7 — the Bengals offense returned after a brief intermission like nothing happened. Welcome to the slop-fest of opening day.

It’s fascinates me how these games play out.

  • A tale of two halves — the Colts start strong but the Bengals take control, which we’ve covered and will expand a little in a moment.
  • Andrew Luck makes his highly anticipated return, throwing the football 53 times, completing 39 for 319 yards passing and two scores. Credit to Indianapolis for installing a gameplan that addressed Anthony Castonzo’s injury and exposed a major weakness in Cincinnati’s coverage schemes.
  • Joe Mixon has a career day — but the kind of performance we’re going to expect going forward. Mixon rushed for 95 yards and added 54 through the air.
  • Tyler Eifert made a handful of catches and bounced back after each reception. No injuries. So far, so good.
  • A.J. Green has a clear case of the fumbles, though his 39-yard touchdown with four minutes remaining in the third was the boast the Bengals needed.
  • Shawn Williams was ejected for a nasty hit on Luck. His replacement, Clayton Fejedelem, finished second on the team with 10 tackles and returned a game-sealing fumble for a touchdown.

These stories drew a big-picture painting of Cincinnati’s win over the Colts; the most obvious being the difference between halves. Indianapolis established a foothold in the first half. “It was a pretty rough first quarter for us,” said wide receiver A.J. Green, who fumbled two balls, dropped an endzone pass, and led the team with 92 yards receiving on six catches.

After Preston Brown’s interception, the Bengals scored first with a 42-yard Randy Bullock field goal; the Colts matched on their ensuing possession with their own field goal — thanks to Cincinnati’s defense stuffing Indianapolis at the one-yard line with 2:06 remaining in the first.

Things got worse.

  1. Green fumbled the football. Indianapolis recovered at their own 42-yard line.
  2. The Colts take a 10-3 lead on an Eric Ebron 26-yard touchdown reception — there was confusion based on Jordan Evans’ reaction. Should the linebacker have smothered Ebron, or should have Dre Kirkpatrick, the outside corner, drifted into the endzone? More on that later.
  3. The Bengals go three-and-out on their next possession, which immediately began with a Bobby Hart hold. Can we use Jake Fisher again? Or even Cedric Ogbuehi? It wasn’t a good afternoon for Hart, who Pro Football Focus ranked as the team’s worst offensive-player.
  4. The Colts take a 13-3 lead on an Adam Vinatieri 38-yarder with 3:06 remaining in the first half.

From the 8:25 mark in the first quarter to three minutes remaining in the second, the Colts had control. Luck was releasing the football so quickly that Cincinnati’s pass rush was effectively neutralized. And when the Bengals coverage forced Luck to hold onto the ball, they didn’t make much of an impact anyway.

Naturally, we collapsed into “here we go again” rage. We do that. That’s what we do. Eventually the Bengals pieced together a touchdown drive prior to halftime and adjustments were made for the second half. Say what?

“At halftime we came in and did corrections,” said running back Joe Mixon, leading the team with 149 yards from scrimmage on 22 touches. “In the beginning we were beating ourselves. We came out, settled in and just executed. The line did their thing, receivers were balling out and the running game was taking care of itself also.”

It was a process.

The Bengals weren’t worried — that’s our job as fans — and they eventually recovered. With 2:19 remaining in the second quarter, Dalton hands off to Mixon. The second-year back bounces around the left edge, sidestepping Clayton Geathers — who expected Mixon to cut upfield — before stepping out of bounds at the Colts 39-yard line, a gain of 27 yards.

Quincy Wilson grabbed A.J. Green’s arm on a deep pass two plays later, drawing a 36-yard pass interference. Andy Dalton lobs a second down pass towards the back left pylon, where John Ross records his first NFL reception. A touchdown. Cincinnati was down three when the deficit felt like 50. Indianapolis responded with a 51-yard field goal, securing a 16-10 halftime lead. However, the Mixon run, the pass interference, and Ross touchdown reception ignited their second half momentum, a half that would see the Bengals outscore the Colts 24-7.

Unsung Hero: Nick Vigil. Let’s take a moment to recognize Cincinnati’s strong-side linebacker — the so-called “SAM” — against the Colts. Nick Vigil participated in every defensive snap (82) — along with eight special teams plays — led the team with 11 tackles, seven stops (aka, offensive failures), and two tackles-for-loss, along with multiple pressures on Luck.

Pro Football Focus (if you buy into them), ranked Vigil as the team’s second-best defender and third-best run stopper and coverage defender — he allowed six receptions, but for only 27 yards.

Indianapolis has second down from its own 25-yard line with 14:54 remaining in the third. Vigil, unblocked, penetrates the line of scrimmage and breaks down just before dropping running back Jordan Wilkins for a two-yard loss.

The Colts punt soon after. Why is this important? Recognition and open-field tackling, two improvements I’ve noticed in Vigil’s game this year.

Fast-forward to the 1:09 mark in the fourth quarter. Cincinnati is barely holding onto a four-point lead with the Colts mounting a charge from the Bengals 25-yard line. Indianapolis needs a touchdown. Cincinnati needs to counter with “no.” Luck flips the football to running back Nyheim Hines on a middle screen.

As soon as Hines turns for the football, Vigil breaks.

The five-yard loss put Indianapolis back to the Bengals’ 30-yard line, forcing the Colts into long-developing routes to sustain a game-winning possession. Luck abandons the pocket on the next play, thanks to pressure along the parameter. He throws it away just before reaching the line of scrimmage. Clayton Fejedelem scores on an 83-yard fumble return after that.

Vigil, a 2016 third-round pick out of Utah State, finished fourth on the team with 77 tackles last year, and that’s despite missing five games with ankle and back injuries.

My overreaction is this: Vigil and Vontaze Burfict could become a fantastic duo this year, especially since Cincinnati employs nickel packages on most plays.

When roughing the passer is rough. Of all the reasons officials call “roughing the passer”, hitting a quarterback around or below the knees makes the most sense. Quarterbacks are vulnerable with legs exposed to the hurricane forces of muscle-clad monsters looking to destroy them. While all roughing calls generate the same response from officials, the causes are hardly equal.

Defensive end Carlos Dunlap encountered this on Sunday when he was flagged twice for roughing the passer.

The first, with 27 seconds remaining in the first quarter, was called for a low hit.

This penalty makes sense. It was a low hit. As we can attest, the impact of hitting a quarterback low is too great. Granted, it took Tom Brady being impacted before the league began responding to these types of hits.

Dunlap was slapped with another roughing penalty with 1:54 remaining in the third while the Colts were leading 23-17.

The penalty is this:

When tackling a passer who is in a defenseless posture (e.g., during or just after throwing a pass), a defensive player must not unnecessarily or violently throw him down and land on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight. Instead, the defensive player must strive to wrap up the passer with the defensive player’s arms and not land on the passer.

In addition to Dunlap getting the sack, the ball popped free until Feledelem returned his recovery 35 yards to the Colts’ four-yard line. Instead of possibly taking a fourth quarter lead, the penalty negated all of that and put Indianapolis on Cincinnati’s 33-yard line.

Thankfully, it worked out.

Two plays after Dunlap’s roughing call, he got to Luck for an eight-yard loss, forcing Adam Vinatieri to attempt a 55-yarder — which he missed. Cincinnati would take the lead for good on their ensuing possession.

Rebecca Toback posted a story with many folks express outrage for Dunlap’s second penalty, adding that VP of officiating Al Riveron confirmed that the penalty was properly called. We can’t dispute that. However, it’s just a dumb penalty to begin with. It wouldn’t be the first time the NFL made rules that, in hindsight were 1) poorly integrated or 2) stupid to begin with.

Moving on.

Forgot about Dre. The Colts have second down from the Bengals’ 26-yard line with 12:06 remaining in the second. Luck has twins left, two tight ends right, with T.Y. Hilton, whom Dre Kirkpatrick is shadowing about 10 yards off the line of scrimmage split wide right. Luck takes the snap, scans the field, and targets the front right pylon. Ebron, with linebacker Jordan Evans in tow, hauls in the football to give the Colts a 10-3 lead.

“What the hell,” Evans gestured. Miscommunication? Tight end Jack Doyle, inside of Ebron, goes vertical, drawing the safety. Did Evans expect safety help, or did he expect cornerback help from Kirkpatrick? If you watch the video, Kirkpatrick trails Ebron long enough for Evans to think, “OK, he’s here to help.” Instead, Kirkpatrick, with an uncovered Hilton on his mind, backs down. Evans, helplessly watching Ebron complete the 26-yard touchdown, turns around and wonders what happened.

We don’t know what play was called. It’s presumptuous for us to even guess; should Kirkpatrick have gone three-deep, or did he only help until a certain point, knowing that Indianapolis’ best receiver was now uncovered.

Someone definitely screwed up — communication breakdown, missed assignment, whatever. You’ll have these moments in week one. Pro Football Focus assigned blame to Kirkpatrick, which begs the question... how do they know what was called? We can assume, but we don’t know. A critical question you have to consider: How much of PFF’s grades are really just guesswork?

A few more notes about Sunday’s win over the Colts: