Right before Sunday’s game, I posted a video showcasing when right guard Xavier Su’a-Filo most likely injured his knee against the Chicago Bears. Someone commented that it will soon be known as the “Wally Pipp” Play.
Such a ludicrous comparison. But I suppose I can’t blame this fan base for being excited about Jackson Carman.
Nearly five months separated the end of the 2020 season and the 2021 NFL Draft. It felt like an eternity considering the discussions surrounding the Cincinnati Bengals barely changed at all. How will they fix the offensive line? Can they fix the offensive line? Who will they sign? Who will they draft? Can Anthony Munoz come out of retirement?
Against the wishes of the Cincinnati faithful, they made no long-term commitment to any new veteran linemen. The Riley Reiff one-year deal was unanimously praised, sure, but he’ll most likely enter the market once again next year. Any new addition that could be counted on beyond 2021 was going to arrive in the draft.
Many fans wanted Penei Sewell to be that main addition. It ended up becoming Carman a round later instead.
There’s a cycle that every fan base follows when their team makes a surprising selection in the draft. It’s not exactly the five stages of grief, but it’s pretty similar in some ways.
The first phase is shock. They didn’t really just do that, did they? Why did they take him when <insert other player’s name> was still available?! They have no idea what they’re doing!
After shock usually comes justification. Maybe they have a different plan for him. Perhaps they thought he wouldn’t have been available later on. This one analyst actually had him ranked in this range!
The next phase depends on how the player does the very first time he’s in uniform at practice. He’ll practice hundreds of more times throughout his career, but the very first practices, when he has the least amount of experience, those are the reps he’s going to get judged the most for. If he does well, he is in fact Lou Gehrig to his predecessor’s Wally Pipp. If he gets demoted to the third-string in favor of Michael Jordan, the priors of his critics are 100% confirmed, hence why this phase is labeled the prior phase.
But the prior phase, in most cases, bleeds into his first regular-season appearance as well. The gap between training camp and his first real game needs to be filled with some of that optimism found in the justification phase. The time leading into that first game will have observers simultaneously excited, and nervous, based on their priors.
Lastly, the specific Wally Pipp in question will impact the end of the prior phase. Su’a-Filo is 30 years old and in the midst of his eighth season. He’s never been more than a serviceable spot starter for the three teams he’s played for. Having that caliber of player start on an offensive line that’s desperate for improvement is going to get fans hyped for potential replacements.
And that’s what Carman was drafted to be. The former collegiate left tackle is now an NFL right guard, and he got his first chance to show off his transition against one of the toughest opposing defensive lines he’ll see all year. Did he do enough to keep Su’a-Filo on the sidelines after his knee heals? Let’s check out some of the good and bad from No. 79 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Carman is the type of player whose best attributes match with what the Bengals need him to do. He oozes natural explosion and power as a zone blocker, and he’s fluid and cognizant as a pass protector.
But like most young players, combining the physical and mental steps for every rep will be a constant challenge for him as he gets his feet wet. Adjusting to the speed of the NFL is hard enough; doing so at an entirely new position only compounds that.
Pro Football Focus graded Carman somewhat favorably in pass protection (68.8), which matches the tape from my perspective. In respect to PFF’s proprietary information (I need to make a habit out of this), I won’t reveal his run-blocking grade. Let’s just say it was around half of his pass-blocking grade. While harsh, I do see the evidence behind it.
Despite his clear shortcomings as a young player, as long as Carman continues to make strides in pass protection and at least flash in the run game, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be getting these reps over Su’a-Filo. It’d be one thing if he was a dumpster fire and justifying the anger fans had at the Bengals when they drafted him. In reality, he appears to be at a manageable level, and the offense can work with that.
Lou Gehrig? Wally Pipp? Please. Let Carman be Carman.