Pruitt, who only coached at Tennessee for three years, is being fired with cause.
Joe Burrow didn’t have much to say—you don’t need an overactive imagination to figure out why—as he was loaded onto a cart near the Bengals’ end zone at FedEx Field on Sunday, amid a crush of his Cincinnati teammates, plus a few old Ohio State teammates of his playing for Washington, who’d come over to check on him.
By then, he knew, and they did too. No one had to wait for the MRI. The first overall pick’s rookie year was over. And, as a result, there really wasn’t much to say at that point.
“He wasn’t really in a mood to talk anybody [on the field],” Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor said, after getting back to Ohio late Sunday night. “I can promise you that.”
Yet, at 3:56 p.m., an hour after the cart pulled off the field in Landover, Md., and just as the Bengals’ 20–9 loss to Washington was wrapping up, Burrow fired off this tweet: “Thanks for all the love. Can’t get rid of me that easy. See ya next year.” Less than an hour after that, Taylor found a quarterback who suddenly was in a mood to talk as team buses buzzed down the beltway for the airport.
“He was upbeat as you can possibly be. He just wanted to talk about the game, to be honest with you,” Taylor continued. “He wanted to talk about the looks that we were getting in the second half, when he wasn’t even in the game. So for a guy that could be facing what could be a season-ending injury, just to want to talk about the things he didn’t see in the third and fourth quarter, it just speaks to his makeup. It’s incredible.”
Burrow, in general, has been incredible for a Bengals franchise that has really needed him to be, as it rebuilds its roster around a native son of a new quarterback. And as if he were looking for it, Taylor got affirmation on Sunday, on a really tough day in Burrow’s athletic life, that the 23-year-old star will continue to be incredible for some time to come.
The expectation is that further testing Monday will confirm what was obvious to everyone on the field, and to anyone with so much as an NFL RedZone subscription, from the minute Jonathan Allen was blocked into Burrow’s knee, and Montez Sweat came over the top and folded the rookie’s left leg back the wrong way in the process. And many of us will spend time on Monday assessing the damage done here.
Burrow, on the other hand, is already trying to look forward, which is part of what makes him who he is—and what got him here in the first place.
Lots of fun stuff to dig through from a very eventful NFL Sunday. Including …
• The Colts’ survival of a slow start and a weird rash of crunch-time penalties.
• The Titans’ toughness shining through one more time.
• The Browns’ arrival at another milestone in Year 1 of the Kevin Stefanski era.
• Taysom Hill’s debut as the Saints’ starting quarterback.
But we’re starting with the big story of Week 11, which unfortunately happens to be a very unhappy one.
A couple of starts into Burrow’s NFL career, back in September, Taylor gave me a very simple assessment of where his quarterback was. “As advertised,” he said.
On Sunday night, the Bengals coach wanted to amend that.
“One-hundred-ten percent as advertised,” he said. “Probably more than you could ever really hope for.”
Taylor could be excused for being a little hyperbolic in the moment, if only everyone in the Bengals’ organization weren’t already talking about Burrow that way. He’s given life to a program that Taylor and his staff have worked nearly two years now to establish. For all the speculation last winter over whether Burrow would want to play in Cincinnati, he’s been all the way locked in. Results have followed.
“Given no offseason, no training camp, no preseason games, what this guy was able to come in and digest, and be able to execute at the level he did, was incredible,” Taylor said. “I don’t know that we could’ve fully anticipated that he’d be able to digest everything he was in the short amount of time. I mean, the way, even today he got us to a run check we haven’t talked about in a couple weeks. Should’ve been a great play, we just didn’t execute it great.
“I mean just his mental makeup, he sees something once and it’s fully digested, he remembers it and can recall it. It’s really, really impressive.”
And Burrow had the Bengals in another dogfight on Sunday, too. He went into the break 21-of-29 for 195 yards, with his team up 9–7. Then, after the teams traded three-and-outs, on the third possession of the third quarter, on third-and-2 from the Bengals’ 10, it happened. Allen crashed into him low, Sweat came high and Burrow’s knee was shredded.
But even with the rest of his season gone, the foundation he helped lay down is there.
That really started back in the spring, when Taylor decided to, more or less, make him the starter without actually announcing it before he was even drafted. In turn, everything to follow—the entire virtual program, and then into training camp—was designed for Burrow to gobble up reps and keep chipping away at becoming a starting NFL quarterback.
Doing it that way, of course, entailed some risk. The Dolphins and Chargers, who took quarterbacks four and five picks after the Bengals, respectively, did things differently, positioning Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tyrod Taylor as placeholders so the rookies could come along slower. Burrow had no such luxury, so if he failed, it would have been more than just his problem. Based on their recon work, the Bengals thought he could handle that. They were right.
“We needed our quarterback to take ownership of this system very quickly,” Taylor said. “Because there was no other acceptable way. And how quickly he’s done it has been really impressive. He’s really, in a lot of ways, made it his own in terms of how he takes control of guys in a certain direction. Certainly, we meet all week and we lay out the plan, but he’s got these tools at his disposal that he’s done a great job utilizing, especially these last couple weeks, the more comfortable we’ve gotten.
“O.K., I see what these defenses are presenting, I know how to attack them, and I’m going to do it. And there’s been no hesitancy there, and that’s been really impressive.”
And as a result of Burrow stepping forward as a rookie, other young Bengals have too. “The leadership has really stood up. I think that’s the biggest difference from last year to this year, the guys that have really taken over this team and set a new standard,” Taylor explained. Burrow was named a captain (a rarity for a first-year player), as were Vonn Bell, Gio Bernard, Josh Bynes, A.J. Green, Kevin Huber and Shawn Williams.
Others, like Jessie Bates and Tyler Boyd, have found their voice. Everything’s different.
“Their approach has been awesome since the day we walked in in August,” Taylor said of the new younger leaders. “Their play has shown up on the field, and they’ve got the respect of the players and coaches. So when they speak, people listen.”
Now, that wasn’t enough on Sunday, and it hasn’t been enough for the Bengals on most occasions this fall. But there’s a real belief now that the breakthrough’s coming, based on the steps everyone’s taking.
Taylor was clear with me that his priority now is moving the team that’s left through the next six weeks, and building on the progress they’ve made. My guess is Cincinnati will ride it out with 2019 fourth-round pick Ryan Finley, and Taylor sounded convinced that the Bengals can stay competitive with what’s left of the schedule.
All of which doesn’t mean Sunday didn’t hurt. It did. For everyone.
“Yeah, you just see the work he put in and the confidence he has,” Taylor said. “He’s always had that edge and that confidence to him—because he puts in the work. So it’s earned. But just every game, every series that passes, really, you can just feel him like, ‘O.K., I’ve seen that look now. Now I know that answer. They’re not going to get me again on that run.’ And you just saw it on full display every single series he played.
“It was going to be a really fun stretch here with him, coming down to the end. It’s unfortunate that it may have ended the way it did.”
But then, what the Bengals and Burrow will lose over the next few months, really, is a sign of how much they’ll gain when he comes back, presumably at full strength. And if what they get back on the other side is still at level of what they’re now losing, then Cincinnati should be O.K. for a long time to come.
COLTS D KEYS COMEBACK
Colts coach Frank Reich couldn’t recall exactly what his defensive coordinator, Matt Eberflus, told the players over the headset, or the other coaches over the phone, as Aaron Rodgers set up for second down from the Indy 15, with 42 seconds left and Green Bay down just 31–28. But he definitely got the gist of it.
And for context, all this came after this breakneck 35-second sequence: Rodgers throws an impossible, 47-yard bomb to Marquez Valdes-Scantling; calls timeout; hits Davante Adams on a 14-yard crosser; spikes the ball; hits Adams on another crosser for 18; then spikes it again.
“What Flus said, and I really think this was smart on his part, was ‘Alright, they’re in field goal range, but let’s not panic … there’s no need to panic and blitz zero on every snap,’” Reich said. “They have no timeouts, they’ve still got yards to gain and they’ve still got to make the kick. There’s game left. So he was saying over the phones to the defensive coaches and to the players, ‘Hey, be patient, play it out.’”
If you want to know how the Colts got to 7–3 on Sunday, it’s right there for you. In a game that saw the Packers race out to a big lead and Indy storm back from behind, this one was won on the margins through situational football. And it shows where the Colts are in Year 3 under Reich, and Year 4 under GM Chris Ballard.
The young defense those guys have assembled has talent and, to be sure, it’s ascending young talent—DeForest Buckner’s 26; Darius Leonard, Anthony Walker and Kenny Moore are 25; and Bobby Okereke, Khari Willis and Rock Ya-Sin are 24. But more than just that, the NFL’s top-ranked defense has become a smart, cohesive unit that knows how to play the situations, and so it was against an all-time great quarterback late Sunday in Indy.
So the Colts forced a throw on second down to the middle of the field, where tight end Robert Tonyan was. Rodgers hit him between the numbers and Moore was right there to bring him to the ground. Indy knew that with the Packers out of timeouts, the clock would tick down and Rodgers would take one last shot at the end zone. He did, the Colts had it covered and Green Bay was left to let Mason Crosby tie the game and send it to overtime.
“It’s situational football,” Reich said. “We talk about it all the time. We talk about it as coaches all the time. We talk about it as a team all the time. We spend a lot of time, as a team, talking about situational football and how to play those kinds of scenarios out. And our guys really responded well.”
And while it was easy to think—and I’ll raise my hand because I was thinking this—that Rodgers getting the ball back in OT would spell the end for Indy, the Colts defense saw it as another shot to win the game on that side of the ball. Which they would, with a newcomer to the aforementioned core stepping up big.
That would be 22-year-old safety Julian Blackmon, a third-round pick in April who was drafted while coming back from a torn ACL. Ballard saw star potential in him and didn’t mind that he might take a little while to get right off the injury. Turned out, it didn’t take nearly the time most guessed it would. “You could see it right away in camp,” Reich said.
Since then, Blackmon’s established himself as a dark horse threat to Chase Young and Patrick Queen in the Defensive Rookie of the Year race, and Sunday only bolstered his candidacy with his first real signature moment. On the second play from scrimmage in OT, Rodgers flipped a receiver screen left to Valdes-Scantling. Blackmon came in hot to snuff it out, splitting blocks from Tonyan and Allen Lazard, then punching the ball loose just as Valdes-Scantling was trying to turn upfield.
Buckner jumped on it, and four snaps later Rodrigo Blankenship was kicking a game-winning 39-yard field goal.
“He’s a playmaker,” Reich said of Blackmon. “He’s shown that from Day 1. The guy stepped onto the field off a knee injury, and you’re thinking, ‘Oh, we’re going to have to ramp this guy up,’ and he’s making plays from Day 1. The way he handled not only the rehab process, but staying mentally locked in and being able to come in and be an impact player right away, it’s just really a credit to him.”
And so the defense could make good on Philip Rivers and the offense storming back from deficits of 21–7 and 28–14, and now an even bigger showdown is set up.
Indy left a physical Titans team with a nice shiner 11 days ago, beating Tennessee 34–17 in Nashville on a Thursday night. Next Sunday, Mike Vrabel’s crew will get its shot at revenge in Indy. After both teams won this weekend, each will come in at 7–3.
“We have to be on point,” Reich said. “We have a lot of respect for them. I have a ton of respect for Coach Vrabel. … They obviously have some momentum. But honestly, I feel great about where we’re at and our guys. Even though this’ll be billed up as the game of the year or whatever, we don’t go there. We really don’t. It’s not productive. The way we think as a team, that’s not how we approach, O.K., we’ve got to get ourselves up for this game.
“It’s just the next game. We’ve got to continue to fight to get better.”
By the looks of it, they are getting better. And smarter, too.
TITANS GET BACK ON TRACK
While the Colts hit their stride, it’s been fair to wonder the last few weeks if the Titans had lost theirs. After a 5–0 start, during which Tennessee had a COVID-19 outbreak and a forced break in their schedule, signs of wear and tear seemed to show up as the Titans lost three of four, with the one win coming in nip-and-tuck fashion against a struggling Bears team.
And that idea certainly gained credence in the 2 p.m. ET hour Sunday in Baltimore, as the Ravens ripped through the Titans defense to open the second half with a seven-play, 74-yard drive and push their lead to 21–10. With the idea of a 1–4 stretch and a 6–4 record hitting Tennessee between the eyes, it was, without question, gut check time.
“We just needed to settle down, see what we needed to do better,” tailback Derrick Henry said, headed for the airport postgame. “And we needed that desperation to go out there and play a better game in the second half. That’s what we did. Play our game. No matter how it goes, just find a way to win. That’s what we do.”
On the next series, A.J. Brown muscled through a tackle to convert a third-and-4, Ryan Tannehill hit Corey Davis for 50 yards on a corner route and a Stephen Gostkowski field goal got the deficit back within a possession, at 21–13. The Titans went on another long drive—12 plays, 81 yards—on their next turn to shave the Ravens’ lead to 21–16, and after that, sure enough, the Ravens started to look like the team that was worn down.
There’s history here, of course. The Titans upset a 14–2 Ravens team that looked borderline unstoppable in January and, as if that weren’t enough, Tennessee players gathered pregame on Sunday over the Ravens midfield logo, which incensed Baltimore to the point where John Harbaugh went over and had words with Malcolm Butler.
When I asked Henry about it, he answered, “I wasn’t really around when it happened. I guess, football, things like that happen. Guys talk back. That’s just football.”
And so it was that some three hours later, two teams that pride themselves on being tougher than the next squad were locked in a close one that had gotten chippy. And as was the case in January, the Titans asserted themselves when it mattered most.
First, it was Brown, finally helping Tennessee break through after settling for those two field goals earlier in the half. On third-and-10 from the Baltimore 14, Brown hauled the ball in at the 8, blew through tackle attempts from DBs Chuck Clark, Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey, then lowered his shoulder and drove linebacker Patrick Queen from the four into the end zone for the touchdown to make it 22–21 (a two-pointer pushed that to 24–21).
“He’s just a dog, man,” Henry said. “Breaking tackles, getting yards after the catch, getting in the end zone. Speaks to the type of player he is. That’s the identity we want to have as a team, getting into the end zone, putting us in position to have a chance to win the game.”
The Ravens came back to force overtime, where Henry would take matters into his own hands. After two Henry runs and three Tannehill dimes took the Titans 44 yards in five plays, Tennessee had first-and-10 from the 29. And that, really, was that.
Henry got the ball, and he won the game from 29 yards out.
“It was an outside zone to the left,” he said. “Tried to make my read, got north and south, seeing the line, pushing them. Across my face, made a cutback … I just kept pressing my blocks, broke a tackle and I think I kept pushing them out the way and I just made a cutback. Got to the end zone.”
Simple as it may sound, it was important for the Titans, too, to reestablish they could do that. And just in time for an even bigger game next week, as big as this one was for Tennessee.
“Every team is neck-and-neck right now,” Henry said. “We’re just going to take it one week at a time to separate ourselves, to give ourselves a chance to be what we’re willing to be and go where we want to go. That’s a great team. We went into overtime, and I’m happy we got the win against a good team.”
THE NEW BROWNS?
A few facts for you to chew on …
• The last time the Browns got to seven wins through 10 games was in 1994, which was the last year that Bill Belichick and Nick Saban worked together. Belichick was Cleveland’s head coach, Saban his defensive coordinator.
• This is just the third time they’ve gotten to seven wins period over the last 13 seasons.
• A win over the lowly Jaguars next Sunday would clinch the third non-losing season since the Browns reentered the NFL in 1999. That’s right, that would make three times in 22 seasons of football (Romeo Crennel’s 2007 team was 10–6 and Butch Davis’s ‘02 team was 9–7.)
And so after the Browns pushed the Eagles around on Sunday (with Carson Wentz playing like he did, that game felt nowhere near as close as the 22–17 final score), I talked to Cleveland’s longest-tenured player, two-time All-Pro guard Joel Bitonio, to get his perspective on the job GM Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski are doing in Year 1.
Remember, this is Bitonio’s seventh season in the league, he’s never switched teams, and it’s already his fourth head coach (fifth if you count interim coaches) and fourth GM/chief football executive. Which is to say when he says this feels different, it carries weight.
“It’s that top-down approach,” Bitonio told me postgame. “Everybody’s on the same page in that aspect. And then I think we have a game plan. Like, it’s not one side of the ball, but we take the ball away, create turnovers and we run to win. And that’s kind of what our motto is. We’re going to take our shots when we can, but hopefully eventually wear down the defense enough to take advantage of that.
“I just think everybody’s on the same page, and everybody’s working for that same goal. It’s all about the ball, it’s all about the team and that’s what we’ve been stressing all year. If we take care of the ball on offense and our defense gives us one or two takeaways, it really gives us a chance to be successful.”
Indeed, the Browns are fourth in the league in turnover margin—at plus-6—and won the turnover battle three to one on Sunday in a driving rainstorm against Philly. But there’s more than just that to what Stefanski’s been able to establish and, again, with that perspective of his, Bitonio was nice enough to take us through some of it Sunday afternoon.
Embracing the difference of this year. Stefanski, to his credit, never tried to make this a normal year for the players, maybe because he knew that’d be impossible.
“From day one of the offseason … Coach Stefanski said ‘This is not a normal year. No matter what’s going to happen, we’re not going to have a regular offseason,’” Bitonio said. “‘We’re not going to have a regular season. Everything we do is going to be a day-to-day basis. And understand that there’s going to be days where you can’t come in the building and we have to do everything virtual. And who can attack that the best is going to have an advantage. It’s not going to be the end-all, but they’re going to have an advantage on the other teams.’
“We’ve kind of stressed that from Day 1.”
This week just happened to provide the perfect example. Cleveland’s best player, Myles Garrett, experienced flu-like symptoms early in the week. But the Browns’ players didn’t know they’d be without him until Friday.
“On this team he’s probably the most important player,” Bitonio said. “To make this team go, he’s won some games for us this year just based on his pass rush and his ability to make teams scheme him out. Double teams, chips, all those types of things. And so it was kind of shocking. But it was one of those things where we talked to the D-line. They had to step up, and guys stepped up today. [Olivier Vernon] had a heck of a game, three sacks and a safety, and other guys were getting pressure on the quarterback. We ended up with five sacks.”
And through the first 30 minutes of play, the Browns’ defense shut the Eagles’ offense out, and scored the game’s only points before halftime on a pick-six.
Trusting the next guy. Bitonio mentioned to me how many little competitions the coaches set up in the spring, when no one could meet in person, to try and boost the camaraderie in the group. One week, they had a dunk contest, where everyone had to send videos in. Then, there was a “Spike of the Week” contest. And so on.
And there were more serious sessions too. One was called “the four H’s,” where teammates discussed history, hopes, heroes and heartbreaks.
“When you’re all working to a common goal, you think that that’s enough,” Bitonio said. “But sometimes you need more. Me and Denzel Ward, for example. We both lost our dad in college to heart disease, and that was something … I knew he lost his dad, but I didn’t know how he lost him. And they were very similar situations. So you learn things like this about a teammate, and it just brings you a little bit closer together.
“And it’s like, ‘Hey, we’ve been through some of the same stuff. We’re in this together.’ This is a messed-up season, but if we’re going to do this, we’re going to play for the guy next to us and just try and be that way. At the end of the day, those things are probably minor details, because you have to go out there and make your block and make your catch and make your tackle. But I think every little thing helps, and that’s just something you can build on.”
Getting the most out of the talent on hand. This was something Bitonio was clear on—there isn’t a lack of talent in Cleveland right now. And so there are real strengths to play on and, in his mind, the Nick Chubb/Kareem Hunt tandem is Exhibit A of that.
We all saw it Sunday, of course. Chubb’s 20-carry, 114-yard effort was highlighted by a 54-yard run in the fourth quarter, during which the third-year back flattened Eagles DE Joe Ostman with a stiff-arm from hell. And while Hunt had just 11 yards on 13 carries, his touchdown climb/hurdle/run will put him on all the highlight reels Monday morning.
Put it together and the Browns are third in the NFL in rushing, with 159.0 yards per game.
“It’s impressive stuff, man,” Bitonio said. “Early in this game, first two-and-a-half, three quarters, they had us pretty bottled up on the ground. It was tough conditions to really throw the ball downfield, and they were loading the box with eight guys. It was tough to get it going, but we know with those guys, they only need one seam and there’s a chance for them to go. I was kind of on the back side of the Kareem play, but when I saw him jump, I was like, ‘Oh, man, hopefully he gets in there.’
“Just that athleticism and that will to win, and he hadn’t had a very productive day on the ground, but he wanted to get in the end zone, and that was a big touchdown. And I’ve never been around a running back that hits more home runs than [Chubb]. … You see a big run, a big stiff-arm, a big jump, it’s just like, ‘These guys are flying for everything, we’ve got to give them that extra answer or yard, and we can make some special things happen.’“
Right now, the whole thing seems like the beginnings of something special in Cleveland. And yeah, because it’s the Browns, everyone needs to proceed with caution on that.
We’ll see where it goes. But through 10 games of the Berry-Stefanski Era? So far, so good.
Patrick Mahomes is a freaking sorcerer. Imagine being a Las Vegas Raider this morning. You were right there, trying to complete a sweep of the world champion Chiefs. Jason Witten scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:53 left, to put you up 31–28. Your quarterback played spectacularly. You were at home. And Mahomes made sure that none of that would matter. And he did it in seven plays.
• Mahomes to Tyreek Hill over the middle, 10 yards.
• Mahomes throwaway.
• Mahomes to Hill on a comeback, nine yards.
• Mahomes to Mecole Hardman on a deep slant, 16 yards.
• Mahomes to Travis Kelce down the seam, 15 yards.
• Mahomes to Darrel Williams in the flat, three yards.
• Mahomes scrambles right, throws left to the post to Kelce, 22 yards, TD.
And simple as that was, so was Andy Reid’s postgame analysis: “I’ve got Pat Mahomes. You give me a minute and a half and I’m pretty good right there. We can roll. I’d take him over everyone and I’m lucky to have him.” Last week, I had ex-Lions QB/ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky on my podcast and he said he believes Mahomes is playing at a higher level now than any quarterback ever. Statements like that seem less over-the-top by the week. And when it comes to the MVP, I’d hope the voters don’t overcomplicate it. When I ran my midseason poll among 31 execs (guys paid to evaluate this stuff), Mahomes was an overwhelming winner. And that was quite simply because he’s the best player in the sport. Which we saw again against the Raiders on Sunday night.
Taysom Hill did the job on Sunday. The stats look great: 18-of-23, 223 yards and a 108.9 passer rating. The reality is less spectacular. He missed some throws and was bailed out on others (most notably on a 44-yarder to Emmanuel Sanders, an attempt that was badly underthrown and forced Sanders to come flying back toward the line of scrimmage to get it). But he was also effective in the run game—the 10-yard touchdown he scored in the fourth quarter featured Hill breaking some angles taken by defenders that he should not have been able to break—and he didn’t shrink in the moment. An uneven start that led to just three points and two three-and-outs over New Orleans’s first four possessions wound up giving way to a 12-of-13, 173-yard finish that spanned the last 35 minutes of game action. “Your first start ever in the NFL, I think he called one formation flipped around the wrong way,” Payton told reporters postgame. “All of that calmed down and he got very comfortable with the flow of the game.” Now, does it mean that Hill will be the Saints’ starter five years from now? It does not. But it showed, again, that Payton can win with different quarterbacks and that, unsurprisingly, the New Orleans roster is plenty strong to keep the team rolling through a change like this one. Remember, the Saints were 5–0 last year with Teddy Bridgewater in the lineup and won handily last week with Jameis Winston at quarterback. That doesn’t mean they’d win a title with whatever at the position, of course. But it does mean they manage their team in ways that mitigate the problem of losing their future Hall of Fame QB.
Justin Herbert’s the real deal, but you knew that. And while it doesn’t take Ron Wolf to see it now, there are tangible pieces of evidence that he’s not just wildly gifted, he’s growing quickly, too. One came early on Sunday against the Jets, when he told those on the sideline what he was seeing from the defense, and that if he got cover-2 against a certain call, he was sure there’d be a dead spot in the zone where he could go to Keenan Allen. Sure enough, the call came in, the coverage was affected as Herbert thought it would be and Herbert spun one to Allen. And these occurrences really haven’t been unusual for the Chargers. Yeah, the most impressive thing about Herbert is still the talent. And the numbers aren’t bad either, as he threw for 366 yards and three touchdowns in Sunday’s 34–26 win over the Jets. But if you want to be encouraged about where he’s going from here, the reasons are under the surface. And after there were concerns out there about the offense he was coming from at Oregon, and his feel for the game in the pocket, the fact that the Chargers see a guy who’s seeing the field exceptionally well, and already operating as a progression-read quarterback in the pros, is awfully good news. Obviously, those weren’t the ‘86 Bears that he beat at SoFi Stadium. But the Jets didn’t need to be for Herbert to show how quickly he’s coming along.
Best line of the weekend goes to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin: “Nothing’s perfect about us but our record.” You can take this to the bank: Any NFL coach would be happy to say that heading into Thanksgiving week. And the interesting thing about the now 10–0 Steelers is that their imperfections are pretty clear but, in a roundabout way, they show how the Steelers can still grow. We’re seeing more and more of it every week, too. Pittsburgh, given its talent on the perimeter on offense, is progressively getting more explosive, and more difficult to match up with. That was apparent in second-year receiver Diontae Johnson’s 12-catch effort, and the spectacular, bobbling 23-yard catch he made at the goal line just before halftime of the Steelers’ 27–3 win over Jacksonville. It was there, too, in Chase Claypool’s 31-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter, with the rookie running past, then bodying up Jaguars corner Chris Claybrooks for the score. And we know what JuJu Smith-Schuster is capable of, even if he didn’t do a ton on Sunday. Fact is, this was the work-in-progress piece of the Pittsburgh roster. And with the way the defense is playing, and the balance the offense has shown the ability to have, adding juice on offense like they used to have in the Mike Wallace/Antonio Brown/Emmanuel Sanders days would be pretty scary.
I don’t think Joe Judge is trying to be like Bill Belichick. I think that’s always the low-hanging fruit in any of these places where the Patriots coach’s ex-assistants land—when someone has a problem with the structure of the program or the bedside manner of the coach, it’s a very easy lever to pull. But I do feel strongly that Giants coach Joe Judge is his own guy, and isn’t trying to pull any sort of Belichick in Jersey by firing line coach Marc Colombo. After sorting through both sides of that one, it’s really simpler than people are making it out to be. Coming from the background Colombo has, and going to a staff full of people with a Belichick or Nick Saban background, there was always going to be an adjustment, including in how teaching happens on the ground and how the operation as a whole is run. Here’s an example: Those in the Belichick/Saban tree give their teams, en masse, a full scouting report on the opponent during every game week. That means every coach and every player gets to hear about every aspect of the other team. A lot of places don’t work that way, and it’s an effort to try and make sure each phase of the game is tied to the next—and so that everyone understands the greater view of the game plan. So if an offensive assistant coach who isn’t used to this approach hears the scouting report of the other team’s quarterback, might that be weird? Sure, it might be. But that’s part of the deal. And I do think Judge has made enough of a difference in less than a year in New York to earn a little room to do things his way. We’ll see how it works out long-term.
The Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes is really down to two teams now. The Jets are 0–10. Their next six games: Dolphins, Raiders, at Seahawks, at Rams, Browns, at Patriots. Does anyone see them going better than 2–4? Anyone? If not, then the race for the first pick is down to two teams—these Jets and the Jaguars. And we really don’t know who’ll be in charge in either place come January. What we do know is that barring something unforeseen (like a decision to return to school), Trevor Lawrence will be the first pick. And it’ll be interesting to see, then, if Lawrence will go to one of these two teams without incident. The two franchises will have, by the way, one playoff berth combined over the decade leading into the 2021 draft. Also interesting will be whether we see any “creative” roster management on our way there, given the value of a once-in-a-decade quarterback prospect coming out. And, of course, there is a flip side to this, one that I thought Frank Gore laid out eloquently after his Jets lost to the Chargers on Sunday. “You don’t want to go 0–16, especially if this is my last year,” he said. “I can’t go out like that. … Hopefully, we can get one. And I can’t wait until we get it. I’ll be so happy. If it is my last year, I can’t say I’m going out 0–16.” So, yeah, the next few weeks for those two teams might be a little delicate.
Vic Fangio deserves a little more credit than he’s getting. That Denver team had serious holes coming into the year—and lost its best player, Von Miller, before the opener. There’s also uncertainty about the team’s ownership situation, and who knows where they’ll go at quarterback after this year. Add all that to the general trickiness that COVID-19 is forcing every team to deal with, and the fact that the Broncos have gone 4–3 after an 0–3 start is really remarkable to me. And it’s not just Fangio doing a solid job there. Maybe the assistant that most needs to take a bow is line coach Mike Munchak. He’s somehow saved Garett Bolles’s career—Bolles was available for next to nothing on the trade market for a good portion of the offseason—and he’s broken in a rookie center (Lloyd Cushenberry), while managing having his right tackle (Ja’Wuan James) opt out of the season. Yet, on Sunday, Drew Lock wasn’t sacked once, and the Broncos rushed for 189 yards on 33 carries. (So yes, there’s a reason Munchak was sought after as an assistant. And he probably will be again.)
Damien Lewis was the under-the-radar story of Week 11. The Seahawks rookie had never played center before in his life. And so of course, Seattle has the confidence to throw the third-round pick out there on a short week against a blitz-happy Cardinals team: Good luck, kid! It happened because Ethan Pocic had a concussion and backup Kyle Fuller had a high ankle sprain, and Lewis (the team’s starting right guard) was really the only option they had. And believe it or not, it (pretty much) worked. The Seattle run game was revived (31 carries for 165 yard) with Carlos Hyde as the new bell cow, the offense had its best game of the year on third down (57%), and the Seahawks had four scoring drives of eight plays or more, while controlling the ball for about 35 minutes. And this, folks, is another example of what good organizations do—finding solutions where there might not be any easy ones readily available. And, of course, credit to Lewis for making it work.
The Vikings really blew it on Sunday, with a chance to climb back in the race—and now Dallas has a golden opportunity. For all that trouble, somehow, Mike McCarthy’s group, in the coach’s first year, is now a half-game out of first place, with the winner of Thursday’s game with Washington set to take sole possession of first place in the sorry NFC East. So I’m not even kidding when I say there’s a really nice opening here for McCarthy to establish something. The Cowboys’ replacement group on the O-line run blocked (180 yards rushing) and protected (one sack allowed) much better than it has all year, and Andy Dalton looked competent and efficient. The defense, for once, didn’t look lost. And the rest of the slate is manageable (Washington, at Baltimore, Cincinnati, San Francisco, Philly, at the Giants) to the point where winning the division looks realistic. Now, you may say, who cares if you win the division at 7–9 or 6–10? My response would be to point at the 2010 Seahawks. That was Pete Carroll’s first team, they made it in at 7–9 and beat the Saints in the Beastquake game, and that wound up being a springboard for bigger things to come. Which is just something to chew on in what I’d figured would be a lost season for Dallas.
I’ve got five quick hitters for you, too …
• I don’t expect the Lions to make any big moves on Monday. But given that Detroit plays on Thursday, I can’t say anything for certain for the rest of the week. If the Lions lose in the sort of fashion to Houston that they did to Carolina, I’d think all bets would be off.
• Speaking of the Texans, Deshaun Watson played really well Sunday. And watching him really makes me think how far acquiring a truly elite tight end could take him (Jordan Akins did do a nice job against New England).
• The Patriots very clearly have a talent issue, and it’s probably going to take a couple of draft cycles to fix it. The opt-outs really hurt the defense, and the offense has no identity in the skill-position group. People will point the finger at Cam Newton for the team being 4–6. The issue is much bigger than that.
• Carson Wentz’s two picks were ugly, and the one that should’ve been picked by Mack Wilson (he threw that one into a Browns team meeting) was just as bad. I haven’t really been a believer that Philly should sit Wentz down. But I’m starting to wonder if it’d be the right move now, just to clear his head. Coaches I know who’ve worked against him the last year think it’s very psychological.
• Both Atlanta and Houston have had a focus on minority candidates in the early stages of their coaching searches. I’d mentioned a connection between Atlanta and Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy in my mailbag last week, and I think we’ll see more of that sort of tire-kicking happening here in the opening stages of the 2021 hiring cycle.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
1) Kyle Trask has a very real chance—with 2019 Joe Burrow-like numbers—to join Steve Spurrier and Tim Tebow as Florida Gator quarterbacks to win the Heisman. He was 26-of-35 for 383 yards and three scores against a feisty Vandy team on Saturday. He’s at 31 touchdown passes against three picks for 6–1 UF, but does mean the NFL’s growing as infatuated as the league did with Burrow? I’m not sensing that happening yet. Opinions I’ve gotten are pretty split. Some think he’s got a shot to sneak in the bottom of the first round. Others are less bullish, saying he’s stiff and lacks elite traits. “I think Trask is just a guy, personally,” said one NFC exec. “Very, very average arm strength.”
2) Michigan’s continued struggles certainly raise the question on whether Jim Harbaugh is headed back to the NFL—remember, for his faults, he’s performed quick, ground-shifting turnarounds at all four of his head-coaching stops. My comp for him has always been Bill Parcells, for that reason, and because he eventually winds up wearing people out, and I’d guess some team would take the former even if it meant the latter would eventually be the tradeoff. One thing that no one who follows the NFL should miss is that 2021 is a contract year for Harbaugh at his alma mater. Will they extend him? Would they try to stop him if an NFL team came after him? I’m less sure of these things than I would’ve been a year ago.
3) Indiana’s Ty Fryfogle will have to run well in the winter/spring, but it’s hard to watch him and not think there’ll be a place for a tough, good-sized receiver like the Hoosier junior somewhere in the pros. His seven-catch, 219-yard, three-touchdown outburst against third-ranked Ohio State was his second straight 200-yard game and puts him at 25 catches for 560 yards and six touchdowns over the last three weeks.
4) We’ve mentioned Iowa State’s Matt Campbell a lot in this space, and his Cyclones moved to 6–2 on Saturday with a 45–0 drubbing of Kansas State. As people who read here know, the NFL’s had eyes on him for a while, and now you can, too—Iowa State plays at Texas on Friday at noon ET. With his name starting to pick up steam again, pro teams’ best shot at luring him away might be now. If he were to land at a college-football blueblood this offseason, that would likely mean he’d be off the NFL market for a while.
5) You have to feel terrible for Penn State junior TE Pat Freiermuth. He came back to school with an eye on going in the first round in 2021, and now his college career (probably) ends with his team 0–5, and with surgery scheduled for this week. We’ll see if he can get healthy in time to show teams what he can do athletically before April.
6) Shoutout to our guy Jordan Palmer, the QB trainer who told us that he believed J.T. Daniels could be another Burrow. The Georgia redshirt sophomore, returning from a torn ACL suffered last year at USC, made his debut as a Bulldog against Mississippi State and didn’t disappoint, connecting on 28 of his 38 throws for 401 yards and four touchdowns. Daniels hails from Mater Dei, the prep QB factory in Orange County, and graduated from high school a year early, then won the starting job at SC as a true freshman before getting hurt the next year. Probably smart to keep an eye on him.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
No need to explain that one further.
Whit’s an animal.
I had a better one I texted my buddies (since this is a family site, I can’t share it here).
Love this idea.
So much respect for Dez Bryant taking the long road back—and having the humility to go on a practice squad after being an All-Pro to create a job path for himself.
There’s Burrow’s tweet and then came the flood …
Burrow was among the most popular guys in LSU’s program—and in Ohio State’s program, as you can see here.
Leonard going to bat for his guy Blackmon.
Even in defeat, this throw had to make the list.
Not this time, fellas, but Fitzmagic will never truly die. It’ll just sit dormant.
This catch is not normal.
The birthday celebration in the end zone was pretty good.
And I’ll leave this here just because this is really good, and because NFL teams could, again, try and lure Pat Fitzgerald from the college game.
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, Rams WR Cooper Kupp.
MMQB: You played fewer snaps last week and Sean McVay said you’ve been banged up. Are you doing O.K. physically?
CK: Yeah, I feel good. Just the natural way things go with football, during the season you get a little dinged up. In the Miami game, I got a little beat up. But no, the body’s feeling good.
MMQB: Is there a difference for you now being a second year off the ACL tear?
CK: I think there was, in a way. People talk about that; I think it holds true. But it seems like for some people it’s a huge jump from one year off of it to two. I just think we did such a good job—the team here, the training staff here, the people I have around me that are putting together my rehab plan—just the way we attacked things that first year, I didn’t feel like there was really a ton of improvement needed. But I do feel better. I felt so good coming into this year. I think there is a little bit of that, but I think we did a good job of minimizing that lag in Year 1.
MMQB: Is there anywhere you feel stronger than ever, where maybe there was a benefit?
CK: I don’t think it’s so far off to say that you can’t still benefit from something like that. Obviously, you’d never wish it upon anyone. But in a way, I do think I benefitted from being able to build my body back from ground zero. I do think I’m faster, quicker, stronger than I’ve ever been. And I think that’s something, too, where I’d like to believe that, whether I’d have an injury like that or not, I’d continue that progression, and still have been faster, quicker, stronger than I’d ever been before. But I do think there’s something about going back to ground zero and having to build yourself back up.
MMQB: How do you think all the staff changes from last year have affected the group?
CK: There’s definitely been turnover. I think I’ve really been lucky: Four years, I’ve never been with another team or another coaching staff. So I guess I don’t really have perspective on what it’s like to be elsewhere. But I do feel blessed to be around the coaches we have. To come in my first year, I think we had four former offensive coordinators on our coaching staff, and we’ve had guys come through that have become head coaches elsewhere. To be able to learn from so many people and then the guys we have here now, it’s just continued on—the football knowledge, but also the willingness to listen and to coach and to learn. We’ve had that in this building. We’ve benefitted so much from that, collaborating together.
MMQB: I know Kevin O’Connell worked a lot with the quarterbacks, as the new OC, has he made a difference for you?
CK: Without a doubt. He’s maybe the coach I talk to the most out here. His willingness to come and talk to me, to ask me what things I’m seeing, what I think. The biggest thing I’ve learned in this league, you are better when everyone in the building is willing to learn and listen. That’s just been an incredible thing. I’ve learned so much from him and what he’s brought to this team. Being able to have him ask what we think from a receiver standpoint, what we’re seeing out there, that has been an incredible thing. The communication from coaches to coaches and coaches to players, players to players, but also, players to coaches, it’s been a huge asset.
MMQB: Does it make a difference that he played in the league?
CK: Without a doubt. I don’t want to put any coach here on the spot, but I do think there’s something to being coached by someone who’s played [in the NFL] before, knows what you’re seeing out there, and has experienced lining up across from someone and how you react, how your body’s gonna move, how people are gonna react naturally, and seeing it from a player’s standpoint first, I think there’s definitely great benefit to that.
MMQB: Is the offense much different with Kevin’s voice in there?
CK: I think our identity has stayed the same. It’s just that we’ve been able to move between personnel [groups] a little more, being able to mix things up a little bit. The heart of what we do, the identity behind how we run our offense hasn’t really changed, which is why I think Kevin has come in and fit in so well. He believes in our system and believes in that identity. So at the heart of things, we are the same offense. It’s just as they build this offense out, they’ve been able to diversify things a little bit.
MMQB: Having the Bucs this week, Todd Bowles has a reputation for being really aggressive as a defensive coordinator. How does that affect things for you, as a receiver?
CK: I don’t think it really changes anything. We prepare the same for an opponent no matter what they’re gonna do, no matter what their mentality is, no matter what their identity is. Our preparation isn’t gonna change. I have a lot of respect for that defense. There are a lot of good football players on that side of the ball, they’re coached really well. It’s on us to be who we are. That’s what we stress over and over again week after week, making sure we take care of the things we can take care of, handle the things we can handle, prepare the way we know we can, and step on that field and in a state of mind to take care of business.
MMQB: Does playing an aggressive group like that put it on you guys to play a little faster?
CK: I think that’s where you can start to get in a little trouble, where you change some things. There’s urgency, but if you’re not playing with urgency, you’re gonna be in trouble regardless. Understanding the urgency you need to play with is there, and there may be some things that need to be sped up, but that’s not anything that would change based on any other look. It’s just about seeing the defense and reacting as our offense is built to react, not doing anything outside of our control, anything outside what we’ve done before. That’s why I don’t think you can let the aggressive nature of a defense or the speed at which they play dictate how we play. We know who we are and what we can do.
MMQB: What’s been the hardest thing to adjust to for you with the COVID-19 protocols.
CK: I think the biggest thing for me, I’m a creature of a habit, I have routines I like to follow during the week in terms of how I prepare. And just as things change—luckily we didn’t really get hit with anything until just this last week and everyone got put into the intensive protocol anyways—just having the agility to adjust your routine, and adjust how you prepare, and make sure you get the things done that you need to get done. And the biggest thing in my head that may be overlooked, when you’re working from home, and you have kids at home, you’ve got young kids, they don’t think you’re at work. That’s been a big adjustment, it’s been really hard to be at home—my son wants to be around and play, and I have to show I wanna be with him, but I can’t right now. That’s been a tough thing.
MMQB: So you have the same problem everyone in America has?
CK: Same thing.
MMQB: With the intensive protocols, do you think having the outdoor setup in California gives you guys an advantage?
CK: Yeah, in some ways. I think the idea behind having the tents up out here, and doing all our meetings outside from the beginning, was really about risk mitigation, which is what this whole thing is about at the end of the day. But now being in the protocol we are, it’s become a huge asset. And yeah, it’s an advantage that we aren’t sitting in negative temperatures. It can be a balmy 60 degrees here. Feel pretty good about that, in a way, it is an advantage for us.
MMQB: Anything special for you still playing on Monday night?
CK: I’d always thought it’d be something, it’d be different. But I have it ingrained in myself over my time playing football that no one game is bigger than any other game. So as soon as you get out there, you prepare for the game the same way. You step out there, and it’s just like any other game I’ve played my entire life. So for me, it doesn’t really change anything. I get to go out there and play ball with my guys.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
We are now down to two teams that haven’t had their bye yet—Tampa and Carolina, who are off Week 13, the week after next. And normally this wouldn’t be a big deal at all.
This year, it is, because the NFL is now, officially, out of COVID-19 wiggle room with 30 of its 32 teams (and the Panthers and Bucs finished playing each other). Which means if there’s an outbreak within a team, the league will have to make some tougher decisions, and Week 18 might wind up being in play.
We’ve got an interesting few weeks ahead.