Who Cares About History? Michael Thomas Belongs in the MVP Conversation

The Saints wideout, who is having a season for the ages, showed he can’t be stopped—even when everyone in the building knows the ball is coming his way. Plus, Frank Gore continues to amaze, Mitchell Trubisky continues to develop and the zebras continue to confound.
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Michael Thomas, Mitchell Trubisky, Frank Gore

After the Saints’ 11th game of the year, after Michael Thomas somehow had crossed the 100-catch and 1,200-yard thresholds for the season already and after New Orleans moved to 9–2, I had a question for this full-fledged superstar.

Did the 26-year-old know who was the last player at his position to win NFL MVP? 

He paused for a second.

“Nope, no receiver has,” he answered.

Should one in his circumstances be considered?

“You tell me,” he said, laughing. “Should I be considered?”

A couple days ago, Saints coach Sean Payton went on Pro Football Talk’s podcast with Mike Florio and made the case that because Patriots receiver Julian Edelman won Super Bowl MVP last February, there’s no reason why a receiver shouldn’t be able to win the regular-season award. And while I don’t think it will happen in 2019, it’s hard to have a better case than Thomas does heading into the last month of the season.

The numbers, of course, are all there. Just by hitting the marks he did Sunday, with five games to go, he became the fifth receiver in NFL history to reach 100 catches and 1,200 yards in three straight years. He’s on pace for 151 catches, which would break Marvin Harrison’s single-season record by eight grabs. And his current yardage total projects to 1,806 yards over 16 games, putting Calvin Johnson’s record of 1,964 within reach.

But there’s more than the numbers to think about here. There’s the fact that it’s happened despite Thomas losing future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees for a month-and-a-half, and then there are moments like one in particular late Sunday after that set him apart. The Saints had blown multiple double-digit leads, and were tied with the Panthers at 31. Thirty-seven seconds remained in regulation, the ball was on the New Orleans 36, and it was third-and-six.

It didn’t take Tony Romo on the call to forecast where the Saints wanted to go with the ball. Everyone in the Superdome knew, from Panthers coach Ron Rivera, to the guy up in section 635. And Payton went to him anyway, and Brees too, which is about as strong a sign of confidence in a player that a coach and quarterback can show.

“My number was called,” Thomas said. “Game was on the line and my team needed to move the ball down the field. It was a crucial down and I feel like that's why they brought me here, to make plays like that. I take full responsibility to be able to execute and respond in a clutch situation for my teammates. I love them. I'm grateful for the opportunity to do that."

And do it, he would.

***

It’s Thanksgiving week, and playoff races are taking shape, and we’ve got all of the details for you in this week’s MMQB. Among the stuff we’ll be covering …

• How another officiating mess marred an important game in Foxboro.

• Matt Nagy’s continued confidence in Bears QB Mitch Trubisky.

• The Niners’ fearsome defensive line delivering again.

• An old friend of Frank Gore’s offers appreciation for the venerable back’s milestone day.

But we’re starting with that moment in the Superdome, when everyone knew who was getting the ball in the biggest spot, and nothing could be done to stop it.

***

“Pump it,” Brees instructed Thomas in the huddle.

Those two words, on this third-and-six, were, for the most part, all the quarterback or receiver needed to hear to carry out the plan. The play call had Thomas split to Brees’s right side, running a “sluggo” (slant-and-go) route. By saying “pump it,” Brees was telling Thomas to sell the slant and he’d pump fake the cornerback, hoping to get him to bite so Thomas could run past him.

It sounds simple, of course. But you need to be a skilled route runner and need to have the timing with the quarterback to make it work—luckily, Thomas has all of that. When Thomas broke inside to his left about 10 yards downfield, Panther corner James Bradberry came down on him, and Thomas accelerated towards the right boundary. Brees floated one outside of Thomas, and away from Bradberry. Thomas easily snatched it for a 26-yard gain. Game over.

“I got past [Bradberry], I knew what time it was,” Thomas said. “I was ready for the moment. We practice that rep week-in and week-out. We get a lot of reps during practice, my coach is always hard on critiquing me how to run that route to the best of my ability. I was ready for the moment."

Five plays and 25 yards later, Will Lutz was knocking through a 33-yard chip shot to win it.

And really, Thomas has been ready for these moments the whole year, which is pretty cool considering that he just signed a five-year, $96.25 million contract extension. That kind of life-changing money might cause some to kick their feet back—but not Thomas, who has been the same competitor he ever was, which is the sort of approach that attracted the Saints brass to him in the first place in 2016, when they drafted him with the 47th (!) overall pick out of Ohio State. And he may have become even more of a competitor when Brees injury put things in perspective for him—helping to illustrate what the quarterback had meant to his career through three-plus years.

“I don’t take that for granted, the position that I'm in. I love Drew to death,” Thomas said. “Playing for the guy next to you, we talk about that a lot in our locker room. I definitely want to take him where deserves to be. I know it's a process. I know we’re not there yet.”

ButThomas has played a major role in keeping the Saints on that path—and this is where the MVP conversation comes in.

Quarterback injuries have sabotaged plenty of perfectly good seasons. But when Brees went down with a thumb injury during a Week 2 loss to the Rams, the Saints won their next four without him. Teddy Bridgewater and Sean Payton get a ton of credit for that, and Thomas should too. His production in those five games without Brees (42 catches, 551 yards, 3 TDs) isn’t much different it has been in six games with him (62 catches, 691 yards, 2 TDs), which is a testament to how he has accepted the added responsibility.

He’s done it, too, despite getting different things thrown at him by defenses on a weekly basis. “They’re trying, again, week-in and week-out,” Thomas said. “But we have other players on the offensive side of the ball that are explosive, that can make big plays and create big matchups. We keep them honest with that and that’s what’s great about having a guy like Sean, and Drew at quarterback—because they’re going to keep everyone honest.”

But really, the aforementioned moment was a little different than that. It was a dominant player showing just how unstoppable he’s become. Again, everyone knew where the ball was going, but the Panthers didn’t have a prayer of stopping the inevitable.

“I guess you could say that, I wouldn’t want to say that,” Thomas said. “I’d rather let the defender or the person that I’m going against or a defensive coordinator find out about it and figure that out. I just want to go out there and execute and be at the right place at the right time for my teammates and add a great value for this offense. That’s all I’ve been trying to do."

How much value? Well, he might not be the most valuable player in the league. But there’s no question how much he means to a really good Saints team that should keep getting better as we approach January. And when we get there, it sure stands to reason that what he did on this November day will have had a lasting affect in where a game is played or how the teams are seeded.

That says a lot about Thomas’s standing both at his position and among all players.

***

WHAT A STRANGE TRIP IT WAS

We probably should’ve come out of the Patriots’ 13-9 victory over the Cowboys talking about New England’s fabulous defense, which now hasn’t allowed a touchdown in six quarters. Or about how the Cowboys couldn’t quite get over the hump in really horrible playing conditions in Foxboro.

Instead, the main takeaways leaving the game really centered on two areas: officiating and coaching. How so?

• A dubious tripping call on Dallas LT Tyron Smith helped to pin the Cowboys deep in their own territory on their third possession, which led to a blocked punt by Pats special teams ace Matthew Slater. The block gave New England possession at the Dallas 12, and the only touchdown of the game was scored two plays later.

• An almost identical tripping call, just as shaky as the first one (and this one on RG Zack Martin), came on the other end of the game, right after the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter. It negated a third-down connection between Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Eliiott, which easily covered the one yard left to the sticks and created a third-and-11. The Cowboys turned the ball over on downs two plays later and wouldn’t get it back until there was one second left on the clock.

• After the game, Dallas owner Jerry Jones aggressively criticized the team’s performance and his coaching staff’s performance in the loss. “I don’t think there’s a game where a coaching staff couldn’t do better,” Jones said. “I don’t like that we’ve got so many [this year] as I’m standing here tonight.” Garrett, in case you didn’t know, is in a contract year.

• The one decision that will stick with Garrett? On fourth-and-seven at the Patriots’ 11 with 6:08 left, the Cowboys coach elected to kick a field goal down 13–6, rather than going for the end zone against the No. 1 defense in football. The kick cut the deficit to 13–9. The Dallas offense didn’t do so much as cross midfield again.

So as for the Patriots? They were awesome defensively, and Tom Brady got a lot of work with rookie receivers Jakobi Meyers and N’Keal Harry. And they travel to Houston next, with a home game against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs after that.

Speaking of the 2017 draft’s quarterbacks.…

***

MATT NAGY IS STANDING BY HIS MAN

QB Mitchell Trubisky’s raw numbers were significantly better in the second half of the Bears’ 19–14 win over the Giants than they were in the 30 minutes before the break.

First half: 13 for 23, 107 yards, INT

Second half: 12 for 18, 171 yards, TD, INT

But the truth? As Matt Nagy sees it, the truth is a little different. In the first quarter, Trubisky hit TE Ben Braunecker deep for what should’ve been a 29-yard touchdown, only to see the fourth-year pro drop it; four plays later, Trubisky threw a pick inside the 10. Then on the Bears’ next possession, a hands-to-the-face flag on guard Cody Whitehair wiped out a 60-yard connection from Trubisky to Allen Robinson.

If you add those two plays in, Trubisky’s numbers look different, which is why the Bears coach disagreed with the idea that much changed for his quarterback in-game against the Giants. In fact, in the moment, he just wanted Trubisky to stay the course.

“We’re moving the ball and we had the drop up the seam that was going to be a touchdown, you have a 60-yard pass completion where he makes a good throw—he’s playing well,” Nagy told me. “All of a sudden, we have a hands-to-the-face penalty. … You have to be a little bit careful throughout this whole thing when you’re going through this and evaluating everything. We’re looking at the whole and not just the part.”

Trubisky’s whole year has been marked with some ups and lots of downs. And expectations born of a great first year with Nagy at the helm falling by the wayside. Trubisky’s passer rating is down from 95.4 last season to 82.2, his completion percentage from 66.6 to 62.4, and the team that went 12­­–4 last year is fighting to stay alive in a crowded NFC playoff race at 5–6.

And yet, while Nagy’s not thrilled with all that, he hardly sees a quarterback broken.

“We’re in this instant-gratification world, and right now when you have a team with the defense that we have and high expectations, everyone wants it now,” Nagy says. “Everyone’s patience level isn’t there as much as you might wish. I go back to a bunch of Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks, and a lot of quarterbacks that have had success in this league that had their struggles early on in their career.

“It happens everywhere. Does that make [the criticism] right or fair? No. Times have changed, but that’s where we need to understand as you go through this thing, you’ve got to be fair on all levels. What I do is I look at it, from the coaching side—are we improving?”

For now, Nagy thinks Trubisky is.

In a win over Detroit and the loss to the Rams, the coach saw the quarterback’s decision-making process as clean and his execution as solid. Nagy’s sense—and he didn’t want to say so definitively until he watched the tape—is that it continued in Sunday’s win.

In the end, it’s more experience that Trubisky really needs.

“How many games did he play in college? I think he played 12 or 13 games in college,” Nagy says. “Then he came in after Week 4 his first year, as a rookie, and let me just tell you what that’s worth, playing as a rookie. You can take that experience, and you don’t remember much of your rookie year. Now, here you are and a coach comes in with a new offense. You’re essentially, in my opinion, a rookie all over again, right? That’s last year.

“Four or five games into the year, you have a good game, all of a sudden, the expectations are you’re going to do this every game. And it couldn’t be further from the truth. Again, look at quarterbacks that have been successful in this league, that are still playing in this league, [they] had some rough years, those first three years—I’m talking about rough.”

And Trubisky now has experienced that. I don’t know if he’ll make it out the other side as the Bears quarterback in 2020. But I can say this: Nagy and Co. seem pretty confident of it.

***

Buckner and his Niners teammates dropped Rodgers five times.

Buckner and his Niners teammates dropped Rodgers five times.

THE NINERS LAY IT ON THE LINE

Aaron Rodgers, you’ll remember, quarterbacks the Green Bay Packers. Here are the Packers’ offensive stats through one half of yesterday’s loss to the 49ers in Santa Clara.

Total Yards: 60

Passing Yards: 51

Rushing Yards: 9

Third down: 0 for 9

First downs: 5

Points: 0

So I apprised Niners DL DeForest Buckner of this just after San Francisco’s 37-8 win on Sunday Night Football.

“Geez,” he said.

Then I asked if he thought the Niners’ defense was capable of that kind of thing.

“We know we’ve got the guys on defense to have games like this,” Buckner said. “We knew what we were capable of and we just wanted to come to the game and get after [Rodgers]. We had a couple weeks where we had quarterbacks like Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray who really extend plays and threatened us with the zone read and the running. And we knew we could get after Rodgers because he likes to sit back there a little bit and chuck some stuff up.

“We made sure we had to stop the run game early, because they’re a really good run team, especially with Aaron Jones. He’s a good back. We had to get after him and get the game we wanted to play."

That materialized almost right away. After the Packers moved the ball a little to start the game, the Niners forced an incompletion, stuffed Jones for no gain on a second-and-10, and that put Rodgers right where Buckner and Co. wanted him: in third-and-10.

Sure enough, in that spot, linebacker Fred Warner got in the backfield and knocked the ball loose, and Nick Bosa collected it and took it to the Packers two-yard-line. But the truth is, any number of Niners could’ve hit Rodgers. The San Francisco pass rush took on the look of a jailbreak, with Rodgers playing the role of the poor prison guard getting overrun.

“I can’t remember the play call, but really, it was guys winning one-on-ones and making sure we got pressure on Aaron,” Buckner said. “He’s a slippery dude in the pocket. He’s always been, and he slipped out of my hands, Arik [Armstead’s] hands. Fred came in and added on and got the ball out. We all kind of corraled him and Nick came up with the big recovery. It was just a great play.”

And it wasn’t the last time it looked like that. For the balance of the first half, the San Francisco rushers took up residence in the Packers’ backfield. The results were predictable. Green Bay had seven possessions from that point until halftime: punt, punt, punt, turnover on downs, punt, punt, punt.

From there, it was smooth sailing for San Francisco—and there’s no question how the foundation was laid for the 49ers to carry a 10–1 record into December.

Coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch inherited two first-round defensive lineman, and have drafted two more, and traded for another who was a first-rounder four years ago. Add an aggressive defensive coordinator in Robert Saleh and a position coach, in Kris Kocurek, who’s focus is on getting guys upfield and playing fast, and you get what we all witnessed on Saturday: a track meet to the quarterback.

“Definitely, it is,” Buckner said. “It’s a lot of fun. You know you have a lot of guys that are talented and can get to the quarterback. It definitely is a race. If one guy misses, somebody else is going to clean it up. It can be frustrating at times, too. It's like, ‘Oh, I’m right there,’ and somebody [else] cleans him up. It brings out a lot more competitiveness among [the line], and it’s awesome to see everybody working together.”

Even better? Armstead is 26, Buckner is 25, Solomon Thomas is 24, and Bosa is 22. And Dee Ford, the first-round added via trade from KC this offseason (he didn’t play Sunday) is still just 28. So this might be just the start.

But the present is pretty exciting too, especially with Lamar Jackson and the Ravens playing the Rams on Monday night.

***

THE ALL-32

Take the play design from 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan on the 61-yard touchdown from Jimmy Garoppolo to George Kittle straight to Canton. Shanahan got the defense going to the offense’s left seeing the run action, then right to keep up with Garoppolo’s bootleg. Then Garoppolo popped the ball downfield to a wide open tight end. Just gorgeous.

Mack dropped Daniel Jones for his first sack in five games.

Mack dropped Daniel Jones for his first sack in five games.

Bears LB Khalil Mack was back on his game on Sunday. On one play, he impressively ripped through three Giants offensive linemen. Mack finished with a sack, two quarterback hits and a forced fumble as Chicago topped New York 19-14.

The Bengals are now two games behind (or ahead of, depending on your perspective) the field for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft. The odds are good that they’ll bring an ex-Buckeye back if things play out that way—either Ohio State all-everything pass-rusher Chase Young or ex-Buckeye/current LSU quarterback Joe Burrow—and the Brown family has never been shy about its affection for the state’s flagship school. Some better news: the Bengals will have a shot at coaching in the Senior Bowl. The NFL asks teams in the draft order about working the game, which would give them an up-close look at the quarterbacks.

The Bills’ schedule is about to stiffen—so it’s good that Josh Allen and the Buffalo defense, are coming off performances at the top of their respective games right now. Sean McDermott’s crew is at Dallas on Thursday, then home to the Ravens and at the Steelers and Patriots. Getting a ninth win, and ensuring McDermott’s second winning season in three years, won’t be a slam dunk.

To those clamoring for the Broncos to start QB Drew Lock, I understand. But I’m not sure the coaches think he’s ready to handle it, which is why his development has been marked by a lot of hand-holding over his seven months with the team. It sure doesn’t seem like Lock’s presence will be enough to stop Denver from taking a QB next April, if the right one is there.

Sunday was the kind of afternoon the Browns envisioned when pairing Odell Beckham with Jarvis Landry. Baker Mayfield looked good, Nick Chubb is a monster, the line was less of a problem and the defense survived without Myles Garrett.

James Winston had a nice outing for the Buccaneers in a 35–22 win over the Falcons, but he still threw two picks—and that’s why it’s hard to get too excited. The big problem remains the biggest problem.

The Cardinals are 3-7-1, so it may sound weird to say they’ve exceeded expectations as they come off their bye. This was considered the worst team and the worst roster in football a year ago, and there were serious questions about the hiring of Kliff Kingsbury to take the franchise into its next era. Since then, we’ve seen a lot of signs that they’re coming out of their of slumber. The roster has improved, Kyler Murray looks like a star and that doubted head coach has energized the franchise. Even when they haven’t won, they’ve been competitive, and taken steps forward. A big one? How they’ve started games. Early in the year, they struggled out of the gate, and became predictable at times as result. More recently, they’ve improved there, juicing a run game that’s (surprise!) third in the NFL in yards per carry (5.0).

So much of the Chargers’ ability to keep their flagging playoff hopes will hinge on the availability of a few cornerstones down the stretch. To that end, the team is gradually putting more and more on SS Derwin James’ plate (James, coming off IR, is eligible to return for the Broncos game on Dec. 1). L.A. is less optimistic about LT Russell Okung’s shot at playing in that one, and Okung’s absence has, indeed, been an issue for the offense.

Two reasons for optimism that the Chiefs will hit their stride post-bye: one up front on one side of the ball, one on the other, and both are health-related. On offense, the line was healthy across the board last week for the first time since September, and now those guys have something to build on. On defense, Frank Clark’s finally O.K. physically, and that showed up in a big way against the Chargers in Mexico City. With the Raiders and Patriots coming next, we should know soon just how big a difference that will make.

Beyond just the 40–25 run-to-pass ratio, it sure looked like there were spots on Thursday night where Colts coach Frank Reich looked more comfortable running the ball than letting Jacoby Brissett sling it. And that may have cost them a possession in the fourth quarter. Their last drive took nearly five minutes off the clock, which forced them to go for it on fourth-and-seven from the Houston 47 with 3:00 left. The Colts, as you know now, didn’t get the ball back.

The Cowboys have every right to be upset about the calls on Sunday. But owner Jerry Jones was right—if a little raw—in pointing to the special-teams issue as a systemic one. Dallas had a punt blocked in the first quarter that led to the game’s only touchdown; had consecutive penalties on another punt in third quarter, followed by a boot of just 32 yards from Chris Jones that gave the Patriots fantastic field position (they’d kick an important field goal on the ensuing possession); and had a miscommunication on a fourth-quarter kickoff that pinned the offense back at its own 11 with 9:32 to go and the NFL’s No. 1 defense on the other side of the line. So, yeah, in a place where the margin for error for visitors is always small… Dallas made it even smaller for themselves.

Even down 28–3 on the road against the Browns, the Dolphins didn’t quit on Sunday. That may not seem like much consolation to the coaches and players in Miami, but it definitely speaks to the job Brian Flores is doing and to the kind of player he and GM Chris Grier are bringing in. The Dolphins closed the gap to 28–17 before the Browns pulled away a second time, ultimately winning 41-24.

The Eagles’ offensive line, a surprise on-again/off-again issue in 2019, is an on-again issue coming out of Week 12. And nowhere was that more apparent than on a third-and-one with 8:35 left and Philly down 17–3 in Sunday’s loss to the Seahawks. Not one, not two but three Seattle defenders (Bobby Wagner, Al Woods, Poona Ford) were in the backfield as Miles Sanders took the handoff out of the shotgun from Carson Wentz. Sanders was quickly dragged to the ground. On the next play, a fourth-and-two, Wentz looked jumpy in a collapsing pocket, threw wide of rookie J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and the game was, for all intents and purposes, over. And this was after an afternoon in which rookie Andre Dillard, standing in for Lane Johnson at right tackle, was benched, and right guard Brandon Brooks left game due to, per my buddy Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer, another bout with anxiety. And thus, what was an enormous strength before the year is a real issue heading into December.

The Falcons remain the most difficult team in football to explain. The fight was there again in Sunday’s loss to the Bucs. The performance of the last two weeks wasn’t, which again puts coach Dan Quinn—who has done everything is his power to get what he can out of his roster and staff—in the crosshairs. Thursday night against a Saints team they just beat at home should be interesting.

I’ve been around Giants owner John Mara enough to know when his patience is wearing this (he doesn’t hide it all that well). Why? With a 19-14 loss on Sunday to the Bears, the franchise will be assured its sixth losing season in seven years, something that last happened in 1983.

The Jaguars allowed 219 yards rushing and an opposing quarterback to post a 155.8 rating on Sunday, when they lost 42–20 to the Titans. The Jags have a manageable schedule the rest of the way—the Buccaneers are up next—and it’s safe to say that not using that to dig out of a 4–7 hole would put people in peril in the building. Especially when you considered that this sort of butt-whooping came at the hands of a division team, and the program that’s been built there has its foundation in investment at the line of scrimmage.

I said this before this year: The Jets’ flaws on the offensive line and at corner were going to prove fatal. You can’t be bad at those spots and win consistently in the NFL, and that’s proven true in New York. So to me, Adam Gase’s year was always going to be about the development of the team’s young talent, and the quarterback in particular. To that end, Robbie Anderson had four catches for 86 yards and a touchdown, Jamal Adams had seven tackles, three quarterback hits and half a sack, Marcus Maye had three tackles and a pass defensed, and Sam Darnold threw for 315 yards and two touchdowns on 20-of-29 passing in New York’s shocking rout of the Raiders. Not bad, with a month to go.

Lots of questions will be raised this week about the job security of Lions GM Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia, with the Thanksgiving game against the Bears looming. It’s hard to get a read on that one, though, and probably will continue to be. Controlling owner Martha Ford, who took over for her late husband, William, five years ago, doesn’t have a long track record to go on, nor does team president Rod Wood. Maybe she’ll be patient like her husband was, maybe not.

Five sacks allowed isn’t crazy. But the truth in how the 49ers affected the Packers is there statistically—Aaron Rodgers averaged 3.15 yards per attempt. That’s his lowest number for a game since becoming starter in 2008, and it’s the first time that number has dipped below 4.0 for a game for Rodgers in four years (it’s happened twice before in his career, in mop-up duty against New England in 2006; and against Denver in ’15). That’s indicative of how quickly he had to get rid of ball, and how the rush completely snuffed out any shot the Packers had of going downfield. Bad day at the office for the Packers line.

I don’t think that Kyle Allen is necessarily the Panthers’ future at quarterback. But I think, if this is the offseason that change comes, and Cam Newton is part of that change, Allen has shown he’s perfectly fine as, at the very least, a stopgap. And that’s got great value in itself—it can prevent a team from pressing a quarterback need before it should. Allen brought Carolina back from deficits of 14–0, 24–15 and 31–18, and had the game against the Saints tied at 31 down the stretch. The Panthers coaches, for their part, believe Allen’s been undervalued. “It's confirmation bias,” QBs coach Scott Turner told me a couple weeks back. “If you're drafted high and you can play bad and all of a sudden, you play good, everyone is like, 'This is what we expected.' Where if you're not drafted high, you play good for a few games, and then you play bad one game, it's like, ‘Well, this is what we expected.’” For what it’s worth, Sunday was the third time in nine starts that Allen’s posted a triple-digit passer rating.

I’ll say again what I said in last week’s MAQB—the Patriots have the best corner in football, and I think Stephon Gilmore probably should be considered for Defensive Player of the Year. Last week, he had a big hand in covering Eagles tight end Zach Ertz. This week, he took Dallas receiver Amari Cooper out of the game completely. I don’t think there’s a player at his position who’s capable of toggling between those sorts of guys (both excellent, but very different players) on a week-to-week basis, while changing the math on how a defense can match up with an offense.

The decision of Raiders coach Jon Gruden to yank Derek Carr when he did (with 1:49 left in the third quarter) won’t quiet the steady stream of speculation that Gruden will eventually get antsy at the position and go find himself a new quarterback. Oakland’s flirtations with Kyler Murray, Dwayne Haskins and Drew Lock last spring (I’m told the Raiders had them ranked Murray, Lock, Haskins, then Ryan Finley) played into that too. And while Carr’s been really good over the last 12 months, and the Raiders pulled him in part on Sunday for his own protection, the idea that he and GM Mike Mayock might eventually seek an upgrade is not crazy.

Dealing with the variance the Ravens defense throws at an offense should be a good, and telling, test for a struggling Rams line tonight (they will get a break with defensive tackle Michael Pierce, in the midst of a very good season, unlikely to go).

Unsung Ravens hero: LB Josh Bynes. Signed off the street in early October, he’s wearing the green dot for the defense and has started five of his six games with the team. The coaches felt like the 30-year-old has had a strong calming presence on the group that needed after it struggled early with the departures of Eric Weddle, C.J. Mosley and Terrell Suggs.

Really good, clutch throw from Redskins rookie Dwayne Haskins, finding college teammate Terry McLaurin on a third-and-five for 17 yards. It moved the ball to the Lions 21 with 20 seconds left and set up Washington’s game-winning field goal, to cap an otherwise up-and-down afternoon. Another down was coming: After the game, interim coach Bill Callahan couldn’t find Haskins, because Haskins was celebrating with fans in the stands, which, while pretty funny, was a problem because he was needed for a game-ending kneeldown.

Mark this down as a high-class problem—the Saints’ streak of five straight opponents held under 300 yards came to an end after the team’s Week 9 bye, and the Panthers are now the third straight team to top 300 yards on them. We’ll see if the New Orleans defense can stop the “bleeding” on Thursday night.

I like Seahawks QB Russell Wilson for MVP, largely because he’s made it work with a lot of skill guys that have less than two years’ experience working with him (D.K. Metcalf is one of those, and Jacob Hollister is another). That said, Seattle’s ability to win with a middling Wilson (200 yards, TD, INT, 75.4 rating) in Philadelphia on a Sunday is a pretty good sign of where the team is from a balance standpoint.

Not that there was any doubt, but the Steelers will be drafting an eventual replacement for Ben Roethlisberger. It may not be this year (they dealt their 1 to Miami for Minkah Fitzpatrick), but Mason Rudolph clearly isn’t the answer. And Duck Hodges is a fun story, and that’s about it.

Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins is absolutely ridiculous. That’s all.

Ryan Tannehill’s passer ratings in his five starts with the Titans: 120.1, 109.8, 82.3, 133.9, 155.8. Derrick Henry’s rushing yards in those game: 90, 75, 63, 188, 150. Credit to first-year coordinator Arthur Smith for getting more out of the 2012 first-round picks, and to head coach Mike Vrabel for having the stomach to make the switch.

The Vikings are 8–3, and here’s a guy who’s not getting enough credit for it: offensive advisor Gary Kubiak. The ex-Broncos and Texans coach has been an incredible resource for first-year offensice coordinator Kevin Stefanski (we wrote about that in this space a couple weeks back) and Kirk Cousins, but he’s also been big as a calming presence for head coach Mike Zimmer, in helping to marry the team’s offensive philosophy to who it is on defense.

***

TOP FIVE

Gore runs down Sanders. Hats off to Frank Gore, for his amazing accomplishment—on Sunday, he passed Barry Sanders (15,269 yards) to move into third place on the all-time rushing list. He’s at 15,289 yards, behind only Emmitt Smith (18,355) and Walter Payton (16,726). I talked to the man who drafted him in San Francisco, ex-Niners GM Scot McCloughan on Sunday, who’d just talked to Gore over the phone.

“He said he talked to Barry, and he knew how good of a player Barry was and what he brought to the game and how well he’s respected for what he did,” McCloughan said. “I told him he’s got to be honored to be in the group he’s with. I said, ‘That’s incredible. It’s very, very elite group of backs.’ He said, ‘Well, yeah, but I still got some more left.’ I understand, Frank, but you gotta sit back and enjoy a little bit.”

McCloughan laughed but he knew Gore was serious—you probably have to be to make it 15 years as a running back in the NFL. McCloughan told me repeatedly over the years that Gore’s his favorite player. We’ll have more on why in the MAQB this afternoon.

Trade market brings the transfer portal into focus. As the Jalen Ramsey story exploded a couple months back (and as the Jamal Adams speculation has lingered even after the trade deadline has come and gone, with the former sixth overall pick remaining a Jet), more questions have circulated about what this trend of player empowerment will mean for NFL players going forward. And one GM raised an interesting point to me with all this going on: There really is a sense of normalcy to all of this from players. It’s normal for kids to jump high schools now. And the transfer portal in college has afforded top-shelf athletes at that level to do it. For better or worse, kids now like to have an escape hatch if things aren’t going there way. Which doesn’t seem to change as these kids become adults, which should really not surprise anyone.

Closing the book on Myles Garrett. I don’t know whether or not Mason Rudolph uttered a racial slur at Myles Garrett. I do know that something awful happened between those two over the last week. The league couldn’t find any credible evidence that Rudolph used the slur, as Garrett alleged. Being labeled a racist isn’t something that just goes away, nor should it, if the claim is grounded in the fact. But to stick someone with that if that person didn’t use a slur? That’d be really, really bad.

Clock ticking on the CBA. O.K., not really. But the owners spoke internally earlier in the fall of getting a new collective bargaining agreement done ahead of Thanksgiving. That goal was later pushed to the end of the calendar year. Why now? Some owners, I’m told, are looking at the CBA as a smaller piece to be a bigger puzzle. Getting one in place would allow them to start chipping away at the new broadcast deals. And getting the broadcast deals done then would allow the owners to turn their focus to gambling, the next golden goose.

Petrino saw Lamar for who he was early on. A leftover from a discussion I had with Jackson’s college coach, Bobby Petrino, the other day. Petrino told me that it took one throw in practice to get a feel for what he had in the kid—and it was Jackson’s first throw in a team setting. He was a freshman running the scout team, and Louisville AD Tom Jurich was alongside. Jackson took the shotgun snap, stood flat-footed and went deep for a touchdown.

“Tom Jurich is next to me, and I just said, ‘Wow, we got a real guy here,” Petrino said. “The way he snapped his wrist and threw that post for a touchdown, it was something. If you work with him you see it. And that’s the one thing I really respect about the Ravens. They were only group that came in and spent time with me and my staff to find this stuff out. They spent two hours with me; the quarterbacks coach and head of scouting were there. … I was surprised more people didn’t want to talk to me about Lamar.” (I’d bet there’s some teams regretting that now.)

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BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

In case you forgot, Mack can play.

Not sure what to say here.

Very Tom Brady-like start to Russell Wilson’s career.

S/O to the Patriots for honoring this fallen hero.

Just a rough week for Rudolph all the way around.

This quote is as Bruce Arians as it gets.

Take THAT, Brandon Allen! And Denver!

I’d make fun of the turtleneck, but not if they’re suddenly coming back.

Very aggressive tailgating in Ohio.

Really cool.

And that’s the truth.

***

Herbert was just 20 of 36 with two fourth-quarter picks against the Sun Devils.

Herbert was just 20 of 36 with two fourth-quarter picks against the Sun Devils.

SIX FROM SATURDAY

1. All the issues scouts have with Oregon QB Justin Herbert came to bear in a loss to Arizona State on Saturday night: the unsightly picks, followed by the furious comeback (the Ducks defense couldn’t do quite enough to give him a chance to complete it) telling the tale of a Jekyll-and-Hyde player. “The entire skill set’s there—tall, smart, athletic, can throw, and throw on the run,” says one NFC exec. “He’ll miss a few, and you ask, ‘Why is this happening?’ And you think maybe you clean it up, do something with his footwork. But no doubt, he’s top-five pick.” And one scouting director wondered about a relatively simple, one-read type of Oregon offense: “The way it’s run, those guys come out of that and it’s hard to deprogram them from the muscle memory they establish. And I’m not sure he’s as accurate down the field as you’d like.”

2. For that reason, Senior Bowl week will be important for Herbert, as it will be for LSU’s Joe Burrow, should those two accept their invitations. And it should also create a great opportunity for a coaching staff—like the Bengals’ or the Dolphins’—to work day-to-day with the young quarterbacks. In fact, if two QB-needy teams wind up coaching in the game, there’ll sure be some politicking (as there usually is) with the game’s executive director, Jim Nagy, on which staff gets which guy.

3. The uncertainty at quarterback—and Tua Tagovailoa’s hip injury certainly is part of this—has absolutely increased the likelihood that a QB won’t go first overall for the fourth time this decade, and just the seventh time since Peyton Manning was the first pick way back in 1998. And Ohio State DE Chase Young gives the NFL a non-quarterback prospect who’s certainly worthy of going that high. (By the way, if Young does the next two weeks what he did against Wisconsin and Penn State, then keeping him out of New York for the Heisman ceremony would be criminal).

4. Texas coach Tom Herman is a good example of how quickly a coach that was once considered a genius can quickly have that turned upside down. Which is to say if you’re a coach with NFL aspirations (Baylor’s Matt Rhule, whose Bears beat UT Saturday, dropping the Longhorns to 6–5, comes to mind), there is value in striking when the iron is hot.

5. Michigan’s receivers—in particular, Nico Collins—have come to life the last few weeks and will be on the NFL’s radar. Donovan Peoples-Jones is another, despite middling production in his three years in Ann Arbor. He’s a freak athlete, and he graduates in December, which will make the junior eligible to play in an all-star game and showcase what he can do physically.

6. Penn State DE Yetur Gross-Matos took another step towards the upper reaches of the first round by being an issue for Ohio State’s high-flying offense on Saturday. Scouts still want to see the 6'5", 265-pounder put on some weight and get a little more consistent against the run, but his frame and athleticism have added to real production as a pass-rusher.

***

Fowler has nine tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and one amazing entrance.

Fowler has nine tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and one amazing entrance.

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, Rams DE Dante Fowler....

MMQB: How different is it preparing for the Ravens’ offense?

DF: It’s very different. You’re going against a very athletic quarterback that can run and can pass the ball, a true dual-threat quarterback in a dual-threat offense. And the way that they manage and operate their offense is definitely something similar to how Army, your wing-Ts, the Georgia Techs run their offenses. You have to have really disciplined eyes. If not, they can gash you, and it can turn into big plays with the players that they’ve got. It’s a big discipline week. We have to be really disciplined with our eyes.

MMQB: Was there a team like that which you played against in college?

DF: We had a week to prepare for Georgia Southern. It actually wasn’t a long enough week—we got upset by them. It was my sophomore year at Florida. I’ll never forget that game.

MMQB: Is there a lesson you can take from that?

DF: Well, I had a hell of a game (laughs). But my teammates, they’d get caught with their eyes, the way things were schemed. The reason we lost, they had big plays in crucial times. And then two-, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust, they’d always win up with another first down and keep sustaining drives. That’s something similar to what the Ravens do. We have to take out the run and force them to pass. And when they do throw the ball we have to constrict the pocket and be able to get after Lamar, the great quarterback that he is.

MMQB: Are you a fan of Lamar?

DF: Oh, I’m definitely a fan, because we come from the same background, the same football culture, same area there in Florida. I saw a lot of guys like Lamar Jackson growing up—guys that never got the opportunity, whether it’s that they didn’t make it out to college, or they did make it to college and get their positions changed. So just being able to watch him, seeing him when he went to Louisville and [seeing how] his coaches gave him the opportunity, gave him a shot, the same thing that’s happening in Baltimore. His skill set, it’s so cool to watch, it’s so cool to see and it definitely means more for a person like me that understands where he comes from. That kind of environment, and the coaches he’s playing for all his life, that stereotype he has, just to be able to go out there and make a name for himself at the quarterback position in the National Football League, that’s super big. I’m very proud of him. I’m a huge fan of his.

MMQB: You’ve produced more this year. Where are you better than you were last year?

DF: This is really my first year, really starting a full season and playing this amount of reps. I always said that even when I was in Jacksonville and I wasn’t playing, the more reps I get, the more production you’ll see from me. And that’s really all it is, being able to be more confident, finding myself, becoming the player I always knew I was. And it’s having great coaches like [outside linebackers] coach [Chris] Shula, and Coach Hendy [defensive line coach Eric Henderson], getting me right in the classroom and on the field, and just letting me go out there and wreak havoc, and be the player that I am.

MMQB: You played next to great players in Jacksonville. Is it different playing next to Aaron Donald?

DF: Yeah, I’ve never been a part of anything like that. He’s the best player I’ve ever played with, hands down. There’s nothing I can compare that to. It’s just an honor to play with him and be able to say I did play with him. I love to watch him. The way he plays, the way I am as a player, I can just play off of him. He makes it so much easier, so much more stress-free on me and the defensive front, and the defense as a whole. It’s really cool just to have him as a teammate. He definitely ups everyone’s level of play. You don’t want to let him down. You want to play at his level.

MMQB: Is it kind of surreal to be playing with Jalen Ramsey again?

DF: It’s super surreal. It’s something we used to talk about, and it’s definitely cool. We used to talk when I got traded—“Man, it’s crazy that you’re actually out there, and stuff.” And months later, he was here. It was cool. We love it here. He’s in a very good place. And I’m in a good place as well, having him back on my defense and locking down receivers so the quarterbacks have another second to hold the ball and I can get to them.

MMQB: Seems like the offense carried the team a little Sean McVay’s first couple years, and now that’s flipped. Do you guys feel that it’s more on you?

DF: Well, we always wanted that to be our identity. That was something we strived for, to get an identity towards the end of the year last year. Coming into this year, we already knew what we were capable of, we wanted to be that. And it was one of those things where we get going and our offense, they’re eventually going to be dominant and everything will take care of itself. This year, we’ve gotten into some battles—the offense will depend on us and we put the team on our backs, and it just makes us better as a defense. And at the end of the day, when we’re out there, our job is to put the offense back on the field. We know they’ll get going and eventually, when they get going, it’s going to be a scary sight to see.

MMQB: Do you want to be in L.A. long-term?

DF: It’s a place that took me in with open arms, and brought me from a dark place. I can’t do anything but thank them for the opportunities that they gave me. And if the opportunity comes that I’m able to stay here in L.A., of course I’d be here. But right now, I just want to be able to keep getting these wins, and eventually get to the playoffs and the Super Bowl.

MMQB: You said “dark place.” Was Jacksonville just not right for you?

DF: Yeah, it just wasn’t right for me. I injured myself, and with the injuries I was going through some things. I went through some bumps as a rookie, I was young. I felt like they went their way, they hired the people they wanted to have, and I knew I wasn’t part of that plan. I was trying to be the best person I could be, show that I was a good guy, and a coachable guy. Luckily, I was able to come out here and it all worked out.

MMQB: Is Monday Night Football a little different for you?

DF: Just that title, when you’re playing, it brings up childhood memories. I’m pretty sure everybody has a childhood memory, or just a memory of something happening in the NFL, and it probably happened on a Monday night. I have plenty of those. It’ll definitely be cool—this is my second time playing on Monday Night Football. We played against the Chiefs [last year] and that ended up being the best football game I’ve ever played in in my life, and I’ve been playing football since I was four. These games definitely mean a lot.

***

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

This week, you need to know about ex-Oregon receiver Keanon Lowe. Greg Bishop wrote a piece on him back in August, and ESPN did a feature on him this week. Plain and simple, Lowe’s a hero. You should read Bishop’s story and watch this. I promise you won’t regret it.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.