Bobby Petrino remembers the game like it was yesterday. Louisville had first-and-10 at their own 25, down six points with 3:08 left and a NFL-talent-laden Clemson defense standing between them and a program-changing victory. His quarterback stood before him, Death Valley bearing down on both, with one unbeaten top-five team about to go down.
“Don’t worry about it, coach,” Lamar Jackson told Petrino. “We got it.”
That was all the then-Cardinals coach needed to hear.
“I believe everything he says,” Petrino said, now three years removed from that epic Saturday night in South Carolina. "I saw him interviewed the other day, and he said he was gonna win a Super Bowl. Someone asked me if I thought it’d happen. And I said, ‘Well, if that’s what he said, I believe him.’ He’s not a bullshitter. He’s a straight-forward guy.”
He meant business on that night too. And he came painfully close to fulfilling his promise.
Jackson and the Cardinals wound up falling three yards short, but the game itself became the story—the top two vote-getters for that year’s Heisman trophy traded haymakers in primetime, with the veteran runner-up for that trophy outlasting the breakthrough winner of it. The game kicked Clemson’s run to its first national title since in 35 years into high gear. But all the same, it sent Jackson’s star power into the college football stratosphere.
That was October 1, 2016. Final score: Clemson 42, Louisville 36.
“It was spectacular—the crowd, the environment, we got down early, and from there it was two thoroughbreds going at it,” said former Louisville AD Tom Jurich. “They were the greatest players in college football at their position, and wonderful ambassadors for their schools. I hate that we loss, and the way we lost. But it was a magical night.”
Three years later, Watson and Jackson will play each other again, and this time it’ll be on a Sunday, rather than a Saturday, when the former’s 6-3 Texans traveling to visit the latter’s 7-2 Ravens in a game that could have serious playoff implications. If those two come close to putting on the kind of show they did the last time, we’re all in for a pretty electrifying few hours in that 1 p.m. broadcast window.
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Week 11 is here, and so is this week’s GamePlan. And as usual, we’re going to give you two players (one of which is a pretty interesting quarterback) to watch on Saturday, and a handful of NFL guys who should be key this week. Plus, I’ll answer your questions on …
• The Lamar Jackson/Russell Wilson MVP debate.
• Joe Burrow’s candidacy to go first overall.
• Defenses fighting back one year after the Chiefs/Rams show.
• N’Keal Harry’s issues in New England.
• And MORE!
But we’re starting by looking forward to Sunday, with a look back at the kind of craziness that two guys who’ll go head-to-head could give us.
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For Clemson, this story begins with the disappearance of Jimmy Greenbeans.
Who’s Greenbeans? The alter ego of Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables—the Venables who would moonlight as the scout team quarterback during a practice week. In 2016, that was a regular occurrence, and that Greenbeans went MIA during Louisville week was a decent sign to the Clemson defense that its next opponent wasn’t normal.
“Yeah, Coach V couldn’t simulate Lamar’s speed,” said then-Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, the Dolphins’ 2019 first-round pick. “He didn’t quite have the giddy-up to do that.”
Louisville, for its part, was new to this sort of party, having announced its arrival with a 63-20 evisceration of Florida State two weeks earlier. A week before that, Jackson gave the country an iconic image in his hurdling of a Syracuse defender (as part of a 62-28 win). And with that added up, the Cardinals pushed past the Tigers, the national runner-up in 2015, in the polls.
Which is to say that while the game is big now in its lore, it was big in the moment too. Louisville was ranked third and Clemson was fifth, a big enough matchup to bring College GameDay to campus for the weekend. For the former, the ACC nuevo riche, it was a shot at validation. For the latter, it was a chance to re-establish who the big dog was with a very legitimate challenge.
“We looked at it as an opportunity,” said then-Tiger linebacker Dorian O’Daniel, now a Chief. “It was a challenge to show the play and the team who you are, with a player like that on the other side. For us, it was a positive thing, the chance to compete against a great athlete doing amazing things.”
“The atmosphere was insane, and the hype—you could feel it going into the week,” said then-Louisville corner Jaire Alexander, now with the Packers. “The focus and attention was all there. All eyes on us.”
The signs of that were everywhere. Falcons scout Anthony Robinson picked up on ESPN/ABC analyst Kirk Herbstreit introducing his sons to Jackson on the field pregame, giving the veteran evaluator an image cementing the 19-year-old’s arrival as a rock star.
“He saw me, and came right over to them and dapped them up,” Herbstriet recounted. “They were in awe. He was incredibly cool to do that. It made my four boys’ night.”
What followed that was even cooler. And it gave us all signs, in plain sight, and even if we didn’t fully know it then, that what we’ll see on Sunday would be possible. Here then, from that night, are some of those signs.
The wild shootout that took hold late took more than a quarter to commence— the game’s first six possessions ended in punts, and with seven minutes left in the first half the score was still just 7-7. Then came back-to-back-to-back turnovers. One was a Jackson pick, the next a Watson fumble. Billed as a showdown, this looked more like a two-way meltdown.
How those guys dealt with it defined the game.
“He can throw three picks and come back and beat you,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, in comments distributed to a small group of reporters this week. “That’s the mental toughness he has. The next one’s always going in. He might miss three game-winners in a row, but guess what? He’s gonna make the next one. And the biggest thing is he’s not afraid to take the shot. That’s a mindset that the best of the best have.”
“The thing that sticks out most about that game to me was his ability to come back,” Petrino said of Jackson. “In the first quarter, their defense dominated, we didn’t make a lot of plays. They were hitting him, and they had great pass rushers. We were down at halftime. And his ability to lead, to show confidence, to keep everyone playing, amazing. Besides all that talent, his ability to get passion and excitement from his teammates sets him apart.”
There were nine scouts in the house that night (from the Dolphins, Browns, 49ers, Chargers, Jets, Bears, Falcons, Eagles and Titans), and they noticed that too.
Tennessee’s representative was ex-Seahawks GM Tim Ruskell, who had come to see Clemson’s defensive linemen, receivers and tailback Wayne Gallman. The Titans drafted Marcus Mariota the year, so quarterback wasn’t a pressing need. And yet, he can remember taking notes on how Jackson was carrying himself.
“Just his interaction on the sideline with his teammates, not just going to sit down and waiting for his next turn, very hyped up and interactive with receivers, coaches,” Ruskell said. “He was very into the game. I know I made a note of that.”
It sure helped to have that when Watson caught fire at the end of the first half—the aforementioned pick was the Clemson quarterback’s only incompletion of the second quarter, and he threw for three touchdowns in six minutes as the Tigers raced to a 28-10 halftime lead.
Both players brought their teams back from significant deficits on this night. Jackson led a Cardinal surge at the start of the second half, with the visitors running off 26 unanswered points to turn that 18-point deficit into an eight-point lead. In there, Jackson had a third-down touchdown pass on the front end, and a 36-yard run to set up another third-down score, this one an 11-yard run, on the back end.
“Later on in the first quarter, you started to see him get warmed up and get comfortable,” Wilkins said of Jackson. “And then in the second half, that’s when you started to see all of his greatness, his special ability. He’s breaking tackles, he’s spinning off sacks. He looks skinny as possible, he was super wiry strong though. It was pretty impressive, his ability to make people miss—he’s running as a quarterback and he’s got safeties confused on how to tackle him, how to go after him.
“And it looks like he’s jogging, or he’s barely gotten going, and he’s beating everyone down the field. He glides like a deer.”
Watson emphatically responded from there. After a 77-yard kick return from Artavis Scott—Petrino says that return is the play that still haunts him—Watson needed just two plays to get the Tigers into the end zone to close the deficit to 36-34, then piloted an epic eight-play, 85-yard drive to score what would to be the game-winning touchdown. Watson threw touchdown passes to Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett to cap those possessions.
And he did with the kind of level approach he became known for, the same kind that everyone now sees in big moments at the pro level.
“Deshaun always kept a cool demeanor,” said then-Clemson defensive end Austin Bryant, now with the Lions. “No matter how big a game we played, he was always cool, calm, collected, loose, having fun. Nothing was different for him. I feel like moments like that he always thrived—he was at his best when we played games like that. We’d all see his confidence, and how he would handle the situation, and it just trickled down through the whole team.”
What struck the Cardinals while watching their lead melt away was how Watson’s approach was unaffected by the missteps he’d endured earlier in the night.
“He showed resilience,” said Alexander, who had two picks and a forced fumble that night. “He forgot those plays and continued to make contested throws. He had that competitive edge to not let that affect him.”
Dealing with the stakes
Even for Clemson—Death Valley is notoriously loud—the environment was over the top.
“The loudest college stadium I ever played in, it sounded like a plane was taking off in there,” Alexander said. “And when Clemson was running down the hill from the tunnel, and they let balloons go, I was like, ‘Damn, this feels like a movie.’”
That made it the perfect environment in which to evaluate players. It was great for the scouts to see Louisville’s Alexander, and Clemson’s Wilkins, Williams, and Clelin Ferrell—all future first-round picks—in it. And it was even better to get to see the quarterbacks deal with it, because it was analogous to some of what they would be faced with when they got to the pros.
“You put it under the column of, how do they react in a big pressure situation. And, ‘Who is this too big for, and who’s handling this and excelling?’“ Ruskell said. “I think you saw that with both. It was an electric atmosphere. … Really, it was, and I’ve seen a thousand games, it was like nothing I’d ever seen. Just how hyped up it was, which you really don’t have to do that with Clemson fans, but they were extraordinary. It was a big game.
“Obviously the national spotlight was big as well. You knew it was a big game, you knew everyone was gonna be hyped up and ready. OK, so who are the guys who take over in a game like that?”
Ruskell, there to check out mostly to check out guys like Wilkins and Williams, conceded “it was impossible” not to watch the quarterbacks. “It’s much more exciting then watching a center, right? … My eyes would drift. It was like I was at a heavyweight fight to watch the undercard.”
As such, Robinson—working for a Falcons team that had Matt Ryan in the midst of an MVP year—felt compelled to jot down some notes.
On Watson, he wrote: “Mobile, can make all the throws. Not doing a lot of reading, getting to his second or third progression. In most cases, after his first read, he either checks it down or takes off. But he’s really poised and tough. He carries the offense, didn’t seem nervous in the least, or rattled in any way. He’s just a competitor.”
And on Jackson: “A dynamic runner, rare. You don’t see guys like this often. There aren’t many as dynamic as Lamar. He’s so natural. Some guys take off, this guy gets touchdowns. He has a feel for bodies coming at him. He has speed, quickness, can dodge people. Good arm, but not very accurate. His mechanics are all over the place. But he’s dynamic, he can throw it, and he is a quarterback.”
Thinking back to that night, the players Robinson sees now are similar.
“The person he was, the competitiveness, I’m not shocked Deshaun’s been successful,” he said. “Lamar, I thought he’d be a quarterback, but it’d take the right system, the right package, and coaches for him to roll. … He’s got that, and he’s thriving. And he’s gotten better as a thrower.”
How it ended
Ruskell could have spoken for everyone who watched that night when he said, “It seemed like one of those games, whoever was gonna have it towards the end there was gonna be the one that was gonna win.”
But, interestingly enough, that’s not how this one ended. In fact, the guy who wound up stopping Jackson was guy who was playing the role of Jackson earlier in the week.
Indeed, Edmond, who had his practice time earlier in the week eaten into by scout-team quarterbacking duties, was the Clemson player on the spot at the very end. On fourth-and-12 from their own 14, with 40 seconds left, Venables sent six rushers after Jackson. Louisville picked up the blitz, and Jackson calmly dished the ball off to slot receiver James Quick, running a swing route into the flat.
Edmond, the outside corner on the play in zone coverage, peeled off his man, leaving just him and Quick in the open field.
“The whole play happened in front of me, “ Edmond said. “I’d seen it coming, and I was thinking maybe he wouldn’t throw it there, because they need more to get the first down. But he threw it, and for some reason [Quick] went straight to the sideline. Maybe he thought he had it. It made it easier on my end—the sideline was my extra defender, and just went and made sure I got him out of bounds.”
Quick caught it at the 10, but he needed to get to the two. Edmonds pushed him out of bounds at the three, on what was Louisville’s 105th offensive snap of the game. “Yes, and I was in for 80 of those,” Wilkins said. “I remember it like it was yesterday, most snaps I’ve ever played.”
Wilkins said adrenaline had carried him through the game, and it wasn’t until after the game that he felt the effects. Edmond, on the other, credited the coaches for working a tempo offense against the defense in practice. At points in the summer, the Clemson coaches would swap out offensive groups but keep the No. 1 defense on the field as they worked hurry-up packages to condition the defense.
“Our whole thing was make that one play, whatever play it is, feel like it’s the first play,” Edmond said. And so on the biggest play, the Tigers got the stop they needed on what at so many that points that night felt like an unstoppable player.
So Jackson left the loser, and Watson the winner. But in the end, both left a very clear impression at Death Valley that’s remembered as they get ready to lock horns again.
“I’d say they were rare in terms of there really being no holes in their game,” Ruskell said. “When do you find that, right? There’s nothing those guys couldn’t do. And there’s no play that couldn’t become a big play of some sort, with them throwing it or running it or just making something spectacular happen. That’s rare. You don’t see that.”
You did that night. Hopefully, we will again Sunday.
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WEEKEND WATCH LIST
Ravens CB Marlon Humphrey: The third-year pro may be the best player Baltimore has on defense, and it’ll be fascinating to see how he’s deployed against Texans receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller. On paper, Jimmy Smith might be the more natural matchup for Hopkins. We’ll see how DC Wink Martindale decides to play them.
Bears OLB Khalil Mack: The Rams’ offensive line is a mess, and no one in the NFL is more capable of taking advantage of these things than Mack. While he’d normally see right tackle Rob Havenstein most, Chuck Pagano certainly could get creative in finding ways to use Mack to exploit L.A.’s holes at the guard spots.
Chargers QB Philip Rivers: This is where the quarterback has to get a team out of its rut. And with the probability that Russell Okung sits, the burden’s a little bit heavier on Rivers. The Chiefs defense has been pretty up-and-down, so there should be yards there to be had. The flipside? Keeping up on the Mexico City scoreboard with Patrick Mahomes won’t be easy.
Eagles RB Miles Sanders: The Patriots’ run defense struggled a little in Week 8 and a lot in Week 9, and a its crew of linebackers could be exploited with Philly’s faster option at tailback. Remember, in Super Bowl LII, Doug Pederson got New England with Corey Coleman. He could use Sanders similarly in this spot.
Saints WR Michael Thomas: Even when the team has been great (see: last week), Thomas has been (13 catches, 152 yards). He’s been, without question, the NFL’s most valuable receiver in 2019. And now New Orleans needs a bounce back and is up against a Tampa team that just cut starting corner Vernon Hargreaves. So yeah …
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TWO FOR SATURDAY
Georgia QB Jake Fromm (at Auburn, CBS, 3:30 p.m. ET): Fromm’s story is pretty interesting. He beat out Top 5 national recruits – Jacob Eason and Justin Fields – in his first two college seasons. Both Eason and Fields are starring elsewhere and could well become first-round picks over the next two years And yet, questions remain on the last man standing in Athens. “He’s a good player but not super talented, if that makes sense,” said one AFC college scouting director. “Pretty average arm. not a very impressive athlete. Small. It’s the sum of the parts with him. The intangibles are superior to his talent.” An NFC exec added, “ He’s a really solid QB. Definitely are going to be people that knock him for his lack of ‘arm talent”’ and I don’t think he’s elite, but there are plenty of successful QBs with similar arms. He’s smart, tough, poised, makes good decisions and is accurate. For teams that love to push the ball down the field, maybe he isn’t what they ideally want. But the teams that like to get the ball out quick I think will like him.” And in Auburn, he’ll see a defense that will challenge him with pressure, and force him to throw from uncomfortable spots, which make this one good for scouts to evaluate. I’ve heard forever that teams that wanna run their passing game with a lot of volume to it – like New England and Oakland – will love Fromm. Which tells me he’ll do well in the run up to April. We’ll see how far that takes him.
Nebraska CB Lamar Jackson (vs. Wisconsin, Big Ten Network, Noon ET): The “other” Lamar Jackson is an impressive physical specimen, but his play has never quite measured up to how he fills out the uniform. But the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder has managed three picks, 12 pass breakups and a forced fumble through the first nine games of his senior year in Lincoln. “He’s a long and lean press corner,” said one NFC scout. “His speed is average at best, and to me his frame is literally all he has going for him.” “He has really good size for a corner,” added an NFC exec. “He’s a good athlete – smooth and balanced for a guy that big. Lacks elite top-end speed. Can play the ball in the air, and has good ball production over the past 2 years. Wish he were more consistent with physicality and tackling for a guy that big but that can improve with time.” And so therein lie the two major concerns. One is Jackson’s speed, which he can combat with a good 40 time in the spring. Another is his physicality. And this week, with the rugged Badgers coming to town, he can start to answer for that one, in covering Wisconsin’s big-ish receiver group, and contributing in run support against Jonathan Taylor and Co.
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From Luis E De La Cruz (@emilito23): Is Lamar your MVP?
Luis, he’d be second on the theoretical ballot right now behind Russell Wilson, because of Wilson’s ability to lift the players around him up. He’s won his last two games at the wire throwing to a bunch of guys who weren’t on the team at this last year, like D.K. Metcalf, Jacob Hollister and, now, Josh Gordon. In doing so, he and the offense have bought the defense time to work through early problems.
To me, that’s the definition of value—being able to make everyone around you better.
That doesn’t mean Jackson is not on my MVP radar. He affects a defense in so many ways each time he touches the ball. Again, it’s going to be fun to see these two duke it out in the early window on Sunday.
From David Kromelow (@dkrom59): Does Joe Burrow’s performance last weekend against Alabama make him the favorite to be the first QB drafted in April?
Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy was the first person who told me to not count Burrow out of the first-round quarterbacking derby.
“It’s pretty incredible,” Nagy said last night. “You could easily make the case that he’s the most improved player in the country. Based on his junior stuff, he was a third- or fourth-rounder, you’d put him in that Jarrett Stidham/Ryan Finley category, where a team drafts him to be a backup, and if he’s more than that, he’s winning with the right people around him, like Matt Cassel did.
“Now, he’s firmly in the franchise-quarterback category. He’s not only closed the gap, he’s shut the gap down. There is not gap anymore.”
Burrow’s accuracy has improved, as has his ability to work through progressions and see the field. Just as impressive, in his first year in a new offense, he’s assimilated so quickly that he now looks like a guy who’s just reacting and playing, rather than someone out there thinking. I don’t know if that makes Burrow the favorite to go first overall. But I’d say he’s in the running alongside Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Oregon’s Justin Herbert, and—if somehow it’s not a quarterback going first—Ohio State phenom Chase Young.
From Doug Lee (@DougLee10): It was only a year ago the Chiefs and Rams combined for 2,358 points in one game. But going back to last years Super Bowl, seems like league has flipped on a dime and defenses are resurgent. What happened and how so fast?
Interesting, isn’t it, Doug? It takes me back to a conversation I had with Chip Kelly last year about what was going on in the NFL with offense, and he pushed back hard against the word “revolutionary.” As Chip saw it, these advances were part of a larger cat-and-mouse game that’s existed in football forever—he pointed out that a TCU coach by the name of Dutch Meyer was running what we now call RPOs.
Somewhere along the line, other coaches found the fix for Meyer’s old-fangled RPOs, and so he had to evolve. That’s how this works. Jackson, for that matter, isn’t really revolutionary. He’s evolutionary—guys like Randall Cunningham and Steve Young and Michael Vick are legit forerunners for the type of player he’s shown himself to be in the NFL.
So to your question, defenses started to catch up to all the motion and shifting we’ve seen imported from the college game late last year, and the numbers showed it. That doesn’t mean that stuff isn’t sound. It just means another adjustment’s coming. But for now, like you alluded to, it has the NFL’s two best teams through 10 weeks (San Francisco and New England) riding the league’s two best defenses.
From Dexter Johnson (@scandalsavage13): Do you think N’Keal (Harry) makes an impact this season?
Dexter, I’m a little doubtful on that. The great thing about looking at the Patriots now is that we have two decades of track record on them—and one thing that record is fairly bleak on is young receivers. Really, three have made an impact over Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s time together: Deion Branch in 2002. Julian Edelman in ’09 and Malcolm Mitchell in ’16.
All three got nicked up as rookies, but were able to practice pretty consistently through the spring and summer, and into the start of their first seasons. That gave each a foundation in an incredibly complex offense, especially by today’s standards. Harry, conversely, has missed two months smack in the middle of Year 1. So if he makes a big impact down the stretch, that would break 20 years of Patriot precedent.
I’m not saying they can’t get anything out of Harry – because of his size/physical ability, I can see a way they carve out a role for him as a matchup guy. I just think he’s facing an uphill climb to be a major part of the 2019 team.
From Stephen G (@Stephen26497576) What teams on the outside of the playoff picture do you see making a second half run for a playoff spot?
On the AFC side, give me the 5-4 Raiders. They’re relying on a lot of young players, which means there’s reason to believe they’ll continue to improve (as they have to this point). Additionally their schedule is pretty manageable going forward—they play the Bengals this week, and they’re at the Jets next week, which means they should be 7-4 going into Kansas City on Dec. 1. Ten wins is a reasonable target, and that would probably get them in.
The NFC is a little tougher because the amount of very solid teams over there, so I’ll go with who I think is the best four-loss team – the Eagles. They play New England and Seattle the next two weeks, but both those games are at home, and they get the Redskins, Dolphins and Giants twice in December. If they can just split the next two, running off five straight to get to 11-5 is not out of the question.
From Golfer Emoji (@SL_Cricket_Fan): Thoughts on the Bill Callahan/Dwayne Haskins combo for 2020?
I don’t think it happens, Golfer Emoji. Dan Snyder and Bruce Allen (assuming Allen is there in 2020) have a serious issue with the public trust right now and need a hire they can sell. It’s just the reality of where the franchise is right now.
As for Haskins, I still think the world of his potential. But as we saw in Arizona last year, a coaching change can expose a young franchise quarterback. And it’s not impossible that, if the Redskins go to find a splashy name, whoever that name is gains the leverage to demand control over who he’s building around. No, I’m not saying Haskins is out. I am saying that I believe the instability of the football operation there makes his situation, well, unstable.
From DefendTheDen (@Vretz2121): What’s do the Lions do with Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn? One more year or do they move on at the end of this year?
Hey Defend, I’d personally give Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn another year—earlier this year, a few bad breaks kept the team from going on a run to start the season. And I really believe a piece of that is a team’s young core needing to learn how to pull out wins. But it’s very hard to predict what happens next with owner Martha Ford in charge, because she doesn’t have a long enough history at the helm to show whether or not she’ll be patient.
To me, Patricia and Quinn finally have the locker room close to where they want it, with a team that’s been put together in a very coherent way. We’ll see if they get to see the construction of that through. (It’s worth noting that there were rumblings before the season that their jobs were on the line in 2019.)
From Ricardo Sandoval (@Forzap): Will Dak Prescott hold out if he receives the franchise tag instead of a long term deal?
Ricardo, I think Dak Prescott would do well to get franchised. If it’s the non-exclusive tag, at a little less than $27 million (it projects to $26.7 million now), then other teams could sign him to an offer sheet. If it’s the exclusive tag, the tag would be well north of $30 million (Right now, it’s $32.04 million). And in both cases, it gives Prescott an earning floor, strong negotiating leverage against the team, and a chance to take the Kirk Cousins route.
The franchise tag, over the back half of the current CBA, hasn’t been horrible for players. What Cousins did has proven that to a lot of guys. Which is why it’s to see what a nice spot Prescott finds himself in right now.
From Kyle (@suavestish): Is Pat Shurmur on the hot seat and if so, who could be possible replacements for him?
We’ll wrap it up here, Kyle. A week ago, I’d have said no. But owner John Mara’s terse handling of postgame on Sunday, added to the fact that his team lost to the Jets (and that does matter, based on how the Maras feel about their East Rutherford housemates), moves this into the “maybe” bin for the 2020 coach hiring cycle.
A lot of this, it’s my belief, will come down to how Daniel Jones plays over his final six games of 2020. Jones flashed against the Lions and the Jets over the last three weeks, and if he keeps growing within Shurmur’s offense, it gets harder to fire him. If he regresses, and the team keeps losing, I’d say all bets are off.
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