• Even in the wake of injuries to Richard Sherman and other stalwarts, Seattle keeps on humming. Here’s a look at how the team has been able to remain successful
  • More sections include: a look at Roger Goodell’s new contract; how the Rams are handling the fires; a college bowl/NFL draft trend to monitor; and much more
By Albert Breer
December 07, 2017

I tried. I figured this was a good chance for Pete Carroll to explain the sturdiness of the program he’s built, just three days after his injury-ravaged Seahawks took the Sunday Night Football stage and beat the red-hot Eagles.

We were talking about the injured guys—Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril—and how they stayed invested after they went down. But just as quick as the display-of-program-strength narrative popped in my head, Carroll shot it down.

“I think it’s a great statement about who these guys are, their commitment, and their love for this team and the guys they’ve worked with, and their competitiveness,” Carroll said. “They want us to win, so they’re doing what they can to compete to win. That’s what it really is. I don’t think it’s the program. It’s these guys, and the wonderful individuals they’ve become.”

Those two Super Bowls may feel like yesterday, but plenty has changed since. Fifteen of Seattle’s 22 starters last Sunday night were not members of the Super Bowl 48 champions, and a 16th (Byron Maxwell) left in 2015 and came back. Thirteen of those 22 weren’t on the next year’s Super Bowl runner-up. And that kind of transition and attrition has necessarily challenged the foundation of what Carroll and GM John Schneider built in the Pacific Northwest.

Otto Gruele Jr./Getty Images

What’s kept it from shaking? One part is MVP candidate Russell Wilson. Another is the standard set by guys prideful enough to stick around and make sure its upheld in their on-field absence.

“It’s like big brother showing you how to do it,” Carroll said. “We’re trying to make sure and help them be aware of how good these guys have been, so that they can learn, too, because it’s gonna be their turn at some point. It’s what’s expected. I don’t think they think it’s extraordinary, they don’t know any different. But I’m hoping that they will assume the same sense of responsibility and sense of connection and love of the brotherhood so they keep it rolling when it’s their turn.”

With the Seahawks now 8-4, those guys are making 2017 their turn.

In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll take a look at NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s new contract; check on the Rams amid the devastation in their corner of Southern California; take a look at two New York teams headed in completely different directions; and examine the draft decisions made by Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey a year later. 

But we’re starting with the Seahawks, and Carroll, and how an aging core is working to keep the franchise’s championship window cracked.

The next time they play football, Avril will be 32, and Sherman and Chancellor will be 30. Earl Thomas, Bobby Wagner, KJ Wright, Doug Baldwin and Michael Bennett—also integral parts of the title runs—are nearing that age bracket, too. That’s why when Sherman and Chancellor went down a week before Thanksgiving, you could almost feel the mortality of this era enter the Seahawks facility.

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Only, those guys weren’t just going to let it happen. For the team’s star corner and tank of a strong safety that meant following the lead of Avril, who was lost for the season in October and decided to stick around for just about everything—practices, meetings, meals. Sherman’s torn Achilles has him on a scooter, so he can’t travel, but all three guys have otherwise gone from being relentless on the field to round-the-clock resources off it.

“We really care about this team,” Sherman texted Wednesday afternoon. “And we want to see everyone do well. We want to help in any way we can. Just because we’re hurt doesn’t mean we can’t help.”

Avril added, via text, “Important to be around to help the younger players and give them another point of view from a player. I’ve seen everything they’re going to see so I can help them see it quicker! Also, it’s been our team for so long, how could we not want to see the team do well?”

So Sherman’s now a sounding board for rookie corner Shaquill Griffin, Avril counsels third-year pass-rusher Frank Clark, and Chancellor’s worked with first-year Seahawk Bradley McDougald. And after some bumps in the first game after the Sherman and Chancellor injuries, against Atlanta, Seattle’s defense has tightened, allowing just 23 points in the past two weeks.

Now, clearly, the standard set was high. Carroll says, “They haven’t been asked to be the other guys." To be sure, coaches have made adjustments to compensate for the change in talent. But the collective standard hasn’t changed. And the younger guys haven’t just accepted that. They’ve embraced it.

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“I’m gonna say it this way: It’s like they feel fortunate to have the opportunity to represent for those guys. That’s what it feels like because they’ve done it very seriously, and with great intent. And the results have been clear. They’ve been able to hold up their end.”

In turn, Carroll says, the sidelined players “take great pride in the fact that those guys have battled to hold up their end of it.” On Sunday night, they most certainly did. The Eagles hadn’t lost in two months, and averaged 37 points over their previous five games, behind Carson Wentz. Philly left Seattle with a lot of yardage, and just 10 points.

Wilson played great, too, and that was a big part of it. But all the replacement Seahawks on defense, at least for a week, put to rest the idea that Wilson would have to carry the team in the wake of all the injuries.

“We played our most complete game,” Carroll said. “We’ve been searching for that, and we’d been feeding off one another somewhat, offense and defense and special teams. And that was our most complete game to date. We’re making a big move in terms of cleaning up our game on the penalties that we’ve had. And this is the time to set the finish in motion.

“This is when it happens. We’ve been a really good December team for years, and this is that time, and I’m hoping we’re taking that step.”

Carroll wants to credit the people, and not the program, for giving this particular group the shot to take that step, and get to the playoffs for a sixth straight season. But given how interwoven old vets like Sherman and Avril and Chancellor have remained, it’s hard to separate one from the other.

Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

1. Timing of Goodell’s extension. Why now? Why did the compensation committee push commissioner Roger Goodell’s new contract over the goal line with 15 months left on his existing deal this week, given all the discord over it? It’s simple. Next Wednesday, the owners will gather for their annual winter meeting in Dallas, and the compensation committee wasn’t going to go there with the prospect of all hell breaking loose in Jerry Jones’ backyard. By striking the five-year deal now, and getting Goodell to sign it, the six-man committee has effectively taken the commissioner’s contract situation off the agenda. There was a belief that, since Jones had continued to convene calls and lobby his peers, the Cowboys owner planned to take the issue to the floor at that meeting.

“Animosity towards Jerry is running very high,” said one league source. “The idea that the owners were going to waltz into Dallas and let Jerry dictate to them? That was never going to happen.”

The interesting thing is how Jones’ push, in fact, may have given Goodell leverage in the talks, in that the Cowboys owner’s threats to sue unified other owners against him, and created motivation to get the deal done before the Dallas meeting. Add to that the fact that five of the six owners on the compensation committee (Kansas City’s Clark Hunt, New England’s Robert Kraft, New York’s John Mara, Houston’s Bob McNair and Pittsburgh’s Art Rooney) were also on the Los Angeles committee, and lived through Jones commandeering that process, and it was clear that another power play wasn’t going to happen.

“People that might have been willing to wait saw Jerry going crazy and it actually galvanized (the owners),” said one ownership source. “He’d already caused the damage, and even after he’d said he wouldn’t sue, he was organizing calls and lobbying owners. Enough people said, ‘It’s not Jerry’s league.’ Jerry’s done a lot for the league, but he’s pulling us apart.”

And that’s where Goodell’s first task will be moving forward—finding a way to reunify the larger group with new broadcast deals and labor negotiations on the horizon. And yes, he’ll be well-compensated for it. My understanding is that the base on Goodell’s five-year deal is about $4 million per, with 90 percent of the money tied to incentives based on the prosperity of the league, some very easy to hit, some almost impossible to reach. I was told that in a good, solid year, Goodell will make in the mid-to-high 20s; and in a great year, he’ll get to the low 30s. It sounds like he’ll basically have to walk on water to hit the max number, which is around $40 million per.

And as for what’s ahead, I’d expect in Dallas, some owners will start discussions on changes in the league office, and there could be some sentiment for the NFL to get out of the investigation business.

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2. Rams dealing with the wildfires. By now, we’ve all seen the videos of the Southern California wildfires that look like they were shot on another planet. And the Rams are keeping those visuals in mind as they move forward with what’s been a trying week for so many of their neighbors. As for where they stand, the team’s home base in Thousand Oaks is about 20 miles from the worst of the fires, the Thomas Fire, in Ventura, and no staffers or players have fallen victim to them, but it’s had a small affect on how the team operates this week.

On Tuesday, there were ashes in the air, and it was smoky, and the team decided to start planning to be inside for the week. Though things had improved by Wednesday morning, the air quality was still shaky and the winds were blowing, so the Rams followed through with their contingency plan to have an elongated walkthrough inside Cal Lutheran’s gym in lieu of a practice. The plan is to go back to the normal schedule now, and be back outside Thursday and Friday, and all of that is, obviously, subject to change (the contingency there would be to move practice South to USC). No matter what happens, this will all challenge the team (and obviously, that’s a lot less serious challenge than what others in the area are facing) with a huge game against the Eagles looming.

“One of the things our guys have gotten comfortable with, you look at the long trip earlier in the year, they just adjust and adapt,” coach Sean McVay told reporters on Wednesday. “We’ve become a more mature team as the season has progressed. The goal is to make sure our players are as fresh as possible at 1:25 (PT).”  Off the field, the Rams have been in contact with the Red Cross in an effort to help, and the proceeds from their 50/50 raffle on Sunday will go to wildfire relief.

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3. Jets taking off. Strange thing happened on the way to the first pick in the draft—the Jets’ actually became the model of New York football stability in 2017. And no, the bar for that hasn’t necessarily been set high. But the past week has served as a good barometer for the turnaround that’s pulled the plug on what was supposed to be an effort by the Jets to tank their way to a franchise quarterback in 2018. Things easily could’ve gone the wrong way on several fronts.

In the days leading up to Sunday’s game, linebacker Darron Lee overslept and was late Saturday, and Mo Wilkerson was late for a meeting. As a result, Lee was deactivated and Wilkerson sat through the first quarter. And then, the Jets fell behind 14-0 against a Kansas City team that’s fighting for its playoff life. The 2015 or ’16 Jets may have crumbled in that spot, but this year’s group kept swinging, got the game tied at 14 by the half, and outlasted the Chiefs after the break to score a 38-31 win. Or one staffer put it, “They just kept playing.” And they did it with a young, competitive and hungry team, which explains the model that coach Todd Bowles and GM Mike Maccagnan were looking for in players in going through the overhaul of last offseason.

The truth is, the last two years has been a learning process for those two guys as they’ve grown into their roles—in taking an aging team to 10 wins in 2015, and then watching it crumble in ’16—and that growth has been evident in both this year. Just about all of the veterans that Maccagnan jettisoned have struggled or aren’t playing elsewhere, and he nailed his high picks, Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, and found the right quarterback, Josh McCown, to put young players around. Bowles’ ability to get the players to shut out the noise about tanking isn’t to be forgotten either. Bowles also developed the young talent on hand, no small feat after flipping out his offensive staff.

And now, going forward, the Jets have some nice young players to build, $80 million to spend, and, potentially, four of the top 75 picks in next year’s draft. Finding a quarterback (Kirk Cousins?) could be more of an issue without a pick inside the Top 2 or 3, but cultural changes that have taken hold have been worth it, in the minds of the brass. And provided no one suddenly gets itchy, ownership there might really wind up benefiting from being patient with its young coach/GM combo.

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4. Is Eli on the way out? It’s impossible to prognosticate Eli Manning’s future without knowing who’ll be making the football decisions for the Giants in 2018. But I certainly wouldn’t rule out staying, and for a couple reasons.

First, it wouldn’t be hard at all, logistically, for the team to both keep Manning and draft a Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen inside the Top 3 picks. Manning is set to make $33 million over the next two years, and a $16.5 million average would be a bargain for a starter in 2018. So the Giants could easily carry his number, and that of a rookie going at the top of the draft, who’d like be making around $7.5 million per. Those two figures, by the way, add to $24 million per, which is less than what five quarterbacks are making on their own.

Second, there’s no guarantee the new Giants leadership will be smitten with Rosen or Darnold, or anyone else, and there’s the chance some of the top QBs stay in school. Keeping Manning would give you flexibility to protect against all that—the same way hanging on to Sam Bradford protected the Eagles before they drafted Carson Wentz.

The caveat is that you’d want Manning to agree to it, and maybe he wouldn’t. But I think based on the value he puts on being a career Giant, he’d likely at least think about it. And if you could get him to do it, he’d probably be great for the young guy to be around and allow the club to wait on playing him. And listen, I know that a lot of people took what happened last week as a eulogy for Manning’s run as a Giant. But he’s back in the lineup this week, and I wouldn’t be totally shocked if he stays a while later.

Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images

1. I would not overlook Bill Belichick’s potential influence on the Giants’ search for a GM. Belichick’s long had a close relationship with owner John Mara, who’d surely seek his advice. And ex-Giants GM Ernie Accorsi has been retained as a consultant for the search, and Accorsi’s searches have, in the past, turned up Belichick protégés Thomas Dimitroff (Atlanta) and Bob Quinn (Detroit) as hires.

2. Accordingly, keep an eye on Patriots VP of player personnel Nick Caserio. In the past, there’s been perception that he had little interest in leaving New England, but the sense I’ve gotten is that he’s willing to listen, especially to a place like the Giants. Last year, when the Niners set their sights on Patriots OC Josh McDaniels, there was a second effort, after Caserio initially declined to interview in San Francisco, to poach the exec as part of a package deal.

3. If Caserio were to leave, I’d be interested to see if Belichick were inclined to try and woo Falcons assistant GM Scott Pioli back home. Pioli’s done a fantastic job in helping to build an impressive Atlanta roster.

4. I don’t think Jim Caldwell’s extension in Detroit makes him 100 percent safe at the end of the month. My guess is that if the Lions miss the playoffs, there’ll be some tough discussions. And there’s long been speculation in league circles that Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia could win up with the Lions.

5. The Ravens defense has been nasty all year, and the offense is finally showing some level of competence. Injury issues along the line, and Joe Flacco’s up-and-down play, have been problems all year, but behind the tough, chippy play of center Ryan Jensen, and the hard-running of Alex Collins, Baltimore’s begun to develop an identity on that side of the ball. If the Ravens win Sunday, getting to 10 wins would be easy to see, and that should be enough to make the AFC playoffs.

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6. To me, the fundamental issue in games like the Bengals/Steelers Monday nighter is officials losing control. That’s something I believe is correctable through technology. We don’t need the targeting rule. Just make fighting and illegal hits reviewable, and let the players know they’re being watched constantly. Most believe they can get away with most of it, because there’s so much officials are responsible to watch. They won’t feel that way if they know the eye in the sky is on them.

7. Credit to the Packers coaching staff for getting read-option concepts into the offense to get quarterback Brett Hundley going the past couple weeks. The best news for Green Bay is that it’s helped them develop another dimension on the ground that should serve them well when they get Aaron Rodgers in Week 15. That’s all provided they can survive the Browns game this week, because another loss would probably spell the end for them.

8. Jimmy Garoppolo deserves a lot of credit for playing really well in third-and-long situations in his debut as Niners starter in Chicago. On third or fourth down against the Bears, he hit on 10-of-15 passes for 116 yards and a pick that really wasn’t his fault. (It was stolen from a receiver’s hands.)

9. We’ve spent plenty of time the past few weeks looking at potential coaching candidates for 2018: I even shot a video on the best 10 guys under 50 years old the other day. Want a name that wasn’t on there? Bill O’Brien. If the Texans coach becomes available after the season, he’ll be at the top of a lot of lists.

10. Almost seems like a shame that a late-season showdown like Falcons-Saints is on a Thursday, mostly because you have to wonder if we’ll be getting either teams’ best. Either way, I’m excited to see how it goes down.

Tim Warner/Getty Images

As LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey chose last December to skip their respective bowl games to protect themselves and prepare for the NFL draft, a larger question emerged: Would this soon become standard operating procedure the following April?

Our lesson this week: More guys are following the Fournette/McCaffrey model, and so it’s fair to say that things are heading that way.

Prospective first-round tackle Connor Williams, who missed most of 2017 with a knee injury, announced last week that he was leaving Texas early, and would skip the bowl game. Fellow Longhorns DeShon Elliott, a safety, and Holton Hill, a corner, soon followed suit.

And then, on Tuesday, Florida State blue-chip safety Derwin James, who suffered a catastrophic knee injury as a sophomore in 2016, wrote on Players Tribune that he’d enter the draft and start prep now, rather than playing in the Independence Bowl under an interim coach. (Jimbo Fisher left FSU for Texas A&M over the weekend.) As you might imagine, active players are watching this trend with interest.

“I think this is the first business decision they have to make as a professional in a lot of ways,” said NFLPA president/Bengals tackle Eric Winston. “A lot of people wanted to say that scouts were going to downgrade Fournette, they’re gonna downgrade Christian, and obviously that didn’t happen.

“But I do think this is something where they’ve gotta say: Is this last game worth it? How much can I improve, and where would I drop to with an injury? And they gotta make that decision and go with it.”

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Fournette was the fourth pick, McCaffrey the eighth pick, and both have been productive in Year 1.

We mentioned last year how unique Winston’s perspective is on this topic. He was a true freshman on the 2002 Miami Hurricanes, a team whose star, Willis McGahee, blew out his knee playing for a national title in the Fiesta Bowl. Previously seen as a Top 5 prospect, McGahee slid to the 23rd pick. “It definitely opened guys’ eyes, that’s for sure,” Winston says.

Conversely, Winston played in his final college game, the 2005 Peach Bowl against LSU, without a second thought, because that’s just what players did then. And that was even though he played as a senior with his health on his mind, after his junior year was cut short by a dislocated knee, three torn ligaments and a torn muscle.

“It was a really good opponent that had some really good players on their front line,” Winston says. “So it was game I could show, against an SEC opponent, what I could do. Now, that’s all looking back, hindsight’s 20/20, right? Fortunately, I got out of it healthy. Like I said, I think every guy has to have that discussion with himself, and has to really look at pros and cons, and what they’re going to get out of it.

“And some guys, I think there is a lot they can get out of it, playing against a really good opponent, showing that you can ball against a guy that’s perceived to be really good. And then for other guys, maybe there isn’t that.”

The level of bowl game, beyond just playoff/non-playoff, does seem to matter here. Consider that Fournette was missing the Citrus Bowl, McCaffrey missed the Sun Bowl, the Texas guys will miss the Texas Bowl, and James is passing on the Independence Bowl.

What if it’s an upper-tier non-playoff bowl like, this year, the Orange Bowl (Wisconsin/Miami), the Cotton Bowl (USC/Ohio State) or the Fiesta Bowl (Penn State/Washington)? There are potential Top 10 picks like USC’s Sam Darnold, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley and Ohio State’s Denzel Ward in those games. So what do they do?

Well, Barkley said he won’t skip, Ohio State players have said they don’t expect anyone on their loaded roster to do it, and there seems to be zero chance that Darnold—whose decision on whether to enter the draft at all has been the subject of much speculation—would leave the Pac-12 champions now. So this may not be the year it happens on a bigger stage.

But as Winston sees it, that this is even a thought now is good for players in general. And if one of those guys asked Winston, he says he wouldn’t try and sway them one way or the other.

“I definitely would not tell him yes or no,” he said. “I would try to explain in a logical way, ‘Look at how you can benefit from this. Who’s your matchup? Is that something that could be good for you? And what could you lose for this?’ I would say that’s sort of where I would try to have that conversation. But I would never tell a guy that he should or shouldn’t play. That’s a decision that he has to make.”

But that it’s considered a decision at all? That’s a credit to Fournette and McCaffrey.


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