- After offseason shoulder surgery, a rough start to the season and controversial comments last week, Cam Newton can finally get back to football and only football, just in time for a huge Thursday night matchup.
- Plus, Jerry Jones’ message to Cowboys players, Tom Brady’s shoulder and would the Jaguars make an in-season run at a veteran QB?
Tonight, the Panthers can get on with 2017.
The early offseason was about diagnosing the 2016 collapse. The spring was about Cam Newton’s shoulder surgery. The summer was about the bizarrely timed firing of GM Dave Gettleman. September was about Newton finding his stride. And just as Newton got there, with Carolina’s upset of the Patriots in Foxborough, last week became about the quarterback and his sexist comments to Charlotte Observer reporter Jourdan Rodrigue.
Finally, it feels like tonight will be about football—and just football—for Ron Rivera’s group. The 4-1 Panthers host the 4-1 Eagles in the best Thursday night matchup we’ve gotten this season, and one that could wind up affecting playoff seeding two-and-a-half months from now.
“I’d like to think if we can weather those types of storms, handle those kinds of situations, we’re gonna be O.K.,” Rivera said over the phone on Wednesday afternoon, with a little more 24 hours left until kickoff. “That’s what I’d like to believe. I like our guys’ mentality, I like the locker room.”
But it sure has taken the Panthers a while to get to this point—and that, like so many other things in Charlotte over the last seven years, has been centered on getting Newton right. The hope now is that they have the Cam 2.0 that they’ve been building toward.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll kick the tires on the idea that the Jaguars could trade for a veteran quarterback, we’ll look at the mayhem in the Meadowlands, we’ll check in on the Cowboys’ handling of the anthem guidelines that Jerry Jones has set, we’ll explain why the Browns benched DeShone Kizer, and we’ll look deeper at the Chargers’ problems in Los Angeles.
We start, though, with Newton’s pivotal calendar year, and how the Panthers’ vision of a slightly altered version of their franchise QB—a more sustainable version—has come to life. And yes, Newton’s March surgery is a big part of this, but the plan was set into motion well before then, and it’s actually one you’ve seen before.
“The model is Pittsburgh,” Rivera said, referencing Ben Roethlisberger’s growth a half-decade ago. “Look what they do with [Le’Veon] Bell, look what they do with [Antonio] Brown, it’s about getting the ball in the hands of the playmakers as quickly as possible. And you gotta put those guys in position.
“We’d looked at different things that were going on in the league and schemes and different philosophies and ideas—that’s the one we kept drawing back to, get the ball into somebody else’s hands quickly.” For the most part, the aforementioned Steelers plan, which was put in motion by coordinator Todd Haley in 2012, has worked to make Roethlisberger less of a power forward, making throws with guys draped all over him, and more of a point guard, facilitating for others. It makes sense as a blueprint since the Steelers QB played a style like Newton’s, willing to hold the ball and take hits early in his career.
But before carrying it out, the Panthers had to get Newton healthy, and that didn’t happen overnight. The idea of the shoulder surgery he underwent was to make him right not for the next year, but for the next decade—they knew going in they might need to be patient. While Carolina brought Newton back for the start of camp, he did have a setback and at one point was shut down for almost a week. His throwing schedule, and the fact that he threw just two passes in preseason games, made it so the coaches had no idea what he’d look like when he had to let it rip—since doctor’s orders prevented him from really letting it rip in practice—in the opener in San Francisco.
And even after that win over the Niners (Newton was up and down in that one), Carolina had to be careful with him. One week he threw on Wednesday and Friday and was off Thursday. Another, he was off Wednesday and threw Thursday and Friday. Another still he was off Wednesday and throwing light on Thursday.
“It’s like with a baseball pitcher,” Rivera said. “The thing everybody forgets with a pitcher, what happens when they have these problems? Well, you send them down, they go down to the minors for two, three weeks, you get them built back up, and then you bring them back to the majors. We don’t have that luxury, and we didn’t have the true training camp [with Newton] that we would’ve liked to.”
So where the Panthers wanted to work on reprogramming Newton, they couldn’t. And when they wanted to build timing between him and new left tackle Matt Kalil, or him and rookie Christian McCaffrey—the Swiss Army knife drafted to provide those easy completions-turned-big gains—they didn’t always get the reps they needed for it.
That explained why Newton was, in the staff’s eyes, uneven through the first four weeks of the season. It should also illustrate why the New England game was his breakthrough—that was the first week he threw in full during all three days of practice, and led to Newton’s freakish ability flashing again. Against the Patriots, he uncorked one throw from the left hashmark to the right sideline that made Rivera say, as he recalls, O.K., I like what I just saw. Then, against the Lions last week, there was a 31-yard bucket throw to Kelvin Benjamin for a touchdown, made flat-footed, that had Rivera thinking, He’s almost there, he’s almost all the way back.
“He’s probably at 90, 95% right now,” Rivera said. “And I’ll take that with this guy, because this guy is tremendous. The big thing is, timing is so important, [but] building that feel and relationship with your teammates, it’s so important.”
The Panthers can see that coming, too, with Newton hitting a half-dozen receivers in the road wins over New England and Detroit, and hitting each of those six guys multiple times against the Lions. Even better, he’s shown a willingness to dump the ball off. His flip to Fozzy Whitaker on a double-screen against New England, with the defense flowing to McCaffrey and vacating the left side of the field, is a great example of it. He threw the ball probably seven yards in the air; it wound up as a 28-yard touchdown.
“I think he’s learned,” Rivera said. “He still throws those deep digs, he still throws those bang 8s, those deeps outs, and he still throws the vertical. But in between, he’s getting the ball into other players’ hands quicker. And he’s limiting the number of hits he has to take.
“That’s the thing he’s learned, that’s the thing I think he appreciates. I mean, he had a huge day [in Detroit], but it wasn’t like he had to sit there and run the ball. It wasn’t like he had to sit there in the pocket and hold, hold, hold. The ball came out.”
And the hope has been, along with changes on the field, there’d be growth off the field too. Last week gave Newton a test on that count. How the 27-year-old handled the aftermath got Rivera’s attention. Newton showed up to work the next day, last Thursday, locked in mentally, practiced well, then issued his apology after all the work was done.
“He’s had to deal with more than most people deal with in their entire career,” Rivera said. “Some of it’s happened naturally. Some of it, he’s brought on himself. But he’s tried to be that guy who says, O.K., I can compartmentalize it, and I can do football when I have to do football. It’s what I say to the guys: Be where your feet are. Last week he epitomized that as well as you can.”
So now that story is gone, Newton’s healthy, and the offense is geared to help him take the next step. And the Panthers can turn the page on all this, starting tonight.
1. Jerry’s message to his players. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has always valued his relationships inside the Dallas locker room. That’s why the Wednesday afternoon meeting he held with the players was an important one, in the wake of his comments Sunday that any Cowboy who didn’t stand for the national anthem wouldn’t play. I can’t tell you how every player received the message, but I can say that the content of the message, as I’ve heard it, is consistent with who Jones has always been: the ultimate businessman and deal broker. Basically, Jones explained to Cowboys players how far the league has come as a money-making entity since he bought the team 28 years ago, and emphasized that more 90% of the audience driving that income never attends a single game, watching instead on TV. The President, Jones continued, is targeting that audience, and continuing the fight, as he sees it, will only make things worse.
Jones then, I’m told, advocated different ways that the league and players could work together to create social change. One idea was using NFL Network and league’s broadcast partnerships to promote the messages players are trying to send. Another was one we’ve heard, that teams and the league could fund boots-on-the-ground work in individual communities. And the overarching idea here is pretty obvious: Jones doesn’t see the sense in taking hits from a business standpoint when meaningful work can be done without incurring that damage. Jones also told players that, by saying they had to stand, he was trying to take the burden of that decision off their shoulders. And I’m sure we’ll hear a similar tone from Jones next week in New York. What Jones said to the team, on its face, carries some logic since players and owners are so linked businesswise (players literally get a percentage of what the owners make). But this is a deeply emotional issue, and how it plays out is awfully unpredictable.
2. Browns give Kizer a break. Hue Jackson’s call to go with Kevin Hogan this week might look scattershot on the surface, but it’s being done with good reason. What the staff saw last week, and the last couple weeks, was a rookie quarterback who was clearly carrying the burden of all the bumps he hit in his first five NFL games. If we’re being blunt about it, the talent around Kizer isn’t great. Cleveland’s skill group is still a work in progress, and as a result coaches saw Kizer pressing to do more to lift the guys around him, something that no rookie quarterback is ready to do.
Two examples stuck out in the Jets game, and both cost the Browns points. The first was on a third-and-goal from the Jets’ 3. Kizer ran an option to the left side, and tried to outrun the defense to the sideline, then missed Isaiah Crowell with his pitch. Had he run it as called, the film showed he could’ve drawn the defense in, then pitched it to Crowell for an easy touchdown. The second came at the end of the first half, on a third-and-3 from the Jets’ 4. Kizer rolled right and hesitated just long enough for Jets rookie Marcus Maye to undercut tight end Seth DeValve and pick the quarterback off at the goal line. In both cases the effort to do too much hurt the team, and that habit can lead to a player regressing.
So rather than watch Kizer go into the kind of rut in which he spent most of his last year at Notre Dame, Browns coaches figured the best thing to do was give him a breather and let him evaluate the good and bad of the beginning of his NFL career. In the meantime, Hogan—a 2016 fifth-round pick of the Chiefs whom the Browns signed in September of last year, after he was cut—gets his look, and Cleveland will keep evaluating both young quarterbacks. And there’s still a chance Cleveland takes another QB high in the 2018 draft. Now, I do know the Browns see Kizer as having a future in Cleveland, and my sense is he’ll get another shot—Jackson said Wednesday at his presser that this is a week-to-week thing. But the other thing I’m sure of is that the team’s future at the position remains wide open.
3. The Chargers’ frustrations. No one needs to feel bad for the Chargers. They chose to leave San Diego, where they had a half-century legacy, to try and be the second team into a gigantic market that showed few signs it could support two NFL franchises. Their choice. But now that they’re there, it’s incumbent on the league to help them make it work—and there’s a pretty significant area where, at least as I understand it, that’s not happening. The Chargers’ ratings haven’t been good, but the last two weeks they’ve been made worse by broadcast rules that have strangled their ability to rope in drive-by viewers.
Here’s the deal: In L.A., there are weekends when Fox gets the doubleheader and weekends when CBS gets the doubleheader. Two weeks ago CBS had it. The problem was that both the Rams and Chargers were on Fox. So Fox was forced to choose, and chose Rams/Cowboys on Channel 11 over Eagles/Chargers. As a result the Chargers game was moved to the KPOC, the former UPN affiliate known as My13. A week later, a similar problem arose with CBS having the rights to both Rams/Seahawks (an NFC game cross-flexed to ensure that Packers/Cowboys would air in L.A.) and Chargers/Giants on a Fox doubleheader weekend. CBS chose to put the former on its affiliate, Channel 2, and pushed the Chargers over to KCAL9.
The issue with all this is that L.A. viewers have been conditioned forever to watch the NFL over the air on Channel 2 and Channel 11, and that left a large number of people without any clue that the Chargers were even on TV. Predictably, the ratings were dreadful, especially for last Sunday, when the call was made late to accommodate the Cowboys’ broadcast. Again, I’m not crying for the Chargers. They knew the challenge they were facing. I’m just wondering why making L.A. work for them hasn’t been a higher priority for the league and the networks in this particular case.
4. More trouble in Gotham. The Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie situation won’t affect the Giants’ shot at making the playoffs—those hopes are dead. But if you follow the events of the last few days, they’re indicative of the fact that Ben McAdoo’s hold over his locker room is now tenuous, and the next 12 weeks will be important in regard to his ability to lead that group beyond then.
Here’s what happened, as it was explained to me. On Friday, Rodgers-Cromartie left a recovery period early, and on Sunday, he left the bench area in the second half unannounced, before returning a short time later. That led to a meeting Tuesday, during which McAdoo told Rodgers-Cromartie that he’d be inactive for Sunday’s game against the Broncos, but the coach still expected to the veteran corner to go through the practice week with the team. So Rodgers-Cromartie showed up to work on Wednesday morning, then left before meetings. Weird? You bet it is. And I’ve been clear on what I think of the way McAdoo and the Giants handled Odell Beckham Jr., lost for the season on Sunday, over the last nine months. In a nutshell, my sense is that their leniency with Beckham—McAdoo publicly stuck up for Beckham following his dog-peeing celebration, which came just six days after the coach publicly called out Eli Manning for a costly delay-of-game flag—has undercut his ability to lead the group. To me, Rodgers-Cromartie’s actions become Exhibit A of that. Beckham, clearly, has been allowed to play by his own rules. Which makes it unsurprising that other players might test what kind of allowances they can get.
1. Dolphins coach Adam Gase’s ability to relate to all different types of people in all kinds of different situations—and lead as a result—was a big piece of what the Miami brass liked about him as they pursued him two years ago. Between the Hurricane Irma fallout, the Ryan Tannehill injury, and now the Chris Foerster mess, this season has shaped up to be an awfully good test of those qualities.
2. Teddy Bridgewater’s knee will be evaluated on Monday, and the Vikings quarterback is eligible to return to practice on Wednesday. And the team is optimistic he’ll be physically able to practice soon. Given Sam Bradford’s lingering bone bruise, it’s not hard to see a scenario where Bridgewater gets his job back before season’s end. Coach Mike Zimmer told me over the summer that if Bradford played well, there’d be no decision to make, otherwise, the door would be open. The door is open.
3. OT Branden Albert’s flirtations with the Seahawks and Giants are interesting. After trading for the ex-Dolphin, and enduring his holdout, the Jaguars were unconvinced that Albert was in the NFL for anything more than one last paycheck. And those in Miami saw a guy worn down physically by a litany of injuries. We’ll see if either Seattle or New York, both in dire need of line help, see a guy who’s fire has been reignited.
4. Patriots QB Tom Brady’s sore left shoulder is absolutely worth monitoring, because of the amount of damage he’s taken early this year. He absorbed 15 sacks in 12 games last year. He’s already taken 16 through five games this year. Left tackle Nate Solder has struggled, which has exposed problems elsewhere, and tight end Dwayne Allen hasn’t been the blocker that he was in his younger years in Indy. Brady once led a team—the 2011 Patriots—to a Super Bowl with a slightly separated non-throwing shoulder. But he was 34 then, and that injury came much later in the season.
5. If there’s a positive to come from Dallas’ loss to Green Bay, it’s that rookie corner Jourdan Lewis has emerged as a very viable option. He played 80% of the team’s defensive snaps on Sunday. Add that to the return of suspended DL David Irving, and there’s reason to believe the Cowboys’ defense will ascend in the coming weeks.
6. In the end, Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara were just better options for the Saints than Adrian Peterson. But it can be instructive to look at Peterson’s final days in Minnesota, too—when he was hurt last year, Vikings coaches felt like it opened the offense up because Jerick McKinnon was far more versatile. Peterson’s lack of versatility didn’t help in New Orleans either. At this point, you have to carve out a specialized role for Peterson, which the Cardinals are set up to do in Bruce Arians’ system.
7. Last year, the Texans were able to mitigate the loss of J.J. Watt with Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney. Losing two of the three is altogether different, and why Houston was scouring the veteran market for help this week.
8. I had questions in this regard, so I have to give credit where it’s due: John Elway and the Broncos have done a bang up job churning the guts of their defense around stars like Von Miller, Aqib Talib and Chris Harris. The Broncos have replaced five starters off their 2015 defense and are still very much elite on that side of the ball (which is bad news for their offensively challenged Sunday Night opponent from Jersey).
9. Based on the way he’s played, it’s outrageous that Jonathan Allen was available to the Redskins with the 17th pick in April. He looks like the same dominating player he was at Alabama. If his shoulders hold up, and that’s a significant if, then Washington got itself a steal.
10. The Chiefs rank second in the NFL in total offense, and while Andy Reid’s getting much deserved credit, no one should overlook the contributions of coordinator Matt Nagy. He’s earned a reputation as a great creative mind, and he’s clearly had serious input in what’s become the league’s most innovative offense. So he could be a head coaching candidate to watch when we get to December and January.
The Jaguars are giving us all a good look at how you can win without much from the quarterback position. Blake Bortles currently ranks 24th in pass attempts, and has averaged just 22 attempts in Jacksonville’s three wins. He’s hit on 60% of his throws in just one of his team’s five games, and opponents are well aware that the key is to put the ball in his hands.
“They’re running the ball well with easy play-action passes off it,” said one defensive coach who faced the Jaguars in September. “They’ll struggle to win if he has to score in the two-minute drill. He still doesn’t read coverage that well, and panics against five-man pressure and tight coverage.”
The lesson: There’s more than one way to support your young quarterback. The Jags are 3-2 and all alone in first place with the Rams coming to town Sunday. And they haven’t poured resources into amping up Bortles’ arsenal; Allen Robinson’s injury only made matters worse there. Instead, they’ve taken all the pressure off of him with their run game and defense.
Jacksonville drafted Leonard Fournette and Cam Robinson this year, and paid Chris Ivory last year, and they now lead the league in rushing. They’ve stocked the defense with high picks and premium free agents, and that’s finally paying off—they posted 10 sacks in their opener against the Texans, and picked Ben Roethlisberger off five times last week in Pittsburgh.
Bortles hasn’t been great, but he hasn’t had to be, and you can easily argue that circumstance is better for a young quarterback than giving him a bunch of weapons and asking him to win every game. And all this really left me with two thoughts to close out this week.
First, we’ve talked ad nauseum about the robust 2018 veteran quarterback market, and given the above, the Jaguars may wind up being a pretty attractive landing spot for a Drew Brees or a Kirk Cousins or a Jimmy Garoppolo or a Sam Bradford.
Second, I’m not sure the Jaguars should wait. There are two-and-a-half weeks between now and the trade deadline. So why not call the Giants about Manning or the Chargers about Philip Rivers? They currently have around $40 million in cap space to play with, and now seems like the time to strike, since they’ll have young stars to pay in the next few years.
“Obviously, it’s not gonna be Blake Bortles going forward,” said an NFC pro scouting director. “And having [Tom] Coughlin in the building, they won two Super Bowls together, I would absolutely call [the Giants]. To me, that would signify they’re all in for right now. Maybe that’s where they are.”
I’d still mark the possibility of this actually happening as being remote. Sources with both the Giants and Chargers scoffed at the idea. I have serious doubts that Manning would be enthused about leaving New York, even with Coughlin in play. Rivers (who has a no-trade clause) might be more open to the thought—he’s from Alabama, has a vacation home in Destin, Fla., is currently commuting to L.A. from San Diego daily and, unlike Manning, is still chasing his first title.
Chances are it’s not happening. But given where the Jaguars are, and how they’re set up to help whomever their quarterback is, it sure is fun to consider.
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