How Lamar Jackson Improved His Accuracy, Scot McCloughan on Drafting Frank Gore

Also, thoughts on the Bengals decision to go back to Andy Dalton, Sean McDermott’s thoughts on Gore, an unsung hero for the 49ers and more NFL notes.
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Lamar Jackson, Frank Gore, Andy Dalton

Week 12 winds down with a good one, so we’ll start there …

• Last week in the wake of word slipping out that ex-Ravens OC Marty Mornhinweg wanted Lamar Jackson to switch positions last year (on ex-Browns GM Mike Lombardi’s podcast), I reached out to Mornhinweg himself. While Mornhinweg emphasized he wanted no such things, he and I got into a pretty in-depth conversation about Jackson—which is the perfect appetizer for tonight’s Rams-Ravens showdown in Los Angeles.

We started with the steps that coaches and Jackson took mechanically to improve the QB’s accuracy. One was what Mornhinweg simply called “wide base, short step.” The coaches noticed Jackson had a bit of a narrow base and Jackson has fixed that. The other was staying open and keeping his right eye, right pec and right hip in a line pointed at his target.

“He worked so hard on that with [QBs coach] James [Urban], every day, pre-practice, post-practice—wide base, short step, stay open!” Mornhinweg said. “He’d throw across his body just a little on occasion, narrow base on occasion, all those things. Throughout the year, you’d look back at him, he’s working at it, and man alive, he made just a huge jump. And you’ve got to give Lamar the credit, because he’s the one ultimately that did it.”

The result? Much improved ball placement. And as Mornhinweg explains it, the coaches didn’t have to worry much about the rest. “He’s so instinctive. O.K., when you evaluate quarterbacks coming out, it’s natural ability and instincts. So you always go, O.K., decision-making, accuracy, timing and then gut instincts. And this guy had all of it.”

• Mornhinweg coached Brett Favre, Steve Young, Donovan McNabb, Jeff Garcia, Mike Vick, Geno Smith—and when watches Jackson now, he sees a little of all of them in him. “He’s got a beautiful mix,” he said. “He’s got the gut instincts of Favre. He’s got the make-you-miss, like Steve Young. He’s got Mike Vick’s speed. He’s got it all together. You remember Steve Young, he built himself into one of the great passers of the football, and that’s where Lamar’s going.”

• As for where Mornhinweg was before the 2018 NFL draft, the coach said he had a huge grade on Jackson when going through the process. “In fact, I split graded him, first time I’ve ever done that with any player. And I gave him a first-round grade at quarterback, and I gave him about the highest grade you could give a guy, or a young player, as a football player. And if you remember my first press conference—‘This man is a quarterback, period.’ I wanted to put that thing to bed. Now, man, he has developed so, so fast.”

Like the rest of us, Mornhinweg has seen it from a spectator’s view this year—he’s taking a year off from coaching up in Montana, and hasn’t missed a Ravens game—and he’s as enthralled as you are by what’s happening, even if he had a little bit better idea of what was coming. “People asked if I’m surprised. Uh-uh, I’m not surprised with anything Lamar Jackson does,” he said. “The words I always used with him from Day 1, from just evaluating him, were just special guy. The guy is special.”

• This may sound weird, but the Bengals’ decision to go back to Andy Dalton makes it more likely that they’ll take a quarterback in April, not less. The whole idea of putting rookie Ryan Finley in was to get a gage on whether or not he might be a long-term starter. That they’re pulling the plug now would indicate the Bengals have their answer, and so it’s full steam ahead towards the 2020 draft.

• In talking to ex-49ers GM Scot McCloughan last night about Frank Gore, the story of how he landed in San Francisco came out—and how the team’s doctors initially failed the U. Miami tailback on his physical. Let McCloughan explain: 

“You go through not every grade [with the doctors], but the ones that were for sure rejects and ones that are close to being rejects. I was in there before the head coach got in there. And I'm sitting with the doctors and I saw Frank, I saw he had a reject grade just barely. I said, 'Fellas, we gotta change this. I'm telling you.' 'Well, that's what we saw.' 'I don't care.' I was young, I didn't know any better. The majority of the time you don't change those grades. The doctors are doctors. Of course, personnel guys aren't doctors. ‘Hey, if it's this close can you look at again for me, please? Really look at it and make sure the grade is right.’ I think they got the idea for what I was trying to say. They changed it a little bit so it's not a negative, it's more of a positive. They did it.” 

This was McCloughan’s first draft in San Francisco, and drafting Gore was a risk—he had reconstructed shoulders and reconstructed knees. But after gathering information at Miami and listening to his good friend, fellow scout and ex-Hurricane Alonzo Highsmith, he was sold that it was worth the gamble. The night before the draft, Gore told McCloughan that he had a promise from one team that he’d be taken in the first round, and another that he’d be taken in the second. McCloughan leveled with Gore—“This is my word to you: we have the first pick in the third and if you're there, I'm taking you.” The other teams passed, McCloughan didn’t. Days later, Gore showed up in McCloughan’s office. “And he was almost teary-eyed and he says, 'You know, all these teams were telling me certain things and you were the only one that was honest to me, I'll never forget that. I guarantee you I'll be the best back in this draft. The best back.'” Safe to say, in a draft that had three backs go in the first five picks, Gore has been.

• Here’s what Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott had to say about Gore: “Frank is a true pro and I consider it one of the biggest honors of my career to coach and just be around him every day,” McDermott texted back.“ His determination, work ethic and passion for the game of football are unparalleled.”

• On Monday night watch how Wade Phillips deploys Aaron Donald. One way to attack an option offense is to get in the backfield fast. That kind of run game is about angles and timing, and penetration blows up both. The problem is that’s tough to do, and risky, against the Ravens offensive line—unless you have a player like Donald.

• An unsung hero of the Niners’ monstrous defensive effort on Sunday night: Veteran safety Jimmie Ward. The 28-year-old had two big pass-breakups on third down and  another third-down stop, and he graded out well across the board. An interesting twist—had the Niners landed Le’Veon Bell rather than Tevin Coleman in free agency, Ward likely would’ve been gone to cut a necessary financial corner. Sometimes, the best deals are the ones you don’t make.

In the MMQB, we brought forth Bears coach Matt Nagy’s opinion that we throw in the towel on a young quarterback too often. The 2016 draft class provides more evidence to back his point. Carson Wentz, perhaps considered the best young quarterback in football over his first two years, hasn’t been quite the same since returning from his ACL injury. Jared Goff was called a bust as a rookie, anointed as a savior after Sean McVay arrived, and now is being doubted again. And Dak Prescott was a revelation as a rookie before hitting bumps in Years 2 and 3, and bouncing back this year. So Nagy has a good point—sometimes, a quarterback’s development doesn’t happen in a straight line.

• When discussing what Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’s comments on Jason Garrett on Sunday night, the Jones family’s strong curiosity in Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley should not be ignored. Many in the building have felt there have been two coaches that Jerry would pull the plug on Garrett for. One is Sean Payton, who just signed a new deal with the Saints and, thus, isn’t available. The other is Riley, a native Texan who’s in a job that’s better than most NFL jobs, but might have trouble turning down a chance to climb on to the Cowboys stage.

• The Raiders’ quick hook on Derek Carr on Sunday was notable. An interesting nugget? Hunter Renfrow’s injury gave the Oakland staff some pause—and the impetus to take Carr out of a game that was no longer competitive.

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