The clock ran out, so with no other viable alternatives, the Chargers are expected to head north and join the Rams in L.A. Here’s a look inside the decision. Plus notes on two new coaches, the Patriots’ health and more
The Chargers don’t want to go to Los Angeles. And the league doesn’t want them there either.
At 8 a.m. this morning, owner Dean Spanos will gather people at every level of the organization his family has owned since 1984 and tell them the Chargers are going anyway.
The team will headquarter in Costa Mesa, 40 miles from downtown L.A. in Orange County. They’ll likely play their 2017 and ’18 home games at the 27,000-seat StubHub Center in Carson, a stone’s throw from where Spanos and Raiders owner Mark Davis were looking to build, before Stan Kroenke beat them out for the rights to the market. And in 2019, the Chargers will become Kroenke’s tenant in Inglewood.
Spanos will almost certainly try and put an optimistic spin on this.
The truth is, this isn’t about Spanos having an appetite to join the Rams in the nation’s second-largest market. It’s simply what, in his mind, he has to do, which is why some feel that until the moving trucks pull up to Chargers Park, the owner could be susceptible to a sudden change of heart.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll look at the Cowboys’ rookie class ready to face Aaron Rodgers and Co., the new coaches in Denver and Buffalo, the Patriots’ incredible health, how a grading system has become the Falcons lifeblood, and much more. But we start with a team that spent Years 2-56 of its existence in one city going back up the coast to where it set up shop in Year 1, and why it had to end like this.
The Chargers have tried, in vain, for 15 years to get a new stadium built. In a state where it has proved borderline impossible to build an NFL venue, they’ve watched the 49ers get theirs, and the Rams break ground on one with a price tag of more than double what it cost Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to build AT&T Stadium. The Bolts’ option to join the Rams expires next week; at that point it would roll over to the Raiders.
Say Spanos lets that option expire. The Raiders are focused on Las Vegas—Mark Davis has said he plans to apply to relocate there—but if that deal fell through and he decided to move his team to L.A., what would it mean for the Chargers? They would still be in San Diego, only without the L.A. leverage that so many teams have used over the past two decades, and facing a local government with which they’ve fought unsuccessfully since the beginning of this century.
The Chargers weren’t just losing the stadium battle, either. The score was being run up on them. They invested $10 million in the fight to win a stadium referendum last November. The proposal’s opponents spent about $200,000. The team got 43 percent of a vote in which it needed two-thirds to win. It’s widely known that Spanos has grown weary of these battles. As it turns out, getting bludgeoned at the ballot box two months ago was the final blow he’d take. And, again, it’s not as if what’s waiting behind Door No. 2 is all that appealing.
The Rams’ first season back in L.A. has illustrated to many the challenges that lie in engaging and sustaining an audience there. The population is diverse, and many Angelenos are transplants from elsewhere, with other NFL allegiances. There are two major college football programs that engender loyalty, and two NBA teams, two MLB teams and two NHL teams vying for the same entertainment dollar. And now, there are resulting doubts L.A. is a two-team NFL market. All of which played into the departure of the Rams and Raiders in 1995.
“There were a lot of owners last year that felt this was a two-team market,” said one ownership-connected source. “The number of people who think it’s a two-team market has dropped to very few. There were a lot of them when the Rams went. That’s not the case anymore. … There are many more doubts than there were at this time last year.”
That’s why, ahead of Wednesday’s special meeting in New York, the league worked to give Spanos and the Chargers options that would make staying in San Diego, at least in the short term, more palatable.
And yes, some owners still feel bad that, last January, they did the one thing they all figured no one would let happen—leaving a good soldier like Spanos out in the cold as the L.A. dominoes started to fall. But a bigger factor, as far as I can tell, is that the league doesn’t want to leave San Diego, and enough of those owners aren’t sure that doubling down on L.A. is the right move quite yet.
There was a potential solution here. The idea would be for the league to engage with the Raiders on the move to Las Vegas, taking them out of the picture for L.A. and clearing the way to extend the Chargers’ option to 2018 and ’19. That way San Diego’s window to find a solution would run through the next general election (2018), and the Chargers wouldn’t ever be in a temporary stadium.
That, of course, would also allow the league and the Rams to continue to grow L.A. as a one-team market, instead of jumping in with both feet on a second team.
But by the time the owners got to New York on Wednesday, Spanos’ patience had run out, the Raiders’ plans on Vegas hadn’t crystallized to the point where the league could commit to anything fully, and the idea of being more than one year behind the Rams in L.A. from a business perspective was too much to bear.
The amazing thing is, even now, you can still see the hints of trepidation. No formal relocation letter had been filed (the Chargers don’t have to apply to relocate; all they have to do is exercise their option) as of late Wednesday night, nor had city officials in Los Angeles or San Diego been notified. The Chargers didn’t announce anything, only scheduling the meeting for Thursday morning.
By then, though, everyone will know what they’ve become resigned to. The team may not want to do this, and the league might not want it to go.
But time finally ran out.
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1. Cowboys are relying on their rookies. Going into Wednesday night before the Chargers news broke, we were planning to take a full look at the Dallas rookie class, and the level to which the Cowboys are leaning on it as a No. 1 seed in the NFC bracket. It’s a circumstance that I can’t imagine has much of a precedent, and it deserves discussion, so we’ll get to it deeper a little later in the week at the site. But you want a surface look at it now?
Start with the obvious. Ezekiel Elliott is the NFL’s rushing champion and an important piece for the Cowboys in the passing game, and Dak Prescott has put together one of the more impressive rookie seasons a quarterback ever has. After that, there’s third-round pick Maliek Collins, who’s started 14 games at defensive tackle—which allowed the team to move Tyrone Crawford—and posted 5.0 sacks. Sixth-round pick Anthony Brown has started nine games and is an all-important depth piece given the health issues fellow corners Mo Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick have had. Another sixth-rounder, Kavon Frazier, has grown into a core special-teamer, and seventh-round project Rico Gathers (a college hoops player) has flashed big-time potential as a practice-squad tight end. Now, the big question (at least to me) becomes how a team so reliant on rookies performs with the stakes heightened. As it turns out, the Cowboys aren’t that concerned about it.
“That’s one of the greatest things about playing for the Cowboys, especially when you’re having success: It prepares you,” team COO Stephen Jones said over the cell Tuesday night. “Now, I’ll say this: I’m not naïve, they’re not naïve, there’s nothing like playoff football. But the only thing I need to go on is how they’ve reacted all year to a lot of different situations, some adverse. Whether it’s Dak, Zeke, whether it’s Brown, whether it’s Maliek, they’ve all seemed to answer the bell. It hasn’t been too big for them. I’m betting on them.”
The scary thing is the group still could get better, once second-rounder Jaylon Smith and fourth-rounder Charles Tapper get healthy. How much better? On Smith, Jones said, “I mean, this is a guy who may end up being—and you’re gonna shake your head when I say this—but he could end up being the best of all of [the rookies]. He is special both on and off the field.” As I said, we’ll have more on this in the next day or so.
2. McDermott’s hire a good sign on the Pegulas. Most NFL owners go through a period of indoctrination, and Terry and Kim Pegula certainly have dealt with theirs over the past two years in Buffalo. They had one coach enact a contractual clause to bolt, and then another building expectations to a fever pitch before failing to meet them. Beyond that, the problems between coach Rex Ryan and GM Doug Whaley were clear—a lack of a defined organizational structure on the football side led to confusion over who was carrying the big stick, a problem that ultimately metastasized into a power struggle.
After ownership pulled the plug on Ryan, there certainly was an easy way out. Whaley was widely believed to have favored Anthony Lynn—who went from running backs coach to offensive coordinator to interim coach in three months—early in the interview process because it would’ve made the delineation of control clear. Credit the Pegulas for not defaulting to that, and running an open search that led to Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. Ultimately, and this isn’t Lynn’s fault, the perception inside the building that Whaley was hovering over the coaches wouldn’t have helped fix the problems that existed last year. Bringing in a new voice gives the Bills a better chance to wriggle free of that.
And seeing McDermott in a position like this reminds me of a conversation I had with him in 2013, when the Panthers were just starting to build the kind of defensive tradition that’s now part of the (here’s the buzzword) culture in Charlotte now. The big question with most young coordinators is whether they can match their X’s-and-O’s acumen with program-building prowess. To a degree, my feeling is that McDermott answers that in the way he built a defensive program within Ron Rivera’s larger plan. The talk we had came at a point when the Panthers ranked top-five 10 of 12 major defensive categories, and top-10 in all of them. “We’ve got a long way to go,” McDermott said. “Having said that, I feel very positive about the future of the Panthers and the defense, being the side I know most. I look at the offensive side, and it’s not any different—a lot of youth and a lot of talent. But on defense we’re putting five rookies out there together sometimes, and that’s not normal, especially for one of the better defenses in the league. The neat part is they’re developing a sense of pride in wearing the silver helmets, developing traits and what it means to play here. Baltimore and Pittsburgh have a tradition. We’re trying to get that established here.”
That was accomplished, of course, and it culminated in 2015, when the team’s suffocating defense led the Panthers on a Super Bowl run. And it was easy to see, being around that group, how a standard had been set over the years. So now McDermott gets to try to set a similar standard with a larger group. And I believe the fact that he’ll have that shot in Buffalo reflects well on the Pegulas, who didn’t go with the most comfortable thing after all.
3. How Joseph rose so quick. John Elway’s first two hires in Denver arrived with a combined 17 years of head-coaching experience, and so Vance Joseph assuming the seat previously held by John Fox and Gary Kubiak is definitely different. A former Jets and Colts defensive back, the new Broncos coach has spent just 12 years as an NFL assistant and only one, last year in Miami, as a coordinator. Maybe that’d lead you to question whether he’s ready. But those who’ve been around him do not.
“Like everyone has said, the guy’s got great leadership qualities,” said one staffmate of Joseph’s. “All the things guys are saying are true. He can command a room, lead players—that’s all true. … If you played bad, he told you, he told the media, he told everyone. With Vance, there’s no secrets, and players appreciate that no-bull---- approach. He’s not talking behind anyone’s back, it’s all there for you, and it’s consistent. … He’s gonna be himself. He’s the same guy every day, whether you win 42-0 or lose 42-0. He’s the same guy every day. And that’s a great trait in a head coach. Just as we ask that from players, coaches want to know what they’ll get every day from players, players want to know what they’ll get from a coach. They’ll know what they’re getting, and that’s a good thing—a guy that’s demanding but not demeaning.”
To that end, in the back of Miami’s defensive meeting room, there was a single word painted on the wall—Truth. Joseph wanted it to guide his unit. And so he was truthful all the time. The coaches wondered over the summer if they’d be able to get anything out of veteran Byron Maxwell, and Maxwell responded with a shaky start to the season. So Joseph benched him in Week 4, and the Dolphins wound up getting more from Maxwell in the aftermath of that then they ever thought they would. Similarly, when Mario Williams wasn’t performing, Joseph relegated the well-compensated, pedigreed pass rusher to a spot role, and he and the staff were able to manage the problem from there. And if you want to go back to Joseph’s years in Cincinnati, it’s pretty clear that he had a colorful group of defensive backs with strong personalities, and he kept them in line.
So yes, there’s only a year of coordinating experience here. But there’s plenty of proof that Joseph is ready for this. Dolphins head coach Adam Gase recognized it and backstopped Joseph with coordinator-to-be Matt Burke last year, an acknowledgement that Miami wouldn’t be able to hold on to Joseph for very long.
4. Healthy Patriots. I knew the Patriots were on the fortunate side of the injury ledger this year, but I hadn’t realized to what degree until long-time beat writer Mike Reiss pointed this out a couple weeks back: The team has just four (!) players currently on injured reserve. To put that in perspective, looking at the other seven teams still alive, the Seahawks have 16 guys on IR, the Texans have 13, the Steelers have 12, Chiefs have 10, the Falcons have nine, and the Packers and Cowboys have six each. A good piece of this, of course, is luck. Seahawks receiver Tyler Lockett, for example, broke his leg. There’s not a whole lot that Seattle could do about that ahead of time. And New England has had those. All-planet TE Rob Gronkowski did throw out his back again.
But I have to think that, at least in some way, the concerted effort the Patriots have made in 2016 to be more judicious about injuries (I wrote on that in October) played into all of this. To review, and as I understand it, Bill Belichick and the New England brass made a conscious decision, after finishing 2015 with 19 players on IR (nearly quintuple the current number), to manage guys differently in the early stages of the 2016 season. The overarching idea was to be as close to full strength as humanly possible going into the playoffs. So the Patriots went into every game in September and October with less than a full roster. On opening night they sat Gronkowski and left tackle Nate Solder. There were other points early on where they pulled back on the workload of Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. They’ve been careful bringing back Danny Amendola. And none of it is by mistake.
Of course, not every team can do this. The Pats have depth, and they have Tom Brady, which pretty consistently has meant you’re getting to double-digit wins and a division title regardless of how you manage the regular season. And that gives the team freedom to try things like this. Based on the result, this particular experiment worked.
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• It’s the playoffs and that means every story gets a little bit bigger, and so you can expect to hear more on Tyreek Hill, and his domestic case, as long as the Chiefs are still alive. Given that, I went back to talk to some scouts about what they thought of Hill in the run-up to the 2016 draft. The four I texted with each said Hill was off their board. As a player? One area scout explained that the questions weren’t just off the field. “He was hard to evaluate at West Alabama, because he didn’t do much, he was a spot player,” the scout said. “He had some returns for touchdowns but you didn’t see the same flash, burst and speed he had at Oklahoma State. I thought he was more of a project as a receiver who could be a gadget guy in the league.”
• Plenty of people—I’m raising my hand here—expected Thomas Rawls to move into the role Marshawn Lynch occupied for six seasons in Seattle this year. Because of injuries, it hasn’t really happened. But in lining up Rawls with the durable Lynch, it’s easy to see now how valuable having a bellcow running back is to Russell Wilson and the Seahawks’ offense. Rawls has gone for 100 yards twice this year. The first time was in a 40-6 obliteration of the Panthers. The second was in last Saturday night’s 26-6 pasting of the Lions. This week’s opponent, Atlanta, yielded 4.5 yards per carry this season. So it makes sense that getting Rawls going, and keep the rolling Atlanta offense off the field, gives the Seahawks their best chance to win.
• If I’m handicapping what’s left of the coaching openings … I think if San Francisco hires a head coach first and then a GM, Josh McDaniels is the favorite to be first in; and if it’s the other way around, I’d go with Eliot Wolf as GM … I think the Rams would love to get the next big thing, and I’m not being original (though I was when I started saying it) if I tell you that Sean McVay is that guy … I think San Diego wants an experienced, steady hand who’ll consider hanging on to the offensive staff, which leads me to believe it’ll be Mike Smith there, with Anthony Lynn being another possibility.
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TWO COLLEGE PLAYERS WHO HELPED THEMSELVES MONDAY
1. Clemson TE Jordan Leggett. If you watched the CFP title game Monday night, the outstretched catch Leggett made on the game-winning drive—setting up the Hunter Renfrow touchdown—isn’t one you’ll soon forget. And for the senior, that was the capper to a furious finish to the season that puts him square in the middle of a loaded tight end group. “When I [saw] him last year in the spring, I was intrigued by him, thought he was maybe a third-round tight end. And I was expecting a jump,” said one AFC scouting director. “And this year, you were disappointed watching him. The film was not good—he had one catch through three games, it looked like he was going through the motions. There was no urgency. And then he woke up. He made big-time catches in that game the other night and, obviously, everyone in the NFL was watching.” As it stands right now, Tide senior O.J. Howard seems to be the surest shot for the first round among tight ends, with Michigan’s Jake Butt (coming off an ACL tear), Ole Miss’ Evan Engram, Virginia Tech’s Bucky Hodges and Miami’s David Njoku among those jockeying for position behind him. Leggett’s late-season surge gives him a fighting chance to go in front of those guys, especially for teams looking for a Dennis Pitta-type move tight end.
2. Clemson DT Carlos Watkins. DeShaun Watson and Mike Williams were the playoff headliners for the champion Tigers, but it was Clemson’s freak show of a defensive line that set the tone for the team in its playoff wins over Ohio State and Alabama. Now, Watkins certainly isn’t the belle of this ball—true sophomore Christian Wilkins figures to go much higher in the 2018 draft than Watkins will this year, and true freshman Dexter Lawrence is a good bet to contend to be the first pick in 2019. But the 305-pound Watkins, a fifth-year senior, helped himself a bunch over the past two weeks. “Watkins probably played the most differently from how he was graded,” said one NFC college scouting director. “He played hard consistently. He’s big and strong and athletic, and he had all the traits all along, but he just wasn’t playing consistently early in the season.” Watkins sacked Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett twice and knocked down two of his throws in the semis, then registered six solo tackles against an imposing Tide line Monday. In doing so, he solidified his place inside the first two rounds in April. If he tests well, the outlook could be even brighter than that.
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If you were calling the Falcons soft back in 2012, even as Atlanta advanced to the NFC title game, rest assured that your complaints didn’t fall on deaf ears.
The team’s GM, Thomas Dimitroff, heard you. Even more important, he and then-coach Mike Smith agreed with you to a degree. And so they decided to hatch a new measure for the team’s system of player evaluation: the C/T grade. The “C” is for competitiveness, the “T” is for toughness, and as Dimitroff saw it then, those traits would become guiding principles for the Falcons program.
Two years later Dan Quinn was hired away from Pete Carroll’s competition-centric Seahawks, and the convergence of Dimitroff’s new emphasis and his new coach’s ethos married perfectly. In many ways it’s given birth to the Seattle East ethos that the Jaguars tried and failed to develop with Gus Bradley in charge.
And the proof will be out there in the Georgia Dome on Saturday, when Quinn’s crew tries to knock off his old boss’s bunch.
“There was a lot of discussion on our football team, whether we were too focused on athleticism and finesse, people questioned our toughness and our grit,” Dimitroff says now. “It wasn’t the media, it wasn’t that at all. We were looking at the team, and we were questioning. Are we too focused on the specifics of a player—i.e. their position specifics, their speed, their athleticism, the way they’re built?
“We were getting away from what we believed was at the very core a good football team. And so that became the price of entry, it starts with competitiveness and toughness. That’s where our starting point is. … The great thing is we’ve shifted into gear and we have a head coach who is one hundred percent into it.”
So here’s how it works. In both competitiveness and toughness, players are assigned a number grade, 1-9, as they are in all the traditional areas. In each category, there is a “yellow” area.
The Falcons will be tolerant of yellow grades in certain columns. But they made a decision when developing the C/T grade, Dimitroff says, that they’d have “no patience” for it in that one, because, as they see it, competitiveness and toughness aren’t learned traits.
“Both those things, can’t stress it enough, when we’re looking at a player, but a coach or a scout comes in and is like, ‘Yeah, but this guy’s just a hell of an athlete,’ and we sit there and see a 4 and a 5 C/T grade, meaning average, we’re not going there,” he says. “Or we’re trying not to go there. We’re going to be mindful to try and clear it up and see if there’s anything awry.
“But if we come away at the very end with a 4 and a 5 or a 4 and a 4, they’re not for us.”
Of course, these are intangible things and by nature difficult to judge. But when the Falcons started doing this, they were first grading their own players—whom they obviously knew better—and that helped develop the system.
The graders look for urgency and a willingness to play whistle-to-whistle in grading competitiveness. As for toughness, the evaluators are watching to see players fight through pain, battle through traffic when things get physical, and get up and fight when they’re knocked down.
Dimitroff called tailback Devonta Freeman the “epitome” of a player with a high C/T grade, and mentioned last year’s first-round pick Keanu Neal and big free-agent addition Alex Mack as examples of guys who personify it. But it’s been just as useful towards the bottom of the roster where it’s helped the team identify valuable pieces like reserve lineman Ben Garland.
At the core of this was a decision to prioritize something that all football people know is at the heart of the sport, and being rigid about making exceptions on it.
“We all can be swayed, and that has happened to us,” Dimitroff said. “Basically, we’re trying to limit the soft souls on our football team. We figured this was a way to do that. You can have players that come in that are really good, but if they don’t possess competitiveness and toughness, then we’re not playing the urgent type of football that we need to be playing. That’s where we were.”
And where they aren’t anymore.
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