While heading to Texans’ training camp a few weeks ago, I thought about how fleeting Houston’s current circumstances are.
J.J. Watt is 30 years old and in year nine of his NFL career. Whitney Mercilus is 29 and in his eighth season. DeAndre Hopkins is just 27, but with a lot of mileage on his body going into year seven. Others on the roster, like Tashuan Gipson and Jonathan Joseph, are at that stage and even further along than that.
I asked a couple of those players, and they agreed—there should be a sense of urgency among the team. Then I talked to Bill O’Brien, heading in his sixth year as the Texans head coach, about the idea that the existing core needs the make the most of what it has left, because there’s no telling how much longer it’s going to last.
“I’d say every year there’s got to be a sense of urgency,” O’Brien said during training camp. “On every team you have guys at different stages of their career. I’d say, and you used [Watt] and [Hopkins], those guys have come back in great shape, they look great, I don’t see either one of them anywhere near the end of their careers. But there’s always got to be a sense of urgency relative to practice, meetings, and knowing the games are right around the corner.
“We’re trying to get this team ready for the regular season as fast as we can. It’s right around the corner. Before you know it, it’ll be Monday night in the Superdome and we’re playing a great team. There’s always gotta be that sense of urgency.”
Monday night in the Superdome is now a week away. And Saturday’s transactions—trading away Jadeveon Clowney and trading for Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills, among other assets—implicitly confirmed that the Texans are feeling that sense of urgency.
During one crazy day, O’Brien made sure of that.
It’s the first MMQB of the new season! There’s football on Thursday, football on Sunday, football on Monday and football for the five months after that. So there’s a lot for us to get to, including …
• Bears coach Matt Nagy and GM Ryan Pace detailing the lessons they take from the Khalil Mack deal, one year later.
• The NFL’s next hot offensive assistant coach.
• The Patriots’ next franchise quarterback?
• The Packers’ confidence in Aaron Rodgers.
• Melvin Gordon’s situation.
But we’re starting with a wild Saturday in the NFL, the last of the offseason, and a focus on the three teams in the crosshairs.
I asked O’Brien on Sunday, via text, for perspective on the Texans’ moves—about a month after we had that talk about the pressure on the core guys to win.
“We are committed to continually trying to get better in all ways,” he explained. “The roster is just one way to do that. There are tons of other ways to get better. Every part of our building is continually trying to get better.”
The Texans, of course, have undergone plenty of change the last two years. They team has parted ways with two general managers. They’ve installed a former team chaplain, Jack Easterby, as an executive vice president. They’ve reworked their sports science, modernized their nutritional program for the players, and changed strength coaches twice. And Cal McNair has taken a larger role in running the team since his dad, Bob, the team owner, passed away last November.
O’Brien’s point is well-taken, but that doesn’t make the move for Laremy Tunsil any less seismic. The Texans gave up two first-round picks and a second-round pick to get him (with Kenny Stills, and fourth- and sixth-rounders coming too, and Johnson Bademosi and Julien Davenport going to Miami), which means, barring more big trades, Houston will go through three draft cycles in four years (2018, ’20, ’21) without picks in the first two rounds.
The risk there is obvious. A team’s young, cost-controlled talent comes from those early rounds, and losing high picks cuts down on both a team’s margin for error in college scouting and flexibility to move around the board. Magnifying it is the fact that Deshaun Watson won’t be on a rookie deal for much longer, meaning filling out the roster with young players, from a cap perspective, will become more of a necessity. It’s why the Eagles, with Carson Wentz off his rookie deal, are now stockpiling, rather than dealing, their picks.
Here, as best I can ascertain it, was their process.
• It was impossible for anyone to prepare for the loss of franchise left tackle Duane Brown, who was haphazardly traded to Seattle in 2017 after the offensive lineman spoke up against the elder McNair stepping into the anthem controversy with his comment referring to NFL protests as “inmates running the prison.” Players like Brown are hard to replace—Texans personnel studied the draft and free agency, proving as such to the team‘s brass.
• Trent Brown, Nate Solder and Russell Okung were the three legit left tackles to hit the market the last three years, and each signed a record-breaking deal. Each is a good, but maybe not great player.
• The top tackle in next year’s draft, Georgia’s Andrew Thomas, is likely to go well before where the Texans would expect to be drafting. Moving up to draft him would be expensive, as it was to go up for Watson two years ago.
• Though the team had discussed Tunsil before, Andrew Luck’s retirement crystallized things for the Texans—the beating he took literally pushed the Colts star out of football. Watson, to this point, has taken a similar pounding. And that had to stop.
• Tunsil is widely seen as one of the top-five left tackles in the game. He may not be an in-prime Trent Williams or Tyron Smith, but he’s not far off from that, and the Texans see him as a better player than Brown, Solder and Okung, and better than what Thomas projects to be. He checked the other boxes for the Texans, as a young, ascending player, a good locker room guy and an elite pass protector.
Put together the circumstances, and the Texans knew they’d have to overpay, but were O.K. with it for someone they believed was a true blue-chipper. It’s fair, of course, to question the move when looking at the two linemen Houston took in the first two rounds. Tytus Howard and Max Sharping were thought to be potential bookends at tackle. The team now sees Howard as the right tackle of the future and Sharping settling in at guard, where he may start against the Saints in Week 1.
O’Brien wanted to pull every lever—and he certainly did that.
There’s more collateral damage in the $5.5 million spent on ex-Vikings, ex-Panthers and now ex-Texans left tackle Matt Kalil, and now there’s a flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants look to the team’s work on its offensive line the last six months.
Yet, if Tunsil plays like the top-five tackle he has been, and Howard and Sharping find starting jobs in time, and Watson grows as a result of it, maybe all of this won’t matter.
All we know for sure right now is the sense of urgency we referenced earlier will be there in Houston in 2019. As will all the pressure that comes with it.
Of course, that wasn’t the only blockbuster move the Texans were a part of over the weekend. The first one involved the first draft pick of the O’Brien era, and the first pick in the 2014 draft, being shipped off to Seattle. And it wrapped up pretty unceremoniously.
Sure, Seahawks GM John Schneider might’ve liked to celebrate landing Clowney. But by the time he and O’Brien got off the phone late on Friday night with an agreement in principle, just in time to get the 26-year-old on an early Saturday flight to Seattle, there was way too much going on for that, with the cutdown deadline just hours away.
Thirty-six hours later, he’d had more time to take it in. And he could best explain the move by describing what he felt like the Seahawks were getting in Clowney.
“He can do whatever he wants to do when he wants to do it,” Schneider says. “That’s what sticks out—he can do whatever he wants to do whenever he wants to do it. He’s a freak athletically.”
Given Seattle’s attrition up front over the last few years (Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, etc.), plus the six-game suspension Jarran Reed is about to serve, finding pressure players up front was an obvious need for the Seahawks. But they weren’t going to panic to fill it, which made getting to the finish line on Clowney a process.
The Texans and Seahawks first discussed a trade before the draft, but Schneider says the team was jammed up logistically at that point doing massive extensions for Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner, and the price tag to trade for Clowney was a little higher than they’d have liked. So they let the draft pass—and in the meantime, they did their homework on Clowney. Because he was such a high pick in a year Seattle had the last pick in each round, the team hadn’t done much of that ahead of this spring—“Probably like everybody else, I knew he was supposed to be a freak, and he had the huge hit against Michigan [in the 2013 Outback Bowl],” Schneider says.
The staff called around 20 former teammates and coaches of his. But the most powerful testimonial came from right down the hall—Brown had been a teammate of Clowney’s for more than three years in Houston.
“He couldn’t have spoken about him more highly than he did,” Schneider says. “He loved the guy.”
What moved the GM to get more aggressive was seeing on the internet that Clowney was resisting the idea of a trade to Miami. Schneider thought all along that the Seahawks’ culture would be a fit for Clowney, and that Carroll would get the most out of him (“Pete loves working with guys like this.”) That belief also helped ease the issue of, by rule, not being able to extend Clowney, with the hope he’d want to stay once he got there.
So Schenider moved on him and, ultimately, what’s going back to Houston isn’t anywhere close to crazy. The Seahawks sent a third-rounder there, which they’ll likely get back in a comp pick if they lose Clowney in 2020, plus role players Barkevious Mingo (who Clowney replaces) and Jacob Martin (who impressive rookie Cody Barton will replace).
If Carroll can get the most out of this prodigious talent, who has been through microfracture surgery as a pro, the move will fit in with the Seahawks have built their best teams over the course of this decade—focusing on getting to the quarterback.
“You never feel like you have enough pass rushers,” Schneider says. “And that’s not necessarily a reflection of the people you have here. It’s just, we’re constantly looking at all positions, but especially how you improve your pass rush, for sure.”
And to be able to pull that off on the doorstep of September? Schneider can celebrate that, because it’s not easy to do.
As for the third team in this Texans’ triangle, the Dolphins are very clearly in a place where the Browns were three years ago under Sashi Brown—focused on resetting the franchise and stockpiling assets. The team’s cap is clean, and now it boasts a wealth of draft picks.
The problem? Well, that’s for Brian Flores to navigate... for his part, he can say the Dolphins aren’t tanking until he’s blue in the face.
“This game means a lot to me,” he reiterated Sunday, to the local press. “I wouldn’t disrespect the game with that. Again, no we’re not [tanking]. We’re going to try to win every game. I think that’s disrespectful to even say that. These guys have worked extremely hard. They’ve done that all summer, they do it all spring, and they’ll continue to do so. It’s disheartening to hear people talk about it, to even say that.
“For a guy who respects the game and for as much as the game has done for me, when people say that—you shouldn’t say it.”
But Flores’s players are human. They’re reading and hearing the claims that their team is tanking. They know, as well as anyone else does, that this could be a lengthy rebuild that many of those now in the locker room won’t be a part of anymore in a year or two. And Flores has asked a lot of those guys the last six months—his program is a Patriots-styled program, and many of his methods mirror what Matt Patricia did in Detroit last year.
If Flores can make it work better than the Browns did as they were building up their resources, the groundwork could laid for something pretty incredible.
Consider that …
• The Dolphins will have two first- and two second-round picks in the next two drafts, and will likely get a compensatory third-rounder in 2020, as a result of tackle Ju’Wuan James signing in Denver.
• They should have multiple shots at finding a quarterback of the future, which is the primary objective owner Stephen Ross has privately set for his new football brass. They’re in the midst of taking one of those sorts of shots with Josh Rosen. Chances are, they’ll be in position to pick a quarterback in the 2020 draft—and maybe in 2021 as well, which will be the year of Trevor Lawrence.
• Their cap will be clean, after this year’s purge. They’re carrying over $51 million in dead money on this year’s books. Right now, there’s only $4 million in dead money scheduled to go on the 2020 cap.
• There are some building blocks. Not many, but some. Xavien Howard is locked up, the staff loves LB Jerome Baker and first-round pick Christian Wilkins is the kind of cultural fit around whom Flores can build.
Now, that’s not to say this is some sort of foolproof plan. They didn’t intend to deal Tunsil, but did when the return got to the point of being without any recent precedent. Still, that was an elite, 25-year-old left tackle walking out the door. And those, again, aren’t easy to find.
Also, while it’s nice to have all that cap space and money, it won’t mean much if Grier and Flores don’t draft and sign the right guys—a lesson Cleveland learned painfully over a two-year period.
Most difficult of all, there’s the challenge of making it through the first year amid all the noise, through the talent deficit of a true rebuild, and finding a way to come out of it without real, tangible damage having been done. Great programs aren’t built on paper—they’re built with people, and that’s what Flores has to manage.
If he can? There’ll be a lot to like here going forward.
IT’S BEEN ONE YEAR SINCE THE KHALIL MACK TRADE
Bears GM Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy had a saying last summer—persistence over resistance. It was hatched at the Hall of Fame Game, after a phone conversation Pace had with then-Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie in the back of the press box, as his Chicago team took on the Ravens down below. It came to symbolize a pursuit that would change the Bears’ season.
Pace made it clear then to McKenzie that he wanted in on Khalil Mack if and when he became available, after McKenzie made it clear that Mack wasn’t.
“At that point, it didn’t seem like they were interested in doing it,” Pace says now, a year later. “Matt and I, it became a phrase we used—persistence over resistance. Keep trying. Keep trying. So we just stuck on it, stuck on it, stuck on it.”
Four weeks later, on the morning of the Bears’ preseason finale, against Buffalo, Pace’s phone rang. It was McKenzie, asking for Pace’s best offer. They talked again that night, during that game, fine-tuned it Friday (Pace and Nagy spent 12 hours working on the logistics that day), brought Mack in Friday night, and pushed it over the goal line Saturday.
Pace persisted. His reward was a generational defensive talent.
On the one-year anniversary of the Bears pulling this trade off, and with a couple blockbusters going down on Saturday, the Chicago brass looks back at the kind of the deal that can impact a franchise for a decade. And between the GM and coach, one point was common – founded on the weeks of research they did from that call into Canton to the Sept. 1, 2018 completion of the trade.
“Khalil being Khalil, and me being in Kansas City going against him all those years, when we started talking about it, you knew player-wise, if we’re able to get this guy, this is a slam dunk,” Nagy says “We felt really good with our defense at the time and being able to bring him here to help us could just put us over the top. Then we started doing more research on the person, starting hearing more and more people, and once we started figuring it was real, it was right around this time, we went after it. We were like, this is a no-regret deal.”
“It was a young player, premier position and premier character,” Pace affirms. “So for us, if there was a position to do it for, it was a quarterback or it’s a pass-rusher. Those are the premier, sought-after positions. And the more research we did on him—we knew what kind of player he was, Matt played in the division with him. But to know what kind of person he was, and to bring that in here, there’s a lot of reasons why I think the culture change happened last year, coach Nagy deserves a ton of credit, but I think bringing a guy like Khalil here, people see that high end a player with that high end a work ethic, that’s multiplier once he’s in your building.”
Because of Mack’s character, there wasn’t much debate on dealing for him. The right price, though, was tougher to ascertain, in what amount to a silent auction being conducted by the Raiders for the type of player that’s almost never on the trade market.
The price of signing away a franchise-tagged player (two first-round picks) gave the Bears framework to base how far they’d be willing to go. That much is apparent is what the final cost wound up being, Chicago sent the two firsts to Oakland, along with third- and sixth-rounders, while getting second- and fifth-rounders back with Mack. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have to swallow hard first, especially considering there was a contract to do too.
“You turn around and you’re like, ‘man, this is a lot,’” Pace says. “But what was good about it was I never felt like I was doing it alone. Matt and I were connected at the hip on it, so we were making these decisions together. And since we’re both lockstepped on that, I think it gives you more confidence to pull the trigger.”
“It’s kind of like a foreclosure on a house,” Nagy says.” There’s like six buyers that want it. You got to have that balance of when you go up, and you gotta make your offer by Monday night, you gotta go all-in. If you really like the house, that’s your house, you got to go in knowing you’re not overpaying. But you better know that if you don’t get him, there’s no regrets.”
Pace and Nagy never had to face that, of course. Instead, they celebrated with a stiff drink late on the night of Aug. 31, knowing the world would find out Mack was a Bear the next morning. And it’s safe to say they don’t have any regrets being on the other end, either.
“It was a fun day,” Nagy says of that Friday. “One we’ll never forget.”
KEVIN O’CONNELL ON THE RISE
Within the next few weeks, there will inevitably be a few fan bases looking at which coaches might be hot candidates for head coaching jobs come January. One to watch now: Redskins offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell.
The 34-year-old is only in his fifth year of coaching, but he has ascended quickly under Jay Gruden, going from QBs coach in 2017, to passing-game coordinator last year, to offensive coordinator this year. He has drawn internal comparisons to the last young coach that Gruden has empowered like this—Sean McVay, who was promoted to OC when Gruden got the job, then given play-calling in 2015.
O’Connell’s rise is part of a larger trend across the NFL to fast-track former players in the coaching ranks. Titans coach Mike Vrabel became a head coach after seven years as an assistant (three at Ohio State, four with the Texans); Kellen Moore is offensive coordinator in his second year as a coach in Dallas; Byron Leftwich is Tampa’s OC in his third year of coaching; and Jerod Mayo was calling plays for the Patriots defense this summer, his first on the sideline.
So how does this happen? Each of these guys was earmarked as a potential coach while they were still playing. In O’Connell’s case, it was ex-Jets coach Rex Ryan who first approached him. Initially, O’Connell says, Ryan saw it in how the then-quarterback prepared the Jets defense for the offense of his former team, the Patriots, something that was apparent in the detailed scout-team cards he’d draw up.
“It starts as a joke—‘Forget this playing stuff, maybe it’s time you grab a whistle and a headset, and really start helping us out,’” O’Connell says, explaining what Ryan would say. “And you laugh about it at first. But then all of a sudden, you start thinking that could be a career path for you post-playing. And when I started coaching, I was kind of in that one-year-out-of-football mode, like maybe I could keep training and see if I could get into a camp somewhere, and maybe get lucky.
“Or I could make the decision to turn the page and do everything I could to make this a profession that worked for me. I knew I had a passion for it, I knew I would enjoy it.”
O’Connell started with Ryan’s old defensive, Mike Pettine, in Cleveland in 2015. He then latched on with the Niners in 2016 under Chip Kelly, before going to DC two years ago. But really, what Ryan joked about was happening even when he was a player—and the education continued in ’15 with the Browns, where he got Josh McCown (himself a high school coach) as a valuable sounding board on everything from practice drills to running meetings.
“That was huge for me,” O’Connell says. “I still talk to him, I still would rely on him, just as far as bouncing things off him, talking to him in the offseasons, all those things. And then obviously, coming here with Kirk [Cousins] and Alex [Smith] and Colt [McCoy] in the room, veteran guys that you could push the envelope and try to keep your meetings on the higher end of the IQ scale from a football standpoint.”
This year, the experience has been a little different, with first-round rookie Dwayne Haskins in the room. And while Haskins has been eager to learn, it’s been a new challenge for O’Connell. It’s also one with big-time upside—should Haskins develop quickly, that’ll only do more to bolster O’Connell’s already-on-the-rise reputation.
O’Connell was quick to credit Gruden, still the play-caller and designer of the Redskins offense, for the growing perception that he’ll go far in the coaching ranks. But his time is coming, just like Vrabel’s was a few years back.
“Looking at those guys, the Mike Vrabels, the Kellen Moores, guys that have played and transitioned into coaching, I think it takes a certain mindset,” he says. “Not all players are meant to transition to coaching. You gotta be really willing to roll up your sleeves and work, and sometimes maybe not have the jobs right off the bat that you particularly want. … You really have to make sure it’s something you wanna do.”
It didn’t take long for O’Connell to come to that realization. And probably won’t take too much longer before we see him with a team of his own.
1. It’s not hard to conclude now that Chargers RB Melvin Gordon has overplayed his hand—and his wildcat strike for a new contract hasn’t worked. I’d actually argue it would’ve been smarter for him to hold out last year, with two years left on his deal, just three years on his legs, and the team’s backfield depth way more of a question than it is now. But we’re here now, and Gordon turned down a deal hovering around $10 million per (basically, a next-generation version of the contract Devonta Freeman signed with Atlanta two years ago). If you believe what GM Tom Telesco said on Sunday, that one’s off the table now.
Really, this boils down to Gordon, and the people around him, being honest with themselves. What makes the tailback position unique in these situations is that its upper tier is much smaller than those at other positions (Zeke Elliott, Saquon Barkley, Todd Gurley maybe), and the second tier is much larger, which makes really good players replaceable in the eyes of teams. Add to that the short shelf life of these guys, and unless you’re the kind of three-down, do-everything back that Elliott and Barkley are, and Gurley has been (and maybe still will be), it’s hard to get paid. So you take the money when you can get it. Freeman did. Gordon should have.
2. Congratulations to Myles Jack on his four-year, $57 million extension in Jacksonville. Both he and Dallas’ Jaylon Smith, drafted two spots apart early in the second round of the 2016 draft, deserve all the plaudits they’re getting for overcoming difficult medical circumstances to become very good NFL linebackers, and to get the blockbuster second contracts to which all players aspire. T
Here’s where they’re different—the circumstances surrounding their draft day drops raise very separate questions. For Smith, given that he had serious nerve damage that led to a case of dropfoot, the question was whether he’d ever make it back on the field. But the feeling was if he was able to do that, his condition wouldn’t be a problem thereafter. In Jack’s case, the arthritic condition in his knee wasn’t about playing right away (everyone figured he could do that) but instead regarding how long he’d last. Which, of course, adds context to the deals done by the two teams and what would motivate either player to get the contrats done now—Smith having faced his football mortality in a very real way, and Jack not knowing how far he is from that moment.
3. I feel bad for Jerick McKinnon—going on IR for the second straight year—but I’d feel worse if this had happened before he reached the end of his rookie deal. He made it through his first four years healthy, and got a four-year, $30 million deal as a result of his production over that time. Since, he blew out his knee and has struggled to get back. But he’ll wind up with $15.5 million between this year and last, even if he doesn’t make it back this year (he lost $250,000 in per-game roster bonuses, and stands to lose that much again this year if he doesn’t play, which takes him down for the expected total two-year take of $16 million). Two important things there for all players, by the way. The importance of timing. And the importance of contract structure.
4, It’s interesting that the Browns cut Greg Robinson a week before their opener. But if you want the code cracked here, you might want to look at the Lions releasing, then re-signing Logan Thomas, the Niners releasing then re-signing Antone Exum, and the Bills releasing, then re-signing Kurt Coleman. In each case, the team needed to hold a player who wasn’t vested (less than four credited years) on the roster for 24 hours, in order for that player to be eligible to return off IR. I’d think the Browns would be doing that with Drew Forbes, like, for example, the Bills did with Jason Croom. Of course, that there’s not a huge concern in exposing Robinson to the market, at a position like left tackle, where demand is high (see: Tunsil, Laremy), raises other questions about how big a concern the offensive line is for Cleveland right now.
5. We’ve been over this a few times in this space, but my sense is the Patriots really think they’ve found something in Jarrett Stidham—and the release of Brian Hoyer, who was a resource to both Tom Brady and the Patriots defense, is evidence. The fourth-round pick, again, showed poise and timing with his receivers in playing the duration of the team’s fourth preseason game. Stidham was considered by many scouts to be a victim of circumstance at Auburn, ill-fit to run Tigers coach Gus Malzahn’s system. The talent, though, was always there. In this sort of situation situation, in which a gifted player needs the right surroundings, Bill Belichick and New England often find opportunity. It sure looks like they have on this one.
6. Another Patriots item: I got a chance to screen Do Your Job III, the NFL Network documentary chronicling the Patriots’ road to their sixth Super Bowl title, which will air Wednesday on NFL Network. This one will be a little different than the last few, which featured a wide array of coaches from the championship staffs. It focuses, instead, intensely on the relationship between Bill Belichick and Patriots OC Josh McDaniels. It’s well done, as most things NFL Films does are. But there was something in there that caught my attention to pass along here.
On Belichick, McDaniels said, “I’ll be excited to be there in Canton when he goes in, five years after he’s done coaching, whenever that is, which will probably be a long time from now.” And then, a minute or so later in the doc, the OC added, “Whatever my future holds, I know this—the best thing for me is to do the best I can here, right now with him, with Tom, with this team, with this staff, with the organization we have, for Mr. Kraft. And I think things will work out the way they’re supposed to.”
I believe if Cleveland or Green Bay had made an offer to McDaniels in January, he’d have gone to those places to take a second shot at being a head coach. I don’t think he’s waiting for Belichick to move on. And if he’s being forthright with what he’s saying here, it sounds like he’s implicitly telling everyone that.
7. I hope everyone appreciates Frank Gore. I can’t tell you how many coaches and scouts that have worked with over the years have told me, “He’s my favorite football player.” Gore beat out LeSean McCoy, a really good player in his own right, for a spot in the Bills backfield, alongside promising rookie Devin Singletary and ex-Jaguar T.J. Yeldon. McCoy, for his part, has proven venerable, making it to what will be his 11th season in the league. Gore, meanwhile, came into the league on reconstructed knees and with reconstructed shoulders in 2005. And by the time Shady landed in Philly as a 2009 second-round pick, Gore already had four seasons and 939 NFL carries under his belt. I hope people don’t argue against Gore for Canton, whenever that time comes. He belongs there.
8. I like the way Matt Nagy has handled the Bears’ kicker competition. We went through his attempts to create a little healthy tension within competition. “That’s what’s what real,” he said. “It’s about the production.” Eddy Pineiro handled that well and the thought here is he gives the Bears the best chance to have an above average option at the position come December and January, when it really counts. And Thursday night, with America watching and the Bears playing a standalone game, should be a nice test, too.
9. One thing a Packers staffer reminded me on Sunday night, in regards to all the speculation on how Matt LaFleur’s offense will fit Aaron Rodgers, is that Green Bay is an offense built to give the quarterback an answer to whatever he’s faced with. I think it’s fair to have wondered how a scheme built to take responsibility off the quarterback would work for a guy, in Rodgers, used to having so much on his shoulders. But for quarterbacks with pelts on the wall (and Rodgers has lots of those), an ability to get to those answers within the system Mike Shanahan built 25 years ago only enhances what everyone is able to do. It’s why Matt Ryan was really good in the system. It’s why Kirk Cousins was really good in the system. And it’s another reason why I can’t wait to see what happens Thursday against the vaunted Bears defense, with new coordinator Chuck Pagano at the controls.
10. Cool to see Titans coach Mike Vrabel make it to Boston College over the weekend to see his son Tyler start at left tackle for the Eagles. Vrabel flew in Friday, got to go through the whole gameday experience in Chestnut Hill on Saturday, took his kid out to dinner postgame, then flew back at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning. “The experience was amazing,” Vrabel texted afterward. “Acted like a dad and not a coach. That felt good.” Dad gave his son high marks – Tyler had the key block on an 11-yard A.J. Dillon run that locked up the win for the Eagles, and didn’t allow a single pressure – in his first start as a collegian. And he admits now he was nervous for his son until his first snap, when it became obvious to his dad he belonged. Mike will remember this one, too, especially since it’ll be tough for him to get to any more of the Eagles’ games, for obvious reasons. He’s hoping to make it to BC at Rutgers two weeks from Saturday, since the Titans play on Thursday that week. But that will, in all likelihood, be it for the season.
11. A bonus... So many thoughts on the roster cutdowns, and so we couldn’t wait for Monday with some of them. Here’s more on Tunsil, McCoy, Kiko Alonso and Jachai Polite. Consider it a part of this week’s MMQB, that was delivered about 12 hours early.
… OF THE WEEK
“I want to be clear to my fans: I needed to recover. I was not in a good place. Football was bringing me down. And I didn’t like it. I was losing that joy in life, like the joy. I’m sorry right now, but … I really was. I was fighting through it.”
— Ex-Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski, in an appearance last week promoting the healing powers of CBD and his associated partnership with Abacus Health Products.
Watching Gronkowski in this appearance was like looking at a Rorschach Test—whatever you believed before, you could find a way to believe even more now. He hinted at a comeback. He opened a wound for all of us to see when talking about the physical pain that he endured when playing. He was very much Gronk. What popped in his head, came out of his mouth.
I think the most authentic part of it was the emotion that spilled out as he talked about his physical condition. While talking with him after last season’s Super Bowl, I got the distinct feeling that he felt like he had escaped something, making it out of the season without needing another back surgery or suffering another concussion. Then a deep thigh bruise lingered and lingered and lingered. Does he want to go back to that? I don’t know. But I do think it’d take a lot to motivate him to do that, after all he went through. And I also think there’s a potential motive, business-wise, for keeping the door to returning open.
Sounds like the excitement over Preseason Game No. 4 gripped Houston last week and wouldn’t let go.
Patriots TE Benjamin Watson responding to the $10,527 fine Panthers S Eric Reid was assessed for a late head hit in the teams’ third preseason game.
This was pretty good—and wishing all the best to everyone who has been impacted by Hurricane Dorian.
We haven’t talked enough about how good it is to have Rob Ryan—now the Redskins linebackers coach—back in the NFL.
It has come to this.
Coaching from a hospital bed? Yup, Hugh Freeze is coaching football from a hospital bed.
No one else believes the idea that Bill Belichick meant “I didn’t see that [coming]”, right? Because this quote, when asked about Andrew Luck’s retirement, is a billion times better the way it is.
S/O TO …
Cardinals G Justin Pugh.The 29-year-old spoke on behalf of most NFL players this week, those that don’t have the kind of cache that Gronkowski or Andrew Luck do. And I wish what he said would resonate the same way the emotion of Gronkowski and Luck did days earlier, because it really explains why so many of these keep fighting through stuff when it might not be best to.
“If you go out there and you get hit, if you don’t go back out there the next day, you’re going to be replaced,” Pugh said. “That’s the nature of our business and that’s the sad thing. I don't know if you’re going to perceive it as a negative but the guy also has an opportunity to make a lot more money than he probably would otherwise and change the trajectory of his life, his kids’ life, his kids’ kids’ lives, so I see why guys go out there and push through it.
“I mean, you have a chance to make a crazy amount of money and that’s the risk-reward: How much am I willing to risk with my body, my mental health to make as much money as possible and win? And that’s the NFL in a nutshell.”
Pugh then added, “go back and just look into Andrew Luck's eyes and see the pain that guy has. That gets me upset because, like, I know there's guys in this locker room and every locker room that are going through those same things. So it's definitely tough as a teammate knowing that guys go through it."
If you want to know what football players routinely deal with, click on the story and read what Pugh has to say. The way he articulates it is logical, relatable, and impactful. Good for him for speaking out.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
College football is back, so we’re taking a look at everything happening in the NFL’s de facto minor league.
1. Trevor Lawrence’s two-pick debut for Clemson on Thursday night was a good reminder of what’s ahead for the 19-year-old prodigy—deep analysis of his every move until he’s eligible for the NFL draft 16 months or so from now.
2. Some scouts believe Georgia junior RB D’Andre Swift has a shot at playing himself into the Saquon Barkley/Ezekiel Elliott conversation as a draft prospect. Saturday’s 147-yard effort against Vanderbilt was a good start to getting there for the Philly native.
3. Remember when middle-school quarterbacks committing to colleges was all the rage? I think it’s worth mentioning that the two highest-profile cases were David Sills and Tate Martell. The former was converted to receiver at West Virginia (the undrafted free agent was cut by the Bills this weekend). The latter is in the process of learning to play that position after leaving Ohio State, then losing a QB competition at Miami. Turns out, maybe 13 is too young to evaluate a player?
4. You mean, the Tennessee coaching search of 2017 didn’t work?
5. I was a teenager for part of the time that Auburn freshman QB Bo Nix’s dad was a college player, which is depressing.
6. Jalen Hurts still doesn’t throw it like Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray. But what we saw Sunday night is more evidence of what a wizard Lincoln Riley is. And remember, it’s not like Hurts looks this much better coming from some juco. He was at Alabama.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
The window to make a big deal isn’t closed for your team with rosters down to 53. In fact, with more aggressive, creative GMs in the league (and the deadline being moved back), moves closer to the trade deadline have become more common.
Last year, it was Amari Cooper going from Oakland to Dallas, Snacks Harrison from New York to Detroit, Dante Fowler from Jacksonville to LA, Golden Tate from Detroit to Philly, Demaryius Thomas from Denver to Houston, and Eli Apple from New York to New Orleans. The year before, Jimmy Garoppolo, Duane Brown, Marcel Dareus, Jay Ajayi and Kelvin Benjamin were moved.
So it may not be the baseball or basketball deadline. But it’s certainly been more active than it used to be – which is to say if your team still has a hole to patch, with a little patience, help could be on the way.
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