ATLANTA — I was in a small conference room at Olivet Nazarene University in mid-July—at the very beginning of camp, before 30 teams had even reported—and Chicago Bears GM Ryan Pace was telling stories. About a ceiling-to-floor whiteboard that coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich were marking up nightly, Good Will Hunting style, with new ideas. About how Nagy kept two legal pads for watching college tape, one to take notes on players, the other to steal ideas for plays.
Pace just wanted to illustrate how excited he was about his new coaching staff. And inadvertently, he wound up telling the story of the 2018 season.
This year has been about an explosion of offense in pro football, no doubt. But that’s only a product of blossoming open-mindedness and innovation in NFL, something that leads you right to the two teams still playing. The Patriots and Rams aren’t flawless. They are smart, and flexible, and innovative.
Yesterday, 35,000 people showed at Gillette Stadium to send the Patriots off to Georgia to their ninth Super Bowl in 18 years. The Rams didn’t keep a head count, but given accounts of half-hour wait times to get into their new stadium’s Hollywood Park construction site, they may not have been that far from matching the Foxboro number. And the teams basking in that atmosphere represented more than just those fans.
Simply, they’re so much of what this season has been.
“I think if you did a poll of a bunch of coaches, and asked for teams, situationally, that take calculated risks or they expose your weaknesses as a team and work their strengths, I think both these teams would come up,” Nagy said, just before heading off for vacation late Friday night. “They do a great job of that.”
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The Rams and Patriots aren’t the same, but there are threads to tie them together.
Both have evolved to fit what they’re up against in today’s NFL. Both are capable of changing what they do on a week-to-week basis. Both have a very specific vision in what they want their teams to look like, and the roles they need players to fill.
In a certain way, the Rams are working toward the kind of infrastructure that’s given the Patriots an advantage over most of the NFL for such a long time. The Bears are too. And that was my big takeaway, after getting Nagy to break down the matchup—he’s one of only two playoff coaches to have played both teams this year—and asking him specifically what impresses him most about L.A. and New England.
“I can tell you right now, it’s easy,” Nagy said. “They’re both extremely well-versed in situational football, which I love. Their situational football, how they attack each game, each week—they’re week-by-week, game-plan specific. They will adjust how they call a game both on offense and on defense, based off your personnel. They do a great job with that.
“So to me, situational football is so huge in this game.”
It always has been in New England. It is in a lot of other places now too, Sean McVay’s Los Angeles included.
We’re on the ground in Atlanta, and we’ve got a lot to get to in the second-to-last MMQB of the 2018 season, including:
• What the Rams making it here in Year 3 means in the grand scheme of things, as part of the NFL’s return to Los Angeles after two decades away.
• What’s next for the conference finalists that lost last Sunday.
• An inside look at what a player is trying to accomplish at the Senior Bowl.
• Notes on who helped themselves in Mobile this week, from a draft perspective.
• More on coaching movement across the NFL, and that blown call in Saints-Rams.
We’re starting with Nagy, and his keys for a game that pairs two teams that contrast one another (old versus young) on the surface, but probably mirror each other more than you would think.
Nagy’s Bears choked out the Rams 15-6 on Dec. 9, a frigid Sunday night in Chicago.
The Patriots outlasted the Bears 38-31 seven weeks earlier at Soldier Field.
So Chicago got to see different versions of the two teams. New England rolled in on fire, coming off a win over the Chiefs, in the midst of six-game winning streak. The Rams were not. December was inarguably their worst month. But Nagy studied both all the way through the year—the Patriots and Rams offenses are on his Monday morning “watch list,” among the teams he mines the tape of, for ideas to take.
With that as the backdrop, and with the big game just six days away, Nagy and I went through all the themes and matchups that highlight Super Bowl LIII. Here are a few of those …
The Patriots’ big-boy look unlocks their versatility. New England has quietly become a power running team behind a mammoth offensive line, fullback James Develin and an army of backs led by rookie Sony Michel. And their ability to toggle between that look and Tom Brady piloting a shotgun spread makes them a you-know-what to deal with on a down-to-down basis.
“It’s like, ‘You’re gonna do this, we’ll do that. You’re gonna do that, we’ll do this,’” said Nagy. “They can spread you out in five wide, and slice and dice you, then they can say, ‘We’ll play big-boy ball,’ put the fullback in the game and pound you with the run and play-action. If they can do both, spread them out in empty and get the run game going with the fullback, that’s gonna be a big-time advantage.”
That, by the way, makes these Patriots a little different from other recent versions, and lightens the burden on Brady of carrying them.
The Rams are different but similarly tough to deal with. The foundation of what McVay does is very Shanahan-ian: marry the run game to the passing game, and make lots of different things look the same. That transfers the pressure to be complex to defend from the players to the coaches.
“It’s just a matter of doing three or four things out of the same look, which makes it hard,” Nagy said. “And unlike the RPO teams, where you’re doing all this stuff in the ’gun, and going that route making things look the same, [McVay] does it from under center. And that’s where I think it’s unique, whether it’s a stretch zone or a naked or a screen or a shot with max protection, it’s really hard to defend those at the same time. And when you get the run game going as well with those guys, it’s difficult.
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“What I’ve seen, and what I think he’s done such a great job of is, offensively, he never deviated just because maybe it didn’t work one week or another. He just sticks to it and puts a little twist.”
This, by the way, is a big reason why Mike Shanahan (under whom McVay coached with Washington) always gave Belichick trouble.
The game might come down to second-tier guys. When I asked Nagy about stars like Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks matching up on the New England defense, he said, “They’ll have a good plan for those guys, for sure. So whether it’s your third guy or your fourth guy, if you have a matchup that you like, then that’s where you can get them. Your other guys have to make plays when given opportunities.”
Last year in the Super Bowl, that was Corey Clement for the Eagles. And it’s why when I asked Nagy for an X factor for the Rams, he said he’d take Robert Woods and Gerald Everett, guys who’ll get less attention and may draw the kinds of matchups Nagy referenced. Then, I asked for the Patriots’ X factor, and similar logic applied.
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“I think it’s Chris Hogan,” Nagy said. “He didn’t do a whole lot against the Chiefs, but he’s sneaky good. He could have a big game—he’s good against zone defense, and they’re gonna have a plan for Edelman. So I could see him having a nice game.”
The first quarter could be key. Here’s an interesting fact: The Rams didn’t hold a second-half lead in any of their three losses. You might think that shows they struggle from behind. But after last week, we know that’s not really the case. More so, it’s proof that they’re that much better playing with a lead.
“When they play with the lead—and that’s anybody—but they’re really, really difficult to stop when they have the lead and they’re dictating the pace and the tempo of the game,” Nagy said. “When they score a touchdown in the red zone and get the lead, they’re really efficient and they’re tough to stop. If you get them into a situation where they’re in the shotgun on every play because they’re behind, and the play-action doesn’t really work, as it is with any team, they get one-dimensional.
“Just because of all the stuff they do, Sean stays really aggressive, he’ll make some really aggressive play calls with the lead, and he makes it really hard for you to get any tendencies on what they do.”
So make the Rams one-dimensional? In a word, yes. Whether it’s Gurley or C.J. Anderson back there, letting the Rams run the ball has been a death sentence for their opponents. Just five teams held L.A. under 100 yards rushing during the regular season. Three of them won—that’s all three of the Rams’ defeats. Last week the Saints made it six, and it took all the Rams had to get past them.
Nagy made this one simple. I asked what New England had to take away. He answered, “It’s the run game. They have to shut that run game down. If they don’t, it’s hard to beat that team. If they get that run game going, they’re hard to stop.”
The reason? The run game basically activates everything for that offense. And Jared Goff is better throwing off run action (via both traditional motion and jet motion) than he is in the dropback game.
Circle 99. You get Nagy going on Aaron Donald and … “99 is just on another level. The way he played this year—I mean if you don’t know where he’s at on every play, you’re in trouble. I go back to when we were getting ready to play the Rams. What I saw from watching Aaron Donald, even if he wasn’t making plays, you always had to prepare yourself. And when you first start getting comfortable, and think you’ve got him taken care of, he always finds a way.”
Simply put, the Rams have to beat the Patriots the way the 2007 and ’11 Giants did, or Wade Phillips’ Broncos did, or the way the Eagles did at the end of last year’s Super Bowl—by going up main street. If they can get inside pressure on Brady, they’re in business.
“They need to win the battle up front, their defensive line has to win their one-on-one matchups and get pressure on Brady,” Nagy said. “If they can get pressure on Brady, as with any quarterback, they’ll have a chance. If you don’t get pressure on Brady, you don’t have a shot.”
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Nagy will be back from a few days off next week for NFL Honors, and then he’ll beat it out of Atlanta before kickoff. But that doesn’t mean he’s not going to watch the game. He’s planning to tune in, as much to see what more he can take from the two teams playing as anything.
“It is painful but I kind of like it, because it makes you want to get to that point,” he said. “Like I said, you’ll never ever, ever see me watching a Super Bowl game from the stands. I won’t be at a Super Bowl that I’m not on the sidelines for. So that’s easy, but I will watch it on TV. And you learn from it.”
Given how this year’s gone, we can all learn from it.
SHOWTIME LAKERS? NOT YET, BUT THE RAMS ARE CREATING BUZZ
Kevin Demoff’s daughter came home from her sixth grade class on Friday with a story that probably made the Rams COO feel pretty good. And this time it wasn’t about his little girl, but some of the other kids there.
“They had a fire drill at their school, and one class came out, and it was a GOFF, followed by GURLEY, GURLEY, GOFF, GURLEY, GURLEY, and then I think a Patriots jersey,” Demoff said Sunday. “She was saying—six kids in a row were wearing jerseys. That was a poignant point to put how you captivate this next generation.
“There’s nothing that can be done to solve that there were 20 years here without football, or that people kept their original teams or found other teams to root for. We may win them back as a second team. But if you’re from Pittsburgh, you’re still going to be a Steelers fan, even if you live in LA. But that next generation, the generation that grew up without a team, we are really laser focused on them.”
You want the impact that the Rams getting to the Super Bowl is having on the NFL’s efforts to win over Los Angeles, and avoid the fate it met in the 1990s there? Start right there, with those sixth-graders.
Demoff’s point of view is a pretty realistic one. Those fans from the Northeast and Midwest that have packed the Coliseum and the StubHub Center the last three years aren’t going to be converted, in all likelihood. But their children might be.
“[The impact] won’t be in the short term,” said ex-NFL exec Eric Grubman, who was point man for the league’s return to L.A.. “It shows up in the medium term and long term. Just think about the kids. If you’re a kid and a team comes to town, and they’re in the Super Bowl a couple years later, you’re a fan for life.”
That’s not to say that this Super Bowl run won’t give the Rams’ efforts to win over the spenders in L.A. a shot in the arm. In fact, even if the upside is somewhat limited, the timing really couldn’t be much better.
The Rams started selling personal seat licenses and suites for the Inglewood Stadium last March, which was always going to be a challenge in a market with so many entertainment options—there are multiple teams in every pro sport, and two colleges with high-profile athletic departments to compete with, before you even start talking about all the non-sports options in L.A.
What makes it even tougher is that just being good sometimes isn’t good enough. Being compelling matters too. And being hot is ideal. The Showtime Lakers were the definition of that. The Rams, with a young and dynamic head coach, and stars like Gurley and Donald, are at least going in that direction.
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“It’s not just going up and down the field there,” said Marc Ganis, CEO of Sportscorp and a power broker in the business of building stadiums. “It’s having superstars. They have that. And more than that, they have a superstar head coach. Players come and go, but the coaches stay as the most visible people in those organizations. It makes a very big difference there, maybe more so there than in any other market.”
As for tangible proof that it’s working, the Rams’ NFC title game win outrated every one of the Dodgers’ World Series games, and the team sold out a game scheduled for a Monday kickoff at 5 p.m. local in five days, when the league moved the Chiefs game back from Mexico City on short notice. The Rams led the NFL this year in ratings increase. They led the league in attendance increase.
Is it New York or Boston or Philly? No, it’s not. And it won’t be that. But given the challenges, it’s hard to look at what the Rams are doing (the Chargers’ challenges, and results, have obviously been different) and not think they’re on the right track.
“What happened in Los Angeles is what the NFL expected—people played fantasy football and watched Sunday Ticket and followed their favorite teams and became fans of the league more than any team, or if they had a team, they kept their team,” Demoff said. “And you have to change those habits to get people to come on Sunday to our stadium and tailgate and be part of it. It’s changing habits as much as it’s creating fans. That doubles the challenge.
“It’s one thing to get people to buy into you, it’s another to change what they’ve done for a long time. That’s slowly happened.”
And L.A. having a team in the Super Bowl can only accelerate the effort to make the city a football market.
“If we didn’t know better, we’d think this was the Knicks winning the lottery and getting Patrick Ewing,” Ganis said. “Last year would’ve been too early, next year would’ve been too close to the stadium opening up. It’s as perfect a scenario as could have been drawn up.”
SAINTS AND CHIEFS: WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE RUNNERS-UP
Sunday’s Pro Bowl was dotted with Chiefs and Saints players, who were probably the last ones who wanted to be in Orlando, having come off painful overtime losses following a season during which, on balance, they were the best two teams in the NFL.
All of those guys will eventually turn the page, and there’s plenty of reason (starting with the quarterbacks) to think that both teams will be back in the running at the highest level next year. But there’s plenty of business to be done, too. So I figured we’d take a look at that this week. I asked around. Here’s what I’m looking at as the top three issues for both in the coming months.
WR Michael Thomas is eligible for a second contract for the first time, and asking for money in the Odell Beckham neighborhood is within reason. The Saints, though, have only paid one skill player even $10 million annually in their history (Beckham makes $18 million per). And they traded that player, Jimmy Graham, a year later. Their area of investment offensively has always been in the quarterback and the line. Will they make an exception? And how about DT Sheldon Rankins, another third-year player, who’s in that boat? The Saints will have to make a call on his fifth-year option by the beginning of May, knowing that he may not be quite the same in 2019 coming back off a ruptured Achilles. Does the team explore an extension, knowing it might get a discount? Is that worth the risk, given the injury?
The quarterback situation needs to shake out. Drew Brees is due an $11.9 million roster bonus in March. The Saints will presumably pay that. Do they make an effort to keep Teddy Bridgewater, for whom they traded a third-round pick, with Taysom Hill still more a curiosity as an actual quarterback? Complicating things is that the team would be hard-pressed to draft a QB, given that they have no first-, third- or fourth-round pick.
RB Mark Ingram, an eight-year Saint, is a free agent. He’ll be 30 in December and has some wear on his wheels. But he fuels a power running game that’s a perfect complement to what his backfield mate Alvin Kamara brings to the table. If the Saints lose Ingram, it feels like they’ll lose a little of their personality. And they do want him back. But at what price?
WR Tyreek Hill, like Thomas, is eligible for a new contract, and worthy of being paid at the top of the market. And the Chiefs set the floor for him last year in giving Sammy Watkins, who was far less productive this year than Hill, a three-year, $48 million deal. They know this is going to cost them. How much? And will the structure of the deal, given Hill’s off-field past, be an issue in the negotiations?
DT Chris Jones is the other big internal piece who’s eligible to be extended. The third-year monster had 15.5 sacks this year, and is living in a world where the league’s top defensive tackle scored a deal at $22.5 million per. Jones isn’t Aaron Donald. But as an interior disrupter, he may have been No. 2 to No. 99 this year. As is the case with Hill, the Chiefs would love to lock him up. We’ll see if they can make it happen in this new financial environment.
What will K.C. do with its edge rushers? Dee Ford had a career year and is the natural candidate for the franchise tag (guys like C Mitch Morse and TE Demetrius Harris should hit the market). That’ll cost the Chiefs between $15 million and $20 million, depending on whether he’s classified as a linebacker or an end. Do the Chiefs tag him and try to do a deal? And if they do, is Justin Houston, carrying a $21.1 million cap number for 2019, gone? There are decisions to be made there.
A PROSPECT’S SENIOR BOWL STORY
It hit me last week while I was in Mobile that most fans probably aren’t familiar with everything that happens at the Senior Bowl. Or grasp how important it is in the draft process. So I figured this week I’d turn a piece of the column over to one of the week’s stars. I picked Ohio State wide receiver Terry McLaurin, and not just because of where he went to school—I swear, he had a big few days, per scouts paid to know that stuff.
So here he is on his experience out there …
Coming off the Rose Bowl, I felt like I had a great senior season, and [agent] Buddy [Baker] and I had this as the game—a must come-to. And if I got the invite, and I was pushing for it really hard, I was definitely coming. This is the premier event for senior players, an opportunity to showcase myself as an individual, show to GMs, coaches and scouts that I have the speed to take the top off the defense, I am a good route runner with dependable hands who has the potential to be a starting receiver in the NFL. I also wanted to display my ability to contribute in many other ways, such as on special teams, being a leader and an overall great addition to an organization.
I just wanted to come in here and put my best foot forward, really.
Coming into the first practice for me, it was about knowing all my plays. This is a new offense for me—I’m used to running the spread, and this is a pro-style offense. The new terminology was different. But I try to learn conceptually, and that helped me. I didn’t have any missed assignments going through the first practice, where our coaches were really throwing a lot at us—we installed over 60 plays. That really got me off on the right foot, because I try to play fast—that’s a strength of my game—and I was confident in what I was doing.
I had two goals.
First, I wanted to win all my one-on-ones. To demonstrate my ability to run the entire route tree and the subtle nuances that help receivers get separation. At Ohio State we had a lot of great receivers, and I wanted to confirm in the eyes of NFL decision makers that I’m a complete wide receiver who has the potential to be a key part of an NFL organization.
And second, I wanted to be a starter on special teams on Saturday, and I’m starting on all the special teams in the game. I learned in college that special teams flip the field. And in the NFL, you have a 53-man roster, but with only 46 active on game day. That doesn’t leave a lot of spots. So if you take 22—11 on offense, 11 on defense—then the kicker, the punter and the long snapper, you get into a numbers game. To make the 46-man roster, you have to contribute on more than just offense or defense. If I want to excel and stay in the league for a long time, then I have to be able to play on special teams. And I don’t look just to play on them, I look dominate on them.
I hope leaving Mobile, the Raiders coaches [Oakland’s staff coached the North team] the would say, ‘He’s a smart football player, the kind of guy we need on our team who can make an impact at both receiver and special teams, and he’s a leader someone who improves our locker room.’ I hope they see me as a guy who picked up their system quickly, is energetic and unselfish. Just a guy that LOVES football. Because that’s the kind of player and teammate I want to be known as.
What’s next? My goal is to run in the 4.3 range at the combine. I feel like I have that type of elite speed. I know coaches and scouts believe I’m fast, but I’m not sure if they appreciate how fast. I was clocked the fastest in pads this week—22.2 miles per hour at the first practice—and I want to show I have the type of speed that’s game-changing. And when I get back to training at XPE in Fort Lauderdale, I want to get my body right and then just continue refining my routes, catching the ball cleanly. I am never satisfied and continually work on all aspects of my game—let’s just say the JUGS machine has become my best friend. Overall, going forward, I’m excited to put my sole focus on my training and continue to enjoy this process.
I do see myself as an early-round player. When I’ll go, I don’t know. Those chips will fall where they may. I’m going to focus on controlling the controllable, and I’ll do the best I can wherever I end up. I am just hopeful and excited for the chance to be part of an NFL team.
… OF THE WEEK
“They’re not happy with me right now. The NFL is calling my phone, blowing me up. Saying that I put him in the hospital. So I gotta check on him, make sure he’s OK. But do I regret it? Noooooo.” —Jets S Jamal Adams on leveling the Patriots’ mascot, Pat Patriot to ESPN’s Dianna Russini.
God, this kid is great. The truth is, we need more personality in the NFL, not less. And yeah, maybe Adams came with a little more thunder than he should have. But if you really look closely at how he took ol’ Pat, it’s pretty obvious that he was going for effect, not for injury. Everyone positioning this as assault, needs to calm down.
(Update: I was told on Monday that the man inside Pat Patriot did suffer jaw and neck soreness, was checked for a concussion and even got advice to explore legal action. Obviously, I’m not trying to make light of someone getting hurt. And while I don’t think the intent was to injure, the result certainly makes it clear that Adams went overboard here.)
That’s Pro Football Talk’s Darin Gantt, and he’s absolutely right. The NFL’s decision to fine Rams CB Nickell Robey-Coleman $26,739 for a helmet-to-helmet hit, and announcing it quietly before any sort of public apology, certainly did feel like the league trying to address the play without really addressing the play. And that’s a shame, because this should’ve been pretty simple—if you say, ‘We got it wrong, we’re sorry, we’re going to address it further in the offseason,’ then the story slowly goes away. Also, no one’s going to accuse you of PR’ing the situation. Instead, the story is lingering, and the public sees the league, once again, trying to play the people like fools.
I don’t know Ryan Grimaud but I get the sentiment – this all has to be horrible for people in St. Louis. The once-drab Rams are not only gone, they’re now among the most entertaining takes in sports and in the Super Bowl. And there’s really no path to getting the NFL back this time around, like there was after the Cardinals left for Arizona in the late ’80s.
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So if you have three hours or so, here’s the full game that pitted Kent State junior quarterback Julian Edelman against Miami (Ohio) senior receiver Sean McVay. Edelman finished the day with 260 yards and two picks on 19-of-33 passing, and 93 yards on 22 carries. McVay caught three balls for 37 yards in the RedHawks’ 20-13 win.
Or, courtesy of ESPN, you can check out the highlights …
S/O to …
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards for sending Roger Goodell a letter expressing his “deep disappointment” in the NFL, while asking for expanded replay. And also to Louisiana congressman Cedric Richmond, for asking that Goodell come to DC to explain himself, then penning a statement where he identified himself un-ironically as a member of “Who Dat Nation”. These guys, folks, are the real heroes.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
The Senior Bowl went off on Saturday, but most of the work of the scouts was done a couple days before that—for the NFL’s purposes, the practices during the week are most important. And as such, by game day, almost the entire scouting community has left Mobile. So with that in mind, here’s a look at what the evaluators on hand took away from their time in Alabama.
1. Missouri’s Drew Lock won the week at quarterback. He showed an ability to work through progressions, and to fit the ball into tight windows—two major questions he faced as a passer with a history of playing in simple offenses in high school and college.
2. Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham is another one who had just a so-so final year as a collegian in a pretty simple offense—and Stidham came back to really help his cause this week, flashing the kind of talent that had people looking at him as a potential first-rounder over the summer. I doubt he goes that high, but he’s in good shape coming out of Mobile. Like Lock, because of the offense he played in, he’s a projection, especially when compared to Duke’s Daniel Jones, who was coached by the Manning brothers’ old coach, David Cutcliffe.
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3. Everyone knows this is the Year of the Defensive Linemen, and it’s just as clear that after Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and Alabama’s Quinnen Williams, there’s a crowd of guys jockeying for position. Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat can feel good that this week was spent making progress in that regard—jumping out his length and speed off the edge. “He stood out in one-on-ones,” said an NFC exec. “I though he really helped himself.” There are questions about his size (he came in at 6’6” and 252 pounds in Mobile), but showing you’ll be able to get to the passer is a good way to get evaluators to forget about the measurables.
4. Elsewhere with the d-linemen, Western Illinois’ back-flipping Khalen Saunders turned in a fantastic week, and under different circumstances. As he put on a display for his North teammates post-practice—doing what would best be described as a gymnast’s floor routine—his agents were on the sideline fielding a phone call informing them that Saunders fiancée had gone into labor. As the other guys cheered for Saunders, those agents from Athletes First hustled in to tell him, and he hustled back to the agency’s bus to call her. Oh, and as a small-school prospect, he showed he belonged on the field, too. “He was really disruptive that first day,” said one AFC exec. “He had a steady week. Showed he belongs.”
5. On the other side of the ball, the expectation is that there’ll be a good number of long-term starting interior linemen there this year on Friday night (Rounds 2-3) of the draft. It’ll be tougher to find answers at tackle. And so it was good for the teams to see that USC’s Chuma Edoga show potential—his footwork and athleticism caught a lot of eyes. He’s still unsound in his technique, and there are questions how he’ll handle life as a pro, but there are at least looks like there’s some ability to work with there.
6. South Carolina WR Deebo Samuel stood out in what was a good week for the receivers on hand (McLaurin and UMass’s Andy Isabella also impressed). Samuel dominated defensive backs in drills, amid questions about his speed and durability.
1. We killed the league in this space last week, and I felt justified in doing it—and I feel just as strongly seven days later. It’s still insane to me that there’s been no public comment. It’s also weird that we all get the benefit of technology to see the game a certain way, but that same technology isn’t used to avoid pitfalls like the one the NFL stumbled into, and can’t seem to get itself out of. So I reached out to Saints TE Benjamin Watson, who said he didn’t have much else to say, other than “I wish they had done their job as a unit.” Then, I asked if he had a solution. His answer, via text: “Honestly, we replay so much that I understand the flow-of-the-game argument. But with so much at stake, in every game of the season, if we are going to commit to getting it right, then we need to fully commit to getting it right. Pass interference being called or not being called can be just as important as scoring plays. With so much technology available for the viewing audience (and stadium audience), the league and officials look totally inept when these types of infractions are not officiated correctly. We all should use technology to enhance the game and eliminate human error when possible.” Watson then himself raised the questionable PI call on Joe Haden that went the Saints way against the Steelers in December. “That was a bogus call, and it happened in the endzone. Shouldn’t have been a PI and probably should have been overturned. Truth is truth, no matter what uniform we wear.”
2. While we’re there … No, Nickell Robey-Coleman, that ball was not tipped. And even if it was, you’re not off the hook. For one, there’s still the helmet-to-helmet penalty. For another, your back was turned to the ball, so it’s not like you were slyly reacting to what you saw. And this is coming from a guy who thinks, given the circumstances, it actually wasn’t a bad calculated risk by you to take out Tommylee Lewis like you did, flag or no flag.
3. I wouldn’t be overly concerned with Cam Newton’s arthroscopic right-shoulder surgery, which was done on Thursday. I’m told it was minor in nature—more of a cleanup than anything else—and he should be throwing again by the time OTAs kick off in May. Newton made tremendous strides in his first year under OC Norv Turner and QBs coach Scott Turner, who wanted to teach him to take ownership of the offense, and play point guard rather than power forward out there.
4. My old buddy Jeff Darlington of ESPN got Tom Brady on the record on Sunday saying, again, that there is “zero” chance that Sunday’s Super Bowl will be his last NFL game. And I believe Brady. Why? Most players quit not because they get sick of Sundays. It’s because they get sick of the other 345 or so days of the year, and all that it takes to be a pro football player. Brady’s different. He actually likes the grind, which I think is a huge factor here, and it’s something his dad brought up to me last week. “I’m shocked that he’s even playing today,” Tom Sr. said. “But he says he wants three or four or five more years. He’s 41, and next year’s 42, and let’s take them one at a time and see how it is. It’s pretty special that he’s able to play at the top of his game at 41 years of age. Maybe this avocado ice cream works, huh? As much as it’s been mocked, people ought to look at it and say, if he can do it at his age maybe we ought to look at it a little closer.” And we should all look a little closer at his passion for that part of it.
5. The hiring of Steve Spagnuolo in Kansas City makes all the sense in the world, because he understands, and subscribes to, Andy Reid’s program. And Spagnuolo brings a level of unpredictability to a defense that was the reason why Bob Sutton was attractive to Reid in 2013, and why Reid would’ve made a run at Todd Bowles, had the timing there worked out differently (Bowles was hired in Tampa while K.C. was still in the playoffs). And seeing the hire reminded me of a conversation I had with Spagnuolo back in November. He and I were talking about the 1999 Eagles, and whether or not the Philly staff in Reid’s first year trusted that things were going to work out long-term under the new coach. “During the season, we all had full trust in Andy,” Spagnuolo told me. “And again he never wavered—like, we’d lose two or three in a row and you expected him to come into a staff meeting like what I had been used to with some other head coaches, and just start ranting and raving. And he never changed. It was just, ‘Hey, keep coaching them, keep doing what we’re doing, keep believing in what we’re doing, keep banging them hard, don’t let them get away with anything.’ And he was right. It finally came around, too.” I don’t think Spagnuolo’s trust in that program has wavered much since, either.
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6. The Redskins hired ex-Packers assistant Brian Angelichio as tight ends coach this week, meaning Wes Phillips, Wade’s son, is out in Washington. And I’d keep an eye on him as a potential addition to McVay’s staff in Los Angeles. There are some moving parts, as far as replacing QBs coach Zac Taylor, who’s off to be head coach in Cincinnati post-Super Bowl. McVay could move passing game coordinator Shane Waldron (a big sounding board for the head coach) over from tight ends to quarterbacks, and slot Phillips in as tight ends coach. Or he could just make Phillips, a college quarterback himself, the quarterbacks coach. Nothing’s done there. Just keep an eye on it. McVay and Phillips are close, going back to their time together in Washington.
7. As for the other Super Bowl assistant set to get his shot, you have to like how Brian Flores’s Dolphins staff is coming together. Flores, the Patriots defensive coordinator who’s set to take over in Miami after the Super Bowl, worked together with his defensive coordinator-to-be, Patrick Graham, for seven seasons in Foxboro, and was with his offensive coordinator-to-be, Chad O’Shea, there for the last decade. That sort of stuff matters. So too does having a two-time NFL head coach like Jim Caldwell (the presumed associate head coach) as a resource as he makes the transition. It’s always tough putting together a staff on the fly in this sort of situation. Flores is doing better than most.
8. If you haven’t checked out Seth Wickersham’s story on Cleveland’s dysfunction, do that now. And for when you come back—the hope now is that owner Jimmy Haslam has grown into his role leading the team. I’ve heard in the past that his problems with the Browns really weren’t anything sinister. It was more mistaking how a football operation should be run. One example you’d hear a lot was that Haslam would talk to lower-level assistants—maybe an area scout or position coach—and get their take on things, then go to the GM or coach with them. It’s easy to see where someone in Haslam’s position would think he was helping by doing that. But that, as (hopefully) Haslam has learned, isn’t how the NFL’s best are run.
9. Having Larry Fitzgerald return qualifies as win No. 1 of the Kliff Kingsbury Era in Arizona. And it’s not so much about Fitzgerald as player, as it is Fitzgerald as a person. He’s the rare superstar who was able to reinvent himself on the fly—we’ve seen how hard that is for other uber-talents like Dez Bryant and Rob Gronkowski—and the example and tone he’s set as result, effectively turning himself from a dominant outside receiver into an effective slot type, is invaluable for that organization. And if he’s sold on Kingsbury, that should resonate in the building.
10. Here’s your Pro Bowl update: They should move the “game” to the Super Bowl site or back to Hawaii next year. The former has served as a kickoff event for Super Bowl Week, so that makes some sense, terrible as the action on the field might be. The latter has merit because the locale is an incentive to keep players from bagging out, and is a nice reward for the game’s best at the end of the season.
Here are the five storylines—and I don’t care if you’re sick of them or not—that you’ll hear during Super Bowl week that I believe are very legitimate and worth all the attention they get.
1. Sean McVay is 33. Again, I don’t care if you’re sick of it. What the guy is doing is absolutely incredible. And he’s legit. It’s not BS.
2. Tom Brady is 41. Same. This is amazing.
3. McVay v. Belichick. The chess game should be outstanding. And just to prove it, one thing to watch for: McVay’s practice of getting in Goff’s ear right until the headset cutoff with 15 seconds left on the play clock. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots combat that by sending in two defensive calls, and switching at 15 seconds. Then again, the Rams could muddle huddle—send their guys to the line quickly, so McVay can make the adjustment and take the 15-second cutoff out of it. The overall point here: There are so many little things that should be a blast to watch from these coaches on Sunday.
4. Dante Scarnecchia. I hope the Patriots line coach gets more attention. Scar—the man who once turned collegiate wrestler Stephen Neal into a top-shelf NFL guard—has done it again. In the season after he lost a $15 million-a-year left tackle, his line has been a force in the playoffs. And that group is made up of a third-, a fourth-, a fifth- and a seventh-round pick, and an undrafted free agent at center.
5. Todd Gurley’s usage. The Patriots run defense has been hit-or-miss at times this year. And if Gurley gets going, this is a different Rams team. And that’s with all due respect to C.J. Anderson.
That’s it for now. We’ll see you later on Monday with our quick hitters in the Monday Afternoon Quarterback, and The MMQB will be bringing you all the latest news and analysis from Atlanta all week.
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