ATLANTA – In one corner of the locker room, a trainer carefully pulled a dark green t-shirt over the head of wincing Patriots safety Patrick Chung, still in plenty of pain after breaking his arm in the third quarter of Super Bowl LIII. Chung then instructed the trainer how clasp his watch, and affix his chain.
“Just be careful when you slide that end into the other end,” the 10-year veteran safety said.
The scene was a microcosm of the game, and the season in New England. The Patriots might be getting older. They might be a little beat up. And things might not come as easy to them as they’d like, or as they used to.
But in the end they’re still standing. They were on Sunday night, one last time.
So was it harder? Yes. And did that make it more satisfying?
“It makes it way more satisfying,” tight end Rob Gronkowski told me at the opposite end of the locker room. “It was a grind, no doubt about it. It was a hard year, but we stuck together, and it made us stronger, definitely, in the end.”
The Patriots’ 13-3 win over the Rams on Super Bowl Sunday in Atlanta wasn’t pretty. But it was tough and gritty, and evolved into the kind of bout that this proud old prizefighter—I’m going to stick with that analogy, one I used when the team was struggling in November—has learned to love being in.
In the end, it was clear that this bonded-together group of Patriots had plenty enough punch to break the younger, faster, star-studded Rams. They did it through coaching. They did it with clutch players. Most of all, they did it the hard way, because that’s the way this edition of the New England dynasty knows.
“I think this one was extremely satisfying for the men in this room because they believed in each other throughout,” Patriots president Jonathan Kraft said in a quiet moment after the game. “There was a lot of change, and you find your stride. And clearly, the last two weeks of the regular season, it came together. And you could feel them taking ownership of that momentum, and then wanting to make a point in the postseason.
“The captains deserve a huge amount of credit for that. Matthew [Slater], who talks to the team after each game, but then Devin [McCourty], and Tom [Brady], and David [Andrews], and Patrick [Chung], they just led, and they collectively would just say ‘This season’s not getting away from us.’ And they were right.”
In our Super Bowl LIII/2018 season wrapup version of the MMQB, we’ve got plenty to get to, including …
• A look ahead at 2019 for both the Rams and Patriots, with the big-picture decisions both franchises have coming.
• Competition committee chair Rich McKay on the fallout of the Saints/Rams game, and whether the overtime format might change.
• A peek inside the Hall of Fame voters’ room.
• Six storylines to stay on top of ahead of the draft.
• Nuggets on Kyler Murray, the Saints coaching staff, the Cowboys coaching situation, and much more.
But we’re starting with the new champions, same as the old champions.
The Patriots have been to this stage so many times that you can actually see distinctly different identities in different Super Bowl editions of Brady/Belichick Machine. The 2001 team was built on toughness and brilliant coaching. The 2003 and ’04 team were as complete as they come. The 2007 and ’11 teams were founded on a pyrotechnic offense. And the ’14 and ’16 editions were built on balance.
This year’s team, in plenty of ways, was a throwback to the first championship team, the one that came out of nowhere 17 years ago to win Super Bowl XXXVI. Which is where we’re going with this, as we break down the franchise’s sixth championship win. To get there, we’re going to take you through how those elements—toughness and coaching—were in play on Sunday night.
We can start with the former, and the Patriots’ ability to roll with everything that hit them this season. New England has struggled through some Septembers of late. But usually the team would have it together by Halloween, at the latest. This year it just took longer. The Patriots got blown out in Tennessee in November, and were beaten in back-to-back weeks in December in Miami and Pittsburgh.
Slater regularly addresses the team after games. But the way he did it after the Steeler game, as Jenny Vrentas documented last week, was just different.
“I thought we were at a point in our season where we had some choices,” Slater told me postgame. “We could lay down and quit and believe what was being said about us. Or try to fight and play. To me as a man as faith, I’ve always believed character is built in times of adversity. And certainly after that Pittsburgh game, we were in the midst of adversity. You can't build character without adversity.
“So I said, ‘This a great chance for us to build that character,’ and I surely think we answered the bell.”
They beat the Bills, then the Jets, then the Chargers and Chiefs in the playoffs. And that grit was tested again early against the Rams.
The Patriots covered 27 yards on the game’s first four scrimmage plays, then Brady threw an out-breaking route too far inside to Chris Hogan. The ball was tipped by Nickell Robey-Coleman, then intercepted by Cory Littleton. On their next possession, the Patriots went 60 yards in 11 plays, only to watch Stephen Gostkowski knuckle a 46-yard attempt wide left.
They dominated the first half (195-47 in scrimmage yards, 12-2 in first downs), and only had a 3-0 lead at the break to show for it. This was nothing like the AFC title game shootout in Kansas City. But this was a team with the mental toughness to battle through a different kind of fight.
“Every game was different,” VP of player personnel Nick Caserio told me. “I’m sure if you looked at this game and thought that this was how it was going to go, no one would have thought that, you know? So you take each game as it comes, you take each play, and our guys have a mentality—they work so hard, and they work for one another, which is really, I mean, it’s a credit to them.”
It’s a credit to the coaches, too.
For two weeks, New England’s coordinators—Josh McDaniels, 42, and Brian Flores, 37—had to hear about the brilliance of Rams coach Sean McVay, who turned 33 a week and a half ago. On Sunday they beat McVay and his staff soundly, and not just on scoreboard. And that’s by McVay’s recollection of what happened.
“There really is no other way to put it—I’m pretty numb right now, but definitely I got outcoached,” McVay said. “I didn’t do enough for our football team.”
Conversely, New England’s staff did plenty.
The idea on defense, through what Flores and Belichick planned, was to force Jared Goff to think on the fly. It’s well-documented that McVay uses to the coach-to-quarterback communication to adjust calls based on what the defense is showing, up to the point where that communication cuts off, with 15 seconds left on the play clock.
The Patriots wanted to negate that creative advantage, so they essentially sent in two calls on every play. One was what they’d show before the snap. The other was what they’d switch into post-snap. And if you want to see how it worked, go back and watch how Goff held the ball, and doubted what he was looking at, over and over and over.
“We wanted to make it tough on him,” Devin McCourty said. “We knew we couldn't just give him the same looks, because he does a good job with McVay of being able to lead defenses and get to the play they want. So we knew if we switched it up and made it tough, it would give us a chance.”
That, of course, was in play with a blitz-happy front. It was also there on the back end. The Patriots are best as a man cover defense, but, again, the idea here was get Goff’s mind racing, so the priority was to multiply what Goff saw everywhere.
“Definitely more zone than we played throughout the entire playoffs,” said corner Jason McCourty. “Toward the end of the season we became a strictly man team, and I think that’s exactly what they were anticipating. We knew our coaching staff did a great job of studying them and putting together a great game plan. We executed and mixed up our looks.”
The result? The Patriots forced the NFL’s second-ranked offense to punt on its first eight possessions, and on nine of its first 10. Then the New England defense got Goff to panic into his worst throw of the night. With less than five minutes to go and trailing by 7, the Rams had driven to the Patriots’ 27-yard line. On second-and-10, Flores schemed safety Duron Harmon free on a blitz; Goff saw him coming and threw up a prayer to Brandin Cooks. Gilmore saw it first, and could have fair caught the pop fly.
“With our defense, all year, almost everybody who’s been on the field has blitzed,” Devin McCourty said. “So now, as a quarterback, you don’t know who’s coming. We just tried to make it tough for him. In this game you have so much time to prepare. We knew they would watch every snap, just like we would. And they would have some things. We knew if we could just make it tougher, it would give us a chance.”
When I spoke to Flores—who was scheduled to be on a private jet to South Florida at 10 a.m. Monday morning to become the Dolphins’ head coach—afterwards, he echoed everything McCourty said. Then he added, “It feels good. I can’t say that it doesn’t. it feels really good. But more than anything, it’s about the players.”
THE MMQB PODCAST: Andy Benoit and Gary Gramling look back at Super Bowl LIII. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download podcasts.
On Saturday night at the team hotel, Belichick left his players with a very simple message that laid out the plan, and affirmed his confidence in them: “You know what we need tomorrow night? Everything you’ve given me all year.”
With this particular team, more than anything, most often that meant finding a way when it mattered most, even if it was a different way.
Yes, there was the shaky start to the game. There was a blown fourth-and-1 late in the second quarter. There were three punts to start the second half. With 10 minutes left, Brady was 17-of-31 for 195 yards and that early pick. And then there was an adjustment.
Given how the game had gone, McDaniels figured the Patriots’ biggest edge would come if the Rams defense had its base personnel on the field, and New England could have a pass-catching back out there against it. The coaches also noticed the Rams were matching on the backs—they’d go with their base when Sony Michel was on the field, and their nickel when Rex Burkhead was out there.
So McDaniels deployed “22” personnel (two backs, two tight ends) for a possession that started at the New England 31with 9:49 left. Going so heavy forced the Rams to keep their base out there. The twist? McDaniels trotted Burkhead out with the bigger personnel package.
That created, as one Patriots assistant explained it, “bad matchups all over for them.”
They weren’t hard to see.
On the first snap of the drive, pass-rusher Samson Ebukam was covering Rob Gronkowski, who beat him down the sideline for 18 yards. On the second snap, the Patriots spread the Rams out with all those backs and tight ends, and got Julian Edelman on linebacker Cory Littleton, sitting in a hook zone, and Edelman raced around him for a 13-yard gain.
After that, Brady fired one out to Burkhead in the flat, forcing the lighter Marcus Peters to try to bring him down, and Burkhead picked up another seven yards. Then Littleton got matched up on Gronkowski, who raced down the seam to find himself on the receiving end of Brady’s best throw of the night, a 29-yarder that Gronkowski hauled in at the two-yard line.
One little adjustment, and the Patriots ripped off 67 yards in four plays. Michel took the ball in for on the next play for the game’s first touchdown, and Gilmore’s pick and another Lombardi Trophy were on the horizon for the Patriots.
In a cavernous ballroom inside the downtown Hyatt Regency hours later, the emcee for the Patriots’ postgame bash introduced Brady, on a balcony in a private area above the floor, as the greatest of all-time. The fans and players and coaches and team employees below responded by serenading him with chants of his name.
Not long after that, Snoop Dogg and Patriots owner Robert Kraft were sharing the stage. Another Super Bowl victory celebration—Kraft’s sixth, Belichick’s sixth, Brady’s sixth—was in full swing.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE PATRIOTS AND RAMS?
Because we’re always looking ahead—and we’ll be doing plenty of it in the coming weeks—here are three big pieces of offseason business that the Super Bowl teams are getting ready to confront.
Tom Brady’s contract. Next year is the final year of his current deal, and his cap number for that one year is $27 million. The last two times the Patriots have re-upped Brady, in 2013 and ’16, it happened right around the time of the scouting combine. And while I’m told there haven’t been any contract talks yet, and the quarterback market has exploded since he did his last deal, there is a peace within both sides that they’ll be able find common ground when the time comes.
Who’s the left tackle? The Patriots’ acquisition of Trent Brown—New England got him by swapping their third-rounder down 48 spots into the fifth round—was one of the best leaguewide of 2018. Even better, he only cost $1.91 million for the year at a spot where the Patriots allowed Nate Solder leave for the Giants at $15.5 million. But the bill’s coming due now, and the Patriots will have to decide if they want to be competitive in a free-agent environment in which offensive linemen have been consistently overpaid. If they let him walk? Maybe they draft someone. Maybe they turn to 2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn, who projected to the NFL as a guard but played left tackle in college.
Youth movement? There are questions about whether Gronkowski and/or Devin McCourty will retire. Edelman’s going into a contract year, and is now a decade in as an NFL player. And New England has seven players accounting for $92.60 million on next year’s cap, and all will be 29 or older on opening day. It sure seems like some changes will be necessary.
Getting Aaron Donald some help. Ndamukong Suh and Dante Fowler are free agents, and the Rams’ cap flexibility to keep guys like that is changing as the young core (Donald, Gurley, etc.) gets rewarded with second contracts. Fowler almost certainly will be off to get paid elsewhere. Suh’s case is interesting. He could stay in L.A. for less. And this is an area where you can expect the Rams to look in the draft, especially given the strength of this year’s defensive line class.
Finding a left tackle of the future (or now): Andrew Whitworth has a year left on his contract but could well retire. And if he does, that leaves a significant hole in the Rams’ rebuilt line. Is rookie Joe Noteboom the answer? Do they spend their first-round pick on one? Whitworth has been a huge part of the Rams’ renaissance, and whether they’re replacing him or finding his heir, getting a new version of him is a big priority.
Goff’s contract. The Rams are going to explore the idea of extending their QB, and could save some money and manage the cap ramifications a little easier by doing so. Team management has been aggressive in these spots in the past with players like Todd Gurley and Michael Brockers, so it would hardly be surprising to see Goff get extended by the end of the summer.
NO SUPER BOWL OFFICIATING CONTROVERSIES—BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN THE PROBLEM IS SOLVED
More than a week later, something about the missed call in Superdome was still bothering me, and it was simple as can be.
You can sit on your couch at home and get all the incredible benefits of 21st-century technology, and a million different angles of a play like Nickell Robey-Coleman’s hit on Tommylee Lewis in the NFC title game. And in the process, you can see whether a call, or a no-call in this case, is right or wrong most of the time.
So we all have that benefit. But it’s not afforded the officials on the field at the same level.
How does that make sense? Because that was bugging me, I hit up Falcons president Rich McKay, the competition committee chairman, on Saturday to ask.
“We like the technology,” he told me. “It’s made the game better from an officiating standpoint and a big-play standpoint. The question just becomes how far do you want to take replay? Yes, 4K, 5K, wherever we are, we’re past high-definition, is definitely better than what we had before. Now you have to decide how far are you going to go in the game. And I think that’s what this play in this game, the magnitude of the play, will bring the discussion back again.”
And then, McKay and I dove into it. Here are five points I’d pass along from our conversation on the rules changes that could be set in motion this month. …
It’s a certainty that significant changes are going to be considered. And making penalties reviewable, for a very obvious reason, will be a focal point of that discussion. “We have a group of people that say, ‘Well, you should get every call right.’ And you’ll have another group that’ll say, ‘No, you just want to deal in the big plays, because we don’t want to disrupt the flow of the games.’ I think now is that time to sit back and say, ‘OK, we’ve forever said no to [reviewing] penalties as a league, there’s never been an appetite for penalties as a league, because of the judgment aspect of it. But this play merits the discussion again. I don’t think it’s anybody pushing back on technology. Because of this play, we’re going to have this discussion again, and I think it’s a good discussion to have.”
It’s critical to set boundaries. In our talk, McKay took me back to 1992, when replay was voted out because it was disrupting the flow of games and failed to get the call right every time. The challenge system was put in place to address that issue. Now the question is whether you expand the challenge system without bringing that disruption back. (I think you can). “It’s how you put boundaries around how you’re going to use it, when you’re going to use it and for what purposes you’re going to use it,” McKay said. “This idea that we can get every play right, we’d be there all night if we were going to get every play right. We’ve got a human element in coaching, we’ve got a human element in playing and we’ve got a human element in officiating. That’s why I will say the challenge system has served us very well. It’s a limited system.”
McKay was disappointed that the NFC title game ended like it did. “I’m disappointed any time there’s discussion on something other than the teams,” he said. “When you do that, people say, ‘Boy, I feel bad for the Saints.’ And you do. They lost a game they had a legitimate chance to win, obviously. With that call, they would’ve put themselves in a position where they were virtually assured to win. But I’m disappointed for the Rams, because they played fantastic. Did they get credit for it? No.” And McKay then mentioned that it’s sometimes tough to balance those things with a priority to keep the product at its best. “This was a very good year for our league, and we don’t want to put ourselves in position where, in reacting to a play, all of the sudden you’ve created not as good a game on the field,” he said. “But do I think it’s going to be talked about? Yes. Do I think there’s potential for change? Yes.”
The officiating, as McKay sees it, was good this year. The NFL grades the officials. We’re not privy to those marks. But McKay has a good idea of how the season has shaken out, and he thought the officiating in 2018 wasn’t nearly as bad as it was perceived to be. “In any year, we tend to get tainted by six plays or four plays, and all of the sudden, you’re going to hear, ‘Well, it wasn’t a very good year,’” he says. “I think the quality of the games, the way games are reported upon by you guys, when I listen to that, I heard pretty good things all the way through, until that moment when I heard people say, ‘the officiating’s been bad all year.’ I just don’t agree with that. I know how challenging it is to officiate in our league.”
Overtime change seems unlikely. Getting less attention the last few weeks was how the AFC title game ended. And there was some bellyaching over the fact that Patrick Mahomes didn’t get a shot to answer Tom Brady in OT, to the point where some called for change to the extra-session rules, too. It doesn’t sound like that’s coming. “We lost the Super Bowl two years ago to New England,” McKay said of his Falcons. “They beat us in overtime. We never touched the ball. And I still felt the rule was fair. We had every opportunity to stop them. This league, in the early ’70s, when it made the shift to sudden death, we liked the concept of sudden death, we liked the concept that you had to do something, we felt like we needed to modify that rule because of the field goal kickers. I, for one, don’t see a reason to modify it again. But I’m sure that based on a postseason game, some people are going to want to discuss it.”
It should be an interesting offseason for McKay and his group on the committee. And one other thing that jumped out at me from our talk? His answer when I asked if non-calls (the Robey-Coleman play was one) were likely to be reviewable.
“I don’t think there’s any reason to say something’s off the table right now,” he answered. “So no, everything’s on the table. It should be.”
THE 2019 HALL CLASS SOLVES SOME CANTON PROBLEMS
Since I wasn’t in the room, I’ve got some guys to take you inside the Saturday debate among Pro Football Hall of Fame voters. But before we get there, here’s one thought on each of the eight men who’ll be inducted in Canton this summer, since I’m now old enough to remember all those on these lists:
Champ Bailey: I remember him as the two-way playing sequel to Charles Woodson in college football in the late ’90s, and he was as good a cover corner as there was in the league in the 2000s.
Pat Bowlen: The Broncos owner had a major impact on how you watch the game on television. And while he was still running his team on a day-to-day basis, there were few organizations with as high a standard.
Gil Brandt: I’ve always felt one bar to clear to make the Hall of Fame is “could the story of the sport be told without him?” It’d be hard to do it without Brandt, the architect of the America’s Team Cowboys and a modernizer of football scouting.
Tony Gonzalez: Felt like he was really the first “power forward” tight end, having been a college football and basketball player. So his dominance, in a certain way, opened the door for guys like Antonio Gates down the line.
Ty Law: I don’t know why he’s gotten lost in this discussion (maybe because he hung around too long and wasn’t great at the end), but he was as sticky and physically dominant a man-cover corner as you’d see for a while. And he came up huge on big stages.
Kevin Mawae: There’s been a backlog of offensive linemen, so this clears the decks of a really good one who became the face of lines in Nashville and New York that were known for their nastiness.
Ed Reed: Simple—the definition of a modern-era NFL centerfielder. Could cover more ground than Willie Mays in his prime.
Johnny Robinson: OK, so this is the one who’s a little before my time. He roamed the secondary as a safety for the great Chiefs teams of the ’60s and early ’70s and had more career interceptions than Bailey or Law.
With those guys set to be inducted, I asked a handful of voters for the one thing that jumped out at them from the room this year.
Jarrett Bell, USA Today: “With the selection of Kevin Mawae, we cracked the iceberg that represented the logjam of offensive linemen. That's a huge development, reminiscent of the logjam from a few years ago with wide receivers. Hearing and participating in the discussions, I wasn’t sure how it would shake down and could hardly predict which one [or even more] would get in. It was that tight, with compelling cases for Alan Faneca, Steve Hutchinson and Tony Boselli. So Mawae's first off the block—and now I’m comfortable saying that I’d be absolutely shocked if one or more of the O-linemen get don’t get in next year. What's the pecking order? I think every voter has to compare and rank the O-linemen—although there’s no rule in putting in more than one, as we did with cornerbacks Ty Law and Champ Bailey. I'm hoping now that the O-line momentum keeps rolling as it did when we cleared the decks for Cris Carter, Tim Brown and Andre Reed in successive years to address the receiver logjam. Also, I think the selection of Law as the first player from the Patriots' first three Super Bowls represented a statement about the respect for winning championships.”
Rick Gosselin, Dallas Morning News: “There were 12 All-Decade players on the ballot, so it was impossible to pick a bad class. No matter who you selected, you were going to have to tell seven All-Decade players it wasn’t their time yet. The six we picked included two First Team All-Decade offensive players, plus four defensive backs who combined for 216 career interceptions. So productivity will be rewarded with busts in the Class of 2019. We also broke some logjams on both the offensive line and defensive backfield, which bodes well for candidates at those positions in the future.”
Matt Maiocco, NBC Sports Bay Area: “As you look at the names and hear the presentations, the one thing that struck me was that everyone who was discussed in that room deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. People outside the room always talk about how this person or that person should have been inducted. I agree. The problem isn’t coming up with five worthy candidates, it’s coming up with the 10 individuals to not vote in. That was particularly difficult among the offensive linemen and defensive backs. Just look at those finalists: Tony Boselli, Alan Faneca, Steve Hutchinson and Kevin Mawae, along with Steve Atwater, Champ Bailey, Ty Law, John Lynch and Ed Reed. Those are nine Hall of Famers. No question about it. But the difficult part is that it will take a number of years for all of them to get in.”
Jim Trotter, NFL Network: “What stood out to me was the great discussion about the defensive backs, and the recognition that we’ve got to find a way to break this logjam of offensive linemen. There is a reason that the Pro Football Hall of Fame is the most exclusive club in professional sports, and it’s because there always are more deserving candidates than there are available spots. That was particularly true this year.”
… OF THE WEEK
“At the end of the day, we’re all gonna die.”
Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth. The big dog in the Los Angeles locker room lent some perspective to a tough postgame scene. And it sounds like he was really just trying to make sure his teammates left holding their heads high.
This is funny, until you realize that Rams punter Johnny Hekker had just two fewer touches (9) than Todd Gurley (11). (And, as MMQB producer Mitch Goldich points out, they're tied 11-11 if you include Hekker's holds on field goal attempts.) Also …
Man where Shams, Woj, Haynes, McMenamin at????.... 🤷🏾♂️— LeBron James (@KingJames) February 4, 2019
So either LeBron was bored by the Super Bowl, or Anthony Davis is becoming a Laker and he’s trying to get those NBA Insiders on the case.
Now, the actual MVP, Edelman, was fantastic all night. His 10 catches for 141 yards don’t begin to describe how important he was when the Patriots offense struggled. At one point in the second half, the two teams had combined for 316 yards, and Edelman had 128 of them. And more than just that, his personality has become the New England offense’s identity over the last few years, which is why the Patriots haven’t been quite the same when he’s been out.
The NFL knows it’s doing Barstool a huge favor here, right?
S/O to …
I’m a sucker for these. So shoutout to Rams receiver Brandin Cooks for hooking up the team custodian with Super Bowl tickets for him and his son, and to Patriots receiver Julian Edelman for giving Super Bowl tickets to an 11-year-old girl who was bullied for wanting to play football. To me, these are pretty good example of the power athletes have to put smiles on people’s faces. Good on Cooks and Edelman for using that power in a pretty awesome way.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
With the all-star games in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to go ahead and rank our top six draft storylines with the combine a little over three weeks (!) away.
1. Kyler Murray. Duh. (More on him in a minute)
2. Can Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins hold his lead as the class’ top quarterback? Missouri’s Drew Lock and Duke’s Daniel Jones stand now as contenders to make run at Haskins, with Murray a wild-card in the mix. This group isn’t as highly regarded as last year’s, but there’s some depth here, and potential. And we all know quarterbacks get overdrafted, so buckle up.
3. Nick Bosa or Quinnen Williams? In the Year of the Defensive Lineman, Bosa and Williams stand at the top of the heap. Bosa’s a game-wrecking edge rusher, Williams a menace-causing 3-technique, and both could wind up being defensive centerpieces down the line. Their value? Think of what Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald became, and how much they wound up being worth. These guys could well go 1-2, if a quarterback doesn’t surge to the top.
4. How do teams see Kentucky’s Josh Allen? He’s a little like Bills rookie Tremaine Edmunds was coming out last year, or Vikings vet Anthony Barr was in 2014—a linebacker with an ability off the line or on it, who’ll have to find the right fit somewhere.
5. What happens with Jeffrey Simmons? The Mississippi State product is a legit top-10 prospect. But as a high school senior he was caught on video punching a woman—and as a result wasn’t invited to Indy for the combine. In the time since, he became a star in the SEC and won over teammates and coaches, who’ve vouched for him to NFL teams. His case is not a simple one.
6. It’s hard to come up with six this year. Depth of the offensive line class (with a bunch of projected Day One starters expected to go in the second and third rounds)? Depth of the tight end group? I mean, those matter to your teams, of course. But the fact that we’re digging here shows the lack of buzz for this year’s class, if you compare it to the last couple years.
1. Kyler Murray gave a couple of interviews that were a little … awkward this week. One I saw was with Dan Patrick. Another was with Rich Eisen. Murray didn’t dodge questions on his baseball/football future. He just didn’t answer them. So the question was raised: Why even go through these interviews? Because it paid to do them, literally. Murray was moving Gatorade, and I don’t think many of us would turn down easy money like that. So I don’t take much away from what he did or didn’t say. What I know is pretty simple. NFL teams weren’t even studying Murray in September, with the belief he was gone forever from the game after the 2018 college season. By late October, buzz was building that he might be wavering. By the end of the season, scouts going through Oklahoma were hearing that he preferred football. And so we’re here now. I think a lot of it still comes down to where he figures he’ll get drafted if he sticks with football, and I can’t say that I’m positive he’ll be a first-round pick in April. Stay tuned.
2. Good to see the Saints investing in their coaching staff. I’m told that Dennis Allen has agreed to terms to come back as defensive coordinator, and on a three-year deal. He was up, so that’s a big piece of business with a guy who’s developed a defense that can actually keep up with Sean Payton’s high-powered offense. And respected Dolphins assistant head coach/special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi will be in New Orleans this week with the expectation that he’ll be doing a deal and starting work the following week. Hard to imagine the Saints coming out of the hiring season doing much better than that.
3. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ comments at NFL Honors caused a stir, and understandably so. Saying “we’ve been there before without a contract” implicitly confirms that Dallas will send coach Jason Garrett into final year of his deal, which is unusual (NFL teams normally at least give guys a Band-Aid extension in these situations, to avoid having a lame-duck coach). So there are a couple things to keep in mind here. First, I do believe Jones would be pained to fire Garrett. He’s invested time and taken risk with Garrett as a player, as an assistant and as head coach over a period of nearly three decades. In a way, Garrett’s failure would signal Jones’s failure. Second, I do think there’s a short list, and that Sean Payton and Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley would be atop it. Or at least those are the rumblings you hear.
4. Story of the week that should’ve gotten a little more attention: The NFLPA’s plan to sock away money from licensing deals to build a war chest for a potential 2021 lockout. NFLPA president Eric Winston referred to the windfall players get from these deals as “Madden checks” (since a good chunk of the money comes from the video game.) “Every year, Players Inc. makes a distribution to the players in the form of a check,” Winston said the Thursday of Super Bowl week. “It's a little over $17,000. The players decided a couple of years ago, ‘Hey, listen, in an effort to get ready [for a lockout], one of the streams we want to do is, we’re going to withhold those checks and keep them in a fund for each player coming down the road.’” The union did this sort of thing leading up to the 2011 lockout, but this is a sign they might be even more aggressive this time around. And as Winston said at the Thursday presser, players have reason to believe the threat of a work stoppage is real, much more so than they might have a decade ago, since the league went through with the threat back then.
5. If you haven’t seen the video the Panthers put together for Julius Peppers, check it out now. Tom Brady’s one a slew of high-profile names in there showing love for the outgoing pass-rusher. “He had such high expectations, and so few guys live up to that,” Brady said. “He did, in every way. What an amazing player over the course of a long period of time. Just incredible physical and mental toughness, and just an incredible career.” I remember when Peppers was gearing up to leave the Panthers in 2010, and the biggest criticism other teams had of him going into free agency concerned his drive and passion for the game. That was going to be year nine for him. This past season was year 17. And if you make it that far, it’s probably safe to say you’re driven, and you might have a little passion for the game, too. Congrats to Peppers on a great run.
6. The Nick Foles situation should be fairly easy for the Eagles to navigate over the next couple weeks. The team will exercise its $20 million option, and he’ll buy his way out of it at $2 million. Meanwhile, the Eagles can then shop him as a franchise-tagged player, even though they can’t tag him until the end of the month. So Howie Roseman gauges interest, figures out if he can move Foles on the tag and get a suitable return, and then makes a call on whether or not actually apply the tag at around $25 million. Foles will likely sign the tender the minute he gets it, so there’s real risk in tagging him without having a trade in place. That’s why talks on that front will ramp up soon.
7. It’s interesting to see a couple tight ends coaches promoted to become offensive coordinators in the last month—the Titans did it with Arthur Smith, and the Texans are about to with Tim Kelly. Perception is that being a quarterbacks coach is finishing school for becoming a play-caller. But both Mike Vrabel and Bill O’Brien passed over their own quarterbacks coaches to go with Smith and Kelly. And there’s this other guy named McVay who was coaching tight ends before becoming an OC, too.
8. Russell Wilson’s looming negotiation with the Seahawks on a new deal (2019 is the final year of the four-year extension he signed in 2015) should be interesting. Seattle kicked the tires on quarterbacks like Wyoming’s Josh Allen last spring, and it’s not a big secret that that got Wilson’s attention. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Sunday that talks on a new deal haven’t commenced yet. Reason for concern? Maybe not yet. But if this drags on, will Seattle spend chunks of March and April evaluating quarterbacks? And how will that affect Wilson?
9. If the Raiders do choose Oracle Park, the Giants’ home, as the site for their 2019 games, it’ll be interesting to see whether the 49ers exercise their territorial rights in San Francisco. The Niners, for what it’s worth, have been open to having the Raiders at Levi’s Stadium, which the Raiders have balked at.
10. I was mostly good with the AP awards. The one I’d take biggest issue with is offensive rookie of the year. I think it should’ve been Baker Mayfield. But even with that one, Saquon Barkley had 2,000 scrimmage yards, so it’s kind of hard to gin up too much anger over it.
I’m gonna go get some sleep. That’s in my forecast.
But before I hit the sack (it’s 5:22 a.m. ET as I finish up), I do want to thank everyone who’s followed us here over the last year. While the changes that came in June brought about adjustments (one being that my column lands on Monday now), I do really love digging for stuff, and giving readers the best info I can every week. And I want to package it in the best way we can.
If you have feedback in that regard, my inbox is always open: firstname.lastname@example.org.
See you all this afternoon for the MAQB.
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