There was no moment on the way off the field, or in the locker room after, that signaled to the Packers what they’d just gained—pole position in the race for the NFC’s top seed and only bye. Instead, Matt LaFleur got word over a Zoom call with the local media after Green Bay held off a feisty Lions team at Ford Field, 31–24, figuring it out with the line of questioning coming his way.
The Saints had lost in Philly. The Packers were passing them in the standings. And if Green Bay keeps winning, the road to Super Bowl LV will be a really cold one for everyone else.
“Those guys let us know New Orleans lost, and we knew the ramifications of everything that’s going on,” LaFleur said, over his cell as the team bus pulled into the airport in Detroit. “We know what’s in front of us, what’s at stake. But that’s not going to change our approach. We’re going to still go one game at a time. You just can’t take anything for granted in this game. No matter who you’re playing.
“You’ve got to go out and earn it each and every week.”
The Packers, most certainly, have earned their way to where they are—even if America hasn’t fully taken notice yet.
Sunday was another example. Green Bay grinded through a division opponent that showed new life last under an interim coach. Aaron Rodgers was near perfect. A half-dozen guys registered multiple catches. The run game was solid and the defense did its job late, playing situational football and forcing Detroit to bleed the clock on its way down the field.
Basically, what you’re seeing is the Year 2 bounce we’ve seen from other teams running a Shanahan-influenced program, only in this case it’s happening with an all-time great at quarterback. The result is LaFleur may be Coach of the Year, Rodgers is sticking his nose in the MVP race (with Patrick Mahomes having thrown three picks on Sunday) and the Packers are lining up to make the rest of the conference come through Lambeau in January.
You might’ve missed all this. We’ll get you caught up.
Week 14 was fun, if lacking drama—only six of the 15 games played so far were decided by a single possession—and that means we’ve got plenty to catch you up on. In this week’s MMQB, you’ll find …
• Bruce Arians on his relationship with Tom Brady.
• Sammy Watkins on the Chiefs’ chase of perfection.
• Chase Young on … Chase Young.
• Coaching rumors.
• A full assessment of Cam Newton.
But we’re starting with the Packers, where they are and where they may be going.
History lays it out for you. In Matt Ryan’s second year playing for Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta, he was league MVP and went to the Super Bowl. Likewise, Jared Goff was in the Super Bowl in his second year playing for Sean McVay in L.A. And Jimmy Garoppolo’s second full season with Shanahan in San Francisco, coming off the torn ACL, also ended in the Super Bowl.
The pattern isn’t a coincidence. There’s a lot to the offense, especially for a quarterback, and so LaFleur always felt like—brilliant as Rodgers is—this would take time, too.
So last year was Step 1, and as first steps go, it sure wasn’t bad. Green Bay went 13–3 and reached the NFC title game, and Rodgers was good. But as LaFleur saw it, knowing where the offense was headed, he could be so much better. Since then, he has been, and having patience is why.
“Absolutely,” LaFleur said. “You talk about Aaron, there’s a lot of s— we put on his plate. Having these play options, and some of these plays, believe it or not, have three-play options, we put a lot on his plate. And that he can handle all that, and get everyone on the same page, it’s just remarkable. Especially tonight, there were a lot of plays that I called that were ‘can plays’ as we call them, to consistently put us in the right plays. It speaks to his ability to process and see what’s going on, and then go out there and execute it.
“And it’s not just him, it’s everybody. But he’s the one that gets us going.”
And he didn’t waste time Sunday. As if to show how the Packers can threaten defenses in such vastly different ways these days, Rodgers & Co. threw the proverbial haymaker, then a barrage of jabs.
The big swing came on Green Bay’s third play from scrimmage, with Rodgers throwing a BB down the right sideline to Davante Adams, which Adams caught in stride and took 56 yards to paydirt. The barrage came on the next possession, which the Packers took 69 yards over 12 plays, with Rodgers completing all five of his throws for 44 yards, and Green Bay only needing to complete two third downs, both with fewer than five yards to gain.
Along the way, hidden in all that efficiency, were the ‘can plays’ that LaFleur referenced, the beacon that really shows the advancement of the Packers offense from Year 1 to Year 2 in the system. Those are basically double play-calls that ask the quarterback to diagnose the defense and pick the call that matches what the opponent is doing. As LaFleur said, some quarterbacks can move on to three-play calls, and Rodgers has gotten to that point quickly.
And the truth is, the results don’t always show up in Rodgers’s own personal stat line. But they do on the scoreboard and in the offense’s overall performance.
“The numbers kind of speak for themselves,” LaFleur said “He’s been doing that all season long. There’s so many plays—some of them are run plays, where he gets us into the right look—and you can’t take that for granted. It definitely makes it easier calling plays when the other guy’s going out there and getting us into good looks, making sure it’s the right play-call. It increases your odds, your probability that that’s a successful play.”
And more often than not, on Sunday, the Packers were running successful plays. They averaged 6.4 yards per offensive snap. They scored on five of their first seven possessions, with four of them landing in the end zone, and ended the game running the clock on their eighth possession. They were 8-of-11 on third down. They had 26 first downs.
They were humming, with a 37-year-old slinging it like he’s 27 again. Which has left his 41-year-old head coach in a position where now, after a year in Green Bay, he really does feel like the playbook is all the way open and anything is possible.
“I just think there’s such a trust in that he’s always making the right decisions,” LaFleur said. “You can be more aggressive in your play-calls, and really kind of cut it loose, because you have such faith in his ability and the guys up front, their ability to protect. And, you know, then you’ve got a guy like Davante Adams and the rest of our receivers who do a hell of a job of owning their roles.
“Combine that with the fact we feel really good about our runners. There’s a lot of things that go through your mind as a coach, you never feel limited.”
That doesn’t mean the Packers are going to blow everyone out. The Detroit game had its bumps along the way, for sure. Green Bay, for example needed its offense to protect the defense some on Sunday.
But it does mean— with a guy who might be Coach of the Year lined up next to a quarterback who could be loosening Mahomes’s grip on the MVP—that getting the Packers out of the playoffs in January is going to be a lot tougher this year than it was last year. And if you want to know why, LaFleur’s case for Rodgers to be MVP explains it.
“The level at which he’s playing week in and week out is … I don’t know who’s doing better,” said LaFleur, now 23–6 as Packers coach (that’s already the most win by any Green Bay coach over his first two years). “And it consistently shows up on the stat sheet. He’s the guy that’s leading us. I know this: We certainly wouldn’t be where we are without him. I think he’s the guy that makes everybody around him better, and it shows every week.”
And the fact that he’s getting better at that as he goes should be a reminder to everyone from this point forward: It probably wouldn’t be smart to dismiss these guys anymore.
BRUCE ARIANS SEES PROGRESS
Green Bay wasn’t the only team cheering for Philly on Sunday—that Saints’ loss also left the door ajar, if only slightly, for the Bucs in the NFC South. Tampa kept its foot in that door, too, with a win that required some mishaps (Minnesota’s Dan Bailey missed three field goals and a PAT) and some good fortune (the rarely-called pass interference on a Hail Mary gave the Bucs a gift-wrapped three points before halftime), but it was a win nonetheless.
And the cool thing for Tampa? Beating a Vikings team that was clinging on the fringe of the NFC playoff picture only required 196 passing yards from Tom Brady.
“Yeah, I mean people keep asking for identity,” coach Bruce Arians said over his cell phone postgame. “We do whatever the hell it takes to win. We can run it. We can throw it. We can throw it spread. Everybody wants us to throw to certain guys, but we just try to win. Tom did a great, great job of distributing the football. Big thing was no turnovers. You’re hard to beat when you don’t turn the ball over.”
As Arians alluded to, this 26–14 win over the Vikings may not have been how we all envisioned Bucs games playing out four months ago. Then again, that Tampa can pull other levers than the obvious ones to win is a decent illustration of the roster’s balance.
Ronald Jones got the ball 18 times. Eight different skill players caught the ball. And the defense closed it out at the end. Which left Arians and me with a bunch of stuff to cover after the game. Here’s what I took from the Bucs’ coach …
The defense can play. The Vikings were down 23–14 with first-and-goal from the Tampa eight with 10:33 left, and that opportunity didn’t last long. Bucs DC Todd Bowles started bringing pressure. First, it was star rookie safety Antoine Winfeld Jr. blitzing and forcing a fumble on second down. Then, it was Shaq Barrett registering another sack on third down, which pushed Bailey’s field goal bid back to 46 yards (he, of course, missed it).
Bowles’s rushers and pressures struck again on the Vikings’ next, and final, possession. In second-and-3 at the Tampa 38, reserve D-lineman Patrick O’Connor chased down Cousins for a 10-yard sack. “That guy that stood out was Pat O’Connor, who never gets in,” Arians said, “And he got in and just lit it up.” Two plays after that, on fourth-and-13, Jason Pierre-Paul ended any thoughts of a comeback, sacking and stripping Cousins, then taking the ball.
“I thought it was very calculated by [Bowles],” Arians said. “We played good zone coverage behind some great zone blitzes. Instead of going all-out, man-to-man. He’s a great coordinator and just did a great job. Our pass rush was outstanding down the stretch.”
The ball was everywhere. Antonio Brown—surprise!—was Tampa’s leading receiver, with five catches. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin combined for that many. And five guys (Scotty Miller, Cam Brate, Ronald Jones, Shady McCoy and Rob Gronkowski) had one catch apiece.
In the end, when Brady’s spreading the ball around like that, he’s at his best, because it shows a level of trust in the guys next to him.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” Arians said. “We’d all love to see Mike Evans get his 1,000 yards. There’s no doubt about that. But again, it’s all about winning. And Mike’s all about winning. Tom just puts it where it’s supposed to be.”
Areas of progress. My buddy Ian Rapoport over at NFL Network reported that Arians and Brady tried to play golf last week during the bye, but the idea was shot down by the league. Arians confirmed the story to me, and joked that, “It’s like, ‘O.K., you can go to the office and spend 10 hours together, but you can’t play golf. How much sense does that make? I can go play golf with someone who’s never been tested [but not someone who has been].”
So yeah, golf was crossed off the calendar. But the concept wasn’t. Brady and Arians planned to spend the time on the links talking through ideas and plans, and that still happened. And the conclusion the two came to was that the details were really the thing that needed to be addressed.
“We can do anything,” Arians said. “We can run it. We can throw it. We can spread it out. Our biggest concern was converting third downs. This game started out the same way. We missed a couple, then we hit a big third-down touchdown and it changed the whole ballgame.”
Indeed, Tampa failed to convert its first two third downs, and went five-of-nine from there.
Work in progress. As the year has gone on, Arians told me, the Bucs have worked in more Patriots-types of concepts. The rub: It’s all in Buccaneer language to ease any issues with younger players. And the idea is to strike a balance in making Brady comfortable and making sure they’re not overloading the others with information.
“I’ve done that all year” Arians said. “The verbiage, it’s just learning verbiage. And what they call zero out, we call trips. I was in their system before. So I know that system. We make our system way simpler as far as formations. Now the plays, yeah. He’s got ideas, we’ve got ideas, we put them all together. Pick your favorites. And away we go.”
Or so they hope.
Sunday’s win over Minnesota puts the Bucs in a really good spot to get in the playoffs, and Arians is well aware that, when Brady’s your quarterback, just getting there won’t do. So they have to keep getting better, and there are plenty of places he sees it happening.
“We didn’t even come close to turning it over,” he said. “We protected the football as well as we could. That was big for us today. And we made the plays that were there. Ran it good in the second half when we had to. I thought the big thing was the score before the half then a touchdown after the half. Get a double score, that was huge.”
Also huge: The rest of the slate. Tampa’s got three games left, and they look manageable: Detroit and Atlanta twice. Maybe the Saints will stumble. Maybe they won’t. Regardless, Arians knows his group’s going to need some momentum. And he’s looking forward to working with Brady on that too, whether they can do it from the tee box or not. Because thus far, he says, working with Brady hasn’t felt like work much at all.
“Oh, love it,” he said. “Just absolutely love it, man. It’s great.”
CHASE YOUNG DOES IT ALL
After Washington beat the Niners, injured San Francisco star rusher Nick Bosa shot a text over to Chase Young, his ex-Ohio State teammate.
Hell of a game. Way to ball, brother.
That would qualify as an understatement. On Sunday, the Football Team took the Niners behind the woodshed, beating the “hosts” 23–15 in Arizona. And there was no denying it—the 21-year-old Young was the best player on the field. On Sunday, he became the first rookie and third player since 1999 to have two passes defensed, a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a fumble returned for a touchdown in a single game.
Young’s been a menace all year for Washington. But this was different than just that.
“As the season goes on, I definitely have been getting more comfortable when I’m out there,” Young told me postgame. “And today, I just tried to put it all together. I try to do that every game, but today it just happened for me. I’m grateful.”
Washington is, too, that he was there for them with the second pick, which has helped land them in sole possession of first place in the NFC East with three weeks to go. And reason for that gratitude really showed up on a handful of plays that shot Young’s star into the stratosphere. So I figured we’d have Young take us through those.
First quarter, 9:31 left, second-and-7, 49ers’ 38 … 49ers QB Nick Mullens throws a screen to WR Brandon Aiyuk for five yards. “On that play I saw Trent [Williams]’s eyes, he was looking down. So I knew he wasn’t coming to me. I knew there was something up. He went down, the quarterback popped back, he looked my way, so I said, ‘Screen.’ I just tried to put my foot in the ground and get back to it as fast as I could. Me and Jon [Allen] were on that play right there. That’s definitely what Coach [Jack] Del Rio preaches, and that’s what we just try to do.”
First quarter, 9:02 left, third-and-2, 49ers’ 43 … Young sacks Mullens for an eight-yard loss. “On that sack, it was a play where I had to drop. And after like two seconds, if he didn’t look my way or throw my way, then he tells us to hit it. That’s all I did right there, I just hit it. And the tackle was looking at the guard, he didn’t see me coming. … I was licking my chops right there. Yes sir.”
Second quarter, 5:00 left, second-and-4, 49ers’ 31 … Jeff Wilson runs off right tackle and is hit from behind by Young, two yards behind the line of scrimmage; Young jars the ball loose, and DaRon Payne recovers it. “Really, the tackle went down, my job is to dive. So I just hit it. And I think, when I really looked at it, the ball was kind of not secure in his hands, so when I hit him I think the impact just made it bobble out.”
Second quarter, 1:11 left, first-and-10, 49ers’ 49 … Payne sacks Mullens, knocks the ball out and Young returns it 47 yards for the touchdown. “I knew when I’ve seen that joint, it’s like city or country. City is when a lot of people are around it, and you jump on it, and country is when it’s alone. So I knew to pick that joint up. … I was just looking at green. All I knew was scoop-and-score.”
And so Washington, with Alex Smith down and Dwayne Haskins in for an extended stint, and the defense coming together when it’s needed most, is now the one being chased atop the NFC East. That, of course, is where Young’s focus is.
But winning Defensive Rookie of the Year—he’d be the fourth Ohio State alum in five years to do that—is something he’s thought about, too.
“I’m working on it,” he said with a laugh. “This game definitely helped. Don’t think I don’t hear everything, don’t think I’m not working for greater purposes. Because I want to be one of the best.”
Sunday would indicate he might already be there.
CHIEFS DO WHAT THEY ALWAYS DO
If there was a lesson for the Chiefs to take from Sunday’s 33–27 win over Miami at the site of their Super Bowl LIV win, it’s this—playing K.C. is the Super Bowl for most teams.
Brian Flores’s tough, resourceful group came out flying against Patrick Mahomes & Co., jumping out to a 10–0 lead in the first quarter. From there, the Chiefs took command, running off 30 straight, only to cede some back late and have to sweat out a difficult road win. And in a way, it represented what the Chiefs have seen of late.
With everyone taking their best swing, K.C. has to live up to its own standard first.
“It’s us against us,” Sammy Watkins said via text postgame. “No one can just line up and stop us when we’re playing Chiefs football, and we’re playing for each other and together. We have an unbelievable group. Sometimes all it takes is doing our job and nothing else and bringing that juice on every play, no matter the play call. I think we just gotta execute and push harder. Everybody is coming after us.
“We are the kingdom! Got a bullseye on our back.”
In this one, to be sure, the Dolphins acquitted themselves well.
Tua Tagovailoa looked average early on, then rallied. Somehow, the defense forced four turnovers, picking Mahomes off three times. Tight end Mike Gesicki played like an All-Pro. And the Dolphins did all this with basically their entire depth chart at tailback out.
But when the Chiefs put their foot back on the pedal, Miami was like everyone else—helpless to the result. A 10-play, 47-yard drive ending in a field goal basically ended any realistic hope the Dolphins had, and showed that the now 12–1 Chiefs, winners of a fifth-straight AFC West title, are going to be pretty tough to get past in the playoffs.
And in that way, while the Chiefs have a lot to clean up, this one was actually a strange sort of confidence builder.
“It shows the world, we can be behind or start off slow, and handle adversity and still be able to stick together and start putting points on the board,” Watkins said. “And it just shows us also if we aren’t executing, teams can punch us in the mouth, so we can’t start off slow like that against good teams. As a whole, we definitely learned something from this game. Definitely not a concern but from a player’s point of view, who thinks we are unstoppable, it gets frustrating because I know what type of players we have.”
A COACHING CAROUSEL UPDATE
You thought first-year coaches were screwed, right? Without the benefit of OTAs and minicamps, and with restrictions on the summer too, they had no chance? Especially the first-time guys?
Joe Judge, the supposedly underqualified special teams coach, has the Giants contending for the NFC East (despite Sunday’s disappointment against Arizona). And Kevin Stefanski, another thirtysomething, and one with only a year as a full-time coordinator under his belt going into 2020, leads a Browns team already with more wins than it’s had in 13 years heading into Monday night’s showdown against the Ravens.
So how did this happen?
“It goes back to buying in,” Browns tackle Jack Conklin told me the other day (and see much more from Conklin below). “The guys, all the way back to April, how we installed everything: We started simple and we were able to go over the entire offense three or four times, so by the time we got together, most guys knew what to do. There’s been organization in how we run practice, how we do walkthroughs—we do a lot more walkthroughs than any team I’ve been a part of, just trying to get guys on the same page and figure out what we’re doing.
“Just a credit to coach Stefanski. He really is a mastermind offensively, drawing up plays and getting us in the right position. It’s been a lot of fun so far this year getting to be a part of that.”
I don’t think it’s too far-fetched, then, to believe other teams may look for their own version of Judge or Stefanski in January, and the mechanics of the process this year will actually allow for that. Because of the COVID-19 restrictions—teams can’t do in-person interviews with coaches whose teams are still in the playoffs—many of the early interviews will be done virtually (over Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.). And that fact opens up a shot for teams to up the number of interviews they’ll do in a big way.
The reason why is simple. If you’re flying all over kingdom come to meet coaches with playoff teams, and flying guys in for interviews, the logistics limit the number you can pull off. But if you’re doing, say, 70% of this over laptops? You can knock a lot of them out—and that has some believing that teams that might normally talk to five or six guys through the process might interview around 15, which opens things up a lot.
Add that to the lack of truly “hot” candidates (like we saw last year with Matt Rhule and Ron Rivera), and it’s possible that some dark horses could ride in a few weeks.
While we’re here, we’ll give you some more scuttlebutt from the last few days.
• The Falcons won’t start their “formal” process for a few weeks, but I do believe they have their ducks in a row on the GM front. I’ve heard that the league office is advocating for ex-Giants GM Jerry Reese, a two-time Super Bowl champion, as a candidate in the 2021 cycle, and Atlanta president Rich McKay’s ties to Park Avenue are strong. So it makes sense that Reese would be a serious candidate for the job, with ex-Texans GM Rick Smith and younger execs Brad Holmes (Rams), Champ Kelly (Bears) and Terry Fontenot (Saints) also names I’ve heard. Depending on what happens there, and over the next month, interim coach Raheem Morris could hang onto that job. Packers OC Nathaniel Hackett is one under-the-radar name here, if the Falcons make a change.
• If the Jaguars fire Doug Marrone at the end of the year, the sense among those working the job market is that Jacksonville owner Shad Khan will hire a coach and build around that coach with other hires. The Jags just went to more of a coach-centric model under Marrone (he got final say over the 53-man roster earlier this year), so there are already signs of things going that way. I’d keep an eye on former Ohio State/Florida coach Urban Meyer for this one. Meyer’s been intrigued by NFL jobs. The question is whether his health will allow him to act on it.
• Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald’s name has come up again, as it has every year for the better part of a decade now. The Bears, for their part, haven’t made any firm decisions, or whether potential changes in football operations would be complete or partial. But this much I feel comfortable saying: For a lot of reasons, if Fitzgerald was going to take his shot in the NFL, the Bears would be at the top of the list of jobs he’d want. And if he were to make the leap, and into a place with a GM vacancy, I’m told that Vikings exec George Paton would be a strong candidate to be his GM. The two share an agent and have built a strong rapport.
• Washington is very pleased with the work of Ron Rivera, to the point where if the Football Team does hire a GM, and I think they probably will, I’m told that search would be led by Rivera. If it happens, I’d expect ex-Lions GM Martin Mayhew (who shares an agent with Rivera) to be in the running, as well as former Panthers personnel men Ryan Cowden (Tennessee’s VP of player personnel) and Joe Schoen (Buffalo’s assistant GM).
• Assuming the Chargers make a change, the logical next step would be to find a coach who would help them get the most out of their young quarterback, rookie Justin Herbert. To that end, we’ve mentioned the John Carroll connection between GM Tom Telesco and Patriots OC Josh McDaniels in this space before. Here’s another name: Bills OC Brian Daboll. He and Telesco actually went to the same Buffalo-area high school, and they have the same agent. Daboll’s worked his way into the top group of coaching candidates, thanks to how Josh Allen has developed.
• With certain candidates, the Texans are going to have to show a clear route out of the mess, rife with office politics, that they’ve gotten themselves into the last few years. The first question there relates to all of that—and whether Jed Hughes and his search firm, Korn Ferry, or EVP of football operations Jack Easterby will have owner Cal McNair’s ear. This is one job I believe Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy will be in the running for, potentially paired with K.C. director of football operations Mike Borgonzi, who was around Easterby for a couple years in Kansas City, and who shares an agent with him.
• Jim Harbaugh’s name has continued circulating. My sense is that research has been done on his NFL prospects, and if there were a landing spot for him it’d be either the Jets or Bears. Jets owner Woody Johnson has long had a fascination with Harbaugh, and GM Joe Douglas worked with his brother in Baltimore. And Harbaugh’s got the obvious ties to the Bears, the organization that drafted him, and where he played seven seasons. But neither is even close to a sure thing. So where does all this stand? My guess would be that Michigan will put an extension offer in front of him this week, and he’ll weigh it with his other options. Some believe he could turn down an extension—and stay with Michigan, betting on himself going into a contract year.
And, of course, we’ll have more coming on this front in the days and weeks to come.
DOES CAM HAVE ANYTHING LEFT?
There are plenty of justifications for Cam Newton’s performance through 12 starts.
The situation around him is really bad—the Patriots might have the worst tight end and worst receiver rooms in the league—and that’s reflected in the fact that Newton’s numbers (78.9 passer rating) aren’t much different than Tom Brady’s over the last nine games of last year (78.1). There’s also the question of whether the Patriots have deployed him correctly. He’s at his best in the shotgun with the field spread, and New England’s used him a lot under center with two backs (the talent issue has kind of handcuffed them there). And it’s fair to point out that over a season and a half in 2018 and 2019, Newton played almost no football.
But even with all that taken into account, Thursday night at SoFi Stadium felt like a flashpoint. There was the pick-six. There was the failure on a crucial early fourth down. There was the fourth quarter benching. And that has only led to more questions about Newton’s future, so I took the time Saturday to examine that, and ask a few coaches and scouts that have faced him this year a simple question: Does Cam have anything left?
AFC exec 1: Boy, I don’t know. I was optimistic [earlier in the year]. He looks like a backup right now. I think he’ll have a chance to be a No. 2 somewhere, but New England can’t win with him right now with a great offensive mind calling plays. [The talent around him] doesn’t help. You see the names of the wide receivers they’ve drafted?
AFC exec 2: I think he can still be a competitive starter, but he’s far from elite because he’s not the same athlete with speed anymore. He’s playing with a below-average receiving corps too, so if his next team has better weapons, I could see his statistics increase and become a more effective passer. I don’t see him getting a large multi-year deal on the market. … He’s always had a jerky, power type motion. Maybe he doesn’t have quite the velocity he used to. He’s more accurate down the field than on the short stuff actually … because of his motion.
AFC defensive coordinator: “I think his body is breaking down. Never has been a great passer of the ball. Looks to me like he is an older tailback playing QB.”
NFC defensive coach: I really don’t. It’s crazy to think that four short years ago, in 2015, he accounted for 50 touchdowns and was the league MVP. … Can’t throw, no accuracy. Also, when he runs it’s with no authority.
NFC defensive coach 2: No. Throwing motion is messed up. Injury has changed him. Doesn’t look like he can bring his arm all the way back. And he can’t raise the ball up either. Almost looks like his shoulder prevents him from getting his elbow up in his throwing motion. It’s awkward.
Now, this is, of course, just a sampling. But it’s fair to say that perception of Newton across the NFL has changed at least a little, and some of the fears teams had on going all-in on him back in March and April have manifested.
Conversely, he’s handled himself well through all of it, and that could go a long way too—and it probably will in New England if there isn’t a better veteran option out there for them. He’s beloved by that locker room and staff, so it’s not hard to envision a scenario where he’s back in 2021. It just probably wouldn’t be at the price that some (and I’ll include myself on this) envisioned in September.
And if not New England, then where? Would Rivera take a shot on him in D.C.? Does Newton even want to go through the process of resurrecting his career?
These questions are all fair, and paint the uncertain picture ahead.
The Bills are the new beasts of the East. And it might stay that way for a while. To show it, consider this question: If you take both the Patriots and Bills, and I ask you to name players that you’re sure will be in their present spots in three years, how many guys from each team would you identify? I don’t know if I can pick one Patriot to stick in that category. As for the Bills, there’s Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, Dion Dawkins, Ed Oliver, Tremaine Edmunds, Tre’Davious White and so on. The bottom line is there is a lot to keep building on, much more than in New England. That depth of ability showed up again on Sunday night. And it allowed them to fight through a really uneven start by the offense. “It’s complementary football,” Sean McDermott told the Buffalo media postgame. “The guys, we weren’t hitting on all cylinders offensively in the first half. But the defense held their own, and to come out in the second half, to have the offense get going, then the defense had another three-and-out, and we were right back at them again, got some points again [was great].” It was also good to see Josh Allen’s continuing maturation as a young quarterback, with his ability to compartmentalize the first half (10-of-23, 76 yards, INT) and come out flying in the second half (14-of-20, 162 yards, 2 TDs). I’m really not sure that would’ve happened a couple years back. So the Bills head into Saturday at 10–3, their best 13-game start since 1991, perhaps as the top challenger to the Chiefs in the AFC. And it looks like they could be that team well beyond just this year too.
It felt like what we saw in Philly was more than a quarterback change. In a lot of ways, it felt like the rebirth of the kind of ingenuity we saw in 2016 and ‘17, when Doug Pederson, Frank Reich and John DeFilippo adapted new-fangled college concepts to the NFL game—and unleashed a young quarterback on the league. Of course, the coaches around Pederson this time around are different, and the young quarterback from then is being replaced by this year’s young quarterback (at least temporarily), but the idea is the same. What was stuck in the mud with Carson Wentz under center is now forward-thinking again with Jalen Hurts. And the run game was reborn, with Philly rolling to 246 yards on the ground, enabled by the team jumping out to a 17–0 lead in the first half. Hurts carried it 18 times (for 106 yards), and Miles Sanders got it 14 times (for 115 yards and two scores), and that was enough to carry a heavily-managed passing game. Did it give Pederson’s team that spark it was looking for? Absolutely. Philly played with energy throughout, and with an assist from the Saints offense (Taysom Hill, for some reason, seemed unable to run the hurry-up in the fourth quarter), Pederson got the spark he was looking for. The idea in going to Hurts was to light a fire under a dead team, and that happened, even on defense. But did the Eagles do themselves a favor long-term? It’ll be interesting to see. Because what we saw Sunday won’t mean the team will be playing for a title in two months. But it will make it hard to go back to Wentz, whenever they might (or might not) be planning to.
The Jets’ path to 0–16 is downright historic. And Sunday’s loss was a perfect illustration of it. They’ve lost nine of their 13 games by more than a possession. If they get to 12 of 16 by that margin, they’d set a new mark among 0–16 teams—the 2008 Lions lost five games by a single possession and the 2016 Browns lost six. Along those lines, the game in Seattle on Sunday set a new standard, with the 40–3 bloodbath being the worst loss in a season full of new lows. And all of it is giving Adam Gase, who’s on thin-ice-in-July in New York, plenty of reason to reflect on what’s wrong. This week (blowout) was of course much different than last week (loss on a Hail Mary), which can really all be rolled into one big ball of pain. “Last week was the one that felt a little different as far as the hurt,” Gase told the media postgame. “But they all make you feel like s—.” And unfortunately for Gase, the silver lining here—Clemson phenom Trevor Lawrence—probably won’t shine on the franchise until the coach is long gone. Which creates another storyline over the three-week slog to the finish line that remains on the calendar.
Hassan Reddick’s story might’ve been the best individual story of Week 14. The Cardinals linebacker has come out of nowhere before. He was a comet during the pre-draft process, going from little-known Temple pass-rusher, to Senior Bowl star, to combine freak, to top-half-of-the-first-round pick in 2017. Arizona got him at 13th overall after initially having its eyes on Texas Tech QB Patrick Mahomes (that probably would’ve been an O.K. pick), and moved him right away, from his on-the-line spot on the edge in college to more of an off-the-line hybrid role. The thought (and it was hardly unique to Arizona) was that it would facilitate his versatility a bit better, but instead it took away from what’s he’s always done best. The result was Reddick losing his starting job last year, and having his fifth-year option declined in the spring, which is usually the death knell for a former first-round pick. But it didn’t work that way in this case. Instead, Kliff Kingsbury and DC Vance Joseph decided to move Reddick back to the edge toward the end of last year. And with time, it’s taken, and worked to the tune of a franchise-record five sacks on Sunday at the Meadowlands. “He just continues to get better and better,” Kingsbury told the Arizona media. “I’ve said it all along, how much respect I have for him, the perseverance he’s shown. We tried to make him a stand-up linebacker for the past three years and it just wasn’t his deal. It’s not what he was phenomenal at in college and he’s getting more and more comfortable back to that outside rush. So, a guy like that who stuck with it, who didn’t let the noise get him down, didn’t let any sort of frustration get him down and just kept working, and now has a game like that, you couldn’t help but be happy for him. And he’ll keep progressing.” And Reddick’s big game Sunday helped the Cardinals choke out a hot Giants team on the road, 26–7, to rekindle the playoff hopes of a team that now looks capable of leaning on its defense.
We saw the good, and bad of the Anthony Lynn era in L.A. The bad on Sunday for the Chargers was really bad—and most of you saw it. With 22 seconds left in the first half, on a third-and-1, L.A. ran Kalen Ballage into the line. He failed to pick up a first down, bringing up fourth-and-inches. Only the offense seemed unaware of the situation, and hung out there as if they were going to spike the ball. Seconds later, the light bulb turned on, the field goal team rushed on, the offense scrambled off and the Chargers didn’t come close to getting the switch pulled off in time to attempt the field goal. So instead of going into the break down 17–13, they went in down 17–10. And that was doubly bad considering that Lynn took over the special teams after last week’s debacle (the Patriots scored on a punt return and a blocked field goal), which was the second special-teams coaching change of the season. All that plays into the likelihood that Lynn will lose his job early next month. But how the Chargers actually wound up winning the game on Sunday over Atlanta with, believe it or not, a game-winning field goal? That illustrated why a lot of folks in the Chargers organization will have a heavy heart when it does go down. That team still plays its ass off for Lynn and has shown uncommon resilience playing for him the last four years—through the move up the coast from San Diego, and through all those games in a soccer stadium filled with the other team’s fans. After the half-ending mess, the Chargers won the second half 10–0, registering a pick and driving 49 yards all in the game’s final 36 seconds to set up Michael Badgley’s game-winner and get to 4–9 on the year. And in the end, that almost certainly won’t be enough to save Lynn’s job. But it does mean he’ll be able to leave in three weeks with his head held high.
I don’t think people realize how well-rounded that Colts roster really is. I took some crap for saying Indy had dynasty potential a couple years ago. Thing was, I meant it, and what we’re seeing now illustrates why. I wouldn’t say now what I said then, of course—they had Andrew Luck, and that was a pretty big part of my reasoning. But the rest of my logic? It still holds. GM Chris Ballard leads a deep, talented scouting staff; Frank Reich leads a deep, talented coaching staff; and the roster hasn’t stopped improving over the last three years or so. Kenny Moore, a diamond in the rough from Ballard’s first UDFA class, had a red-zone pick that preserved the Colts’ lead going into the half of Indy’s 44–27 win Sunday, and a forced fumble in the fourth quarter that helped blow the game open. DeForest Buckner and Denico Autry (veteran additions from other teams) were dominant inside—both guys were on the COVID-19 list for the loss to the Titans a couple weeks back—as part of an effort that limited the vaunted Raiders run game to 3.6 yards per carry. And an offensive line keyed by Quenton Nelson, the star guard and former sixth overall pick who kicked over to left tackle, paved the way for 212 yards on the ground and an efficient afternoon from Philip Rivers (118.8 passer rating). Then, you add a diverse group of home-grown skill players, and you get the picture. Indy getting to nine wins is no fluke. Whenever they find a young quarterback to hitch their wagon to, look out.
The Raiders whacking defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is a little weird. And only because of the timing. Guenther, and everyone else, knew who Gruden was hiring when the head coach brought in long-time confidant Rod Marinelli as D-line coach after he was fired by Dallas as part of Jason Garrett’s disposed staff last January. Also, the Raiders’ performance through the better part of three years—they’ve had the league’s worst scoring defense since Gruden returned to coaching—is easy to look at as a trouble spot. So this was always possible. But with three games left and the team fighting to stay alive in the AFC playoff picture? It’s at least interesting Vegas would pull the plug under those circumstances. And the only thing I can think of here is that the Raiders have a young defense and want to make things easier on the individual guys, which should happen going from Guenther’s Mike Zimmer-styled scheme to Marinelli’s Tampa/Seattle look, and get them playing faster ahead of January. Outside of that, this just feels like something Gruden’s wanted to do for a while, and this week he found the opening for it.
Maybe the nicest moment of Week 14 came in Denver postgame—after the Broncos outlasted the Panthers. Coach Vic Fangio sought out special teams coach Tom McMahon and gave him the game ball, and there’s a sad story behind it that wound up revealing a lot about McMahon himself. McMahon’s 86-year-old mother Joan passed away 10 days ago and McMahon kept much of his emotion inside in the days to follow. He finished out that work week and coached in Kansas City three days after losing his mom, with many who worked alongside him not knowing of his loss. And because the team lost, there wasn’t a chance for Fangio to give him the nod he would after Denver beat the Panthers on Sunday. Fittingly, the first score of the game was a punt return—with Diontae Spencer springing out for an 83-yard touchdown. (And while we’re on this game, Denver got a nice four-touchdown effort from Drew Lock, who’s playing now to make his case to remain the team’s starting quarterback next year).
Also, I’m happy for Andy Dalton. There aren’t many more genuine guys in football than Andy Dalton, who returned to Cincinnati—his home for nine NFL seasons—with the Cowboys on Sunday. He posted a workmanlike 185 yards and two scores on 16-of-23 passing, and Dallas won going away, smacking a hapless Bengals team 30–7. And that was satisfying for Dalton. But more than that, the fact that the fans recognized all that he and his wife J.J. have done in the city over the years hit home for the quarterback. So, in a certain way, it was fitting that when Dalton reached the visitors’ locker room, his last memory in the space was holding a Christmas party in there last year for his foundation. “I think the biggest thing coming in here was just the reception that I’ve gotten from the fans, people at the hotel and everybody,” he said. “I said right after the game, one of the coolest things was the sign that was up there that said, ‘Thank you Andy and J.J. for changing lives.’ That’s what we tried to do while we were here, use our platform for good and show God’s love to a lot of people. I felt like that was a great reception to come back and feel that today.” And he got to leave with a win, and the Cowboys’ playoff hopes still alive.
I have a few quick hitters from Sunday, too.
• You have to like the fight from Mitch Trubisky, going 24-of-33 for 267 yards and three touchdowns (126.8 rating!) in the Bears’ 36–7 blowout of Houston.
• I’d hate to be Dan Bailey this morning.
• Going to Gardner Minshew down 31–3 in the third quarter was an interesting move by Marrone, and another sign of how much that staff has cooled on the young QB.
• Falcons WR Russell Gage’s TD throw to Calvin Ridley was a legit dime.
• Jets QB Sam Darnold is pretty composed for a 23-year-old. So it was notable to see him shorter with reporters after his team’s loss Sunday—and visibly downtrodden.
• I think we all underrate Chris Carson’s value to the Seahawks offense.
• I really like the way Panthers OC Joe Brady is using Curtis Samuel in almost a reverse Christian McCaffrey role—where he’s primarily a receiver, but moonlights as a back.
• Of the receivers traded in March, I think I might actually take Stefon Diggs over DeAndre Hopkins.
• The Steelers’ lack of a running game (17 carries, 47 yards vs. Buffalo) is finally starting to catch up with them.
• Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is wild.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Good to see Dwayne Haskins back out there, even if under unfortunate circumstances.
This is reality for most (all?) team broadcasters now. And yeah, this one’s weird, where the Cardinals’ team is covering a game on the other side of the country, with someone else’s game happening in their home stadium. Only in 2020.
Ooh … tough look.
In case you wanted all those plays in one place.
Good for Hurts. A freaking remarkable story—again, NFL teams were scouting him as a potential tailback prospect after he was benched at Bama. And here he is now.
No better quality than being able to make fun of yourself. Good work, Falcons.
Digs holes and then digs out?
Unplugged Zim is the best.
If you’re into that kind of thing.
This Van Ginkel has really taken the league by storm.
LS-Shoe is gonna have a nice, long shelf life, I think. (Feel bad for Marco Wilson, who’ll have to hear about it forever.)
Love how serious Frank looks about technique here.
Deep down, Thursday night had to feel good for Sean McVay.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
1) Georgia sophomore WR George Pickens is an obscene athlete, and he showed it again against Missouri (five catches, 126 yards, two touchdowns). You’ll see the 6′ 3″, 200-pounder go somewhere in the first round in 2022. How high might depend on character assessments—Kirby Smart & Co. have had to discipline him repeatedly. He’s got another year to show he’s growing up.
2) Kevin Sumlin’s career arc could serve as warning to coaches to strike when the iron’s hot. Seven years or so ago, he had Texas A&M on fire, and had piqued the curiosity of NFL teams looking for new leadership. At one point, there was a belief that his ex-Purdue teammate Rick Smith, the Texans’ GM at the time, would bring him to the NFL. Now? Now, he’s been fired from two schools and is leaving Arizona after taking a 70–7 beatdown from rival Arizona State on the way out. So if you’re a college coach with pro aspirations, it’s a reminder that the shot you have now might not be there a few years down the line.
3) Tom Herman, who just got a stay of execution at Texas, is another example. When he was at the University of Houston, NFL teams were sniffing around. They aren’t anymore.
4) I’m still not used to college players wearing the number 0 out there. I’m sure it’ll get less weird next year.
5) The fog over Army-Navy looked amazingly appropriate on TV—it almost seemed like it added to the game’s iconic feel. And it was so cool that they had it on campus in West Point. I understand why they typically have the game in NFL stadiums in Philly, Jersey and Maryland (both Landover and Baltimore), and get why that’s best for everyone involved. But here’s hoping the favor gets returned here and at least one of these games in the next few years lands in Annapolis. Also, big shout out to all the cadets and midshipmen for the commitment they’ve made to our country.
6) So for everyone who’s taken issue with Vanderbilt getting Sarah Fuller a couple PATs on Saturday, I’ve got a story. The Commodores’ special teams coach is Devin Fitzsimmons, and his brother Ian is a buddy of mine. Ian works for ESPN Radio, and part of the job is doing sidelines on college football games. He was assigned Tulsa-Cincinnati this weekend. It got canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the Bearcat program, which freed Ian up. So he went to his wife Katherine and asked if he could take their daughters out of school in Dallas, cash in some airline miles and fly them to Nashville for Vandy-Tennessee. “Sometimes, you can’t let school get in the way of an education,” he said to Katherine, who quickly signed off on the idea. They flew up Friday and went to the game Saturday. And Fuller pointed to them in the crowd pregame, and then met them after the game. Ian’s 12-year-old daughter, Maren, is a softball pitcher and volleyball player. His 14-year-old, Rowan, plays on a select soccer team and, like Fuller, is a goalie. And they saw something that had never happened at a Power 5 school before, and probably wondered what they might be able to accomplish. My guess is anyone with a daughter will understand how cool that is.
MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
Each week, we’ll connect with a player set to climb atop the Monday Night Football stage to get answers to a few questions. This week, Browns OT Jack Conklin.
MMQB: So, does the Browns team on the Week 1 tape look unrecognizable?
JC: Definitely. It was a learning curve. It was a new coaching staff, a lot of new players and no preseason games. We weren’t the team we are now, that’s for sure. We were definitely still learning. It’s kind of funny to look back now and see some of the stuff we’ve gotten so much better at.
MMQB: Is there anything as an offense you guys can take from that day [a 38–6 loss to the Ravens]?
JC: Definitely. There are a lot of things we can learn from it. If I remember right, I think we had three turnovers, and it was just some sloppy play stuff. It wasn’t necessarily one play that was there to be made—it was a veteran team and they took advantage of us with a lot of stuff, and we made a lot of mistakes a young team makes that I think we’ve grown a lot from, and that we aren’t making anymore.
MMQB: Was there a light that came on after that game?
JC: I think just buying in. I look at everything offensively, and it was just buying into the offense more. Going into it, guys were still trying to figure out what exactly our identity was. After that game, we simplified stuff and said, Hey, this is the team we want to be, with the wide zone and marrying the run to the pass. What you saw was guys starting to buy into that. Then, you saw our run game take off and then our play-action really started to get rolling.
MMQB: There’s some carryover from Tennessee’s offense to what you’re doing now, right? [Both run the Shanahan offense, with Kevin Stefanski having taken it from Gary Kubiak in Minnesota and Arthur Smith having learned it under Matt LaFleur in Tennessee.]
JC: There’s a ton, a ton of carryover. Different terminology, but all the same stuff really.
MMQB: So were you almost a salesman for it?
JC: Definitely. And being able to help with explaining the techniques and different stuff. Like you said, after two years, the first year being in the wide zone, you see it takes a while to start to understand the techniques. It’s a lot different than a lot of stuff other guys have run. But yeah, I definitely tried to help the guys as much as possible learning the different techniques and buying into it. It’s weird to say, but buying into it is the biggest thing, because really you’re just trying to make everything look fluid and fluent, so the run plays look exactly like the pass plays. When you can start doing that is when things get really tricky for the defense. And we’re really starting to hit our stride with that at the right time.
MMQB: In that second game [a 35–30 win over the Bengals], it seemed like that clicked. Was it that quick?
JC: Yeah, I think so. Obviously, there was still stuff to build on, and we still are. But yeah, being able to have that success really shows the opportunities guys have in this offense.
MMQB: Can you see why Bill Callahan’s been so consistent in turning offensive lines around?
JC: He’s a hard worker, he pushes us. I mean, our practices, we’re going, we’re working hard, he’s demanding of us. I think he’s able to do that, too, because of the wealth of knowledge he has of the game. It’s interesting, just the amount film we’ve watched as a unit, as a group, as an O-line is more than I’ve ever watched with an O-line coach in my career. And you really get a chance to see every type of look you’re gonna get through the week, and by Sunday, you’re pretty well prepared and things seem to get a lot. And it’s stuff, like you said, he’s even seen with the Jets or Dallas or Washington. And being a tackle, it’s great to see some of the old film, being able to see how he wants stuff done, you get to watch Trent Williams do stuff, Tyron Smith, all these greats. It’s really that wealth of knowledge he brings individually and in practice. He expects the best out of us and it’s not just about doing a good job, it’s about being perfect
MMQB: Is there a specific area where he’s made you better?
JC: Yeah, I think he’s helped me a lot in my pass pro, just understanding more the mental side of it, when I should set up different angles, doing different stuff that can help me when I have the opportunity of getting on guys quick, getting my hands on them. He’s a stickler for hand battling, and getting your hands on guys and not letting the defensive guy get started. That’s played a huge role in making me a better player.
MMQB: Have you taken Jedrick Wills under your wing, with him being a top-10 pick like you were?
JC: Yeah, it’s definitely similar. I played left tackle in college, got moved to right. He played all right tackle in college, got moved to left. It’s definitely a lot on a rookie, switching from a position you’ve been doing for the last three or four years. The biggest thing I’ve tried to convey to him is the confidence. A lot of times in the NFL, you’re gonna make mistakes. You’re playing guys who are really good. The biggest thing that separates a good player from a great player in the NFL is being able to let the last play go. Take from it what you can, but you gotta have a short memory and not dwell on stuff. You can’t let it affect the rest of your game. And it’s been fun to watch Jed.
MMQB: Anything that sticks out on him physically?
JC: Oh yeah, he’s got all the ability. He can spring out of his stance and get on guys. He’s got all the ability to play in this league for a long time. He’s doing a great job, gets better and better every day.
MMQB: Do you guys take pride in that fact that the O-line was seen as a problem area before the year and has now become a strength?
JC: Going into the season, you look at what the coaching staff and Andrew Berry did, they brought me in and they drafted Jed, so you definitely knew it was a priority, it was something that needed to be fixed. They brought in Bill Callahan. And it’s definitely something we take pride in. Running the ball, especially for me, that’s what sets the tone for a good offensive line. If you can run the ball, and make other teams quit, that’s what it all comes down to. Those are the teams that win in December, and that win in January in the playoffs, teams that come out and dominate in the run game. That’s been our goal since Day 1. We’re gonna be a dominant run team, and that’s gonna bleed into our pass game; when teams stack the box, we’re gonna spring it on them and open it up. It’s definitely something we pride ourselves on and try to do better every game.
MMQB: How real was what we saw from Baker last week?
JC: It’s huge. He’s a great player. The biggest thing that stuck out to me when I met him was the confidence. The guy thinks he can run through a brick wall—and he’ll try to do it. And I think some of the stuff the coaching staff and he worked on, he was gonna be a smarter player realizing, Hey, I don’t have to make a play on every play. Sometimes, let’s throw the checkdown. Sometimes, you gotta throw the ball away and live for the next down. That’s something he’s been grinding on and he’s become more of a game manager. You can see what he did last week, and the ability he has. I think you’re gonna keep seeing that, and he’s gonna keep growing.
MMQB: What’s it like to block for Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, coming off having blocked for Derrick Henry?
JC: You’d think leaving Derrick would be a letdown and then you get Nick AND Kareem. It’s funny, and it’s kind of a Jekyll and Hyde scenario too. Nick is unbelievably quiet, and then Kareem is gonna talk s— to a guy and run through him while he’s at it. It definitely gives us the feeling if we get in the way of our guys and do our job, either one of those guys can take it to the house at any point in time.
MMQB: What’s the biggest challenge facing the Ravens’ defense?
JC: They’re talented up front, and all across the board. Obviously our goal every week is coming in and being able to run the ball. If you can run the ball, control the clock and keep it out of Lamar’s hands, you’re gonna have a lot of success. Then again, with running the ball, we gotta be able to hold on to the ball. I think they’ve got 24 forced fumbles. I don’t know if that leads the league, but it’s gotta be up there. And again, it’s controlling the clock and helping our defense by keeping Lamar and their offense off the field.
MMQB: Anything special about playing on Monday night for you?
JC: Definitely, it’s more a nostalgic thing, being a kid, remembering growing up, hearing the chime, and watching Monday night football with my parents. But at this point, it’s fun to have a Monday night game that means something this late in the season. The biggest thing that’s a bummer this year is it’d be awesome to see what Browns fans would be like—that stadium would be rocking with the 9–3 Browns playing the Ravens in December. It would be wild. But yeah, it’s fun, and definitely a nostalgic thing.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Saturday’s gonna be great. Not only do we get Bills-Broncos at 4:30 p.m. ET and Panthers-Packers in primetime, but we’ll get a close look at the 2021 class of quarterbacks too. Ohio State’s Justin Fields will play in the Big Ten title game at noon, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence will be in the ACC title game at 4:00, and Alabama’s Mac Jones and Florida’s Kyle Trask will go head-to-head in the SEC title game at 8:00.
Merry Christmas to us.