The Bucs Start Here
When he worked in Arizona in 2012 and 2013, Jason Licht saw up the Seattle steamroller gaining momentum up close, and hasn’t forgotten the view.
The Buccaneers GM loves how Pete Carroll’s staff constantly adjusts its scheme to the talent. Licht admires the way John Schneider has turned over every rock to build a juggernaut. He likes how the Seahawks are willing to take their shots at big names like Jimmy Graham and Percy Harvin, but never believe they can buy a title.
In short, Licht holds just about everything about Seattle’s operation in high regard.
And that’s why this Sunday will provide the burgeoning outfit that he and coach Dirk Koetter have put together with such a golden opportunity. In so many ways, when the Seahawks visit Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, the young Bucs will have a great shot to measure themselves against a group they were modeled after.
“Seattle’s a team we try to emulate,” Licht said from his office on Tuesday morning. “They pull every lever. And during their rebuild, they were still focused on winning, like we are now. … They realize you can’t bat 1.000 but they’re not afraid to take chances.”
Thanksgiving is here, and in this week’s (earlier-than-normal) Game Plan, we’re going to take a look one quarterback who will play on Turkey Day (Kirk Cousins) and another who will likely be somewhere else by Thanksgiving of next year (Jimmy Garoppolo). We’ll also examine the kicking struggles in 2016, a rising quarterback prospect, and a suspended player gearing up for a fight.
But we’ll start here with a couple of general managers who are close enough to have spent time together surfing off Maui’s Wailea Beach—Licht actually almost broke his back on the 2002 trip with Schneider—and how this Sunday is a measuring stick for one’s program to see if belongs in the same waters as the other’s.
If you forgot about the Bucs after their rollicking season-opening blowout of Atlanta, well, that’s understandable. The franchise hasn’t been to the playoffs in nine years, and is on its fifth head coach since then. Signs of turning the corner under Raheem Morris and Greg Schiano and Lovie Smith fizzled. So skepticism is warranted.
This is a good time of year to figure out what’s real and what’s not. In fact, it was right around Thanksgiving in 2012 that a young Seattle team kicked things into a gear few knew it had—and the Seahawks haven’t looked back since. Ditto for a retooled 2014 Panthers team that set the table for bigger things in 2015.
And so it could be for this 5-5 Bucs team that marched into Arrowhead and knocked off the red-hot Chiefs on Sunday. It was the culmination of what the Bucs have building towards since a Columbus Day win over Carolina stopped the bleeding of three straight losses.
“When we won that game, I remember thinking, ‘OK, we’re gonna have an opportunity to make some noise,” Licht said. “And for Jameis (Winston), on that last drive, to win the game for us, and the kicker (much-criticized rookie Roberto Aguayo) to come through after some misses, it was a turning point for all of us.”
The Bucs are 4-2 since, and now sit wedged between the division-leading Falcons and the tied-for-last-but-still-in-it Saints and Panthers. The idea here, though, is that the foundation for bigger things are now in place, and that’s what brings us back to the Seattle model.
Among the receivers Winston hit in Kansas City were high first-round pick (Mike Evans), a veteran journeyman (Cecil Shorts), a supposed special teamer (Russell Shepard), a guy who arrived in Tampa on a tryout (Adam Humphries), a big-ticket back (Doug Martin), an undrafted fullback (Alan Cross) and a Harvard Man (Cam Brate).
So you can see that no-stone-unturned approach across the roster. The highest drafted Division III player ever, Ali Marpet, is now an anchor on the Tampa offensive line. Licht was aggressive in moving up to get him last year, as he was two rounds later in going up to get Kwon Alexander (now a defensive cornerstone) and then again this year in pushing forward to nab Aguayo (the jury’s still out on that one).
Before getting Aguayo in April, the Bucs went with conventional wisdom on their first pick (taking Vernon Hargreaves) and then rolled the dice with their second selection (red-flagged Noah Spence), addressing their two biggest needs in the process.
So what Licht admired about Seattle and how his buddy Schneider set it up—“They’ve made stars out of unknown guys like (Thomas) Rawls, taken chances on guys like Russell (Wilson), but they still go out and get Jimmy Graham,” Licht says—is very much playing out in Tampa.
Whether it works to that level, obviously, remains to be seen. But an important element to what the Seahawks have accomplished is the way Carroll has managed so many personalities and created the kind of winning environment that demands everyone adhere to a certain standard.
And maybe the best development Licht’s seen through all this is that kind of culture—the kind he’s seen working in winning programs is New England and Philly and Arizona—is starting to emerge in Tampa.
“A lot of it is the quarterback, his message and what he’s put out there—it’s family,” said Licht. “He breaks down every huddle in practice, it’s ‘family on 3.’ And those teams in Philly and Arizona—New England’s just a machine—they had that togetherness, all fighting for the same thing. The quarterback says it a lot, if one of us is failing, you have 10 brothers to pick you up. In the locker room, you feel it.
“I know it’s cliché, but unity is a powerful thing. They said this in New England all the time, it was engrained by Belichick—it’s not the best 53, it’s the right 53. We’re starting to figure out what the right 53 is. It’s evolving that way.”
Great chance, too, for that 53 to take another step in that direction in a few days.
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Five Names to Watch in Week 12
• Carson Wentz posted a plus-100 QB rating in three of his first four games, and hasn’t hit that mark in six games since. Teams are sitting on the short stuff, and forcing him to hold the ball, and my feeling is he’ll grow through this. Playing a Packers defense that’s allowed 30-plus four straight weeks might help, too.
• For one reason or another, the Vikings line has been more efficient with T.J. Clemmings at left tackle than it was with Jake Long there. Minnesota was 0-4 in games Long played. This week, Clemmings gets to block Ziggy Ansah.
• With Gio Bernard and AJ Green down, the Bengals could certainly get more out of running back Jeremy Hill in trying to resuscitate their flagging playoff hopes. Opposite him Sunday: the Ravens’ top-ranked run defense.
• Rough week for the Cardinals—a loss in Minnesota, Bruce Arians’ health scare and now a trip to Atlanta. If they can jump start their season there, chances are Patrick Peterson will need to be part of it; tall order against Julio Jones.
• Denver’s defense has been just so-so of late, and my suspicion is that can be chalked up to the absence of Aqib Talib, who gives the group its personality in a certain way. He’s expected back, just in time for a showdown with the Chiefs.
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1. Kirk Cousins’ price tag isn’t falling. Two Augusts ago, to much fanfare, the Redskins made the decision to sit Robert Griffin and start Kirk Cousins. Here’s the 26-game line that Cousins has responded with since: 637 of 927 (68.7%), 7,257 yards, 46 TDs, 18 INTs, 100.4 rating. Add to that the fact that the Redskins are on target to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since Bill Clinton was the governor of Arkansas, and it seems academic that the Redskins and Cousins would plan to ride off into the future together. But it’s more complicated. As I understand it, the Redskins remain unlikely to tag Cousins for a second straight year, largely because the cost would be $23.94 million. That would be prohibitive because of the leverage it’d give Cousins’ side in negotiating a long-term deal. That could change in the coming months, and the Redskins do want to lock up Cousins, but there is a line as to how far they’ll go to do it. For his part, Cousins has moved that line since last year’s talks broke down. And he’s showing signs he could, indeed, push it further. The coaches see the Week 6 win over the Eagles as having been another corner turned in Cousins’ development. In that one, he was better pushing the ball downfield and in off-schedule situations, and he hasn’t looked back since. Last Sunday’s win over the Packers proved it again. On his first touchdown pass, DeSean Jackson was the fourth guy in his progression. Two possessions later, on a third-and-4, he bought time by stepping up in the pocket before delivering a strike to Jordan Reed. Then, in the third quarter, Cousins bought time on a third-and-5, recognized the Packers’ were in a 2-shell coverage and hadn’t accounted for the back, and dumped it off to Chris Thompson for nine yards, setting the stage for Jamison Crowder’s 44-yard touchdown five plays later. Those things, plus the downfield throws in whipping winds, are things the Skins might not have gotten in 2015. Even better, Cousins is cutting it loose mentally now, much like he did down the stretch last year. “You saw a big-time quarterback,” said one staffer. “The arm talent is obviously special, looking at the way he was able to throw in those elements.” So yes, the Skins would love to keep him. We’ll see, after the season, if they can navigate a tricky financial landscape to make it happen. For now, the team is in a pretty good place with Cousins pulling the trigger for a group that is very much matching the intense and hard-edged vision—there were three fights in practice leading up to the Green Bay game—that Jay Gruden and Scot McCloughan set for it.
2. Kicker problems. Sunday’s rash of missed extra points (there were 12 of them, breaking a record that was set when my dad was in high school) only adds to the chorus of questions fueled by a seeming flood of bad misses on potential game-winning field goals: What in the world has happened to kickers this year? So I asked a few coaches about it, and I got an interesting theory on how the longer extra points are affecting more than just the percentages on those particular kicks. “The extra point was the quarterback throwing for a quick gain and getting a completion to get back in rhythm,” said a special teams coach for one NFC team. “A guy could say on one of those kicks, ‘OK, it went in, but on the next one, I gotta make sure I do this or I do that.’ It was his way to get back on rhythm. If you messed up an extra point, he could just say, ‘My plant foot is out too far,’ or ‘I can’t believe I hit the ground on that one,’ and say he won’t do it again, and come back and there’s no penalty for the team. They don’t have that anymore.” Now, that’s clearly not the only factor. I also heard a belief floating around that quality of long-snapping and holding isn’t what it was, because specialization has made it so body types can be a tougher-fit and fewer holders are quarterbacks or former quarterbacks. And there’s the psychology of the position, which is difficult. Bad misses can linger. It seemed pretty clear that the fallout from Blair Walsh’s missed playoff chip shot of last January seeped into this season, right up until the Vikings cut him. And Patriots K Stephen Gostkowski’s pivotal missed extra point in the AFC title game has led into a 2016 season during which he’s missed three more PATs and is on pace for a career low in field goal percentage. So there’s probably a lot going on here. But I can absolutely buy that having the short extra-point taken away is part of it. “They only have one snap to get it right,” said the special teams coach referenced above. “Julio Jones drops a ball, and he knows he has 10 more targets coming to get himself on rhythm. They lost that.”
3. For Sale sign up in Jimmy Garoppolo’s front lawn. Patriots coach Bill Belichick wasn’t asked about his backup quarterback during press availability last Friday. But he talked about him anyway, when asked a question about starter Tom Brady. The topic was the importance of Brady being present at practice. Here’s what Belichick said: “If you’re missing one receiver then maybe you get the timing with the other 10 players . . . If you're missing the quarterback, you could still get it and certainly we have a good quarterback in Jimmy (Garoppolo) and Jimmy could go out there and run everything that Tom can run. We’ve seen that. I'm not saying that he's not capable or qualified to do it. He is. And he does a great job of it. And when we put Jimmy in there, it’s really seamless. You can’t, unless you were actually looking at the position, if you could just block out that position and say which guy was in there at quarterback, I don't know if you would know a lot of times.” Alright, so any quarterback, much less a backup, being compared to Brady by the guy who coaches Brady merits heads turning. And Belichick wouldn’t lavish this praise on Garoppolo if it wasn’t earned, lest he send the wrong message to the rest of the players. What stuck out to me here was how Belichick volunteered all of that, and I think what we’re seeing is a little something to make sure other clubs know what kind of quarterback is likely to be available in a few months. Wanna take it to another level and look at potential suitors? Keep an eye on the Browns and Saints. Cleveland could deal away the pick they got from Philadelphia, and hang on to what could be the first overall pick. And then, Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett and Garoppolo could, in theory, be Cleveland’s version of the Oakland draft that netted Khalil Mack and Derek Carr. As for New Orleans, the Saints have been kicking tires on young quarterbacks through the past two draft cycles, were high on Garoppolo in 2014 and saw him in joint practices with New England the past two summers, and will have a 37-year-old Drew Brees going into a contract year in 2017. Theoretically, they may like Garoppolo better than anyone in what’s expected to be a mediocre QB lot this spring, and could bring him aboard on his rookie deal for next year, then tag him in 2018 and do a long-term deal then. At any rate, this should all be interesting, and I’m willing to make an educated guess Belichick knew he was feeding into it last week.
4. Will the Rams welcome a new tenant? I don’t think anyone knows whether or not Los Angeles can sustain two NFL teams. But even if it may behoove them to keep the nation’s second-largest market to themselves, the Rams certainly are remaining open to and ready for a second team—be it the Raiders or Chargers—joining them in their new palace in Inglewood in 2019. They broke ground there last week. “Since the January resolution that allowed us to relocate passed, we’ve believed there would be a second team in the market,” Rams COO Kevin Demoff said, over his cell Tuesday. “That approach has never changed. The focus for us is making sure we’re building an unbelievable stadium and entertainment district that showcases the best of the NFL—not just one team. The idea is that it benefits the whole league, it’s a 32-team sports and entertainment district.” So this could get interesting. The Chargers’ option to join the Rams in L.A.—there’s a deal sitting in place, and the teams have discussed adjusting that—rolls over to the Raiders on Jan. 15. But the Raiders’ focus on Las Vegas (owner Mark Davis has said he’ll apply to relocate there after the season) may give the Chargers more wiggle room to give staying in San Diego another shot. Either way, the idea of going to L.A. isn’t perfect for either team. In both cases, it’s unlikely the team has the capital to make a deal to be a partner in the new, uber-pricey stadium (this one will be the first NFL stadium with a price tag over $2 billion, and the final cost is expected to be well over that). And even though either could go in rent free and free of construction costs, that means going in as a tenant. Also, for the Chargers, and not the Raiders, there’s the risk of becoming the football equivalent of the Clippers. Still, there’s no perfect deal out there, and it’s not like the one written into the option for those teams is a horrific one. So there’s certainly a chance it could happen. “We’ve had good dialogue with the Chargers throughout the whole year,” said Demoff. “There’s a deal in place for them to join us. And we’ve tried to make it so they’d be comfortable in Inglewood, but with respect that this is the Spanos family’s decision to make. Our job is give them the best option we can in L.A. and let them decide.”
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• I’ll preface by saying my belief is that the Packers have been as good as anyone at roster-building over the past 15 years. It’s clear to me, talking to people who evaluate this stuff for a living, there’s a talent issue in Green Bay. And as much as anything, they need to get more out of those they’ve paid. Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson are the fourth and fifth-highest paid guys on the team, yet the Packers have trouble getting people open. Clay Matthews is second and Julius Peppers is seventh, but they can’t rush the passer. Aaron Rodgers deserves some blame too, as does Mike McCarthy, but when you look at that, plus the fact that draft picks haven’t worked out in other spots (like the secondary), it’s not that hard to figure out why the team is 4-6. And as many have said before, GM Ted Thompson’s refusal to fix mistakes with free agents seems to hold them back.
• Sometimes, having a lot of people going into contract years doesn’t not equal a collectively urgent bunch. Going into the last offseason, the Patriots had seven projected starters on defense entering contract years: Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, Don’t’a Hightower, Jabaal Sheard, Alan Branch, Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler. Jones and Collins have been dealt, Sheard (currently the fifth-highest paid player on the roster) was a healthy scratch Sunday, Branch is now suspended, and Ryan has underperformed. Hightower’s missed two games, and been limited to some degree by injury. Butler and Jones are the only ones to play to expectations, and Jones has done it for someone else. The result is a defense that had Top 5 potential slumping badly. We’ll see if Bill Belichick can fix it.
• When I saw Derek Carr’s game-clinching, 29-yard dime to Jalen Richard up the right sideline—another big-balls call by Jack Del Rio’s staff—I thought back to a discussion I had with him in July. “I think it’s just believing you can win, and you only gain that confidence through work,” Del Rio said. “Then it’s a matter of flourishing in those situations. All of these games are one-score games. It comes down to who makes plays, executes and performs in those situations. Those are the things that separate the 12-4 teams and the teams that are 7-9 or 4-12. You’ve got to be good enough to be in games. Then, there’s a point where you understand how to win them.” On Monday night, and also 15 days earlier against Denver, the Raiders have shown that now they understand.
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TWO PLAYERS TO WATCH ON SATURDAY
1. Ohio State CB Marshon Lattimore (vs. Michigan, ABC, Noon ET). A blue-chip recruit who couldn’t stay healthy his first two years, Lattimore has been a breakout star as a redshirt sophomore for the playoff-contending Buckeyes. Lattimore has four picks (he scored on one of them) and nine passes defensed, and is a big, strong corner in a draft loaded with them. “He’s smooth—a good athlete with good ball skills,” said one AFC executive. “There’s not a lot bad to him. He’s a first-rounder.” And this will be a good game to keep an eye on him, with Michigan bringing a pair of tough, experienced receivers in Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, and a lot on the line for both teams. In particular, scouts will be watching how Lattimore matches up with them downfield. “He’s big, strong, athletic, good ball skills,” said an NFC area scout assigned to the Buckeyes. “But you still feel like you need to see more, because he only has 11 career starts and they rotate three guys. You want to see his speed. I don’t know if he’ll run 4.4, and he hasn’t been tested like he will this weekend.” In the end, the consensus I found is that Lattimore is probably, as it stands, a better prospect than Eli Apple was last season. The Ohio State secondary, which also features top prospects Malik Hooker and Gareon Conley, could have three first-rounders in April.
2. North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky (vs. NC State, ESPN, Friday, Noon). Here’s living proof as to why it’s kinda foolish to do a mock draft in the summer. Back then, Trubisky (like Lattimore) was still awaiting his first collegiate start. Now, it’s possible he’ll be contending to be the first overall pick in April, should the redshirt junior choose to declare. That’s because he makes up for what he lacks in experience in talent, and whether or not he or another quarterback goes first might just be a matter of preference. “Accurate, good vision, athletic, tough … I think he’s a Top 10 pick,” said one NFC exec. Another NFC exec echoed the sentiment in saying Trubisky has the “accuracy and overall arm talent” to go that high, with the only drawbacks being questions on experience and leadership. And the leadership question really centers on Trubisky being a little quieter than some would like, like Marcus Mariota and Teddy Bridgewater were. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder has completed 70 percent of his passes for 3,188 yards, 25 touchdowns and just 4 INTs in 11 games. There’s clearly a lot to like here, and given where he’d likely be drafted, there’s good reason for him to come out.
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We’ve seen plenty of players fight the league, and do so outside the collective bargaining agreement, over the past few years. But this one is new.
In the case of Lane Johnson, rather than having the union on his side, the Eagles tackle is fighting the NFLPA as well. This all stems, of course, from the 10-game suspension that Johnson is six games deep into now.
Two weeks ago, Johnson filed unfair labor practices charges against both the league and the union, and a separate complaint with the department of labor against the NFLPA. At the heart of those is Johnson’s claim that side deals between the league and union had bastardized the process for both testing and appeals without giving players proper notice. And so now, the union and league are strange bedfellows.
The league didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The union, when reached, declined comment.
Alright, so among Johnson’s claims …
• The PES (performance-enhancing substance) policy calls for a panel of 3-5 arbitrators, and there are only two.
• One of the arbitrators, James Carter, works for Wilmer Hale, which has a long-standing relationship with the league and handled the Ray Rice investigation. Johnson says the alleged conflict of interest wasn’t disclosed to players, and should have been.
• The independent administrator refused to provide him with his own medical/testing information. Johnson claims the NFL Management Council refused to provide it, with the independent administrator claiming it was privileged.
• The arbitrator ordered the NFL to turn over protocols to Johnson, the NFL refused, and the arbitrator did nothing.
• The policy calls for a certified forensic toxicologist to handle these cases and there wasn’t one. Instead, according to Johnson, the lab director certified the lab’s results.
• Johnson couldn’t rely on the Aegis Shield app, provided by the union, for accurate information. He says it approved the supplement in question.
There’s pretty much no chance this will be resolved before Johnson’s suspension ends, on Dec. 19, which leads to the next question of why he’d go through all of this.
To be sure, there are definitely things to be gained. Thanks to a low base salary of $675,000, he stands to lose just under $400K as a result of the suspension, and he’d recover that with a win. The guarantees in his contract—he has more $22 million guaranteed after this season—were voided as a result of the suspension, and those would be restored. And he’d be returned to the first step of the PES program.
But just as important, per his lawyer, is the principle.
“Lane’s no shrinking violet,” attorney Steve Zashin said on Tuesday night. “I think he feels like he was done wrong. … The policy repeated calls for transparency, and the actual policy that’s being employed by the NFL and NFLPA is anything but transparent.”
On the flip side, Johnson waives his right to confidentiality—he is subject to discovery—by going forward with this. And a loss in this case certainly wouldn’t help his reputation.
I have no clue what’ll happen here, but I will say that it’s fairly refreshing to see a player who’s upset actually put his money where his mouth is, and not just bitch and moan without taking any real action.
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