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Christian McCaffrey’s Growth, Brian Hoyer’s Value, Melvin Gordon’s Surge

Also, why you should feel optimistic about the Raiders, why Mark Ingram is such an underrated acquisition, the Falcons’ changes during their bye week and more NFL news and notes.
Christian McCaffrey, Brian Hoyer, Melvin Gordon

The NFL feels far more wide open now than it did when Week 9 started. So with that in mind, let’s wrap up the weekend …

• I saw an interesting piece of tape on Monday morning for evidence of Christian McCaffrey’s growth as a tailback. But it wasn’t from Sunday’s win over the Titans—it was from last week’s blowout loss to the 49ers.

The play in question happened with 29 seconds left in the third quarter, with Carolina down 41-13. McCaffrey took a toss right, and slashed right through San Francisco’s front seven, breaking free up the right sideline. As he crossed the 50 yard line, 49ers S Jimmie Ward had an angle on him, and McCaffrey was headed towards the sideline. He easily could’ve waltzed out of bounds and saved the punishment on his body. Instead, he planted left hand into Ward, and the two wrestled each other past the boundary, with McCaffrey down with a 37-yard gain.

The significance? He’s actually gotten more violent as a runner and as a blocker, and it’s made him a truly complete three-down back—and worthy of being with the quarterbacks in the MVP discussion. 

I asked Panthers OC Norv Turner about McCaffrey, and he kind of laughed at the question, but not based on what the running back has accomplished. “Everyone is so eager to do that early,” Turner said. “Halfway through the year? Eight games in? Yeah, I would [put him there]. There's eight more games. If we're the kind of team we're hoping to be and we're playing when the season is over, well, he's our most valuable player to this point offensively. The guy is pretty amazing.”

• The value of a competent backup quarterback? The Colts felt it yesterday—and had Adam Vinatieri hit a makeable field goal in Pittsburgh at the wire, they would have escaped with a win against a good team despite losing their starting quarterback in-game. Consider that Brian Hoyer hadn’t run much of any of the Colts offense in a practice setting before going into the game in Pittsburgh. Once the regular season starts, the starting quarterback takes just about every rep in practice with the first teams, and backups are running the scout team, which made it, logistically, hard to get Hoyer any work. But he could lean on experience, and having seen bits and pieces of Frank Reich’s offense in playing for Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco and Cleveland, Josh McDaniels in New England and Dowell Loggains in Cleveland and Chicago. 

It was amazingly valuable that the Colts were able to bring him in on short notice, in the wake of Andrew Luck’s retirement, and not have to take work away from Jacoby Brissett, and could trust him to pinch-hit if need be. If not for an errant kick, the Colts would be at 6-2, which makes the $4 million per they’re paying Hoyer worth it every time.

• Another guy who deserves the same sort of credit: Matt Moore. Yes, the Chiefs have great infrastructure around whoever’s playing quarterback, both in on-field talent and coaching. But Moore didn’t have the benefit of training camp. He was actually coaching high school football when Kansas City gave him the call in late August to replace an injured Chad Henne on the depth chart. 

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On Sunday against Minnesota, he went out there without two of the Chiefs’ three best linemen—both left tackle Eric Fisher and right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif missed the game injured—and hung in there against one of the NFL’s best fronts. The staff in Kansas City was pretty impressed with how Moore was able to absorb all the hits, and get the team in position to grind out a tough win.

• One nice development for the suddenly surging Chargers—Melvin Gordon looks like he finally has his sea legs back. As a result, he’s getting the ball more, and finished Sunday with 80 yards rushing on 20 carries, and another 29 yards through the air on three catches. Philip Rivers told me on Sunday night that “it’s like he just finished training camp.”

• Want to know why the arrow is pointing up on the 4-4 Raiders? Look at the rookie class. RB Josh Jacobs played 58% of the team’s offensive snaps against Detroit, WR Hunter Renfrow played 54% and TE Foster Moreau played 51%. Meanwhile, DE Maxx Crosby played 66% of the defensive snaps, CB Trayvon Mullen played 87% and Clelin Ferrell played 65%. That’s a lot of draft picks getting a lot of playing time in a win over a pretty good Lions team. (And remember, first-round safety Johnathan Abram is on IR, so he doesn’t even factor into the above.)

• Underrated acquisition of the offseason: Ravens RB Mark Ingram. For evidence of why, you can go back to the 2018 playoffs. The Chargers slammed the brakes on the Baltimore option attack by putting seven defensive backs on the field—playing safeties at linebacker—consistently to combat Lamar Jackson’s speed. To counteract that, new offensive coordinator Greg Roman ordered up a more physical, more downhill-oriented run game to complement Jackson, in essence daring defenses to play with light boxes against the likes of a guy like Ingram. And man has it worked. In doing last week’s Game Plan column, I had one exec explain it to me like this: “It’s basically like you’re dealing with a downhill run game, but their change of pace back is in the game at the same time, and he runs 4.2.”

• The Falcons made some fairly significant staff changes during their bye, moving receivers coach Raheem Morris over to the defensive side, where he’ll work with the secondary; and shifting Dave Brock from running backs to receivers to replace him, while promoting Bernie Parlamee from offensive assistant to running backs coach. The reasoning? Over the bye, in assessing the operation, head coach Dan Quinn and Co. found that communication wasn’t where it needed to be on defense. Shifting Morris, who is excellent in that area and came up as a defensive coach, to the other side of the ball was a natural move, even if required moving some others around.

• Broncos offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello took his hits last week when Joe Flacco took shots at the coaching staff, but he acquitted himself nicely, once again, in coaching an undrafted quarterback on Sunday. As we mentioned in the MMQB, Brandon Allen played a very clean game in his first regular season action, going 12-of-20 for 193 yards and two touchdowns. And that dovetails well with the production Scangarello helped get from Nick Mullens over an extended period last year (Mullens completed 64.2% of his throws for 2,277 yards and 13 touchdowns against 10 picks as a 49er rookie) as San Francisco’s quarterbacks coach. What would be great for the Broncos is if this carried over to second round pick Drew Lock, once Lock is healthy enough to play again.

• So how did Redskins rookie QB Dwayne Haskins grade out? Well, the coaches tried to protect Haskins by working quick-game throws, screens and play-action into the game plan, and Bill Callahan’s desire to establish the run game did make it a little tougher for him to establish real rhythm. But Haskins did take a step forward in the procedural elements of quarterback—running the huddle, calling the play, and making adjustments at the line. And while there’s plenty of room for growth is the critical-situation areas (red zone, third down), the loss to Buffalo checked out as a solid start for Haskins. And that was reflected in what the opponent saw, too. Based on what Bills people had seen on tape, Haskins was better than expected. He took a couple sacks he shouldn’t have, as they saw it, but flashed improved accuracy and got rid of the ball quicker than he had in earlier spot duty.

• Ronald Jones seized the starting running back job in Tampa, and that exemplifies why it’s not smart to draw sweeping conclusions on rookies. Jones was a mess in his first year—he lost confidence quickly and the whole season got away from him as a result. This year, the Bucs new coaching staff—especially running backs coach Todd McNair—focused on getting him back mentally where he needed to be. A more confident Jones was running more decisively and with more edge, and now he’s showing why he was a second-round pick in the first place. In the end, he’s just a kid who needed a little time to adjust to the pros.

• Not much will change with the Eagles’ receiver corps despite losing DeSean Jackson, who will have surgery on a core muscle injury. Jackson has played just 15 snaps since being in on 52 snaps in the opener, due to a litany of injuries. Philadelphia will go forward with Alshon Jeffrey, Nelson Agholor, Mack Hollins and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside—the status quo.

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