- Also, the Eagles outcoach everyone, new play-callers coming for Cam Newton and (eventually) Russell Wilson, Reuben Foster reminds us that marijuana use actually is a legitimate red flag (because of dumb rules), the Thomas Davis farewell tour, and the unnecessary rush to hire head coaches. Plus, musical guest The Rentals!
1. The lead up to Steelers-Jaguars game has been a treat, as it combined two of my favorite things in the world: poor reading comprehension and MOTIVATION!.
In case you missed it, our Greg Bishop did a killer story on the Steelers defense, which included Mike Mitchell essentially saying, after the Patriots loss, that he was looking forward to a Patriots rematch. But since Twitter use has rendered a bunch of goobers unable to retain 100 words of information at a time, we get MOTIVATION! for the Jaguars, because Mitchell was looking past them even though he didn't know he'd be playing them and was specifically addressing the team he had most recently played. Put it on the bulletin board!
It is quite a break for the Jaguars, because what other motivation would they have to win an NFL playoff game? Jalen Ramsey had actually packed a blanket and a Judy Blume book and was all set for a lazy Sunday afternoon on Heinz Field's visiting locker room couches. And ever since he got that $15 Old Navy gift card for Christmas Leonard Fournette has been hankering for a new pair of khakis; Sunday was going to be the day to shop for casual business wear.* But after hearing that four weeks ago an opponent said that he’d be interested in playing a different team that also happens to be the defending Super Bowl champion, in the aftermath of a close loss to that team . . . well, that kind of disrespect just can’t stand. So instead, Ramsey and Fournette and all the Jaguars will play football on Sunday instead. And if Jacksonville pulls off the upset, we’ll know why.
*—I don't know if "casual business wear" is an actual term. Is it?
2. I don’t have any deep thoughts about the Vikings-Saints matchup, except that if this Saints offense vs. this Vikings defense is the last thing I’ll ever see, I’d be all right with that. Well, I'd probably still a little bit angry with whomever it is that blinded me, but all things considered, I'd be fine.
Drew Brees is coming off his best performance of the season, but the Vikings are capable of leaving seven in coverage, still getting a pass rush, and their defensive backfield is miles better than Carolina’s. Not to mention, the Vikings have the guys in the middle of the field to stick with Alvin Kamara (in theory). Basically, the Saints can win this matchup if they are close to perfection, which seems well within the realm of possibility. (There’s also the chance that Case Keenum turns into a pumpkin in his playoff debut, but let’s stay positive.)
3. It was awkward the way Mike Mularkey was strung along late in the season, and it’s unfair in many ways to can him after the rebuild he’s accomplished in Nashville. Realistically, this is as far as this team was going.
But at this point, Jon Robinson should just move on. Everyone is looking for their Sean McVay, the offensive savant coach to pair with their young QB, and it's tough to poach a guy like that for a coordinator role (and if he's successful, he's going to get a head coaching job somewhere else anyway). It’s fair to say that the most important job of the Titans head coach is Marcus Mariota’s development, and Tennessee can’t afford to have Mariota slide back in his development like he did this year. It's reasonable to believe that they can do better, and perhaps they must do better, than the current staff.
4. Doug Pederson, Frank Reich, John DeFilippo and Co. obviously made good use of their bye week. Nick Foles looked shaky as ever early on Saturday, but they turned back the clock with some Chip Kelly-style RPOs to get him comfortable, and torched a fast Falcons D with a couple of brilliant misdirection designs. That’s how you maximize the hand you’ve been dealt.
As for Steve Sarkisian and his Atlanta offense . . . I thought it was incredibly unfair when people were calling for his job early in the season, and I asserted (many times!) throughout the year that they were a couple of near-misses on designer deep shots away from getting their mojo back and burying that narrative. But this offense devolved late in the year, and they were nowhere near championship caliber by the time the playoffs rolled around. Two of their three touchdowns this postseason were aided by muffed punts setting up a short field. They were outmatched in the trenches on Sunday, but they were unable to expose the glaring mismatch of the Philly linebackers trying to cover their backs in the passing game. And that final goal-to-go series, to run an inside screen to Terron Ward(!) and then end the season by cutting the field in half with a sprint out . . . There were growing pains in 2017, as was to be expected, but watching this much talent struggle this badly was tough to stomach.
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5. Before I get into Norv Turner, the Carolina Panthers’ new 65-year-old wunderkind offensive coordinator, a story about a much younger man named Bill O’Brien.
O’Brien had run the same iso/option-route heavy passing system throughout his tenure in Houston, one that's really tailored to a savvy, veteran quarterback. Then, after realizing his rookie QB couldn’t run that system successfully but did have some other skills that could be put to use, O'Brien blew it up and rebuilt the offense on the fly. The Texans looked utterly unstoppable at times before Watson's season-ending knee injury.
You’re never too old to learn new tricks. At least you're probably not. Turner has been out of football for a year and a half, and has had plenty of time (Summer of Norv Forever!) to assess what he can do better in the modern NFL, and with a unique talent like Cam Newton. Turner’s overall philosophy—power running and deep passing—fits with Newton’s skill set. (Yes, that’s incredibly vague, like saying a guy’s philosophy is “scoring points,” so that’s a positive.) But, surely, the Panthers had a conversation about how to use Newton, Christian McCaffrey, and a unit short on downfield receiving threats before they brought in Turner.
As for the old boss, sometimes it’s good to just get a new voice in a quarterback’s ear, but I’m not sure what else Carolina wanted Mike Shula to do. They went into the year with a mission to limit the wear and tear on Newton, Shula put in some quick-strike elements, and they didn’t work because they didn’t fit his quarterback’s skillset. If they stuck with it, they would have gone 7-9. So they went back to what has worked over the years—Newton on designed runs and throwing deep—traded one of their two receivers who fit that offense (Kelvin Benjamin), and then moved on from Shula despite what was a reasonably successful season.
The arrival of Turner suggests that the solution won’t be the quick-strike, keep-Cam-from-taking-hits approach of last September. So Carolina had better get ready to pony up for free-agent guard Andrew Norwell, find a new solution at left tackle (remember what happened to Turner's offense in Minnesota when they couldn't block?), and find another big, downfield target, or they’re going to have the same issues they had in 2016 and ’17 no matter who’s calling the plays.
6. I’m not about to start a 501(c)(3) for Darrell Bevell, but he was dealt a tough hand in Seattle. He’ll forever be remembered as the guy who called the pass on the 1-yard line in the Super Bowl when everyone knows he should have rammed it into the teeth of the Patriots’ oversized goal-line package for a loss of a yard.
As has been correctly pointed out in these parts before, Russell Wilson was a blessing and a curse when it came to the perception of Bevell. Wilson is one of the greatest ever at creating plays out of structure, and Bevell built a framework to take advantage of that. But then he was saddled with an offensive line that couldn’t block. (Though, to make up for it, the front office also stuck him with Eddie Lacy.) He had no running game, and no ability to protect his quarterback. The Seahawks had nothing to lean on outside of Wilson’s natural play-making, and when Wilson struggled over the final month the whole thing fell apart.
I have no problem with the Seahawks moving on from Bevell (though I would have appreciated being asked). Sometimes you make a change for the sake of making a change. And circling back to Bill O'Brien because apparently I think of him every time I close my eyes: After Deshaun Watson pulled that vaunted Seattle defense’s collective pants down last fall, I wonder if the Seahawks decided they wanted an offense like the one O'Brien put together for Watson. The Texans had a bad offensive line too, but they dressed up their system with bells and whistles and hard misdirection, and it gave opposing defenses fits. I don’t know if that’s a long-term solution—part of Houston’s success was surely due to the fact that it was a midseason change and such a departure from what O’Brien has done in the past that it caught everyone off-guard. But it seems like it would be a solution for Wilson, who (at this point in their careers) is basically a rich man’s Deshaun Watson.
7. Every spring around draft time, someone is branded with a “red flag” due to a failed drug test, and there’s a stream of criticism toward decision-makers across the NFL that goes something like, “Hey old man, you don’t understand the young people and the marijuana.”
Marijuana laws in this country are archaic. The NFL’s drug policy is like a caricature of everything wrong-minded about current drug policy. But the policy exists, and that’s why teams shy away from guys who fail drug tests—it puts a player, say, one minor pot charge away from a suspension. We’ll see it play out with Reuben Foster, who figures to have to sit the first couple games for a 49ers team that will be entering next season with playoff aspirations.
8. It’s going to be a weird world when the Panthers open the 2019 season with no Thomas Davis. Davis announced that 2018 would be his final season. I’m not sure it was necessarily a Hall of Fame career—during his best years he wasn’t the best linebacker on his own team. But he was year in year out one of the top 10-to-15 linebackers in football over the course of a decade, transitioning from a hybrid linebacker/safety role at UGa and helping pave the way for the new breed of smaller, faster linebackers to counter modern offenses. He was a first-team All-Pro in 2015 and Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2014. And, because of his three ACL tears, we’ve all had quite a few opportunities to prep an obit for his career. Which makes everything he accomplished that much more impressive.
9. Congratulations to the Chicago Bears on winning the head-coach hiring race—I understand a lot of fan bases are FREAKING OUT. Just a reminder that news on the 49ers hiring Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch broke Monday of the Super Bowl bye week, and they were officially introduced four days after Super Bowl.
10. Ladies and gentlemen . . . The Rentals!
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