- The 32-year-old head coach will work with a team big on talent, but big on potential problems too. Why he’s confident it will work. Also, Dez Bryant on the brink, Lamar Jackson’s strange draft season decision-making, what RG3 brings to Baltimore, a draft prospect drawing Ray Lewis comps, high praise for Baker Mayfield and what Johnny Manziel is doing right
Ten months ago, Sean McVay was still a 31-year-old curiosity, the Rams were coming off their 10th consecutive sub-.500 season, and the NFL’s return to L.A. was barely registering in the city’s crowded entertainment marketplace. And yet, it was right then and there, at OTAs’ end, that the stage was set for this year’s splash.
The coaching staff was running a scored offense vs. defense drill—first side to five wins; the defense won, and that meant the offense had to take a lap around the Oxnard, Calif. practice field. That’s when something funny happened. As the offensive players went to pay off the loss, the defensive players turned around too, running with guys they beat when they didn’t have to.
“You want those sorts of things to organically happen,” McVay said Wednesday evening, over his cell on his drive home. “It wasn’t something that had to be motivated by a coach—Hey, you should run, too. This goes back to where my grandfather’s history has an effect on some of the core beliefs and values that we preach day-in and day-out with the Rams.”
Making his way through traffic, the coach recalled asking his grandfather, long-time San Francisco 49ers personnel czar John McVay, what made the dynastic Niners of the 1980s so different. The elder McVay brought up Bill Walsh and George Seifert—and all the help they had, and how it related to that June day in L.A.
“Their best players were the best examples of what it looks like to do things right day-in and day-out,” Sean McVay says. “Those were the standards. Nobody was above those standards because these were the guys that led the way. Everybody followed. When your best players are coachable, receptive, accountable on a daily basis, and all your guys demonstrate what it means to do right on the practice field, in the meeting room, and they have a selfless mindset and mentality. That’s when good things can happen.”
The Rams acquired Marcus Peters five-and-a-half weeks ago from the Chiefs. They then dealt for Broncos corner Aqib Talib, before signing Dolphins castoff Ndamukong Suh, a move followed by Tuesday’s trade for receiver Brandin Cooks. Each player has had his problems, and each was let go for a reason—this isn’t the first time for three of the four.
And somehow, the Rams are confident this will be different, largely because of what they’ve established over the last year. It’s in that scene from last June, and what it represents. And it’s in their best players not just being the right kind of athletes, but the right kind of people.
In this week’s GamePlan, we’ll look at why Dez Bryant is on thin ice in Dallas, check out the Lamar Jackson weirdness, check in on Robert Griffin III, explain why NFL business is still robust, and dive into the importance of knowing who will throw the ball for your team, courtesy Jay Gruden, coach of the suddenly quarterback-stable Redskins.
But we start with the biggest story of the week, and that’s the Rams (again) and their big trade (again), and maybe the most important question for this team: Given the egos, varied personalities, expectations, and contract situations, how in the world are they going to make it work?
We’ve seen this fail before. The Eagles won their division in 2010, and hatched the Dream Team in 2011. The Cowboys had big years in 2007 and 2014, and dice-roll acquisitions (Pacman Jones in 2008, Greg Hardy in 2015) took down an all-in Jerry Jones in the years to follow.
So one more time: How does this work where the others didn’t? As McVay sees it, it starts with guys like Aaron Donald, Jared Goff and Todd Gurley, their experience during last year’s turnaround, and their willingness to repeat what it took to get to a division title and fight the temptation to feel like they’re starting this year where they left off last year.
“One of the things I’ve heard Coach Belichick say, when you look at the consistency the Patriots have had over a handful of years, ‘You wipe the slate clean,’” McVay says. “What we did last year won’t do anything for us. We’ve gotta recommit and focus on building from where we left off while understanding that what we did last year won’t get us any yards, won’t get us any sacks. You’ve gotta earn it every day.”
Still, these are individual people coming in, and as such each had to have his tires kicked before the Rams took them on. What eventually made McVay and GM Les Snead comfortable with injecting these newcomers into what they believe has become a pretty good mix was a tie binding the four—their passion for football. That showed up in the research the team did. For example:
• In tape study of Peters, coaches noticed how positively he responded to bad plays, and his concept recognition, which could only be the result of hard study.
• Talib was with McVay in Tampa in 2008 and, of course, Wade Phillips in Denver, and he was a Broncos team captain last year. So the Rams know him, and feel like, at 32, he should be a positive influence on Peters and others.
• Rams strength coach Ted Rath was with Suh for six years in Detroit, and he vouched for the maniacal manner in which the former All-Pro takes care of himself. The Dolphins had issues with his selfishness at times, and the Lions with his temper, but he does seem to still love football.
• McVay called around on Cooks, and heard that he’s universally liked off the field, and relentless on the practice field. Then, just after the deal went down, a Patriots assistant texted the Rams coach and told him Cooks didn’t miss a single practice rep in 2017.
There’s no assurance, of course, that all of it will hold up; McVay will be first to tell you that. There’s also risk involved in depleting the team’s war chest of draft picks. The Rams don’t pick until 87, haven’t had a first-round pick since taking Goff first overall two years ago, and are already out their second-round pick for 2019.
The team’s counter on this front is in its ability to make more out of third- and fourth-round picks, which it believes is a product of McVay’s clarity in what he’s looking for. Three major contributors in 2017 were rookies drafted in that range (WR Cooper Kupp, OLB Samson Ebukam and S John Johnson), where a team that already has blue-chippers can find its middle-of-the-roster talent.
Given that he’s armed with a third-rounder and three fourth-rounders, Snead will have a chance to go looking again in that area. And the team expects to get a couple comp third-rounders next year to add to its 2019 haul, which should help to make up for the ’19 second-rounder dealt as part of the Peters deal.
For now, the focus is back where it was last year at this time, and that’s on building and bonding.
Still, to us off-campus, it seems like it’s Super Bowl or bust for the Rams, especially considering we’re in this soon-to-close window in which the Rams have Donald, Gurley and Goff on rookie deals. The team itself, as McVay sees it, sits somewhere on the fringes of that reality, not living it but close enough to hear what’s happening.
“I don’t want our players ever to fear failure, we always talk about attacking success,” he says. “But for us, what will put us in position to do good things when the season begins is focusing on our offseason program, and when we get into training camp, focusing on one day at a time. That’s our mentality and our mindset.
“That’s important, to stay focused, to stay grounded. All we can do is control what we do on any given day. That’s the focus for us.”
It’s probably a good attitude to have since it’s the one that got them to the playoffs for the first time in a long time a year ago. Could things go wrong? Sure. Cooks might not be pleased with his role. Talib or Peters or both could have a gameday meltdown or two. Suh could, as he did in Miami, play for himself more than team. None of those outcomes would shock anyone.
But based on what we know about McVay’s Rams, no one should be remotely surprised, either, if all of this works out the way they drew it up.
FIRST AND 10
1. There might not have been a more entertaining defensive player to watch in college football last year than Roquan Smith. The evaluators I talked to in the fall were smitten with him then, as they are now. How smitten? The comp I’ve gotten for him a couple times this week: Ray Lewis.
2. Speaking of high praise, one NFC quarterbacks coach told me last week that Baker Mayfield is the most accurate signal-caller he’s ever evaluated coming out of college—“He doesn’t miss throws.” His anticipation as a passer is another plus area (it’s him and Sam Darnold atop the class in that category) that shows his game is more than just the competitiveness and creativity he’s known for.
3. The Bears and Cardinals kicked off their offseason programs Tuesday, and I’m always curious to hear how first-year coaches try to make a first impression. I love what Matt Nagy did in Chicago: As I heard it, he used the time with his players to explain the history of being a Bear, right down to the GSH initials (George S. Halas) on their jerseys, and the fact that their boss (Virginia McCaskey) happens to be GSH’s daughter. He did something similar with the staff a few weeks back at Soldier Field, and plans to have alumni back in the building to be around the players as soon as he can get them there.
4. Like a lot of coaches do, too, Nagy had some slogans for the players after they got through the history lesson and to a look at what’s ahead. One that stuck out: “Obsession.” It’s something that Nagy and GM Ryan Pace came up with, I’m told, with the implication being that being obsessed (in a good way) with football is what it takes to win in the NFL.
5. As for the other team that got started on Tuesday, it’ll certainly be interesting to see if the Cardinals can get in position to draft one of the top four quarterbacks, with the likelihood increasing that they’d have to move into the first half-dozen picks to make it happen. A lot of buzz around the league right now that Wyoming’s Josh Allen is GM Steve Keim’s kind of guy.
6. There are plenty of questions about what the Patriots will do with their haul of picks—they hold the 23rd, 31st, 43rd and 63rd selections. And it’s fair to surmise that New England has the chance to move up. I just wouldn’t count on it. The dearth of 25-and-under talent on the roster (Trey Flowers and Shaq Mason are probably the Patriots’ best in that category) dictates that Bill Belichick and Co. will need numbers after going the last two years without a first-round pick.
7. I’d reiterate what we said last week: Monday is a big day in the Odell Beckham Jr. saga, because it’s the first day of Pat Shurmur’s first offseason program in Jersey. If he shows up, buys in, and has a strong spring, it’d be easier to talk contract. If he doesn’t—which has been widely expected for a while—then the idea of negotiating with him gets sticky for the team.
8. Johnny Manziel could’ve better taken ownership of the problems that felled his career at 22, and not used those issues to poke at the Browns, but I’ll say that there was one positive to come away from his appearance on the Dan Patrick Show on Wednesday: the willingness to play in Canada. Whether it’s playing there, or in the spring league, Manziel is showing a continued willingness to go to desperate measures to juice his stock, and not all players do that. If you remember, Tim Tebow never had much interest in playing in any football league other than the NFL.
9. The Broncos had Josh Rosen to Denver on Wednesday, will have Josh Allen in next week and Mayfield the week after, and have a private workout set for Friday in L.A. with Sam Darnold. And I don’t think this is all smoke. What I know is that they’ve been considered, through this offseason, as a team that’s unlikely to trade up. Could that change? Well, if QBs go 1-2-3, and one they like is there at 4, flip-flopping with Cleveland (like Chicago did to get Mitch Trubisky last year) isn’t inconceivable, given that the Browns might well have a market for the pick.
10. I, for the most part, like the Titans’ new uniforms, although I think just having the sword-looking ‘T” on it, instead of the whole flaming ball, would’ve looked cool. We have a couple more of these to go—the Dolphins and Jaguars unveil their new looks in two weeks.
1. Dez Bryant’s future in Dallas. There’s no delicate way to put it: It’s a good thing that Bryant has two very powerful sponsors in the Cowboys’ facility in owner Jerry Jones and coach Jason Garrett. Because based on where the staff sees him right now, justifying the $12.5 million he’s due this fall (and the $16.5 million cap number he carries) has gotten difficult for the team. Maybe they’ll be able to compromise.
The truth is: This is where things have been going for a while. Cowboys coaches started seeing Bryant’s overwhelming physical gifts start to slip all the way back in 2015, the injury-plagued first season of his five-year, $70 million second contract. And that hasn’t reversed itself. Three years later, at the point in his career when some players reinvent themselves by becoming craftier, Bryant’s struggle to adjust to playing at a different speed has disappointed the team. He can’t run by anyone anymore. He lacks explosion, evident in the loss of inches off his vertical. He’s still inconsistent as a route-runner. He’s hard to count on for Dak Prescott. And as some there see it, he’s not doing enough to counteract all of that.
“Based on last year,” one staffer says, “he does very few things really well.” So now, the challenge is on Bryant to do what Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald and, at a different position, his own teammate, Jason Witten, have pulled off: combat Father Time with the kind of hard work that generates a second NFL life. The Cowboys’ failure to land Sammy Watkins probably saved Bryant’s place on the roster, and it’s not crazy to think it could still be in jeopardy. That much is up to Jones and, to some extent, Garrett. They’ve both believed in Bryant when others didn’t. It seems like it’s time for him to repay that faith.
2. The Lamar Jackson conundrum. Based on where things are with the Louisville QB, I think it’s fair to ask: Is his goal to be drafted as high as possible, or is it to prove a point? More than there ever has been, there’s a place in the NFL for quarterbacks with non-traditional skill sets, and so there are teams (and good ones) out there, without question, fascinated with the possibilities that Jackson presents.
There are also questions about Jackson. Can he learn to throw with anticipation? Can he learn to throw with touch? And where does his capacity to grow mentally within an NFL offense—I’m told he has struggled in some of his board sessions with teams, though coaches who like him say he’s more visual learner than verbal learner—project him a few years down the line? These are questions that can be addressed in meetings and workouts with individual teams. That teams have had issues in setting up such appointments with Jackson is perplexing, as is his decision not to run a 40 ahead of draft day. Both provide a chance to boost his stock. In each case, he’s left potential suitors looking for more.
And to be clear, I understand his sensitivity about the notion that he’d have to switch positions. I talked to one AFC personnel exec this week who said, “If he doesn’t pan out [at QB], he can be a damn good receiver,” and I get that hearing these things pushes a button that he and his mother, who is advising him through the process, have watched get worn out over the last seven years. But running a 40 won’t change the thoughts others would have on Jackson’s potential as a receiver—clocking in the 4.3s would help with teams that want him as a quarterback, and limiting meetings with clubs only blows opportunities to show your ability as a quarterback.
Being difficult to reach also affects how teams might look at Jackson as a potential face of the franchise, which is what a starting quarterback has to be. I talked to one team that had a handful of staffers try to get ahold of Jackson, each leaving messages for him. That team, as this column goes up, still hasn’t heard back from him. So that team is where a lot of NFL people are right now: left with unanswered questions about a dynamic prospect. And three weeks before the draft, that’s not where any player wants to be.
3. RG-Restart. I like the Ravens’ move to bring in Robert Griffin III, and not just because it’s a low-risk signing with the potential to give Baltimore a return. To me, it feels like it’s Baltimore acknowledging that they’ve got to do more at quarterback, starting now. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see that continue on draft weekend.
Joe Flacco’s cap number for 2018 is $24.75 million, fourth-highest in the NFL. His performance … has not been commensurate with that. Over the last three years, among quarterbacks with at least 450 attempts, Flacco ranks 31st with an 82.4 passer rating. For context: Blake Bortles is 30th (83.8) and Jacoby Brissett (81.9) is 32nd. Colin Kaepernick is 28th (85.5). And while passer rating isn’t the end-all, be-all, and Baltimore’s issues on the offensive line and at receiver have to be noted, when you’re paying Flacco like the Ravens have, part of the job is to be good enough to cover up parts of the roster that may be deficient or going through transition.
Flacco is 33. There’s not another guaranteed dollar on his contract after 2018. So it’s clear that he needs to play better, and the team needs to get more out of him. This, of course, isn’t to say there will be an open competition. But having someone with Griffin’s pedigree behind him, to put a little pressure on him, can’t hurt, nor would the idea of adding a draft pick to the room (there were murmurs a couple months ago that the Ravens really like Baker Mayfield, but if the team stays at 16th he’s well out of reach).
The general idea here has to be to get more out of the position. And as for Griffin himself, I spoke with a teammate of his from the 2016 Browns, whose take mirrored what I’d heard from coaches who were there: He was, all in all, a good soldier, and stuck around and was a good teammate after his injury that September. This particular player said the big question he’d have is how Griffin would handle going into a football year as a true backup, and whether or not he’d be more self-aware than he had been in his younger years, but generally liked his experience playing with him. We’ll see if the Ravens feel similarly over the next few months.
4. L.A. stadium will up the ante. ESPN’s Seth Wickersham reported last week that the cost of the L.A. stadium project, which was initially projected at $2.6 billion, is now scraping up against $5 billion, which is more than $3 billion north of what any existing stadium has cost.
There is some parsing to do here. The former figure is based on just the stadium itself, while the latter includes the adjacent concert hall/amphitheater, and all of the 300-acre property’s infrastructure (roads, parking lots, parks, etc.). That said, the expectation is now that the stadium alone will run over $3 billion, which puts it over budget and has caused some concern among the peers of Rams owner Stan Kroenke, who’ll be footing the bill and, thus, incurring the risk. Because the Rams’ and Chargers’ ability to generate revenue in the new place will likely push the salary cap north, some smaller-market owners in stadiums that aren’t brand new are worried about their ability keep up with player costs, even with the bump in shared money they’ll get.
The flipside? The NFL now has two teams in a stadium that should be unparalleled, its network has a permanent home in the middle of a sports-and-entertainment complex, and this is all an example of how, for all the league’s issues, NFL business is still booming. And that wasn’t the only show of the NFL’s might to come out of the Orlando meetings, either. The league voted to increase the debt ceiling for teams by 40%—from $250 million to $350 million. Shortly after, the Fitch Ratings came out on the NFL, and did not decrease its credit rating whatsoever, which is pretty crazy. So to sum this up? L.A. is becoming a far costlier proposition than Kroenke or the league thought it would be. But the NFL should be able to handle it.
LESSON OF THE WEEK
Washington doesn’t play the Vikings next year, but that doesn’t mean Jay Gruden won’t, at some point, take a look at how the quarterback he coached for the last four years looks in purple. And sure, it’ll be strange to see Kirk Cousins elsewhere.
“Yeah, it’ll be a little bit weird,” Gruden told me a few days ago. “It’ll be weird, but this is pro football. Nothing surprises me anymore.”
In the end, this didn’t, either. Gruden, like everyone else, was able to envision it from a couple years away. The longer they waited, the higher Cousins’ price went, and the less likely it became that a quarterback they weren’t totally sold on would stay put. By last July, Gruden admits now, he knew it was inevitable. “Honestly, not getting him done to a long-term deal before last season, I could see it coming.”
So what’s the upshot of having gone through all of this? If we move aside the debate over whether Washington upgraded or not with Alex Smith (arguable), and that they got older (true), they got something that all teams treasure at the game’s most important positions: certainty. And therein lies our lesson for this week: There’s value in knowing who your quarterback is going to be going forward.
The divorce here gave two teams that. The Vikings went into the offseason with only Kyle Sloter under contract at quarterback and came away with Cousins locked in as the guy for the next three years. Likewise, Alex Smith’s new contract—he’s due $71 million over the next three years, and it’ll all be fully guaranteed as of next March—makes him the man in DC through 2020.
“That’s the way you want to be in this job,” Gruden says. “You want to know who your quarterback is. It’s the most important position in sports. And I think your team wants to know. Even your draft picks wanna come in here and be able to say, ‘This is who we’re going to rely on’, and not get the questions, ‘Hey, he’s gonna be a free agent, is he going to sign a long-term deal?’ It wears on you after a while. So it’s good to have that in-house now with Alex.”
That’s why Gruden and Co. at least discussed the idea of moving on from Cousins after 2016—the team knew then that it would be tough to do a long-term deal off a second franchise tag, given the frayed relationship between team and player. Ultimately, after looking at pursuing Mike Glennon last offseason, Washington decided another year of Cousins made sense.
And so now it’s Smith. Gruden explained to me that the ex-Chief’s presence on the market caught him a little off-guard in January. “He won [over] 50 games in five years, that’s hard to do … And I didn’t think that type of player would be available”—and so he hadn’t done much homework when team president Bruce Allen came to him with the concept of trading for Smith.
Gruden didn’t really feel like he needed to either. Smith’s reputation among Gruden’s confidants preceded him, and so he quickly signed off on the idea, in large part because of the former first overall pick’s diverse skill set.
“Him playing for coach [Jim] Harbaugh, obviously for Andy [Reid], there’s a lot of concepts that’ll carry over. We call them differently, but there are some things that I believe in, that I’ve learned that he’s going to know,” Gruden says. “It’s going to be a smooth transition for him. And now it’s just a matter of learning some of the things he hasn’t done that we’re going to ask him to do, and then some of the things he brings to the table that we haven’t done that we’re going to do.
“The thing with Alex that makes it really hard is there really isn’t anything he can’t do. Like, O.K., we have to eliminate this because we have Alex or we can’t run this because we have Alex. No, we can run this and now we can run this, and don’t forget about this, we can do that! Now we have too many pages, we have to figure out where we want to go.”
And the best part: They know they’ll be building around him for the next few years, a luxury they haven’t had there, really, since right before Robert Griffin III flamed out.
“We have clear picture of what we have at quarterback, a clear understanding of what we need in certain areas of our football team,” Gruden says. “And that’s going to be the most important thing for us to get from where we are, 9-7, 8-7-1, 7-9, over the hump—having a clear vision of who you are as a football team and, most importantly, who your quarterback is moving forward.”
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