The Halfway Point: Return to Relevancy, or Facade?

 

My how the wait for this seasons kickoff seems so distant ago. For months in the offseason we spend time with fellow fans, both on social media and in our daily lives, debating everything possible from who the team will target in free agency, to everyone and their mom producing mock drafts that often have as much accuracy as a skeet shooter in a micro-burst. Several short weeks later and here we are at the halfway point of the season preparing for a home match up against a division rival for first place in the restored AFC West.

The simple data:

6-2, tied for lead in AFC West

1-2 at home, 5-0 on the road

#5 offense – 26.9 ppg (6th); 401.6 ypg (5th)

#31 defense – 25.4 ppg (22nd); 410.4 ypg (31st)

To say this is a huge matchup, and arguably the biggest game in several years for this franchise, is an understatement. While the outcome of this season truly won’t be dictated by this week’s game alone, the outcome will go a long way towards defining where this team is at in its ascension – have we achieved relevancy once again in the league, or, are we a façade waiting to be exposed and knocked back down a peg to average? A loss puts us at 6-3 making it seem odd that a record such as that this late in the season would be considered a façade. At the same time, when we look at our remaining schedule and also take into consideration the number of games we have played sloppy, undisciplined football only to pull out a win with some luck and bounces our way, trending downward the second half of the season isn’t necessarily unimaginable.

That’s why this game is paramount on multiple levels. If we lose in unspectacular fashion we will continue to be labeled pretenders, regardless of wins/losses, for the next several weeks until we finish the season on New Year’s Day in Denver. If we win, more will begin to take us seriously while many others will continue to dissect us with a microscope, desperately searching for reasons to continue doubting our rise to relevancy. Most importantly, the outcome of this game could have a substantial impact on the moral of the players. With a win, despite how we get it, confidence goes through the roof and we come out of our bye week with a new swagger. However, if we lose, the team could get inside its own head and the rest of the schedule becomes that much more daunting.

As we sit here at the halfway point and look ahead I would now like to focus on three questions for each side of the football that will play themselves out in the second half of the season.

Offense

  • Will the O-line live up to the hype and play more disciplined?

I believe this is arguably the most important question as it has a domino effect on the rest of the offenses production. Many of you will probably read this and wonder “live up to the hype? Carr has been pretty clean all season,” but much of the hype going into the year was how dominant we could be in the run game and that has been a bit of a disappointment thus far. The revolving door at RT hasn’t helped but the entirety of the line has underperformed in the run game as a unit. Cleaning up penalties will go a LONG way towards helping fix that in regards to maintaining momentum and allowing for more consistent play calling.

  • That leads me right into the 2nd aspect I would like to look at, will a leader emerge from our RB committee?

The unit as a whole has been anything but consistent, showing flashes here and there while getting stuffed at other times. On the surface, it should be easy to say that Murray is the cog in the machine that keeps it going, and we witnessed that a bit while he was absent from a few games. However, Murray is the type of back that needs volume to really get going and take over a game. Once he gets rumbling downhill with consistency teams have trouble stopping our rushing efforts until he often decides to disappear later in games. Not to mention, Murray is still atrocious in catching passes out of the backfield and I can’t help but cringe every time a pass is thrown his way.

Enter D. Washington, whom has been more effective as both a runner and pass catcher (better average yards per rush/catch), albeit in a change-of-pace type of role. J. Richard has started to see his chances dwindle to spot breather duty, and aside from that 75 yard scamper the first game of the season, he really hasn’t shown much more electricity than Murray. Until our O-line cleans things up I have a hard time thinking we will find consistent ground in the run game and witness it become a larger strength we rely on. With Murray’s contract up at the end of the year I believe they are wanting Washington to take the reins but Murray has yet to relinquish them. Unfortunately, I don’t see this settling itself out this season and we will continue to instill a committee approach, which is fine as long as guys settle into definitive roles.

  • Lastly, will the TE’s become more involved in the offense?

A question on many fans minds and another situation that is largely dictated by how the offensive line plays. Quite a few folks have been hard on Walford for not elevating his game but we must remember the kid has only played 24 NFL games and was hampered by injuries to start last season as well as missed time this offseason because of his ATV accident. Of course all of us fans would like to see him become a key component of our offense but losing Lee Smith really put a damper on that. Since Smith went down Walford has played a higher percentage of snaps but has seen less targets per game due to being kept on the line as a blocker. That of course has led to Rivera becoming involved once again rather than being inactive. The effectiveness of our TE’s will hinder largely on how well the line plays and potentially exploiting matchups, therefore I don’t see them becoming anything close to resembling the duo of Gronkowski and M. Bennett anytime soon.

Defense

  • Does Aldon and/or MEJ return this season?

I hate to take the overly obvious route here (hence why I didn’t mention Carr’s meteoric rise to potential MVP candidate above) but this is easily the largest question facing our defense the second half of the season. We recently saw tidbits of Aldon at the Warriors game (appearing to be in excellent shape) stating he will be ready to return in a couple of weeks and is waiting to hear from the league about his reinstatement. MEJ on the other hand has been eligible to return to practice for a few weeks now but hasn’t made positive steps to get back onto the field and that is concerning. Having both of these guys back for the second half stretch would be HUGE and a much needed lift on the defensive side of the ball. Heck, even seeing one of them return would be a welcomed addition at this point as we look to make a playoff run.

  • Will Calhoun continue to see a growing role?

The answer here really is dependent on the above question (noticing a gradual theme here?). Calhoun has seen his playing time increase as the season moves along and he is making more of it each week. Earlier in the season he was noticed for whiffing on plays and showing he hadn’t adapted to the speed of the game. As the weeks have come and gone he has started to appear more like he belongs out there and things are slowing down for him allowing for a couple of noticeable plays that were positive in nature. Potential returns of both Aldon and MEJ could throw a wrench into things. If they return with a vengeance I could unfortunately see Calhoun becoming inactive on game days.

  • Does Stacy McGee play himself into an extension?

Oh yes! Being the founding member and president of the Stacy McGee Fan Club I had to save this one for last. As has been the norm going into every season, McGee has often been left off of nearly every fans and analysts final 53-man roster predictions, yet has continued to make the cut and carve out a role as a key component of our D-lines rotation dating back to his rookie year. Last year when MEJ went down (and even prior) McGee had found himself a spot as our edge setting run defender in 3-4/5-2 alignments, even getting some starts. This year however, as his biggest homer, not even I expected him to show up the way he had before getting injured.

 

If I would have said during the offseason that mid-way through the year McGee would be second on the team in both sacks and forced fumbles many would have flamed me for it, and rightfully so. Until this season we had never seen McGee play at this level while looking as disruptive as he has. The recent injury reports have him out against Denver which is unfortunate. Hopefully he heals up during the bye week and is ready for the showdown with the Texans in Mexico City. With Big Dan’s contract initially being a two-year deal, his playing time dwindling, and Ellis going into the final year of his rookie deal next season, I personally think McGee gets a much deserved extension and is part of the future plans Reggie has for our D-line – playing next to his son, Khalil.

So here we are, halfway through the season, heading into a big game Sunday that will help define whether this team has returned to relevancy or is simply a facade waiting to be exposed. There are plenty of questions that will be answered in the coming weeks, several certainly not mentioned here. How refreshing is it that the most important questions facing this team in the second half has nothing to do with whether or not our coaches return next season, or, who we will be picking in the top 10 yet again? For the first time in several years, and only the second time in well over a decade, we are rationally talking playoffs at the halfway point in a rejuvenated division and have a potential MVP candidate. I personally fail to see how that can be viewed as anything but a return to relevancy. Now it’s time for the rest of the football world to agree, and that starts Sunday in The Black Hole.

Side notes:

  • I have finally decided to return to the ‘Sir Truth’ moniker. I used this name throughout the years when I used to write pieces for a site called the Autumn Wind Daily, to this day over at S&BP, on the ESPN boards before they closed, and also IBA when I first joined the blog. Since Reggie received his extension I have wanted to switch back as the ‘Teabag McKenz’ name had run its course and no longer served a purpose as a shtick. The change is long overdue but Truth Daddy is back!
  • This piece was originally intended as two pieces (relevancy vs façade and 2nd half questions) but I became extremely busy as the week went on and I prepared to leave town for a conference. With limited time I decided to attempt to combine the two into a single article so sorry for it being quite long. I also hope that helps make sense of why the 3 questions for each side weren’t necessarily important aspects to help determine “relevancy or façade.”
  • I omitted lots of stats, facts, ratings, rankings, anecdotes, etc. for a couple of reasons. First, with the extent of detail I often go into this article would have been 2-3 times longer. Secondly, I wrote this piece (as I often will) in a rhetorical way as to facilitate critical thinking, research and dialogue about the team from varying perspectives. Lastly, by keeping stats and such out of the article it keeps the conversation about the article for just a smidgen longer than it would if I covered a majority of grounds in the piece itself (hey, even 5 extra comments on topic is progress!).
  • Kenny getting this place up and going really got me excited to write about the team again. I plan to reintroduce an old weekly column I used to do called “The Truth Booth” (another reason for reverting back to the name). It’s a sort of deep dive into topics often not covered by beat writers as well as my attempt to play devil’s advocate and pick apart general analyst/fan consensus that I feel is bias or simply off base.
  • In closing, I want to thank Kenny for the opportunity he has given us fans to provide material for this site. To those who made it through the entirety of the article, I appreciate your time reading it. To those who skipped straight to the comments, suck my balls! Cheers.

Posted by: Sir Truth (formerly Teabag McKenz)