• After everything went wrong in 2016, the uncertainty at quarterback this fall has not phased to the NFC North frontrunners. Plus, how the Patriots defense turned it around, the offensive woes in Atlanta, why the Steelers will keep ignoring Martavis Bryant’s trade requests, and how the NFL’s version of Moneyball is playing out in Jacksonville, not Cleveland
By Albert Breer
October 26, 2017

There was a point in the Vikings’ 2016 season when things went from rough to ridiculous.

“When our head coach missed a game,” recalled tight end Kyle Rudolph, over the phone Wednesday night, as he got ready to board a redeye for London. “It was just hard. You know how much it means to him, and how much he wants to be out there with us. And talking to him that week, I could see how much it bothered him. It’s one of those things you can’t control. That was definitely the low point.”

Mike Zimmer’s absence for that Thursday nighter against Dallas came after—and pay attention, because there’s a lot here—the Vikings lost Teddy Bridgewater to a freak, non-contact injury in August, lost their two starting tackles for the season, saw the tailback who was the face of their franchise go down for the year in September, and switched offensive coordinators in October. Then, there was the aforementioned eye problem that forced Zimmer to wear an eye patch on the sidelines and endure a string of eight surgeries.

Few who went through it could remember a more bizarre, star-crossed season. And yet, it became one that set the stage for everything that’s come as the Vikings have navigated a similarly strange 2017. Through half of this year, and since the opener, Minnesota’s gone into just about every week without knowing who the quarterback would be on Sunday. And it hasn’t knocked them off course one bit. The Vikings are 5-2.

“What I love about coach Zim is I know that’s not even a conversation,” said tailback Latavius Murray, signed as a free agent last winter. “Coach Zim’s method is ‘Why speak about it and even let it become a distraction?’ I’m not saying it doesn’t matter who’s lining up at quarterback, but whoever lines up at quarterback, we believe in him. So to bring it up—‘O.K., Case will be starting this week,’ or ‘Sam will be starting that week,’ it doesn’t come up, because we believe in everyone here.

“And to make it an issue or for him to bring it up, it’s saying there’s something to be said about Case starting when there isn’t. He’s just the guy that’s up, the guy we believe in.”

In this week’s GamePlan, we’ll explain Atlanta’s offensive problems, we’ll show why the Patriots defense isn’t the disaster it was two weeks ago, we’ll take you inside the Steelers facility to look at Martavis Bryant, and inside the NFL owners meetings to see how the league plans to address the ratings issue. We’ll check in with Doug Marrone on how a tough summer has led to a better fall in Jacksonville.

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

But we’re going to kick things off by checking in on a team that’s flying under the radar. The Vikings are a really good story in a really specific way. There are 21 quarterbacks on contracts worth more than $15 million per in 2017, and 20 non-quarterbacks who cross that threshold. The league’s 16 highest paid guys, and 14 of the last 19 players drafted first overall, are quarterbacks. There’s no more important position in sports. And the Vikings are somehow winning in a perpetual state of “We’ll see” at that spot.

That bone bruise Sam Bradford took in Week 1 was brutal, so we’ll see if he can even protect himself out of the field. Case Keenum’s done a nice job, but we’ll see if he can keep it up. Teddy Bridgewater’s back in practice and making progress, and we’ll see where things go from here.

“It’s definitely different than anything I’ve ever gone through from a consistency standpoint,” Rudolph said. “I’ve been through years where we lose a quarterback at the end of training camp, I’ve seen quarterbacks hurt during the year. I played with Josh Freeman 12 days after he got here. I’ve been through a lot of things at the quarterback position. But this is unlike any of those. We’ve had the same three guys here all along, but we’re not sure who the guy’s going to be every week.”

So how have they navigated it? The first part of the solution was easy: by creating certainty everywhere else. The Vikings are fourth in total defense, fifth in scoring defense, third against the run, 12th against the pass; and they’re eight in the league in rushing offense. Add that to solid special teams play, and the quarterback has to do a little bit less. And that’s largely because the young core on defense is taking another step, and the offensive line overhaul actually worked, even with some parts moving due to injury.

It’s also because this sustainable blueprint was forged—because it had to be—through the tumult of 2016, and it was rubber-stamped early on, when Keenum managed to throw for 369 yards and three touchdowns on the Bucs in Week 3 as the Vikings bounced back from a loss to the Steelers.

“After that game it was kind of like, ‘We’ll be fine,’” said Rudolph. “We’ve established a formula, and you hate to say no matter who’s out there, you stick to the formula and we’ll win games, because you want everyone healthy, you want everyone out there. But we’ve established a formula here, where no matter who we play and who have we out there, if we stick to that, we usually like where things wind up.”

The less tangible piece is how the team has performed in the clutch, and that part is actually a correction from 2016. When they were 11-5 and NFC North champions in 2016, they consistently won games late. Last year’s team didn’t, and now that’s flipped again with the Vikings playing better when it matters most. And interestingly enough, that belief is founded on how well-rounded the team has become, able to withstand hits, and beyond just the one at quarterback—remember, rookie phenom Dalvin Cook is down for the season too. The bottom line is that resiliency has become part of the DNA there.

“In different places, they may say, ‘O.K., we need to emphasize running the football,’ or ‘Let’s emphasize these route patterns,’” Murray said. “None of that came up. We didn’t switch the gameplan. We prepared early on for Sam to play, but we also believed in Case filling it. And we knew all the same playcalls would be up, because he could handle that. There was absolutely nothing different about it all. Nothing.”

There’s more on the horizon than just the Browns in London. The Vikings get their bye after the overseas trip, and when they come back from that, Bridgewater’s availability will be in play, and the quarterback is gaining confidence by the day. His teammates, too, say the 2014 first-round pick looks good, and so there may be another decision to be made down the line. We’ve seen these sorts of “controversies” knock teams off-kilter in the past.

But it wouldn’t be smart to bet on that here. While it sounds crazy to say it doesn’t matter who the quarterback is—given all those facts we laid out about investment in the position and the fact that the Vikings invested first-round picks in both Bradford and Bridgewater—that’s just how the players have come to see it. It’s also why they feel like their low-profile team will battle through like last year’s team couldn’t.

“We’re a better team than the team that started 5-0 last year,” Rudolph says, “because we went through that, and we were able to learn from that adversity, and learn from the fact that just because you start 5-0 doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished anything.”

Based on the circumstances, 5-2 does seem like an accomplishment here. And with Aaron Rodgers down and Matthew Stafford hobbled in the NFC North, it may be setting the stage for bigger things to come.

Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

1. Patriots secondary the key to defensive rebound. That New England’s defense struggled early in 2017 wasn’t a stunner. The surprise was just how bad things got. The Patriots became the first team in NFL history to allow six consecutive 300-yard passing performances. There were communication breakdowns leading to coverage busts. When they had their issues on that side of the ball in the past, they’d managed to be fine because of sound situational football and few big plays allowed; they weren’t this time around. And then, all of that flipped.

On Sunday night, the Patriots stifled Atlanta’s offense, and the difference was pretty simple—the team got its money’s worth in the secondary. Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung have been paid, and Malcolm Butler will get his (whether it’s in New England or somewhere else) next year. And because all that money was sunk in the defensive backfield, the Patriots needed that group to be great, and it wasn’t early in the season. And those guys knew it.

“Oh yeah, trust me, we know,” Harmon told me after the win over Atlanta. “We’re supposed to be the strength. And we’ve got the players to be the strength of this defense, and we just have to play to it.” Harmon then explained that the Patriots’ loss to Carolina on Oct. 1 represented rock bottom—“After the Panther game, we just said, ‘We can’t do this anymore’”—and an emphasis was put on getting assignments straight and communication humming. On two big plays in the Carolina game, Gilmore and fellow corner Eric Rowe were literally covering the same guy, leaving another receiver (first Devin Funchess, then Kelvin Benjamin) wide open. Then, there was the Panthers touchdown on a double screen to Fozzy Whitaker, which played out like the quintessential “nobody’s home” situation for a snookered defense.

“We were giving up wide open touchdowns, guys were running scot free,” Harmon said. “We can’t do this anymore. We’re too talented. We’re too good. We can’t cost our team games like this, and especially home games . . . It wasn’t Patriot football. We had to look in the mirror, figure out what the problem was, and we started to change it.”

One interesting caveat to all this is that Gilmore—an uncharacteristic Patriot free-agent splurge due to make $32 million combined in 2017 and ’18—missed the team’s last two games as the secondary corrected its problem. His reentry into the lineup, given his culpability in the previous problems, bears watching. And based on the some the talent issues in the front seven, this group isn’t going to suddenly become the 2000 Ravens. But one thing’s for sure: It’s better than it was, and that’s great news for Tom Brady and an offense that had been carrying a very heavy burden. As Harmon assesses it, “We’re really going in the right direction now.”

2. Falcons play-calling mess. First, some perspective. The Falcons are still seventh in total offense, and they’re still talented on that side of the ball, and they’re 3-3, which hardly eliminates them from anything. O.K., now that we have that out of the way—the optics of Sunday night weren’t good, and there are fair questions to raise on where Steve Sarkisian, Matt Ryan and Co. go from here.

There are specific plays (a low-percentage deep throw on a fourth-and-6, a jet sweep on fourth-and-goal from the 1) that highlight that. But I think the bigger issue was the expectation, both internally and externally, that the first post-Kyle Shanahan steps would be smooth.

After Shanahan got the Niners job, Falcons coach Dan Quinn had a decision to make: maintain the status quo with a record-breaking offense built around a slew of scheme-specific players by promoting a position coach, or go outside the program and inject new blood with an experienced leader. And then, Quinn kind of sidestepped it. Atlanta didn’t consider promoting receivers coach Mike McDaniel (who coordinated Shanahan’s run game) or quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur (Ryan’s position coach for his MVP season), or splitting the job between the two. The feeling was the building had been, back in 2015, too cliquey and they didn’t want it to revert, and neither coach had play-calling experience.

Still, Quinn didn’t abandon the offense, informing both Sarkisian and Chip Kelly during the interview process that running it would be a condition of taking the job. On paper, it makes sense: Hire a guy who’s a cultural fit (Sarkisian, another ex-Pete Carroll assistant) to improve staff chemistry, and have him learn a scheme that he has some background in, having a run a different iteration of the west coast offense. The problem? As it’s been explained to me, the level of detail and intricacy in how the run and pass games are married within Shanahan’s offense makes being able to learn it—then teach it—incredibly difficult for any coach who didn’t come up in that system. It’s a dynamic that accounted for some of the fits and starts Atlanta went through in Shanahan’s first year there. And the challenge became stiffer when LaFleur and McDaniel, the two assistant most experienced in the system and both under contract, were allowed out for higher level jobs with the Rams and Niners, respectively.

None of this means Sarkisian can’t succeed long-term. And to their credit the players are taking ownership of the problem too. Devonta Freeman explained it to me like this: “We have to go back to the drawing board, figure things out. I mean, we have the same players, we’re the ones going out there making plays. One man won’t stop the show.” But losing a few can certainly slow things down, which is what seems to be playing out here. That’s why it was probably wrong for anyone inside or outside the building to expect Sarkisian to, right away, be able to run Shanahan’s offense like Shanahan himself did.

3. Steelers are ignoring Martavis Bryant’s trade request—and plan to continue ignoring it. Know what’s weird? Bryant hasn’t been a problem in the building, or on the field for Pittsburgh. In fact, one coach went so far as to call him “a changed person” when I asked about him this week. So for many in Pittsburgh, the trade request (and the social media outburst to follow) came out of left field. And there’s certainly speculation inside the organization that this is all the result of Bryant getting bad advice from the people around him. And assuming this is coming from those around Bryant, there’s no question that the advice he’s getting is bad. Off-field problems/flags dropped Bryant into the Steelers’ lap in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. After coming on at the end of his rookie year, he was suspended for the first four games of 2015 for violating the drug policy. Then, after catching 50 balls for 765 yards and six touchdowns in just 11 games in 2015, he was busted again and suspended for the entire 2016.

Since his conditional reinstatement in April, and his full reinstatement on Sept. 1, he’s been the second most targeted receiver on the Pittsburgh roster, behind only Antonio Brown, who might be the best receiver in football. And now, he’s going to try to shove his way out of there? “If things don’t get better,” he told ESPN’s Josina Anderson, “then I got to go.” Remember, Bryant isn’t eligible to do a new deal until after this year, and isn’t a free agent until March 2019—his four-year contract, signed in 2014, tolled as a result of his 2016 suspension. And any team trading for him would certainly already be concerned about the fact that he’s now one failed drug test away from banishment from the league, and this won’t help soften his image with potential suitors. Plus, there’s the fact that his trade request became public after he played in his sixth game, which is the marker he needed to hit to accrue the season towards free agency, suggesting this was a calculated move. Add all of it up, and it’s easy to see why Pittsburgh believes that Bryant is listening to the wrong people. And it’s just as easy to see why—since acquiescing to his demand would set bad precedent, and Bryant just further killed own his trade value anyway—the Steelers have no plans to listen to him.

4. More mobile coming? Last week, we wrote extensively about the drop in the NFL’s television ratings and the concern among owners. And so a few days later, during the Patriots Pregame Show, my buddies Chris Gasper (of the Boston Globe) and Marc Bertrand (of 98.5 the Sports Hub) peppered New England president Jonathan Kraft, chair of the league’s digital committee, with questions about it. Just how worried are the owners?

“Television as a medium is very rapidly transforming, and when you think of a generation of people that grow up watching anything they want on demand, the idea of setting your schedule around a live event week-in and week-out is a little antithetical,” Kraft said. “So we’re working on ways, and I think you’re gonna hear some news in the coming weeks, where you’re going to be able to watch our games, or many of our games, on your wireless device in your home market. You’re going to see different forms of presentation of our content that will hopefully allow us to adapt to the consumers’ tastes. We clearly are focused on it, but I think as a traditional television product, we’re very strong. But in 10 years, the concept of traditional television probably won’t exist.” (Kraft later clarified that he believes the networks themselves will exist, but the delivery of their content would change.)

The NFL has been very protective of its game footage over the years, and it currently has deals in place that will necessarily restrict growth in this area. Verizon, in particular, pays about $250 million annually for exclusive phone streaming rights. But that deal is up after this year and, as I understand it, was a big part of the discussion in New York between owners and executives last week. It centered on allowing games to be streamed on more phones, and finding a way to get the league’s broadcast partners (NBC, CBS, FOX, ESPN) to sign off on that. “[The networks] don’t get ratings for that,” said one team executive, “so the bigger picture for us, and them, is that we need people to learn how to quantify viewership beyond just television in a way where we can sell it to advertisers.” At the very least, know this: The concern over the ratings is real, and the league understands a younger slice of that audience might not be coming back to linear television, so they’ll have find other ways to reach them. Which is, indisputably, progress.

Aaron M. Sprecher/AP

1. Eagles QB Carson Wentz hasn’t just looked good of late. As the staff sees it, beyond the spectacularly athletic plays he’s made, he’s also doing the routine more efficiently because he’s seeing the field and reading defenses better. One example I got: Wentz’s 64-yard touchdown pass to rookie Mack Hollins on Monday came because the quarterback saw Washington safety D.J. Swearinger settle his feet, a cue for him to uncork it deep because it would give Hollins the step he needed to beat the coverage.

2. The Rams offense has gotten plenty of attention, but it’s actually been Wade Phillips’ defense carrying the day of late. Aaron Donald and crew have allowed just 39 points and only three touchdowns in their last 14 quarters, and just three points in their last six quarters. A key? One that was pointed out to me was rookie safety John Johnson becoming a starter and Michael Brockers moving from the nose to a 5-technique end spot three weeks ago.

3. The Ravens have had health issues on the line and trouble filling spots at receiver, but is it time to start worrying about Joe Flacco? Since losing Gary Kubiak after 2014, Flacco has thrown 39 touchdown passes against 35 interceptions, and his 81.1 rating over the stretch ranks 32nd among qualifying quarterbacks. Case Keenum is 31st. Blake Bortles is 30th.

4. Baltimore’s opponent tonight, Miami, has quarterback issues of its own, and the expectation internally had been that Jay Cutler would miss a couple games with cracked ribs—he actually pushed to play tonight, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him a week from Sunday against Oakland. He’ll at least miss the Ravens game, and my understanding is the Dolphins won’t have to change much for Matt Moore. That explains why some staffers believe there’s not much drop-off from starter to backup in this case.

5. We’re again focusing on the quarterback situation in Denver when we should be focusing on the offensive line. The team’s brass viewed the latter as the biggest problem on the roster last year, then spent cash (Menelik Watson, Ronald Leary) and draft capital (Garett Bolles) to fix it in a year where there wasn’t a lot of O-line strength in either market. So it shouldn’t be a shocker that the issue remains.

6 Give Anthony Lynn credit: The Chargers dealt with a sideways offseason, have been playing home games in an environment that’s neutral at best, and suffered three heart-breaking losses during an 0-4 start. And now he has L.A.’s second team heading to Foxboro at 3-4. Couldn’t have been easy to keep the team locked in.

7. I’d be the last person to criticize a 21-year-old for having a good time on a Friday night, but hopefully DeShone Kizer learned a larger lesson last weekend: The rules are different for quarterbacks. It doesn’t matter if it’s fair or not. That’s just reality. If that’s Solomon Thomas out in San Francisco or Leonard Fournette out in Jacksonville no one cares. Because Kizer is a quarterback, people in Cleveland did.

8. Give Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen credit for rebuilding what’s been a hopeless unit for years. The mental mistakes a young group made in Weeks 1 and 2 are gone, and those players are locked in and improving by the week. In particular, the staff is impressed with the way CB Marshon Lattimore is covering and safety Marcus Williams is directing traffic, which is especially encouraging. The team knew it needed those two rookies to play major roles right away.

9. Signing Dwight Freeney might help a little, but losing Cliff Avril is such a huge blow for Seattle’s talented front. Want an example of how much Avril means to the Seahawks? Go back to Super Bowl XLIX. Seattle was in the process of throwing final haymakers to Tom Brady and the Patriots in the third quarter, up 24-14. Then, Avril went down with a concussion, and that limited the team’s ability to move Michael Bennett around, and Brady absolutely tore the defense to shreds in a near-perfect fourth quarter. If Avril doesn’t get hurt that game would’ve been different. And this season is different for Seattle now.

10. The difference for the Raiders in snapping their four game losing streak against Kansas City? An offensive line that was one of the NFL’s best in 2016 played to its ability again. We’ll see if they can keep it up in Buffalo on Sunday.

Rick Wilson/AP

So I’ve written often about the advantage the Jaguars have in building their team the way they are, which is pretty much what the Titans did last year—putting together a bully to throw hands at smaller, quicker teams built for today’s pass-happy NFL. And I’ve been meaning to get to Doug Marrone to ask him about it. We talked on Tuesday, and I asked him about zigging (building a big, physical, ground-oriented team) when everyone else has been zagging for a decade.

“I just go back to what I believe, and I believe, I always have, that this is a big man’s game,” Marrone said. “I think that you have to be tough, have to be physical, you’ve got to be able to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football, to have some type of consistency. And I’ve always been more defense-oriented at first, even though I’m an offensive coach.

“I think you build your defense, you build your depth, you get your special teams together at the same time, and the offense is going to take a little bit longer to jell and get together and on the same page, with timing. That’s always been my philosophy. I like big running backs, I always have . . . So I just think it’s what I’ve always believed on how a team should be built, that’s what really drives it.”

It also proves something else: Moneyball is alive and well in the NFL, and the Jags, rather than the Browns, are the best example of it. While analytics and stats geeks got the attention coming from Michael Lewis’s best-selling book, the truth is that the guiding principal arched higher than that. It was about finding inefficiencies in the market. The Jags did by investing in running backs (Leonard Fournette, Chris Ivory) and linemen (Cam Robinson, Brandon Linder) like Tennessee did a year ago (DeMarco Murray, Derrick Henry, Jack Conklin, Ben Jones).

But it was also in the way the Jaguars prepared for the season, with Marrone pushing old-school methods (did you hear they did up-downs?!) and intentionally scheduling practices for midday in steamy North Florida. They beat the crap out of each other for a month, and did it, as Marrone explains now, with three goals.

1) “We want to win the physical battle, we want to be a physical football team. Being physical means being able to run the football, being able to stop the run, being able to play good, hard press-man coverage, to be able to win vs. man, all these physical battles that you have on the field, we wanted to make sure we’re able to win those. And my thing is you don’t want to just be able to talk about that, you’ve got to practice that way.”

2) “We want to win the turnover battle. We want to be a team that protects the football, that doesn’t turn the ball over, and we want to be a team that creates turnovers, however we can do it, whether it’s on special teams or defense.”

3) “And then knowing, it’s the first year and we’re trying to get it done, when we get in this fourth quarter, we’re gonna fight and scratch and find a way to win the game situationally. Whether it’s two minute, or four minute not giving the ball back. So really we tried to keep it that simple in the beginning.”

To get all this done, Marrone and his coaches ran long practices, and held long days, and generated a lot of confrontation through 1-on-1 competition during camp. As you might expect, some players weren’t wild about it. But Marrone promised the players—citing his previous head-coaching experience at Syracuse and then with the Bills—there was a purpose to all of it.

“You get your team together, your coaches together, you say, Hey, who wants to win a championship here? Raise your hand. Everyone will raise their hand,” Marrone said. “If you say, ‘Who wants to put in the work?’ Everyone will raise their hand.’ O.K., now who wants to be the bad guy to make people do what they might not want to do? Not a lot of hands are going up.

“So when you talk to the team, you say, ‘Listen, these are gonna be our principles, this is going to be our foundation. We’ve all decided what we want it to be. And you have to trust me to put the foundation in.”

Thus far he’s gotten the trust, and delivered moderate results. Posed with the question of whether the blueprint is coming to life, Marrone answered, “We’ve done it for four games, and not done it for three.” A deeper look at the numbers, though, reveals that the plan is working. The Jaguars have broken 150 yards on the ground in six of their seven games, and lead the NFL in rushing by more than 20 yards per game. On defense, their 33 sacks are nine more than any other team’s figure, and their 16 takeaways are also an NFL high. Team-wise, they’re second in turnover differential.

The Jags, though, were also blown out by the Titans and Rams at home, so it’s not like there isn’t material for Marrone to hit the players with now. The difference is that a couple months out from training camp, the players know what they’re getting and have results to justify the work, as did the team’s performance in the opener, a shellacking of Houston.

“Guys said, ‘Hey, this camp was tough, I don’t know if I’m gonna be ready for the season,’” Marrone said. “And I’ll say, ‘Listen, this is the same thing that I’ve heard before, you just gotta trust me, you’ll be back for the first game, you’re gonna feel great. This is the schedule, this is the plan, this is how we’re doing it.’ And then all of the sudden, the players are like, ‘This is great.’”

Compared to where the Jags have been, it certainly has been thus far.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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