As the Texans were burying the Chiefs under 24 points at the suddenly-silent Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City receiver Sammy Watkins sought out rookie Mecole Hardman with a pointed message.
You’re gonna do something to spark us.
And spark them, he did.
A Houston field goal had just made it 24–0 with just under 11 minutes left in the first half when Hardman took the kickoff and found a seam right up Main Street. The second-round pick hit it, then cut to a wide-open right of the field. Fifty-eight yards later, the game was changed for good.
“He sparked us,” Watkins said a few hours after the fact. “We went down there and scored, and after that, we were on fire. Energy was contagious, everybody just feeding off each other. And it just kept on, trickled down into the defense getting stops and turning the ball over, and we’re scoring and we couldn’t be stopped.”
The rest of the afternoon, the defense clamped down, the offense partied like it was 2018 and the Chiefs made coming back from 24–0 look like converting a mildly-challenging third-and-long. The score the rest of the way: Chiefs 51, Texans 7, giving the home team a 51-31 win and the chance to potentially erase the memory of last year’s AFC title game loss.
Maybe the best sign here? All it took was that little rumble from Hardman. The truth is, the Chiefs have been waiting for this one for some time.
The divisional round weekend is in the books and the coaching carousel is finally starting to slow down, so we’ve got you covered end-to-end this morning, with material on…
• How the Bills’ blueprint for restraining Lamar Jackson paid dividends for the Titans.
• The 49ers’ intelligence on the Vikings allowing them to smother Mike Zimmer’s crew.
• The Packers rolling the dice.
• Mike McCarthy being the right coach for right now in Dallas.
• Joe Judge’s view of his special team.
But we’re starting with a Kansas City offense that was reborn on Sunday.
Understanding why the Chiefs haven’t been as strong on offense as they were last year isn’t difficult. Left tackle Eric Fisher and guards Andre Wylie and Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff missed a combined 16 games this season. Wideout Tyreek Hill missed four games, and Watkins and Patrick Mahomes missed two apiece. Put it together, and the projected top offense didn’t play together as a unit from mid-September until December.
Once they did get healthy, there were some expected bumps. But the guys in that huddle, especially the ones who were around last year, trusted that things would turn around. Maybe they didn’t expect it to happen via a kick return from a guy who was still on campus at Georgia this time last year.
“I'm not a huge momentum guy,” tackle Mitchell Schwartz told me on his ride home from Arrowhead. “But you could definitely feel the energy and the buzz.”
So what had been sucked out of the stadium—thanks to miscues, like the blocked punt and muffed punt that led directly to 14 points—was breathed back in. And then last year’s MVP got rolling again.
Mahomes hit Travis Kelce on an out-breaking route for 25 yards on the first play after Hardman’s return, then hit Damien Williams down the seam for a 17-yard touchdown—the first of seven straight possessions by the Chiefs that ended in a touchdown. Before that, Mahomes was four for 10 for 43 yards; after, he was 19 of 25 for 278 yards and five touchdowns. Kansas City didn’t punt in the final three quarters, nor did a possession fail to end in a score, outside of three kneel-downs at the end of the game.
This, of course, is the team who we thought the Chiefs would be and could be before the injuries hit—and maybe this is the team they’re becoming.
“This wasn’t a good year health-wise for this team,” Schwartz said. “So getting everyone back and then having a few weeks to kind of mesh it all together—we’re kind of chasing the greatness we had last year and trying to do that this year.”
“I’d rather get the injuries out of the way early than late,” Watkins said. “And now we’ve got to continue, pick it back up, like we did today. The offense played the best that we’ve ever played.”
The best? “This is the best,” he said.
And his reasoning? Getting so many different players in the passing game and running game involved, and Mahomes once again rounding into MVP form.
Here’s the scary part: While that was happening with the offense, the defense has pulled itself together behind new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and DE Frank Clark and safety Tyrann Mathieu.
“It feels like a more complete team,” Schwartz said. “Not to say anything against the defense last year—those guys led the NFL in QB pressure and sacks and hits and all those things, which is really the key to the NFL these days—but it does feel like this team is well-rounded. The past month or two, we’ve relied on those guys to keep games close, and we’ve been able to put them away late. It’s exciting.”
Up next? Kansas City is one win away from the franchise’s first Super Bowl berth since Len Dawson was tearing through Lucky Strikes at halftime, and the sixth-seeded Titans are all that’s in their way.
The Chiefs have had a tougher path than last year’s team did, and they’re not going to let a play like Dee Ford lining up offside at the least opportune time get them again, as it did last season against the Patriots. The players they’ve been hardened by its experience. We’ll know in a few days.
“It’s stuck with us a lot,” Watkins said, referencing last year’s title game. “And I tell people, ‘Man, I don’t think God’s going to make another mistake.’ We took that one to the chin pretty hard. And now we’ve got the same opportunity coming.
“So hopefully we can go out there and do the same thing—move the ball around and have fun and play fast and enjoy it, and do it with a purpose of trying to get into the Super Bowl.”
Now, all they have to do next week is pick up where they left off.
THE TITANS GO TO SCHOOL
The Ravens’ last meaningful game against another contender was 34 days before Saturday’s divisional round. And it was that game, in Buffalo, that did in the AFC’s top seed. Confused? I’ll explain.
While the month-long layoff between showdowns probably didn’t help, something else that happened in Orchard Park in early December was more damaging in the long run: The Bills put on tape a blueprint for how to defend Lamar Jackson and the Ravens.
Buffalo didn’t win five weeks ago, but the team held Jackson to his second lowest yards-per-attempt (5.8) and yards-per-carry (3.6) averages of the season, and it put its offense in position to take the game at the wire. In doing so, the Bills handed Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees a foundation on which to build.
“It’s funny, because a lot of people don’t fully understand football at the level Dean Pees does,” corner Logan Ryan told me postgame. “Everyone’s like, ‘Well, how you gonna spy [Jackson]?’ Well, he can outrun almost every spy. So our whole thing was, we wanted to give him loaded boxes, pack the paint, play the receivers inside-out and make him throw field comebacks, have eight, nine in the box, play quarters coverage, man coverage, play cat coverage, where we say, ‘You have this cat, I have this cat.’
“It was a lot of what Buffalo did to them, where we have rules, real strict option football rules, with an eight-man, nine-man box, and corners on their own. Buffalo played them like that. Buffalo played them really well. It’s just, Buffalo’s offense didn’t score touchdowns.”
The Titans offense did put up the scores, while the defensive plan went as well as anyone could have hoped. The result was a stunning 28–12 upset that didn’t seem even that close most of the evening. And really, it was as Ryan laid out.
Tennessee flooded the box, trusting the defensive backs to cover without much help behind them. The coaches had those DBs take away throws over the middle, forcing Jackson to throw outside the numbers. Up front, they were strict on the kind of assignment football you’d deploy against Army or Navy in the run game—putting one defender on the quarterback, another on the dive, and a third on pitch—and they rushed with the purpose of crowding Jackson’s space, not flushing him from the pocket.
After talking to some Buffalo people Sunday morning, I can say the game plans weren’t identical. The Bills disguised coverage more, while the Titans manned up the Ravens more, and Buffalo was a little more aggressive with its pass rush.
But the ideas were close enough, and both worked. The Bills had one bust that resulted in a 61-yard touchdown pass from Jackson to Hayden Hurst. Outside of that? The Ravens had 196 yards on 58 plays. Conversely, the Titans gave up yards (530) but were so good situationally that it didn’t matter. The Ravens were 0-for-4 on fourth down, scored just 12 points on four trips to red zone and turned the ball over three times.
On the first turnover, Jackson was picked off when a ball bounced off tight end Mark Andrews’ hands into Tennessee safety Kevin Byard’s. That set up an eight-play, 35-yard drive to give Tennessee its first lead. The first fourth-down stop, on the first play of the second quarter set up a sudden-change strike from Ryan Tannehill to Kalif Raymond on the very next play.
And by going up 14–0 early, the Titans did something else: they took the Ravens out of their element. Before the game, coach Mike Vrabel showed the players Baltimore’s first-quarter statistics, highlighting an NFL-best plus-97 point margin, which reinforced how, if the Titans got out of the gate with force, they’d send Baltimore looking for answers.
“We were patient,” Ryan said. “And we got the turnovers. And once we got the turnovers and got the lead, it got them out of their normal offense—and he became a quarterback who had to throw the ball 40 times. And if Jackson has to throw the ball 40 times, that’s not his strength. Our offense did a good job of getting us the lead, and we did a good job of making them kick field goals.
“And then we were playing from ahead, and then it’s a different game.”
The overarching theme? The Titans came in aggressively—with their edgy D-line, their sticky secondary, their bullying offensive line, their resurgent veteran backup quarterback and their monster of a rushing champion—and Vrabel’s collection of ass-kickers, well, kicked ass.
“The biggest thing is we weren’t afraid of them,” said Ryan, who won two Super Bowls with New England. “We weren’t afraid of the black uniforms, we weren’t afraid of the ghost of Ray Lewis. We came out there and played them for who they were. We checked them. And we ended up executing and winning.”
With that, Ryan called this Titans group “special,” one that’s playing free and without the burden of expectation. “No one expected us to win but us,” he said. And when I mentioned how much it seemed he loved his team, Ryan laughed.
“Pick us next week, man—pick us and we’ll see,” he said, before thinking about it for a minute. “Actually, don’t pick us.”
Maybe no one will next week, either. As Saturday night showed, they’ll be ready regardless.
FOR SAN FRANCISCO, FAMILIARITY BREEDS SUCCESS
In 2019 the Vikings offense—riding the promotion of Kevin Stefanski to offensive coordinator, the addition of Gary Kubiak as assistant head coach and the rebirth of Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook as stars—ranked eighth in scoring and sixth in rushing. The team then took down the Saints in the wild-card round. And all of the things that helped them get right this year led them right into a buzzsaw of a matchup on Saturday afternoon. Consider…
• 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan has been around Kubiak’s system since he was a teenager, has run it as a play-caller for 12 years and is surrounded by offensive assistants steeped in it.
• His defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh, has coached against it in practice in eight of his 14 NFL seasons.
So that’s how you get the kind of defensive beatdown that keyed the 49ers’ 27–10 rout of the Vikings. With the bye week to work on it, and a virtual overflow of institutional knowledge in the building, San Francisco put together a plan that, outside of one first-quarter play and some garbage-time yardage, absolutely suffocated Minnesota.
“Just giving them different looks up front, not staying in the same front every single time so they know where everybody’s gonna be—I feel like that really helped with us stopping the run,” defensive tackle DeForest Buckner told me postgame. “Also, the coaches did a really good job learning their protections and relaying the game plan in the pass game for us, in how we could get one-on-ones up front.
“Overall, I feel like the guys really dug into their playbooks this week, and watched as much film as they could and executed throughout practice, and it all came to life on game day.”
The 49ers, all year, played predominantly in an “over” front, and they had a pretty good idea of how the Vikings would attack it. So on the first few series, San Francisco gave Minnesota every look they could, and never lined up in the same front two snaps in a row—they played some of their “over” front, some “under” fronts, some “Bear” fronts and even some looks with two defensive tackles in 2i (shaded inside the guard) techniques.
The coaches felt that by doing this, they’d screw up the Vikings’ offensive linemen’s targeting, and that showed in the number of unblocked defenders. It also was apparent in the stats:
• Through 33 plays, the Vikings had 81 yards. Forty-one of those came on Stefon Diggs’s first-quarter touchdown, on which Ahkello Witherspoon fell down. Which means they had 40 yards on the other 32 plays.
• The Vikings failed to pick up a first down on seven of their first nine possessions and had a total of four first downs in the first 55 minutes.
• On three of those nine possessions, Minnesota actually netted negative yardage.
Was Buckner surprised by those numbers after the game?
“Definitely not,” he said. “The preparation, from the bye, this past week, guys really honing in on their jobs and taking it personally—the coaches came up with a great gameplan, and we all just executed today. We trusted one another. I’m definitely not surprised, but those are some great numbers right there.”
There was one other element to getting there: Shanahan’s knowledge of Cousins himself, something that makes Cousins like most quarterbacks.
“[Shanahan] pretty much said they like to keep him clean, with boots and play action,” Buckner said. “And also that he doesn’t like to get hit, so we just had to make sure up front that we were doing a good job having constant pressure on him and making him uncomfortable in the pocket. And he would start seeing ghosts, and then the guys could really start getting after him. I feel like we did a really good job with that.”
Indeed, on the first offensive play of the second quarter, Arik Armstead sacked Cousins off play action. That messed with him the rest of the way. It was the start of a seven-possession stretch in which the Niners allowed a total of eight yards and one first down, which ended any shot the Vikings had.
Of course, this was about more than just scheme. Rest was a factor, too. The Niners’ bye came in Week 3, so a lot of guys really needed the week off to get their legs back. Having Dee Ford back in the lineup didn’t hurt, either. And then there’s the talent on hand. The defensive line alone has five former first-rounders on it, with Buckner and Ford joined by Armstead, Solomon Thomas and all-world rookie Nick Bosa.
“Obviously, having five first-round picks on our defensive line, it’s unreal,” Buckner said. “When you see it on paper, it’s great. But at the end of the day, you gotta execute as well. All the guys, we all know our own ability, our capabilities, and we know what we bring to the table. So we gotta just bring our skill sets to the table. Hopefully, it’s enough for the entire team to be able to feed off our energy, and we can feed off theirs, and turn all these games in to wins.”
One more will put the Niners back in the Super Bowl.
RODGERS COMES THROUGH IN CRUNCH TIME
Just after midnight Eastern, I asked a high-ranking Packers staffer about Matt LaFleur’s decision-making down the stretch. In two key spots where just about any coach would pack it in, hand the ball off and either burn clock or force the other team to burn a timeout, the Packers first-year head coach did the opposite.
“When you got a dude like Aaron Rodgers,” the Packers’ staffer said, “you go win the game.”
Which is what the Packers offense did.
The final at Lambeau was 28–23, but somehow, late in the fourth quarter, even after Russell Wilson rallied the Seahawks from a 28–10 deficit, it never felt like whatever shot Seattle at an upset was that great. And that related directly to what Rodgers was doing to Pete Carroll & Co. at the most critical time.
The Seahawks closed to within five with a little less than 10 minutes to go, plenty of time for any offense to a come back. Rodgers responded by converting a third-and-10 with an 11-yard strike to Geronimo Allison, then picked up another first down on a 14-yard run. In extending that drive twice, Green Bay took nearly five minutes off the clock.
The Packers defense got a stop. And thanks to Rodgers, Seattle wouldn’t see the ball again. And on the two clinching plays, the coaches showed the kind of faith in their quarterback that was examined and questioned just a few months ago.
Play 1: Third-and-eight, Packers 22, 2:19 left. Seeing man coverage, Rodgers gave Adams a look. Adams angled his route toward the corner, but kept looking in. Without a spectacular throw or great catch, the play doesn’t happen. Green Bay gets both. Rodgers laces the ball over Ugo Amadi and into the outstretched arms of Adams, who hauls it in despite the safety closing fast on him.
Play 2: Third-and-nine, Seahawks 45, 2:00 left. Again in man, Rodgers is going to have to give guys a chance to get open, and this time it takes a while. Rodgers holds it, holds it, holds it, waiting for his target to clear. And boom—the quarterback finds tight end Jimmy Graham over the middle, with hands up and in his face, for the nine yards he needs.
And that’s the game.
That’s what a great quarterback does. When another one is on the field, and rallying like Wilson was, Rodgers kept the ball out of his hands.
SI Gambling: Check out this week’s best bets against the spread from SI’s gambling experts for the conference title games.
THE COACHING CAROUSEL STOPS SPINNING
I don’t know what we’ll remember about the 2020 NFL head coach hiring cycle five years from now. But I know this today: College football’s influence on the NFL game was felt. The Panthers broke the bank to pry Matt Rhule from Baylor and keep him from the Giants. The Giants hired a coach who’s equal parts Bill Belichick and Nick Saban protégé. And even in places where a college coach wasn’t brought in, like Dallas, there was a lot of contemplation.
“I won’t say specific names, but Jerry and I spent a lot of time talking about college head football coaches,” Cowboys COO Stephen Jones told me Friday. “We talked about specific ones. We went down that road hard, internally, between the two of us in particular, but my brother [Jerry Jr.] weighed in and we talked to [VP of Player Personnel] Will [McClay]. We did our diligence. We just didn’t have anybody in for a formal interview.
“And in a lot of ways, that was by design, because these guys have jobs, they’re recruiting and you don’t want to rock boats.”
Stephen Jones knew the landscape well, too, because his son John Stephen, now playing at Arkansas, was recruited by guys like Matt Rhule and Lincoln Riley.
“I really got to understand what they were all about as head coaches philosophically, those type of things, so yeah, it was fortunate that I did have some real insight into some of these guys,” Jones said.
I expect this trend will continue, with the lines between college and pro becoming increasingly blurry. For now, let’s go through some quick hits on the now-complete 2019 hiring cycle.
Dallas plays it safe with Mike McCarthy. The Cowboys just paid Zeke Elliott, they’re about to pay Dak Prescott, they have to decide on paying Amari Cooper, and they have an offensive line that’s been paid and isn’t getting younger. On defense, there’s growing talent in need for leadership. Add all that up, and as Jerry and Stephen Jones saw it, this just wasn’t the time to roll the dice on a college coach or young coordinator. So, yes, the decision to hire the former Packers coach was about the current roster.
“No question,” Jones said. “With the roster and the shape that it was in—a lot of good players in their prime—it was the right thing to do. We came down pretty quickly, we wanted to find a coach with NFL head coaching experience.
“It just so happens that there was a head coach who’d been wildly successful in Green Bay, not only having winning teams, but getting to the playoffs and then having success there, the three championship games, lost a tough two and then won one, and won the Super Bowl. So the more we got in and we talked with him and you knew the skins he had on the wall, the success that he’s had, it just made all the sense for us that he was our guy.”
That said, Jones reiterated that he and his father did “look hard” at the college level, and the Cowboys were prepared to go there if a second phase to the search proved necessary. But the first phase, which included Stephen Jones’s old friends on the competition committee Jeff Fisher (over the phone) and Marvin Lewis (in person).
The other thing Jones wanted to clear up: I’d heard the now ex-Cowboys coach was over at Jerry Jones’s house on the Friday after the season ended, a day before McCarthy came in. Stephen Jones wouldn’t confirm that, but he did say that the decision to let Garrett go was tough for his whole family, and the communication with Garrett was constant through it.
“Really, Jerry wanted to do what Jason wanted to do every step of the way,” Stephen said. “And the big thing he needed Jason to understand was that he was going to move forward with the coaching search and that he was going to be contacting coaches and doing our diligence, and we didn’t want that to be disrespectful to him. Jason chose the timing on this, every step of the way. It was important to us that we try to accommodate him, regardless of what the press said on a lot of stuff.
“Unfortunately, they had this one wrong every step of the way, and we didn’t feel compelled to say anything about it. If Jason wanted to elaborate on it, he could. But, for the most part, everything that came out about Jason and our interaction with was wrong.”
Judge presiding in New York. Here’s an oddity in the NFL: A coach of a certain type was hired a while back, was wildly successful, even winning a Super Bowl, and it took the other 31 teams a dozen years to even attempt to replicate the model. Strange, right?
That’s the story here. The Ravens hired John Harbaugh in 2008. He’s been to the playoffs eight times, won four division titles, and captured a Super Bowl. And yet, Joe Judge’s hire last week was the first of a special teams coach since Harbaugh landed in Baltimore.
“I have more respect for John Harbaugh as a coach overall than I am trying to mirror anything he’s done,” Judge said to me the other day. Then, he agreed that coaching special teams does, at least on paper, prepare a guy to be a head coach, which is a point his old boss, Bill Belichick, has made over and over again over the years. And he actually took that point further than I’ve heard it taken before.
“You definitely learn working with the special teams the value of the entire roster and how everybody is used,” Judge said from his office. “You definitely learn how to find everybody’s strengths and how to incorporate them into a game plan as necessary. The biggest thing I’ve really learned, when you’re coaching special teams, it’s not about positions, it’s about body types. And you have to really learn how to look at a total player.
“You’re not looking at a guy as a tight end or a linebacker, you’re looking at him in terms of what kind of matchups they can be a part of, and you’re looking at how they move in space. It could be a defensive guy—well, you evaluate how he tackles, how he moves space. If it’s an offensive guy, you look how he blocks by how reacts and tracks movement. So you really learn to look at the big picture of what a player is.”
That’s great, of course, but it’s also not exactly what the general public thinks about when a team is looking for a new head coach, and Judge is aware of that too. He knows where everyone’s been on this over the last seven days. Rhule probably would’ve been a popular hire, Garrett wouldn’t have been, and, in comparison, Judge’s hire was met with a collective “Who?”
But Judge has been around enough winning, both with the Patriots and at Alabama, to have a pretty decent feel for what will really play with a fanbase. He could be coming in from a field hockey team—if he wins, the rest won’t matter. And so he’ll build it taking what he can from guys like Belichick and Saban, with one big lesson from both as a foundation.
“I can tell you what they did for me, it’s the same thing: it was on a daily basis being very demanding, and being very detail-oriented,” Judge said. “Giving me responsibility and making me come through with others depending on me, that’s the best thing they could’ve done for me.”
The leverage game. I do think there’s a lot about the Panthers’ job that appealed to Rhule from the start. New owner David Tepper was going to give his new coach a relatively blank slate to work from in football ops (allowing him to set up strength and conditioning, video, etc., etc.), and that would be ideal for most coaches coming from the college game, where they run the whole show.
But it certainly didn’t hurt having multiple suitors. It helped to force the Giants to consider some structural changes to appease Rhule, to which I think that they’d have been amenable. It also made it so both had to show their hands to him early last week. And ultimately, it landed him a contract that’ll be worth between $60 million and $70 million over the next seven years. That’s unheard of for a first-time head coach.
Rhule’s use of his leverage helped Judge use his. He interviewed with Mississippi State eight days ago and was believed to be his alma mater’s top choice. With that in hand, and the Panthers closing on Rhule, he could go to the Giants after interviewing last Monday and press for an answer. A lot of people have asked why the Giants had to move based on Mississippi State. That’s easy. Judge had a shot at a job at a place that was capable of paying its coach $5 million per, and it was a place he had an attachment to.
At that point, the Giants had to make a decision, because Judge had to make a decision. Judge wasn’t passing on Mississippi State if the Giants job wasn’t his, meaning the Giants were picking between Judge and the field; either they hire him or move forward with their search. So why the former? Judge crushed the interview. Belichick called John Mara with a glowing recommendation. The Giants moved decisively. Judge said no to his school.
“I don’t want to say anything on their process, I don’t think that’d be fair to them, in terms of where their search was,” Judge said. “As the appeal of the job, obviously there’s an emotional connection, it’s my alma mater, my wife went there as well. We got married down there, had our first son down there. So it’ll always be a home to us. But when this opportunity came up, it was definitely one I wanted to pursue. And after sitting down with the Mara and Tisch families, this was where I wanted to be.”
A word on the Browns. It was always going to be starting over (Josh McDaniels) versus going forward with a revised version of what they’ve been building the last five years (Kevin Stefanski).
McDaniels, I’m told, was very impressive, and had a thorough, detailed plan for what he wanted to do with the organization. My sense is that it would’ve meant change on a lot of different levels, change in the reporting structure—a lot of turnover throughout the building. I don’t think this was about personnel control. I think it was more about how the entire football operation was aligned, with guys like Pats exec Dave Ziegler coming aboard.
Stefanski really did blow the Browns away last year, and in his first go-round as a head coach won’t require as much change. Paul DePodesta, whose contract was close to expiration going into the search, can probably continue in his role as chief strategy officer, largely from his home in San Diego. Andrew Berry, a favorite of DePodesta and owner Jimmy Haslam, will likely return after a year away as the Eagles’ VP of football operations. And Berry and Stefanski have the beginnings of a relationship, having kept in touch after last January’s interview in Berea.
Now, here’s the question: Why would the Browns run back DePodesta and Berry, a couple guys who were in positions of power in 2016 and ’17, years when the team went 1–31? The answer, I think, is that Haslam wants to go deeper into analytics, all-in this time with a coach who lines up with the front office, and he listened to the brass’ pitch that it be involved at every level, even game-planning.
(In doing so, he’s implicitly blaming coaching for everything that went wrong in 2016 and ’17.)
So Stefanski it is. And the reason why is easy: Because, really, that’s what the owner wants.
The 49ers have a raft of people who deserve credit for their rebuild. Let me give some here to CEO Jed York. He was smart enough, and humble enough, in 2017 to recognize that the issues the team had would only be fixed if he took a back seat and empowered the people he hired. Then, he found someone brilliant, in Shanahan, and surrounded him with people he trusts. The rest is history.
I liked the idea of the Bears bringing in Pat Shurmur as Matt Nagy’s offensive coordinator, and the reason why goes back to what Nagy’s been trying to do since he got the job there two years ago: deepening the thinktank he’s been trying to build. After seeing Shurmur go to Denver, I think Chicago should make a run at Kansas City quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka, who those with the Chiefs believe is ready to be an OC.
The Bengals have a quarterback need, the first pick, and a date to coach at the Senior Bowl next week. Here are the three guys on their roster (which is subject to change) for the game in Mobile: Alabama’s Jalen Hurts, Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Colorado’s Steven Montez. And what you need to know, really, with those three—and this is assuming LSU’s Joe Burrow doesn’t accept his invitation late—is that Herbert is the one capable of putting together a week like Carson Wentz did in 2016 and muddying the waters on who should go first. (Hurts could also be interesting to Cincinnati later in the draft, in a Taysom Hill kind of way.)
Bills assistant GM Joe Schoen was mentioned a bunch in connection to the Browns GM job this week—he and fellow Buffalo execs Dan Morgan and Brian Gaine were all in on offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s potential GM list, had Daboll landed the Cleveland job.
The Broncos’ logic on switching out coordinators was pretty simple and has been in the works for a while: Vic Fangio wanted a more aggressive offense to mirror his defense. Former OC Rich Scangarello wasn’t sold on QB Drew Lock in the beginning and was conservative with him when he did play. (To be fair, Denver was top five in fewest giveaways.) And when Fangio instructed Scangarello to be more aggressive a couple times during the year, it didn’t manifest in any more explosive plays. That, plus some staff friction, put Scangarello’s job status on my radar around Thanksgiving, and so the only surprise now is that it didn’t happen faster after the season ended. The hope is that incoming coordinator Shurmur can generate more big plays (his offenses have been good in that area in recent years), to go with the experience and quarterback knowhow that Lock should benefit from.
If the Browns do go with Berry, that could lead to more moves in the front office. Berry’s been a scout in the past, but really his strength in Philly has been in his ability to do a little bit of everything. That probably prepares him to be a GM, but it will leave Cleveland with two guys at the top of the personnel department (Berry and DePodesta) who don’t have pure scouting backgrounds, which puts the future of assistant GM Eliot Wolf and VP of player personnel Alonzo Highsmith, two Dorsey hires and loyalists, in focus.
Ex-Bengals/Raiders/Cardinals QB Carson Palmer was making the rounds last week, and I thought what he said to my buddies at the Rich Eisen Showwas interesting. Palmer, of course, flourished under Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians in Arizona. He was asked about Jameis Winston’s fit in Arians’ offense. His response: “You don’t have that experience in Year 1. You need Year 1 to go back and watch the film and see yourself doing it wrong and the receivers seeing themselves doing it wrong, and then Year 2, really things start to click. That chemistry starts to develop and that trust and that confidence in the offense starts to develop. If Jameis is back in Tampa, I would expect Year 2 to be a massive year for him.” We’ll see.
The Cardinals spent three draft picks last April on receivers, and the last pick of the three—the first pick of the sixth round, KeeSean Johnson—was the only one to hit even double digits in catches. So it figures that that trio (Johnson, second-rounder Andy Isabella and fourth-rounder Hakeem Butler) are entering a pretty critical offseason.
We’re going to hit on the Chargers’ future at quarterback in the top five, but there’s very little question that the offensive line is gonna have to be a lot better for this to be an attractive landing spot. That means Russell Okung and Mike Pouncey staying healthy at an advanced age. It also may mean decisions on Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney.
This will get lost in the explosion of offense at Arrowhead, but here’s Chiefs DE Frank Clark’s stat line: four tackles, three sacks, four quarterback hits. The ex-Seahawk was constantly around or on top of Deshaun Watson, and showed what GM Brett Veach and Co. were doing by dealing away first- and second-round picks for him, then turning around and handing him $21 million per year.
I can’t imagine that Colts assistant GM Ed Dodds thinks of leaving Indy now that the coach he was attached to, 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, didn’t get the Browns job—and that’s great news for Indy GM Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich. Dodds quietly has become one of the most respected names in the scouting community, having built his resume as a trusted voice as a road scout for Seahawks GM John Schneider before Ballard poached him and put him in his front office. And maybe missing out on Cleveland winds up being a blessing in disguise for Dodds, whose shot is coming.
With the news that Marc Colombo is out, the heralded Cowboys offensive line is set to have its fifth position coach in seven years. Maybe, because of the talent on hand, it won’t matter much. But when this group has suffered from inconsistency the last few years, it’s largely been connected to movement on the coaching staff.
The Dolphins’ new defensive coordinator, Josh Boyer, was one of a number of ex-Patriots assistants to turn down an extension and let his contract lapse in New England two years ago, feeling he’d hit a glass ceiling there. Now, he gets his shot, replacing Pat Graham, who’s heading to the Giants, as defensive coordinator. Here’s hoping, for his sake, it works out better than Chad O’Shea’s run did.
The Eagles’ offensive coordinator situation played out interestingly this week, with coach Doug Pederson saying Mike Groh was safe one day, then talking to owner Jeffrey Lurie and firing him the next. So what happened? Putting the pieces together, I think Philly was eyeing Dallas coordinator Kellen Moore, thinking a new coach would let him go. That didn’t happen. Mike McCarthy kept Moore. And maybe at that point Pederson wanted to pull back on the idea of whacking offensive coaches. And maybe Lurie had already gotten in his head they were making changes. So here we are.
The TMZ people ask weird questions of people getting off planes. So it was that Falcons WR Julio Jones got asked about fellow Alabama product Tua Tagovailoa, and if he’d want Tagovailoa on his team. “We got our franchise quarterback there in Matt Ryan,” Jones said plainly. Controversy: Averted.
Here’s Judge, when I asked if he’d talked to his new Giants players yet: “I’m in the process now of reaching out to everybody. A number of players have come by my office, guys that are in town. Before early next week I’ll have talked to every player, at least on the phone to make sure I introduce myself, put a voice or a face with a name, and make sure I can answer any questions they may have.” One other thing on Judge is that I don’t think he’ll necessarily just pluck ex-Patriots assistants for his staff. His plan is go get guys who have a similar vision for football to his. The specific Xs-and-Os part of it, of course, can be learned.
The Jaguars’ reworked brass said at the wrap-up presser that bringing back DE Yannick Ngakoue is the team’s top priority. That’s nice and all, but I do not expect the sentiment to do much to get the star pass-rusher to take anything less than full market value to stay. Last summer, Tom Coughlin’s mishandling of the negotiation—he drew a hard line early on talks, after delaying those talks for months—angered Ngakoue and directly led to his decision to hold out. Even if Coughlin’s gone, that’s not the sort of thing a player forgets.
It was in the news this week that the Jets may be ready to let WR Robby Anderson walk. I’d say that’s pretty likely. Anderson could command an eight-figure salary. And I’m not sure I see GM Joe Douglas paying someone who has the issues Anderson’s had this early in his tenure, particularly with a bumper crop coming in the draft at that position.
Good hire by the Lions, bringing a young special teams coach in Brayden Coombs from the Bengals. Coombs’ dad, Kerry, is a corners coach with the Titans—and is expected to head back to Ohio State, where he was from 2012–16, to replace Jeff Hafley (now the Boston College head coach) as the Buckeyes co-defensive coordinator when Tennessee’s season ends. The younger Coombs will make his Lions coaching debut against, yup, the Bengals’ staff in the Senior Bowl.
Packers OLB Za’Darius Smith is absolutely right. He was snubbed.
I’m not sure when the Panthers are going to hire their new assistant GM. What I do know is that Rhule will have input in the process of finding one, and it sounds like there’s a pretty decent chance that person is groomed by Marty Hurney to eventually take over for him. One name I actually heard over the weekend in connection to this job was Berry’s.
The Patriots will have a hard time keeping free agent guard Joe Thuney. He was an All-Pro this year, the guard market is pushed to $14 million per, and New England already has a guard it’s paying, in Shaq Mason.
Raiders TE Darren Waller has to be one of the best stories in the NFL this year—overcoming what he has to become a legit star tight end. And it’s great to see him paying it forward.
The Rams’ decision to add offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell this week, I’m told, is all about Jared Goff. Sean McVay hasn’t had anyone hold that title since LaFleur left two years ago, but it made sense to use it to land O’Connell and improve the teaching infrastructure around the team’s 24-year-old quarterback. Over the last two years, Goff has lost three trusted confidants—LaFleur, and ex-Rams QB coaches Greg Olson and Zac Taylor—and he’s been vocal about wanting more people pushing him. O’Connell, who was the Redskins offensive coordinator and play-caller in 2019, should be the perfect guy to help out. He’s a former NFL quarterback who used to train quarterbacks for the draft before getting into the coaching ranks.
The Ravens hit the offseason with, really, two major free agents to make decisions on. The first is Matt Judon, who, as a Pro Bowl edge rusher with 28.5 sacks, is well positioned to cash in come March. The second is DT Michael Pierce, who paired with Brandon Williams to form the heart of the team’s run defense. Both are very valuable. History tells us the Ravens will make fair offers, but won’t overextend to keep either.
One oddity on the mess the Redskins have been in recent years is that it’s never really been due to where they’re at with the cap, which is a credit to outgoing SVP of football operations Eric Schaffer. It’s understandable that new coach Ron Rivera wants to bring in guys he’s comfortable with, but the Skins are losing an asset in Schaffer, who was also key in steadying a tumultuous years-long negotiation with Kirk Cousins, and keeping it where the sides could maintain a solid business relationship.
The legend of Saints WR Michael Thomas grew over the weekend with the revelation he played in the wild card game against Minnesota with a broken hand. That, because I know you care, is my Offensive Player of the Year for 2019.
Love that Seahawks LT Duane Brown gutted it out Sunday. He’s changed the face of what had been a serious team weakness before his arrival. He turns 35 before Opening Day 2020. And it sure sounds like he’ll keep playing.
The Steelers really do need to do all they can to find their next quarterback and not force the issue while being aware that Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges and whatever else isn’t good enough. When Ben Roethlisberger did his extension last year, he basically pledged to the Rooney he’d play through 2021. Between now and 2022 there are three draft cycles. And the last thing you want to do is pin yourself into a single year when you might not be drafting high enough, or there may not be one you like. That’s how Christian Ponder at 12th overall happens. So Pittsburgh should let Roethlisberger know what they’re doing—for the sake of transparency—and starting looking for his successor now.
The good news for the Texans is that a major trouble spot a year ago now could evolve into a big-time strength next year. With Laremy Tunsil and Tytus Howard outside, and Zach Fulton, Nick Martin, and Max Scharping inside, there’s a ton of reason for optimism on the offensive line. The bad news is the defense needs a lot of work. And Jadeveon Clowney ain’t coming through that door.
Love how the Titans have taken on the identity of Vrabel. That’s a credit to GM Jon Robinson, as well as top scouts Ryan Cowden and Jon Salge, for finding the sorts of guys that fit his program. The look of that Tennessee roster—big and fast and violent—is pretty unmistakable.
The Vikings’ handling of the contract situations of GM Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer will be interesting in the coming months. There’d been rumors floating around that the Redskins were preparing for a run at Spielman, maybe after the draft. (Spielman and Rivera were actually together with the Bears in the 1990s.) And Zimmer’s status had come into question in recent weeks, with some speculation that Stefanski could take over if contracts went sideways or the team got blown out in the wild card round. That didn’t happen, of course, so it’s status quo for now.
1. Pivotal quarterbacking period. Most people are looking forward to March 18 for what could be as active a veteran market as we’ve had in years at the quarterback spot. But there are dates before that, in fact, that could help to clarify the picture a lot. The pertinent ones: Feb. 25 (the day teams can first assign the franchise tag to players) and March 10 (the last chance to do so). And there are three names that should have a ripple effect: Philip Rivers, Ryan Tannehill and Jameis Winston.
The Chargers have planned to tag Rivers at around $27 million for 2020. Would they forgo that to take a swing at Tom Brady? Likewise, if Rivers isn’t tagged, would the Titans consider leaving the tag off Tannehill to make a run at him? Discussions will get rolling on this stuff at the combine, of course, at the end of February. And I’m sure all discussion about these things will be very responsible and measured until then.
2. Drew Brees’s TV deal. It was interesting seeing Adam Schefter’s report Sunday morning that networks are reaching out to the Saints’ QB about the idea of leaving the field for the booth in 2020. In a nutshell, Brees believes deeply that he can play until he’s 45, but he’s in a year-to-year spot, in that he doesn’t go into any one year knowing if he’ll want to play the next. And I’m not sure that any player wants to make that sort of decision right after the season ends. So my guess is he’ll take a little more time, take all that into account, and play again next fall for Saints.
3. College coaches in demand. I reported the other day that Sean McVay was very serious about hiring Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard; the two had talked a few times in the wake of the Rams parting ways with their own DC, Wade Phillips. Ultimately, McVay went with Broncos OLBs coach Brandon Staley, in large part because Staley had preexisting relationships with guys on the staff and runs the Vic Fangio scheme that’s given McVay and the Rams fits.
But file Leonhard’s name away. The ex-Ravens and Jets safety is one to watch as a future NFL defensive coordinator, if he doesn’t become a college head coach first (which is possible). And based on the way the game’s going, Leonhard certainly won’t be the last college DC to draw interest from the pros.
4. Carroll’s not pleased. By now, I’m sure everyone’s seen pictures of Jimmy Graham from the third-down play above that clearly show the Packers tight end was brought down short of the sticks. Was he? Let’s ask Pete Carroll.
“My guys just were telling me it was short, you know?” Carroll said “It looked short and had they called him short, then it would’ve been short. It’s the same thing last week: You call ’em a score, you let ’em score. They wouldn’t overturn that one—I’m going back to the Niners game, I guess. That’s how it goes.”
If you listen to Carroll, you can tell he’s doing absolutely all he can not to blow up the officials. But it’s hard, I’m sure. And it’s also hard to understand why there isn’t a better mechanism in place in these spots. Maybe you could put a chip in the ball or something. It’s 2020. There should be a better way.
5. Kris Richard’s next step will be interesting. The ex-Cowboys assistant won’t be renewed by the team and added to Mike McCarthy’s staff, and my understanding is that his chances of sticking around were low even had Jason Garrett somehow kept the job. Now, Richard’s got a pretty impressive résumé—and was runner-up for the Dolphins head coaching job last year. But based on the above, and the fact that he was already fired once as a DC (in Seattle by Carroll), Richard’s next move is absolutely a critical one.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1. Finally got around to finishing the Diego Maradona doc and can’t give it a more glowing recommendation.
2. A sport’s system is whacked when a big-market team decides trading its best player is its best move to manage its finances. That’s the case with Mookie Betts and the Red Sox. It’s just weird.
3. One thing to watch on LSU QB Joe Burrow tonight: His pocket movement. I’ve had a handful of scouts compare him to Tom Brady in that regard.
4. Since we’re flipping this back to a more general feature (we’re focused on college football in this space during the season), my official statement on Kyrie Irving being in Brooklyn: Good riddance. And good luck to Kevin Durant, when he’s back next year.
5. Big Ten basketball is wild so far, and it’s only January.
6. Six for Saturday will run one last time this week! (I think on Tuesday.)
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Good for Marshawn Lynch, using the platform he’s got to talk to his peers.
In words of Bill Belichick, maybe they can have a bake sale.
Mike Shanahan should absolutely be in the Hall of Fame.
Posting this in honor of the Ravens’ “Nobody Cares, Work Harder” shirts, which we won’t get to see every week anymore. And in honor of people who get the idea of doing the job until job is done.
I’ll third this. There’s no better sport. And we get more tonight.
All the good things you hear about Tom Brady the person, I feel pretty strongly that they’re true.
It’s really easy to see why guys play for Mike Vrabel.
I think it’s interesting that Vrabel, an ex-player, has a shot to be the best of the group. And I have a theory on that I think I’ll share in the MAQB.
The two winning quarterbacks Saturday threw for a total of 219 yards.
That was pretty good …
… And this too.
Know what? I agree, Red Sox. Trade him to the Dodgers!
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
ICYMI, here is former Steelers coach Bill Cowher and former Cowboys and Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson receiving news that they’re part of the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame’s centennial class.
Were these publicity stunts by the Hall to try and get eyeballs on the reveal of the rest of the special 15-man class? Sure, I believe so.
But that doesn’t make either less awesome. Nor does it really make the reaction of their colleagues hit home any less (Troy Aikman watching Johnson got me a little bit). So congrats to those guys.
And what you need to know is that the rest of the class will be revealed on NFL Network’s Good Morning Football on Wednesday. We’ll have more on the process here at the site, too, between now and then.
Question or comment? Email us at email@example.com.