Each week between now and Super Bowl LIV, Marc Sessler will scan the NFL landscape for people, places and things -- events both evil and just, noble and impure, delightful and inglorious, filled with wise men and anti-heroes -- that burn bright on his radar.
*Here's this week's briefing: *
Andrew Luck's Saturn Return
"This is not an easy decision. Honestly, it's the hardest decision of my life. But it is the right decision for me," Luck said during a press conference that shifted in tone from emotional to pragmatic and back again. "For the last four years or so, I've been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain, rehab, and it's been unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and offseason, and I felt stuck in it. The only way I see out is to no longer play football. It's taken my joy of this game away."
Luck's decision, by now, has been sliced and diced and analyzed from every angle. The Colts were wise to move his farewell address from Sunday to Saturday evening, moments after Luck was untowardly booed off the field at Lucas Oil Stadium by fans discovering the news during Indy's preseason tilt with Chicago. Luck's tear-stained appearance quelled questions and rumors of why he was walking away: Was it over the team's treatment of his various injuries, which included a shoulder issue that wiped out his 2017 season and, more recently, leg issues that dogged him this preseason? A tiff with ownership? A selfish streak?
None of those things. Luck spoke honestly about the toll on his body and mind, saying: "The only way forward for me is to remove myself from football and this cycle that I've been in. I've come to the proverbial fork in the road."
NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport noted that Luck, now married, "plans to travel the world," a desire not typically dominating the psyche of franchise quarterbacks. Luck, though, never fit the mold of the Athlete-Droid, hardwired to see football and only football. This is the quarterback who started a book club. The strong-armed, make-every-throw wonder who seemed happiest traveling the hills and dales of the German countryside.
Deeper forces rage inside of this human being. It is notable that Sept. 12 marks his 30th birthday. Peering beyond the NFL's transaction list to the Cosmos, Luck's life-altering choice to walk away from football lines up perfectly with a celestial phenomenon known as The Saturn Return.
"The Saturn Return is when the planet Saturn comes back to meet your natal Saturn," notes astrological writer Molly Hall. "It takes about 29.5 years for this slow-mover to return to where it was when you were born. The Saturn Return hits in the late 20s and its impact is felt into the early 30s. ... [Bringing] with it the pressure of time, and often the first awareness of your own mortality. ... The Saturn Return often creates a crisis that puts you face-to-face with your fears. And many of these have deep roots in your psyche, but they're also about living up to societal expectations. Saturn causes a mini earthquake to the foundations, and this enables you to shake off what's not really you."
The composer Gustav Mahler finished his first symphony at the age of 29. Thomas Edison opened his Menlo Park "invention factory" at age 29. Nikola Tesla voyaged to the United States at 28 and, soon after, started working at the Edison Company. Winston Churchill first crossed the floor of Parliament to the Liberals at age 30. Napoleon Bonaparte took on the Austrian Empire at 28 before capturing Alexandria and Cairo, Egypt, at 29. Stanley Kubrick made his first major studio picture, "Paths of Glory," as he turned 30. Andrew Carnegie ditched the Pennsylvania Railroad to become his own boss at age 30.
Chalk it up as nonsense, but one thing is certain about Luck: He mined deep within before making this decision. Any floated curiosity about the introspective passer flip-flopping on his decision to someday return to the field? Forget it. Luck stands at the "proverbial fork in the road" -- his words -- and I can't wait to see what he does with the rest of his time on the orb.
Baker's big concern
No Odell Beckham. No Jarvis Landry. No Nick Chubb. No David Njoku. Baker unfurled a few duds, but he was flinging the ball to characters like Derrick Willies and Jaelen Strong -- and it showed, with a string of pristinely placed throws fluttering off the hands of guy-behind-the-guy-behind-the-guy roster hopefuls.
Baker's enviable arm gifts are not the issue. The offensive line, though, is a different story. For all the headline-stealing offseason pickups in Cleveland, retaining Greg Robinson as the club's post-Joe Thomas answer at left tackle never passed the smell test. The first-round flameout gave up a sack and two hurries and drew a pair of frustrating penalties against Tampa. Every team in the league will target Mr. Greg as a pathway to Baker's blind side.
Left guard Joel Bitonio is a rock, while center JC Tretter should be viewed as a contract-extension candidate entering his walk-year in Cleveland. We hit troubled waters again at right guard, where Austin Corbett -- last year's 33rd overall pick -- has refused to evolve. Cleveland is stuck filling the spot with Eric Kush, a low-level journeyman with 12 starts since 2013. Coach Freddie Kitchens minced no words regarding the situation, saying of Kush: "He's got to continue to get better. He's not a finished product by any stretch of the imagination."
Can you imagine floating home on the interstate in stunned silence after your boss described your career in these terms to the entire office?
The outlook at right tackle is equally troubling, with Chris Hubbard (sporting a career grade from Pro Football Focus of -23.9) struggling throughout the preseason. The Browns streaked down the stretch last season due to a reshaped line, but Robinson allowed a whopping 19 hurries from Week 9 on, per PFF. Two decisions -- assuming the Rams bust was worthy of a reprise role and shipping away stellar guard Kevin Zeitler in the Beckham swap with the Giants -- have created a real-time sinkhole for Cleveland.
If I'm Browns general manager John Dorsey, I'm calling Redskins front-office heavy Bruce Allen seven times a minute, Swingers-style -- "This is Mike ... I met you at the, uh, Dresden," -- until he picks up the phone and agrees to a deal for disgruntled Washington holdout Trent Williams. Whispers suggest Dolphins bookend Laremy Tunsil might also loom as potential trade bait. Make something happen -- or else.
Jacksonville's Josh Allen Effect
When the Seahawks struck gold with Russell Wilson in 2012, it altered how clubs behave in more than one way. The diminutive quarterback's immediate success as a third-round pick who helped lead his team on a playoff run challenged old-school front-office henchmen to think differently about prototypical quarterback size and shape.
Not everyone bought into the idea of a 5-foot-11 signal-caller, but Wilson's trickle-down effect on team-building made sense: Bullseye a low-salary Year 1 starting passer in the draft and use the excess cap space to flood the roster with talent. Seattle's quick rise raised hopes league-wide that similar miracles could occur in the later rounds. Dallas finding Dak Prescott in the fourth in 2016 literally changed the history of broadcasting, compelling a benched Tony Romo to pick up the mic.
Beyond second- and third-contract quarterbacks, no position on the field sinks payroll with more force than a premier pass rusher. The 2019 franchise tag for 4-3 defensive ends ($17.128 million) trumps the figures for wideouts or cover men, while the moolah handed out to veteran edge rushers -- $60 million guaranteed was given to Khalil Mack, ahead of Trey Flowers($50 million guaranteed) and DeMarcus Lawrence ($48 million in guarantees) landing their own lucrative deals-- has become titanic in scale.
Today, the Seahawks are paying for Wilson's early success, to the tune of $70 million in guaranteed loot, which surely played into their decision to part ways with franchise-tagged defensive end Frank Clark following an unavoidable 2018 veteran purge to lighten the books. In Jacksonville, the Jaguars have sunk $45 million into guarantees for new quarterback Nick Foles, while crossing their fingers he can be two-thirds of what Wilson amounts to on a weekly basis. That risky investment puts pressure on the team to nail the draft and pad the roster with players who can operate as whirlwinds at the most expensive slots on the roster.
Enter seventh overall pick Josh Allen, looking like a raging star-in-the-making as a massive-bodied 4-3 end who spent the preseason blowing up would-be runners and causing havoc in the pocket. The sample size is small, but it feels like the Jaguars rookie is the real deal -- and all for the affordable price of $4.1 million in 2019. It's one reason teams will always swing for fences at the top of the draft for pass-rushing wonders. A franchise quarterback? Maybe not. But it's the next best thing.
Roughing the passer still a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma
A footnote complaint, but Saturday's Jets-Saints game illustrated the troubling inconsistency in how the zebras view roughing the passer calls.
With 4:33 left in the first quarter, Sam Darnold threw a dart to Bilal Powell that fell incomplete. As Darnold unleashed the ball, Saints linebacker Demario Davis hopscotched into the pocket and barely glanced the Jets passer, who tumbled backward with the skill of a nimble stage actor. Bang. Flag thrown.
Fast forward the tape to 14:12 remaining in the second quarter, when Darnold threw another incomplete pass on third-and-5. As he tossed the ball on the run, Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson leveled him from behind with a shot that buried Darnold in the turf. The refs allowed this godless moment to pass without a whisper.
Not the end of the world in a preseason match destined for irrelevance, but it remains vastly unclear what officials view as the demarcation line for this typically quarterback-coddling rulebook delight.
I'm sure they're listening.