The play really doesn’t look like much at first glance.
It’s third-and-four on the first series of the game, and Jacoby Brissett is in the shotgun with Colts tailback Jonathan Williams set to his right. At the snap, he sees Texans linebackers Zach Cunningham and Dylan Cole fall off, separating almost 10 yards from the line of scrimmage into zone coverage. Brissett pivots right, sees Williams and dumps the ball off to him, where the back has the space to pick up the first down without interruption.
Like I said, the play isn’t significant. But according to Indianapolis offensive coordinator Nick Sirriani, it’s significant in the fact that Brissett isn’t the same player he saw on tape in 2017, ahead of Sirriani’s first season on the Colts’ staff. Brissett didn’t play much during the 2018 season, with Andrew Luck in the saddle as the team’s starter, but it’s clear he learned something.
“The one thing I always saw with Jacoby in ’17, I thought that he could find his checkdown better and go through his reads, know when to turn something down, and find where his checkdown is,” Sirriani said Tuesday afternoon. “Marcus Brady, his quarterback coach, has done a great job of drilling that into him. It looks so natural for him now to say, ‘Uh, no, that doesn’t look the way it’s supposed to look’ or ‘here comes pressure, where’s my back’ and find him.
“That’s been a tremendous stride he’s made in his game, looking at the film from ’17.”
Maybe Brissett would have taken that step regardless. But it certainly hasn’t hurt that he had the chance to reset in 2018 after his trial-by-error season in ’17, when he was traded to Indianapolis in September after Luck got hurt. And that leads us to a hidden storyline in the NFL’s Week 13 slate.
The Colts and Titans play on Sunday, both a game behind the Texans in the AFC South. With Houston playing New England in Week 13, it’s not crazy to think the game’s winner could be in first place by midnight that evening—and each is sitting in this spot, firmly in playoff contention, with their Plan B enacted at quarterback.
Even more interesting? Neither team is here by hiding that quarterback. Both the guys in question, Brissett and Tennessee’s Ryan Tannehill, are playing well.
“It’s just been good,” Tannehill said, over the phone Tuesday. “I love the guys on this team, I love the energy of this team. I love the way the guys come to work every day and believe in each other. I think that’s one thing I’ve seen over the last month or so—the belief, we’re gonna find a way to win games. We’ve had some tight games come down to the fourth quarter and we were behind. And no one stopped believing. Everyone just kept fighting.”
In a different kind of battle, Brissett and Tannehill have kept fighting too. And maybe they’re showing us a little something about being patient with a quarterback.
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In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll give you a couple fun names to watch in college football’s rivalry weekend, a handful to keep an eye on over the NFL weekend, and I’ll answer your questions on …
• Why the Ravens offense is so unstoppable.
• The Rams’ future, given their swing-for-the-fences present.
• The NFL’s MVP race.
• Where the quarterback position is going stylistically.
• The refs!
But we’re starting with a big game in Indianapolis.
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When talking to Matt Nagy on Sunday, the Bears’ head coach brought up the idea of expectations.
“Four or five games into the year, [a player has] a good game, all of a sudden the expectations are that [he’s] going to do this every game,” said Nagy. “And it couldn't be further from the truth. When you start talking about patience in this world, that's when back in the day, again, you 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.
“You've got to be able to have a little balance and say, ‘What's realistic?’”
Tannehill’s and Brissett’s careers, at this point in 2019, are a good example of “realistic.” Their stories, to be sure, are different, but both are in the same spot this year—thrust into action on short notice, because one team’s starter (Luck) retired just before the start of the season and the other’s (Mariota) wasn’t playing well.
Tannehill, drafted with the eighth pick in 2012 by the Dolphins, showed enough promise to merit a second contract three years later. Four years after that, though, he was part of Miami’s purge, traded to Tennessee in a deal that featured a swap of Day 3 draft picks and required the Dolphins eating some of his salary.
Brissett, meanwhile, was quietly drafted by the Patriots in the third round of the 2016 draft, and got some game action as a rookie during Tom Brady’s suspension. He was dealt to Indianapolis a year later to fill in for the injured Luck, getting 15 starts in 2017, but then faded into the background as Luck got healthy in ’18.
No one expected either quarterback to be a world-beater. Yet, here we are, Tannehill and Brissett carrying respective passer ratings of 111.4 and 95.7 into a December 1 game with serious playoff implications.
“I’ve had both sides,” Tannehill said. “I think the difference now is, I was so young, obviously, coming in as a rookie. ... I didn’t know as much as I do now. You learn so much as a player, as a leader and just growing as a man over the last eight years. I think that’s the probably the biggest difference between my first year and then this new situation.”
I don’t know if either will still be their team’s starter in three or four years. Certainly, the 26-year-old Brissett has a better shot at that than the 31-year-old Tannehill. But it did strike me how, in certain ways, sideways circumstances might have helped these guys...
Getting to see the game from a different angle. Sitting wasn’t easy for Tannehill. He was a Week 1 starter as a rookie, and even before he became starting quarterback at Texas A&M, he was on the field as a receiver.
“Even going through spring and training camp, it’s just a different role, not having the same leadership position as I’d been used to,” he said. “I just tried to stay in my lane, bite my tongue and keep my head down and work. And then heading into the season, obviously game days were tough, not being able to play. I love competing, I love playing the game, I love being out there with the guys.”
Tannehill says he’s always been a learn-by-doing type, but in the course of making the best of his situation, he found some level of benefit in this new way to grow—“When you’re on the sideline, it’s not as emotional for you. You see exactly what’s happening and get to evaluate that way.” He got to see a month of games from that view. Likewise, Brissett, after the 15 starts in 2017, had a front-row seat for a full season before reentering the fire.
Varied experiences. Usually getting yanked from one situation to the next is detrimental for a quarterback. But in the case of Brissett, it’s meant getting to see a lot, and to watch Luck and Tom Brady do it, as he’s grown. A rookie drafted in the first round doesn’t get that.
“Jacoby’s been around two phenomenal quarterbacks,” Sirriani said. “I know as a coach, when you’re around good people, good coaches, you become a better coach. Well, if that’s true as a coach, it has to be true as a quarterback as well. They just go so hand-in-hand, that mental aspect of the game. So I just think being around players like that has obviously helped Jacoby’s development as a football player.”
Tannehill never got that. But he has played in a number of different offenses, and for different coaches, and now he’s swinging back, with new Titans OC Arthur Smith, to a scheme that’s like the one he played in as a rookie with ex-Miami OC Mike Sherman at the controls. And instead of being asked to be Manning, he’s simply a cog in a larger machine.
“Obviously having the run game rolling is a huge help,” Tannehill said. “Whenever you hand off to Derrick Henry and he breaks six tackles and goes 80 yards and scores, that’s a nice way to do it. It definitely takes a lot of pressure off the offense as a whole if both the run game and the pass game are efficient.”
Learning from failure. Brissett had plenty of opportunity for that in 2017—a season in which he completed 58.9% of his throws and posted a 13-7 TD-INT ratio. For Tannehill, it was worth. He had a franchise that had invested deeply in him wave the white flag on developing him any further.
Tannehill’s level-headed about it now—“It’s a win-now league, and that just is what it is. No one likes losing, fans don’t like losing, owners don’t like losing. This league’s about winning.” But any competitive person would be irked in a situation like that. And would come back bent on fixing whatever the issue was.
“Just with the personality that Jacoby has and the type of person he is, he’s learned from the hard times,” Sirriani said. “Not just in that year, but in this year as well. Just like anyone in any season, you go through your good times and your bad times. The special ones are the ones that can learn from the hard times and continue to grow from them. And I see that in him.
“I can’t speak for what happened to him in ’17, but I can speak from seeing him this year, he definitely learns from his mistakes, and the mistakes of others.”
* * *
That play against the Texans, that first third down, reflects Brissett’s growth, showing how watching Luck had paid off in his decision-making. It shows how his varied experience made a difference—he can apply what he’d learned on the fly, because he knew it inside and out. The failure earlier in his career in forcing the ball downfield certainly paid off too. And his future looks pretty good as a result of that.
Similarly, Tannehill has revived what looked like a spiraling career just eight months ago. Each player had to pull himself off the canvas previously at a critical juncture, and both players are pretty grateful for these results.
“My number got called, knew that was my opportunity, and I wanted to go out and play well,” Tannehill said. “I think I’m constantly growing, or trying to, that’s the goal—to get a little better every day, come to work and do everything you can to learn something, be more efficient, be more consistent, and push the guys around you to be better. I would hope that I’m a better player now than I was three or four years ago.”
Most would agree he is. And if this last month is it for him in Tennessee, he knows from experience, he won’t leave there empty-handed.
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WEEKEND WATCH LIST
Bills QB Josh Allen: It’s really incredible how level Buffalo has been. The Bills are 7-1 against under-.500 teams, with the one loss coming against 5-6 Cleveland. And they’re 1-2 against over-.500 teams, with the win coming against 6-5 Tennessee. Anyway, Allen hasn’t been great in those losses, so winning in Dallas would be a nice step in his development.
49ers DE Nick Bosa: How the Ravens handle him will be fascinating – and it certainly would reason that they’d want him to be the unblocked “read” defender on read-option plays, putting him in conflict and, in turn, slowing him down a bit. That’ll make him a key in how the Niners combat Baltimore’s red-hot MVP leader Lamar Jackson.
Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill: Post-Gareon Conley trade, the Raiders have become more reliant on younger corners, and so they’ll need to help plenty on Hill. So whether it’s Hill beating a young guy, or opening things up for Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman, it’s not hard to see where his presence will be felt in a pivotal AFC West showdown.
Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins: The Houston star has been good-not-great in two games against the Patriots since Stephon Gilmore signed there (four catches, 56 yards in 2017; seven catches, 76 yards in 2018). But Gilmore’s been on a different level this year. If Bill Belichick has Gilmore travel with Hopkins on Sunday night, that’d qualify as a heavyweight prize fight.
Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes: Minnesota’s top corner has been very up and down in 2019, and on a big stage against a quarterback playing at an MVP level, getting the right version of Rhodes sure would help the Vikings. And as a bigger player for his position, Rhodes would be a natural to matchup with Seahawks rookie D.K. Metcalf.
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TWO FOR SATURDAY
Oklahoma State RB Chuba Hubbard (vs. Oklahoma, FOX, 8 p.m.): A backup to Ravens rookie Justice Hill last year, Hubbard has raced on to the NFL radar this fall—the redshirt sophomore has rolled to 1,832 yards and 20 touchdowns on 285 carries (6.4 yard average). And he’s been staggeringly consistent, only held under 100 yards once, and that was a result of being pulled early against McNeese State in Week 2. On top of that, the 6' 1", 207-pounder was a track prodigy growing up in Canada, so he figures to run really well in February, should he declare.
“[He and Hill are] completely different players, but both produce in their own way,” one AFC scout said. “Chuba is a one-cut home run hitter that will take it the distance if he sees daylight. Justice had more elusiveness, where Chuba is north-south.”
An NFC exec emphasized how new he is to football, which means he has room to grow, and that even last year, behind Hill, “he showed up on tape.” And if you add all this up, Hubbard certainly has a shot at creeping into the upper reaches of a tailback class topped by Georgia’s D’Andre Swift, with Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, Ohio State’s JK Dobbins, and Clemson’s Travis Etienne in the mix behind him.
Ohio State CB Jeffrey Okudah (at Michigan, FOX, Noon): The Buckeyes have had five cornerbacks drafted in the first round of the last six drafts, and it may be seven in seven drafts this year, with Okudah a virtually certainty for Round 1, trending towards a top-10 pick. Shaun Wade and Damon Arnette gives Ohio State three corners who’ll likely go fairly early. The strength of the position makes for a great matchup with Michigan receivers Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Ronnie Bell and Tarik Black.
“He’s long and physical,” one NFC scout said. “Has excellent speed and natural man cover skills. Great transition to break on the ball if he’s off and it’s thrown in front. A lot was made out of (his having) no interceptions coming into this year but I think he’s got great instincts and awareness and ball skills. He’s a great tackler. Very much in line with guys like [former OSU corners Marshon] Lattimore and [Denzel] Ward.”
As is the case with all Buckeye players, the Michigan game gives Okudah a great shot to etch his name into the lore of one of sports’ great rivalries, and make another statement for NFL evaluators.
From Clancy (@cole_clancy): Who is your MVP through the season so far?
It was Russell Wilson until Monday night, and now it’s Lamar Jackson. That’s not to take away from Wilson whatsoever. He’s been incredible this year and has consistently lifted up players like Metcalf and Jacob Hollister, who weren’t on the roster a year ago. Making the whole greater than its parts is the essence of quarterbacking to me.
But what Jackson did on Monday night checks every single box imaginable. He was spectacularly efficient in the passing game. His decision-making was spotless. And he was an absolute menace in the option game. Watching the Ravens, it seriously looks like Jackson is single-handedly putting really good defensive players and really good defensive coaches in a constant state of panic.
Here’s the crazy thing: He “only” had 264 yards from scrimmage against the Rams. He went 15-of-20 for 169 yards (and five touchdowns) and ran eight times for 95 yards. But he had an absolutely massive, unmistakable impact on everything out there.
From RolloR (@m_niller): How long before QBs that can’t/won’t/don’t run are completely phased out of the league?
Rollo, I don’t think that’ll happen. But I do think the open-mindedness of evaluators to look at each quarterback for who he is coming into the league—and not for how he might fit into one system—and the open-mindedness of coaches to adjust what they do to accommodate players is at the crux of this.
That’s widened the net that teams throw into the draft waters every year in search of quarterbacking talent. And since there are only 32 starting jobs out there, that necessarily means there’ll be fewer for traditional dropback guys. But I think that this change isn’t about the league shifting from one type of quarterback to another. I think it’s about taking a more pragmatic approach to finding a quarterback, which takes more players into account, rather than focusing on a single group.
That, by the way, is why we’ve had two six-feet-or-shorter QBs go first overall the last two years.
From MMMX_R (@MMMX_R): Explain the Ravens offense to me, it looks unstoppable but also feels like college. Why is it so effective? Is their offensive line the real MVP?
It’s effective for a number of reasons.
First, the offensive line is fantastic. Second, the Ravens ability to play with two and three tight ends, and to put a fullback on the field, is antithetical to how defenses are built (with smaller, more athletic players) in 2019, and creates constant run/pass conflict for defenses from a personnel standpoint. Third, Lamar Jackson is special running it. And fourth, the Ravens have continued to evolve it.
On that last point, I can use last year’s playoff loss as an example. The Chargers combatted Jackson by putting six and seven DBs on the field at a time, which helped negate the speed issue he creates. So what did the Ravens do? They signed Mark Ingram, basically daring anyone else is try and turn their safeties into linebackers against them ever again, and now it’s like Baltimore gets to play with its downhill hammer and change-of-pace burner at once.
There’s lots of credit to go around here. Jackson deserves it. John Harbaugh and Greg Roman deserve it. GM Eric DeCosta deserves it. This has all been incredibly well-conceived and executed.
From Wendell Ferreira (@wendellfp): Can the Rams change their all-in approach considering the lack of quality on the roster, future cap space and draft picks?
Wendell, the Rams have created a scenario where they won’t have a first-rounder (barring a trade for one) over a five-year period (2017-21), and that shortens their margin for error. They have five players (Jared Goff, Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks and Jalen Ramsey) on the books for $108.8 million for 2020, which should be about 55% of their cap. And the 13 top cap numbers for 2020 add to $157.6 million, which means that about a quarter of the roster will be taking up almost 80% of the cap.
Being that top-heavy can eat away at a team’s depth, so the team has to find a way to get cheap labor on the roster, which means hitting on draft picks consistently. Not having first-rounders makes it harder to do that. And where the bottom can fall out is if the core ages or isn’t performing to standards.
That’s the Rams’ challenge—keeping their young core performing and continuing to hit on non-first-round picks. The good news is that GM Les Snead’s done a good job in that area (Cooper Kupp, Gerald Everett, John Johnson, Samson Ebukam, etc.) The bad news is it’s hard to keep that up.
From Bolter (@wombatnation99): Want can possibly be done to fix the egregious officiating this year? It’s systemic and obvious.
Bolter, I’m beginning to believe a change in leadership is the only fix. I could take you through each misstep, call-by-call, but I think the systemic issue here is the breakdown in trust between the officials and the coaches, which creates a divide between the league office and teams, and makes the issue that much worse. It’s to the point where some coaches think the refs playing hardball on pass-interference reviews is retaliation for the coaches organizing in pursuit of instituting a Sky Judge last March.
I’m not real big on calling for people’s jobs, but at its core, this problem feels to me like an Al Riveron problem. Part the role of officiating czar—and Mike Pereira and Dean Bladino were good in this area—is being a liaison for the league with the coaches on how the game is governed on the field. Having relationships is important there. And given the amount of coaches that don’t trust Riveron right now (apparent in postgame news conferences every week), it sure seems like the NFL could use a fresh face in that role.
From IHATEJOHNMARA (@Jordigone): Any word on what coaching/GM changes Giants might make in off season? And is the rumor on them being interested in Garrett true?
That’s an aggressive handle you have there, IHATE. Yes, I think a change could be in play. And yes, I believe Jason Garrett would be one name that I think John Mara would consider as the next coach of the Giants, and I can tell you for a fact he loves Garrett personally. Baylor coach Matt Rhule is another name to watch. Both have the familiarity with the franchise that Mara usually favors (the hires of Dave Gettleman, Jerry Reese and Tom Coughlin were other examples) in hiring.
That said, there’s still some season to go. I’m not closing the book on Pat Shurmur quite yet, but I do think he’ll need Daniel Jones to play really well down the stretch.
From Shedrick Carter (@shedrickcarter2): If Atlanta loses to New Orleans on Thursday night, does Arthur Blank pull the plug on Friday or wait for season’s end?
As I’ve heard it, Shedrick, Blank’s doing his best to be more measured with Dan Quinn than he was at the end of the Mike Smith Era, when the last few weeks of the season seemed like a death march for that staff. And the team is playing hard for Quinn, which erases one concern you’d have with a coach in that position—that a toxic environment could infect your young players.
So why would he consider moving earlier than the end of the season then? To me, the big reason would be to gain the ability start vetting candidates openly, and signal to them that you’d be interested. Which could come into play with some of the big-name college coaches, like Rhule and Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, that figure to get NFL overtures a month from now.
From michael keane (@michaelkeane56): Are you over your Cowboys loss yet?
Some Patriots fans didn’t like how I crushed the officials for the bogus tripping calls on TV the other day. Maybe they thought I was taking away from the Patriots’ win (which I wasn’t). Maybe they just don’t like me, which would be a difficult reality for me to swallow.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
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