We’re looking squarely at you, Jacksonville and Los Angeles (Rams) . . . plus, dropping CFL knowledge as Vince Young mounts his comeback and football books worth reading this off-season
1. Not exactly going out on a limb here, but I think Jared Goff will be the Rams’ Week 1 starter. That said, I also think there is more than simple coach-speak to Sean McVay’s declaration during a press conference this week that “whoever we feel like gives us the best chance is who’s going to play behind center.” Other than being selected at No. 1 overall, Goff did little last year to tattoo his name atop the depth chart. Forcing him to beat out Sean Mannion is the correct approach, no matter how poorly it reflects on Los Angeles’ aggressive move to trade up in last year’s draft.
Let’s also be honest about what happened around Goff in 2016: The Rams’ offense was a mess long before Goff even stepped into the huddle. Just take a look at what happened with other promising Rams’ talents during the Jeff Fisher era—Greg Robinson, Tavon Austin, even Todd Gurley to some extent—and it’s obvious that regime did little to put its offensive weapons in positions to succeed.
McVay’s arrival (and the implementation of his scheme) should help Goff improve. That does not mean McVay has to be Goff’s babysitter. If Mannion somehow manages to outplay Goff in the coming months, the Rams should explore their options.
2. I think I like the candid comments from Jacksonville linebacker Telvin Smith this week, who offered a pointed critique of his team: “Honestly, that’s why I said I’m ‘heated’—not because of the sun, not because of the weather, it’s just because of where we’re at as a team. With the players that we have, I just think we should be further than we are. . . . As players, we’ve got to do our part in the sense of it’s not scheme, none of that. It’s what do we want? What’s our mentality going to be? The mindset of this team, things that we should be using to beat opponents are still beating us.”
It’s quite a refreshing 180 from the “everyone’s working hard, we’re in the best shape of our lives, look at the pretty rainbow” remarks we usually hear this time of year. No need to use that quote to start building a case against Jaguars coach Doug Marrone, but this is perhaps the most pressing, non-Blake Bortles-related challenge Marrone’s staff faces: changing the status quo. Whenever a team has slumped for as long as Jacksonville has, the first steps toward improvement are erasing the bad habits of old and convincing everyone on the roster that success is possible.
3. Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I’m an unabashed supporter of the CFL. I think it’s competitive, entertaining football that helps fill the summer-months sports void. So I think I am all-in on Vince Young’s comeback attempt as a member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Consider it a bit of a long shot that he pulls this off—he hasn’t played in an NFL game since 2011 and his QBs coach, Jarious Jackson, offered this tongue-in-cheek assessment of how much Young has improved since signing: “A lot. We can get out of the huddle now.”
There is a path to playing time, if Young can get up to speed. The Roughriders (*cracks knuckles, drops CFL roster knowledge) traded away their former starting QB, Darian Durant, this off-season. Young currently sits behind well-traveled veteran Kevin Glenn, and alongside 2016 Cowboys UDFA signee Brandon Bridge and ex-North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams.
4. I think the Browns are closer to being competitive than a lot of people believe, and the extension they handed LB Christian Kirksey this week is another reason why. Despite its 1-15 record a season ago and a brewing clustercovfefe at the QB position, Cleveland has inched past the total-teardown portion of its rebuild and now is identifying players that can help for the long haul. Kirksey, a tackling machine against the run, fits that bill. Ditto guys like Jamie Collins, Joel Bitonio and Corey Coleman (if he can stay healthy). I doubt Cleveland wins more than three or four games this season—this is still a long-term project, and the schedule is not friendly—but progress should be evident.
5. The main reason I hope the NFL never adopts a 17- or 18-game regular-season schedule? I think it’s that I do not want the pros playing on Labor Day weekend, which I have come to love as the semi-official kickoff to the college football season. (There are a handful of NCAA games the prior Saturday now, but the Thursday before Labor Day is when it really gets rolling.) College football has figured out how to put its footprint all over that weekend, too, with games running Thursday-Monday, in NFL-esque fashion. It’s the perfect way to begin transitioning from summer to fall, and it allows college football to have the stage to itself before the NFL takes hold.
6. I think the Chargers are reeling me back in, again. There was a long stretch, from the Schottenheimer era through 2015, when I penciled them in as a playoff team just about every year. (The one year I skipped, 2013, they qualified.) I’m not quite ready to take that leap yet, given their spot in a very difficult AFC West, but they’ll be tough if they can keep all their key players on the field for once. I think between Joey Bosa’s dominance, signs of life from Melvin Gordon and its upgrades up front, it would not be a shock to see Los Angeles make a little noise in 2017.
7. Most people can pick out a good writer. A mark of a great writer, I think, is that he (or she) can make readers feel thoroughly invested about a topic in which they had little previous interest. With that in mind, allow me to join the long line of people remembering legendary journalist Frank Deford by offering up two of his pieces from SI: a 1981 article about a battle for the top spot in the women’s tennis rankings; and a 1987 feature on the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. I reread both this week. Mesmerizing writing.
8. On a semi-related topic, I usually spend time during each NFL off-season flipping back through a few of the books in my football library. Many of the titles I own can be found in Chris Brown’s recommended reading on his Smart Football website. I think a couple of my favorites are: Developing an Offensive Gameplan by Brian Billick and Complete Linebacking by Lou Tepper.
Another that I find myself flipping through often is 101 Pistol Run Plays by James Vint. I have a soft spot for the pistol formation, and a lot of the concepts included in Vint’s book are becoming more and more applicable to NFL schemes by the season. Teams with mobile QBs, such Tyrod Taylor in Buffalo or Colin Kaepernick when he was in San Francisco, have implemented pistol looks. But so, too, have the likes of Oakland, with Derek Carr. I’ll be curious to see if the Jaguars follow suit this year. Dropping Blake Bortles into the pistol on a regular basis could help split the difference between his comfort in the shotgun and Leonard Fournette’s ability flowing downhill.
9. I think just about everyone, like me, was sorry to see the news that ESPN has laid off John Clayton. Not long after I began working at Sports Illustrated, Liz Matthews, the former producer of John’s radio show in Seattle, reached out to ask if I would be a guest. I have covered the NFL for about a decade now, but that may have been the most intimidating experience of my career. Here was John Clayton, a renowned NFL insider, asking me for my opinion about the league’s latest news. It took everything in me not to finish my responses with, “Is that the right answer? What do you think, John?” I must have kept it together well enough, because I was invited back a couple more times. Thanks to John and Liz, who is now with USA Today’s The Seahawks Wire, for that opportunity. Beyond his outstanding work as a reporter, John is one of the most approachable people in this business. I wish him well in whatever comes next.
10. This is not a one-year thing: I think the NHL playoffs are always better than the NBA playoffs, and that’s just a scientific fact. Now, if either sport could figure out how to wrap its postseason so the players have longer than, like, a fortnight before training camp . . .
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