Hot or Not

NFL Hot or Not: Giants and Browns inspire, Gregg Williams gets fired

In the wake of Week 13, Marc Sessler dishes on what's hot -- and what's not -- in the NFL:

WHAT'S HOT

1) From the FBI's website:

"Before 1934, "G-Man" was underworld slang for any and all government agents. In fact, the detectives in J. Edgar Hoover's Bureau of Investigation were so little known that they were often confused with Secret Service or Prohibition Bureau agents. By 1935, though, only one kind of Government employee was known by that name, the Special Agents of the FBI."

The New York Football Giants came to us in 1925, guided by ex-Navy coach Bob Folwell and headlined by the high-profile signing of 38-year-old Jim Thorpe. The fledgling team floundered out of the gate, dropping their NFL opener to the Providence Steam Roller before back-to-back tumbles against the Frankford Yellow Jackets. New York's first glory came with a 19-0 stamping of the Cleveland Bulldogs, giving way to seven wins over their next eight outings -- including a 23-0 whipping of the baffled Dayton Triangles -- for an 8-4 final mark.

It's unclear if those Giants were known about town as the G-Men, but I'd imagine few drew a parallel between Gotham's newbie football club and Hoover's cadre of heavies. Most of us link the G-Men nickname with the booming voice of ESPN's Chris Berman announcing the "GGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG MEN!"

Dipping further into the wormhole, the team was also tagged the "Jints" by local scribes, with longtime New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick suggesting that: Jints, I reckon, was the creation of a headline writer who years ago mimicked the accents of New Yorkers in squeeze-pronouncing, "Giants" while distinguishing the baseball N.Y. Giants from the football ones. If one were to say Giants quickly and with a local accent, two syllables become one, thus we get "Jynts," which rhymes with "pints." But through the years, "Jynts" has come to be spoken as Jints, which rhymes with "mints." And that, I'm almost positive, is wrong, or at least not what was originally intended.

Back to our drifting story: Ninety-five years after Jim Thorpe's Giants were a thing, the overlooked G-Men of 2020 are morphing into something unusual. A danger on the horizon under first-year coach Joe Judge, who dragged his team across the land into Seattle to drop a 17-12 bag of bricks on the Seahawks.

It's anyone's guess who wins the putrid NFC East, but I can't fight the feeling I've developed for this stout Giants defense. Star-on-the-rise coordinator Patrick Graham flipped the switch on Sunday, unleashing a revived Leonard Williams for 2.5 sacks while confusing Seattle passer Russell Wilson into a low-octane performance. One of the game's most reliable pre-snap processors and escape artists, Wilson seemed without answers against a Giants front that forced him into off-target throws amid wave after wave of disguised coverages and zone looks. Applying pressure on Wilson is one thing, but getting to him was the difference on Sunday, with the Jints dropping the aerial wizard for losses of 5, 8, 8, 11 and 15 yards.

Four of those sacks either came on third down or buried the 'Hawks in a hole they wouldn't dig out of. New York's final takedown, an 8-yard pummeling by Williams with 48 seconds left, forced the Seahawks into a desperation heave on fourth-and-18. The pass to a scrum of players was knocked down by free-agent pickup James Bradberry to cap a result few humans saw coming.

An unwatchable mass of underachieving no-namers for years on end, New York's defense today is littered with rough-and-tumble types who seem to contribute weekly.

Seventh-round linebackers Carter Coughlin and Tae Crowder hassled the Seahawks on Sunday alongside Blake Martinez, another free-agent signee enjoying his finest campaign. Bradberry has glittered alongside fellow open-market grab Logan Ryan and safety Jabrill Peppers, who came over from Cleveland in the Odell Beckham Jr. swap. Throw in a surging Williams, and general manager Dave Gettleman -- an easy, old-world target following forced promises to bring "computer folks" into the building -- has helped give this Giants team an identity on defense. The offense on Sunday did just enough behind a gallant effort from backup signal-caller Colt McCoy and could soon see the return of starter Daniel Jones.

FiveThirtyEight now drapes division-leading Big Blue (5-7) with a 53 percent chance to win the NFC East, ahead of 5-7 Washington (sitting at 40 percent after being swept by the Giants but knocking off Pittsburgh), 3-8-1 Philadelphia (5 percent) and 3-8 Dallas (3 percent prior to Tuesday's tilt with Baltimore). New York's schedule ahead is thorny -- vs. Arizona, vs. Cleveland, at Baltimore, vs. Dallas -- but what felt like a pipe dream two months ago sits today as a tangible possibility for a club coming off its biggest win in years.

The grand ol' Washington Football Team is frisky, too, after stunning the previously undefeated Steelers. It didn't happen on everyone's clock, but the two NFC East teams most counted out are the division's beating heart. As George Eliot wrote, "It is never too late to be what you might have been."

2) November 28, 1994: Staring out the window of an Amtrak train bound for Washington, D.C.

Boarded at Stamford, Connecticut. Heading back to American University. Dreary late-morning clouds shroud local stops out the window, one outer-Philly hamlet after the next -- Croydon, Andalusia, Torresdale, Holmesburg, Tacony, Darby, Sharon Hill -- a meshed mass of shacks, abandoned rigs, lonely markets, battered backyards and spare towers.

Twenty-four hours prior, I was parked at a booth with my dad at Bobby V's Restaurant & Sports Bar, the raucous Stamford tavern owned by former Mets manager Bobby Valentine and the only place within an hour of home that showed Browns games on live television.

The drive was worth it, as I witnessed Bill Belichick's Cleveland roster unhooking a 34-10 scud missile on the Houston Oilers, a franchise in search of itself under interim coach Jeff Fisher, who had just replaced the fired Jack Pardee.

Advancing to 9-3 that Sunday, the Browns followed a well-rehearsed formula, unfurling a mixture of Vinny Testaverde passes amid a heavy dose of Leroy Hoard and Earnest Byner on the ground. The defense did the rest, with Michael Dean Perry and friends sacking Oilers arm Billy Joe Tolliver four times and keeping Houston to just 182 yards on the day.

That was the last time Cleveland sat at 9-3. So, if that mark -- or better -- registers as a common sensation for today's Chiefs and Steelers fans, it's something else entirely for those wedded to the Browns.

It simply doesn't feel real to me, not even a couple days after Cleveland went into Tennessee and knocked off the Titans 41-35 in a game that saw the Browns post a franchise-record 38 points in the first half. That number alone is surprising, considering what the Browns once were: A juggernaut that torched the competition with Otto Graham and Jim Brown for eight world titles between 1946 and 1964.

What's happened more recently feels worlds away, with the Browns crafting just two winning campaigns since returning to action in 1999 and zero playoff wins. Fertile ground for chaos and clown acts, Cleveland has been the dark side of the moon since that '94 team went on to win the franchise's last playoff game, a 20-13 grinder over the Patriots that saw Belichick outduel New England coach Bill Parcells on New Year's Day 1995.

What this year's Browns can achieve under business-first coach Kevin Stefanski remains a mystery. I expected the Titans to gash Cleveland's defense -- and they ultimately did -- but nothing inside me foresaw Baker Mayfield throwing one pristine dart after the next in a performance that flung observers for a loop. Instead of leaning heavily on twin rumblers Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, Stefanski showed confidence in his young quarterback, dialing up a slew of aggressive shots through the air that left Tennessee hushed on the sideline.

It was a brand of performance that left my season-long evaluation of the Browns -- good team, quite limited -- in the dust. It's Tuesday morning in Los Angeles, and I have no idea where this Cleveland squad will wind up. That old feeling of strange fascination begins to sink in.

WHAT'S NOT

If Gregg Williams has called his final play in the NFL as a defensive coordinator, he went out in the most Gregg Williams-esque way one could possibly conceive. The since-fired Jets DC found himself the village idiot after dialing up an all-out blitz in the waning moments against the Raiders, prompting Derek Carr to heave a pass deep into the skies. The ball fluttered through the atmosphere before landing in the arms of rookie wideout Henry Ruggs III, all alone at the goal line after burning undrafted rookie cover man Lamar Jackson.

Las Vegas' stunning final blow in a 31-28 win over the Jets left Gang Green players in a disgusting fog, humiliated at their 0-12 record and fuming over the ill-fated strategy cooked up by Williams, which left Jackson and a vulnerable secondary in man-to-man coverage on that final chuck by Carr.

"Just felt like we could have been in a better call in that situation," safety Marcus Maye said. "We just gotta execute, but you gotta help us out at the same time."

As our own Michael Silver reported Monday on NFL Network, Carr's game-winning toss was helped by the veteran quarterback diagnosing what Williams was up to before the snap. Carr dialed up a seven-man front, pulling Darren Waller in to chip block. The star tight end said after the game that Raiders players knew what was coming. The Jets, unfortunately, did not.

"That's just Gregg Williams being Gregg Williams. But it did catch some people off guard, including head coach Adam Gase," Silver said. "Gase was on the headset talking to another coach. He heard the word 'zero,' and he said, 'Huh?' And they said, 'Yeah, he called Cover Zero.' (Which means no safety.) And before Gase could react, the ball was being snapped. So not an ideal state of affairs."

By morning's light, Williams was out of work, ridding the Jets of a coordinator who never seemed like a fit with the sheepish, unaffable Gase. Both will be viewed with disdain by Jets fans for eons to come, but Williams -- now at home and curled up by the fire with a weathered copy of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants -- has to be rooting for the Jets to escape 0-16. After all, if they achieve that unholy mark, he goes down as the rare coordinator involved with two winless campaigns in just four years after helping the Browns to such a nightmare in 2017.

That said, after his final play call on Sunday, perhaps that's exactly what Williams was angling for.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter.

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