The Top Week 8 NFL Storylines: Frank Reich, Taylor Heinicke and Zach Wilson
Plus, can the Titans really ride Derrick Henry back to a top playoff seed in the AFC?
With the final whistle blown on this week’s Monday Night Football matchup, the NFL’s regular season has nearly reached the halfway point. While we can’t get to everything — like the latest details in the Brett Favre welfare scandal — here are four of the top Week 8 NFL storylines and whether we’re buying or selling on ’em. (ICYMI, here’s what went down last week along with a clip of San Francisco running back Christian McCaffrey, who became the fourth player in NFL history to throw for, run for and catch a touchdown in the same game, slinging a 34-yard TD to Brandon Aiyuk in a huge Week 8 win for the Niners.)
Buy: Frank Reich’s job with the Colts should not be safe
Seemingly desperate to turn around a season that had fallen well short of expectations, Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich made a switch at quarterback and announced last week that second-year player Sam Ehlinger would take over as the starter for Sunday’s game against Washington.
The move did not pay off as the Colts fell 17-16 to the Commanders, who were also relying on a second-string quarterback in Taylor Heinicke (more on him later) after losing Carson Wentz, who played for Indianapolis last season and was fairly ineffective despite having a great relationship with Reich. Now sitting at 3-4-1 in an extremely winnable division that also features the rebuilding Jaguars (2-6), terrible Texans (1-5-1) and so-so Titans (5-2), the Colts will have to start winning games in a hurry if they want to get back in the playoff race after falling a game short of the postseason last year. That being the case, it is extremely curious that Reich’s job security is best described as “safe” and in good shape, according to the NFL Network.
Reich, who hasn’t won a playoff game since his first season as the head coach in Indianapolis (2018) when Andrew Luck was his quarterback, should be feeling the heat as his career record of 40-32-1 (1-2 in the playoffs) is not nearly good enough to make him untouchable. That’s not to say that Reich should definitely get the axe from Indy owner Jim Irsay, but getting rid of the 60-year-old coach in the middle of his fifth year running things in Indianapolis should certainly be on the table.
By most accounts, Reich is a solid coach who is well-liked by his players and probably gets some national love thanks to his stint on HBO’s Hard Knocks last season. But he’s also nearly halfway through his fifth year with the Colts and has one measly playoff win to show for it. In the past, Reich has been given a pass because of the lack of talent at the quarterback position following Luck’s surprise retirement, but that excuse has run its course as Reich has now had Philip Rivers, Wentz and Ryam as his opening-day quarterbacks, all of whom had at least some degree of high-level success before arriving in Indianapolis. Current starter Ehlinger, who went 17-of-23 for 201 yards in his first NFL start, may not be great, but starting him was Reich’s call and he has to deal with the results.
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“We’ve won more than we’ve lost in four years,” Reich said prior to Sunday’s loss. “In some ways, I think we’ve exceeded expectations with all that we’ve gone through when you consider the number of quarterbacks. You say in ’18, how did we do? In ’19 with a quarterback change, how did we do? In ’20, how did we do? Where did we fall as far as expectations? In ’21 — and I think if you look at it year by year, I think you could argue that in some ways, in some ways, not all ways, we’ve exceeded expectations given the fact that we’ve had that many quarterbacks.”
The time for arguing is over. It’s winning time in Indy or Reich should start looking for a new home out of state.
Sell: Zach Wilson will make it in New York with the Jets
Undefeated as a starter this season for the New York Jets at 4-0, Zach Wilsons had a career-best 355 passing yards on Sunday against the Patriots to go along with two touchdowns. Unfortunately, Wilson also completed just 20-of-41 passes and had three interceptions as the Jets fell 22-17 to drop to 1-3 at home this season.
Often scrambling around like a chicken with his head cut off as the Patriots continuously applied pressure on the pocket, Wilson attempted to shoulder the offensive load with rooking running back Breece Hall on the sidelines with an injury, the second-year quarterback was not up to the task and made multiple bad decisions at crucial times. One of those bad decisions was tossing a brutal pick into triple coverage in New England’s secondary when tossing the ball out of bounds was clearly the correct, and easy, play to make.
Now 7-11 as a starter with more interceptions (16) than passing touchdowns in his career (12), Wilson has shown flashes of the talent that led the Jets to select him No. 2 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft but has failed to live up to his lofty draft status overall and has not shown he has what it takes to be a franchise quarterback for New York. That wasn’t much of an issue last season as the Jets were still in the process of establishing themselves under first-year coach Robert Saleh, but circumstances have changed this season with New York competing for a playoff spot and a shot at respectability at 5-3.
That record could have been 6-2 had Wilson been able to deliver on Sunday against a vulnerable Patriots team in front of a capacity crowd at MetLife Stadium in York’ s most important home game in seven years, but the so-called “Mormon Mahomes” instead looked like former Jets QB Sam Darnold and was seeing ghosts all over the field the day before Halloween as the Jets fell to New England for the 13th straight time.
Wilson has not shown many signs of improvement from his rookie season and if his play is what keeps a formidable Jets team from making the playoffs, it won’t be long before the drum starts beating to seek out his replacement.
“He’s got to play better,” Saleh said of Wilson after the loss to the Pats. “We’ve got to find ways to help him. He can’t lose his confidence. We’ve got to figure out a way to help him. At the same time, there’s self-inflicted wounds. It wasn’t anything they did. Football is hard enough. It’s when you make mistakes that are self-inflicted that makes it impossible. He’s going to figure it out.”
He might, but it won’t be with the Jets.
Buy: Taylor Heinicke should keep starting in Washington
Sent to the bench after his coach Ron Rivera dealt three draft picks for Carson Wentz while agreeing to take on a $28 million salary cap hit for the former Eagle’s services, Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke got the start in Week 7 against Aaron Rodgers and led the Commanders to an upset victory over the Packers. Thrust into duty once again in Week 8 against the Colts, Heinicke delivered again and directed a last-minute, game-winning drive while making big plays with his legs and arm.
Now (4-4) on the season entering a showdown with the Vikings and former Washington QB Kirk Cousins in Week 9, the Commanders have won three games in a row and Heinicke is now 9-9 all-time as a starter…a job he should keep.
Far from a stud or a top talent in the NFL, Heinicke has demonstrated throughout his time in Washington that he is fully capable of running the offense for the Commanders and doing just enough to keep his team in the game with a shot to win it at the end. Sometimes, that shot doesn’t pan out. But sometimes, as he did on Sunday, Heinicke is able to come through in the clutch and guide Washington to a win. In his brief time as the starter for the Commanders, Wentz did not show that ability which is why the Commander should stick with Heinicke no matter what.
Wentz is not the future and realistically neither is Heinicke. However, with Washington more concerned about the present and winning as many games as possible to help shift the spotlight away from all of the issues surrounding team owner Daniel Synder, Heinicke gives the Commanders the best shot at stacking victories in the NFL’s toughest division.
“The more reps you get, the more experience you get, the more comfortable you get,” Heinicke said of his two games as Washington’s starter this season. “That’s not to say I’m very comfortable with where I’m at right now. There’s a lot to improve on. But the more reps you get, the more comfortable you get.”
The reps should be his.
Sell: The Titans can keep riding Derrick Henry to wins
Playing against the NFL’s last-ranked run defense on Sunday in Houston, Derrick Henry ran roughshod over the Texans for 219 yards and two touchdowns as the Titans rolled to a 17-10 win. It was Henry’s fourth career game with at least 200 rush yards and two rush touchdowns against the Texans and tied him with O.J. Simpson and Adrian Peterson for the most career 200-yard rushing performances (six).
Basically the only offensive weapon the Titans, who have won five straight games after an 0-2 start, can count on with any confidence, Henry’s second touchdown on Sunday was the 75th of his career and propelled him past Eddie George to set a new Tennessee franchise record. King Henry is back atop his throne — but the Titans shouldn’t expect him to stay there and lead them to the playoffs.
Limited to just eight games last season after rushing a career-high 378 times in 2020 and gaining a career-best 2,027 yards on the ground, Henry had logged more than 2,000 touches for nearly 16,000 total yards before he took a single NFL snap. Now, nearly halfway through his seventh NFL season, the 2015 Heisman trophy winner has been far healthier than expected given his usage but has absorbed a beating on his 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame.
The Titans, who leaned on Henry heavily during their winning streak and have seen him lead the league in carries (132) and rushing yards (654) while tying for the most rushing touchdowns (six) over that span, cannot expect their 28-year-old running back to continue to produce at an elite level with that amount of usage. Henry is great, but he’s also human and needs rest and help to keep churning out huge rushing days at the office for Tennessee.
The NFL’s only team to win at least four straight games in six consecutive seasons, the Titans had no choice other than to rely on Henry on Sunday as starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill was unavailable due to a sprained right ankle and illness and rookie quarterback Malik Willis (6-of-10 for 55 yards with one interception and three sacks) clearly isn’t ready for primetime. Henry unquestionably is, but will wear out if Tennessee keeps riding him.
“I think we have to continue to appreciate who we are,” Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said on Monday. “It’s certainly an element that we have to run the football and we have to be able to create a lot of things off of that. There’s a physical style that we want to play with.”
That style needs to expand from running Henry into the ground or he’ll physically break down before the playoffs.
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