When former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh was working in Cincinnati, he had a little white index card with a written reminder to himself: “What assets do I have that I am not using?” When evaluating Walsh, many mistake him for being a creative thinker, yet Walsh was divergent in thought.
Divergent thinking refers to the way the mind generates ideas beyond proscribed expectations and rote thinking — what is usually referred to as thinking outside the box and is often associated with creativity. Walsh wasn’t a copycat, he wasn’t going to do things because everyone did them, he was going to examine new ideas and approaches, then give them his unique spin. If he were alive today and viewed the boring running games teams employ, and the lack of divergent thought, he would be zigging while everyone else zagged.
After Week 8 concluded Monday night with the Browns soundly beating the Bengals 32-13, I wondered how Bengals coach Zac Taylor could think he could run his normal offense when his best player, Ja'Marr Chase, wasn’t on the field. It is the same question I continue to ask myself about Matt LaFleur and the Davante Adams-less Packers. The Chiefs, after trading Tyreek Hill, adjusted and modified their offense because Andy Reid is a divergent thinker who fully expected teams would play him differently without Hill, so he zigged while everyone else zagged.
Without Chase, the Bengals stayed in their 11 personnel and tried to run the same offense even though this played right into the Browns' strength on defense. Naturally, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow was sacked five times, under intense pressure all night and never found his rhythm. It was an easy outcome to predict because Taylor never changes or modifies. Chase’s absence allowed the Browns to play more man-to-man defense without a double team and forced Burrow to hold the ball a tad longer. Now, Tee Higgins faced the double teams and was unable to win consistently. The Bengals offense became stagnant. And because the Bengals have no running game or physical toughness in their offensive line, they struggled against a defense that had struggled all season.
One of my golden rules in football has always been: “bad offensive lines don’t travel” and the Bengals have a porous offensive line, starting at left tackle with their first-round pick, Jonah Williams. Williams is a below-average starter and when he faces a good rusher, like Myles Garrett on Monday night or Carolina’s Brian Burns this week he will struggle, and Burrow will get hit — often. And because Taylor refuses to change personnel groupings or deploy two tight ends and help his tackles, Burrow is forced to absorb the punishment. Once Chase was injured, this magnified the Bengals' offensive line problems and unless Taylor changed his approach, the results were not going to be good.
Without Chase, the Bengals generated 229 yards of offense and averaged 4.8 yards per play — most coming in the fourth quarter when the game was over. From here on, everyone needs to adjust the Bengals' power ratings as they are not the same team without Chase. And because Taylor won’t change his approach, we as bettors need to change ours.
Week 8 thoughts
Watching linebacker Roquan Smith play for the Bears, he doesn’t appear to be the same player he was last season. He lacks speed and appears to be too heavy, which might be a result of him wanting to get out of Chicago. The Ravens need more speed on defense and Smith, if he’s in shape, will help for a marginal price (remember, if the Ravens don’t sign Smith this offseason and he receives a mega-deal on the open market, Baltimore will get a compensatory pick in return, probably a third-rounder.) The Bears had no intention of re-signing Smith and took the second-rounder now instead of waiting for the comp pick.
Let’s not forget Pete Carroll is an excellent head coach and will be in the Hall of Fame one day. Everyone focuses on the emergence of their offense with QB Geno Smith, but the last three weeks their defense has been vastly improved in all areas. Since Week 2, the Seahawks have forced two turnovers in every game and improved in both run and pass defense. They have allowed only 45 points in the last three weeks and don’t seem to miss linebacker Bobby Wagner.
Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel is a divergent thinker and is my vote for Coach of the Year. He won’t win it, but winning five games in a row with his roster is an incredible achievement. His defense is getting better and better each week, as the Titans are fast, physical, and tough. During their five-game winning streak, the Titans have thrown for over 200 yards only once, and their next-highest total is 136 against the Commanders. They run the ball — and everyone knows they run the ball and yet they still run the ball effectively. They have the best third-down defense in football and the second-best red-zone offense. Vrabel prepares his team to win situational football, and even though they might look ugly when playing, they find ways to win.
If Vrabel were coaching the Jags, they would be the best team in the AFC South as they have the most talent but are poorly organized and have not found an identity offensively. Trevor Lawrence can look good one moment and horrible the next. His inconsistency and lack of ball security is becoming a concern and coach Doug Pedersen hasn’t helped with his inconsistent play calling and insistence on being overly aggressive. The Jags are one of those teams to be wary of when betting.
Speaking of being wary, how can anyone trust the Lions? Lions fans might hate former coach Matt Patricia, but his record after 22 games was 7-14-1 while Dan Campbell is 4-19-1 and looking as though it will get much worse. The Lions have not improved on defense since the start of the season — which was a major problem last season. The Lions have actually gotten worse on defense this season, (hard to imagine) as they are 32nd in both points and yards allowed and 31st on third-down and 30th in red-zone defense. Last season, they were 31st in points allowed, 29th in yards, 29th on third down and 31st in red zone. When evaluating any head coach, the most fundamental question you must answers is: Does he recognize and then solve problems? Identifying the problems is easy, solving them is much harder. Every Lions fan walking down Woodward Avenue, knew the Lions were horrific on defense last season. So did Campbell, so the fact that they are worse is a significant indictment on him and the organization.
After watching the Bears on offense against the Cowboys on Sunday, it’s apparent they have fully embraced the six-back offense, and this will be their plan of action moving forward — as it should be. This is the offense that fits Fields the best and if they can run the ball — minimizing Fields’ need to read and anticipate throws — they can be effective. This also helps their weak offensive line from having to pass protect. The Bears are in rebuild mode and even though I was never a fan of Matt Eberflus as a defensive coordinator, he has proven to be better as a head coach. By not calling the game, he has allowed himself to view his team from the right perspective and make the necessary adjustments. In fairness to Eberflus, Vrabel wasn’t a great defensive coordinator who became a great head coach.
The best quarterback on the field for the Patriots on Sunday was Zach Wilson of the Jets. The Patriots were not good all day on offense, getting six points (two field goals) without having to gain a first down because of Wilson’s mistakes. Had Wilson protected the ball, and the Jets got back to their run-first approach, they might have won the game. Mac Jones returned to play quarterback for the Patriots and it's clear he doesn’t trust his protection and is uncomfortable in the pocket. The Patriots are a work in progress on offense and for coach Bill Belichick to pass George Halas in the win column against the Jets with his team not playing its best must have been satisfying.
Even without Deebo Samuel, the 49ers offense looked amazing as Christian McCaffrey was dynamic in every area. In the second half, their defensive line took over the game and the Rams offense struggled, generating 4.0 yards per play. The Rams must be active in the trading market for a receiver or they will not qualify for the postseason as their lack of skill (outside of Cooper Kupp) and bad offensive line make it hard for them to consistently move the ball. The Rams and Bengals are similar. Both teams lack explosive playmakers on offense and both offensive lines cannot run the ball or pass protect.
Looking forward to the trade deadline today as it might affect the betting market in a small way. Check back at vsin.com to get all the trade news as it applies to the handicap for this week's games.