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  • Also, Jimmy Garoppolo’s first start for San Francisco, careful Rams because crazy things happen in the desert, Hue Jackson has the Chargers’ number kinda, Drew Brees in the zone, and what’s the deal with that Joe Montana commercial? Plus, musical guest: Rage Against the Machine!
By Gary Gramling
December 02, 2017

1. We’re all winners when it comes to the new Alshon Jeffery contract. But in another more specific way, Alshon Jeffery is the winner, because he signed a piece of paper that says he’s now owed a lot of millions of dollars.

The deal is four years, $52 million, with $27 million guaranteed, which is perfectly reasonable. It puts him right outside the deals signed by Julio Jones (5 years, $14.2 million average annual value, $35.5 guaranteed at signing), Demaryius Thomas (5, $14, $35), Dez Bryant (5, $14, $32) and A.J. Green (4, $15, $26.8) in the summer of 2015. It puts him a tier below DeAndre Hopkins’ recent deal (5, $16.2, $36.5) as well. With the exception of Julio and maybe Green, Jeffery is in the same (or at least a similar) class as the rest of those guys. Contracts will keep rising with the salary cap; this one will look fine in three or four years.

And it’s arguably just as good a deal as Antonio Brown’s extension last winter—Brown got $68 million over four years, but only $19 million guaranteed at signing. If you live your life in the present like you should, you’re probably thinking Brown will collect the full value of the contract anyway. But the Steelers can get out from under the last two years of that deal after 2019, before Brown’s age-32 season. It’s not crazy to think Brown will have lost a step at that point, a troubling proposition since his game is built on speed and quickness. The Steelers might (might!) be staring down an honest-to-God decision.

I’m not about write that Alshon Jeffery is better than Antonio Brown. (Unless you’re counting the preceding sentence, in which I wrote it but only because I couldn’t specify what I wouldn’t write without actually writing it, but if you are counting that you’re a jerk). But Jeffery absolutely has a chance to, relatively, age better than Brown. He turns 28 next winter and has a significant injury history; only a crazy person would say there’s no risk. But Jeffery’s game is size, strength and positioning. He’s open even when the coverage is good. That doesn’t go away if he loses half a step in his early-30s.

But most of all, Jeffery has proven to be a difference maker for the Eagles right now. I still spend the bulk of my week with a spool of yarn and thumbtacks in front of a corkboard, trying to make sense of last winter’s free-agent WR market. All these teams, desperately in need of passing-game weapons, and no one was willing to give Jeffery or Terrelle Pryor more than a one-year deal? Perhaps teams watched what the Falcons were doing even without Julio Jones late last year and thought, Yeah, we’ll just do that thing. But you can count the number of coaches who can scheme receivers open like Kyle Shanahan on the late, great Mordecai Brown’s right hand. You need receivers who can get open and catch the ball (and maybe even run with it after that).

If you follow football exclusively via box scores and spreadsheets and fantasy football, you might not be impressed by Jeffery’s output. But a year ago, any opposing defensive coordinator preparing for the Eagles essentially ended up saying, We’ll leave this guy in single coverage, this guy in single coverage, single this guy, and this guy . . . Huh, tell our safeties they can stay home, get drunk and play Sega Dreamcast all afternoon. Adding Jeffery to the mix this year started to tilt coverages, and that in turn opened things up for Nelson Agholor and Zach Ertz. Both guys have improved this season, as has Carson Wentz, but having Jeffery as a threat makes a world of difference for this offense.

It’s something that will play out Sunday night when the Eagles go to Seattle. With Richard Sherman out, the Seahawks don’t have a cornerback who has a prayer of stopping Jeffery in single coverage.


2. On March 1, the Chiefs were thinking about angling their way into the AFC elite, they were staring at salary cap heck, and if memory serves Andy Reid was best known for his devotion to cardio and hairless upper lip. What a difference nine months have made. They burned a bunch of draft capital to get a quarterback of the future, had to cut their No. 1 (or at least “starting,” depending on your thoughts on Tyreek Hill at the time) receiver Jeremy Maclin because of that questionable cap management, fired the general manager who was responsible for that questionable cap management, then lost their best defensive player to a torn Achilles in the season opener.

It’s fair to ask: Had the Chiefs not pulled down Bill Belichick’s pants in front of a national audience on Opening Night, isn’t 6-5 pretty much exactly where you thought this team would be on the first weekend of December? This was shaping up to be, if not a rebuilding year, the start of a transitional phase for this team.

It’s O.K. to cry though. They were 5-0 at one point. Since then, K.C.'s offense has been circling the toilet in a counter-clockwise fashion. (Or clockwise if you’ve been watching games in the southern hemisphere. Coriolis effect and all.) My podcast co-host and Tony Award-winning choreographer Andy Benoit laid out the Chiefs' problems as plainly and accurately as you can. It comes down to Alex Smith and his inability to do, really, anything since teams started going zone-heavy against K.C. His protection could be a little better. But what’s so unsettling is that Smith and Reid have seen it all at this point. They shouldn’t be having so much trouble counter-punching against defensive adjustments. Yet, since the start of their slump in Week 6, only the Giants have scored fewer offensive touchdowns than the Chiefs (and the teams would be tied for last during that span if not for the Tyreek Hill catch-and-run Hail Mary at the end of the first half in Dallas).

The utter collapse of the AFC West is going to help the Chiefs, and no team on their remaining schedule has a winning record right now. They’re a game up on the Chargers (the actual best team in the division) with a head-to-head win, and their second meeting will force L.A. to come to Kansas City on a short week (Saturday night in Week 15). Still, it would be nice to see something out of this offense when they play a Jets team that has a habit of shooting itself in the butt. Todd Bowles typically likes to bring those blitzers from deep. That can pose a problem for a young quarterback, but it shouldn’t be anything Smith can’t handle. Right?


3. I’m not sure Blaine Gabbert has another upset in him, but a couple of reasons for the Rams to be a little bit worried when they go to Glendale on Sunday:

a) Weird stuff happens in the desert. With last week’s win over Jacksonville, the Cardinals moved to 19-11 as home underdogs over the last 10 seasons. Maybe it’s the heat. As I—and only I—tell people about the climate in the southwest: It’s a dry heat.

b) The Rams ran into some trouble in Minnesota facing a defense that’s great at disguising what they’re doing on the back end. (Some might theorize that this takes a good portion of Sean McVay’s brain out of the equation, since their pre-snap discussions over the headset go out the window, then Jared Goff has to verify coverages and adjust on the fly.) James Bettcher’s group can also disguise coverages effectively, especially with the versatility they have at safety (Tyrann Mathieu and baby Tyrann Mathieu, otherwise known as Budda Baker).

I’m too much of a coward to predict another Cardinals upset, but I’ll cover my ass by saying don’t be surprised. In fact, don’t be surprised if any team wins any game this weekend. Predictions!


4a. I think I speak for all of us when I say no one envisioned the Eli Manning era with the Giants would end like this. I also think I speak for all of us when I say the way we envisioned the Eli Manning era ending was Eli throwing an interception because he didn’t read the back-side safety, slumping his shoulders, then slowly walking into the light like Swayze in the final scene in Ghost. And I think I speak for most of us when I say we also envisioned Eli and Ben McAdoo re-enacting that pottery wheel scene with The Righteous Brothers song. Most of us. But no matter what romantic-bordering-on-erotic fan fiction involving quarterback and head coach you had in mind, none of us thought a perfectly capable Manning, keeping a horrifically bad offense somewhat afloat in a lost season, would be benched in favor of Geno Smith.

I’m having trouble understanding the decision from the perspective of McAdoo’s self-preservation. You’d think the coach’s best shot at justifying a third season would be to argue: I run an iso-heavy system and we didn’t have the players to score points in 2015 (I mean, for goodness sake, we were starting Will Tye and the late-model version of Victor Cruz!) We got the players in ’16 but everyone got hurt. If everyone’s healthy, we have the quarterback with the ability to work around a bad offensive line, the weapons he needs to make the system work, and the defense to win a lot of games.

If Manning is gone, and you’re bringing in a new quarterback presumably through the draft, you then have the option to tear the whole thing down and run a completely different offense. The nice thing about running a relatively static, iso-heavy offense is that your veteran QB (Manning) can basically be a coordinator on the field. With a young guy, you might as well run stuff with some intertwined route combinations that actually scheme receivers open. In which case, do you have the old offensive coaching staff install a new system, or . . .

The only other explanation is that either Geno Smith or Davis Webb is a sleeping giant. I’m the world’s last (and also possibly first) Geno Smith apologist—I think he was dropped into an impossible situation with the Jets, asked to run an expansive offense featuring bad players. He has the physical skills, it’s a matter of getting him in a better system and a coaching staff pulling him back from the wrong side of the delightfully aggressive/hopelessly reckless divide. However, this situation is even worse than the one Smith was in with the Jets.

As for Davis Webb, he’s a career Air Raid guy who might end up being good in the long run. How likely is it that he made significant strides while running the scout team the past four months? Probably about the same as that Hydrox cookie I buried in the woods behind my house in 1988 sprouting into a Hydrox cookie tree. My point: both scenarios are equally unlikely (but I still won’t let my parents sell that property, just in case).

Looking at the other QBs makes some sense. The Giants will have a top pick in a good QB draft. If you move on, you might need a bridge guy, and that could be Smith or Webb. But that’s front-office thinking. McAdoo has to be competitive to ensure he’ll come back. And there’s no amount of paint you can huff to convince yourself that either Smith or Webb gives you a better chance in the short-term than Eli Manning.

(4b. Can you believe no one’s done a re-make of Ghost?! I can’t. They remake everything.)


5. Hue Jackson has only beaten one opponent multiple times as an NFL head coach, and that’s the Chargers. (In fact, he’s 2-1 against the Chargers, 7-33 against everyone else.)

L.A. might have dug too deep a hole with their atrocious early-season special teams play to come back and grab a playoff spot, but it’s at least within reach. (It’s absurd to think they can’t get there in a down year for the AFC considering they have the kind of cornerstones other teams would commit multiple homicides for: A true franchise QB and two elite edge rushers.) But, much like Week 16 a year ago, when they went to Cleveland, outgained the opponent 356-251 and recorded nine (nine, I tell you!) sacks and still found a way to lose, you just get the feeling that when the winless Browns come to L.A., the Chargers might just find a way . . . But they couldn’t, right? Could they? No. Almost definitely not, right?


6. A quick refresher on the life and times of Jimmy Garoppolo in advance of his first start for the San Francisco 49ers. Specifically his first two career starts:

a) His first start, in a win at Arizona, was not particularly impressive. And that’s not a knock on Garoppolo (aside from the fact that the Patriots reigned him in tremendously in that game). The fact is, New England was extremely conservative, with a limited game plan for Garoppolo that night. Their big plays came on brutal blown assignments by rookie cornerback Brandon Williams, who made a courageous stand by planting his feet eight yards off the line of scrimmage and refusing to move backwards no matter what the safeties were doing behind him. (Though, in Williams' defense, he had been a running back until his senior year at Texas A&M and was only playing because of a rash of injuries). It was a win, but it wasn’t a performance that told you much of anything about Garoppolo.

b) On the other hand, his second start, at home against Miami, was much more promising. It wasn’t quite Tom Brady spread-it-out-and-carve-’em-up—there was first-down play-action, a lot of stuff thrown behind the line of scrimmage, a game plan you’d expect for a young QB. And it helped that Dolphins corner Byron Maxwell was giving enough cushion to stock a Pillow Emporium (if that’s not a store it should be). Overall, Garoppolo showed good feel in the pocket, consistently moving up instead of out, made a couple of big throws late in the down (including the game’s first touchdown pass), and showed a bit of savvy moving safeties with his eyes.

And then, of course, he suffered a shoulder injury midway through the second quarter and his name was not mentioned ever again, until he was named the 49ers starter on Wednesday.

We still have no idea what Garoppolo is, because all we have to work on is about 20 minutes of film from 15 months ago. However, all the signs are promising. Those 20 minutes against the Dolphins definitely left you thinking there’s plenty to build off of. The fact that the Patriots had been so hesitant to move him—even once it became clear Tom Brady will still be playing effectively after we and everyone we love have succumbed to the cold, grim embrace of death—let’s you know what the team that knows him best (and really, the only team that knows him at all) thinks of him.

Garoppolo has only been with the 49ers for five weeks, so expectations have to be reasonable (especially on Soldier Field’s slow track against an underrated defense). If you’re a Niners fan, hope he stays healthy and shows something you can build off of this offseason.


7. I’ve been down on the Panthers all year and they’re sitting at 8-3, but I’m not about to learn a lesson this late in the season.

I thought the Saints could steam-roll the Rams in L.A. last week. (In case you missed it, they did not). But I know Drew Brees can carve up any zone-heavy defense, just like he has against these Panthers over the years. Brees has a career 101.8 passer rating, 320.6 yards per game and 31 TDs over 12 starts against the Panthers in the Ron Rivera era. (The numbers swell to 110.1 rating and 346.7 yards per game over six home starts.) Brees’s load has been lightened this year thanks to the emergence of the defense and run game, but he can still take over a game if needed, and considering Cam Newton’s up-and-down play this year Brees is poised to outduel him on Sunday.


8. I often have trouble following the most basic plots and narratives so forgive me, but can someone explain the advertisement with Joe Montana and one of the Broke Girls (if I understand correctly, there are two of them).

I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be signing up for a credit card, insuring my valuable art (my beanie babies!), or worrying about the long-term effects of head trauma on my childhood idols. (Instead I just turned on some cartoons.)


9. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Rage Against the Machine!

 

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