Maybe we shouldn’t treat Lamar Jackson as a curiosity anymore. Maybe we shouldn’t see his implementation as an NFL quarterback as some sort of experiment. Maybe we should look at him in the context of Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold, the guys drafted with him, rather than reaching back for the Robert Griffins and Tim Tebows of the world.
And my impetus for thinking about that is this: Jackson’s two long touchdowns to Ravens first-round pick Hollywood Brown, both in the first quarter of yesterday’s opener in Miami, weren’t pulled from some bag of tricks that offensive coordinator Greg Roman brought with him for the Dolphins. Nor were they part of the so-called revolution that the Ravens were supposed to lead this fall to accommodate Jackson’s different skill set.
“Actually, we had those plays in,” Jackson told me from the locker room postgame. “The guy is just fast. He beat the coverage. Got open. I just had to deliver a good ball for him to score on, and that’s what he did.”
Not new plays, you say?
“Those were not new plays,” Jackson said. “We had been running those.”
I’m not going to overreact too much to what we saw yesterday, and that was a pretty bad Dolphins team that the Ravens happened to shred, too.
But there’s significance in what Jackson is saying. For months now we’ve heard that Roman and the Baltimore staff were going to turn the league on its ear by leveraging Jackson’s road-runner-level legs. The implication was that the 22-year-old, at this point in his development, needed it to be that way.
So when it turns out that he didn’t? I think that means something.
Football is all the way back now, and so are we with our Sunday night all-nighters to give you wall-to-wall MMQBs when you wake up for the work week. And in this week’s edition, you’ll find …
• The renaissance of Sammy Watkins, who could be more important to the Chiefs this morning than he’s ever been to any other team before.
• The relationship between Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers, and how the Thursday night season opener could provide a couple examples, through some fits and starts, of its growth.
• A recap of the big contracts teams did this week.
• The Patriots’ shellacking of the Steelers.
• Dak Prescott’s breakthrough against the Giants.
But we’re starting with the guy whose 1 p.m. start during Week 1 was the kind that had you refreshing your browser, over and over again, to see just how gaudy his numbers could get.
Those two touchdowns from Jackson from Brown were just as Jackson explained them—football plays that he’d run before.
The first, the 47-yarder, was actually a product of something Jackson has worked on with his receivers for a while now. Last year, as he saw it, he wasn’t hitting his targets in stride like he should, which handicapped the receivers’ own ability to turn shorter throws into big gains.
“That was a big emphasis,” Jackson says. “I’ve been saying that what I want them to do is finish out the plays and score touchdowns. That’s what we did today.”
On this play, a first-and-10 from the Dolphins 47, Jackson took the snap, faked to Mark Ingram, pulled the ball (it looked like RPO action), and hit Brown between the ‘1’ and the ‘5’ on his jersey, which set him up to take the slant and turn upfield for the long score.
The next one, an 83-yarder, was actually even easier.
“Five-step dropback, it looked like they dropped to Cover 2,” Jackson said. “[Brown] was one-on-one with the safety, I just had to give him a great ball and let him run under it. And you guys seen him in college. You were able to see it on that play. He has the speed to run to the ball, track the ball down and score a long touchdown. That’s what he did.”
This doesn’t mean Jackson’s going to be league MVP. We can take it slow, at least for now, on that. But it does mean that just maybe we’ve all looked at this the wrong way.
Both the above plays, and a bunch of others, showed Jackson operating concepts that any other NFL quarterback would, and making NFL quarterback decisions. On the Brown scores, Jackson saw matchups he liked, and took them. No smoke-and-mirrors. Just the quarterback carrying out the plays and showing his own growth in the process.
Now, here’s the scary part about that : He didn’t even have to use his generational talent as a running quarterback to accomplish it.
The game itself got out of hand quickly. It was 42-3 with two minutes left in the first half. So Jackson took his final snap in the third quarter, finishing with 324 yards and five touchdowns on 17-of-20 passing. And he did it while recording just three rushes for 7 yards, which made this his first regular-season start with fewer than 10 carries.
When I asked Jackson if that marked progress, he didn’t hesitate.
“Definitely—I don’t plan on running [as much] this year,” Jackson said. “Coach threw out there, ‘We’re gonna do whatever it takes to win.’ Today, three rushes and probably 20 passes was what it was. We came out with success.”
That said, Jackson’s day wasn’t perfect. On one of his three runs, he told me, he pulled the ball when he should’ve let the back take it. On one of his three incompletions, he missed Willie Snead, and then figured out he had someone open elsewhere. In both cases, he felt there were big plays to be made, and so he’s going to work to correct those, like he worked to become a more evolved quarterback, and worked to better hit receivers in stride.
But what matters now, to him, is that what we all witnessed on Sunday signifies genuine growth—for him and for a team that’s overhauled its defense and reworked its receiver group on offense.
“We’re just playing ball right now, man. We’re having fun,” he said. “We bonded with each other a lot. Got our chemistry down pat. But there’s always room for improvement. All of us, each and every position, has been working very hard from last year’s playoff loss. We had that chip on our shoulder from that. We know we just have to stack right now, and it started in Miami. Our goal is to finish in Miami. We started on the right foot.”
Of course, you know what’s happening in Miami in February. Long time before we get there. But this was, most certainly, a good positive step in that direction for Baltimore. And how their quarterback took it certainly got my attention.
SAMMY WATKINS TAKES OFF FOR THE CHIEFS
The NFL world held its breath at 1:57 p.m. ET. The league’s reigning MVP, Patrick Mahomes, limped off the field with the help of trainers, after Jaguars star Yannick Ngakoue pulled him to the turf with Mahomes’ left foot planted in it. It looked bad, and concerns only escalated when the quarterback entered the medical tent on the sideline.
Turns out, as all our radars went up, Sammy Watkins didn’t even notice.
“Honestly I didn’t even see it,” he told me on his way to the airport after the Chiefs’ win in Jacksonville. “I was so deep into the game. After a while I looked down at his ankle and I saw he had tape on it. That’s what you expect out of a quarterback with those injuries. They get hit maybe 10 times a game. They’re getting sacked. I want to keep going out there playing and leading us to win.”
Watkins was locked in. The fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft (ahead of Mike Evans and Odell Beckham) went off in an impressive 40-26 victory, hitting for 198 yards and three touchdowns on nine catches.
This, as he sees it, isn’t a coincidence. Coaches and staff have been buzzing about Watkins’ spring and summer, giving the Chiefs hope that this would be the year he’d finally live up to his draft position and contract (three years, $48 million). Watkins, for his part, held that hope out too.
“Just opening myself up and trusting everybody around me, I think that’s the key to it,” he said. “And knowing that it starts with me, but I’m not the only one out there doing it by myself. I’m accepting that. I think everybody around me, my teammates, my coaches, giving me the confidence and the ability to go out there each play and dominate. I think that’s where I’m at with my spirituality even so. I’m receiving help from other people.”
Likewise, Watkins explained that to live up first to his draft position and then to his contract, he’s pressed in the past and tried to do too much—on the field, in the weight room and elsewhere. This year he resolved to try to fix that, and on the field that means letting the offense come to him.
That’s easier when Andy Reid is calling the shots and Patrick Mahomes is pulling the trigger. And it showed Sunday.
Watkins’ first big hit came on an underneath route that he reached up to snag, before weaving through defenders for a 68-yard score.
“Just playing fast,” Watkins said. “It was like the third play, but Pat made eye-contact with me and I knew it was coming. After I caught the ball, I’m like, ‘Yeah, this is what I do. I’m gonna finish this play.’ That’s something I worked on: my focus in the offseason. The same things I was doing in high school and college, I think I got that mojo back. That confidence to go out there and make plays and make moves.”
Wherever he got it, that Zen landed him in the end zone. And it wouldn’t be long before he’d visit again.
Later in the first quarter, Reid’s play design worked, and Watkins got himself a lay-up.
“Wide open,” he said. “We just executed the play, and everything worked out the right way. Mecole [Hardman] pulled the safety and literally took one for the team. For me, I was really walking by myself. I didn’t have to do too much but literally run, hide and get open.”
Watkins wasn’t done producing (or scoring—he had a three-yard touchdown later), and it’s going to be incumbent on him to keep that going. Tyreek Hill hurt his collarbone late in the game and is expected to miss considerable time.
What’s interesting here is that the old Sammy probably would have forced things if thrust into this situation, having to replace his team’s biggest threat. The new Sammy, in his mind, is far more prepared for the challenge.
“I think we got the same roles,” he said. “The same particular roles. Same for me. I think we got the other guys to step up. We got Mecole Hardman in the second round. We got Demarcus Robinson. We got so many guys that can step up and play that position. I’m not really worried. Do we need 10? Do we need Tyreek? Yes, we do. I don’t think I would’ve scored a couple touchdowns without him affecting the defense.
“I think he has an intricate part. We’re gonna have to find a way to win in the next six, seven weeks with him being out. I think we have the coaches to do that.”
And maybe the receiver, too. Finally.
THE PROMISE IN THE PACKERS’ START
Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers have heard others pick their relationship apart for eight months, so there was a moment in the delirium of the Packers locker room post-season-opening win that others in there took note of, a moment that came after the new Green Bay coach had delivered what was a relatively boiler-plate address to his team following a 10-3 win in Chicago.
Hold on, hold on, hold on, Aaron Rodgers shouted. Defense should probably be giving him this, but it’s not every day you get your first win as a head coach.
The 35-year-old quarterback then buried the game ball in his 39-year coach’s chest.
“It meant a lot,” LaFleur said from his office on Saturday afternoon. “He obviously didn’t have to do that. I definitely wasn’t expecting it. And you know I’m so appreciative of all those guys. And for him to do that, because he was voted captain by his teammates, and to get it from one of the captains, and specifically him, somebody I work with so closely on a daily basis, it meant everything to me.”
Thursday night, to be sure, didn’t go as LaFleur and Rodgers planned. Yes, they won. But both know that, regardless of how good the Bears defense is, a 213-yard, 10-point effort probably won’t carry many NFL Sundays. While giving proper deference to Chicago, LaFleur emphasized, “Our standard can’t change based on the opposition.”
That said, there were signs that LaFleur, Rodgers and the rest of the Packers coaches and players on offense will get there—and that the coach and quarterback, in particular, are on schedule on the topic we’ve been covering all offseason. LaFleur identified a couple situations that showed the offense working the way it should.
The first one came on Green Bay’s lone touchdown drive of the game. Consecutive completions to Marquez Valdes-Scantling (for 47 yards) and Marcedes Lewis (for 9) untracked a group that was coming off three straight three-and-outs to start the game. Then on second-and-1, Rodgers saw Chicago’s Kyle Fuller playing way off Davante Adams. The quarterback signaled an alert to the backside, and dumped it to Adams, who ripped off 10 yards. Rodgers then got the offense to the line, caught the Bears with 12 men on the field, and threw up a jump ball, knowing he had a free play, which tight end Jimmy Graham pulled down for 6.
“That was a really good drive,” LaFleur said. “Here’s what I’ll tell you—I just liked the fact that although things weren’t going great, I felt like our communication was there the whole game.”
There was an even better example later. Before the game, Rodgers and LaFleur had discussed what they would do if they were backed up against their goal line—and the coach was a little worried about some of the protections they had in, if they wanted to go downfield in that kind of spot. He suggested a play that the Packers hadn’t run in practice last week. Rodgers was amenable.
On second-and-9 from Packers 6, with 11:07 left, LaFleur called it. Hard play fake. Deep drop. Rodgers planted his foot in the end zone and found Trevor Davis sitting in a hole in the Bears zone, 20 or so yards downfield. The play went for 28, and became the catalyst that ended in a field goal and took 6:28 off the fourth-quarter clock. Even more impressive, the call and throw came with Adams and Marquez Valdes-Scantling out.
“That was a good moment for us in terms of him trusting the fact that, hey, here’s a play that we may not have repped, but he went out there and you trusted that it was the right call and executed,” LaFleur said. “It really helped us out because that was the only other drive we scored points on.”
So in that regard, this was a good start. And that’s really what LaFleur is concerned with. As for all the digging into where he and Rodgers stand?
“I’m numb to it, man,” he said, laughing, then bringing up the previous Tuesday’s press conference, where some thought he was upset over being questioned about the relationship.
“I was just joking around, I wasn’t really pissed off or anything like that,” LaFleur says. “Yeah, it’s just noise to me, it’s total noise. I don’t give it two seconds of thought.”
GOFF, ELLIOTT AND THE OTHER BIG CONTRACT EXTENSIONS
The most surprising contract extension of the week before the season—always a big one for those kinds of things—was probably the least controversial. Rams QB Jared Goff’s four-year, $134 million extension wasn’t met with a global argument over positional value (like Zeke Elliott’s), and it wasn’t a team tying its reputation to a player who’s had very recent legal issues (Tyreek Hill).
But few expected the Goff deal to come down the pike when it did, largely because the vibes given off by both the Rams and Goff’s camp indicated that everyone was comfortable waiting another year on a player who was under contract through 2020.
What changed? Well, as the Rams reported to camp at the end of July, the team’s brass quietly let Goff and his agents, led by Ryan Tollner, know that there may be an opportunity to get something done at the end of the summer. The wait, actually, was a matter of course.
The Rams have done this in the past. (One example was right tackle Rob Havenstein last year.) Every summer the team has a certain amount of money set aside as a sort of rainy-day fund. They want to get a look at their roster. They also want to see what veterans from other teams might come available (Khalil Mack was one they kicked tires on last year). Then, if the money’s still sitting there, they might move to extend one of their own early.
So that’s where Goff’s windfall came from. His reps and the Rams worked out the terms of the deal over time, and the team came to a comfort level with its roster, wasn’t overly enticed with any of the vets who were on the block, and moved forward to lock up Goff through the next half-dozen years.
That they’d do that, of course, wasn’t a decision that happened yesterday. On Friday, COO Kevin Demoff made clear that there were mileposts along the way that sold the team. One was the press conference at the end of 2016, with a coaching search looming, in which Goff stood up and took responsibility for the season.
“He promised that we were going to get it right,” Demoff said, noting that Goff was still 21 and didn’t know who his coach was going to be. “From a leadership perspective, you just knew, he had an unbelievable ability to rally his teammates. From a football perspective … we started 2017 on fire.”
There were two 40-point efforts in September, a comeback win in Dallas, and then a really cool moment in a tough-fought 16-10 loss to Seattle in which the Rams felt like they outplayed the then-kingpins of the NFC West. Near the end of the game, with L.A. driving, Goff looked off Earl Thomas, and hit Cooper Kupp in the hands for what would’ve been the go-ahead score. Later, Thomas conceded to Rams players, “He got me.”
“At that point, you’re like, ‘OK, we’re good,’” Demoff said.
Since then, it was really a matter of time—or in the case, of timing—until the Rams would re-affirm their decision to take Goff first overall in 2016.
Now, since we’re here, we can give you a look at, and a nugget on, the big contracts of the last week.
Rams QB Jared Goff
New years: Four
New money: $134 million
APY: $33.5 million
Full guarantee: $57 million
Nugget: Goff won’t make much more than he was set to this year, and the $57 million he’s set to take in between now and the end of 2020 is short of what Jimmy Garoppolo got in San Francisco over his deal’s first two years, and $10 million shy of the mark that Eagles QB Carson Wentz hit. That sacrifice, I’m told, paved the way not just for Goff to get done, but also for the team to extend one of Goff’s best friends on the team, TE Tyler Higbee.
Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott
New years: Six
New money: $90 million
APY: $15 million
Full guarantee: $28.1 million
Nugget: The rolling guarantees in this deal tie Dallas, realistically, to Elliott for the next four years, with the final four years of the deal (2023-26) essentially serving as team options. For the Cowboys to get out after one year, they’d have to pay $28.8 million. To get out after two, it’d cost them $37.7 million. After three, the four-year total of $50.1 million. That’s strong for Elliott. And yet, the team’s OK here too. The $12.5 million APY over the guaranteed part of the deal is manageable, and the four years on the back end basically mean the team controls the rest of Zeke’s prime.
Colts QB Jacoby Brissett
New years: One
New money: ~$28 million
APY: $28 million
Full guarantee: $20 million.
Nugget: Indy’s view on this—they’re giving Brissett the franchise tag now, in exchange for a year of control and the ability to tag him at the normal QB number (rather than at the cost of a second tag) in 2021. This is, in essence, identical to what the Eagles did with Kevin Kolb in 2010 (we discussed this in Thursday’s Game Plan), after trading Donovan McNabb. And that move allowed Philly to trade Kolb for a second-round pick and a 25-year-old Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie the following spring, after Mike Vick took Kolb’s job.
Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill
New years: Three
New money: $54 million
APY: $18 million
Full guarantee: N/A
Nugget: I’ll plead ignorance here—I haven’t seen the fine print yet. But what I’d heard is that negotiations in February (before the allegations of child abuse against Hill) fell apart, at least in part, because of some of the protections the Chiefs sought in a new contract. So it’ll be interesting to see what sort of trap doors are built in here.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
This is true. Minshew initially intended to transfer to Alabama from East Carolina in early 2018, because he wanted to get into coaching and believed playing for Nick Saban would be a good step in that direction. Had he gone, he’d have backed up Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts last fall. Instead, he relented to Washington State coach Mike Leach’s sales pitch. And the rest is history.
This was after Browns LT Greg Robinson got caught kicking Kenny Vaccaro in the head, and was thrown out of the game as a result. And it’s perfect Vrabel.
So this was in the first half of the early games, and I actually liked what we wound up seeing from the Bills. But not bad by my old co-worker Chris Brockman.