Week 12’s Top NFL Storylines: Christian McCaffrey, Lamar Jackson and Jaylen Waddle
Plus, the one likely playoff team that would be better off leaving their head coach at home
With Monday Night Football between the Seahawks and Washington Football Team in the books, Week 12 of the NFL season is over and we can truly start looking forward to the postseason. While we can’t get to everything — like Joe Buck trolling Aaron Rodgers over his “COVID Toe” comments — here are four of the top storylines to emerge in the season’s 12th week — and whether we’re buying or selling on ’em.
Buy: The Giants should pay attention to Christian McCaffrey
Although he plays for a team in North Carolina, the New York Giants should be paying very close attention to what is happening with Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey.
The recipient of a $64 million extension that made him the highest-paid running back in NFL history two seasons ago, McCaffrey will miss the remainder of the season with a left ankle sprain for Carolina after already missing five games this season due to a hamstring injury he suffered in Week 3. When this season concludes, McCaffrey (who finishes the 2021 season with 442 yards rushing and 343 receiving in seven games) will have played in only 10 of 33 possible games since signing his four-year deal with the Panthers.
Saquon Barkley, who played in all 16 regular-season games and 13 as a sophomore, played for the Giants on Sunday in just his second game back since limping off the field in Week 5 with an ankle injury. A year younger than 25-year-old McCaffrey, Barkley is under contract with a salary of $7.2 million for 2022 after the Giants picked up the fifth-year option in his contract back in April.
Given Barkley’s age and injury history, which also includes a torn ACL in his right knee that ended his 2020 season in Week 2, the 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year will likely be looking for an extension similar to the one that was signed by McCaffrey two offseasons ago. If the Giants are smart, they won’t give it to him.
Barkley, who finished with 2,028 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns after he was drafted No. 2 overall out of Penn State, is a luxury item that the rebuilding Giants don’t need and would be foolish to invest in. Barkley, who is still a solid runner but has totaled just 1,860 yards from scrimmage over parts of three injury-riddled seasons since his rookie campaign, has not proven he can stay healthy or provided enough value to justify New York picking him at the top of the draft. Though the drafting of quarterback Daniel Jones, who is now 12-25 as a starter in the NFL, in the first round is the biggest reason the Giants are heading for their fifth losing season in a row, Barkley’s health problems have certainly not helped New York’s cause.
The Giants, who may be on the market for a new head coach this offseason, need a new quarterback and are not close to being a legit contender. Even when Barkley is healthy, quarterback is not the position he plays and it would be in New York’s best interest to allow him to go play running back for someone else after the 2022 season. Giving Barkley big money to stay in New York will likely make the road back to the top for the Giants even longer at this point.
Sell: Lamar Jackson has enough help in Baltimore
Taking on the Cleveland Browns on Sunday night in Baltimore, the Ravens were able to get a 16-10 win to improve to an AFC-best 8-3 on the season despite quarterback Lamar Jackson throwing a career-worst four interceptions, including three picks on his final five passes of the second quarter.
Jackson, who became the first quarterback in eight years to win a game after throwing four interceptions, appeared to be targeting tight end Mark Andrews (who had two touchdown catches) on every single one of the picks, making mistakes on plays where he was facing minimal pressure from the Browns.
It was a rough night at the office for Jackson, who has been criticized for his passing and relying too much on his legs in the past, but it was not all his fault, as the Ravens and head coach John Harbaugh need to find a way to take some of the pressure off of the 24-year-old. While Jackson needs to lead the Baltimore offense, right now he basically is the Baltimore offense.
On pace for his third consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season while averaging a career-high 70.7 rushing yards per game, Jackson has limited reliable options to throw to outside of Andrews with top receiver Marquise Brown sidelined and limited help alongside him on the ground in the form of aging backs Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray.
As he did on Sunday, Jackson has the ability to almost singlehandedly win games for Baltimore, but he also certainly has the ability to lose games for the Ravens: he now has 12 interceptions through 10 games, the first double-digit interception season of his four-year career. For now, the one-man show is working, as Jackson is making plays and the Ravens are winning games. But at some point Baltimore will need to find a way to diversify the offensive attack and get the former MVP some help. Andrews and Brown are fine, but they’re not nearly enough.
“We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to get better in every aspect, but we’ve got a bunch of fighters on this team,” Andrews said. “We believe, we trust each other, and we’re going to come each and every day to work, to get better, just trying to be the best team we can be. I think if we do that throughout these weeks, we’re going to reap the benefits of that. It all leads to No. 8. He does everything. He’s the head honcho.”
But he needs help — fast.
Buy: Jaylen Waddle is quietly heating up for the Dolphins
Following a win in Week 1 over the New England Patriots that saw Jaylen Waddle get into the end zone for his first career touchdown, the rookie wideout took somewhat of a backseat as the Dolphins lost seven games in a row while alternating between Tua Tagovailoa and Jacoby Brissett at quarterback.
Following a big win over the Panthers in Week 12, the Dolphins have now won four in a row, and Waddle, who Miami traded up to select at No. 6 overall in this year’s draft, is a big reason why.
Already the team’s leading receiver entering Week 12, Waddle had his first 100-yard game of the season against the Panthers with 137 yards on nine catches, including his first touchdown since Week 6. Targeted on more than 32.2% of Tagovailoa’s throws versus Carolina, Waddle was the focus of the Miami passing attack and has emerged as the clear top receiving option for the Dolphins with DeVante Parker and Will Fuller in the midst of injury-riddled seasons.
With fellow rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase of the surprising Cincinnati Bengals getting the majority of the attention due to his explosive playmaking abilities, Waddle has been flying under the radar in Miami as the Dolphins have struggled to stack wins. Following Sunday’s breakout game, that dynamic may be over as more eyes, justifiably, will be on Waddle, who has been the NFL’s third-most targeted receiver and leads the league in receptions with 50 since Week 6. He hasn’t quite been Cooper Kupp, but Waddle hasn’t really been that far off, and is currently on pace for 1,075.3 yards with 109.1 catches, which would shatter the rookie record for receptions (101) that was set by Anquan Boldin with the Arizona Cardinals in 2003 in 16 games.
With upcoming matchups against the flimsy pass defenses of the New York Jets, New Orleans Saints and Tennessee Titans on the schedule, Waddle should see his stock continue to rise and gain more recognition around the NFL as the Dolphins (5-7) and their pass-heavy offense (38.3 attempts per game) try to get back in the playoff conversation.
“I work extremely hard not to be completely known as like a speed guy or a guy that’s just a vertical threat,” Waddle said after Sunday’s win, via the Miami Herald. “I’m continuing to try to go out there every week, and show that I can actually run routes and do things I would say people don’t expect of me.”
Waddle is definitely doing those things and more people are going to start to notice.
Sell: Mike McCarthy should rejoin the Dallas Cowboys
It certainly isn’t realistic, but the Dallas Cowboys might be better off telling head coach Mike McCarthy to stay away once he is eligible to return to the team after being placed in the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols on Monday.
McCarthy, who tested positive for the virus and will be unable to coach Dallas during Thursday’s meeting with New Orleans, was on the sidelines for the Cowboys on Thanksgiving while the team racked up 14 penalties during an upset loss to the Raiders.
Under McCarthy’s leadership, Dallas cornerback Anthony Brown became the first NFL player since at least 2000 to be flagged four times for pass interference in the same game. All four of Brown’s penalties came on third down, resulting in 91 yards (including an infraction in overtime that led to the game-winning for Las Vegas). Of the franchise-record 166 yards in penalties Dallas was assessed as a team, 110 yards came on third down, which is the most by any team on third down in a game since at least 1991
It was an absolute mess, and McCarthy allowed it to happen.
Ranked first in penalties committed (90) and second in penalty yards allowed (727), the Dallas defense is directly under the supervision of defensive coordinator Dan Quinn (who spent parts of six seasons as head coach of the Falcons), but the buck stops with McCarthy.
That’s a scary reality for a team that has now lost three of its last four games, with the lone victory being a 40-point thrashing of the lowly Falcons.
“It was obviously frustrating. The game was herky-jerky from start to finish,” McCarthy said after the Thanksgiving debacle. “I don’t really know what the hell you want me to say. Write whatever you want, I’m all for it … The numbers are absurd, definitely understand that.”
It won’t happen, but the Cowboys would have a better shot at a deep playoff run if the number of games McCarthy coaches from now until the end of the season were zero.
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