MMQB: Chargers’ QB Situation, Alex Smith's Comeback, College Football Mess - Sports Illustrated

MMQB: Anthony Lynn on His COVID and Chargers’ QBs, the Miraculous Alex Smith, College Football’s Mess

The Hard Knocks star is ready to move beyond the news of his COVID diagnosis and is just about settled on his starting quarterback. Plus, Alex Smith’s comeback, tight ends finally get their due, and the impact of inconsistencies across college football’s conferences.
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The Hard Knocks music has probably never kicked in at a more poignant moment, or one more emblematic of the time it was played.

“Fellas, this year is not like any year we’ve had in the National Football League,” coach Anthony Lynn told his Chargers over Zoom. “It’s gonna be chaos. It’s gonna be change. And it’s gonna come every single day. The goals, the objective will not change. I can’t promise you that you aren’t going to get infected—I got infected.”

And … boom. Joey Bosa’s eyeballs get big. Linval Joseph’s face goes blank. Justin Herbert looks like he saw a ghost. Lynn continues.

“I’ve talked to some people that said they’re sick of this virus. What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

I’m not sure any of the league’s other 31 coaches could’ve driven home the message that all of them have tried to convey—take COVID-19 seriously, or else—in quite the fashion that Lynn was able to, mostly because, as far as we know, none of the others were in position to reveal they had the virus as camp opened. But I can tell you now that the last thing Lynn wanted was the attention that’s come from the revelation airing on HBO.

I’m told the Chargers, on behalf of Lynn, turned down a handful of opportunities to tell the story to an enormous audience on prominent, non-sports network morning and evening talk shows. Moreover, that speech? It happened as the Chargers vets were reporting to camp, right around the July 28 date, meaning the news that Lynn to delivered to more than 100 people on that Zoom call stayed under wraps for two full weeks.

In today’s NFL, you’d have a hard time keeping what someone had for lunch under wraps for that long, much less something as significant as Lynn’s diagnosis—and that came over a month after he told a small group of people within the organization about it. And all the same, when he and I talked late Saturday night, after the team’s first full speed practice of camp, he politely, and steadfastly, declined to go into detail about his COVID-19 experience.

What he was willing to explain was why he told his team in the manner he did.

“Anyone who knows me knows I take this virus very seriously—and I got it,” Lynn explained. “I was trying to get across to them, you cannot be too careful. You cannot relax. You cannot let your guard down. We have to stay on top of this. And I was talking about [adversity] creating a competitive advantage this year. It just happened to be Hard Knocks, so they took it and ran with it. But that was for my team, and I just wanted them to know.

“You can’t be too careful with this thing.”

More to the point, the message was intended only for his team, even if others could use it.

And that team, if you’ve paid attention the last three years, has been through a lot—and this is one more thing. Which, if you think about it, may actually serve them well as they work to mount a challenge to the champs in the AFC West.

anthony-lynn-alex-smith-michah-parsons

***

We’re going to take things on the road this week, and I’m excited for that. Today is the day that most of the league is putting on pads for the first time this calendar year. Until then, in this week’s MMQB, we’re bringing you …

• More on Alex Smith’s remarkable return.

• A dumpster-dive into the college football mess.

• Perspective on the success of the Bills’ rebuild.

• Whispers from early practices across the NFL.

But we’re starting with the Chargers, and how a group that’s built up—to borrow a phrase that a Texan like Lynn would most appreciate—armadillo skin over the last few years is preparing for another test of its will.

***

As you might imagine, on Tuesday night, during Lynn’s Hard Knocks star turn, the coach’s cell phone kept buzzing. And most of the messages, of course, expressed concern.

“People think I have it,” Lynn told me with a laugh. “I don’t know what people took from that. But they think I have it now. I’m fine. I had it over a month ago. I’m fine.”

Indeed, Lynn’s bout—the story of the golf broadcast you saw on Hard Knocks emanated from Traveler’s Championship, which was held in late June (and from which Denny McCarthy withdrew after testing positive for COVID-19)—had already been waged.

He got sick. He is better now. The end.

Really, that’s where Lynn wants to leave it, because he knows the football season is coming and he never wanted to make all this about him. It was about giving players something that would illustrate how easily someone can get infected, and how, in these circumstances, that can threaten to impact more than just that single person. If it happened during a game week, it could, in fact, have a trickle-down effect that reaches everyone.

So as for the football? He and I got in to that, too.

Tyrod Taylor is entrenched. I mentioned in the GamePlan on Thursday that the Chargers quarterback situation really intrigued me. Taylor is a former playoff quarterback, and Herbert brings big-time talent as the sixth overall pick. But as it turns out, this derby won’t exactly see both horses coming out of the gate together.

For now, the Chargers are going to prepare Taylor to start, and Herbert would have to wrest the job from him. It’s not so unlike the situation Taylor was in two years ago in Cleveland, with Baker Mayfield behind him.

“I don’t think we need to tell the team who the quarterback’s gonna be,” Lynn said. “I think right now, Tyrod Taylor’s our quarterback. And if Justin goes through camp and does something to change our mind, that’s great. That means we’d have a really good quarterback competition. But without being here for the offseason, without having any of those practices, that sets a quarterback back.

“Justin’s a very intelligent young man, I’m very pleased where he’s at with his football IQ. I’m not gonna shortchange him. I’m never gonna say what you can’t do. But right now, this football team knows Tyrod Taylor’s our quarterback. And if someone wants to step up and knock him off the pedestal, then that’s great.”

And having that clarity, Lynn hopes, will help the team build to Week 1.

“I’m just saying, right now, Tyrod Taylor’s our quarterback,” Lynn said. “I’m not ever gonna say the backup can’t win the job. I’m not gonna say that. If [Herbert] does something where there’s a pattern of consistency and a pattern of success throughout practice, he could change our mind. I don’t know. But this team right now believes in Tyrod Taylor.”

That clarity will be sought across the rest of the roster. Lynn conceded that, because he has to be fair to the guys who’ll actually play, there will probably be fewer of the proverbial “camp battles” than there have been in the past. The starters, obviously, lost the whole spring and are just putting on pads at point where, last year, they were about to play their second preseason game. That leaves a lot of ground to make up.

“No doubt,” said Lynn. “That’s crossed my mind the whole time. And the thing that scares me to death is missing out on a guy like Austin Ekeler or Michael Davis, those undrafted free agents that are major contributors for us right now. It happens every year all over the league, undrafted free agents winning jobs. Some of them become Hall of Famers. You fear missing out on someone like that under these circumstances.”

Lynn did say that he and his staff are going to try to generate more competitive situations within practices that might reveal the next Ekeler or Davis. But where the team goes, he knows, is going to hinge on guys who are what Ekeler and Davis have become, rather than the kinds they once were, so getting those guys ready is paramount

And those prime-timers have been ready to go. Lynn saw it early, in the pace of the first walkthroughs—“I thought they were going to kill each other!”—and knows that it’s not all going to come back at once, which, again, will eat at time bottom-of-the-roster guys need, and probably won’t get this month.

“We have to patient,” Lynn said. “Physically, we may not be where we were at, at this time last year. So let’s be patient, and let’s be careful not to peak too soon. We’re trying to strategically do that as a coaching staff. You know, we gained six practices because we don’t have preseason games. That’s six more practices that we didn’t have last year—so we’re going to get more time, more practice. We have to use it.”

The advantage of Zoom. Saturday was the Chargers’ first competitive day of practice, with the offense going head-to-head with the defense. It was also the first real day of in-person meetings. That’s right—through two weeks of camp, Lynn has chosen to keep the meetings virtual. Part of it’s a COVID-19 precaution, of course. But another part of it? Lynn has become a fan of Zoom.

“I’ve grown to like the Zoom better than the in-person meeting because I like to see your facial expressions, I like for you to see my face,” he said. “I struggle talking to a group of people behind a mask. I’d just rather see your face on Zoom and teach that way. And I think other people feel that way too. These guys have handled it well. So yeah, I wouldn’t say I was a techie, but I’ve had to become a tech guy,”

O.K., then why did Lynn move the meetings back into the building? “It was time,” he said. The Chargers’ installs were about to get more intense with what “real” camp looming, and, yes, the staff does value the face-to-face interaction.

“It’s important for our coaches to be in front of our players every once in a while,” Lynn said. “We can’t do it every day, but I still think it’s important for [the coaches] to be in front of [the players] when they can, so long as they have the proper facility to keep the distance. Today I thought we handled that pretty well.”

It will get a little more challenging with time. The meetings thus far have been split between the Irvine Marriott and the team’s Costa Mesa facility—the offense is at the former, the defense at the latter. In a few weeks, when the Chargers cut the roster down, they’ll lose the hotel as an option, meaning they’ll have to get creative at their home base. Or ramp the Zoom meetings, again.

The Chargers still feel like they’re close. Yes, L.A. was 5–11 last year. But the team didn’t lose a game by more than one score until Dec. 15. And it wouldn’t take much digging to find out what the difference was between the 12–4 team of 2018 and last year’s last-place group. The 2019 Chargers were tied for last in turnover differential, last in takeaways, and 29th in giveaways.

“We’ve been very good on fourth down the last couple years, we work situational football all the time,” Lynn said. “It’s just … you can’t turn it over the way we turned it over. You can’t be 29th in the league on offense and 32nd on defense in taking it away. You’re gonna have a hard time winning games that way, I’m telling you.”

And that brings us to the Super Bowl. Lynn did watch the game. He’d normally root for the team from his division. He was a little torn this time around: “Kyle Shanahan’s like a little brother to me.” (Shanahan’s dad, Mike, coached Lynn in the 1990s in Denver). But his main takeaway was one that his team has heard: That the Chiefs won the whole thing is another sign that the Chargers really aren’t that far off.

“No doubt,” he said. “We probably turned the ball over 10 times in the two games we played against them. You gotta give them some credit, they forced that. But that goes back to something that we had been doing the first two years—we were taking care of the football. And we got away from taking care of the football. In those close games, when you’re loose like that, everyone’s trying to be the hero, everyone’s trying to make a play, and that’s when that true toughness shows up. I feel like we lacked it in that area.”

***

That said, 2019 wasn’t all bad for Lynn. As injuries mounted and eventually blew up the season, the players were challenged. And Lynn saw them respond.

“This team’s always gonna compete—and last year’s team did, they never rolled over when things weren’t going our way,” Lynn said. “Didn’t feel sorry for ourselves. Had a ton of injuries, didn’t matter, guys competed. Losing nine games by one score, that ain’t great, that’s not what we want to do. But it’s a sign guys didn’t stop playing. And I watched these guys, and how they handled adversity, and I thought the leadership stepped up. This was a selfless football team in a lot of ways.

“Guys still cheered for one another, rooted for one another. When we did have success, no one really cared who got the credit. I like the fact that we have a gritty and a selfless football team. But now we have to get a little tougher. What I mean by that is we have to be at our best when we need to be at our best.”

The truth, though, is that brings you back to what guys like Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Keenan Allen, Casey Heyward and Hunter Henry—who have seen, wire-to-wire, what the franchise has been through the last three years—can draw on. They played through a move, through calling a soccer stadium home for three years, through bad injury luck and through the end of an era at quarterback with Philip Rivers’ departure.

It’s a resilient group that twice played past these sorts of things and to winning records. And now, having gone through this sort of stuff in a year in which they couldn’t get to the right side of .500, Lynn hopes it’ll be a hungrier group too.

No one, by the way, is contrasting any of that to a global pandemic. But the Chargers have made a living hitting curveballs over the last three years, so they should be as well-equipped as anyone to take a swing at this one.

“I sure hope so,” Lynn said. “And I’d like to think so. These guys, they’ve had to adapt and change a lot. So here we go again. It’s not like this is that new to us. We’re probably more prepared than anyone in the league to deal with this. This is where you use those experiences to your advantage, and that’s the way we’ve always talked about it. The whole group, the transition, the temporary facility, the stadium, all of that, it creates resolve.

“You’d hope it helps you conquer other issues in your life.”

And this time, Lynn’s had an up-close view of the opponent. So you can bet the Chargers won’t take that foe lightly.

***

THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY OF ALEX SMITH

Alex Smith coming off the PUP list is a story we all can enjoy. If you’ve been aware of what he’s been through over the last two years, the fact that he’d even be cleared for football activity again (even if it’s just another step forward) is remarkable. And those who know him well couldn’t be happier for him.

Jags OC Jay Gruden, Smith’s coach in D.C. the last two years, texted, “Everyone who knows Alex would never bet against him.” Norv Turner, who was Smith’s OC in San Francisco all the way back in 2006, added, “I’m just extremely happy for Alex. This is a real positive for Ron [Rivera], with Alex’s background. He’s been in that position where he’s helped young quarterbacks before.… He’ll be a real positive asset for them, whether he plays or not.” And from Doug Pederson, Smith's offensive coordinator for three seasons in Kansas City: “It doesn't surprise me that he is now in this position. His work ethic is second to none and this proves it. I'm so excited for Alex and his family.”

So where exactly in Smith right now?

Well, as ESPN’s Stephania Bell reported in May (she did a great job chronicling his comeback in an eye-opening episode of E:60), he was cleared by his own doctor for football activity before training camp even started. But the team wanted to take it slow with Smith. As such, Washington started him on PUP and the coaches, in conjunction with the training staff, basically set up for Smith to prove he could make all the movements he’d need to in order to actually practice.

Being activated on Sunday signified that Smith had completed that part of the rehab, I’m told. From here, the plan is to slowly reintroduce him to football.

His coaches know he can throw the ball. They now know he can move around. Next, he’ll have to show he can do it with people around him. That means he has a new set of checkpoints to reach before he’ll be a full participant in practice.

But make no mistake, this is incredibly significant. For those who don’t know, Smith’s right leg basically got snapped in half on Nov. 17, 2018 in a game against Houston—he broke his tibia and fibula—and that was just the start. His leg got infected in surgery, and there was concern it’d have to amputated. Few at the time believed he’d ever even think about playing pro football again. (His injury was the kind that ended Joe Theismann’s career.)

And so that he’s even here is a borderline miracle. It’s a testament to who Smith is, too, as is everything you heard Sunday from the coaches who know him best.

“How great is that? I’m so happy for him,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said during his Sunday media availability. “He’s dirty tough. He loves playing the game; he didn’t want it to end the way it ended with the leg. So he’s back. We all saw the E:60 special and the rehab that he went through — that day-in and day-out grind of the rehab. I’m very, very happy for him. I’m happy for the Washington team, too.”

“It’s an amazing thing,” Smith’s ex-teammate Patrick Mahomes added. “I texted Alex before the season, before training camp got going. Him just being there and being able to be cleared by his doctors—and now getting cleared by Washington’s doctors—being out there and being able to perform shows the grit that he has. He’s someone that helped me out a ton in my career, and he’s always persevered.”

To a pretty amazing degree—no matter what happens next.

***

After a breakout year, Bateman opted to say goodbye to the college game—which became a moot point when the Big 10 canceled its season.

After a breakout year, Bateman opted to say goodbye to the college game—which became a moot point when the Big 10 canceled its season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL’S FUZZY FUTURE

The NFL has long benefitted from the college-football machine—in how it develops talent, in how it markets stars of the future and in it how it drives the league’s signature offseason event. And so, from a pro football standpoint, there’s a lot on the line with the fracturing we’ve seen (conference vs. conference, players vs. conference, coaches vs. conference, etc.) over the last week.

But one thing we really haven’t seen is the mass exodus of players from the college ranks to prepare for the draft. Really, to this point, there have been six big names.

• Minnesota WR Rashod Bateman

• Virginia Tech CB Caleb Farley

• Purdue WR Rondale Moore

• Penn State LB Micah Parsons

• Miami DE Greg Rousseau

• Pitt DT Jaylen Twyman

Five of the six (Twyman being the exception) are probable first-rounders. All the decisions, given the circumstances in our country, are pretty understandable. Still, maybe what’s most notable, to this point, is that there hasn’t been the absolute land-rush of players, even with the Big 10 and Pac-12 shutting down this week, that many expected going from college football into workout facilities for draft prep.

And as I spoke with Florida coach Dan Mullen the other day—just a few hours before the Big 10 and Pac-12 decisions were finalized—it was clear he absolutely believes there was an implicit message sent from the players to anyone paying attention.

“We have a lot of guys with NFL aspirations that want to go play [the college season],” Mullen said. “I think the big story that’s overlooked in college football is the decision to play or not play. In the NFL, if you opted out, you can opt out, but you lost a lot of your salary. College football, if you opt out, you get the same as if you play. We’re gonna honor your scholarship, and everything you get. So you don’t lose anything by opting out.

“And if you look at the minimal number of players that have opted out in college football, that shows where the players are at. In the power five conferences, 0.4 percent have opted out—so 99.6 percent of players have said they want to play. That’s something that really has gotten overlooked as we try to get this done and try to get the season underway.”

Mullen’s Gators are tested once a week, and they haven’t had a single positive testsince workouts became mandatory in mid-July (they reportedly had 21 in the four months prior). Mullen thinks this is due in large part due to the NFL-style changes they’ve made. UF is using its spacious stadium club to host position and squad meetings, it has moved its weight room into its indoor practice facility, and staff meetings are held in the team meeting room.

Everything thing that can be outside is done outside—the team is even leaving the large garage doors on both ends of the indoor practice facility wide open to improve ventilation.

The result has been, Mullen says, that players feel safe because the team environment is the safest environment they could be in. And that seems to bearing out in the number of players who are hanging on to their college eligibility, despite what I’ve heard has been, for the elite players, a pretty steady stream of overtures from the agent community.

“They wanna play,” Mullen said. “So between the players and the coaches, and especially the administrators, we gotta find the safest way to make that happen. The guys that are taking the biggest risks—personal risks with their health, the players and the coaches are the ones taking those risks—wanna play. We gotta try to find a way to make that happen.”

Maybe they can pull it off. Maybe they can’t.

One thing we know now is that the SEC, ACC and Big 12 are giving it a shot, and hoping for more advances (like the one that came with the FDA approving the SalivaDirect test on Saturday) that enhance the chances of that happening. The Big 10 and Pac-12, of course, weren’t as patient—and we’ll see whether or not their decisions look wise two or three weeks from now, after campuses have been flooded with tens of thousands of students.

And the truth is, no one knows what our country will look like in two months. Mullen conceded that readily when we talked.

“What we have to do is continue to educate ourselves and try to learn as much as we can, and try to keep everybody as safe as possible,” he said. “So to say, ‘If we start, we’re definitely gonna finish’, we don’t have that knowledge yet. And to sit there and say, we’re gonna start and say, ‘We’re never gonna have a positive test’, I think that’s probably putting your head in the sand a little bit.… [But] I feel like we really created one of the safest environments here for the players. And hopefully we’re able to continue moving forward.”

A lot of people have their fingers crossed—and, evidently, a lot of players actually like playing football enough to give it their best shot and see what happens, too.

***

AROUND FOR THE LONG HAUL IN BUFFALO

Two crazy facts I dug up on Sunday morning:

1. The last Bills coach to make it to a second contract was Dick Jauron, who was hired on a three-year deal in 2006, and given that extension midseason in ’08. He was fired by the team in November ’09.

2. By getting to 2009, Jauron became the only coach since the Bills’ Super Bowl era to make it into a fourth season. So come Thanksgiving, Sean McDermott’s run will eclipse Jauron’s, and make McDermott the franchise’s longest-tenured coach since Marv Levy.

Levy, of course, led a star-studded Buffalo group to four consecutive Super Bowls, coaching a team that boasted five future Hall of Famers (Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, James Lofton, Bruce Smith) on its roster.

So that’s the backdrop for the deal McDermott signed this week, a four-year extension that ties the coach to Western New York through the 2025 season. But what makes it all the more meaningful is what happened in between Levy and McDermott: the franchise endured 17 seasons without a trip to the playoffs, with a run of five straight double-digit-loss seasons mixed in there, not to mention an ownership change and threats of a move during the sale.

That’s why when McDermott told me his old bosses Andy Reid and Ron Rivera taught him about overcoming obstacles, and I asked which obstacle overcome was most significant, the answer was easy for him. It was the first one.

“Yeah, I’ll just start with the 17-year drought,” McDermott said. “To me, it’s one of the greatest turnarounds in professional sports history. I’m not bragging, it’s the result of a lot of people, not just myself. To go 17 years? I’m not sure even I understood how long it had been. I think at the time it ranked as the longest drought in professional sports. That’s a lot of teams, a lot of years—not just football but all the sports.”

In tandem with GM Brandon Beane, a solid foundation is in place that very clearly justifies the Pegulas reinvestment in the braintrust. The Bills broke that playoff drought right away, went through a financial cleansing/youth movement in Year 2, then got back to the playoffs in Year 3 with a group that should only get better.

Here’s why you can say that: Stefon Diggs and Dion Dawkins are 26, Josh Allen and Tre’Davious White are 24, and Tremaine Edmunds and Ed Oliver are 22, giving the Bills youth and ability in cornerstones at all three levels of the defense, the offensive line, the offensive skill positions and quarterback. All but Diggs are homegrown, and all already have playoff notches on their belt.

“That’s the exciting part about it, and that’s why it’s so important that we’re able to keep that continuity by re-signing some of these players,” McDermott said. “When I was with Andy and Ron [I learned] that’s a critical piece. We can grow our own, develop our own, and then keep our own—and then add to it where we can. Brandon’s continuing every day to work on that end of things. That’s a critical piece as we move forward.”

But just as critical to sustaining it, as McDermott sees it, are the little pieces of feedback he’s getting along the way from guys who saw it before and have seen it since, and given him the before-and-after snapshot. NFL senior director of player engagement Keith Elias is one example, and there are dozens of others of Bills alumni who have told him, “The mindset and the energy are different,” McDermott said. “It’s hard to put your finger on it. But the thing they keep saying is, it’s different around here.”

Beyond what might happen in any single game, or even a season, that’s proof positive to those in charge that the mindset being passed down and around—" I don’t feel like I have to do as much in the way of explaining who we are and why we’re that way to the new players”—is no longer something someone is selling. It’s just who the Bills are now.

And, really, that’s what the Pegulas just signed up for more of.

“All you want is a chance, and the Pegulas gave me a chance,” McDermott said. “And then when you have the opportunity, and you get inside the walls, you really want to be able to see it through. You start building relationships, and you try and get it turned. And we’ve been able to do that to a point, with more work to be done yet. And that’s where, I think, you just want to be able to continue to work, to continue to put your stamp on it.

“The coaches I’ve been able to be around, Andy Reid and Ron Rivera, both had multiple contracts, and I was able to watch them put their plans in place. That’s what we’re able to do now, and that feels good.”

***

Kittle was the Niners’ leader in catches and receiving yards in each of the past two seasons.

Kittle was the Niners’ leader in catches and receiving yards in each of the past two seasons.

TEN TAKEAWAYS

Tight ends are finally getting what they deserve. Or at least starting to. I tweeted something along these lines last week, and it really is worth repeating the numbers because it is staggering how undervalued tight ends have been financially over the last decade. Here’s a snapshot look at the top of the market at the position:

June 2012: Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski signs a six-year, $54 million extension.

July 2014: Saints TE Jimmy Graham signs a four-year, $40 million deal.

March 2020: Ex-Falcon Austin Hooper signs a four-year, $42 million deal with the Browns.

Add it up, and in APY (average per year), that’s less than 20% inflation over an eight-year period—from $9 million to $10.5 million per. For context, consider that three months before Gronk signed his deal, Saints QB Drew Brees became the first player to hit $20 million APY with a five-year, $100 million deal. The top of the quarterback market has since doubled that number. Suffice it to say, this was a long time coming, and it was always going take a player like George Kittle ($15 million per) or Travis Kelce ($14.3 million) or Zach Ertz (he’s probably next) to make this happen. Now, the deals are a little different. Kittle, being younger and only having one year left on his contract, got something closer to what a free agent would. Kelce’s deal was more of an adjustment—he’ll get $4.25 million more the next two years than he would’ve on the last two years of his old deal, and the first three years add up to just a little more than those years plus a franchise tag would’ve if he’d stayed on the old contract (the bigger numbers are on the back end). Meanwhile, Ertz has more leverage because his 2022 tag number will be around $15 million, minimum, so maybe he gets more. But the really interesting thing here? These guys are still a bargain. There are 11 receivers who make more than Kittle and 13 who make more than Kelce, and I wouldn’t have a hard time finding offensive coaches who’d rather have a great tight end as the queen on their chess board than a great outside receiver. So good for Kittle and Kelce, and good for the Niners and Chiefs.

So far, so good for Baker Mayfield with the new staff in Cleveland. And really, practice just started. But the offensive coaches have already seen attention to detail that echoes what Mayfield told the local media on Friday: “Having success all through high school and college and having that standard so high, the past couple of years have just been a roller coaster of emotions and not nearly as much success as I’m used to. So I would say I lost myself, not having that success, not finding out what was working. I think I tried different ways of trying to have that success, and I didn’t find it. So I lost myself in that, and I wasn't able to be who I [need to be] for these guys on the team.” Mayfield’s rep coming out of Oklahoma was, for all the bluster, one of a beloved teammate and a gym rat. His work ethic, really, was questioned for the first time last year, and it does look like he’s responding. Mayfield has already shown himself as a competitor to guys like head coach Kevin Stefanski, offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt and pass-game coordinator Chad O’Shea. And as for the attention to detail, one area where he’s drilled down is his footwork out of the shotgun, which should help him regain the natural accuracy that a couple NFL quarterbacks coaches told me, ahead of the 2018 draft, was the best they’d ever evaluated in a college player. He’s also gotten the attention of everyone with his ability to get the ball downfield in early work, and he hasn’t been afraid to speak up in front of the team. There’s plenty of reason for optimism there, as I see it.

The idea of Saturday NFL games is on the table, as we’ve said, if college football punts on playing in the fall all together. One thing I did hear this week though would make me walk my take in last week’s MMQB (that Saturday games were a bad idea) back a little—the concept of the Saturday triple-header probably isn’t happening, at least not on a weekly basis. More likely, we’d either see a late-afternoon or a Saturday night game, or maybe both, to help the league recoup some of the revenue it’s certain to lose this fall. That I can get behind. To me, the balance here will be not watering down the two Sunday afternoon windows too much, because I believe the chaos that occurs there is very much the league’s signature product (in part because most games are good enough to be great ratings-drivers as standalones). So if you want to give us a Saturday night game every week, with a few Saturday doubleheaders mixed in? That, I believe, could work.

Does Russell Wilson have enough help? This has become an annual question in Seattle. And the Seahawks’ coaches see that help might be coming from less usual places. The two names I heard this week there—WR Philip Dorsett and RB Carlos Hyde—may not excite fans much. But both have impressed, and each could fill an interesting role for the team. Dorsett was a favorite of Tom Brady’s in New England the last couple years, and Seattle sees him, potentially, as a reliable veteran behind Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf. Hyde, meanwhile, has promise to fill a void, with Rashaad Penny down for the time being. And there’s little question that Hyde’s violent edge as a runner fits Seattle stylistically. (Rookie DeeJay Dallas is another one who’s impressed early on). The knock on the Seattle skill group, of course, has been that they don’t have an overpowering focal point, which is one reason why, in the past, GM John Schneider took big swings on guys like Percy Harvin and Jimmy Graham. But the depth they’re seeing around Wilson now is, at least, encouraging.

Both the Raiders’ rookie receivers have come as advertised. And what’s cool for Jon Gruden and Vegas here is that first-rounder Henry Ruggs and third-rounder Bryan Edwards have such contrasting styles. The former is, of course, a true burner. The latter is more of a big, physical presence on the outside. That’s all been on display through a couple weeks. Ruggs plays to his timed speed (as he did at Alabama), and Edwards has shown route-running ability and very strong hands. Put those guys with Tyrell Williams, Hunter Renfrow and Zay Jones, and you have an intriguing group. And while we’re here, seeing Ruggs’s development in particular should be fascinating. Receivers his size, in the past, haven’t been the type to go as high as he did in the draft. But thanks to the Chiefs’ success with Tyreek Hill as their No. 1, the value of true burners has exploded. And if Ruggs blows up in Year 1, there are more coming in 2021 who could benefit—with Ruggs’ ex-teammate Jaylen Waddle and Purdue opt-out Rondale Moore at the top of that list.

We mentioned in the GamePlan how Jordan Palmer felt about the challenges offensive linemen will face in 2020, and that wasn’t the only interesting place our talk went. During that half-hour or so, we also covered the 2021 draft quarterbacks. Of course, we discussed Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. But I always look to dive deeper with Palmer, because he’s known a lot of these kids since they were high schoolers. Last year, he gave me Joe Burrow as his sleeper. That one worked out. And this year, he gave me eye-popping comps on two guys not named Lawrence or Fields.

The first was North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, who NFL people I talk to believe is in a class with the other two. As Palmer sees it? There’s some Mahomes there. “What I see is because of the velocity he can create, and the energy he can create when he throws, but also how quick it is, and also the type of runner he is—when he really gets consistent with a routine over and over and over again, I just look at that and I go, ‘That combination might be unique.’ You talk about a super power. Josh (Allen) and Patrick have the strongest arms, and Lamar (Jackson is) the fastest, and this guy’s the tallest and this guy’s the smartest. I think Trey’s super power might be that he’s this combination that is really, really rare. But what I see—similarities between him and Patrick, stuff that you’ll see on Instagram but it’s not showing up in stats—this is an incredibly likable, followable, hard-working guy. This guy is that guy. And I just think the general population, the football world doesn’t know this yet, but if this becomes a season where all eyes are on draft prospects, and people learn about this Trey Lance guy, I think he’s gonna explode in the way Patrick did.”

The second, you may not have heard as much about. The comp is Burrow. The guy is Georgia redshirt sophomore J.T. Daniels, who started as a true freshman at USC. He tore his ACL last year and lost his job with the Trojans as a result. “There’s a quarterback competition [at Georgia] because Jamie Newman also transferred in from Wake Forest. But I just see in J.T. Daniels—full disclosure, I’ve been working with J.T. Daniels since he was in seventh grade—a lot of the same things that I saw in Joe, just in terms of off-the-charts intelligence and off-the-charts confidence. [He] understands more football than most the guys their age—in some cases, all the guys—and is just more confident than anyone else. Physically, there’s a lot of comparisons there too. But also just the story, going from one big-time program to another, where the talent and all these other things aligned. The system he’s gonna run—he was gonna thrive last year in Graham Harrell’s system at USC, the run-and-shoot spread, before he tore his ACL. But if he gets a chance in Coach [Todd] Monken’s offense at Georgia, if they play this year, that’s a far more complex system, which totally suits him. George Pickens [is] probably the best receiver in the country, they obviously have running backs there. You start looking at this on paper and you go, this is starting to look like Joe Burrow at LSU.”

Interesting, right? You can check out the rest of that conversation on the podcast. (And feel free to subscribe while you’re there.)

The Senior Bowl meeting last week reflected the uncertainty ahead. More than 70 NFL folks from all 32 teams got on a Zoom call with the game’s executive director, Jim Nagy, on Thursday for what really was a brainstorming session. And I’m told it basically turned into the Senior Bowl folks mining the NFL guys for information on how the protocols are working in their own facilities. Among the things they discussed were a potential two-week model (which would allow for a ramp-up period for guys who didn’t play a season ), whether a full NFL staff would be needed for each team for that two-week model (maybe you’d just have a strength staff handle the first week?), and a bubble concept that could allow each team to designate a few coaches/scouts to be allowed in. All of that talk, of course, is reflective of the times we’re in and, again, how little we know about what things will look like five or six months from now. One thing was made clear to the NFL people: The Senior Bowl intends to remain agile, with the idea of moving the game back in the calendar or extending the timeframe of the event very clearly on the table.

There’s never been a year in which contract language is more important. Case in point—New Bengals DT D.J. Reader and his camp, led by agent Joby Branion, had a protection written into his contract that is tied to his $16.25 million signing bonus. And that protection was actually titled, in the language, “the coronavirus clause.” Whether or nor Reader collected the bonus hinged on passing a physical, a dynamic that, as we detailed in a story on Trae Waynes in July, created some level of conflict between the players and the team, given that there were months of unsupervised workouts during which guys could get hurt and potentially cost themselves the money. So to combat that, Branion had a stipulation put in that if Reader failed his physical, the Bengals had to either pay him the bonus money or release him immediately—and a team isn’t going to cut a guy it just signed to a big free-agent deal. That gave Reader peace of mind as he worked towards the 2020 season. And it also lent credence to the word that was floating around on Cincinnati and other teams telling players who couldn’t take physicals until they were able to report—that was that there were owners who set things up that way in contracts in the spring out of concern that the season could be canceled and didn’t want money going out until players actually showed up.

Over the past few days, I’ve been asked a lot about Big 10 commissioner Kevin Warren’s time in the NFL. So here’s what I’d say—he became a controversial figure over time, and that was reflected in the flood of texts I got on Tuesday when my alma mater had its football season canceled for the first time in program history, as did the 13 other programs in the conference. Time will tell if that call was the right one. But plenty of eyebrows were raised in NFL circles. Warren, you might remember, had his name in the news (and I covered this extensively back in 2014) for the part he played in the Adrian Peterson saga. Peterson believed Warren, a member of the Minnesota front office, went behind his back to work with the league on having him sidelined for the 2014 season, after horrifying pictures surfaced of the results of Peterson doling out corporal punishment on his son. And because of what Peterson saw as Warren’s duplicitous handling of the situation, Warren’s promotion to the organization’s COO became a sticking point in the running back’s contract negotiation. It also led to Warren losing the trust of others in the locker room—again, this wasn’t about what Peterson did, or the league’s punishment, but how Warren quietly worked back channels at the league office. That only bolstered the belief of many that Warren had designs on eventually becoming NFL commissioner. And it turned off a lot of people in the process. He isn’t making many friends with this latest decision either. Maybe he’ll wind up looking like he was ahead of the curve all along. But if that’s not the case? Look out.

The problems in college football should crystallize the job that the NFL and union have done in creating the environment they have. Now, it’s not perfect. And the real test will come when teams don’t have their players working 14-hour days, and coaches’ kids go back to school, and players’ wives go back to work, and all sorts of new variables are added to the mix. But I know at least a few players were on the fence on opting out, and decided to stick it out playing because they saw just how secure their workplace was going to be over the next six months. That’s the result of six weeks of hard negotiation between the NFL and the NFLPA, and individual players—guys who have real leverage and power as stars—being included and vocal in the movement to get constant testing and stronger safety nets as part of the agreement. The league, as of last Tuesday, had conducted 109,075 tests, with the overall positivity rate at 0.46%. And by Sunday at 4 p.m., the number of players on the COVID-19 reserve list was down to 15, a low-water mark for the NFL since the start of camp, and (by my shaky math) less than one player for every two teams. That’s great news for the league. And that’s what happens when you spend weeks working to get it right, and let doctors and science dictate where you go. Conversely, in the college-football world, the NCAA passed the buck to the conferences, who passed the buck to the schools, which is why they’re in this mess to begin with. Football coaches shouldn’t be tasked with setting up protocols—that’d be like asking an epidemiologist to manage a four-minute offense. And while some coaches (Lincoln Riley, Ryan Day, Jeff Hafley would be three I know) did a great job with it, handling things that way was never going to give college football the best chance. It’s a shame it came to that.

***

SIX FROM THE SIDELINE

1. Anyone who knows me knows I haven’t taken COVID-19 lightly, but I still can’t believe how poorly the Big 10 handled the last two weeks. From the communication with the ADs and coaches to the self-congratulatory schedule release to the absence of any effort to establish a real plan in earlier in the summer to give the athletes a shot, this thing was a 10-car pileup falling off an on-ramp into a lake. I feel bad for the coaches and players who did all they could, despite the lack of guidance, only to be told they were done. And the fact that Big 10 had just started on contingency plans for the spring days before canceling the fall season tells you all you need to know about the leadership there.

2. That said, I still thing the three Power 5 conferences that plan to play remain on shaky ground. I hope they can pull it off. But there are a ton of variables, many more than there are in the NFL, which doesn’t have to contend with how an entire campus of 20-year-olds is handling the pandemic (and if I’m being honest, I don’t know how responsible I would’ve been with it at that age either).

3. Saturday’s Blazers–Grizzlies game reminded me of what we’ve all lost the last few months. I was knocking out some work while it was going on. I saw some people tweeting about it, decided to flip over to check it out and got hooked in for the end of it. I even called my five- and four-year-old sons in for all this. They loved Carmelo’s dagger in the final minute. I really can’t wait til we get back to normal.

4. While we’re there, playoff hockey’s still great, and Tuesday’s five-overtime classic between Columbus and Tampa Bay was another good example. 

5. Is baseball season still going on?

6. Make sure you check out I’ll Be Gone In the Dark on HBO. I don’t know how I didn’t know about the Golden State Killer, and you’ll want to know about him too. Just a crazy, crazy serial-killer story.

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BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

Ryan Fitzpatrick’s gotta be jealous—he almost got there.

Football’s back, and so is the Tweet King.

I can do that too. I’ll show you guys later.

Another reminder these guys aren’t like the rest of us.

It’s kind of funny, because it’s exactly how you’d expect Jim Harbaugh to react (I’d also have loved to have been in the meeting where they crafted that statement).

At first, I watched this quickly and thought it was Jerry Jeudy. It’s actually the Broncos’ second-round pick, K.J. Hamler, who, by the way, was electric at Penn State. I still have questions on their offensive line, but Denver got a lot faster at receiver.

That’s just really awesome. Respect, again, to Alex Smith.

And respect to Justin Fields, who really seems to have found his public voice in this mess. The number of people signing this petition was well into the hundreds of thousands when I filed the MMQB.

(Part I)

(Part II)

S/o to Tom for my favorite of camp so far. I was told that Siverand had the young lady wear a Seahawks hoodie, with the hood pulled over her head and a mask on to conceal her face as she entered the team hotel. Security saw her on camera and somehow wasn’t fooled.

And there was the best reaction to my reporting on that.

And finally, on a serious note, help if you can.

***

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

The pads go on today (for 30 teams)!

I’m excited to get out this week, as actual football practice ramps up. I’ll be making my way down the East Coast starting Tuesday—you can follow along on Twitter (@AlbertBreer) and IG (@albert_breer)—and while this year’s trip won’t be quite like the ones I’ve done in the past (in large part because access is limited, and for all the right reasons), I’ll do my best to give you guys a feel for what it’s like out there.

This, of course, is a year unlike any we’ve had on the camp trail, and the plan is illustrate. And hopefully all this will be for the time capsule, and we won’t ever have another year like this again.

See you guys this afternoon for the MAQB.

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