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  • The deck was stacked against Dallas in Week 3, but players responded in a way previous Cowboys teams had not, bolstering the 2017 outlook
  • Other sections include: NFL owners discuss anthem mess; Giants should avoid big Odell Beckham contract; Jay Gruden’s Redskins riding high
By Albert Breer
September 28, 2017

It was only Week 3. We hear that from coaches who won last weekend. We hear it from players who lost last weekend. Just don’t apply it, this September, to the Cowboys. Monday night in Arizona meant more than that for them. You can count the reasons why.​

• First, there are the hovering legal machinations of the Ezekiel Elliott case, and the possibility that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals could send him to the sidelines for six games at any point.

• Second, the Cowboys were coming off a 42-17 blowout loss in Denver.

• Third, in aftermath of that loss, and for the first time as pros, Elliott and Dak Prescott—the Cowboys’ sophomore stars—were facing criticism for their on-field work.

• Fourth, the Cowboys’ recent history of handling prosperity has been shaky. The team’s 13-3 year of 2007 led into a circus of a 2008 season. Their playoff win of 2009 was the precursor for a 2010 meltdown that then-coach Wade Phillips didn’t survive. And the 12-4 campaign of 2014 fronted a disastrous 2015. So 2016 would lead into … what exactly?

• Fifth, the Cowboys had more time to mull the Donald Trump mess than anyone else, were among the seven teams with an owner who was a major Trump donor, and were one of two, joining the Cardinals, saddled with the responsibility of carrying the NFL’s final word for the weekend.

And then, with all that in play, Jason Garrett’s troops stumbled badly at the start, out-gained 140-3 in scrimmage yards by Arizona in the first quarter.

So yes, it was only Week 3. But roll it together, and this qualified as an early-season gut check in front of a national television audience. And you can now consider that particular test passed. Elliott and Prescott found their way, and Dallas outscored Arizona 28-10 and out-gained the Cardinals 270-192 the rest of the night en route to a 28-17 win. And now the Cowboys can turn their attention to the rest of the season.

“I just think it was a statement game, a big game for our football team,” Dallas COO Stephen Jones said Wednesday night. “Arizona’s a good football team, well thought of, well-coached. Monday Night Football. It could’ve easily gone the other way. But I give our whole team credit. They handled it like the professionals they are. Jason (Garrett) did a great job, the coaching staff—it was a big-time win for us.”

Dak Prescott and the Cowboys are off to a 2-1 start despite struggling in spots on both sides of the ball early in the season.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to look back and ahead at the anthem situation, while trying not to hit you over the head with it. We’ll also dive deep into the Giants’ Odell Beckham dilemma, the Jets’ rebuilding plan actually showing some signs of success, the Redskins’ survival of a tumultuous offseason and so much more.

But this week, fittingly, we’ll begin with America’s team, and why the Cowboys’ power brokers believe they won’t fall into that old familiar trap.

Start with the lessons they learned from studying all that went wrong the last time around, coming out of 2014. There are easy things to point to there. Tony Romo got hurt in 2015, and the Greg Hardy signing was a far-reaching disaster. But they also found a systemic issue that eventually helped them get through the Romo-to-Prescott transition in 2016.

“We dwelled too much on when people were going to get back and who was not there, rather than focusing on who’s playing right now, and counting on the people who are here,” Jones said. “I think that was probably true as an organization. (Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan) struggled a little bit to customize things, knowing we didn’t have Tony, but feeling like we were going to get Tony back. In general, that’s where we thought we came up short.”

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To change that, last season, the Cowboys looked to build resiliency into their program on every level—in the roster, the schemes, and into the ethos of the team. It showed up when Romo got hurt again. And through the early parts of 2017, it’s been every bit as valuable.

In 2015, things snowballed. Two years later, a group made of many of the same players was more equipped to take the kind of shiner the Broncos put on them, and keep the train moving. Internally, that part wasn’t really surprising. As Jones said, “Our team had confidence it was going to rebound.”

What was encouraging was that it was the two young faces of the franchises who were behind the wheel for the comeback. Elliott’s 30-yard run midway through the second quarter broke Dallas’ offensive funk, and Prescott’s scintillating somersault into the end zone represented the Cowboys’ first points. Those two, and the other 44 guys dressed for the game, never looked back.

“They answered the bell,” Jones said. “Obviously, Zeke in particular, he’d had a tough game, he’d been criticized all week. Zeke’s going through a lot. If you really try to put yourself in his shoes, what he’s been through, he’s not a human being if he doesn’t have some things weighing on him. He’s pretty much won and been successful everywhere he’s been. He hasn’t been in lopsided losses. He’s won and been the best player on the field.

“There’s no question he responded as a true pro. He got hit in the mouth early too, and responded. That running game wasn’t going early, and he kept firing at them. And Dak, I never worried about him, because I know what type of man he is.”

Now, it’s not like the 2-1 Cowboys are totally out of the woods. They get the resurgent Rams on Sunday at home, and the Packers, Redskins, Chiefs, Falcons and Eagles are all on the schedule between now and Thanksgiving. The offensive line is still getting its bearings after offseason transition at left guard and right tackle, and a lot of young guys are playing prominent roles on defense. But to those there, Monday was proof positive that this group is more ready for what’s in front of them than some of its more recent Cowboys predecessors.

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“You’re coming off not just a loss, but a lopsided loss, and you’re kind of checking your hole card there, and then you add the issues that all 32 deal with,” Jones said. “There’s no question, between coming off a loss, being on the road, the emotions that were involved in the weekend, you could see we obviously didn’t come right out responding. And we were able to hang in there, reload, re-gather. They had that mentality, that they were in a corner, and they had to fight their way out of the corner. And there’s no question they did.”

Now they just have to find a way to make it last.

In Week 4, the Falcons will encourage their fans to mimic the locked-arms look the team showed last Sunday during the national anthem.
Leon Halip/Getty Images

1. NFL owners had committee meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday in New York. They were scheduled before the anthem mess, but of course the topic came up, partly as a result of advertisers asking where things go from here. For now, those plans will be handled on a team-by-team basis. My understanding is that the Cowboys’ method—whole team kneeling linking arms, then standing in unison—came up in the context of this question: Is there a way we can allow for signs of unity and protest outside of the national anthem?

2. On that note, it will be interesting to see if the rest of the league follows the lead of the Packers (who play Thursday night) and Falcons (who play Sunday); both teams plan to lock arms for the national anthem and have asked their fans to do the same. Also, the Dolphins and Saints, set for a 9:30 a.m. ET kickoff in London, have a chance to set the tone for Sunday the way the Ravens and Jags did.

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3. Most teams were unified last week publicly, but there were difficult moments in Saturday night team meetings as players and coaches tried to plan for Sunday and also react as President Trump kept tweeting. “We all addressed it,” said one veteran over the phone, in the aftermath of one of these meetings, late Saturday night. “Whole team, and nothing much came of it.” There was one unintended benefit, though, and we’ll get to that in the next section, Four Downs.

4. The Ravens didn’t do a great job handling the London trip, admitted John Harbaugh, so you can toss a mulligan at what you saw Sunday. The real concern internally is the offensive line. Baltimore lost Ricky Wagner in March to Detroit, and starting guards Alex Lewis and Marshal Yanda to injury in August and September, leading to a lot of shuffling. All the attrition showed up against a fierce Jaguars front, and Baltimore knows it needs to be better there, particularly with a 30-something quarterback trying to get his rhythm after summer back issues.

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5. Speaking of the Jaguars, I’ll take a “we’ll see” on Blake Bortles for now (which is better than where we were a month ago), but I’m buying on their defense. Yannick Ngakoue, Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson and Dante Fowler can get after it up front, Myles Jack is improving quickly at linebacker, and Jalen Ramsey already is one of the NFL’s best defensive backs. All that investment on defense is finally paying off, and better work on conditioning, turnovers and special teams has factored in too.

6. Should be fun to see on Sunday morning whether the Saints’ improvement against Carolina was grounded in reality, after the team looked messy in Weeks 1 and 2. The New Orleans coaching staff saw, in Charlotte, a team that found a way to clean up its mental errors across the board, and play with better tempo on offense.

7. Replacing Darren Sproles in Philly won’t be a one-man operation, so here’s a fair expectation on where changes will come. I’d expect LeGarrette Blount to be less managed and more of a workhorse, with rookie Corey Clement taking on an increased share of the load. That combo will free up second-year dynamo Wendell Smallwood to take on the Sproles’ role in the offense.

8. No mistake that the Lions on Wednesday went out for practice in pads and hit. Detroit’s been able to cover up some fundamental issues with big plays over the season’s first three weeks, so the staff’s intention is to get blocking and tackling and ball-handling back where it needs to be.

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9. Mike Glennon will get the start for Chicago on Thursday night in Green Bay, but we’ll see how the greater plan to stick with him all year goes. A potential mitigating factor: The coaches now believe that Mitch Trubisky could be plenty functional in a regular-season game setting, which means one reason to stick with the vet (protecting Trubisky’s development) isn’t there like it was three months ago.

10. Seems as if some of the concerns the Panthers staff had over Cam Newton—before the opener, we mentioned that they were nervous since they hadn’t seen him let it rip yet – were warranted, as he works through some hesitancy with his repaired shoulder. It also contextualizes the Colts’ caution with Andrew Luck, who remains in a throwing and strength program, and could return to practice next week.

Odell Beckham Jr. was flagged for this touchdown celebration during the Giants’ loss to the Eagles in Week 3.
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

1. Beckham being Beckham. I’m gonna say something here that might not be very popular: Giants owner John Mara and GM Jerry Reese need to think long and hard before making the decision to break the bank on Odell Beckham Jr.. He’s a great player. No debate there. But this is more complicated, and the juxtaposition of how coach Ben McAdoo handled flags assessed to Eli Manning and Odell Beckham over the past two weeks provides the perfection explanation.

Two Mondays ago, Manning incurred a critical delay of game penalty in New York’s loss to Detroit, turning a fourth-and-2 into a fourth-and-7, and a gonna-go-for-it call into a field goal attempt. Afterwards, McAdoo called it “sloppy quarterback play.” In doing so, he spoke not necessarily to Manning but through him, in sending the message to Giants players that no one is above being called out. And that was great and all, until McAdoo cut Beckham the break he wouldn’t cut Manning six days later, after Beckham drew a 15-yard penalty Sunday for his fire-hydrant routine. McAdoo publicly wished people would focus on his star’s play rather than his antics. Beckham then made it worse by responding with this: “When I get in the end zone, I’m going to do what I’m going to do.” 

On Tuesday, I had a conversation with a scout who was assigned to LSU in 2014 when Beckham was coming out, and I asked if he was surprised to see this sort of defiance. His answer was interesting. “He wasn’t like this,” the scout said. “He was a typical receiver—he liked attention and he wanted the ball. He dressed flashy, liked to be at the club, liked having people around him. But when it came to football, he wasn’t like this. This has developed. It’s interesting, he had Jarvis Landry with him (at LSU), and Jarvis was the ultimate Alpha dog. Odell was the uber-talented athlete, Jarvis was the dog. And I think having that guy in the receiver room, in the same class as him, it kept him hungry and knowing when to draw that line, because he knew if he didn’t, he might not be the best receiver on his own team.”

And so I asked the scout what he’d do if he were the Giants, and his response was that unless there was real growth, he’d let Beckham walk. The reason? “His message there is basically, ‘I’m the best player on your team, and if you don’t let me act like this, watch out,’” he said. So can Beckham grow up? Absolutely, but this isn’t an isolated incident. Beckham was flippant after the boat controversy in January, and defiant (he actually retweeted people saying he didn’t need to listen to coaches) in missing the team’s offseason program in the spring. Pay him and, as a team, you’re implicitly rubber-stamping the behavior. And it becomes part of who you are as a team.

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2. Jets on the upswing. Who thought we’d be talking about the Jets in more glowing terms than the Giants before the end of September? Sure, there may be a little recency bias going here, since the Jets just whacked the Dolphins. But if you look closely, you’ll see their offseason moves are actually sort of working out.

Start with initial bloodletting, and look at those jettisoned. Brandon Marshall has 10 catches for 93 yards in three games with the Giants. Eric Decker has 10 catches for 91 yards with the Titans. David Harris has played seven total snaps for the Patriots. Ryan Fitzpatrick is backing up Jameis Winston in Tampa. Ryan Clady retired. And Nick Mangold and Darrelle Revis are without jobs. So two of those six guys are actually on the field for their new teams, and both are on the wrong side of 30 and not producing close to the level they once did. And yes, Sheldon Richardson’s been good in Seattle, but the Jets got a second-round pick and a receiver, in Jermaine Kearse, who’s been more productive than Marshall or Decker have been back for him.

Meanwhile, second-round pick Marcus Maye played every snap at safety against Miami, and next to him was sixth overall pick Jamal Adams, who had a sack, two tackles for losses, a pass defensed, and was all over the field in serving as the emotional hub for the defense. Second-year right tackle Brandon Shell has held up well against Khalil Mack and Cam Wake the past two weeks, and Shell’s classmate Leonard Williams has lived up to an already lofty rep. And young wideouts Robbie Anderson and ArDarius Stewart are taking some of those snaps vacated by Decker and Marshall, and made big plays against Miami.

Now the Jets are still a ways off from truly competing, and their record still is going to be really bad. But with an expected $80 million to spend in free agency next year, a likely high pick to get a quarterback, plus extra 2018 draft picks and a decent start on young talent, it’s not that hard to envision a way out of the hole they (intentionally) dug for themselves this season.

3. How Donald Trump built a bridge between the players and 345 Park that the league office couldn’t. We wrote in May about the concerted effort on the part of the NFL to rebuild the relationship between commissioner Roger Goodell and the players he governs. You know the background. Since the 2011 lockout, they’ve been dogs and cats. Gone are the days of Goodell helping to rehab the off-field lives of guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Vick and Pacman Jones. It its place is the distrust that brewed during Bountygate and Deflategate, and the string of domestic violence cases. And so several owners acknowledged to me, back in the spring, that this effort was underway.

“The commissioner has made an effort to do it,” Giants owner John Mara said. “Going around and meeting with them on the celebration rule, I think, is just one example. That’s important. We try to engage with them on the competition committee with the rules changes every year. We get good feedback and put a lot of that into effect. So I think that’s always important to do that, and I know Roger has made that a priority, and hopefully that’ll pay off for both sides in the end.” Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt added this: ““The benefit is making sure that the players feel like they have input. They’re as important to the success of the NFL as any of the teams are. And I think helping them feel like partners is important.”

Hunt and Mara and the rest of the owners knew it’d take time. The fight over Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was another example of how far they had to go, as was the recent rhetoric over a potential 2021 work stoppage. And the contract extension negotiations for Goodell and DeMaurice Smith also were signs of the sides spoiling for a fight. So who’d have thought that, of all people, it’d be President Donald Trump that united the league office, the team and the players.

Up until now, the Colin Kaepernick-inspired protests had been about racial equality to some, and the flag/anthem/military to others. For one Sunday, it was about a bunch of guys being backed into a corner, and sticking up for each other. I get that there are bigger issues at hand here, but there’s no need to pull a hamstring stretching to find anything negative in this for the league and the union. It simply was an act that showed a relatively unified front.

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4. Worth watching Big Ben? The Steelers’ stunning loss in Chicago killed plenty of goodwill built over the first two weeks, and led to age-related questions about Ben Roethlisberger for what I believe is the first time. He’s 35 now, and ruminated about retiring after last season, so that’s bound to happen. And to his credit, he shouldered the blame this week for what happened in Chicago.

“I didn't play well enough to win. We lost the game because of me, because I didn't play well enough,” he said to local reporters. “It's not on anyone else. That's how I felt, that's what you've got to do is you've got to own it. And I'll own it. If I play better in that game, I feel we win the game. If I play better in the first two weeks, then we're going to score more points and have a productive offense and we don't have to answer questions about why our offense isn't where it is.”

Where do the Steelers stand on this? As I understand it, Roethlisberger graded out fine in the team’s wins over the Browns and Vikings. In the loss to the Bears, he didn’t, and there were a number of slip-ups that were tough to swallow. One came on Akiem Hicks’ strip-sack—pressure came off the front side, and both receivers ran hot routes to give Roethlisberger two shots at an easy completion to move Pittsburgh into scoring range. Instead, Roethlisberger held the ball, which led to a fumble. That, of course, is correctable, but also not what you’d expect from a quarterback in his 14th season. We’ll see if he can clean that stuff up in Baltimore on Sunday.

Kirk Cousins and the Redskins are off to a 2-1 start to the season.
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Jay Gruden has been in Washington for four years, so he understands that coaching and playing there is a little different. And he knew what was coming with all the change over the past nine months. He has two new coordinators; Kirk Cousins lost two big-time receivers and didn’t get a long-term deal; and the franchise went through an ugly divorce with GM Scot McCloughan in March.

Perception was the circus is back in town. Gruden knew it, and he also knew what it would take to change it.

“People made more of the transition than we did,” Gruden said Wednesday from his office. “(After the changes), it was about getting to OTAs and training camp and just coaching football. And our guys have settled into their roles, practiced hard and diligently, worked hard. That's kind of the way it is around here. We try not to let the media affect the way that we prepare, that’s for sure.”

But that takes the right kind of player. And there’s our lesson for the week, and it applies to our Cowboys and Giants sections up top, too: Eventually the makeup of your team, for better or worse, will show up.

Gruden believes the Redskins’ makeup showed itself after the team’s season-opening loss to the Eagles. On the surface, that heartbreaking defeat seemed to confirm the overriding offseason narrative that the old Redskins were back. Instead, it just set the stage to reveal what was different about this group.

And that difference came by design. Gruden and the personnel department have stuck to a profile for the type of player they wanted in Washington, which happened to be the type of player that was equipped for Washington. That player, the coach explains, is competitive and loves football, and is undeterred by whatever might crop up around him.

“Let’s look at D.J. Swearinger for a second,” said Gruden, of the Skins’ new safety. “He’s been cut. He’s bounced around. He’s been talked bad about. And I saw a guy that improved tremendously from Year 1 to whatever it was his last year at Arizona. You can just see him continuing to get better, and he obviously handled some adversity in being released and let go. And that’s just one for instance.”

Swearinger, by the way, is now a captain, and not nearly the only example Gruden had for me.

“We draft Jonathan Allen, and there’s not one person that said one bad thing about him at Alabama, and then you watch him on tape and see what type of motor he has,” he said. “Same with Ryan Anderson. Take Josh Norman. Why’d we go out and get Josh Norman and give him all that money? Because he plays his a-- off, he’s covering, he’s tackling, he’s hitting, he’s forcing fumbles, he’s a playmaker.”

And Gruden kept cycling through names. Homegrown guys like linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith and Martrell Spaight. Veterans they’ve brought in like defensive linemen Ziggy Hood and Terrell McClain. A risk like linebacker Junior Gallette, whose passion for football led to the Redskins taking the leap of faith. And stories like linebacker Will Compton, who’s remained a leader despite losing his starting job.

“I’m looking at my board right now, and trying to say, ‘OK, this guy is a hunk of s---‘,” Gruden said, laughing. “And I don’t really have any. They’re all willing to give everything they have.”

All of this, Gruden says, showed up in Week 2, when the Redskins answered a Rams’ rally with a game-winning drive. It happened again last Sunday as Washington fought through a couple turnovers. And it was there in the team’s ability to remake itself on the fly with important figures like McCloughan, former offensive coordinator Sean McVay, and wide receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson now gone. It’s even there in Gruden’s approach to Cousins’ contract situation.

“He’s making $25 million. Poor guy, just so much to deal with,” Gruden joked. “He’s in a good place. Whatever happens here, he’s going to be a starting quarterback in the National Football League for many, many years. I think he just wants to come out and compete. We haven’t talked one time about the contract. It’s not like, ‘Hey you need to sign or I’ll bench you.’ Come on. We’re just trying to win games here.”

And to the surprise of many on the outside, but few on the inside, that’s actually happening now. “It’s a fun group to coach, man,” Gruden said. “You never say it’s easier, but it just makes it more pleasant to come to work, because I know I’m going to get the best out of these guys every day.”

Which, it turns out, is exactly what we all missed sorting through the rubble over the spring and summer.

 

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