What we learned (and didn’t learn) in Week 5 of NFL

Ever wonder why we make such a big deal out of NFL player contracts? Like, at the end of the day, why do fans really care how much money the players make? It’s not the fans’ money, and as long as the team can work the salary cap, what does it really matter whether the top wide receivers make $15 million a year or $17 million a year or $19 million a year?

In a weird and gruesome way, I feel like Sunday of Week 5 offered an answer.

Two of the game’s biggest superstars — Giants wideout Odell Beckham Jr. and Texans defensive end J.J. Watt — left their games with season-ending injuries. This is a fact of NFL life, of course, but it makes the game worse when the inevitable injury attrition deprives its most thrilling players of a chance to perform.

That’s the effect the injuries have on us as fans, but the effect on the players themselves is far more significant. There’s the despair over not being able to play, the pain and frustration that comes with a long rehab, and, of course, the economic consequences.

Beckham, as you’ve surely heard, is in the middle of one of the league’s higher-profile-contract conundrums. He posted historic levels of wide receiver production in his first three seasons, but he’s prevented from maximizing his market value for at least two more years because of the way the rookie-contract system is set up. He’s making $1.839 million this year, and the Giants hold a team option on him for $8.459 million for 2018. That option is guaranteed against injury, which is to Beckham’s current benefit but prior to the injury functioned only as a drag on his desire for a big, long-term deal. The Giants had no reason to engage him in negotiations until next offseason at the earliest, and his season-ending injury underlines one of the major reasons why.

The system is set up to work to the teams’ advantage. Everyone knows this. The Giants will now wait to see how Beckham performs when he comes back and make a decision during or after the 2018 season on whether to extend him. Even then, they have the possibility of the 2019 franchise tag at their disposal if they decide they want him back but can’t reach a deal.

Which is why it’s worth celebrating these guys when they make it to the big contract. That’s an achievement. The whole game is rigged to keep them from getting the long-term deal. Those who do it deserve to puff out their chest and have their accomplishment hailed as if they’d made a big play to win a big game.

Flash back to 2014, when Watt signed his six-year, $100 million extension with the Texans. At the time, Watt had one year left on his four-year rookie contract, plus the Texans’ option year for 2015. He was at least two seasons from free agency, and had he waited, he likely would have made much more. His deal was historic at the time, but it was soon surpassed by the likes of Justin Houston and Von Miller, and in purely economic retrospect, it appears he did the Texans a favor by signing when he did.

But now that Watt has had consecutive seasons ended by injury, his 2014 extension looks far more worthy of respect. By the end of this season, he’ll have made $43 million over the past four seasons, and his current circumstances illustrate the sad fact that he might have cost himself millions by not waiting.

You see both sides of this, even on Sunday. Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce left the game with a concussion. He signed his extension in 2016. Watt’s teammate Whitney Mercilus tore a pectoral muscle and is out for the season. He has two years left (non-guaranteed) on a four-year, $26 million contract and was hoping to position himself to cash in with a big extension. Go back to Week 1, when Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson tore his ACL in the first game of his free-agent year.

It’s a rough line of work, one of the roughest, and each week brings fresh and painful reminders of how fleeting it all is. The next time one of these guys gets a big contract extension, remember what an accomplishment that is in this league.

What else we learned in Week 5:

The 0-5 Giants, who resist change, need to make one

The Giants are history, and the offseason that awaits them should feature a major move in the front office.

Jerry Reese has been the Giants’ general manager since 2007. They won the Super Bowl in his first year and went 12-4 in his second. Since then, however, the team’s record is 70-68, and yes, that includes playoff games and the Giants’ victory in Super Bowl XLVI. As director of player personnel, Reese obviously had a role in the construction of those 2007 and 2008 teams, but it’s fair to say Ernie Accorsi, his predecessor as GM, deserves the bulk of the credit for how good those teams were. The Giants teams for whose construction and maintenance Reese has been ultimately responsible have been, with rare exceptions, mediocre. This year’s team, which had the highest of hopes, appears to be awful.

Reese’s draft record is abysmal by any measure. Only four of the 46 players the Giants selected in Reese’s first six years as GM made it to second contracts with the team. Miss after midround miss over that time left the roster so hollowed out by 2013 that the team endured three straight losing seasons and let go of longtime coach Tom Coughlin. Building through the draft is the most important part of an NFL GM’s job, and Reese has shown absolutely no ability to do it.

This is Reese’s 11th year in this job, and his two signature achievements are (A) a 2011 team that was 7-7 with two regular-season games to go but got it together behind Coughlin and Eli Manning (neither of whom he hired) in time to win the Super Bowl, and (B) outbidding the rest of the league for premium, defensive free agents in the 2016 offseason. That helped the Giants to the fourth double-digit-win season and fourth playoff appearance of Reese’s tenure, which, again, is in its eleventh season.

If you know my work, you know that I don’t like to call for firings. I’ve lost jobs; I know what it feels like. I’m not here calling for a housecleaning. I don’t think, for example, that it would be fair to fire coach Ben McAdoo after only two seasons, one of which was a playoff year. But Reese has had a lot more than two years, and he hasn’t proven an ability to do this job at a high level. The Giants need a new voice and a new vision overseeing their program at the top. They need someone who knows how to work the draft, to move up and down and to maneuver to maximize value, rather than just build a board off scouts’ evaluations and pick the highest-ranking guy left. They need someone who will hold himself accountable, taking responsibility for his decisions rather than hiding in his office while his coaches and players answer questions about them.

The Giants have had only three different GMs in 39 years. They believe in continuity at the position. That’s admirable. More teams should operate this way. But in the case of Reese, there’s just no case to support keeping him. They won’t let him go now, of course, as they believe in evaluating the season as a 16-game whole. But when this one ends, it’ll be time for the Giants to find a new GM.

The AFC North race isn’t over yet

A week ago, I left the Steelers-Ravens game in Baltimore thinking Pittsburgh would clinch the division by Thanksgiving. Sunday, Ben Roethlisberger somehow threw five interceptions and the Steelers got waxed at home by Jacksonville. The Ravens went to Oakland and kicked in an EJ Manuel gimme, and the Bengals won their second straight game and appear to be somewhat close to whole with Vontaze Burfict back in the mix. So it’s a tightly bunched race now, and there seems to be something wrong in Pittsburgh.

Last week, after Le’Veon Bell got 35 carries in the victory in Baltimore, the Steelers’ wide receivers were upset about lack of opportunity. This week, after they came out chucking even though the Jags are stronger against the pass than the run, Bell is upset about too few carries. Roethlisberger is saying stuff like, "Maybe I don’t have it anymore." And their next game is in Kansas City against the best team in the league. They need to get it together out there in Pittsburgh. This is too good a team to let it all fall apart over some soap opera stuff.

The Chiefs and Panthers can keep it up

Kansas City is the last undefeated team in the league, and watching the Chiefs makes it clear it’s not an early-season fluke. The Chiefs have a ludicrous amount of speed on offense, and coach Andy Reid is designing a pile of offensive wrinkles around his thrilling personnel. The Panthers are also doing a lot of different things with pre-snap alignment and personnel groupings, taking advantage of the mismatches they can get with their big wideouts, dynamic rookie Christian McCaffrey and their power run game, depending on what’s called for.

Everyone has an Achilles’ heel, and you do wonder whether the Chiefs’ aging defense can hold up all season and whether the Carolina offensive line can hold together in front of Cam Newton. But these are the teams in each conference playing the best overall right now, heading into Week 6 matchups against the Pennsylvania teams that both would like to be in that same conversation.

So you want to be a head coach?

You have to think Kyle Shanahan, son of a head coach, would have known this gig wasn’t easy. But, man. The 49ers have lost their past four games by a total of 11 points, the past two on the road in overtime. This was always going to be a work in progress, which is why Shanahan got a six-year contract as a first-time head coach. Obviously, the roster is personnel-deficient in many areas. But we’ve seen the offense come to life late in games against the Colts and Rams, so it’s fair to assume Shanahan’s first win is around the corner somewhere. No matter how painful things are in the meantime.

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