Every week in “4-Down Territory,” Touchdown Wire’s Doug Farrar and Luke Easterling of Bucs Wire and Draft Wire go over the things you need to know about, and the things you need to watch, in the NFL right now. With the Super Wild-Card round in the books, and the divisional round just around the corner, there’s a lot to discuss!
00:00 – Did you see enough from Dak Prescott against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to believe that he’s turned a corner?
05:27 – Are the Chargers better off going in a different direction from head coach Brandon Staley?
10:36 – Has Brian Daboll sewn up Coach of the Year?
14:50 – It’s clear that the NFL does not hold its officials accountable. Can this change? Does the NFL even want it to?
You can watch this week’s “4-Down Territory” right here.
Is Dak Prescott back after a rough regular season?
After a regular season in which he tied with Houston’s Davis Mills for the league lead in interceptions (15) and pick-sixes (three), Dak Prescott came into Monday night’s wild-card game against the Buccaneers under quite a bit of pressure. He emerged having played his best game of the season, completing 25 of 33 passes for 305 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 143.3. It will obviously be different when the Cowboys travel to Santa Clara to face the 49ers’ league-best defense in the divisional round, but did you see enough from Dak in this game to believe that he’s turned a corner on whatever that was in the regular season?
Doug: I did. Prescott was still late on some throws, and there were times when that put his receivers in more danger than they should have been, but he also got past Dallas’ first drive – a three-and-out in which his receivers couldn’t catch a cold in an ice storm. The second drive was two run plays and a sack. Once that was out of the way, he seemed more confident in his ability to time things up. Pair that with a Buccaneers defense that didn’t seem to want to be on the field half the time… I mean, that helps, but Dak had been shaky against some bad defenses in the regular season. So, I proceed with cautious optimism on the subject of Dak Prescott. As for the 49ers, they obviously have superstars (secret and not) at every level of their defense, but their cornerbacks have been somewhat susceptible. If Dak can bounce that quality performance against the Bucs into something great in a short week… who knows what may happen?
Luke: The Bucs definitely did their part to help Prescott, but you still have to take advantage of those opportunities when they’re presented, and Dak made Tampa Bay pay for just about every mistake Monday night. With all the pressure that comes with playing THAT position for THAT team, with all the playoff disappointment they’ve had over the last two decades…doing that in a road playoff game was huge. Cautiously optimistic is probably the best way to put it, so I agree with you there. I don’t think DeMeco Ryans’ defense will be quite so helpful next week, though.
Is Brandon Staley the man to lead the Chargers in 2023 and beyond?
On Saturday, the Los Angeles Chargers wasted a 27-0 second quarter lead over the Jacksonville Jaguars and wound up losing, 31-30, in what became the third-best postseason comeback in the history of pro football. Chargers head coach Brandon Staley showed in multiple ways that he was in over his head in the game, and even leading up to the game, when he played his starters late into a meaningless regular-season finale against the Broncos, leading to multiple injuries. After what you’ve seen of Staley over two seasons in his current position, should he be retained, or are the Chargers better off going in a different direction?
Doug: We’ve all seen coaches who are better coordinators than head coaches, and there are common denominators there. Those coaches tend to hide in their playbooks, can’t manage games and situations in the moment, and tend to come up short when there are obvious pathways to victory. We talked about the Broncos game on last week’s show, and that played out in the worst possible way in this game. Mike Williams, Justin Herbert’s best receiver, was lost for this game, and he had struggled with injuries all season. You have to get this stuff. You can’t go in front of the media and talk about how hard it is. This is your job. This is what they pay you to do. Perhaps most disconcerting to me was after the Jaguars loss, when Staley was talking about what went wrong, he pointed the finger just about everywhere but at himself. I’m not saying that Staley should be banished to that role for the rest of his life, but he needs to do some serious self-scouting this offseason.
Luke: Yeah, I’m rarely gonna get into the “this guy should be fired” thing, because these are real human beings with families, and I’m glad that’s not my call, to be honest. I do think it’s safe to say that Staley’s struggles with those big-picture decisions and responsibilities are a huge reason (if not the biggest) that his team has finished the last two seasons in such disappointing fashion. It’s clear that his players have his back, and that definitely counts for something, but this is a critical offseason for him if he’s going to learn what it takes to avoid similar problems next year.
Who should be the NFL's Coach of the Year?
On the other side of that equation is the job that Brian Daboll has done for the Giants in his first season as head coach – he took a broken, dispirited franchise that had suffered through Ben McAdoo, Pat Shurmur, and Joe Judge since Tom Coughlin’s retirement, and turned Big Blue into a team that could walk into Minnesota’s U.S. Bank Stadium and beat the Vikings on their turf. Now, we all knew that the Vikings weren’t as good as their 13-4 record said they were, but no matter what happens to the Giants in the rest of the postseason, has Daboll sewn up Coach of the Year?
Doug: My vote was for Daboll, and it was perhaps the easiest vote I cast on the entire AP ballot. He’s done just about everything right. Remember that this is a guy who has worked for both Bill Belichick and Nick Saban – both in two different instances – so you’re not going to scare him with anything. He came into that situation completely confident. He handed the offense to Mike Kafka, handed the defense to Wink Martindale, and oversaw the whole thing from that 30,000-foot level that Brandon Staley doesn’t seem to get. And before he handed the offense to Kafka, Daboll put his own indelible stamp on it. If you’re not quite sure what that means, watch the Giants’ offense this season, and watch the Buffalo Bills’ offense without Daboll. My second- and third-place votes were for Doug Pederson and Kyle Shanahan, but Daboll should win this in a landslide.
Luke: I think you can make a strong case for all three of the guys on your ballot, and honestly, I wouldn’t be mad at any of them winning it. Specifically with Daboll, what he’s done in his first year, as a first-time head coach, has been nothing short of remarkable. Daniel Jones’ impact this year, especially considering the receiver group he had to work with (no offense to Hodgins, Slaton and James, who all stepped up bigtime), this was an offensive coaching clinic from Daboll all year long. Pederson taking the Jags from the worst record in the NFL to a division title and a playoff win is still up there, though, as is Shanahan rattling off 11 straight wins despite losing his top two quarterbacks and riding with Mr. Irrelevant.
Can (and will) anything be done about the NFL's horrid officiating?
It’s a day ending in “Y,” so we have to talk about horrible officiating affecting games on the biggest stages. On Friday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that multiple coaches and executives around the NFL were aghast at the officiating in the Week 18 Seahawks-Rams game, because Seattle got multiple calls and no-calls in its favor, that pushed Seattle into the playoffs, and the Lions were left out.
The wild-card round, however, had all kinds of officiating issues, and Craig, Wroklstad, the referee in the Seahawks-Rams game, was “reprimanded” for his sub-par performance with an assignment in Monday night’s playoff game between the Cowboys and Buccaneers. It’s clear that the NFL does not hold its officials accountable in any reasonable way. Can this change, or do we just have to grin and bear it from now on?
Doug: Frankly, Luke, I’m starting to lose hope. We’ve heard for years that the league holds its officials accountable for regular-season performance by assigning the postseason to the best and brightest, but that certainly wasn’t the case last weekend. Shawn Smith’s crew never had control of the Jaguars-Chargers game, and they were allowing the Chargers’ defenders to mug Jacksonville’s receivers throughout. In the Giants-Vikings game, Adrian Hill’s crew seemed to blow calls and then make them up later. People are talking about the bad roughing the passer call on Dexter Lawrence with 2:34 left in the game, but there was a play earlier in the game in which Lawrence absolutely roughed Kirk Cousins, and it wasn’t called.
I remember talking with Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay years ago about the wild swings in penalty numbers from crew to crew, and he told me that all the NFL is looking for is a decent strike zone. There are so many great suggestions about how to make officiating better, but if the NFL is just fine with it at this level, and might make a few cosmetic changes at the league meetings in March, nothing’s going to change. We might be stuck with what we have.
Luke: If the NFL truly cared about fixing this problem, they would have done it a long time ago. The truth is, they know that we’re all still gonna watch the games anyway, so I doubt they see any impetus to make sweeping changes. There’s no transparency when it comes to the accountability. I mean, we know exactly how many dollars Jamaal Williams gets fined for shaking his hips in the end zone (more than Quay Walker got fined for shoving a member of the Lions’ training staff in the same game, by the way), but we can’t know how these officials are held accountable for game-changing mistakes? This has gotten to absurd levels of unacceptable, but while that’s true for the fans, this stuff has always seemed acceptable to the league, because they clearly refuse to fix it.