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NFL Panic Index 2019: Bad officiating could end up costing the Lions and Browns a playoff spot

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The refs aren’t the only ones blowing it this week. Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston are also costing themselves money.

Lions linebacker Christian Jones in front of an NFL official superimposed on a blue background.
The Lions probably would’ve won in Week 6 if officials didn’t gift the Packers phantom penalties.

Everyone knows NFL officiating is a mess right now. Well, anyone with eyes — so, not NFL officials. Amirite?

That’s a big topic of conversation at fall league meeting this week, not that it helps the Browns or Lions. Both teams found themselves on the wrong end of officiating that could, at best, be described as controversial. At worst? Well, it’s probably not safe to print, so we’ll just say the equivalent of watching the Titans-Broncos game this past weekend.

Let’s start with the Browns. Less than a week after getting manhandled in San Francisco, the Browns got to flee to the Cleve to host the Seahawks. The home team led for a majority of the game, but the mistakes started piling up. The most egregious call from the refs was thinking this is an illegal blindside block on Jarvis Landry:

That came right after a questionable ineligible man downfield penalty.

A costlier one was a horse collar flag that gave the Seahawks an extra 15 yards on what turned out to be their game-winning drive. But there were several others to choose from, including a possible touchdown for the Browns that never counted, an uncalled facemask penalty on fourth-and-goal which gave Seattle the ball, and an iffy Seahawks catch that sealed the game.

The Browns lost by just four points and fell two games back of the Ravens in the AFC North. A win over a contender could’ve been a turning point for them. Now, they’re tied with the Steelers and have the Patriots waiting for them next time they play.

On Monday night, the Lions never trailed the Packers at Lambeau — until the clock struck zero, that is. The officiating was indefensible enough that the NFL admitted at least one of the many, many bad calls against the Lions was wrong. Trey Flowers’ second (and, on record, an incorrect call) hands to face flag let the Packers sit on the ball until their game-winning field goal:

The Lions had four dubious calls in the fourth quarter alone go against them in the 23-22 loss. They dropped to last place in a tightly contested NFC North, while the Packers improved to 5-1 and were able to remain all alone at the top.

Both the Lions and Browns have serious gripes with the way they lost. And when January rolls around and playoff spots can come down to one game, Week 6 could end up being the deciding factor.

Panic index: The Lions and Browns need to look in the mirror a bit with how they ended up in the L column. The Lions have had fourth-quarter leads in all three of their non-wins and wasted precious red zone opportunities by settling for field goals against the Packers. The Browns are the most penalized team in the league, and only the Giants have given away the ball more. Against Seattle, they turned it over four times, including three interceptions from Baker Mayfield.

That said, these are two of the most hard-luck franchises in the NFL who are trying to overcome their history. They shouldn’t have to beat their opponent and the refs each week. The good news is there’s still a lot of season left, and the teams usually worthy of a playoff spot are able to get past situations like this and move on to the next game.

Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are blowing their contract years

2019 is the most important season for the top two picks of the 2015 NFL Draft. And both Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are blowing it.

The former Heisman winners both came into the season with just one year remaining on their rookie contracts. While a valued franchise quarterback would have been locked into long-term extensions by now, each faces an uncertain future thanks to erratic histories of uneven play. Without a track record of consistent performances to bring to the negotiating table, the pressure’s been on each to step up and prove their worth. Another underwhelming season would cast the pair firmly in the Ryan Fitzpatrick tier of unreliable veterans.

Through six weeks, Winston and Mariota are on a path to journeyman-dom.

Mariota has been by far the more disappointing player. Four injury-plagued seasons in Nashville left his status as an offensive cornerstone in the air, and he gave his detractors their strongest argument yet in a complete meltdown in Denver. Mariota put together the worst game of his pro career, going 7-of-18 and throwing a pair of interceptions in a performance so bad it convinced head coach Mike Vrabel to bench him in favor of Ryan Tannehill.

Tannehill, for the record, threw for more than double the yards Mariota had in fewer pass attempts. That left the Titans with a starting quarterback decision to make — and they’re going with Tannehill, sending Mariota to the bench.

Winston had been on a more optimistic course in 2019 due to the presence of QB-whispering head coach Bruce Arians, but any gain he’d made in the previous four weeks (a 10:2 TD:INT ratio and a 111.6 passer rating) was quickly wiped away by an absolute disaster in Week 6. The mercurial QB was responsible for SIX turnovers against the Panthers, throwing five interceptions and losing one of two fumbles.

That derailed an otherwise encouraging start to the season for a player facing free agency. Winston was on pace to set personal highs in passer rating and adjusted yards per pass coming into his meltdown in London. And while he’s still a capable big-armed passer, his ongoing lapses in judgment set a defined ceiling as an “exciting and ultimately heartbreaking” NFL quarterback.

Panic index: Actually, being completely inconsistent and untrustworthy is pretty on brand for Winston and Mariota. We look forward to their training camp QB battles in Washington and Cincinnati next fall.

The Rams’ offensive line has crumbled into a mess

There’s a long history of Super Bowl hangovers. Just a few years ago, the Panthers followed their 15-1 season that ended with a Super Bowl 50 loss by going 6-10 in 2016. By comparison, the Rams’ 3-3 record in 2019 isn’t so bad — or at least not right now. But it’s still surprising.

Los Angeles looked like a team that could easily shake off any kind of Super Bowl loser curse. The Rams have a bevy of young offensive stars with Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, Cooper Kupp, and Robert Woods. The defense has back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald wreaking havoc in the middle and just traded for an elite cornerback in Jalen Ramsey.

The problem is all that offensive talent doesn’t matter much when it has no room to work. The Rams’ offensive line — which graded out as one of the best in the NFL in 2018 — didn’t take long to collapse into a heap of garbage.

The Rams are 31st in the NFL in pass blocking, just barely ahead of the tanking Dolphins, according to Pro Football Focus. They’re 27th in run blocking.

Elder statesman Andrew Whitworth hasn’t been a problem at left tackle. He’s allowed just one hit on Jared Goff so far in 2019. That’s where the positivity ends. The interior of the offensive line is getting beat consistently and the Rams can’t run or pass very well as a consequence.

The Rams already took their first step toward fixing the issue by trading for the Browns’ backup center, Austin Corbett. It’ll probably take more than just that, though.

Panic index: The LA offense isn’t horrible. It’s still 10th in points scored and 12th in total yards. But that’s barely above average, and when it’s combined with mediocre defense, the result is a .500 football team. Unless the offensive line picks up the slack with Corbett now in the middle, that’s not changing.

The Cowboys’ defense has taken a big step back

Dallas dropped to 3-3 in a surprising 24-22 loss to the New York Jets, and the defense is much to blame. The Cowboys gave up 382 total yards — 332 of those coming from quarterback Sam Darnold alone.

One of the worst defensive breakdowns came in the second quarter, as Darnold found Robby Anderson for a 92-yard touchdown pass — the longest play in the NFL this season.

The problem starts with the defensive line — the unit has dealt with injuries (DL Tyrone Crawford headed to the IR most recently), and struggles with stopping the run and creating pressure on the quarterback. The defense has fallen to No. 25 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric and is also one of the worst in adjusted sack rate (27th).

Christian D’Andrea summed up a lot of their issues earlier this week:

The pass rush has regressed as well. Jets QBs had been sacked on 24 of their 144 dropbacks coming into Week 6 — an absurd 16.7 percent of their pass attempts (though 16 of those came with Luke Falk’s behind center). Darnold was sacked just twice over the course of 34 designed pass plays when the Cowboys came to town. That’s not what Dallas had been hoping for when it signed DeMarcus Lawrence to a five-year, $105 million extension last spring.

Just two weeks ago, we had the Cowboys’ offense in the panic index after putting up just 10 points against the New Orleans Saints. But at least the defense kept them in the game. Now, Dallas has let the Packers and Jets to score season-high points against them in back-to-back weeks. As Bill Barnwell points out, an offense regressing with a stout defense isn’t all that concerning, but the Cowboys have fallen off on both sides of the ball recently:

Panic index: The biggest concern here is both the offense and defense have regressed in recent weeks. But there were signs of life with what the Cowboys did in the second halves against both the Jets and Packers, although they ultimately fell short. Dallas was a top-10 defense just a year ago, and if it wants to get back to the playoffs again, the unit has to perform a lot better than how it has been.

The Chiefs (and Frank Clark) can’t get a sack

Deshaun Watson and the Texans went into Kansas City as underdogs to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. But Watson left with the big win because the Chiefs couldn’t take advantage of Houston’s biggest weakness: its offensive line.

Despite Watson being sacked 18 times already this season, the Chiefs couldn’t bring him down. During the offseason, Kansas City let Justin Houston and Dee Ford leave, and the splashy addition of Frank Clark hasn’t resulted in an improved rush. The team is near the bottom of the league in sacks, with 11 on the season, and it’s last in adjusted sack rate.

More concerning than the overall number is the Chiefs’ complete lack of production in consecutive games. They also failed to sack Jacoby Brissett in a loss to the Colts, and only managed one sack on Gardner Minshew in Week 1.

Panic index: The Chiefs have been dealing with injuries — both Chris Jones and Xavier Williams missed the game against the Texans — but this isn’t a one-week issue, and additions like Clark were expected to bring the pressure on their own. Clark hasn’t been that guy so far, and the Chiefs need an answer.