• After missing the playoffs for the first time in five seasons and watching two veterans walk away, Cincy coaches sent message to new group of leaders about 2017 expectations
  • Also in Albert Breer’s notebook: items on what the Jags should with Blake Bortles; how the Browns got creative at quarterback; the big battle looming between the NFL and NFLPA; and much more
By Albert Breer
August 24, 2017

CINCINNATI — The passing of the torch wasn’t literal, but the veteran Bengals players who were invited to Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse downtown—a short walk from Paul Brown Stadium—the night before camp didn’t need clarification on why they were there.

Marvin Lewis and his coordinators had them out for a reason. And the group, numbering more than 20 vets, knew before putting in their orders that it was as much about who wasn’t in attendance as about who was.

“There were a couple guys, Whit (tackle Andrew Whitworth), (Domata) Peko, that had been here 10-plus years, and those guys aren’t here anymore,” Andy Dalton said after a hot-and-humid session on the team’s stadium-adjacent practice fields. “So I think it was saying that the 2011 draft class, me, AJ (Green), Clint Boling, we’re now the older guys—or the younger older guys.”

It was more than just one draft class there that night, of course, and it’ll take more than just leadership for the Bengals to bounce back from their 6-9-1 swoon of 2016.

But the message Lewis and his staff wanted to send was received, loud and clear by a group made up mostly of players who missed the playoffs for the first time last year. It’s their team now. So getting back to that point where the biggest question was “when you will finally win a playoff game,” and then beyond that is up to them.

Andy Dalton is entering his seventh NFL season and has only missed three games due to injury in his career. He is 56-35-2 as a starting quarterback.
Gary Landers/AP

In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll explain a brewing problem over pain management and marijuana between the NFL and NFLPA; we’ll take you inside the Browns’ quarterback room; we’ll tell you why the Eagles should be the favorites to unseat the Cowboys in the NFC East; and we’ll take another spin around camps.

We’re starting, though, with a conversation I had with Lewis, and my recollection of another one he and I had a few years back as the Dalton/Green Bengals were on the rise. The coach, then, explained how so many coaches he knew went through a self-evaluation after they were fired, and changed as a result.

Hearing those peers, Lewis told me, prompted him to reset during the 2011 lockout, after a 4-12 season led to quarterback Carson Palmer’s early retirement. As Lewis explained it, he went through it as he’d been fired, reflecting on and shifting his program in the process. And it worked—the Bengals drafted Dalton and Green, dealt Palmer, and made the first of five straight playoff appearances the following fall.

Cincinnati Bengals: 10 Things You Need to Know

So the big thing on my mind when I got to Lewis’ office earlier this month was whether or not he went through a similar reboot as a result of last year. That pre-camp dinner, as it turned out, set into motion a smaller-scaled version of it.

“They have to understand: You have to take control, you have to take over,” Lewis said of the dinner attendees. “Again, that group of guys, a year ago it’s 14 (vets), now it’s 20-something, that are at that point of their career. These guys have grown up. Now, they’re the leaders of the group, that group of players who’d never not gone to the playoffs.

“And that’s the thing, there are only five guys in this building who were there before then. That’s the great part of it. The rest of the group came in ’11 and ’12.”

And that brings you to what actually needs to be different from last year, rather than just what Whitworth’s departure to Los Angeles and Peko’s to Denver necessitated.

Here’s the simple answer that Lewis gave me, in explaining the difference between 2016 and the five years prior: “We didn’t make any plays.” If that sounds vague, the proof was clear on the scoreboard. The Bengals were 22-14-1 in one-possession games from 2011-15, and at least .500 in such circumstances in each of those individual seasons. Last year? Cincinnati was 1-5-1 in one-possession contests.

“Whether we missed a field goal, PAT, not scoring, or it was not stopping them from scoring, it’s plain and simple,” Lewis said. “We did a lot of things great. We were second in the league in penalties, we were top five in turnover differential, so things that make teams get beat, we didn’t have those issues. We had no issues socially. None. And yet, we didn’t make enough plays to win games.”

There are a couple ways the Bengals have addressed that. First, there was an effort to get younger and more athletic in some key spots—the drafting of speed merchant John Ross and versatile back Joe Mixon being prime examples. Second, the coaches have worked to put a scoreboard on everything in practice, to manufacture more game-like situations.

In fact, at the end of every camp day’s work, either the offense or defense was declared the day’s winner, and the loser had to go sign autographs. “And they have fun with that,” explains Lewis. “It’s, Hey coach, defense needs to go sign today because we beat their asses.”

Part and parcel to the integration of younger players in the lineup and ramped-up competition has been a more intense, physical camp. It’s needed too with a number of young guys walking into pivotal roles. One example is the progress tackles Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi need to make. Another would be the experience 2016 draft picks—and de facto redshirts—William Jackson (cornerback) and Andrew Billings (defensive tackle) have to get.

“I had a player walk in here the other day and say, ‘I really think I need the day off today.’ And I sent him out the door,” Lewis said. “We’re not doing that. Your coach will take care of you, I’ll make sure he does. But I want everyone suited up unless you physically can’t. That’s a better way for this football team. …

“We have been more physical in practice because we have younger guys. We have to reteach guys. I didn’t have to teach Whit how to be physical, or Peko how to be physical. But now we’ve got some new guys, some younger guys, and we have to reteach that.”

It’s even been apparent in the play-calling in Cincinnati’s first two preseason games—the team has an even 17-17 run/pass split in the 34 snaps Dalton’s played.

Now, globally, this isn’t quite the overhaul that Lewis oversaw during those lockout months. That was almost a cultural change. This is more of a system reset.

Building an NFL Expansion Team

And now in his 15th season at the helm, and headed into a contract year as the NFL’s second most tenured coach, Lewis knows the importance of keeping the foundation of what he’s built in good standing—and that standing still doesn’t work.

“People always think you’re this close or in position to do this, and there’s more to it than that,” Lewis said. “You have to have graduation from here. … For instance, with (Whitworth), you don’t expect it, and it happens, you have to be prepared for it. Any time, whether it was Andrew deciding he doesn’t want to play anymore or whatever, that was always a possibility. So we’ve been prepared.

“And you have to prepare for those times all the time. Obviously our season wasn’t what we wanted last year. That just heightens everyone’s awareness, that we have to change and be better.”

So the Bengals have changed, for sure, and soon enough we’ll see it’s for the better.


In three years as the Jaguars starter, Blake Bortles’ completion rate has never topped 59 percent for a season.
Phelan M. Ebenhack

1. If the Jaguars are going with Chad Henne—and with the decision to start him Thursday night, it’s trending that way—they might be best off just cutting Blake Bortles. If he goes in as the backup, in an emergency situation, that puts his $19.05 million injury guarantee in 2018 in play. And keeping him around as a game day inactive makes no sense. Why did the Redskins do that with Robert Griffin III in 2015? It was a concession to owner Dan Snyder and president Bruce Allen in making the move to start Kirk Cousins. They, of course, mitigated the injury risk by dressing Colt McCoy, rather than Griffin, as backup to Cousins.

Blake Bortles: Bound for the Bench

2. Broncos coach Vance Joseph told me in May that decision-making would be the primary quality that would decide the starting quarterback debate. And he was true to his word there in picking Trevor Siemian. But make no mistake, this one wasn’t close. Siemian was clearly the better option. And so now Paxton Lynch becomes the third first-round quarterback since 2008, joining Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel, to fail to win his team’s starting job by the start of his second year.

3. File away this name: Desmond King. He was one of the Big 10’s best defensive backs the past couple years at Iowa, but fell in the draft to the fifth round because his testing numbers were average. By the time the Chargers broke camp, the safety had impressed his coaches to the point where it’s a good bet he’ll play a big role in the fall.

4. Speaking of rookie defensive backs, the Cowboys figure to be relying on two of them—Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis—to mitigate the veteran losses they suffered in March in the secondary. Both have been good, but hamstring issues have robbed each of reps. And that’s not great, given the defense might have to be a little bit better early with the offense missing Ezekiel Elliott.

5. The impact Colin Kaepernick has made with his million-dollar pledge is undeniable. But I haven’t moved off the points I made in June. This isn’t a black-balling, and the decline of his football value is a big reason why his protest has made him hard for teams to sign. What teams are willing to absorb for the third or fourth best player on the roster is different than what they’ll absorb for the 30th or 40th player on the roster. And, again, he’d help himself by talking.

6. On Aug. 3, the Dolphins lost both QB Ryan Tannehill and guard Ted Larsen, and so it’d have been easy to for the team to bring a Chicken Little attitude to practice on Aug. 4. Instead, Miami had one of its best days of camp. The coaches took notice. And they’ll remember it if the season goes as they hope.

7. If the Saints are going to turn it around defensively, finally, then they’re going to need their first two draft picks, corner Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams, to play big roles in that effort. Early indications are good on that.

8. We knew the rookie running back class had loads of potential, and we’ve seen all of that this summer. Maybe most impressive, though, is its depth. To that end, here’s a fun name to watch—Bears running back Tarik Cohen. At 5'6", 179 pounds, he has a little Darren Sproles (who GM Ryan Pace knows well) in him.

9. Like my boss, I have trouble mustering anger over the low hit from Briean Boddy-Calhoun that nicked up Odell Beckham. The NFL made a choice to allow those shots, rather than high hits to the head, and so defensive players only have so many ways to take down opponents. It’s football. And I wonder if people would be so angry if it was someone with a lower profile than Beckham going down.

10. Roger Goodell’s looming five-year extension should surprise no one. Pete Rozelle, a PR guy, was made commish when the league needed promotion. Paul Tagliabue, a lawyer, became boss when labor strife was at a fever pitch. And Goodell, a master at creating new revenue streams, won the job when guys like Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft wanted to grow the financial pie. Bottom line: If Goodell keeps doing that, he’ll remain in good standing in ownership circles.

Rookie DeShone Kizer has the inside track on winning the Browns starting quarterback job for Week 1 of the regular season.
David Richard/AP

1. Browns in business at quarterback. No matter what Cleveland coach Hue Jackson decides to do at quarterback—and DeShone Kizer certainly appears to have the inside track to the starting job—there’s little question that the Browns have been thrilled by how that room has come together, considering the middling investment the team made at the position. Why? Well, to put it bluntly, both Kizer and Brock Osweiler came with checkered reputations, and each guy put to rest quickly all the concerns the Browns may have had.

Creativity from Sashi Brown and the front office had the Texans actually paying Cleveland a toll to take Osweiler, which was a sign of just how quickly the quarterback’s relationship with the staff and the organization in Houston had rotted. So the concern, and a reason why there was a chance that Cleveland would just release Osweiler in the spring (even with the money owed), was how he would respond to the tough love approach of Jackson and his staff. As it turns out, he’s been great in that regard, and that’s something that stands to help him get another shot elsewhere, should Kizer seize his opportunity Saturday night.

As for Kizer, his slump of a redshirt sophomore year and his Notre Dame team’s 4-8 record certainly were a big part of his plummet from prospective Top 5 pick to 52nd overall between last fall and draft weekend. But another piece was how word spread in the scouting community that he was spoiled and entitled, and that explained the rocky relationship he had with Brian Kelly and the Irish coaching staff. The feeling was that he had a lot of growing up to do. Well … either those concerns were overblown, or Kizer has matured after his fall down the board in April. Either way, he proved himself as early as May to be: A) the most talented quarterback on Cleveland’s roster, and B) a pretty good kid. That put him in position to compete for the job, and now he’s in a spot to win it.

Maybe the Browns don’t have the long-term quarterback that Brown and Jackson are going to hitch their wagons on the roster, and maybe they’ll be looking at Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen next spring. But the fact that there’s even a chance they might not have to is a great development, and there’s no question the situation they’re staring at now is a lot better than the one they were sorting through in early March. And because they handled it this way, they’ve got Myles Garrett to boot.

Will DeShone Kizer Step Up and Take the Starting QB Job? Browns About to Find Out

2. Eagles’ fortified along the lines. There has been lots of chatter in Philly about the skill positions and secondary, and certainly there are questions for the Eagles to answer in those areas. (Getting the most out of Alshon Jeffrey and Ronald Darby would be a good start to that.) But I’m becoming convinced they’ll be able to manage those because they’re strong in more important areas. And not just at quarterback, where fledging 24-year-old Carson Wentz may be on the edge of stardom. The reason I’d be optimistic on the Eagles is a little harder to see on the surface—I think they’ll be able to stand up to anyone at the line of scrimmage.

The trade of Matt Tobin to Seattle this week was an implicit signal of their confidence in the quality and depth of the offensive front, particularly with Lane Johnson (health permitting) set to be back in the lineup for a full season. And the sense I’ve gotten coming out of their camp is that the defensive line should be a lot better, which is significant considering how Jim Schwartz’s scheme, which is simple in an effort to get guys playing fast, relies on the linemen to disrupt both the running game and the passing game. Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry and Fletcher Cox are back, and there’s confidence that incoming vet Timmy Jernigan and rookie Derek Barnett can dial it up a notch in replacing, as a practical matter, Bennie Logan and Connor Barwin on the roster.

Jernigan, who arrived via trade from Baltimore, will be deployed in an attacking, up-field way closer to what made him a star at Florida State. And Barnett is polished for a rookie—he played a lot of productive football in the SEC—and has taken quickly to Schwartz’s defense. The idea, for both, will be to take advantage of the one-on-one matchups that attention for Cox and Graham should generate. If that happens, and the Philly D-line shouldn’t be far off from where the O-line will be performance-wise. And being that good on both fronts (like Dallas last year) is a pretty good place for any team to lay its foundation.

3. The good kind of pressure. I love Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s answer when he was asked about guys feeling pressure to make the roster this time of year. Here it is:

“There is pressure this week. There is going to be pressure in October. There is going to be pressure in November. We're going to be under stress all year every week. We're going to be under stress out on the field every week against every opponent. Playing in the National Football League, that’s what you sign up for. If you're looking for vacation weeks and weeks off where we play some Division 4 team and all of that, that doesn’t happen in this league. There is stress every week. So is there stress in training camp? Yeah, there is plenty of it. There is stress on the coaching staff to get the team ready, to pick the right players. There is stress on each player to establish his role, or to make the team or play for playing time, whatever it is. There is stress on everybody and there is stress on every team. We're not in any different situation than any other team in the league is and every player on every one of those teams is having the same thoughts that our players are having, I’m sure. One way or the other, either the guys who think they're on the team are trying to get ready to have a good year, and there are a lot of guys who aren’t sure whether they’re on or they’re not or what their role is, and there are a lot of coaches who don’t know the answer to that question either. We're trying to figure it out, so there is no right answer. At this point it’s still a process. But there is pressure every week in this league. If there’s too much pressure in August, it’s probably going to be too much pressure in November. This is the world we live in.”

Want know why it makes sense for Hue Jackson to start DeShone Kizer on Saturday? Why the Bears might want to check out Mitch Trubisky with the first team on Sunday? It’s easy. Play those guys and see how they compete with a one-off shot at playing time. If they can’t handle it, like Belichick intimated, it probably isn’t a good sign on how they’ll handle October or November as a starting quarterback.

4. Offensive linemen at a premium. In the spring, we detailed the 2017 draft class’s offensive line issue—and for the first time ever, not a single offensive lineman went in the first 15 picks. Two weeks ago, we explained how many teams’ seasons figured to swing on how their offensive lines come together. And now we can give you proof on how the league’s big burgeoning problem in developing players at those positions has affected the NFL’s economics.

On Wednesday, Raiders tackle Donald Penn reported to camp with the hope that he’d be able to work out a new deal with the team after a four-week holdout. He was just one of four players to stage a true holdout (under contract and didn’t report for mandatory duty) this summer. Three of the four—now retired OT Branden Albert, Texans OT Duane Brown and Penn—are offensive linemen. The fourth, Rams DL Aaron Donald, is probably one of the top 10 players in football.

What does that tell you? The really proficient O-linemen now have leverage, because: 1) they bring great value (remember who they protect), and 2) there’s a scarcity of them. Just think about it. You can follow the money trail. The lackluster draft class led to Denver washout Russell Okung getting $13 million per with the Chargers, Vikings semi-bust Matt Kalil getting $11 million per in Carolina, and Mike Remmers, a liability at left tackle in Carolina last year, getting $6 million per to return to his natural right tackle spot in Minnesota. Albert, Brown and Penn, all in their 30s, saw that, could see the depth issues on their own teams, and took their shot.

I think Penn’s got a good chance at cashing in as a result. The Texans have maintained Brown won’t get a bump, but we’ll see what happens. And Albert made a run at it before deciding (for now) to hang ’em up. The commonality? All three are leveraging an NFL problem to which there’s no foreseeable fix. 

Pain management for players figures to be a hotly debated topic in the next NFL-NFLPA negotiation.
AP File

The issue of how recreational marijuana should be sanctioned and how medicinal marijuana fits into the football painkiller lexicon has been much discussed over the past half-decade. And so it was that the NFL reached out to the NFLPA on July 6 to explore spending a piece of their “joint contribution amount” on studying the drug and how it should be treated in pain management.

Would you be surprised to hear that this just became the stage for their next fight?

The MMQB has obtained the correspondence between the two sides—comprised of four letters, two from NFL general counsel Jeff Pash to the PA, and two from union lawyer Ned Ehrlich back to Pash—and it’s largely what you’d expect. Last week, we said if you give these guys a walking-on-eggshells topic (like domestic violence) then these guys will just fight on the eggshells, and this is more proof of it.

And that is on the heels of comments made by union president/Bengals tackle Eric Winston on the potential damage another work stoppage could do. (Though I’ll agree with Pro Football Talk in that Winston’s “dies out in 20 years” quote was blown way out of proportion.)

But it’s still important, and there’s a lesson in here to be learned. That lesson is this: While the public has focused on the issue of traumatic brain injury and CTE, there’s another topic out there that’s just as important and potentially scary, and that’s how painkillers are affecting the NFL.

In the letters, the NFLPA responded to the NFL’s inquiry on doing more research by asking for comprehensive data on how teams are distributing painkillers to players. The NFL declined to furnish the NFLPA with that data.

The NFL Is a Booming Business Despite Growing Concerns Over Brain Trauma

“The request for prescription drug information in the last paragraph of your letter overlaps with the request for information sought in the NFLPA’s pending grievance on the subject,” Pash wrote. “To the extent that the grievance is pursued, we feel that it would be more appropriate to follow applicable procedures regarding discovery on these matters.”

Ehrlich’s responses said the union was “disappointed” and would pursue “all avenues to obtain this information.” And that’s where it was when I sat down with union chief DeMaurice Smith earlier this month. We’ll be rolling out a podcast of our full talk soon, but I can give you the overarching theme from that part of the discussion here pretty simply.

This isn’t going away. Why? A few of my takeaways:

1. The union will examine medical marijuana only as a piece of pain management. Smith at least seemed to imply the former is being used as a red herring to avoid confronting the latter. “I was thrilled to see the league interested in conversation about medical marijuana,” he said. “But based on the letters we wrote back to them, that’s looking at one issue as part of a much larger issue. I don’t know why the league’s chief medical officer would myopically focus on marijuana and not focus on the issue of chronic pain.”

2. As for change in the policy surrounding marijuana, Smith swore he wouldn’t be giving anything back if the league loosens the rules. I know there’s been the assumption the NFL could dangle marijuana in an effort to get something back. I asked Smith a few times about this. His position didn’t budge. “There’s not going to be a horse trade,” he said. “We’ve looked at the health and safety of our players in a zero-sum prism. I would no more engage in a discussion of stadium credits and marijuana than I would engage in a discussion on stadium credits and field safety or stadium credits and neutral sideline concussion experts. The minute you go down that road? You’re horse trading the health and safety of our players.” That would also imply that changing attitudes haven’t made recreational use a huge priority for the union.

3. Litigation is being considered. Smith circled back a couple times to accessing the information he asked for through the courts, which is something Pash referenced in his letter back to the union. “Dr. (Lawrence) Brown, who is our joint administrator of the drug program, so far has refused our request to turn that information to us,” Smith said. “And we believe that since we pay him and he’s our employee, he doesn’t have the right to turn to the NFL and ask their permission to abide by his contract with us. If that doesn’t get resolved, are we going to sue him over that issue? Most likely.”

4. The union has sought outside opinions in the area of pain management. Says Smith, “What does toradol do to your liver? Does it exacerbate brain bleeds? What’s the impact of taking multiple shots of these painkillers over multiple seasons or multiple weeks? Those are the issues, it seems to me, that we should be looking at in a macro way. The complaint that was unsealed out of California talked about literally thousands of doses of toradol and other painkillers being issued to players over a three-month period. When we sit down with doctors and experts in the field of opioids and pain treatment, and show them those numbers, they’re horrified. So to me the issue then becomes how dedicated are you too look at the macro issue.”

For its part, the league says its effort to reach out on medical marijuana was a result of four months of waiting—following Smith telling USA Today in March that the union was working to a proposal for changes that would reposition marijuana as a player health-and-safety issue.

NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart added that players have 365-day access to their own medical records, and so the union could’ve compiled the requested data on its own; and that the union was offered the data but was unwilling to sign a confidentiality agreement, choosing instead to file the aforementioned grievance. Also, Lockhart said there’s a meeting on the books for the coming weeks between its medical officials and those from the PA.

Based on all this, it seems like that one could get pretty heated. If it actually happens at all.

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