IRVING, Texas — Near the end of the Art of Coaching documentary that aired Tuesday night on HBO, Patriots coach Bill Belichick grouses to his old friend, Alabama coach Nick Saban, about technology taking hold of everything around him. And he describes a scene where he’s boarding a plane after a loss and sees his assistants’ heads buried in laptops.
“You know fellas, the reason why we got beat is because we can’t tackle and we can’t force the run,” Belichick recalled telling his assistants. “All the rest of this is a bunch of garbage. This isn’t about a computer or getting into some space world technology. We can’t tackle.”
I brought that up when talking with Panthers owner David Tepper on Wednesday afternoon, as we were talking about his view of a football world in which he’s been immersed for the last 18 months. And as Tepper explained it—yes, the analystics-friendly, hedge-fund manager—it’s clear how his thinking is absolutely in lockstep with what aired less than 24 hours earlier.
“It’s great if you have analytics, but you better be practicing to those analytics or you can take the analytics and throw them in the garbage,” Tepper said. “There’s got to be good fundamental football behind it. ... If you don’t practice the right way, you don’t live it, analytics can be a bunch of bulls--- by the same token. You want to talk about third-and-one or fourth-and-one or fourth-and-two, you better be as good as the average team at it, if you’re going to base analytics on the average team.”
He then repeated, “You better have good fundamental football to base it on.”
Tepper’s not a rookie anymore. He arrived in Dallas for the league’s winter meeting with nearly two full seasons of ownership under his belt, a coaching search underway and a reimagining of his organization coming. And the above is just one example of the overriding thing I learned about the league’s newest owner after sitting down with him—trying to fit him into a box (like one marked “analytics guy”) is foolish.
That’s logical, too. If he wasn’t this way, he probably wouldn’t be here in the first place.
Lots to get to in this week’s Game Plan, including …
• Scouting reports on the Heisman finalists.
• Your Week 15 Watch List.
• My power rankings ballot.
• More nuggets from in and around the owners meeting.
But we’re starting a fun and fiery few minutes I had with Tepper at a critical point for his franchise.
Tepper says his 11-figure fortune was actually built with old-school principals serving as a foundation for cutting-edge methods to thrive. In football, that means, as Belichick said, getting blocking and tackling right before getting caught up in fourth-down theory.
“It begins there,” Tepper continued, after I pointed out what Belichick said. “You cannot depend on this stuff, if you don’t get the rest of the s--t right. Then, it becomes a bunch of garbage. I know that. I know that from my other business. That’s what matters. Because otherwise, you’re basing it on faulty variables. I can model any goddamn thing you want to do as well as anybody—well not as anybody with a lot of this new guys, but pretty freaking good.
“But you better be having the right variables. And all those variables—are you tackling right and the rest of the stuff? If you’re not, you got a damn problem with your analytics.”
That’s one thing to keep in mind as the Panthers’ coaching search chugs along. And here’s more to chew on from my talk with Tepper.
What he’s looking for in a coach. Tepper told me he has a profile for a coach in mind, but he wouldn’t tip his hand on some of the more identifiable traits (i.e. offense vs. defense, old vs. young). He’s whittling down his list, but won’t share the number of candidates because he doesn’t want to close off the process.
“I always have an open mind about it, that some things may be more important,” he said. “Part of an interview process is learning new things by talking to people. I might be mistaken in some of my beliefs. I’m open to knowing what I don’t know. I have an idea of what I want. But if you ask me if it’s cemented in, I’m not gonna tell you it’s 100% cemented in. There are things around the edges that could be pulled around.
“Good managers are good managers, good coaches are good coaches. But there’s a lot of aspects to what makes that person that way—leadership, toughness, discipline, new modern process.”
Reporting structure is also up in the air. For the same reason Tepper didn’t want to publicly shape his ideal candidate, he maintained ambiguity in with me how the next head coach, incumbent GM Marty Hurney and a new personnel executive-to-be-hired would fall on the flow chart. To Tepper, establishing flexibility there will allow the Panthers to get the best people in the building.
“I have some ideas, but I have to tell you that it’s something I won’t cement in,” he said. “Because if I cement it in, some people are gonna say they won’t talk to me, so why would I cement it in? That’d be stupid of me.”
The new executive. Based on what Tepper said the day he fired Ron Rivera, I thought he would hire an assistant GM and a VP of football operations. Turns out, he will make one hire, with a title to be established later. The head coach will likely be hired first, then have input on who the incoming executive will be.
“You’d like to have the head coach have some input into the AGM because that AGM will be involved in certain things that the head coaches is involved in too—training room, health and safety, the strength coach, sports science, all those things go together,” Tepper said.
Cam’s future. This is the big decision coming up for the franchise, and the question is simple—will Cam Newton’s future be determined by the next coach?
“Cam’s future is going to largely be up to how good he feels,” Tepper said. “That’s first. It’s actually an interesting question to me when there’s a lot of speculation on this because there should be no speculation on Cam one way or the other. If Cam’s healthy, he’s an elite player. So we all hope Cam’s healthy. And people will use an elite player because there just aren’t that many elite players in the league.
“There’s a lot of good players, but less elite players. I still think he has the potential to be an elite player—he’s not that old—if he’s healthy. If he’s not healthy, that’s a different thing.”
Tepper then defined that word a little more directly: “If he’s healthy, and healthy would be how he moves and how he runs and all the rest of it, you’ll use him like every other player you have to the best of his ability to try and have a winning program.” And when I asked about Newton’s state of mind, Tepper went back to that word again: “I think he’ll be in a good state of mind if he’s healthy – so would you.”
Tepper’s not hiring help. Many new owners will reach out and hire search firms (like Korn Ferry) or well-worn advisors (like Ron Wolf or Ernie Accorsi). In some cases it’s to give them cover in the face of inexperience—if things go wrong, it’s much easier to explain it if you have somewhere to point the finger. Tepper, to his credit, has no plans to go that route.
So as they’ve gotten going, and the Panthers are starting to narrow their list, and doing all kinds of background work (one advantage to moving on from Rivera when they did was being able to start in earnest on that), Tepper himself is running point.
“It’ll be primarily by the organization,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I won’t have a couple people I might listen to. If I talk to a couple of my fellow owners about different things, it doesn’t mean I won’t do that. But if you’re asking about formally hiring a search firm, I don’t think we’ll be formally hiring a search firm. That doesn’t mean I won’t talk to people who may be at search firms, that doesn’t mean I won’t talk to other owners.”
Which brings us to another theme that Tepper highlighted in our talk.
The 62-year-old Tepper comes off as pretty sure of himself, but he’s also smart enough to know the areas where he’s—to use his word—stupid.
“I didn’t come in there and just buy a team, [thinking I knew what I was doing],” he said. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. My greatest strength—my greatest strength—is knowing how stupid I am and what I don’t know. I wanted to figure out what was going on and have a better idea of what should make a successful organization.”
So while Rivera coached out the last two years, Tepper kept digging deeper and deeper into the business—“I’d say the first year was total learning, the second year, getting a deeper understanding in figuring things out.” And it’s with that knowledge that he’ll move the team forward.
A few small hints for where he’s headed with this: Alignment and a single-minded focus will be important (“having the view that if you help one individual, you might be hurting 200 others in the organization”), and it seems he may value a manager over a strategist (“I think the on-the-field business is a management business—so it’s process management techniques and practices”) in a coach, though ideally you get both.
But with those things came the constant reminder that he wasn’t speaking in absolutes. He’ll have an open mind and clear head after two seasons of learning on the fly, and for now his goals remain pretty broad.
“Hopefully we can build with the head coach, the GM, and to a certain extent I can help build a really special organization on the football side, with a sustained winning culture,” he said. “And hopefully, we get a handful of rings.”
But what it looks if they get there remains anyone’s guess. Mostly because even Tepper himself isn’t sure of that quite yet.
Five more nuggets from the NFL owners meetings in the Los Colinas village in suburban Dallas …
1. When officiating came up, EVP Troy Vincent said that “everything is on the table” when asked about the potential of a sky judge being added in 2020. I’m told that inside the meeting room, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie proposed a deep dive on officiating, reviews and rules ahead of the league’s annual meeting in West Palm Beach in March. Sources say that Lurie challenged the room to try to “change the paradigm,” and it wasn’t so much an affront to the officials, the league office or anyone else—it was a push for everyone to create a better on-field product. That includes making sure the game is called correctly, ensuring the rules are enforced in a pragmatic and non-draconian fashion and making the play on the field—not how the game is governed—the main focus.
“It didn’t seem like it was directed at Al [Riveron] or the officiating department,” texted one person in the room. “More it was what should and shouldn’t be a focus … whether more or less penalties should be called, pace of play, etc.”
2. My understanding is that CBA talks have been steady, and there have been in-person meetings between the league and union. The tentpole issues remain—though the NFL has offered financial inducements to get the players to agree to expanding the regular season to 17 games. Lots of things have to come together to get a collective bargaining agreement done, so finishing one before union president Eric Winston’s term is up in March won’t be easy. But it’s not impossible, and things remain far more amicable than they were in the two-year run-up to the 2011 lockout.
3. I’ve continually been told that some of the league’s most powerful owners are motivated to do a deal with the players, because they believe they have bigger fish to fry—first a new set of broadcast deals, then gambling initiatives. Further pushing them is that the time is right to get new deals with the networks. Ratings are booming, and cord-cutting has only boosted the value that live sporting events.
4. The Patriots/Bengals investigation remains ongoing. Here’s what I know: New England had a crew to shoot one of their pro scouts, who was advancing Cincinnati in Cleveland, for their in-house “Do Your Job” series on different behind-the-scenes workers in the organization. The crew, in an effort to illustrate what the scout does during games, set up a tripod in the press box, and trained the camera to the Bengals’ bench area. The camera was right in front of a row full of Bengals scouts. One noticed where the camera was shooting, he went to another team official, who took it to a league official on hand. The league official confronted the camera man, and eventually took his SD card.
As for what’s on the video, I’m told part of it goes back and forth between the coaches and the players—first showing the coaches, then panning to the players, and then back. I can buy the Patriots’ explanation, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t stupid. That organization cannot be caught screwing around with cameras. And yet …
5. Cowboys officials made themselves scarce at the league meeting, which is a bit of a rarity. Big decisions ahead for Dallas...
WEEK 15 WATCH LIST
Saints DE Cam Jordan: The four-time Pro Bowler has quietly put together a case for Defensive Player of the Year with 13.5 sacks through 13 games, and he’ll be even more important after a catastrophic Sunday for his d-line cost New Orleans both Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport for the year. The Saints host a reeling Colts team that has a really good offensive line on Monday night.
Chiefs S Tyrann Mathieu: He’s been the key to a revival on the defensive side of the ball in Kansas City, and he’s huge in communication and disguise for coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Both those will be key as the Chiefs try and cross up a rookie quarterback, Drew Lock, in his third career start.
Rams CB Jalen Ramsey: If you take out the Ravens game (and I know, you can’t really do that), the Rams have allowed just five offensive touchdowns in six games since trading for Ramsey, and have legitimately carried what had been an offensively-centered team over Sean McVay’s first two years through some bumps. Next up for Ramsey: Amari Cooper.
Titans QB Ryan Tannehill: What he’s doing is so out of this world that I can’t keep him off the list, especially with a huge game in Houston on tap. He’s posted a passer rating exceeding 130 four weeks in a row. He’d never done that even twice in a row over seven years in Miami.
Eagles OT Halapoulivaati Vaitai: Doug Pederson has said the Eagles need to be better up front, and the line lost Lane Johnson is Monday’s comeback win over the Giants. Now on a short week, the battle-tested Vaitai steps in, and how he plays will be vital to what state Philly goes into the home stretch in.
TWO FOR SATURDAY
The Heisman Trophy finalists were announced on Monday night. We already featured Ohio State DE Chase Young and LSU QB Joe Burrow, so here’s a look at the other two:
Ohio State QB Justin Fields: The 6' 3", 223-pound true sophomore has the NFL’s attention just 13 starts into his college career. After transferring to Ohio State from Georgia, his first season in Columbus saw him throw 40 touchdowns against a single pick—and he’s said to have run the 40 in 4.4 seconds.
“He’s got incredible arm strength, and can make throws from the pocket and on the move,” one NFC scout said. “Ball placement and accuracy can be streaky but he’s up around 67% right now. ... He knows exactly what he’s doing but I don’t know if he knows ‘why’ all the time. I think teams have spun some blitzes at him late and coverages, and he needs an offseason of cleaning that recognition up. (But) he’s supremely talented, and sky is the limit with him.”
Like Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Fields was the No. 2 overall recruit in the 2018 high school class out of the Atlanta area. And with another year under his belt, his wait on draft night two Aprils from now might now be much longer than Lawrence’s.
Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts: After three years at Alabama, Hurts transferred to Lincoln Riley’s quarterback factory and posted his best statistical season by a country mile. His 3,634 yards were nearly a thousand more than his previous career high, his 32 touchdown passes were nine more than he had in any season at Bama, and he only threw seven picks while keeping his completion percentage in the low 70s. And there’s no question he improved.
“Strong. Good athlete. Leader. Still struggles with accuracy issues,” texted one AFC exec. “He’s still the same overall player, but he has improved from an accuracy standpoint. He is still not as accurate as he needs to be for our league, but to say he has not improved is wrong.”
An AFC exec added, “Really dialed-in kid, loves football, but not really a natural thrower of the football. Does not really process post-snap information very quickly, and that is the biggest thing that jumps out to me on tape. When everything is clean, he throws a decent ball, but he really doesn’t feel natural enough back there to have staying power as a starting quarterback. He’ll be a backup in the NFL. I bet he goes Day 3.”
I wrote a couple weeks ago that scouts I’ve talked to believe he’ll go in the Dak Prescott range—Dak went at the top of fourth round. I’d say I still feel that way headed into the College Football Playoff.
MY POWER RANKING BALLOT
Every week, The MMQB staff votes on our power ranking poll to come to one consensus ranking. Here’s the top five from my ballot this week.
1. Baltimore Ravens: The defense stepped up in a big road win over the Bills. One thing to watch—the Bills creatively used their safeties to muddy things for Lamar Jackson in the run game. Will some copycatting follow? While the Jets may be overmatched on Thursday Night Football, they have the safeties to try what Buffalo did.
2. San Francisco 49ers: This is the inverse of what we saw out of Baltimore—the offense came alive to win a game for a team that’s been defense-driven through the year. And don’t look now, but Jimmy Garoppolo is just starting to hit his stride.
3. New Orleans Saints: I have the Saints holding steady for now, but you better believe that their defensive line injuries have me a little concerned. Plus, Marshon Lattimore is nicked up and not quite himself.
4. Seattle Seahawks: They get a mulligan for a bad night in Los Angeles against a suddenly surging Rams team, mostly because a lot of other teams at the top lost.
5. New England Patriots: Spygate 2 might be just what Bill Belichick needed to ignite his team heading into January, so long as they get their offensive line issues sorted out (second-year left tackle Isaiah Wynn’s been shaky coming back from injury).
WHAT I WANT IN WEEK 15
I want to see Baker Mayfield take control of a game early, and not let go. The Browns should be able to win going away in Arizona, and this should be a get-right game for the entire offense.
But beyond just that, with the week the team’s had, given everything that’s happened and is still happening there, this feels like the kind of spot where Baker Mayfield the Oklahoma Sooner would drop a screw-you performance on the opponent and into the collective lap of his critic. I’m still not sure we’ve seen that sort of thing from Baker Mayfield the Cleveland Brown.
This would be a good time for it, to pull the Browns back to .500 with two weeks to go.
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