The Firing of Pep Hamilton, What Mariota Now Has in Common with Gabbert and Leaf, and an Army Ranger on the Steelers’ Line

Wednesday November 4th, 2015

1. I think the last person I expected to see removed in Indianapolis, between GM Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano and his staff, was offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. But that’s not to say it wasn’t the right move. If Pagano’s vision for the offense has fallen on deaf ears, as one Colts higher-up told ESPN’s Mike Wells, the coordinator had to go. But if that’s all smokescreen, and this move was an effort to elevate Rob Chudzinski and redirect blame for a three-game losing streak on a respected coordinator, Chud had better prove he is the real deal, and fast. One would hope, for the sake of management’s relationship with its franchise player, that Andrew Luck was at least consulted before the ouster of a coach who ushered him through Stanford to No. 1 overall pick status, then helped him make the Pro Bowl and win a playoff game each of the last two seasons.

2. I think Colin Kaepernick’s behavior over the course of the next week or so, after being benched in favor of Blaine Gabbert, will determine his future in San Francisco. Teammates and coaches will be looking at him to prepare as though he were entering games as a starter, the same way he prepared before he supplanted Alex Smith three years ago. If he’s truly snake-bit and has lost the confidence of this locker room, the only recourse is to deal him or cut him and move on.

3. I think there might be a couple future NFL players on the field this Saturday in Tuscaloosa. Just a couple.

4. I think if Ken Whisenhunt’s leash was this short, the Titans should’ve started fresh with a new coach to pair with No. 2 overall pick Marcus Mariota instead of potentially stunting his growth before the midseason mark. Here’s a list of first-round quarterbacks who endured a head-coaching change in their rookie seasons, per ESPN: Ryan Leaf, Blaine Gabbert and now, Marcus Mariota. Yeesh.

It’s time to appreciate the much-maligned Cutler.
David E. Klutho for Sports Illustrated

5. I think the most underrated player in the NFL right now is Jay Cutler. He made one of the prettiest throws of the season, pristinely dropping a 21-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery in the left corner of the end zone during Sunday’s loss to the Vikings. What a shame it would be if free agency breaks up that connection.

6. I think the best story no one is talking about is Alejandro Villanueva, the former Army Ranger who has done three tours in Afghanistan, has played three positions for four NFL teams, and just completed his second career start at offensive tackle for Pittsburgh in place of the injured Kelvin Beachum. Villanueva, who is 6-foot-9, appears to have finally found his best position.

7. I know I am grateful to have been welcomed at Benton Harbor High School in Michigan last weekend, where I spent three days reporting on the team led by Elliot Uzelac, the former college coach who has turned around a bad football program and inspired a struggling community. Writing stories like this and meeting the people who make them possible will always be the most rewarding part of this job.

• WHAT BENTON HARBOR NEEDED: A grizzled coach with more than four decades of big-time college and pro experience came out of retirement to take over a troubled high school program in a distressed Michigan town.

8. I think the only way for the NCAA to justify not paying college athletes is to talk to the NFL about eliminating the “three-year rule” and open up the draft to anyone willing to make the jump. And if you don’t think a handful of freshmen and sophomores are ready, watch the LSU-Alabama game and get back to me.

9. I think it’s time to start thinking about head-coaching candidates for 2016. A lot will change between now and January, but here are my top three: Adam Gase, Hue Jackson, Josh McDaniels. I wrote an article on this very topic during last offseason, and Jackson wasn't even in my top 10. Looking at what the Bengals have done so far, during a 7-0 start, it’s hard to classify Jackson as anything but an offensive auteur in a league full of poseurs.

• THE NEXT 32: In June, Robert Klemko, with the help of 24 respected football minds, broke down the NFL’s next batch of head-coaching candidates.

10. I think trading for Vernon Davis will eventually allow Denver to employ some of the effective two-tight end sets they used when Julius Thomas was still on the roster. But I would not be surprised if it takes Davis longer than a month to acclimate to playing chess with Peyton Manning after spending at least three years playing checkers in San Francisco.

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