Maybe you were wondering why the Panthers chose to run the ball on third-and-one from the Giants 46 with 35 seconds left, down 31-30, on Sunday. Social media sure was. And it was logical to ask the question.
We’ve got your answer. It’s in what special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn said to Carolina coach Ron Rivera (as Rivera laid it out to me) when the Panthers took possession at their own 25 with 98 seconds to go, regarding kicker Graham Gano.
Coach, he was killing it in warmups, Blackburn said. He’s good from 65. All we gotta do is get it past the 50.
So offensive coordinator Norv Turner—who actually saw Gano hit the 65-yarder in pregame—called a run, banking on Christian McCaffrey to give Carolina a fresh set of downs, maybe more, and at the very least one more shot at getting closer before the staff made its big bet on Gano’s right leg. McCaffrey got the yard. Cam Newton and the offense hustled to clock the ball. Then a Newton throw to Jarius Wright along the left sideline fell incomplete.
And Rivera got his final confirmation.
Rivera and Gano have this unspoken thing—if Gano’s good with the distance, he starts jogging toward the field from the kicking net without being prompted. Rivera saw Gano moving, and then Gano saw Rivera raise his hands up, giving the signal for the field goal team.
You know the rest. Gano was nails, absolutely drilling the 63-yarder, and the Panthers moved to 3-1 with the 33-31 win.
“I saw the arms go up, and said, Here we go,” said Gano over his cell from the victorious locker room. “I’m glad he has faith in me to send me out there for that. Those are fun ones. It’s one of those, you just try to hit a good ball, hit it straight. You know if you hit it left or right, it’s got no shot. So I just tried to hit it down the middle, make sure I hit a clean ball. I mean it [when I say] those guys around me, they really do make my job easy.”
And did he know from the start that it was true?
“It felt pretty good,” he continued. “It’s hard to see with the big guys in front of me. But the reaction that my holder had, that’s the first moment I knew it was gonna be good—‘Oh my gosh, this thing actually has a chance.’ Words can’t describe it. I’m excited to hang out with my family and relive that. I have to go home and play basketball with my son, I told him I’d do that.”
Given the mood Gano was in, that promise wasn’t going to be hard to follow through on. A lot easier, anyway, than the promise dad just delivered on for his coach and teammates.
Welcome in to a loaded Week 5 MMQB. Here’s what you have to look forward to:
• Lions coach Matt Patricia on the challenges in his first month at the helm—and being able to hold off Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
• Rams tackle Andrew Whitworth on his team’s confidence in its coaching staff, and how Sean McVay’s fourth-and-one call resonated with Rams players.
• Cincinnati offensive coordinator Bill Lazor on the difference between this year’s Bengals and the last couple years, and the play that Andy Dalton made Sunday to ignite them.
• The Saints coach who’s spent more time around Drew Brees than anyone in the NFL brings context and history to Monday night’s bid for the all-time passing yardage record.
• Vikings defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson on the Minnesota defense’s big rebound.
And we’ll get to the rest of it too, including Odell Beckham’s big interview and the fallout after the Giants’ loss to the Panthers; the belief Baker Mayfield has brought to the Browns’ building; the Steelers’ awkward spot with Le’Veon Bell; and much, much more.
We’re starting in Charlotte, though, with a kicker, and a coach’s confidence in him.
Blackburn might have known in warmups that Gano had the leg to get the 63-yarder there, but Gano himself didn’t get that affirmation until well in to Carolina’s back-and-forth win. And it actually came from the kicker on the other sideline.
With 20 seconds left in the first half, 23-year-old Giants kicker Aldrick Rosas roped one through from 53 yards out to cut the Panthers’ lead to 20-13. It was into the end that Gano would be kicking with the game on the line.
“There are some days I feel good from 60-plus, there’s others, I’ll tell coach, ‘Hey, maybe shorter 50s or mid-50s’,” Gano said. “It honestly just depends. But today I felt pretty good about it, watching Aldrick hit his 50-something yarder, he hit it way up in the net. So I knew the ball was traveling well. He’s got a cannon for a leg anyways. But I know going that direction that the ball is moving pretty well.
“My other two field goals early in the game were going the other direction. And we had one short one, in the same quarter. You just try to take as much information as you can throughout the game. It definitely varies and given some adrenaline there’s no telling what can happen.”
In this case, Gano says he actually didn’t even think about distance—“I didn’t realize it was that far. I just went out there and hit a good ball, and hit it straight enough to where it would give it a chance”—and that was a result of his faith in the operation, from the line to snapper J.J. Jansen to holder Michael Palardy. And because it was all so clean, the Panthers survived their muddiest performance of the young season.
Newton posted his worst quarterback rating and completion percentage of the year and threw two picks. Christian McCaffrey came away with just 58 yards on his 17 carries. Beckham and Saquon Barkley combined for 260 scrimmage yards against the Panthers defense, and the Giants outgained Carolina 432 to 350. And yet the Panthers survived, thanks in no small part to Gano’s kicks of 47, 47, 39 and 63 yards.
And, of course, especially the 63-yarder, which was a career long for Gano, and tied for the longest game-winning field goal in NFL history. In the aftermath, Gano thought about a much shorter field goal he hit in overtime in 2014 against the Bengals. That one forced a tie. The Panthers wouldn’t have made the playoffs that year without it.
Maybe this one ends up having that kind of impact. Maybe it doesn’t. But for Gano, it sure did feel good to knock it through.
“When we tied the Bengals up in Cincinnati, that was the difference between us going to the playoffs or not,” he said. “Early on in the season, these games are big, these moments are exciting, and every game matters. And I’m glad we got the victory today.”
Would it have been good from 70? 75?
“I’m not sure,” Gano said. “I’m just glad it was good from 63.”
• THE MONDAY MORNING NFL PODCAST: Gary Gramling and Andy Benoit analyze all of Week 5’s action. Subscribe on iTunes to get it in your inbox first thing Monday morning, and to receive every episode of The MMQB NFL Podcast throughout the season.
PATRICIA’S LIONS PLAY RODGERS TOUGH TO THE END
Matt Patricia was actually thinking back to 2014 this week himself—and to a shootout between Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers that November. Patricia, New England’s defensive coordinator at the time, was part of a game that went the distance that day. The Packers raced to a 13-0 lead. The Patriots stormed back and narrowed the lead to two points twice (16-14, 23-21), before Rodgers slammed the door in fourth quarter.
So why bring it up now? Because to Patricia it was the perfect way to illustrate how his Lions would have to beat Aaron Rodgers for 60 minutes. And that no matter how good a start they got off to—and we’ll get to that—so long as Rodgers had a pulse, it wouldn’t be over.
Sure enough, the Lions raced to a 24-0 halftime lead, and had to hold on tight in the fourth quarter for a 31-23 win.
“He’s such a great quarterback, you have to do a really good job early in the game, otherwise he’s going to be out front, and you don’t want to play him from behind,” Patricia said over the phone an hour after the win. “This guy is so good, now. Even if … there might’ve been something he hadn’t seen before early in the game, you know he’s going to dial into it pretty quick and then he’s going to have success.
“It’s that whole mental toughness of playing 60 minutes against that guy because he is so dangerous in those situations.”
The Lions took advantage of a punt (allegedly) grazing Packers corner Kevin King in the first quarter, recovering the loose ball at the Green Bay 1, then cashing it in for six a snap later. Detroit went 69 yards to a touchdown on its next possession, then turned strip sacks into a touchdown and field goal in the second quarter for that 24-0 lead. And that’s when the players got their warning.
“We knew there was gonna be a rush coming,” Patricia said. “We knew they were gonna get going at some point. We just tried to stay in front of it the best we could. …
No doubt, anytime you play this guy, you know that’s coming. You have to be ready for it.”
And there’s where Patricia got some insight into his team. The Lions’ lead shrunk to 24-14, and after the teams traded blows, it was 31-20. The Packers got the ball back with 5:47 left, and covered 42 yards in the next three plays. Then, from the Lions 33, Rodgers dropped a dime into the waiting arms of Davante Adams, just over some competitive coverage from Jamal Agnew, for 32 yards. Or so it seemed.
Patricia challenged it, and on the review it was clear that the ball bounced off the Ford Field turf before Adams secured it. In the time being, the Lions regrouped.
“They’re moving the ball, moving the ball, we had some players in and out with the injuries, guys switching positions, now they launch it up to Adams,” Patricia said. “So it’s a big play down there, we do a good job of defending it. The ball is out and we get it reversed, and the guys settle down, and we forced a field-goal attempt. We were on our heels a little bit there. “
But the Lions kept swinging, which is where that emphasis was in facing Rodgers all along. The Lions snuffed out a screen on second down, caught a break on third down, with an illegal shift negating a 14-yard Packer gain, then hurried Rodgers into an incompletion on the ensuing third-and-15. Mason Crosby missed his fourth field goal of the afternoon on fourth down and that, for all intents and purposes, was it.
And even though Patricia didn’t want to say it himself, the fight his team showed in beating back a Rodgers rally belied what was being said about the coach and his program a few weeks back—that vets were chafing against a demanding staff.
“You know me, I’m not really listening to anything that’s outside of my walls,” Patricia said. “The good part is that in the game of football, everything is handled man-to-man and in person. And I certainly have policies where we don’t shy away from conversations. If there’s something we have to talk about, then we’re gonna talk about it. That being said, really, honestly, there’s been nothing. There’s nothing there.”
Patricia means that, too, as a way of saying he and the Lions have a long way to go. For now, they’ve got this anomaly: Patricia has two wins as a head coach. One against Tom Brady. The other against Aaron Rodgers.
I mentioned that to Patricia as we wrapped our conversation. He laughed and said, “I’m gonna let you figure that one out.”
RAMS MENTALITY: ‘WE’RE NOT SCARED OF FAILURE’
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said after his team’s 33-31 loss to the Rams on Sunday that he spent his final timeout with 1:39 left in the game, as Los Angeles faced fourth-and-inches, in an effort to save 30 seconds or so on the clock. That’s valid, of course. But it also opened the door for what happened next, after Sean McVay had sent his punt team out on to the field to pin Russell Wilson and company deep.
In fact, the act of not sending the punt team back out after the timeout, and choosing to go with the offense instead, was simply adhering to the Rams’ new identity.
“All they needed was a field goal, and obviously with Russell Wilson being a special player, that goes into what you do,” veteran tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “And all you needed was an inch. I just think the mentality of this team—offense, defense, special teams—is attack all the time. That’s all Sean talks about it. So at the end of the day, it became a decision where Sean decided to go after it.”
Whitworth and the guys up front made the bet pay off, plowing ground for Jared Goff to plunge forward and easily pick up the inches needed, the clincher in pushing the Rams’ record to 5-0, best in the NFC. But the win itself was less about that one situation—“Our team is gonna go for it in every situation, we’re not scared of failure, we’re not worried about losing,” Whitworth said”—and more about the makeup of the group.
This one wasn’t nearly as aesthetically pleasing as the Rams’ postcard of a Thursday night win 11 days ago over the Vikings, that had everything from the royal blue throwbacks to the majestic Cali dusk to Goff playing a near perfect game. This one was rugged, against a proud Seattle team fighting for its season, and it ended with TNF stars Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp relegated to the concussion protocol.
The hosts rushed for 190 yards on 32 carries, and Wilson posted a 132.5 rating with 198 yards and three touchdowns on 13-of-21 passing. And the Seattle crowd, sensing all that was on the line for the home team, was raucous.
In short, this was as good an example of how quickly the Rams have arrived in this position. In 2017 they were gunning for teams like the Seahawks, and a blowout win in Seattle was actually one of their validating moments. A year later they arrived no longer as the hunter. The Rams were the hunted.
“We started out the season knowing that,” Whitworth said. “We talked about that in camp, that we were the team that people were hyping, and people were going to come after us, and we were going to have to have our best. This is the kind of game, if you look at last year, as hot as Philly was early in the year, this is the game they lost, when they had to come out here and play a team with their backs against the wall.
“That’s always a tough challenge. And I think we knew Seattle was going to have their back against the wall. The stadium, the team, had a ton of energy and excitement for an opportunity to prove themselves against us.”
Once again, the trump card was McVay and his staff, maintaining the aggressive and hungry mentality that got the Rams in this position in the first place. It showed in Week 4 with all of Goff’s aerial heroics. It showed this week in the team’s grit on fourth-and-inches.
And as Whitworth and his teammates see it, it’s pretty important advantage to have, and it’s given the 13th-year pro a feeling he knows is really rare.
“When I played in college with Nick Saban, you felt like every single week you went with a plan where all you had to do was execute the plan and you’d win,” he said, recalling his LSU days. “With Sean McVay, we feel the same way. We feel like with him and the coaching staff, [OL coach] Aaron Kromer and all those guys, they have us ready to win. The defense has continued to show up in the big moments when we need them.
“And we’ve continued to score points, special teams has done their deal like they always do. We feel every week in all three phases if we execute the plan, we’ll win.”
Hard to argue with it, to this point.
HOW DID THE BENGALS SNEAK UP ON EVERYBODY? BY SPEEDING EVERYTHING UP
Going into Monday night’s game, there are four teams averaging 30 points per game. You could probably guess that the Chiefs, Rams and Saints are among them.
But the fourth? Would you believe it’s the Cincinnati Bengals?
Quietly, Marvin Lewis’s bunch has emerged at the front of the AFC North pack at 4-1, and so much of it is predicated on the revival of the offense behind a revamped line and new coordinator Bill Lazor. And so it was that the first half of Sunday’s game against Miami cropped up as a pretty significant speed bump—Cincinnati was shut out, and the Dolphins’ lead bulged to 17-0 just after the break.
“Certainly the last few games, it didn’t go like this,” Lazor said afterward. “And being at zero at halftime put us in a whole new spot. It’s not a disappointment—even though we don’t like the result—if we learn from it. And I think that’s what this group will do. And what you have to be most proud of with this team, and it’s a young team overall, is the way they were in the locker room. We talked about it—’Hey, here’s what we’re going to do.’ There’s going to be no panic. And we went out and did it.”
There were personnel changes in the offseason too, and significant ones. Trading for left tackle Cordy Glenn and drafting Billy Price were part of a big effort to overhaul the offensive line. Joe Mixon and John Ross were going to get bigger roles in Year 2. And though injuries have slowed some of those plans, the difference is evident.
Just as big, though, was the promotion of Lazor to coordinator. After Marvin Lewis worked out a deal to stay in Cincinnati, he made the tough call of moving on from an assistant, Ken Zampese, who’d been on his staff since Lewis got the job in 2003. In his place, and taking the torch Jay Gruden and Hue Jackson once carried, would be the QBs coach, Lazor.
When we talked Sunday, Lazor pushed back on the idea that he’s simplified everything for the players, but he agreed that playing fast was a priority—”we literally talk about playing fast all the time”—right there with being physical and winning the line of scrimmage. And it showed up in an unplanned way against Miami.
As the Bengals were fighting their way back into the game—a 51-yard field goal from Randy Bullock cut the deficit to 17-3 in the third quarter—Andy Dalton and the offense faced a second-and-12 at the Miami 18. It was the first play of fourth quarter and, at the snap, the Bengals’ protection broke down. Miami rusher Charles Harris had a free run at Dalton. The QB subtly stepped up, and with Harris wrapped around his legs, he found the matchup he was looking for—Dolphins LB Kiko Alonso on Mixon.
“We got a tough look from the defense for the protection we had called,” Lazor said. “We still tried to adjust to it, and didn’t make a good enough adjustment. We knew we put some guys in a tough situation when they walked everyone up. Joe Mixon was one-on-one with a linebacker, and beat him. And Andy was able to avoid the rush for long enough to get the ball out and give Joe a chance at it. Two great players made a play, and hopefully it’s one of those we learn from.
“That’s not exactly how we’d hoped to be playing fast today. Normally with your quarterback, you like to play fast by making a quick decision and getting the ball out of your hand before the rush is an issue. He had to do it a little different way.”
Seven points went up on the board all the same, and two defensive touchdowns later (a Michael Johnson pick-six and Carlos Dunlap strip-sack recovered and run in by Sam Hubbard), and the Bengals had a 27-17 win and sole possession of first in the only division in the league where every team is at least .500.
And that prolific Bengals offense finished up with 332 yards, and 5.7 per play, with both AJ Green (112 yards) and Mixon (115 yards) in triple-digit scrimmage yardage. So this one wound up looking different than some of the others? As Lazor sees it, in the long run, that should wind up being a good thing.
… OF THE WEEK
I’ve seen Guy Fieri at many a Tom Brady event over the years. Never did I consider the competing interests of the two men, both of whom are passionate about planning meals.
This is really hilarious. We’ll get into the serious end of this … now …
This may be big brother sticking up for little brother. Whatever. These defensive players have every right to carry a grudge over the way they’re being treated. And I can give you a set of back-to-back plays from Thursday night’s game that illustrates the problem perfectly. On the second play of the second quarter, Colts linebacker Najee Goode was flagged for roughing the passer for inadvertently grazing Tom Brady’s facemask as he rushed the quarterback. That turned a six-yard gain on a throw to Rob Gronkowski into a 21-yard gain, moving the ball from the Colts 37 to the 16. On very next snap New England rookie Sony Michel took a handoff and burst through the line and, inside the five-yard line, lowered his helmet in driving into Colts safety Clayton Geathers. It seemed like a clear violation of the new helmet rule. But as was the case with Week 4 plays from Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt and Oakland’s Marshawn Lynch, there was no flag. That’s not to denigrate Hunt or Lynch or Michel, by the way. It’s just laying out facts—facts that illustrate the longstanding problem defensive players have had with how the game is officiated.
“I don’t regret anything. I don’t regret anything that I said. If it took that for us to come together as a team like we did [Sunday], I can take that every single time. … It’s been on my heart. And I think all the stuff that was built up inside, it just kinda, it came out in the wrong way. And I texted [coach Pat Shurmur], and I asked if I could have a minute to just talk to the team, because I feel like if we’re not all on the same page ... if it’s not authentic and real, and we can all understand each other, then there’s always going to be miscommunication. So to be able to do that was big for me. I was nervous to get up there and—these are your brothers you see every day; but once you’re up there in front of all of ’em, it’s a little nerve-racking. So I’m just excited about the way we pulled together. Like I said, we came up short; but we fought.”
Odell Beckham on his comments to ESPN’s Josina Anderson, after the Giants’ loss in Carolina. And this, to me, is really strange. Beckham threw his quarterback under the bus, questioned the scheme his coaches have been building for the last nine months, and when Anderson asked if he’s happy in New York, answered, “That’s a tough question.” And somehow here this comes off as if he thinks he did his team … a favor? I sit next to Troy Brown, who was the ultimate pro over a 15-year NFL career, on a television set every week, and he says this a lot about players: “Getting paid will only make you more of what you already are.” Beckham, to his credit, did absolutely everything from April to August to earn the trust of new Giants coach Pat Shurmur and new GM Dave Gettleman. That’s why he got paid. And he’s a great, great player. But the guys calling the shots in East Rutherford have to be at least a little concerned that it only took four games after he signed his new five-year, $90 million for things to come to this.
S/O to …
Saints QB Drew Brees and Bucs Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks for serving as executive producers on the upcoming film The Challenger, based on the 1986 space shuttle tragedy. That event is honestly one of my earliest memories—it came a couple days after my sixth birthday (which was the day the Patriots lost to the Bears in Super Bowl XX). I’m eager to see the movie, and here’s hoping it teaches some people younger than me about an event that hit our country really hard.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
The college football weekend through the an NFL lens:
1. If you’re not watching Alabama sophomore Tua Tagovailoa, you should be. Through six games, he’s completed 75 percent of his passes for 1,495 yards and 18 touchdowns, without a pick. At one point on Saturday against Arkansas he was 10-of-11 for 334 yards and four touchdowns. He’s not draft-eligible until 2020, but rest assured the NFL is intrigued, even if he is only 6'1" and 218 pounds. It seems everyone is watching—one scout told me three different college staffs have asked him about Tagovailoa, and none of them actually have Alabama on their schedule.
2. Ditto for Ohio State redshirt sophomore QB Dwayne Haskins, who threw for another 455 yards and six touchdowns against Indiana on Saturday. Teams are starting to dig on him now. The arm talent is obvious. He’s got good size. The big question is his ability to handle pressure. He’ll get more than a couple chances to allay concerns there over the next three months.
3. Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley is still the apple of the NFL’s eye, when it comes to college coaches that may wind up in the league, but Texas’s Tom Herman served us all with a reminder on Saturday that a couple years ago he was seen in a similar light as Riley is now.
4. Interesting prospect to keep an eye on: Utah junior Marquise Blair, an interchangeable strong/free safety who, at 6'2", is being projected by some scouts to cornerback in the NFL. Why? The pros are hungry for longer corners, and willing to take on projects to do it. Virginia’s Juan Thornhill is another safety who some see as a corner down the line.
5. Iowa State coach Matt Campbell scored a big win over Oklahoma State on Saturday, and his Cyclones have an important Big 12 tilt against sixth-ranked West Virginia this week. We’ve mentioned here how he’s on the NFL’s radar. And as the buzz has built, scouts going through there have taken a look at him and his program in that context. What would a win over the Mountaineers do? It’d make him just a little more sellable as an NFL coach.
6. RIP to John Gagliardi, legendary coach at St. John’s in Minnesota. I’ve always been so impressed with how Division III programs like that one or Mount Union or Wisconsin-Whitewater dominate. And Gagliardi did it for longer than almost anyone. It’s hard to imagine his 489 wins, a college football record, ever being surpassed.
1. On the Texans’ first possession of the second half, DeAndre Hopkins fumbled away a third-down completion from Deshaun Watson, setting up a go-ahead touchdown for the Cowboys, and retreated to the sideline with a message to send. “He came right up to me after that play and said, ‘I’ll make up for that,’ ” Bill O’Brien told reporters. “And I would say he did.” He sure did. In fact, for the second straight week, you could say that Hopkins made a season-saving-type play. Last week it was a long catch after the Colts fourth-and-four try in OT failed to set up the game-winning field goal. This week it was a spectacular effort on a crosser in, again, overtime. Watson bought time to hit Hopkins in stride around 10 yards from the original line of scrimmage (the Texans 24), and the wideout did the rest, outrunning his man, then using consecutive spin moves to beat safety Xavier Woods and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. Those added about 18 yards to what wound being a 49-yard gain, putting the Texans well into field goal range. Four snaps later, Ka’imi Fairbairn was kicking the game-winner to move the Texans to within a game of first in the AFC South.
2. The difference that Baker Mayfield is making in the Browns building is obvious to everyone there, and it really boils down to something simple: belief. As is, his teammates believe they’ve got the guy now who’s going to win games for them. “That’s what separates him from others,” one Cleveland staffer texted me. “Teammates know they don’t have to be perfect. They can just do their job.” And all that showed up in OT on Sunday. On what was likely going to be the Browns’ last chance to win the game, with less than three minutes left in the extra frame, an end-around to Rod Streater got blown up to put Cleveland in second-and-21 from its own five-yard line. Time to pack it in? Not a chance. Mayfield pulled the ripcord and scrambled for 13 yards on the next play, then converted third-and-8 with an off-balance throw in a collapsing pocket to Derrick Willies, which Willies took for 39 yards. Three Duke Johnson runs later, and Greg Joseph was knuckling home the game-winner. I know Browns fans are like kicked puppies and afraid to say these things out loud … But Mayfield is making this feel different.
3. I wouldn’t expect a 41-point, 381-yard effort against Atlanta to weaken the Steelers’ resolve in the Le’Veon Bell saga. In Sunday’s morning notes we had some detail on where things stand—that Bell hasn’t been in communication with teammates, coaches or front office people, and why his linemen were upset with him in the first place. And we also mentioned that the Bell reporting wouldn’t necessarily shut the door on a trade. James Conner’s emergence (110 rushing yards, 75 receiving yards on Sunday) gives the Steelers flexibility. But I don’t think they’ll give Bell away either. The Steelers believe they’ll get a third-round compensatory pick if he reports, plays out the year and hits free agency next year, which would make it hard for them to accept less than that. And their phone hasn’t been ringing off the hook to begin with. Since Bell would be by definition a rental (by rule, franchise tagged players can’t be extended until after the season), and a pricey one at that (ruling out teams tight on cap space), his market has been pretty limited.
4. It wasn’t perfect, but the Chiefs defense took some steps on Sunday in shutting the Jaguars out for a half, and keeping the comeback door closed, for the most part, through the final 30 minutes at Arrowhead. Three of the Chiefs’ four interceptions came deep in their own territory, and the fourth was defensive lineman Chris Jones’s pick-six. Internally, Kansas City was happy with the improvement of the front seven, bringing pressure and being tight on fundamentals. The Chiefs tackled better and communicated better, and these are steps forward, as has been the play of Dee Ford, who starting to look like a high-end edge player in this, the final year of his rookie contract. Of course, we’ll see if we’re saying all these things at this point in a week, when the Chiefs are coming off a trip to Foxboro.
5. Hats off to the Vikings defense, which answered the bell after a really tough Thursday night in Los Angeles. Minnesota kept the Eagles out of the end zone for three full quarters, and didn’t make easy for Carson Wentz and company to score in the fourth quarter either—a shot Harrison Smith delivered to jar the ball loose from Alshon Jeffery, right at the sticks on a third-and-20, was just the kind of play they weren’t getting against the Rams. That stop came after a Vikings fumble put the Eagles at the Minnesota 30, down just 20-14, and Philly never really got that close again. And when I asked Sheldon Richardson postgame what changed over the 10 days in between games, he conceded there were adjustments. “Honestly, just getting back to what we do best,” Richardson told me. “Made some adjustments here and there, but we executed the game plan, from a players’ standpoint. And the coaches, they felt like they were doing a little too much sometimes, a little too little others, and they got it just right this week.”
6. Richardson, by the way, was still salty that the officials gave Wendell Smallwood the touchdown on the possession before that third-and-20. “They really didn’t [score],” he said. “It was the referee’s call, but they really didn’t score. Just throwing that out there. … The difference between crossing the plane—when you’re a runner, you cross the plane and it’s a touchdown; but for a catch, you have to maintain possession if you’re falling to the ground, and make a little football motion. That’s the rule.” And for what it’s worth, Richardson didn’t think Smallwood made a football move.
7. The Bills deserve real credit for what they’re doing. This was always going to be the rip the band-aid off year, and it has been. Buffalo is carrying more than $50 million in dead money in 2018, meaning almost a third of their salary cap is eaten up by players who aren’t on the team. There are only five draft picks left on the whole roster that predate Sean McDermott’s January 2017 hire. And yet, with this stripped down operation—following last year’s playoff run with a veteran team—they’re now 2-3, after Sunday’s 13-12 win over Tennessee on Stephen Hauschska’s walk-off game-winning field goal. Obviously, a lot of where they go from here will ride on the development of QB Josh Allen. But I think it’s hard to deny a nice foundation is being laid in Western New York.
8. In the hysteria of the offseason following Jimmy Garoppolo’s December star turn, you may have forgotten why the Niners gave six-year deals to GM John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan. That was ownership’s acknowledgment, at the time, that it was going to take more than a year or two to fix a very broken roster. Thoughts of a deep playoff run this year were probably wildly unrealistic all along, Garoppolo injury or not Garoppolo injury. And at least now Lynch and Shanahan, who I believe have done a very good job to this point, can go about doing what they’ve done the last 21 months in trying to put together something sustainable without the zaniness we saw in the spring and summer.
9. There will be no 0-16 this year, with the Cardinals being the final team to break into the win column, beating those 49ers at Levi’s Stadium 28-18. Arizona still has a lot of problems, of course, and a long way to go. But Josh Rosen is brimming with potential, and Chandler Jones (six tackles, one sack, two TFLs, one PBU) was a game-wrecker on Sunday. So that’s something.
10. Philip Rivers was pretty close to perfect for the Chargers on Sunday, completing 22 of 27 passes for 339 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. And I hate to bring this up again, but without a certain someone, the Raiders’ pass rush was non-existent again, which contributed to Rivers’ big day. Rivers, according to the game book, was only hit twice and sacked once. And with Oakland and Denver struggling, the Chargers have established themselves as the only real threat to the Chiefs in the AFC West.
We’re going to focus this one here on Monday night’s game, and a pretty monumental occasion—Drew Brees needs just 201 yards to pass both Peyton Manning and Brett Favre and become the all-time leading passer in NFL history. To prepare for the occasion, I sought out the coach who’s probably spent more time around Brees than anyone else in pro football.
Then-offensive quality control coach Pete Carmichael followed Marty Schottheimer from the Redskins to the Chargers in 2002, where the 23-year-old Brees was going into his second NFL season. Seventeen seasons later, the two are still together, with Carmichael now his offensive coordinator in New Orleans, which means that this particular coach has been around for all but 221 of Brees’s 71,740 passing yards.
“That makes me feel pretty good,” Carmichael said over the phone. “And yet, there are so many people that have been a part of it. There are a lot of special memories. I can remember in ’11, when he broke the record for yardage in a season, I can remember that moment on the field. Or when he threw for the [record for] consecutive games with a touchdown, a couple moments on the field I can remember.”
What Carmichael remembers most about those moments is how quickly it was back to the game, for Brees.
But this one isn’t quite the same as the others, since it marks not just excellence but staying power for a quarterback who wasn’t always held in the regard that a Peyton Manning or a Tom Brady is. In fact, when Carmichael got to San Diego, Doug Flutie was there, and Brees had to take the job from him. And even after he won the job, he was benched more than once. Then Philip Rivers was drafted in 2004, which signaled that the sand in the hourglass for Brees in San Diego was starting to run.
“That training camp, he had one of the best training camps I can remember,” Carmichael said. “He had competition, and you’re right, I think anyone would look at it that way. I don’t think he ever backed down. He had a great training camp, and then followed it with a great season.”
In 2006, Sean Payton got the New Orleans job and brought Carmichael over as quarterbacks coach. Carmichael was one of many to recommend Brees, who at that point had another significant hurdle thrown in his way, in the form of reconstructive shoulder surgery. The doctors in New Orleans wound up clearing him. The Saints signed him, and the rest is history.
And while Carmichael isn’t going to pretend he saw this coming, there’ve been plenty of signs along the way, going to the start, that Brees was kind of guy who’d be successful no matter what his line of work might be.
“The game has always been so important to him—his focus, his attention to detail, all the things that really you can’t coach,” Carmichael said. “All those things that you know winners have, he’s had that since the beginning. He’s going to never leave the building unless he’s completely satisfied with how the day went. He’s going to get those receivers after practice and make sure each detail is exactly right.
“He’s always been a guy who’s paid such attention to detail. That part has never changed. He’s always looking for the edge.”
He sure found it. And just to give you an illustration of how long Brees has been doing it, and how long it took to get here, a good example actually lies right there in Carmichael’s story. When Carmichael arrived in San Diego, he was pumped to get in the quarterback room, but it was because of Flutie, a childhood idol of Carmichael’s who played at Boston College while his dad was on the football staff there. Pretty cool, he thought at the time.
Nearly two decades later, Carmichael’s kids have the same feeling for the other guy who was in that quarterback room all those years ago, and the Saints OC couldn’t be happier for it. “Believe me, my kids are very fortunate to have a chance to be around this while he’s around.”
We all are. And so as for my pick, I think Brees gets the record tonight, and the Saints grind out a 31-17 win over the Redskins.
See you all later in the week—beginning with my Monday Afternoon Quarterback, a new column this season to help kick off the NFL week. And be sure to check out MMQB TV, our weekly studio show on SI TV.
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