It's 'beyond ridiculous' to suggest Tom Brady is no longer a top five quarterback, says a coach very familiar with the Patriots star's work. Plus, notes on Colin Kaepernick's deal, Jermichael Finley's comeback and Dion Jordan's bust status
BEREA, Ohio — I try not to engage the usual NFL offseason nonsensical story du jour—Top 100 players, who had the best offseason, what’s going on with the Jets’ quarterbacks, who’s the best cornerback and other pointless arguments—because they are what they are: the ever-growing number of NFL outlets (yes, you’re reading one now) looking for anything and everything to attract readers in the dead period.
But other business took me into the airy office of new Browns coach Mike Pettine this week, and I had to ask him about the chatter that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is slipping and that he’s no longer among the top five quarterbacks in the league.
If anybody’s going to shoot me straight, it’s Pettine. No opposing coach besides Rex Ryan knows the play of Brady more intimately than Pettine. From 2009-12, he was Ryan’s defensive coordinator for the Jets. Last season, Pettine struck out on his own and faced Brady twice as the Bills’ defensive coordinator.
For my money, nobody has made life tougher on Brady than Ryan and Pettine, and the rest of the Ravens’ defensive tree. Take last season. Brady completed less than 59 percent of his passes eight times: Jets (twice), Bills (twice), Saints (Rob Ryan, Rex’s twin brother), Ravens (where Rex Ryan and Pettine started), Colts (former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano) and the Bengals (former Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis). While Cincinnati is a bit of a stretch because Mike Zimmer was the defensive coordinator, all eight are in the Ravens and/or Rex Ryan coaching tree. No one in the NFL today disguises coverage looks and varies pressure on a consistent basis—the key to at least holding the top quarterbacks in check—better than those defenses. In short, nobody knows the top quarterbacks like Pettine and the rest.
So, Mike Pettine, what do you think of the talk that Brady is no longer in the top five of NFL quarterbacks?
“It's beyond ridiculous,” Pettine said, fiddling with his computer. “Top five? I mean, to me, it's one and two (Brady and Peyton Manning) and then there's a gap and then it's probably (Drew) Brees and (Aaron) Rodgers would be three and four, however you want to order them. Until those two (Brady and Manning) retire, they'll be one and two and then there will be a gap.
“This came up during the draft when they asked me about starting rookie quarterbacks. There's only so many quarterbacks in the league, I don't know what the number is, five maybe six that will be successful no matter who their supporting cast is. They got it done in New England with below average offensive linemen, receivers you never heard of. But because the system is so good and the guy running it is so good, it's going to be successful. I think he's that way, I think Peyton's that way. But I think Tom's probably the best at that. It doesn’t matter who's around him. They're going to get yards, they're going to get points.”
It was pointed out the Patriots finished third in the league with 444 points despite having tight end Rob Gronkowski for only seven games, and one receiver (Julian Edelman) catch more than 54 passes.
“That’s what I mean,” Pettine said. “There aren't many guys like that. There's Tom then there's Peyton and then I think Brees and you would put Rodgers in that group. Maybe (Philip) Rivers. I think Rivers has had some success and he's had, like (Antonio) Gates in and out of the lineup, and some no names at wideout and he's still been able to be successful. Once you get beyond that group, they’re dependent on the guys around them, as we saw with some guys last season. And then there are some quarterbacks you are going to struggle to win with no matter who's around them. There's probably 10 like that.”
Pettine described why the challenge of going against Brady and coach Bill Belichick was so unique.
“There were certain games where you knew that you had zero margin for error, that you couldn't make a mistake or have a bad call or a bad series because they were going to take advantage of it,” Pettine said. “There are some coordinators you feel like you're playing checkers against. You're playing chess against grand masters when you're going against those two. That's just the way that you feel going into the game.
“You see the games where they don't do as well, there's a little bit of frustration, especially on Tom's part where he's not getting a clean look. The games where he knows what you're in (defensively), I mean it's over. It might as well be pass scout (team drills). It's over. The games that he goes 24 for 28, those are the teams that are rushing four and playing split safety coverage against him and it's just a matter of him playing catch.
“That game (against Brady) is the ultimate dial-it-up, I have to be in something different (every play). Not only do I have to have a plan for the first half, but nobody's better at second-half adjustments so we better come out in the second half, no matter what we've been successful with in the first half, we have to come up with something a little different in the second half. When you have success against him, I think that's because you can keep him guessing a little bit, that he can't get dialed in.
“The bottom line still is if you can't match up against all five eligible (receivers), then you're in trouble. Because he'll exploit the one (bad matchup). That's why they get in so much empty (backfield sets) when they start to struggle a little bit. When they get in empty, which kind of cleans (the look) up a little bit, there's only so many things you can do (scheme-wise) against empty, and he'll be more concerned about matchup than he is potential coverage. Where can I go? If you don't have the players to matchup, you can't hide anybody against them. If you're hiding guys then you're probably playing Cover 2 and you're predictable and you're probably getting gashed anyway.”
So, there you have it.
1. Commendable contract for Kaepernick. Other agents, some of his teammates and other franchise quarterbacks looking toward new contracts might not be thrilled with contract extension signed by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, but to me it’s a win-win for both sides. Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com reported the important details, including that only $13.1 million is truly guaranteed, and the rest of the guaranteed money is triggered annually on April 1. Kaepernick was in a tough spot because he set to play 2014 for about $1 million, and then the team could franchise tag him in ’15. It’s easy to say, “He should have bet on himself, played out ’14 and then went for the money in ’15.” But football is such a violent sport, you never know what’s going to happen. Look at Alex Smith. He was playing great football as 49ers starter in ’12, got hurt, didn’t get his job back and was traded. While I think Kaepernick at least should have gotten the ’15 tag in guaranteed money (around $18 million), I like that he essentially said, “If I perform, I’ll get paid. If I don’t, I shouldn’t get the money.” His teammates and other NFL quarterbacks around the league won’t like it because Kaepernick’s contract will be used to argue against big-money guarantees, but it’s an unselfish move by Kaepernick that gives the 49ers a lot of flexibility moving forward. I’m usually all for players grabbing as much cash as possible because teams will get of rid of them without blinking, but if a player wants to pass that up, he should be commended for it.
2. Finley still fighting. Packers free-agent tight end Jermichael Finley has received medical clearance to resume playing football and is taking medical tests around the league after suffering a spinal contusion last season and then having his vertebrae fused. He does have a tax-free $10 million insurance policy to fall back on if he doesn’t play again. However, knowing Finley, that’s probably not on his mind very much. He loves playing football, desires to be one of the more recognizable players in the league, and won’t stop until he does that, or a doctor tells him he can’t play anymore.
3. Miami preaching patience with Jordan. When the Dolphins traded up to draft end Dion Jordan third overall and then he produced just two sacks, it appeared that he was headed for bustville. But defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said the team considered putting Jordan, who had labrum surgery before the draft, on injured reserve and didn’t expect much from him. This year will be Jordan’s proving ground. “You cannot have enough great pass rushers and, we feel that with Dion at full speed, we have a prime-time player that’s going to explode this year,” Coyle said.
4. The quick, healthy Eagles. There was a lot of talk earlier this year about college football cracking down on no-huddle offenses because of a perceived fatigue injury risk (it was later withdrawn). In the NFL, don’t be surprised if many teams start trying to copy what former Oregon coach Chip Kelly has been doing with the Eagles, if they haven’t already. Despite running the league’s fastest offense last season with one play every 23.38 seconds (the quickest pace in the league since at least 1997, which is as far back as the data goes), the Eagles were the fourth-healthiest team in the NFL last season (29 games by starters lost, with 16 coming from receiver Jeremy Maclin), according to Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News. One season is an absurdly small sample size, but you can bet other teams are keeping an eye on the Eagles’ fanaticism with sports science.
5. Guard-tackle transition. About a month before the draft, Rams general manager Les Snead and I talked about the Ravens’ decision in 1996 to draft future left tackle Jonathan Ogden and play him at left guard as a rookie. Snead’s in the same position now playing Greg Robinson at left guard next to left tackle Jake Long. “(The Ravens) made a long-term decision and they made it work short term,” Snead said. “At the end of the day, that may have been something that helped Jonathan because you get to go in and get your feet wet at maybe a less vulnerable position, and also in going from tackle to guard and you have to think quicker, so that can make moving to tackle smoother transition.”