SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Kyle Shanahan admitted to everyone in the room on Saturday that the story he was going to tell, based on what a Navy SEAL had relayed to him, wasn’t PG. But football’s a game played in dark places, and this one worked for his 49ers.
The soldier was explaining combat, and he emphasized that finishing the job might mean drowning an enemy who was scratching and clawing and fighting for his life. It meant, in the soldier’s words, beating back all resistance, and holding his head under water until “the last bubble” was gone.
Because of the nature of the story, the San Francisco players who heard it hesitated to go into detail on it. But they understood what Shanahan was trying to get across loud and clear—even if people on the outside might find it weird.
“It was a little dark, but he got the message across,” said tailback Raheem Mostert. The story was relevant because it related to how the 49ers crushed their NFC title game opponent, the Packers, in late November by a 37–8 score, and how Aaron Rodgers had gotten his team back above water and to Levi’s Stadium for a rematch. To San Francisco, the task was clear: finish the job.
The 49ers raced to a 27–0 lead, putting the Packers in a hole early. As Shanahan’s story foretold, a proud Green Bay team did do all it could claw back into the game. But ultimately, San Francisco’s focus prevailed, with a 10-play fourth quarter drive ending the Packers’ season.
“Kyle definitely hit home last night, that was one of the coolest things,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said in a quiet moment postgame. “I remember walking out of that meeting last night being like, ‘Holy s---, I got the coolest coach of all-time. We’re gonna win, there’s no doubt about it.’ That’s what’s cool about it. It was a mindset thing just to never relinquish what’s going on in the football game, it was about how things are going to happen.
“We’re going to be on our stuff at times, we're going to be off our stuff at times. But don’t relinquish anything that you’re doing and that's basically what it was. But it was really, really cool.”
Even cooler for the guys in that locker room? They’re headed to Miami now as the NFC champions. And they’re doing it behind a coach who’s pushing all the right buttons.
Super Bowl LIV is set: Chiefs vs. 49ers, Feb. 2, 6:30 p.m. ET, Hard Rock Stadium, Miami. And we’ve got a ton of time to get you set up for that one. For now, in this week’s MMQB, we’ll take you elsewhere…
• To Kansas City, where Patrick Mahomes proved resourceful and resilient. Again.
• To Carolina, where Joe Brady has been handed the keys to the Panthers’ offense.
• To the coaching carousel, where opportunities were scarce.
• To the past, where we find a fun Antonio Gates/Nick Saban story.
But we’re starting right here in Northern California, where an old NFL blueblood has come to life under new leadership.
If you think Shanahan’s story provided his team with a macabre metaphor to go into the NFC title game, the beatdown they laid on the Packers may well have been uglier.
San Francisco scored seven times. Jimmy Garoppolo threw the ball eight times.
The truth is, Shanahan and his staff didn’t see things playing out this way during the week. Going into last week’s game against the Vikings, they figured they’d have to run the ball more than 30 times to win. This week, the team thought they would have to be more balanced on offense to win the franchise’s seventh NFC title.
Then the actual game started. Tevin Coleman ripped off runs of five and four yards on the first two plays from scrimmage. He was stopped short of the sticks on third-and-one, thanks to a missed block on the edge, but it was clear the run game—which the 49ers initially planned to lean on to slow Green Bay’s twin-terror pass-rushers, Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith—was there for San Francisco.
And a quarter later, it became clear this was going to be the plan all afternoon and into the crisp Bay Area night. Already up 10–0, on the 49ers’ first possession of the second quarter, Mostert’s run to history started revving up, with 13- and nine-yard runs setting the stage for a nine-yard touchdown, his second of the game (the first was a 36-yarder). As that happened, Shanahan adjusted his plan.
“Yeah, it was the explosives we kept getting,” Shanahan said, walking back through the stadium tunnel postgame. “Last week, it was a little different, it was more of a grind. We knew there’d be some hard ones, but then we start getting those big runs. I mean, we thought we had as just a good of a chance of an explosive run as a pass. So once you see that, it makes it pretty easy to call plays.”
Nineteen of Shanahan’s 20 play calls following the second Mostert touchdown were runs. At one point, Garoppolo went 24 game minutes without throwing a pass. During that time, the 49ers got the lead all the way to 34–7.
When all was said and done, Mostert took his turn to be the star, with Coleman leaving the game with a shoulder injury. Mostert is another great example of how methodically the 49ers’ roster was built. Thrown back on the NFL scrap heap by six different teams over the last few years, Mostert has found a home in San Francisco and made that home tough for the Packers to visit Sunday. His 220 rushing yards (on 29 carries) were the second-most in NFL playoff history.
“Once you get into that groove, that momentum, man, it’s kinda hard to stop us,” Mostert said, after the locker room cleared out. “O-line, Joe [Staley] and McGlinchey on the edges and even inside with LT [Laken Tomlinson] and [Mike] Person and Ben [Garland], I have all the faith in them. I believe in them.”
At this point, there’s a lot of belief in this building, period.
That belief was illustrated by the T-shirts that read MOBILE TO MIAMI, symbolizing how the 49ers went from coaching in last year’s Senior Bowl (the teams with the highest picks in the draft get invited to coach there) to this year’s Super Bowl. They were printed before the game (I asked one coach who arranged it and he responded, “No idea, but I love ’em), meaning someone got the bright idea to get them, confident a win would follow.
And the swagger’s been permeating Levi’s Stadium for a while. But if you ask around you’ll get different answers on when they really knew what the team was capable of.
“When Arizona drafted Kyler Murray,” CEO Jed York answered. “We were hoping that Nick [Bosa] was gonna be there. You know that Kyle has an amazing offensive mind. But when you can put the horses on defense the way we have, build a championship-caliber defensive front [next to that], you have a chance. And I know the culture is right, and that’s what Kyle gets more than anything.”
“When Arizona took Kyler Murray,” said CEO Jed York, “we were hoping that Nick [Bosa] was gonna be there. You know that Kyle has an amazing offensive mind. But when you can put the horses on defense the way we have, build a championship-caliber defensive front [next to that], you have a chance. And I know the culture is right and that's what Kyle gets more than anything.”
“Training camp,” argued Richard Sherman, who has an idea what a championship team looks like. “I’m telling you. I did an interview with [NFL Network’s] MJ Acosta and just was telling her, ‘Tell the fans, be calm. It’s gonna be a great season, we’re gonna win a lot of games.’ It was going to be special but you gotta be humble, you know what I mean? You don’t want to be cocky and arrogant, nobody’s gonna believe it. We’re gonna just run it off.
“When you see the kind of scheme Kyle draws up, you see that it’s not about what the outside world considers talent. It’s about having the perfect people for the scheme.”
Another coach added another perspective, saying he was first really convinced after the Niners went into L.A. and knocked off the Rams at home. But to this conversation, the point that Sherman made matters more. Shanahan and GM John Lynch haven’t just been collecting talent, although they do have a lot of that.
They’ve been building a roster for their offense, their defense and their special teams, and Mostert fit for one reason: speed. He and every other back on the roster runs in the 4.4s or lower, because that’s what the offensive coaches want in their backs: guys who can explode into seams in an offense that creates them
All-Pro tight end George Kittle is another example. Iowa’s offense showcased Kittle’s ability to uncoil into a defender and sustain blocks. And just in watching, they saw movement skills that fit what they wanted in a tight end, which made them believe he could become a much better receiver than he was at Iowa. Lynch jokes now, “We weren’t too smart either, we waited until the fifth round.”
Which is true, but it doesn’t change the fact that knowing what they were looking for led them to a really good player.
“He was a young coach when he came here but he’d been coaching that system for years and years,” Lynch explained in the hallway by the locker room. “So he was very specific in terms of what we were looking for in each position. Some of our profiles for what we’re looking for as we work together have evolved. So if we don’t pick Nick Bosa we’re really stupid, that was pretty obvious. But finding George Kittle in the fifth and Dre Greenlaw in the fifth and some of these moves?
“We’ve acquired a lot of guys on this roster late, free agents: Matt Breida, Kyle bringing Matt Person with him. I think that’s the synergy of the personality, really being unrelenting and saying exactly what are we looking for and always communicating.”
Having a team that fit with Shanahan, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and special teams coordinator Richard Hightower has allowed for what we’ve seen this year, which is the coach’s grander vision for the group—one that can win throwing 35 times for 349 yards, like the Niners did in New Orleans last month, just the same as it does throwing eight times.
“That says that we’re built to win any way that we have to, and we can figure that out in the game and adjust to it,” Shanahan said.
It just so happened that on this Sunday, the adjustment the coach made wasn’t any sort of stroke of strategic genius. It was an adjustment to play to what the team’s strength was early in the game—and has been for much of the season. And it had nothing to do scheme. That the Niners only threw it eight times? As Shanahan sees it, that’s a reflection of the team’s mindset.
“[It’s a sign of] how much heart our guys have. Our guys just went so hard,” Shanahan continued. “It’s not like we expected it to be like that, but the way they were coming off the ball, the lanes they were creating, how hard our backs were going—plus with how good the defense was playing. I mean, you can’t do that unless the whole team’s tied together, and the whole team allowed us to do that.”
And that’s where Shanahan’s feel as a head coach came in, too. No one would argue about his ability to develop players or be an in-game tactician.
The part he may get less credit for is his ability to read his team and know what it needs. On this weekend, it was that speech about the Navy SEALs.
“I think the thing I’ve been most surprised with—with a young head coach, a guy who hadn’t been in that seat before—is leadership, leading the team,” said Lynch. “[Head coaches] gotta get up and talk in front of the team. They gotta deliver every day. And he’s unbelievable at that. I try to lean on him, give him my experience as a former player. He asks a lot. But you’ve got to deliver each and every day, and [Saturday] night was a great example. I mean, he just had me floored and the guys were just so captivated.
“I don't want to go into what he said, but it was tremendous. It was a metaphor for what we were going to get out of the Packers. And it played true.”
Next, the Niners go to Miami for the Super Bowl. And win or lose, it’s a good bet that they’ll ready for whatever comes their way. Pat Mahomes included.
MAHOMES GIVES KC A VINTAGE PERFORMANCE
Last week after the Chiefs knocked the Texans out of the playoffs with a series of offensive haymakers, I got a simple message from a high-ranking Kansas City staffer encapsulating the place that organization is in right now.
“Insane,” he texted. “The QB is from another planet.”
It was an interesting thing to say, given that Patrick Mahomes showed his mortality at points this season. There was a two-game lull in October, with losses to the Colts and Texans. There was another in December, where the Chiefs kept winning without Mahomes looking like Mahomes. There was the dislocated kneecap, and the injuries to his offensive linemen as well as receivers Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins.
That’s part of why the Texans game was meaningful to those guys—it felt like the 2018 season, when the Chiefs offense could do no wrong.
And if that much was the case, then Kansas City’s grind-it-out 35–24 win over the Titans to wrap up the team’s first Super Bowl appearance in a half-century meant something else. It was true to who the Chiefs have been for most of this year: less aesthetically spectacular, but tougher, more complete and more resourceful.
That was illustrated by the defining moment of Sunday’s game.
With 23 seconds left in the first half and the Chiefs facing second-and-10 at the Tennessee 27, Mahomes took a shotgun snap and stepped up to avoid Titans DE Harold Landry, then ran sideways toward the boundary, slipping past a diving Derick Roberson, then beating Rashaan Evans around the corner. From there, he tightroped up the left sideline past DaQuan Jones, cut back, put his shoulder into Tremaine Brock’s chest, spun off him and dove over the goal line.
That gave the Chiefs their first lead, 21–17, and changed the complexion of the game. Those inside the organization know that for most of the year, with ankle and knee injuries, that part of Mahomes’s game hasn’t been there as much. But he’s gotten healthier, and it’s the playoffs, so the reigning MVP gritted his teeth and made something out of not a whole lot.
The 27 yards he accounted for on that play were more than half of his team-leading 53 yards rushing, the third highest total of his three-year career.
“We all believe in him,” Reid said postgame. “It’s not just me, it’s everybody. We’re lucky to have some guys that build a lot of confidence within you and from a coaching standpoint, on both sides of the ball. Pat’s a leader of the team and everybody knows that. They all respect him for it. He knows how to handle it and that’s why we’re here.”
His willingness as a runner wound up looming large—it forced the Titans out of the man looks they leaned on early in the game. And Mahomes wound up carving up zone coverage from there. Despite the slow start, and faced with an early 10–0 deficit, the quarterback wound up with 294 yards and three touchdowns on 23 of 35 passing.
So the stats did come. But doing whatever it took defined what he did, even amid some late fireworks (his scrambling 60-yard touchdown heave to Sammy Watkins wasn’t bad.)
“I’ve always preached that ever since I left college,” said Mahomes. “Playing at Texas Tech, I put up a lot of stats but we didn’t win a lot of football games and so I knew going into the NFL, I was going to do whatever it took to just win games. I think this team—I think you can see it in every single player on this team. We don’t care if we win 10–7 or 35–24, we’re going to go out there and find a way to win the football game, whatever it takes.”
That went for the reborn defense too, with Chris Jones’s presence—even if he wasn’t full strength—looming large in stopping Derrick Henry, and veteran newcomers Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu bringing the edge they have all year.
As a result, they’ll get one more week to flash all of that again. And as meaningful as winning the Lamar Hunt Trophy was to that franchise, it’s a safe bet the next one would mean even more.
IS JOE BRADY READY?
Matt Rhule is probably the most interesting coaching hire of the 2020 cycle. You could make the argument his new offensive coordinator in Carolina is No. 2.
We’re gonna introduce you here to Joe Brady, the 30-year-old former passing-game coordinator and receivers coach from LSU who is now propelled into a job running an offense less than 12 months after finishing out the 2018 season as an offensive quality-control guy for Sean Payton in New Orleans. And we’ll do it through NFL guys charged with going through Baton Rouge to scout the crazy talent that Brady had on his hands this fall.
But first, it’s important to explain how a coach ascends like Brady did in 2019.
It happens because you take a program that’s underachieved on offense and, in one year, have it ranked No. 1 nationally in total offense (568.5 yards/game) and offensive TDs (93), and second in yards per play (7.90), despite playing in a conference loaded with tough defenses. It happens because you team up with a quarterback who got beat out at another traditional power, was good-not-great as a first-year starter after transferring, and watch him throw for 5,671 yards and 60 TDs and win the Heisman by the biggest margin ever.
It happens because your group scores 45 on Texas, 42 on Florida, 46 on Alabama, 50 on Texas A&M, 37 on Georgia, 63 on Oklahoma and 42 on Clemson. It happens because the offense is the engine for a traditionally defense-dominant outfit becoming the first SEC team to ever go 15–0 on the way to the school’s fourth national championship.
It happens because—even if you didn’t call plays—you did something extraordinary.
And now the rest of us get to see if it translates. Which is why I’m a little confused by some of the backlash the hire’s gotten. But just to dig a little deeper into it, I checked in with a few college scouting directors I trust who know LSU’s program well to get their takes on the hire. Here are some of the points they made.
Brady’s really good with people. Obviously, the results would indicate that the athletes LSU had responded well to the coaching. I can affirm that based on the people I talked to.
“I wouldn’t say he magnetic, but you just feel comfortable immediately,” said one AFC college scouting director. “He knows how to adjust to get on the same page with people. He’s not this guru, he’s not a weirdo, he doesn’t act like he’s 45. He just sort of jumps right into the conversation, and you get on the same page with him right away. He’s a very likeable guy. I liked him immediately. He has a great vibe, a humble vibe.
“He doesn’t try to be too smart for everyone. It’s a good mix of humility and confidence.”
Brady’s offense creates conflict. There was a play one scout raised in the Alabama game, right after LSU took a 26–13 lead then picked off Tua Tagvailoa to get in scoring position again with less than a minute left in the first half. On the play, with 11 seconds to go, tailback Clyde Edwards-Helaire goes in motion and is stacked behind receiver JaMarr Chase and tight Thaddeus Moss.
Now, first and foremost, those are three guys who’ll play in the NFL. So it’s hard enough for a defense. At the snap, Chase runs the corner off into the end zone. That leaves All-America safety Xavier McKinney by himself in the flat. Moss swings out to that sideline, McKinney takes a step in his direction, and Edwards-Helaire sprints into the space McKinney vacated, the linebacker to that side can’t react, Burrow throws to the pylon, and it’s an easy six.
“Before, LSU had always been beholden to the running back, [Derrius] Guice, [Leonard] Fournette, even though they had receivers,” said the AFC director. “Joe came is and said, ‘Let’s get in empty, let’s go five receivers, so it’s obvious where weak spot in the defense is.’ He creates matchups. You saw it against Clemson. You put [Justin] Jefferson in the slot, and they’re playing 15 yards off of him. That makes it easy.”
Brady’s scheme empowers players. Everyone knows how good LSU’s skill guys were. What they may not have gotten credit for is how smart they are. Brady put a lot on Burrow to exploit the defense; the offense has answers for everything, the quarterback just had to find them. Likewise, it was on the receivers to adjust to the coverage they were getting. Their ability to do that gave the offense an NFL look.
“They were creating problems for defenses based on what the defenses gave them,” said an NFC exec. “If it’s man defense, you see the option routes, friction plays, man-beaters to create separation—and they had athletes who can do it by themselves. And then against zone teams, like you saw in the Clemson game, you see receivers finding the dead spots, sitting down, and Burrow finding them.”
So that’s the good stuff. The flip side that Brady has never been a team’s primary play-caller (Steve Esminger called plays at LSU this year), and there will be a learning curve there.
“I’d have a major concern with that, but I also like it,” said a second AFC college scouting director. “A less traditional way of thinking is good. So I have no problem with hiring him. But I’d say being in that spot, you have to make sure you provide him with players that fit. You don’t want a guy that inexperienced to have to tweak his system already. Give him players that fit his system, and then as he develops and learns, he becomes more flexible.”
“I’d want to bring him in,” said our NFC exec. “Whatever he was doing [at LSU], he was clearly a huge part of their success. It would help have a veteran coach with him—like [Kevin] Stefanski had [Gary] Kubiak in Minnesota. That would benefit him. He’s barely called plays in college, let alone the NFL. So I think it’d be smart to bring a Scott Linehan in, someone that has experience as a play-caller.”
To that end, the Panthers actually have kicked tires on Linehan—who last worked as the Cowboys’ OC before being let go after the 2018 season—as well as couple others with play-calling and head-coaching experience (Ben McAdoo, Mike McCoy). As for finding players who fit, beyond just finding really good players, the onus will be on the Panthers’ brass to find smart guys who can unlock what the LSU guys did this year in Carolina.
Will it work? I don’t know. But I do know this relates to the NFL’s recent trend of going to the college games for offensive concepts and coaches. Kliff Kingsbury’s hiring in Arizona was a part of that, and the Eagles are considering making an offensive coordinator hire that would fit into it as well. And if this experiment works, you can bet there’ll be a lot more to come.
THE CAROUSEL IS SLOWING DOWN…
There are still a couple big hires to go—the Browns have to make their GM hire and the Panthers plan to bring in an assistant-GM type—but the 2020 cycle is winding down. But I keep thinking about a theme that popped up during many of my conversations: A correction to the recent explosion of young coordinators getting head coaching jobs was coming.
It did, indeed, come. In fact, you could argue that there really was only one job out there for NFL assistants vying for their first shot at being a head coach, guys like Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Ravens coordinators Wink Martindale and Greg Roman, and Niners defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
This was the reality of the landscape …
• The Redskins and Cowboys were always going to hire more experienced hands—Washington because of its need for a steadying hand to fix the circus, and Dallas because of the win-now state of its roster. Accordingly, both looked at ex-Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. The Redskins hired Ron Rivera and the Cowboys hired Mike McCarthy. Between them, those two brought 22 seasons of NFL head coaching experience to the table, while Lewis has 16 on his own.
• The Browns had a decision to make. And looking back, by having Paul DePodesta run the coaching search, Stefanski was certainly playing from ahead. So while Stefanski is a first-timer, and Saleh impressed the Browns too, it’s pretty easy to argue that this one was to some degree determined in 2018, when DePodesta initially recommended hiring Stefanski to Browns ownership.
• Realistically, Rhule was getting either the Giants job or the Panthers job, and walking away from a chance to interview in Cleveland was affirmation of that.
• Teams that were expected to make changes, namely the Falcons and Jaguars, gave their current coaches stays of execution. In both cases, I’ve been told the feeling that what they had on hand was better than the field this year played into their calls.
So that really left one job—Giants or Panthers, whichever Rhule didn’t take—for the larger pool of candidates to fight for. And thanks to what I was told was a glowing recommendation from Patriots coach Bill Belichick, and an offer from Mississippi State pushing the issue, Giants owner John Mara acted decisively with a surprise choice for that one open job, New England special teams coordinator/receivers coach Joe Judge.
The fallout here is interesting too: All four conference finalists, barring some late changes of their own volition, will go into 2020 with their staffs intact.
We’ll see if things swing back next year.
FAREWELL, ANTONIO GATES
Antonio Gates somewhat quietly called it a career this week, which makes it a perfect opportunity to ask the longtime Chargers tight end about a question that predates his NFL career.
I’d always heard, as I’m sure some of you have, that the reason Gates didn’t play college football was actually because Nick Saban told him he couldn’t play basketball. Is this true?
“One-hundred percent true,” Gates said, laughing. “I was a two-sport athlete coming out of high school. My senior year, I averaged about 29 points a game. And basketball was my everything. I loved it. The times I sacrificed, everything was put into the game of basketball. I did the very minimum with the game of football. If you told me to go to practice, that’s all I did. I didn’t do nothing else. I didn’t wanna go nowhere else, I didn’t do nothing extra.
“Unfortunately, it came down to Michigan and Michigan State, and Nick Saban was at Michigan State. Lloyd Carr, who at the time was at Michigan, had already told me, either you come to play for Brian Ellerbe, who was Michigan’s basketball coach, or you come to play for me. Michigan State told me I could do both. So O.K., it’s a no-brainer.”
Gates arrived in East Lansing in the summer of 1998 and met with Saban soon thereafter.
“He told me, ‘You are a first-round talent,’” Gates continued. “He’d just come from the NFL, he was with the Cleveland Browns, and he alluded to the idea that I was what they were looking for—the size, the speed, the ability to move: ‘You shouldn’t play basketball. I don’t wanna see you over there with Tom Izzo, Mateen Cleaves and all them’, the guys who I was naturally gravitating towards, because I was a basketball player.
“So I was pretty upset, because he’d just told me I could both, and now I’m up at Michigan State, I’m signed, I’m committed, I go. And now he’s telling me about being this first-round talent in football. Needless to say, in hindsight, he knew what he was talking about.”
Gates didn’t think so at the time, though, and so he bailed. Kent State’s football coach at the time, Dean Pees, had come from Saban’s staff at Michigan State, and eventually wound up playing a role (after Gates made a couple more stops) in getting Gates to Kent State, where he’d play basketball for another ex-Michigan State assistant, Stan Heath.
The rest, of course, is history. As a 6' 4" power forward, and even as an honorable mention All-America at Kent State, his options in pro basketball were limited. So he arranged a football workout for NFL scouts and landed a job with the Chargers, complete with a $5,000 signing bonus. He was a starter later that year, and a first-team All-Pro the year after that.
A year or two after that, Saban, then the Dolphins coach, tracked Gates down in the tunnel before a Miami-San Diego game and jokingly asked him, “What you think about that choice now?” At one point, Gates held a grudge against Saban. But the better he got at football, the more that dissipated.
“I was thinking, ‘Wow, Nick Saban told me, this was what it was,’” Gates said. “And then the respect factor went through the roof for Nick Saban. Shoot, I couldn’t see it. I was 17, I couldn’t see it.”
Gates should have a very strong case for the Hall of Fame. He’s third all-time among tight ends in catches (955) and receiving yards (11,841) and first in touchdown catches (116). Beyond that, he revolutionized the position with his ability to play all over an offensive formation, and opened the door for a lot of other guys. Players like Cleveland’s Demetrius Harris and Indianapolis’ Mo Alie-Cox came straight to the NFL from the basketball court and were seen as viable largely because of the example Gates set.
Even crazier, many teams now assign scouts to college basketball, to look for guys with the body types and athleticism and (Gates emphasizes the importance of this one) toughness to make it in the NFL. And seeing that, in addition to getting appreciation from individual guys—Alie-Cox actually sought Gates out to thank him—who traveled his path will give Gates a healthy amount of satisfaction well past his playing days.
“It’s always an honor to be in a position where you can open up doors for others,” Gates said. “Just the idea, being a basketball player—I’d like to think it helped.
“The majority of guys 6' 4", 240, they’re tweeners. And they make damn good tight ends or outside linebackers. It’s amazing to know I was part of that whole experience, allowing people to take in a basketball player, take a chance on him.”
The Chargers sure are happy they took a chance on Gates.
An underrated piece of the 49ers’ machine: Executive vice president of football operations Paraag Marathe. In his 19 years with the club, Marathe has kept the team’s cap sheets clean to where they can be aggressive with veterans from the outside (Sherman, Kwon Alexander) while locking up their own (Jimmy Garoppolo). He also runs the team’s analytics side, which is among the NFL’s best.
The Bears hiring Bill Lazor might not be a headline grabber, but the way he’s built past offenses meshes nicely with Mitchell Trubisky’s needs. Lazor simplifies and weaponizes his plays to get players to play fast. Trubisky has been caught in situations where he’s thinking too much, and he’s struggled to get past his first read early in his career. His new OC should help remedy his issues. Position coach John DeFilippo, who was integral in getting Nick Foles going during the Eagles’ Super Bowl run two years ago and developed Gardner Minshew as Jacksonville’s OC this year, will bring creativity as well.
Interesting move by the Bengals in filling their linebackers coach job with Al Golden. Last year, senior defensive assistant Mark Duffner was the only former head coach on Zac Taylor’s staff, and his experience as a head coach came more than 20 years ago. Golden spent a decade as a head coach, from 2006–15, at Temple and Miami, so beyond just working with his position group, he should be a good resource for Taylor.
The Bills have a couple of orders of business at the top of the ledger for the offseason. One is finding a legit No. 1 receiver (remember, they kicked the tires on Antonio Brown), and Buffalo seems well-positioned to do that in the draft; that position group is strong at the top and deep. Another will be deciding on how far they’re willing to go to keep defensive linemen Shaq Lawson and Jordan Phillips—and how to replace them if they let those guys walk.
Pretty crazy that the Broncos are now on their fifth offensive coordinator in five years, with Pat Shurmur aboard. And from Rick Dennison to Mike McCoy to Bill Musgrave to Rich Scangarello and now Shurmur, this is what’s sort of interesting to me: This will be the second time John Elway has moved away from the offense that he ran at the end of his playing career, an offense that’s all over the NFL now.
In last week’s MAQB, we raised the strange reporting structure the Browns were discussing with coaching candidates, where a game-management specialist would be on the headsets (that’d be Dave Guiliani, and having one isn’t unusual), and he wouldn’t be reporting to the head coach but to chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta (that is unusual). For obvious reasons, that was a problem for candidates who filtered through there. But there’s a less obvious one that was brought up to me that’s interesting. This sort of setup is how it works in much of Major League Baseball, which would serve as another sign that the Browns are going all-in on the baseball model that they employed in certain ways in 2016 and ’17.
It’s pretty unlikely that the Buccaneers will be able to hold on to former first-round pick Breshad Perriman with Mike Evans already paid and rising star Chris Godwin going into a contract year and seeking a new deal. But Perriman, whose stock was resurrected in Bruce Arians’s offense could be an intriguing option at receiver for someone. Over Tampa’s last nine games, he caught 33 balls for 629 yards and six scores, and really came on over the final quarter of the season (20 catches, 419 yards, five TDs).
Cardinals QB Kyler Murray was asked this week if he thinks he could play pro baseball and football simultaneously and answered confidently, “I think I could.” I’d love to see him try to pull off what Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and Brian Jordan (look him up) once did. I’m just don’t think it’d work for a quarterback. The work at that position in the spring and summer is just too important for a guy at that position, particularly at Murray’s age, to miss. (His contract won’t allow him to play baseball, anyway.)
The Chargers’ decision to keep Shane Steichen as OC—he was elevated to interim OC when Ken Whisenhunt was fired—may not have gotten a lot of attention, but it was an important move worthy of your attention. Why? It’s simple. Philip Rivers is a free agent and is very close with Steichen, who was brought up in the NFL by the play-caller Rivers was most comfortable, Norv Turner. So Steichen’s presence should be crucial in where the Chargers go with Rivers. And also what they’ll do should Rivers not be back. (And, yes, I know where the speculation’s been on that one.)
Reid has the Chiefs on the sport’s biggest stage, and he’s done it, like he did it back in 2004, with some guys that were dice rolls. Back then, it was Terrell Owens. This time, it’s guys with more serious accusations having been levied: Clark and Hill. You can expect those two will be a topic of conversation when we all get to Miami in a week.
We’ve mentioned Rivers and Nick Foles—based on their relationships with Frank Reich (and Rivers’ with OC Nick Sirriani)—as QB options for the Colts. In that regard, this week should be a crucial one for GM Chris Ballard’s staff, getting a look up close at Oregon QB Justin Herbert and Utah State’s Jordan Love at the Senior Bowl. Both guys need development, but they have franchise-quarterback tools.
The low-risk hire of new Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy was followed this week with the sensible assembly of a staff that works for now. Both DC Mike Nolan and special teams coordinator John Fassel are well-accustomed to the roles they’ll step into, and bringing back OC Kellen Moore and allowing him to keep calling plays eases the transition for quarterback Dak Prescott. This also all means that there won’t be much of a honeymoon period for the new coaches.
Good on Dolphins coach Brian Flores, letting a couple guys go for promotions. Jerry Schuplinski gets to be the quarterbacks coach with the Giants (removing “assistant” from his title) and join a guy, in Joe Judge, whom he was to join in Indianapolis as part of Josh McDaniels’ staff two years ago. And DC Pat Graham gets to add “assistant head coach” to his title in New York. Allowing guys to seek career advancement, and make personal decisions, has a way of giving a head coach a reputation of being the kind of guy people would want to work for. That, in the long run, will be of benefit to Flores.
Love the Eagles thinking outside the box and bringing in Graham Harrell to interview for their offensive coordinator job. It fits right alongside their previous affection for Moore, and the team wants to inject some new ideas into what it’s doing. Doug Pederson saw ex-Nevada coach Chris Ault do that for Andy Reid in Kansas City, so it’s no surprise he’s exploring those avenues for the Eagles.
Some pretty interesting stats from my buddy D. Orlando Ledbetter in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week, relating to Raheem Morris. The ex-Bucs coach switched from offense to defense after eight games in 2019. The first eight games of the year, the Falcons were 31st in points allowed per game (29.6), last in takeaways (two) and last in third down defense. Over the final eight games, they were fifth (16.9), seventh (13) and first in those respective categories. That’s staggering improvement, and it had a lot to do with the improved flow of communication and streamlined scheme that Dan Quinn tasked Morris with. All of which makes Morris’s promotion to DC pretty well-deserved.
The Giants’ hire of Jason Garrett was never going to win the press conference (or conference call or however the team makes him available this week). But it gives Judge a guy with head-coaching experience to lean on. It’ll be interesting to see what Garrett has learned in the seven years since he was last the Cowboys’ primary play-caller (Linehan and Moore handled that since). Remember, that’s the area of the game where Garrett first made his name, after arriving in Dallas in 2007 from Nick Saban’s Miami staff.
Speaking of Linehan, he’d be an intriguing fit for Jaguars coach Doug Marrone. There was a divide between Marrone and DeFilippo last year, just as there had been one between Mike Zimmer and DeFilippo in 2018 when DeFilippo was the Vikings offensive coordinator. Both time, the head coach preferred a more ground-heavy offense. That wouldn’t be an issue with Linehan.
This is mostly thinking out loud, but there may be opportunity for the Jets to creatively flip Le’Veon Bell for some much-needed draft capital in the coming months, taking advantage of any value the soon-to-be 28-year-old has left. He’s due an $8.5 million base in 2020, $4.5 million roster bonus ($2 million due in March, $2.5 million in October), and $500,000 in per-game roster bonuses this year. Theoretically, the Jets could agree to pay the roster bonus, and dangle him at $9 million to other teams. Would they be willing to eat the $4.5 million? That’s hard to say—but GM Joe Douglas wasn’t around for that signing, so he’s not exactly deeply invested in Bell. Getting something for a player who’d also certainly be gone in 2021 seems like a decent idea to me.
Defensive coordinator Cory Undlin is a fascinating hire for the Lions. He and Matt Patricia started in the NFL together as low-level New England assistants in 2004. Undlin wound up on Romeo Crennel’s Cleveland staff after that and landed in Philadelphia in 2015, thanks to Chip Kelly’s connection to Bill Belichick. Undlin, of course, was impressive enough for Pederson to retain him through the Eagles’ 2016 coaching change, and he has consistently done more with less in the Philadelphia secondary.
The Packers can feel good about where they are coming out of this year. They have their coach. And they have a lot of rising young talent, thanks to GM Brian Gutekunst drafting guys like Jaire Alexander, Darnell Savage and Rashan Gary, who have the potential to be cornerstones. Rodgers may be 36, but it’s pretty easy to argue that the situation around him will continue to improve.
It’s a surprise to exactly no one in the scouting community that DC Phil Snow is the top assistant that Rhule is bringing with him from Baylor to the Panthers. Snow has been Rhule’s right-hand man in Waco and at Temple before that, and he is very well respected. “Phil’s a really smart coach,” said one NFC scout. “You only have to look at the numbers.” Indeed, Snow, who’s got a rep for being able to adjust and take away an offense’s strengths, fielded a defense that was the Big 12’s best in points allowed and second in yards allowed.
Two Patriots free agents I’d say are unlikely to return: linebacker Kyle Van Noy and guard Joe Thuney. For the 29-year-old Van Noy, this will likely be his last shot at landing big money. For Thuney, it’ll be his first. And the two should benefit from rising prices on off-ball linebackers and guards.
Credit to Raiders GM Mike Mayock for falling on the sword for the Antonio Brown trade. “I put that on me,” he told The Athletic. “My anticipation was that he was coming off a situation in Pittsburgh where he wants to prove everybody wrong and he wants to ride into the Hall of Fame. That he was going to come in with Jon Gruden and Derek Carr and our offense and lead the way.a… I really thought we were going to get the best out of Antonio Brown and we didn’t. We weren’t able to get anything out of him. So, at the end of the day, in hindsight, we lost a third-round pick and a fifth-round pick, and I can’t tell you how much pain that causes me.” The good news is they still have a couple first-rounders and three third-rounders to work with.
Good on Rams coach Sean McVay being able to hang on to veteran linebackers coach and associate head coach Joe Barry. There was some fear that the team would lose him after he was passed over for the defensive coordinator job that went to Brandon Staley, particularly with Barry’s alma mater, USC, looking at him for their DC job. The truth is, Barry’s very much valued not just as a position coach, but as one of the leaders on the staff. Keeping him is a big win for McVay.
Speaking of big keeps, the Ravens holding on to QBs coach James Urban was another one. Urban was one of three offensive coaches (along with then-OC Marty Morhinweg and then-tight ends coach Greg Roman) whom John Harbaugh leaned on to put together the basis for a Lamar Jackson offense before Baltimore drafted him in 2018. This will be a critical offseason for that attack, with so much tape out there on it now, so Urban ought to be awfully good resource for Roman, now the OC, to have.
We’ve mentioned Redskins scout Kyle Smith (the son of ex-Chargers GM A.J. Smith) a few times in this space of late, and so it’s not surprising to see his promotion to VP of player personnel this week. This might be a three-month tryout for Smith, with the team delaying it search for a GM (and possible pursuit of names like Rick Smith and Rick Spielman) until after the draft.
I’m fascinated to see what happens with the Saints’ Mormon unicorn, Taysom Hill. The team could tender him at the first-round level in March, which would cost them around $4.5 million. Would someone consider giving up a first-rounder for him? I doubt it, but he’s an interesting player, and could get poached if he’s tendered at a level lower than that.
The Seahawks and Jadeveon Clowney are, indeed, a great fit. Getting a new deal done will be another story. The going rate for top edge rushers is now comfortably past the $20 million per mark—with Chicago’s Khalil Mack, Dallas’ DeMarcus Lawrence and Kansas City’s Frank Clark all well beyond that. Seattle’s never been afraid to spend to keep talent, but this would their first non-quarterback in that $20 million club.
I thought the Steelers might take a look at whacking offensive coordinator Randy Fitchner, considering how the offense sputtered this year without Ben Roethlisbeger. But bringing in Matt Canada as quarterbacks coach is a sensible solution. Canada has helped NFL teams as a consultant over the years, and was a college coordinator at Indiana, Northern Illinois, Wisconsin, NC State, LSU and Maryland over the last 12 years. So at the very least, he can be a good ideas guy and developer of quarterbacks. And if things go awry with the offense again, they may have Fichtner’s replacement on hand.
The Texans’ structure will be interesting going forward. Coach Bill O’Brien and EVP Jack Easterby have grown close, and Easterby has been a good sounding board without getting too involved in on-field stuff. But if Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio—a close friend of both O’Brien and Easterby—says, “Come get me” when his contract expires in May? I don’t think the Texans would turn him away. Because Caserio loves the quasi-coach role he has in New England, and because Houston would be one of the few places where that wouldn’t be weird (Caserio was in O’Brien’s headset when O’Brien was the playcaller in New England), the Texans can provide him with a really rare opportunity. Maybe the Patriots make another bid to extend him and render this all moot. Stay tuned.
Mike Vrabel’s Titans took a very serious step this year, and there’s every reason to be optimistic about their future. That said, big decisions on Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry loom on the horizon. Both are up, and there would be risk in signing either to a market-value contract. GM Jon Robinson will earn his paycheck this offseason.
Based on the results, it’s fair to think the Vikings would want to stick with the Shanahan-style offense in 2020, and there’s no lack of options on that front when it comes to replacing Stefanski as offensive coordinator. I’m sure, ideally, they’d move offensive advisor Gary Kubiak into the role—but I’m told Kubiak really did enjoy not being quite as involved on a hours-worked basis this year. So you may have to talk him into it. Then, there’s Kubiak’s right-hand man, and Minnesota’s offensive-line coach, Rick Dennison. And the ex-Broncos OC Scangarello would be another name who could come in and keep the disruption at a minimum for what was a very productive group.
1. Odell Beckham Jr. is who he is. The Browns star turns 28 years old this year and is entering his seventh season in the NFL. Most players get to this point of their careers and, for better or worse, they are who they are. And what happened at the national title game was another example of who Beckham is. His alma mater was capping the best season in program history and, on the field and in the locker room, Beckham was doing all he could to make the celebration about … Odell Beckham. To be clear, I don’t think he’s a horrible person, and most of his actions out there were more of the jackass variety (although he should know better than to put his hands on an officer). It’s just that what we saw that night reflects everything we’ve learned about Beckham since he’s come into the NFL. And when a guy like that is one of your best players, that can be hard on a coaching staff because whether he likes it or not, he’s a leader. Other guys in the locker room are going to watch what he does and see what he can away with, and follow that example. Which means the Browns have some decisions to make in the coming months.
2. The Panthers could be making more than one hire. We know the team is looking for an assistant GM/VP of football ops who, in all likelihood, will be groomed to eventually replace current GM Marty Hurney. I’m told they also could be bringing in a new cap manager and perhaps an assistant director of player personnel. Where could they look? Well, Rhule certainly has connections in the scouting community, so he could pluck from his own contact list. Or owner David Tepper could tap into his old Pittsburgh connections—with GM Kevin Colbert, VP of football and business administration Omar Khan and football administration coordinator Samir Sulieman among those with whom Tepper has a relationship.
3. Questions on Philip Rivers keep bubbling up. Rumors were rampant on the internet over the last week that Rivers was moving his family out of San Diego and to Florida (where they have a vacation house), rumors that Rivers confirmed as true to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen. What does it mean? I read this the same way as when news surfaced that Tom Brady and his family were looking at houses in New Jersey and Connecticut. Both players face an uncertain 2020, so it makes sense for the them to move their families where they expect to live for the next 20 years when their NFL careers are finished, rather leaving them in limbo. The picture here will come a little clearer starting March 10, which is the deadline by which to place the franchise tag on players. It’s been the Chargers’ plan to tag Rivers. Will they still do it? Is Rivers moving his family an indication that it’s now up in the air? We’ll know soon enough.
4. Speaking of Brady, buckle up. Pictures of Brady talking with Raiders owner Mark Davis surfaced from the Saturday night Conor McGregor fight in Vegas, and this is just the beginning. We have two months until the start of free agency, and you can be assured that anything that could be construed as a breadcrumb indicating what he might do in March will discussed, dissected, rehashed, all of it. So throw the Raiders in with the Titans and Chargers, and get ready for a whole lot of speculation.
5. Senior Bowl week starts today in Mobile. And as always, the quarterbacks are in the crosshairs. The big news over the weekend was that LSU quarterback Joe Burrow won’t be playing—and I really only see one missed opportunity here. Had he decided to play, the Bengals would have had a chance to slip him the playbook and give him some direction for the months ahead. (That is, assuming they plan to take him like most of the Western World expects.)
“We’ve started the process of evaluating him,” coach Zac Taylor told the team web site. “We certainly have a long way to go before making decisions on what we’re doing with the first pick. That’s been exciting. We’re not preparing for an opponent, so we have a chance to jump into the actual film work for all the position groups. … [Burrow’s tape] was impressive. There’s no doubt. I’d like to make sure we’re a little more thorough on our film evaluation with a lot of guys before we start making statements.”
With Burrow out and Tua Tagovailoa still working his way back from hip surgery (he wouldn’t have been eligible to play in the game anyway), Oregon’s Justin Herbert has a golden opportunity this week to make up ground on the other two. Carson Wentz and Daniel Jones would be two recent examples of guys who used this Senior Bowl week as a launching pad.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINES
1. I asked a guy I respect on baseball this week how much the Wall Street influence in the Astros organization influenced the rampant cheating for which they got busted this week. The answer: “A lot.” Pretty simple idea there: Guys from a world that’s even more cutthroat than pro sports arrive on the scene and take the whatever-it-takes mentality to a new level.
2. There’s at least one similarity here to the NFL’s Spygate case: the excessive, everyone’s-doing-it finger-pointing by the convicted. And part of the motivation in these cheating is almost always the paranoia that everyone is doing something, so you don’t want to give up an edge that someone else might be taking.
3. It didn’t take long for the reasons why Kyrie Irving became expendable for the Cavaliers and Celtics to rear their head in Brooklyn. #life
4. I’m disappointed the NBA is shelving talks on an in-season tournament that ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported this Friday—mostly because it would be freaking awesome. And I’m still holding out hope they get this done in time for 2021–22.
5. Clemson RB Travis Etienne’s decision to return to school for his senior year caught me off guard. I’ve talked to scouts who believed he’d have been in the running to be the first off the board at his position in April. It’s more because of the position he plays. Running backs only have so much tread on their tires and few go in the first round, meaning getting a big second contract is really the only way for most to get rich. I’m happy for Etienne that he made this call on his own, and for what I’m sure are really good reasons. But I do think most backs would be of a mind to save whatever mileage they have on their legs to make it to that second contract.
6. Georgia made a really nice hire in getting Browns OC Todd Monken—but man, has Monken fallen in the last year. Monken interviewed so well in New York last January that the Jets first tried to push him as an assistant on Rhule, then (when that blew up the Rhule deal) seriously considered hiring him over Adam Gase. Monken then went to Cleveland, thinking he could ride the rising tide there. Instead, he went down with the ship, basically telling friends everything short of, “Get me the hell out of here” during the late stages of the season. It’s amazing how a few breaks can change everything for a coach.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
I don’t think you’ll have an issue making that happen, Frank.
Really is crazy.
There were lot of facts like this that came out of the Mostert Show.
Andy Reid, fired in 2012. Since: six playoff berths in seven years (the Chiefs made it four time in the previous 15 years), four AFC West titles and now a conference championship.
Speaking of Reid, it’s never not time for the Punt, Pass and Kick video to surface.
This Mahomes guy might get some attention the next two weeks.
I love subtle stuff like this, from Mahomes’ 27-yard touchdown run.
Good to be Jimmy G.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Maybe you don’t actually need to know this stuff, but it’s fun anyway.
Shanahan was a freshman receiver at Duke when Reid first became a head coach. Reid made NFC title games during Shanahan’s junior and senior years at Texas, where he transferred after leaving Duke. And when Reid made the Super Bowl, his only one as a head coach, Shanahan was in his first year as an NFL assistant, having left UCLA to become a quality-control coach for Jon Gruden’s Bucs. (Those Bucs had just lost a Pro Bowl safety named Lynch to Kyle’s dad’s Broncos that year.)
All of that highlights a really interesting coaching matchup we’ve got on tap for Miami. Either the NFL gets the official arrival of its next great head coach, or an all-time great gets a capper for a career resume that has almost everything else. And I, for one, can wait to find out which is coming.
Only 13 days to go.
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