Forget what the rest of us think of Lamar Jackson.
You want to know who really loves the Ravens phenom of a quarterback? The guys blocking for him. And catching the ball from him. And coaching him. And working with him.
It’s the players right next to him.
We hit on part of this in last week’s Monday Afternoon Quarterback—it caught my attention how after Baltimore beat the Patriots in Week 9, Jackson stuck up for tight end Nick Boyle. And I had a similar moment with Jackson again at 4:30 p.m. ET on Sunday afternoon, as he called from a victorious Baltimore locker room with a budding juggernaut around him.
I wanted to talk about another ridiculous performance of his. He had other ideas, and that came out when I asked him what part of the Ravens’ 41–7 blowout of the Texans made him most proud.
“Seth [Roberts]’s first touchdown [as a Raven],” he said, referring to the wideout. “I’ve been wanting him to score his first touchdown forever—since the season started. He finally got it. That was probably my post proud moment of that game.”
“Because he hadn’t scored all year,” Jackson responded. “He’s been doing a great job blocking downfield, but he’s not a lineman and he’s not a tight end. He’s a receiver and he’s always with us. He’s versatile even if he’s not getting the ball.”
Roberts—who played the last four years in Oakland and signed with the Ravens in April, after Oakland released him—has a largely thankless job, as Jackson said. He’d played 322 offensive snaps for the Ravens going into Sunday’s game, and only had 10 catches for 115 yards. That’s the nature of the Baltimore offense, and Roberts understood it, playing the role the team needed him to play.
Bottom line—Jackson noticed it, and wanted to pay Roberts back. With 9:20 left in the first half, he saw the 28-year-old streaking across the back of the end zone and put it between the ones on his jersey (with a little leap from Roberts to assist). Roberts was pumped to make it 7–0. Jackson, even more so—and that was visible in how CBS showed him skipping to his teammate like a kid heading out to recess.
The Ravens were on their way to a rout. And just as important, the guy leading them there was doing it with a firm understanding and appreciation for how they’d get there.
That’s why he wanted the touchdown for Roberts so bad.
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Week 11 is nearing completion and we’ve got a bunch to sort through with you, including…
• Kirk Cousins’ amazing comeback on Sunday—and comeback this season.
• The Tua Tagovailoa injury and all the resulting fallout.
• The Colin Kaepernick workout.
• The NFL’s big return to Mexico tonight.
• Much, much more.
But we’re starting with Lamar Jackson. Because while it feels like we could start every week with Lamar Jackson, this one felt a little bigger, even if he wouldn’t concede it was.
* * *
You heard it all week like everyone else, and we wrote something pretty extensive on it in Thursday’s Game Plan—Sunday’s showdown between Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson, last seen in a 2016 ACC epic between Louisville and Clemson, was going to be a season-defining moment for the teams, the quarterbacks and the league. I was fired up for it. You were fired up for it. We were all fired up for it.
Except, there was one little wrench in all of that. Jackson, as it turns out, didn’t see all of this the way that the rest of us did.
“No, because it's not me competing against him,” Jackson told me. “I want to win versus any team we play. The game is not about the quarterback, the game is about winning at the end of the day. Our team did a great job of performing today and I’m glad we got the victory. It’s never a thing between me and Deshaun. I don’t know where that narrative comes from. We just had a great game in college. We played against each other, but it wasn’t a rivalry game.
“I guess you guys just made it a rivalry.”
So what was he worried about? Getting ready with guys like Roberts. And that’s what has struck me about Jackson since the start—beyond that whole question he had to face coming into the league of whether he could play quarterback, he totally understood what it meant to actually be a quarterback.
You’re judged on your wins and losses. You’re judged on how your teammates around you play. Jackson knows that, which is to say he wouldn’t be caught up in the hype.
And when it came time to play, boy was he ready.
On the Ravens’ third possession, Jackson completed 5 of 6 throws, that last one to Roberts, to march Baltimore 90 yards in 10 plays. On their fourth possession, a pretty 18-yard throw to tight end Mark Andrews on a seam route capped a seven-play, 70-yard drive. And on their fifth full possession, Jackson was again dealing, going 3 for 3, and drawing a 30-yard pass-interference penalty as part of a six-play, 78-yard drive to make it 21–0.
His passing numbers over those 23 plays: 10 of 12 for 129 yards and three touchdowns.
To most of us, that would seem like progress for a quarterback who’s been known mostly for his Michael Vick-level explosiveness as a runner. But when I asked Jackson if this showed growth since the start of the season, or even since college, he pushed back on that, too.
“No, not at all,” he said. “That’s what the offseason is for. I always believed in myself. I’m always confident in myself. Like I said before, probably you guys are the ones saying it. Didn’t believe I couldn’t throw it. I always believed I could throw it. I threw the ball a lot in college. I guess people get so psyched when I’m running, they shy away from the throwing, so it is what it is. Like I said, I always believe in myself.”
We did get a glimpse of who Jackson is as a runner in this crazy performance too, though. On the second play of the possession following the Ravens’ third scoring drive, Jackson took a keeper off the left edge, juked Texans veteran Whitney Mercilus behind the line and accelerated through the teeth of the Houston defense, making defender after defender look foolish—and, for good measure, he lowered his shoulder into safety Justin Reid to punctuate the 39-yard gain.
That showed, again, what Jackson is capable of. Does he want to be out there in high-speed, open-field collisions? Maybe not. Jackson understands the importance of protecting himself. And that’s evidenced by the fact that he only had registered one broken tackle on the season before the Houston game, proof of the job he’s done avoiding contact.
But in the moment, it was him or Reid.
“I couldn’t do nothing then,” Jackson said with a laugh. “There was a guy tailing me on my right side. I was looking at him and then I tried to go and I looked left and 20 (Reid), he was in pursuit and he was already in front of me. So I couldn’t do nothing there, it was make him miss or fall down before I took the hit. Playing football, it happens sometimes.”
How’d he come to peace with it? It’s what his team needed right then. The Ravens wound up getting a field goal to push the score to 24–0. It’d get to 34–0 before the Texans would score.
Jackson, for his part, posted his third straight triple-digit passer rating (17 of 24, 222 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs) and rushed for 86 yards and a score on nine carries. But again, what he was most proud of was getting his teammate who so deserved to get in the end zone that first touchdown of the season.
Which is probably what, if you’d ask them, Jackson’s teammates would say they are most proud of in him.
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MINNESOTA’S ROLL CONTINUES
The headline in the Vikings’ 27–23 win over the Broncos on Sunday is that Minnesota became the first team in the last 100 league-wide tries to come back from a 20-point halftime deficit, and the first team to climb out of that big of a hole while scoring on every second-half possession in 40 years, which is crazy.
But as Kirk Cousins reflected on the win, he saw it more as another step for the team’s much-scrutinized passing offense under first-year coordinator Kevin Stefanski.
In the first half, Broncos coach Vic Fangio got the Vikings a little off-balance with replace rushing (switching coverage players and rushers), pressures and coverage disguise, while his team ran up a 20–0 lead. In doing so, he took Minnesota out of its comfort zone by taking away stud tailback Dalvin Cook early, then making it harder to lean on him later as the Vikings’ deficit grew. Which meant it’d be on Cousins and the passing attack to win the game.
So the Vikings went no-huddle to start the second half, Stefanski got more aggressive with his play calling, and before you knew it, it was a game again.
“There wasn’t an epiphany,” Cousins said. “We just put ourselves in a big hole and we’re going to have to make some adjustments. We still weren’t sure when we were talking in the locker room if we were going to have to go into a hurry-up offense mode or if we could, at least initially, run our offense from the first half. But right before we went out to start the first drive [of the second half], we decided a two-minute, hurry-up type mode was going to be needed.
“And that’s what we did, one play at a time. It helps when your defense only gives up three points in the second half. That makes a big difference, too. They give us a chance to get back in it.”
Here’s what followed in the second half …
• Nine plays, 75 yards, 3:31, touchdown.
• 18 plays, 70 yards, 5:58, touchdown.
• 3 plays, 62 yards, 0:35, touchdown.
• 5 plays, 67 yards, 2:14, touchdown.
Three of those were touchdown passes from Cousins—10 yards to Irv Smith, 54 yards to Stefon Diggs and 32 yards to Kyle Rudolph. Cook had a three-yard touchdown of his own, but for the most part he (26 rushing yards) and the Vikings’ run game (37 yards) were held in check. Meanwhile, Cousins went 17 of 23 for 261 yards in the second half.
That the Vikings showed that they could win without Cook gashing a defense, which is what’s happened all year, was significant, to Cousins at least.
“It’s a work in progress,” he said. “One game, we run for 200 yards and we have 10 pass attempts and another game we have almost 40 pass attempts and run for 37 yards. You have to kind of play the game that’s called and react to what’s going on. I think when you're 8–3 and you’re doing a lot of good things offensively—we’re running the football and converting third downs, and working in screens and explosives to Stefon Diggs—there’s a lot of things to be excited about and feel good about..
“But they don’t get any easier from here. We’ve got three divisional games against good football teams, and we have to go to Seattle and L.A. We’re going to get tested, I’ll put it that way.”
As Cousins watched the end of this one, though, he saw a defense with Harrison Smith, Eric Kendricks, Xavier Rhodes, Anthony Barr and a host of other vets close it out. Seeing how that experienced unit played together served as a reminder of what sort of opportunity is in front of this team.
“We understand we have a lot of pieces in place,” said Cousins. “Why not us?is kind of a thought that goes through your mind. Let’s get it done.There's a lot of good football teams. A lot of people feel really good about what they’re doing. Bottom line is, we’re 8–3, good and bad, we put ourselves in a position to be in the conversation here as we head into December.”
The Vikings, winners of seven of eight, actually don’t play again until December, with their bye followed by that trip to Seattle for a Monday nighter. We’ll find out more about the Vikings then. But Sunday seemed to be an indicator that we already know plenty.
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EXECS (AND A DOC) REACT TO TUA’S INJURY
I’ve struggled to come up with an injury that compares to the one that Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa suffered on Saturday in Starkville, Miss. Notre Dame LB Jaylon Smith’s knee injury in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl is one. Michigan TE Jake Butt also tore his ACL in the final game of his college career, the 2016 Orange Bowl. In ’09 Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford separated his shoulder midway through his last college season. If you want to go further back, there’s Miami RB Willis McGahee blowing up his ACL in January ’03.
But I can’t remember one that had all the elements: the freak nature of the incident, the potential far-reaching impact of the injury itself and the fact that Tagovailoa is a quarterback. And when I canvassed some scouting types I trust last night, the feedback I got was that, at this point, any sort of assessment on where this goes next would be trusted to their doctors.
“There is an evaluation of skill, which there is a TON of film to take into account, and then a totally separate medical evaluation,” texted one AFC college scouting director on Saturday. “And ultimately, it’s the decision-maker (GMs) who get to assess the risk and find a middle ground (or high ground or low ground!) based on both separate evaluations
“From a scouting standpoint, he’s the same QB he was yesterday. His skill won’t change, it’s just a durability plus availability part of this process.”
“It really depends on the severity and recovery time, and long-term prognosis,” another AFC exec said. “As a quarterback, it’s not as significant as it would be if he were a skill player.”
“It affects [his stock] for sure,” a third AFC exec said. “He should come out for sure [obviously]. The story is far from being written—I think this pushes [Joe] Burrow and [Justin] Herbert ahead of him for sure, but barring a Bo Jackson injury, I still think he goes top half of Round 1.”
Teams will certainly tread carefully. Over the course of this decade, I can think of four first-round quarterbacks who came into the league with injury history that led to durability concerns—Bradford, Robert Griffin III, Marcus Mariota and Carson Wentz. All have had medical issues as pros, which illustrates vividly why the concern on this is real.
Tagovailoa has had two ankle surgeries in the last 12 months. He’s not overly big, to begin with. And he plays fearlessly, which is both admirable and a part of the concern.
I did want, in this space, to pass along more on the injury. Since I’m not doctor, I enlisted Dr. Jess Flynn, a sports medicine doctor at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, Mass., with whom I’ve worked on NBC Sports Boston. Here’s her take:
The hip is a ball-and-socket joint. The force of Tua going to the turf directly onto his right knee, combined with the weight of two defenders on top of him, drove his right femoral head (the “ball”) out the back of the acetabulum (the “socket”). As the ball popped out of the socket, the back wall of the acetabulum was broken. A posterior hip fracture-dislocation is a very rare injury that requires a lot of force to happen. Typically, we see it in high-speed motor vehicle accidents when the patient’s knee is driven hard into the dashboard. The injury was a freak occurrence and had nothing to do with Tua’s recent ankle surgery.
Alabama’s team orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Lyle Cain, issued a statement late Saturday that the quarterback’s dislocation was “immediately reduced at the stadium.” This is great news because not all dislocations can be popped back in without surgery. He was airlifted to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Birmingham for further imaging, treatment and monitoring. The team made a second announcement Sunday afternoon that Tua would be flown to Houston for hip surgery Monday morning. It is not unusual to have to transfer an athlete to another hospital for a deep hip surgery like this. Not every medical center has a team of surgeons who specialize in reconstruction of the acetabulum.
This could be a career-altering injury, and the biggest issue is not just the fracture or the dislocation. The real risk is something that could develop over the next few weeks or months called avascular necrosis (AVN). When the hip dislocates, the blood supply to the femoral head can be interrupted. The resulting lack of blood flow causes the bone to slowly “die” and eventually collapse. This leads to loss of cartilage and a painful hip joint that doesn’t move well.
The worst-case scenario for Tua would be that he develops AVN that does not respond to treatment. There are some options to try to manage and contain hip AVN, but no real ways to prevent it. Unfortunately, only time will tell. The reality is that hip AVN could end Tua’s professional career before it even begins. Many have drawn a comparison to Bo Jackson’s hip dislocation in 1990. He developed AVN of his hip that was so severe that he required a hip replacement, ending his NFL career.
But I’m not a big fan of doom-and-gloom stories, so here is the good news: Tua’s hip was reduced almost immediately after the injury. What we’ve learned since Jackson’s inj-ry is that the faster the hip dislocation is reduced, the lower the risk of developing AVN. In fact, if a dislocation is reduced within six hours, the risk of AVN is less than 10%.
The best-case scenario is that he has a successful surgery Monday with minimal damage to the joint cartilage and, because his dislocation was reduced immediately, he avoids AVN. Doctors will likely keep him from putting any weight on that leg for at least the next two months. When he returns to play depends on the complexity and severity of his fracture and whether or not he develops any complications.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to see a way that this injury does not affect Tua’s draft stock. Even in a best-case scenario, the risk of his hip being a long-term issue is significant. For a college athlete who has already had two ankle surgeries in as many years, player durability will most likely be a flag for more than a few teams.
We should reiterate, too, that Tagovailoa’s next decision is whether or not to declare for the NFL draft—something that was considered a foregone conclusion before his injury. And while I don’t know for a fact that he’s taken out an insurance policy, I can say it’s overwhelmingly likely that he did, in part because I’ve heard Nick Saban is very detailed with his players about protecting themselves in that way.
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KAP’S DAY WON'T MOVE THE NEEDLE MUCH
By now, you’ve read plenty of Colin Kaepernick’s workout fiasco in Atlanta on Saturday (and hopefully you read my colleague Michael Rosenberg’s column), and there’s been a lot of side-taking. I don’t think there should be. As I see it, the final outcome of this is pretty simple.
It’s a win for Kaepernick in that, for better and for worse, the athletic ability he had when he last played in the NFL in 2016 is still there.
It’s a loss for him in that any team that was concerned about his ability to blend in with the furniture, which is what NFL teams want their backups to do, has had that concern validated. And any team that doubted his desire to play has more reason to feel that way.
So how did he throw in the workout? I talked to a handful of the teams that had reps in attendance. Here’s what came back:
• The session entailed 60 scripted throws, with no running or agility work.
• His arm strength is still there; he had consistent zip on the ball.
• He kept his endurance through the workout, which shows he was in good shape.
• Accuracy was scattershot, particularly downfield.
• His touch was also inconsistent.
• He had a tight, overly mechanical delivery.
This really was who he was as an NFL player from 2011–16. It’s this skill set that made him a great player in ’12 and ’13 under Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh and with a great team around him, and a much shakier one in his final three seasons as a pro.
Asked to characterize the work, one exec called it a “solid/average Pro Day-style workout.” Another called it “slightly average,” and a third said it was an “average-to-above-average overall workout.”
“He looks the same as he did before,” said one personnel director.
Which is to say whatever you thought coming in, on a number of different fronts, probably didn’t change much.
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WILL THE GRASS BE GREENER IN MEXICO?
The Chargers and Chiefs have every right to enter tonight’s game with their radar up for just about anything that may be wrong with the Estadio Azteca turf. And after last year’s debacle, which led to the Chiefs-Rams epic-to-be being moved back to L.A., the NFL knew it couldn’t afford to take any chances. The Mexican government knew, too, that it had to have this right if it wanted a future with the NFL going forward.
We’ll see what happens tonight. But as the league and the government down there see it at this point, hours from kickoff, so far, so good.
“Our partnership with Televisa (which runs these events) is strong, and on the issue with the field, they were aligned with us in how make it not just better, but A-plus quality,” says NFL EVP/Chief Strategy & Growth Officer Chris Halpin. “They tore up the hybrid field and installed a grass field. They engaged our field consultants. They reduced the volume of concerts, and we didn’t have heavy rains we did last year. It’s a brand-new field.”
That field has been inspected over and over, which you’d expect after the 2018 debacle. Halpin said league staff and/or the NFL’s field consultants have done one or two site visits a month, with a total of about 10 in the books.
And as Halpin spoke, late Saturday, the final touches were being laid down, with the field being painted and prepped for Monday Night Football. While it’d be tough to match what we got last year in the game that Mexico wound up losing, there’s still plenty to look ahead to.
“Game-wise, we’re excited,” Halpin said. “It’s division matchup that matters, (Patrick) Mahomes and the Chargers are both popular there, they’re two teams that know each other, and it’s big moment in both their seasons. And both the Spanoses and the Hunts have been very supportive of our international strategy.”
Assuming this all goes off OK, a few more notes as the NFL wraps its 2019 International Series slate:
• Mexico’s fan base is the NFL’s largest outside the U.S. and is distributed among older, middle-aged and younger fans, with the older set identifying with the Cowboys, 49ers and Packers, and many newer fans rooting for the Patriots and Texans. Halpin reported that five million Mexican boys and girls played flag football through NFL programs this year.
• The game itself will, indeed, look a little different, and ESPN will try to highlight that on TV. One notable difference: the locker rooms are at the top of the stadium, so the players will enter Azteca by coming down a ramp through the stands—almost how Clemson enters Death Valley, but with fans alongside the players.
• The game sold out more than a month ago. That’s not as fast as it happens in the U.K., but for the Mexican market, the NFL’s is an expensive ticket.
• The league and Mexican government are negotiating a deal to continue playing at Azteca (the current deal is up this year), and they are making steady progress towards a two- or three-year deal.
• Both teams are arrived in Mexico City on Sunday and will leave Monday night after the game (getting out on the day of the game had been an issue in the past), with their byes to follow.
• I did ask Halpin, by the way, about the report on the Chargers eyeing the London market. His response: “We are fully committed to growing our fan base through playing games in the U.K., but we have never discussed a Chargers relocation there. That’s just baseless speculation.”
• And as for London, one last leftover: The feedback the NFL got from its fans on the new Tottenham stadium (in which the league made an eight-figure investment) was positive. The league surveyed fans at the two games on their experience (food/beverage, entry/exit, etc.) and got back an average score of 8.5 out of 10. They’d expected in Year 1 at Tottenham that would be closer to 7.5.
Where is this going? The plan for next year is the same. The league will have two games at Wembley and two at Tottenham in London, and it is expecting to have another at Azteca, providing everything goes to plan tonight.
Jimmy Garoppolo was far from perfect on Sunday. He threw two picks and it could’ve been worse. Here’s what matters, though: The 49ers needed him to play the lead role trailing 16–0 to the Cardinals and with a non-existent run game. (Kyle Shanahan conceded Sunday was the first time “I consciously got away from it in the second half, just because it didn’t look like it was going well.”) And with 4:32 left and his team down 26–23, Garoppolo threw a really costly pick. Next? The Niners got the ball at their own 35 with 2:02 left and covered the remaining 65 yards in 8 plays, with Garoppolo going 6 of 7 for 58 yards, with a seven-yard scramble mixed it. Which—yup!—if you do the math accounts for all the Niners’ yards in the game-winning drive.
The Bears have a big decision to make about QB Mitch Trubisky in the spring. By the first week of May, they’ll have to decide whether or not to exercise a fifth-year option for 2021 that would be injury guaranteed and will carry a price tag north of $23 million. As it stands now, it’s hard to imagine Chicago would go through with it. But we’ve seen crazy things with these options in the past. In 2015, the Redskins exercised Robert Griffin III’s option despite serious misgivings within the building. The team wound up having to make Griffin its third quarterback—and a gameday inactive every week—to ensure it wouldn’t be on the hook for a similarly-injury-guaranteed option, which was pretty awkward on a week-to-week basis.
The Bengals are still playing hard. And Joe Mixon is still one impressive running back.
Good step by the Bills, dealing with serious adversity for the first time this year, and controlling a road game (even if it was against the rebuilding Dolphins) for the first time. And nice progress from Josh Allen, going 21-of-33 for 256 yards and three scores, and rushing for another 56 yards on seven carries.
Bright spot in another mess of a Broncos season: The 2018 draft class keeps producing. Courtland Sutton (5 catches, 113 yards) and Philip Lindsay (16 carries, 67 yards), outside of the injured Bradley Chubb, are the headliners, and so there’s a little silver lining for you in the darkness.
Lost in the Myles Garrett mess is that Browns QB Baker Mayfield actually is playing better, even if his numbers don’t always reflect it. He didn’t turn the ball over Thursday against Pittsburgh, and he made a couple spectacular plays (one was the touchdown pass to Stephen Carlson). Mayfield also misfired a bunch, and a lot of those throws, interestingly enough, that he missed on were intended for Odell Beckham.
Another week, four more picks for Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston, who leads the league in interceptions.
Here’s my sense: The Cardinals could fail to win a game the rest of the year, and many there would still feel pretty decent about where the franchise is going versus where it was a year ago. And that’s because of the direction Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray have given it. There was reason to doubt both when they arrived in Phoenix. That doubt’s been replaced with optimism fueled by a coach and quarterback who are competitive before they probably should be, based on the circumstances they came into.
Losing LT Russell Okung tonight is enormous for the Chargers. And that’s even though the Chiefs’ defense isn’t exactly the 2002 Buccaneers’. Trent Scott blocking Frank Clark isn’t ideal.
It’s good for the Chiefs that Patrick Mahomes got a game under his belt before tonight’s showdown in Mexico City. It’s better that, for the first time in a while, they’ll have LT Eric Fisher and RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif in lineup. Kansas City hasn’t had its first line group together playing since September.
Jacoby Brissett didn’t set the world on fire Sunday against the Jaguars, but the performance of the Colts offense, and team, with its quarterback back should serve as evidence of what he’s become for his team. Indy scored 33 points and piled up 389 yards (up from 12 and 300 last week) and easily cruised past the Jaguars, 33–13. And on Thursday night in Houston they’ll play for sole possession of first place in the AFC South.
This hasn’t been the easiest calendar year for Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, fighting for his job in the final season of the five-year deal he signed back in 2015. So I think it’s worth noting, and understanding, how the guy has handled it. This week, Garrett stood before his team and took accountability for what looked like a brain lock from Tavon Austin on a fair-catch at the end of the team’s loss to the Vikings. The truth is, a number of things went wrong in that situation. But if you’ve listened to Garrett over the years, you’d see how he displaces credit and accepts blame—and, as such, in this spot where blame could be spread around, he took it on his own shoulders. And the team bounced back and fought its way to a road win over the Lions seven days later. Afterward, he made the win about everyone else. I don’t know where the Cowboys go from here, or whether Garrett gets a new contract or not. It’s too early to know. But he’s been resilient, and his team has too.
I love the job that Dolphins coach Brian Flores is doing. Still, based on what we saw yesterday with Miami coming back to earth in a 37–20 loss to the Bills, I can’t shake the feeling that the quick two-game win streak could cost them in the long run. As we’ve mentioned in this space, the Jets’ 3–2 start in 2017 wound up taking its toll on the franchise. They had to spend three second-round picks (their slotted ones in consecutive years, plus one they acquired for DT Sheldon Richardson) to go up three spots, from six to three, to get Sam Darnold as a result of that early-season surge.
Something isn’t quite right with Eagles QB Carson Wentz, and it isn’t just what’s around him. He’s not playing as decisively as he used to, which could be a result of doubt creeping in—whether it’s doubt in himself, the system or the guys around him. Either way, this doesn’t seem like the same guy who was an MVP candidate in 2017.
Here was one Panthers coach’s take on the Falcons after Atlanta stunned their NFC South rivals 29–3 on Sunday: “Man, they’re playing hard.” That’s a credit to Dan Quinn and his staff, finding a way to keep a team that started 1–7 on board. And it’s also a credit to Quinn that when I reached out to him late Sunday to figure out what has gotten into this team, he answered: “Players. Players. Players. Great job of prep and focus.” Maybe it won’t buy him another year. But it sure is impressive the job he and his reconfigured staff have done the last two weeks coming out of their bye.
I know the Giants have said they’re not shutting down Saquon Barkley. I also understand he doesn’t want that. But I would seriously think about it if I were them. The odometer’s always running on a tailback, and this is an awfully special one. And I’d hate to see his mileage going at the end of a season like this one.
We can talk about Nick Foles until we’re blue in the face, but if you’re a team that’s as invested in your defensive front as at the Jaguars are, having an afternoon like they did against the Colts is downright embarrassing. Indy bellcow Marlon Mack went for 109 yards on 14 carries, and he wasn’t even the team’s leading rusher. Jonathan Williams—on the team’s practice squad less than a year ago—was, going for 116 yards on 13 carries. In all, the Colts rumbled for 264 yards at 7.3-yards-per on the vaunted Jacksonville front.
Give Jets QB Sam Darnold credit for this: He threw for 293 yards and four touchdowns and had a 121.2 passer rating—and none of the four guys who had multiple catches were on the roster on Presidents Day. Add that to the condition of the line, and Darnold’s play against a bad Redskins team should be classified as an interesting step.
The Lions legitimately could’ve been 5–0 in mid-October—their tie with the Cardinals should’ve been a win, they dropped a heartbreaker to K.C., and they got screwed on a Monday night against the Packers. And it’s not hard to envision how that might’ve meant different things for Matt Patricia and Co. in Year 2. Instead, they’re 3-6-1, with any hope of the postseason on life support.
With the Packers’ bye here, this is a good place to give second-year GM Brian Gutekunst credit for the job he’s done, something the coaches there have taken notice of. It’s what he’s done with the high-end capital, of course—free-agent adds such as linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, and first-round picks CB Jaire Alexander and safety Darnell Savage. But it’s also getting guys like OL Elgton Jenkins in the second round. Jenkins’ presence was mammoth when LG Lane Taylor got hurt, and now it’s clear he’s going to have a significant role on the line going forward regardless of who’s healthy and who’s not.
Panthers QB Kyle Allen finally had thatgame, throwing four picks. For the Panthers, getting blown out was confusing in a 2019 Falcons kind of way (with all that talent, how does this happen?)—which is funny because that’s who they played.
The Patriots defense allowed 147 yards on Philly’s first three possessions. The next 10: just 108. The Eagles went punt, fumble, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, turnover on downs, end of game, picking up only 11 first downs along the way as New England won 17–10. And the offense? Well, New England can’t run the ball and can’t protect Tom Brady, and the line is a shell of what it was last year. Second-year pro Isaiah Wynn (toe) is eligible to return from IR next Sunday. And I can’t remember a Bill Belichick team ever so needing such an inexperienced player. Wynn, the team’s left tackle, has 82 career snaps under his belt.
Raiders RB Josh Jacobs went for 112 yards on 23 carries on Sunday, WR Hunter Renfrow had five catches for 66 yards, TE Foster Moreau finished with two catches for eight yards, DE Maxx Crosby had four (!) sacks, a forced fumble and five tackles, CB Trayvon Mullen had a pick and DE Clelin Ferrell registered a tackle in a 17–10 win over the Bengals. All are members of GM Mike Mayock’s first (and last) draft class in Oakland as the team gears up to go to Vegas.
Ramsdefensive coordinator Wade Phillips can take a bow. He’s dealt with changing personnel the last few years—including in-season (swapping out cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib for Jalen Ramsey)—and his group has propped up a struggling offense of late to put the team back in contention. L.A. has won three of four since the loss to the Niners, and Phillips’ group has yielded 10, 10, 17 and 7 points in those games. The Ravens, by the way, are next. And speaking of them....
We focused on Lamar Jackson above, and he deserves it. But the Ravens’ transformation defensively has been nothing short of remarkable. A group that was a liability earlier in the year (understandable with the departures of CJ Mosley, Terrell Suggs and Eric Weddle) has once again become a strength. Watson got shut out in the first half, something that didn’t happen to the QB in college and hasn’t happened to him since. And Houston wound up with just 232 yards from scrimmage. Good work by Wink Martindale.
When you lose by 17 at home to the Jets, it’s probably time to start over. So where do the Redskins begin?
I’ve said that Saints receiver Michael Thomas is the sport’s best at his position, and it’s crystal clear right now, if it wasn’t before. His 94 catches are 19 more than any other player has. His 1,141 yards are 147 more than what anyone else has. And, really, he’s done this consistently over the last three years, which is a why a franchise that never previously paid a skill player more than $10 million per year gave him nearly $20 million.
Lest we forget that Russell Wilson has a great MVP case while he’s on his bye, I looked this up on the Seahawks QB: He threw to five guys in overtime last week against the Niners, and only two were on the team at this point last year. One of those two is lead tailback Chris Carson. The other is Malik Turner, who signed in the summer of 2018 and has gone back-and-forth between the practice squad and active roster since (he appeared in just six games last season). The other three? DK Metcalf was drafted April 26. Jacob Hollister was traded for on April 29. Josh Gordon was claimed off waivers on Nov. 1.
For everything that happened the other night, and the job everyone’s done the last month, it really looked like the Steelers were limited playing from behind against Cleveland, which is largely because Mason Rudolph is the triggerman. It’s a shame, too, because it looks like that defense is finally back, all these years after the Troy Polamalu Era guys moved on.
The most troubling thing about the Texans’ loss was, without question, the performance of the renovated offensive line. Given the investment in that area, and how they’d played prior, I’m sure they know it’s gotta be better. Especially with the full group back together, and the bye week to prepare for Baltimore.
I’m excited to see where the Titans take Derrick Henry from here. He’s at 832 yards through 10 games and has been a mold-breaker at the position with the size he brings to table. That fits perfectly with what Mike Vrabel wants his team. Go back to the end of the Kansas City game on the Nov. 10 and you’ll see a defense that didn’t want to tackle him anymore.
One of the quiet bargains in football: Vikings DE Danielle Hunter. He’s a consistent force, sitting at 8.5 sacks going into his bye week as the focal point of the Minnesota pass rush, and is on a deal for nearly $10 million less than what Bears OLB Khalil Mack makes. That shows you how getting aggressive in tying up your own can reap long-term benefits.*
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1. Myles Garrett is suspended for the season.You know it’s been a pretty newsy week when Garrett bashing Mason Rudolph in the head with the QB’s helmet gets knocked all the way down here in the column.
The Browns DE is appealing the suspension, and part of this is to protect the rights of all players. The NFLPA has some belief that indefinite suspensions in cases like Garrett’s are impermissible. There really are two sides to this—there’s Garrett himself, a mild-mannered guy off the field, who flips the switch on when he steps on the field (I remember ex-Dallas pass rusher DeMarcus Ware being that way). And there’s his history, which isn’t exactly clean on the field—he punched Titans TE Delanie Walker after the whistle in Week 1, and ended Jets QB Trevor Siemian’s season on a late hit in Week 2.
2. Mason Rudolph isn’t even out for a game. I think suspending Garrett and Steelers C Maurkice Pouncey was pretty much automatic. All the same, I saw the offenses of Rudolph and Browns DT Larry Ogunjobi as not quite meriting suspensions on their own, but I’d understand suspensions given the circumstances. So I’d have been fine with suspending both, or not suspending either. But I thought it was a little unfair to suspend Ogunjobi and not Rudolph. And I think, for the league, it unnecessarily re-opens a can of worms regarding how quarterbacks are protected and defensive players are not. Just my opinion.
3. Another pass interference debacle. Because the final score was 41–7, it may not get the attention it otherwise would, but we shouldn’t forget the weirdness of Texans coach Bill O’Brien losing a challenge on what looked like clear interference by Ravens CB Marlon Humphrey on Houston WR DeAndre Hopkins. That challenge was on a fourth-and-two from the Ravens 33, and would’ve move the ball to the one, and given the Texans a chance to go up 7–0 in the first quarter. After the game, Hopkins tweeted, “We need someone new in New York deciding calls.”
After watching this for 11 weeks, I’d agree. I know some coaches feel like Al Riveron’s crew on Park Ave. wanted no part of the PI review system in the first place and are suspicious that it’s being sabotaged. What’s played out doesn’t exactly kill that theory.
4. Todd Gurley’s workload spikes. Nobody would call Gurley’s Sunday a career night, mostly because his track record sets the bar pretty high. But his workload sure was notable, as was the burst he seemed to have back. A the stout Bears defense, Gurley ran it 25 times for 97 yards, and had three catches for 36 yards in a 17–7 Rams’ win. The 28 touches from scrimmage are nine more than he had in any game thus far this year, and his most in over a year (had 31 against Green Bay on Oct. 28 of last year).
“I guess I felt like the old Todd,” Gurley told reporters after the game. "But it's cool, man. I'm just happy I was able to go out there and take advantage of my opportunities." Getting him back close to where he was would be huge for a team that, like we said, suddenly sees its strength in its defense. The Rams, by the way, will have a decision to make on Gurley in March, when another $10.5 million in his contract for 2020 becomes fully guaranteed.
5. Tom Brady frustrated with the Patriots offense.I wouldn’t dismiss Brady being short with the media after New England’s 17–10 win in Philly. Yes, the Patriots wound up on the right side of the score. But someone as insanely competitive as Brady doesn’t suddenly shut that off when he turns the page from team performance to individual performance. And clearly, he’s not happy with how he and the offense are playing. Better than maybe anyone in league history, Brady knows what it feels like to be performing at a championship level, both individually and as a group, and it sure seems like he thinks he and his guys have a ways to go to get there.
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BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Not sure this is where I expected this perspective to come from, but Spade’s right.
I have no idea what’s happening here.
I really do wanna know how that ball just popped out of the pile like it was shot out of a JUGGS machine.
Great commitment on the road from Bengals fans.
And finding them... Less challenging than finding Waldo.
They have objectives!
Very nice work, by Zeke.
I know it’s not NFL, but I’m a sucker for the Iowa wave.
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SIX FROM SATURDAY
1. Love this from Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts after he brought the Sooners back from a 28–3 deficit to win 34–31 at Baylor. "I put us in a horrible situation, and we found a way to come back,” Hurts told ABC’s Maria Taylor postgame. “I love it." I’ve heard about coaches telling their quarterbacks that success has to be “we” and failure has to be “me”. And Hurts illustrated that here, which is probably why the people at both Oklahoma and Alabama, where he transferred from, hold him in such high regard.
2. I don’t think Hurts is a first-round pick, which would mean Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley’s streak of first-round quarterbacks will be snapped. That said, it sounds like the QB may have played himself into consideration to be a Day 2 pick. One veteran evaluator said, when I asked, that “Dak-ish range” sounds right at this point. (Dak Prescott was an early fourth-rounder).
3. Take this to the bank: Both the guys coaching in that game will get interest from the majority—if not all—of the teams with openings in January. Both Riley and Matt Rhule are worth a look. And Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, whose team beat Texas Saturday, is a third Big 12 coach who should be in the mix.
4. Iowa’s AJ Epenesa’s big fourth-quarter sack gave the junior defensive end a flash moment in a huge spot, as the Hawkeyes dealt Minnesota its first loss. That’s nice, because his reputation has been more of a good-not-great player. The comp I’ve heard for Epenesa: Lions DE Trey Flowers.
5. We mentioned Georgia true freshman DE Nolan Smith’s limitless potential here a few weeks back. You can throw his classmate Travon Walker—another defensive lineman—into that category too. The amount of young NFL talent that Kirby Smart has assembled on that roster is pretty impressive. You’ll be hearing plenty about Smith and Walker, in an NFL context, over the next few years.
6. It sure looks like Justin Herbert has hit his stride, putting together another dominant performance late on Saturday night as Oregon trounced Arizona. You can see a lot of what there is to like about Herbert on this throw. He may have fallen out of the national conversation a little bit, but trust that NFL teams are paying very close attention to how well he’s playing. He’s not perfect—his footwork and pocket presence need improvement—but there’s a lot to work with there.
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MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
Each week, we’ll hit a player set to climb atop the Monday Night Football stage to get answers to a few questions. This week, Chargers Pro Bowl DE Joey Bosa.
MMQB: You’ve only played Patrick Mahomes once. What’s the No. 1 thing you take away from it?
JB: I think the No. 1 we have to focus on as a D-line is to affect him, whether that’s getting in his face, getting him to throw a bad ball, getting your hand up and batting down balls and then, obviously, with sacks. But in that game, and every other game he’s played, he showed that he’s an unbelievable talent. What he can do with his arm, it’s a special thing. So we just have to do our best to affect.
MMMQ: Because he can extend plays and throw from weird angles, does that change anything for a defensive lineman?
JB: Yeah, obviously when you go against a good player it’s different than going against somebody who isn’t. But I mean, it’s still the same concept, you gotta rush him, keep him in the pocket, affect him—however you can.
MMQB: And the challenge of their offense, with the scheme and speed?
JB: It’s the pieces they have—[Travis] Kelce, 10 [Tyreek Hill] and 17 [Mecole Hardman]—two guys that can fly down the field. And then obviously you have Mahomes, he does a really good job of getting the ball to the people that can hurt you. And Andy Reid does a really good job calling up plays that’ll do that. We know these guys are dynamic players who can make plays. They just are, and they’re going to get a play here and there. We’ve just got to do our best to limit it.
MMQB: Have you thought about what it would be like if you can run off a few wins and start to get a few guys, like Russell Okung or Derwin James, back from injury?
JB: Russell, like you mentioned, is a huge help, hopefully we can get him back out there. And then Derwin, you can’t say enough about that guy. He’s truly a game-changer. So getting him back—and the way he’s looking, he’s looking great out there running around—we’ll see. Obviously we’re never going to push him.
MMQB: Last time you were in Mexico?
MMQB: Anything you’re excited to see down there?
JB: Well, we’re getting there the day before the game, then we’re playing. So I’m going to go to sleep, wake up, play and go home.
MMQB: Are you worried about the surface?
JB: We’ve been hearing some things about it. Obviously, we’re going to prepare with the studs, bring some different cleats and stuff. It’s a tough situation. There’s not really much you can do about the field, other than put on some longer studs or whatever. We’ll see how that goes.
MMQB: Anything that’s gone into staying healthy this year after missing half of last season?
JB: I think my foot thing [a bruised bone suffered in training camp] was a freak accident. Other than that, I would’ve had a great, healthy year. But I felt like I was in really good shape starting last year, and obviously with the injury, it declined a lot. I’ve just been staying with my routine. The foot thing—I’ve switched cleats and it’s really made a huge difference for me being comfortable with my feet. The foot pain just went away, because I was still dealing with it pretty significantly going into OTAs this year. I switched cleats and that’s definitely helped a lot. So that’s definitely a suggestion: If you’re feet are bothering you, try different cleats. Trust me.
MMQB: What’s the difference in the cleats?
JB: The cleats I’m in now are just much wider, well-made, move with your feet more. I’m not going to say names to badmouth anyone, but there’s not a lot of really good cleats out there. They’re not looking to take care of players, they just want to put out products and make a bunch of money. There’s definitely better ones now, for sure. You just want to look for one that’s wide enough to fit your feet, and one that bends with your feet, rather than having points in it that just bend normally, because the material they use bends when it wants, it doesn’t bend with your feet. This mesh material I have is a lot better. That’s my biggest suggestion, I’d say.
MMQB: I had a couple people tell me they’d vote you Defensive Player of the Year. Are you playing your best ball?
JB: I’d say I probably am, but there’s still a lot out there, a lot of missed opportunities. I’m playing good football. I’ve definitely had some off games this year, but I’m proud of myself and how I’ve played this year, I can at least say that.
MMQB: Have you gotten to watch your brother [49ers rookie Nick] much?
JB: Oh yeah, he’s great. It’s literally not even kind of a surprise at all.
MMQB: Are you guys competitive with each other at all?
JB: Yeah, it’s probably more of an unspoken competitiveness than us actually getting after each other. It’s really just trying to help each other, learn from each other’s mistakes and stuff.
MMQB: So you watch him on tape? I assume it’d be hard to watch live because of your schedule.
JB: I’ve watched some games of his live, and he’ll send me clips here and there. I mean, I’m not breaking down his film, I’m not watching whole games, I’m watching it here and there if I get a chance.
MMQB: More like watching as a fan then?
JB: Watching as a fan, but intently watching him only.
MMQB: There’s another guy coming out this year, in Chase Young. I know you didn’t play with him, but I’m sure you know what he is as a player. You feel a certain pride in what you started at Ohio State, where now all these dominant defensive ends are coming out of there?
JB: Shoot, it’s definitely not my legacy. It’s [OSU defensive line] Coach [Larry] Johnson’s legacy. He’s been doing this for a long time. And he is the best. He’s the man that’s doing it. Not me.
MMQB: What makes him so good?
JB: Just technique. He knows pass-rush technique better than anyone I’ve ever met. I love working with [Chargers defensive line] Coach Giff [Smith] here, obviously. But Coach Johnson, his technique is really, at least to me, on another level. I can come to him and ask him an extremely specific question and he’ll have an answer. I’ve really never talked to anyone like that. Just watching our pass-rush styles, everything me, Nicky and Chase have learned is from him. He’s obviously doing something right.
MMQB: You have an opinion on who the best of the three is?
JB: Well, I have to say me, obviously. But they’re both pretty good.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Why am I excited about tonight? The most interesting standings in the NFL:
So if the Chargers beat Kansas City in Mexico City, the Raiders will be in sole possession of first place. The Chargers will be just a game-and-a-half out with a week off coming up, and aforementioned reinforcements on the way. And even the Broncos would be just three games out.
And if the Chiefs win? Well, then they’d be positioned to make a run at a bye in December.
Either way, the game tonight should be fun, and the result will have serious implications.
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