Maybe it’s a cliché, but the Eagles and Bears can confirm it for you this morning—the playoffs are about the little things that decide the bigger things.
Little things like Golden Tate being an Eagle in the first place. Back in October, the Lions were considering offers for their stud slot receiver, who was playing out the final year of his four-year deal. As the Eagles heard it, they and the Patriots had third-round draft picks on the table, and Detroit figured the Eagles’ pick would be higher. So off Tate went to Philly.
Little things like Nick Foles, who didn’t share the field with Tate until three weeks ago, believing that his new favorite target would be in exactly the spot Foles was throwing to. Tate was. Afterward, Eagles coach Doug Pederson texted me that making that play was “all trust and timing” between the quarterback and receiver.
And little things like the little piece of Cody Parkey’s 43-yard field-goal attempt to win the game that reserve defensive lineman Treyvon Hester appears to have gotten, which may have redirected the kick just enough to clang off the left upright, then bounce off the crossbar, and back into the end zone, no good. That, of course, was after Pederson called a timeout on Parkey’s first swing at it, which was dead on.
“We iced him, and he made a pretty easy chip shot,” linebacker/field-goal block teamer Kamu Grugier-Hill said over his cell, just before Zapruder-like pictures of the field goal being tipped surfaced on social media. “We knew we had to bring some pressure—I did hear a tip. I don’t know who got it, I think it was Tre Hester. But once we turned around, and saw it wasn’t good, we just went crazy.”
That’d be an appropriate reaction to a finish that had all the crazy anyone could handle. It was the Tate deal paying off. It was the coaches trusting the new receiver in the biggest spot. It was a former Eagles kicker who hit four uprights in a single game earlier this year, and another just week ago, finding the metal twice on the same kick.
Most of all, it was Foles in the playoffs again, and how his mindset set the table for another pretty insane moment, even when midnight was supposed to have struck on this Cinderella of a quarterback four months ago.
“He’s done a great job just being consistent,” Tate said over his cell as the Eagles bus headed for O’Hare. “No matter what his situation is, or what the situation is, he wants to live in the moment and take it as it is. And we feed off of that. No matter how much time was on the clock, no matter where we were on the field, we felt comfortable, we didn’t have low confidence, we weren’t anxious to do anything.
“We just played our ball. And it started with Nick. He did a great job just being who he is. That was all we needed.”
“If you guys haven’t figured it out yet, Nick’s not a backup quarterback,” Grugier-Hill added. “He’s definitely a different breed. And we’ve got confidence in him.”
And we just got more evidence that confidence is well-placed.
Time to wrap up the first playoff weekend, and look ahead. We’ve got plenty to get to, including:
• The Chargers’ resilience, and their plan for slowing down Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ Naval Academy kind of offense.
• The Colts charging ahead of everyone’s schedule for them, and the threat Indy could pose going into Arrowhead on Saturday.
• The Cowboys offensive line finding its stride, despite circumstances that might debilitate a lesser unit.
• The latest from the coaching carousel in the takeaways, including why the book shouldn’t be closed on the idea that Kliff Kingsbury could land in the NFL.
• A look at what you should be watching in tonight’s college football national championship game—and why the sport’s next great quarterback prospect might have just landed at my alma mater (not that I’m biased or anything).
But we’re starting with the reigning Super Bowl champs taking out the 12-win Bears and moving on to New Orleans—where their 2018 season hit a low point just seven weeks ago—brimming with confidence.
Maybe what’s most significant about what Foles and Tate and the Eagles offense pulled off on Sunday night was where they stood with 4:48 left. To that point they’d mustered just 241 yards and 10 points, and had just one first down in two fourth-quarter possessions. In other words, the Bears defense was doing what the Bears defense has done all year.
Philly took the ball at its own 40—and what had come before might have made 60 yards seem 600 to another backup quarterback. But again, as the Eagles see it, they don’t have a backup quarterback. They have another starter.
And that second starter of theirs went 4-of-5 for 46 yards to quickly march the Eagles to a first-and-10 at the Bears 14. Three plays later Foles he put a dart on Alshon Jeffery over the middle for 11 yards to convert a third-and-9, and the drama was only just getting ramped up.
Darren Sproles got dropped by Khalil Mack and Eddie Goldman on the next two plays. On third down, Bears All-Pro Kyle Fuller broke up an attempted swing pass to Alshon Jeffery. That meant fourth-and-the-season for the Eagles from the Bears’ two-yard line.
At that point, Pederson made two bets. The first, as he explained over text, was on instinct—“I felt like [Bears defensive coordinator Vic] Fangio would blitz there, so our best option was to sprint out on the edge.” The second was that Foles and Tate would have good enough chemistry, after just four weeks of game action together, that Foles would be able to throw to a spot, assured that Tate would be there.
Tate was between Nelson Agholor and Jeffery in the trips formation. Both Agholor and Jeffery would sprint toward the back of the end zone at the snap, which isolated Tate on Bears corner Sherrick McManis. Foles rolled right, toward Tate, and with edge rusher Leonard Floyd in his face, delivered the ball to his receiver’s outside shoulder. The rest was simple.
“The trade is officially worth it,” said NBC’s Cris Collinsworth, on the broadcast.
“It wasn’t a very complicated route or combination—it’s something I’ve run in Seattle, I even ran it in Detroit a few times,” Tate said. “It’s a really good man-to-man beater, or cover-zero beater. They called my number the last play of the game, and I’m just happy to have the opportunity. I’m thankful for the confidence that Doug and Groh and Nick had in me to put our livelihood, our future in my hands.
“Honestly, I was just doing my job, those guys did a heck of a job even putting us in that position on the two-yard-line. That was a very, very tough defense we were going against. They were very stingy with their yards. Hats off to the rest of the guys. I just got the last play.”
As it turned out, 56 seconds was too much time to leave on the clock—or so it seemed. A 35-yard kick return by Tarik Cohen, and consecutive completions from Mitch Trubisky to Allen Robinson (the first, an absolute beauty) covering 32 yards put Parkey, the former Eagle, in position to eliminate his old team from 43 yards out.
From there, the guys on the field-goal block team knew what special teams coach Dave Fipp was going to call for—all-out pressure. But knowing the timeout was coming, they didn’t show it on the first snap.
“We wanted to see how he’d react,” Grugier-Hill said. “And we knew we’d bring the house anyway.”
After Pederson called the timeout to ice Parkey, it was go time. And where at first, lots of Chicagoans put the goat head on their embattled kicker, grainy photos on Twitter and the testimony of the Philly special-teamers show that the Eagles forced the wayward kick more than Parkey screwed it up.
“Guys did a great job coming off the ball, and we made it happen,” Grugier-Hill said. “It’s just crazy. This team is awesome. The way we love on each other, it just doesn’t stop.”
Is it 2017 all over again? Not exactly. Some of the faces have changed, obviously. Pederson’s offensive staff looks different, as does the Eagles’ back seven on defense. They were 13-3 last year and the top seed in the NFC. They were 9-7 this year, and the last team in.
But there is something they can draw on, and did on Sunday.
“We’ve had to fight through adversity,” Grugier-Hill said. “Last year we had injuries. But this year we had crazy things happen, with injuries, guys going down, new guys coming in, having to plug guys in. We had to find an identity, and once we found it, I’m telling you, it’s gonna be hard to beat us.”
BISHOP AND BASKIN:For Nick Foles and the Eagles, It’s All Feeling Very Familiar
Does that go even for a Saints team that destroyed the Eagles, 48-7, on Nov. 18?
“We understand the task that’s coming up, and it’s gonna be a very tough one, against a tough opponent that’s playing some top-level football,” Tate said. “But we feel like we can play with anyone, as long as we’re doing our job the best we can, all 11 men playing collectively. We’re gonna go out there and try to handle business. No one ever said it was going to be easy, but now that we got into the tournament, you gotta deal with us.”
And dealing with them, as the Bears would tell you this morning, is no picnic.
THE CHARGERS LEARNED, AND THE RAVENS GOT BURNED
There were 15 days between the Week 16 Chargers-Ravens game in Los Angeles and the meeting between the two teams on Sunday in Baltimore. But those games might as well have been played on different planets. And that story can be told looking at the Ravens’ rushing yards and time of possession, over the two contests. Take a look …
Week 16: 35 carries, 159 yards, 31:25 time of possession
Wild-Card: 23 carries, 90 yards, 26:20 time of possession
Yes, Lamar Jackson rallied the Ravens late. But for the most part, the Chargers solved the mystery that Baltimore threw at the NFL in the two months since Jackson became the starter, running an option-heavy attack that’s far more reliant on the quarterback to be a rushing threat than anything else.
And yes, for the Chargers, being the first team to see that Lamar Jackson attack a second time certainly helped.
“It’s an unconventional offense,” L.A. coach Anthony Lynn told me from the locker room, postgame. ”If you’re playing with a safety in the middle of the field, you’re playing 11-on-10—they’ve got you outnumbered. It takes the defense being really disciplined and sound in their technique and their responsibilities. And seeing it for the second time in a couple weeks, it helps. I thought the guys today played with less confusion, guys played faster, they played free.”
On top of that, they played with a plan that defensive coordinator Gus Bradley put together part out of necessity and part out of the experience of getting run over at home a couple weeks ago.
The Chargers have been playing safety Adrian Phillips at linebacker since they lost rookie Kyzir White in Week 6, and what they gave up in size with the change, they made up in speed. And so when another linebacker, Jatavis Brown, went down in Week 17, and as the Ravens rematch approached, the wheels were spinning in the offices of the defensive coaches.
Given how strong the team’s defensive line has been, and how much is invested there, could the Chargers get away with putting another safety at linebacker, to combat Jackson’s ability to get outside and wreak havoc?
“We were scared to death,” Lynn said. “We knew that it was going to put speed in the box. I know you can get in and out of that [personnel grouping] and have success, because we’ve done it before. But to live in it for a whole game was something we had never done. We were certainly prepared to go big if we had to. But going small, it just proved, going up against a quarterback like Lamar, speed in the box, it helps.
“What was so impressive was how those young men held up inside on the downhill runs. Our defensive linemen, we put a lot on them. We told them, this week, ‘We’re gonna make you strain, and it’s going to take more effort.’ And they did it.”
The key, as the coaches saw it, was to get the Ravens off schedule and into obvious passing situations. That meant winning first down, which the Chargers did—holding the Ravens to no gain or making them take a loss on five of nine first-down plays in the first half. That took Jackson and his group of their comfort zone all together.
Through the first 50 minutes of the game, the Ravens had run 36 plays. Three were Jackson scrambles, accounting for 39 yards and two first downs. On the other 33 plays, Baltimore had just 35 yards and a single first down.
“We got them behind the sticks. And that put them in situations where they had to throw the football, and that gave Melvin [Ingram] and Joey [Bosa] opportunities,” Lynn said. “And not just Melvin and Joey—Justin Jones had some opportunities, Darius Philon, Isaac Rochell, Uchenna [Nwosu], all those guys. They pressured the quarterback today. I thought the D-line did a heck of a job.”
Now, there’s plenty still for the Chargers to clean up. The fourth quarter, by Lynn’s admission, got messy. (“We have to stay focused for four quarters,” he said. “I felt like we did that for three-and-a-half, and in January, that’ll get you beat.”) The next challenge, of course, is a different animal—going to New England to try to deal the Patriots their first home playoff loss in six years. It will be the Chargers’ second straight cross-country trip, and their second straight 10 a.m. body-clock game.
All of which would probably matter a lot more if the team hadn’t already been through so much in the last couple years. What they did on Sunday, as Lynn points out, happened with five defensive starters on the shelf. All season, they’ve dealt with hangups and unusual circumstances—at one point, they went six weeks between home games, including a trip to London. So you add what’s ahead, and they’ll embrace that too.
“[The Patriots] have let it be known, if you want a championship, you gotta go through them,” Lynn said. “So we’re going to get ready, and we’re looking forward to the challenge. It’s a heck of an opportunity.”
THE COLTS’ FUTURE IS ARRIVING FAST
Maybe no one else will find this interesting. But I did.
It was probably about 8:15 p.m. ET, and the Colts had just pounded the Texans into submission, 21-7, which set next Saturday’s divisional-round date against the high-flying Chiefs at Arrowhead. I asked Indy’s First Team All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard, still a 23-year-old rookie, what he knew about Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense that’s taken the NFL by storm in 2018.
“Nothing yet,” Leonard responded. “I’ve never played them. So I’m gonna watch film when I get home.”
Nothing? Not even a peek at the highlights?
“Nothing at all,” he said. “Nothing. No sir.”
You’ve heard about them, then, right?
“Yeah, I heard about them,” he said. “But I don’t know them too well, never played them. So I just gotta go back watch film.”
I actually think this is relevant.
The Colts are the kind of team they haven’t been in forever, really since Peyton Manning arrived in 1998 and launched Indy’s era of franchise quarterbacks, high-flying offenses and defenses built to play with leads—which carried through No. 18’s career and into the early stages of Andrew Luck’s. And the young Colts players who are faces of this new look don’t know that they’re supposed to be anything else.
The new edge and nastiness in Indy? It carried the day on Saturday, through guys like Leonard and fellow First Team All-Pro rookie Quenton Nelson, who have completely reinvented the environment around the reinvigorated Luck.
“We always talk about being the most physical team out there,” Leonard said. “We dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage—offensively and defensively. We just got to keep that up. Once we take away the run and once we establish the run, you can see what it opens up.”
The numbers tells that story. The Colts ran for 200 yards on 35 carries in Houston. The Texans went for 105 yards on 16 carries. Six of Deshaun Watson’s eight carries, and 60 of his 76 yards, were marked as scrambles by the scorers—by definition, pass calls where Watson improvised. If you take those out, Houston had just 45 yards on 10 rushing attempts, meaning Indy had more than quadruple the production on the ground.
The Colts’ defensive game plan was to spy Watson (they spread around that responsibility, but it was a lot of Leonard) and throw the kitchen sink at DeAndre Hopkins (rerouting him at the line to disrupt timing, and putting a safety over the top). “We knew that he liked to escape the pocket, so we put a spy on him, kept him in the well,” Leonard said of Watson.
The game looked all but over at halftime, with Indy holding a commanding 21-0 lead and shutting down the Texans’ offense. But Luck leveled off after a hot start—just 3-of-10 for 30 yards in the second half—and wall around Watson sprung a few leaks, with the second-year Texans QB finding room to run, and to throw. “I put [the ups and downs in the second half] on myself—I missed too many tackles in the open field that kept drives going, and that set them him up in scoring positions. I can’t do that, being a leader on the defense. I gotta take care of that. I take full blame for that.”
So what’s the difference in this year’s Colts? It’s their margin for error. Win in the trenches (the way the Eagles won a Super Bowl last year), and everything else gets a little easier. You can miss a couple tackles—even if Leonard is beating himself up for it—and still believe it will be tough for the offense to go eight or 10 plays on you. You can miss a couple throws and still churn out first downs and extend drives.
And I think that gives them a pretty good chance against the Chiefs at Arrowhead on Saturday. We’ve talked a lot in this space about Indy’s future—the ridiculous bumper draft crop of 2018 (Leonard and Nelson were the first rookie teammates to make First Team All-Pro since Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers in 1965), the $120 million or so in 2019 cap space, and the fact that they have the Jets’ second-round pick.
Could they be arriving a year early? I think a bunch of guys who aren’t paying much attention to our narratives, as well as their coach Frank Reich, might tell you they didn’t have a schedule for all of that in the first place.
DALLAS’S O-LINE GETS RIGHT, AT THE RIGHT TIME
This isn’t 2014 for the Cowboys. Or 2016.
Those Dallas teams, for the most part, had the same five offensive linemen (from left to right, Tyron Smith, Ron Leary, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin and Doug Free) straight through. The 2014 group had Bill Callahan as line coach, and the ’16 group had his ’14 apprentice, Frank Pollack, in that role. And those units defined those teams, in front of Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray, then Dak Prescott and Zeke Elliott.
This year has not been that. Which is why what the offense did in the final 7:20 of Saturday’s 24-22 win over the Seahawks (we’ll get to the gambling implications of Sebastian Janikowski’s injury) meant so much to the Cowboys. Dallas got the ball with that much time left on the clock, up 17-14. They gave it back to Seattle, with the lead up to 10 and 2:08 showing, and they did it without completing a single pass.
“I was just saying that, you want to look at the tape first, but just from the feel of it, I feel like that was one of our best drives,” Martin told me, in the wee hours of Sunday mornign. “We ran the ball, milked the clock, and then Dak made some big plays there at the end. That’s pretty much exactly how you want to draw it up as an offensive lineman—just running the ball down their throats and taking time off the clock.”
Two pass-interference calls (you can argue over those if you want) did help the Cowboys’ cause. But they also saddled up to grind out two first downs on Elliott’s back—the first on runs of five and six yards, the second on a 17-yard burst up the right sideline—when Seattle had a pretty good idea what was coming. And that’s pretty crazy, considering what the line has been through this year, such as:
• Frederick being diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome in August. The Cowboys, in the process, lost probably the best center in football, and one-third (along with Martin and Smith) of the soul of the group.
• Injuries lingering with the other two-thirds of that foundation. Smith battled neck and elbow injuries for much of the season, and had back problems coming in. And Martin fought through a sprained MCL in December, missing the first game of his career because of it in Week 15.
• The Cowboys whiffing on replacing Pollack, in bringing in long-time Bengals line coach Paul Alexander. It wasn’t so much that Alexander was a bad coach. It was more a fit problem—Alexander’s background is in gap blocking, where Dallas developed an athletic group to zone block. Alexander was dismissed during the team’s Week 8 bye and replaced with assistant line coach Marc Colombo, a former Cowboys tackle himself.
• The team turning to veteran Xavier Su’a-Filo at left guard for struggling rookie Connor Williams, who was injured around that time and benched in the process, only to see Su’a-Filo hurt in Week 17, necessitating a turn back to Williams.
Really, the latter two of those four events are what precipitated real change, with Colombo—who’d been on staff, assisting with the O-line, since 2015—getting the line back to its roots, which meant more zone calls that accentuate the group’s ability to move.
“Listen, nothing against coach Alexander, but when Marc stepped in, I think we kind of got back to some of the things we've done well in the past and kind of that identity of what’s made our group good,” Martin said. “That’s what we got back to. So we’re making progress.”
It showed up big at the end of the playoff win. On the second-to-last play of that game-clinching, 11-play, 63-yard drive, Dallas faced a third-and-14 from the Seattle 17, and OC Scott Linehan called a QB draw. Which, obviously, Prescott picked up with ease—including flourish at the end where he flipped into the air, one yard short of the goal line.
“You get the play in the huddle and you think you’re going to try to air it out and take a shot at the end zone—credit to coach Linehan calling a great play there,” Martin said. “They were back in coverage and we were able to get it blocked up. I saw Dak take off, and heard the crowd go up and then looked up and saw him flipping over. I was happy that he was healthy, and he punched it in the next play.”
That 1-yard run to follow made it 24-14, putting the game to bed for everybody except, yup, the people who might have a few bucks riding on it (yup, we’re getting to that in a second).
… OF THE WEEK
“There’s a Bible verse that basically says, ‘Make no oath.’ No one can say what tomorrow’s going to bring, other than God-willing. Deo volente. Those are the two Latin words I know, but those are the two most important ones. We’ll see what God has in store, but I have every expectation and every plan to be here as long as the Ravens want me here, and I believe they want me here. I think that’s been made clear by management to me over the last few weeks.”—Ravens coach John Harbaugh
So here’s what I know about this: I know Harbaugh loves the team he coached this year. I know extension talks are ongoing. I know with legendary GM Ozzie Newsome passing the baton to Eric DeCosta, there are changes in the organization. And I know there are teams, two of them in Florida, that have been keeping an eye on it all.
It’s not often you see an injury so serious that both teams are crowded around a cart carrying the affected player, but that’s what we had on Saturday night when Cowboys WR Allen Hurns dislocated his ankle. It goes without saying that this one was as gruesome as you’ll see on a football field±and so it was good to see Hurns in better spirits post-surgery on Sunday.
And because I know you some readers aren’t coming here for the serious stuff, there was this reminder that the low man always wins:
Told you I’d address the real story of Saturday night (keep that volume low if you’re at work … and you’re welcome).
S/O TO …
Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins, for donating his $29,000 game check this week to the family of Jazmine Barnes, the Houston area 7-year-old who was killed in a drive-by shooting eight days ago. The team told me Hopkins is giving them the money to cover funeral, medical or counseling costs, or whatever else they might need to get them through an excruciatingly difficult time. Good for him for giving of himself like that, and calling attention to people who need all the help they can get.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
College football from an NFL perspective.
1. I’ll say here what I’ve said a bunch over the last six months—I think Nick Saban is on the verge of becoming the John Wooden of college football. A win over Clemson tonight would give him seven national championships (six at Alabama), which would break the modern record set by Tide legend Bear Bryant. The funny thing is, you used to hear that Saban regretted leaving LSU, because he could’ve become the Bryant of that school. Now? Young coaches out there can dream of becoming their school’s Saban.
2. From a draft perspective, there’s plenty to watch for on Monday night—with the Tide having a chance to have four first-round picks for a third straight year, which would be a pretty staggering accomplishment. Defensive linemen Quinnen Williams and Raekwon Davis are likely to go in the first round, with offensive tackle Jonah Williams and safety Deionte Thompson having a good shot to join them.
3. Shout-out to Dabo Swinney. “Clemsoning” has long since been put to bed—Swinney and the Tigers’ reputation for cracking in spectacular fashion is ancient history. And as they risen, so too has the pipeline Clemson has pumped out—in particular, a ton of defensive linemen and receivers. This year’s edition is, predictably, stocked at both spots. You know about all the D-linemen, and there are receivers who have a shot at going high in the 2020 (Tee Higgins) and 2021 (Justyn Ross) drafts.
4. Dwayne Haskins still has a decision to make on declaring for the draft. But it’s hard not to believe Justin Fields’ transfer from Georgia to Ohio State is telegraphing Haskins’ departure. The two are close and share a quarterbacks coach. And while Fields still needs to win a hardship waiver to be eligible to play in Columbus in 2019, it seems there’d be little chance he’d be headed there if he thought his buddy was going to be back in scarlet-and-grey in the fall.
5. Speaking of Fields, I heard some pretty insane stuff from guys that have evaluated him—“6'3", 220, 4.5 laser [timed] 40, as a rising senior in high school,” one coach said. “Like if Cam [Newton] was naturally accurate, and two inches and 20 pounds smaller. A freak.” So if you’re looking ahead to 2021 …
6. All the credit in the world to Carson Wentz’s alma mater, North Dakota State. Seven FCS national titles in eight seasons under two coaches is amazing. And to do it in Fargo, N.D. (which can’t be the easiest place to recruit to) makes what coaches Craig Bohl (now at Wyoming) and Chris Kleiman (heading to Kansas State) have accomplished all the more impressive. Big shoes for new Matt Entz—promoted from the defensive coordinator spot, like Klieman was in 2013—to fill, no doubt.
1. We spilled a bunch of ink on Friday on Antonio Brown’s situation in Pittsburgh. I’d reiterated that he’s tradable, if the Steelers are motivated to move him, even though they’re not flush with cap space with which to carry all his dead money. By now you know about the flap over the team MVP vote, the spat with Ben Roethlisberger, and his volatile nature. What you need to know is that there is a logical outline for when Brown would be dealt. He’s due a $2.5 million roster bonus on the third day of the league year, which is March 15. Since trades can’t be officially consummated until the first day the league year, March 13, there’s a 48-hour window for the Steelers to deal Brown without having to pay the bonus, which would turn their $21.12 million dead money charge into a $23.62 million hit. So what makes the most sense now, based on that timeline, is for Pittsburgh to let everyone cool down, then maybe explore Brown’s trade market at the combine in late February.
2. I asked Anthony Lynn if the Chargers had considered staying on the East Coast this week. And he said … yes. “We did, but it was so late,” Lynn said. “When you get the schedule before the season, you can plan this stuff. But when it happens and you have a week’s notice, the logistics of doing that is really hard. We just couldn’t get it done. But this is a tough football team. We’ll go back to the West Coast, prepare, and we’ll come back to the East Coast and we’ll do it again.” After a little more digging, I found out that the Chargers actually investigated sites near Baltimore and New York. And they felt confident they could get hotel space and a practice site. The real issue? Getting their digital video up and running to where it needed to be, and a full training room going wasn’t feasible on such short notice. The Chargers, you may remember, spent a week in Cleveland earlier in the year ahead of their trip to London. And in anticipation of that trip, they sent their IT people a week ahead to get the hotel wired, so the coaches could hit the ground running when they arrived. That was hard enough. Doing that with much less lead time, as they saw it, invited risk that wasn’t worth taking in a playoff week.
3. I had a coach and a scout text me, independent of one another, during the Ravens/Chargers game on Sunday to invoke Tim Tebow’s name in watching Lamar Jackson’s performance. And I do think there’s a fair parallel there. The Broncos run game was a handful to deal with after Mike McCoy and Adam Gase overhauled the offense and turned it into option-based attack for Tebow in 2011. But they knew it had a shelf life, and eventually Tebow would have to evolve and learn to win from the pocket, something that never happened. Along those lines, on Sunday we got a look at the challenges ahead for Jackson when defenses get a better handle on the Ravens’ option packages. It was the first time the rookie had seen a defense for a second time, and the Chargers were able to force more bad down-and-distance situations, and Jackson struggled mightily in those spots. He has to be more accurate and develop better feel in the pocket. We’ll see next year how quickly he comes along in that regard.
4. Things have quieted around the Denver coaching search, which has some believing that a move could be coming soon. The name you hear most commonly is that of Steelers offensive coach Mike Munchak, the 58-year-old former Titans coach who was an All-Decade offensive linemen for the Oilers in the 1980s. Munchak, who was 22-26 in three years in charge in Nashville, has turned Pittsburgh’s line into one of the NFL’s best in the five years since he got fired from the Titans. If it is Munchak in Denver? It’d seem to make some sense that Gary Kubiak would be his offensive coordinator. Denver has blocked other teams from interviewing Kubiak, currently a senior personnel adviser for the Broncos, for OC jobs—it’s believed he doesn’t really want to leave Denver anyway—which only lends credence to the idea. There’d been a thought during the season that he could help GM John Elway lure John Harbaugh from Baltimore, with the promise that Kubiak could be Harbaugh’s OC, as he was with the Ravens in 2014.
5. The Vikings’ offensive coordinator situation bears watching. I’m told interim OC Kevin Stefanski’s contract expires on Tuesday, meaning head coach Mike Zimmer may need to make a call on him quickly. Pat Shurmur tried bringing Stefanski with him to the Giants last year, and other teams are keeping an eye on what materializes in Minneapolis over the next couple days. Zimmer blocked Stefanski from interviewing in New York last year and hasn’t let him go on OC interviews this year either.
6. The Bucs are indeed considering ex-Cardinals coach Bruce Arians for their opening, and that one makes some sense. Arians could certainly help them get a final answer on whether former first overall pick Jameis Winston is salvageable, and put together a strong staff (ex-Jets coach Todd Bowles would be a candidate to run his defense), given his connections and experience in the league. And Bucs GM Jason Licht was part of the group running interviews in Arizona—he was the VP of player personnel there at the time—when Arians was hired as Cardinals coach in 2013. One wild card here? Word around the campfire is that former Bucs coach Tony Dungy has advocated for Jim Caldwell to get the job there.
7. Caldwell’s name is one I’ve heard consistently the Cardinals, but I would not rule out USC offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury’s candidacy in Arizona. There’s been steady buzz over the last three or four days the ex-Texas Tech coach is a very strong possibility, if the team can work out permission from USC to talk with him (or if he, as Pro Football Talk suggested, decides to resign).
8. There have been some names floating around that may seem a little more like coordinator candidates (Stefanski’s was one, when he interviewed in Cleveland), and so it’s worth mentioning that teams have used head-coach interviews in the past to talk to guys they might hire into other roles. One such example? Then-Rams OC Matt LeFleur interviewed for the Titans head coaching job last year, then landed there as Mike Vrabel’s offensive coordinator. These especially make sense if a team is looking to hire from the college ranks, and wants to have some suggestions ready to go to NFL-ize that coaches’ staff.
9. One nugget to emerge from the Bengals search: Owner Mike Brown’s kids—daughter Katie Blackburn, son-in-law Troy Blackburn and son Paul—have increasingly become more involved in running the team. Or it at least it seems that way to guys going through there. Those four, and personnel chief Duke Tobin, are the ones in the room for the interviews. Ex-Broncos head coach (and ex-Bengals secondary coach) Vance Joseph appears well-positioned, but I’ve been told by guys from Marvin Lewis’ staff not to rule out former Browns coach Hue Jackson. Remember, Bengals ownership is probably less concerned with public perception, or reaction to a hire, than anyone else in the league.
10. The Browns, Jets and Packers said they were wide open going into the process, and they’ve followed through on that. The Jets were in Texas to interview Cowboys assistant Kris Richard on Sunday, the Browns in Indy to interview Colts DC Matt Eberflus, and the Packers were back home in Green Bay to meet with LeFleur and ex-Dolphins coach Adam Gase. The Jets and Browns have kicked tires on a wide range of candidates, while the Packers have mostly met with offensive-minded coaches. Gase and Patriots OC Josh McDaniels are of interest there—the experience they have coaching all-time great QBs in Denver and Foxboro means they wouldn’t have to be projected into that kind of task working with Aaron Rodgers.
The CFP title game should be a blast—with Clemson and Bama playing in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year, and each starting a potential future first-rounder at quarterback. And so that means I probably owe you a prediction, huh?
Give me the Tide, 31-28.
And after that, I bet we get a head coaching hire or two, with Denver looking like the team that might be closest to pulling the trigger. As always, stay tuned … and stay tuned, too, for my Monday Afternoon Quarterback. I’ll see you all in a few hours with that.
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