Ron Rivera had part of his halftime routine worked out pregame. Regardless of how the first half went, he, the team doctors and head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion would get the team’s first-year coach an IV once everyone got settled in the locker room, a measure he’d take to deal with the effects of his ongoing battle with squamous cell cancer.
But he knew there would be loose ends he’d have to deal with after kickoff, and one was what football circumstance his group would be in after 30 minutes.
Turns out, it wasn’t an overly great one. Early on, the Eagles had their way with Washington, scoring twice before the hosts got their second first down and racing to a 17–0 lead. And while Rivera’s group rallied to gain some momentum late in the half, it still faced a 10-point deficit against a defending division champion that carries a good handful of core players from the Super Bowl champion team of three years ago.
So Rivera, before getting hooked up to that IV, pulled aside senior director of player development Malcolm Blacken.
“I leaned over to Malcom and I said, Hey get somebody to step up now,” Rivera recounted on Sunday night as he drove home from FedEx Field. “We needed somebody to step up through halftime.”
Rivera retreated to get his treatment—and listened for noise coming from the locker room.
“And there’s a high-pitched voice just going at it, going at it,” Rivera continued. “And they told me it was Dwayne Haskins. He’d challenged the team.”
As it turned out, no one told Haskins he had to do anything. But over the last six months, Rivera has challenged him to lead, and mostly Rivera wanted that to happen by example. He’s since seen it from his 22-year-old quarterback, who’s done it by losing weight, getting in his playbook and organizing workouts with young receivers locally when COVID-19 claimed all the spring field work he’d have gotten in a normal year.
But this was the next step, and it was happening as it should—naturally.
Haskins had answered Rivera’s challenge and now was ready to issue his own.
“It was kind of cool to see that he was the one that did it,” Rivera said. “Honestly, I couldn't hear it. I just know it was pretty fiery and he was challenging everybody.”
The newly named Washington Football Team answered that challenge resoundingly. And after a tsunami of an offseason, the team also showed calmer waters could be closer than most think.
It’s 1 a.m. as I’m knocking this out, and we’ve got a ton to get to. Inside, you’ll find …
• How the Saints as a team stole the Brady/Brees spotlight.
• Where that Jaguars performance came from.
• Why the Bills are where they are.
But we’re starting in a place that I didn’t think we would when I woke up on Sunday morning—Landover, Md.
To say Rivera and his team have been through a lot over the last six months would be like saying the Kardashians have had some family drama. Even by the standards of an organization that’s been consistently off-kilter for two decades, the year 2020 has been a minefield.
Some who work there are getting what they’ve had coming.
But Rivera and his staff aren’t in that category—they weren’t even around for most of it—nor are many, if any, of his players. But they’re the ones wearing the colors now, which has given them all tickets for the ride. Among the things Washington has faced …
• The changing of an offensive team nickname.
• A group of minority owners looking to sell their shares in the team, due to image issues.
• A Washington Post story alleging a toxic work environment that led to the firing of three visible, football-side employees.
• A follow-up Washington Post story—like the first, alleging workplace misconduct—directly implicating team owner Daniel Snyder.
Then, there was the revelation of Rivera’s cancer diagnosis, which came in March.
That would be a lot for any group of 20-somethings to compartmentalize, but this was a group of players also working through a complete overhaul of football operations, with the old team president–GM and coach gone, and new people in to run the show. And coming off a 3–13 season. You get the picture.
Rivera, for his part, understands why everyone’s talking about all of that, and will continue to. As he sees it, it’s why he was hired—he’s a coach with a reputation for leadership and an ability to set a culture, which is exactly what Washington needed.
But more than just that, he’s seen his players go through these situations that are no fault of their own, as he and his staff have tried to set that culture. And he’s watched a certain resilience build that shows in how they carry themselves.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “To me the biggest thing, more than anything else, I've been trying to tell everybody, just don't judge us on where we've been. Judge us on where we're going. I get it. We've made some mistakes in the past, this organization, this team. We're trying to correct those things. We're trying to go forward. People keep wanting to be pulling us back. So I said to the guys, Don't go backwards with anybody.
“Let's just keep going forward. Let's worry about what we can do. Let's talk about what we can impact and how we can make things happen as opposed to what's already happened.”
Here’s what happened on Sunday—two teams came out of the gate like everyone thought they would at FedEx Field.
Rivera’s crew was thoroughly outclassed through 22 minutes. Washington had one first down and just three positive gains on offense in the first quarter, and the defense might’ve been worse. Carson Wentz’s over-the-shoulder 34-yard touchdown pass to Dallas Goedert put his stat line at 12-of-16 for 174 yards and two touchdowns, and the score at 17-0. That’s just when Washington’s resilience showed up.
“What's kind of interesting was I looked around and I realized nobody was panicking,” Rivera said. “Really, honestly, nobody was screaming or pointing fingers or MFing anybody. They were all just like, 'OK what's going on? Let's settle down. Let's calm down.’ So I just got on the headset and I just said, 'Hey fellas, we don't have a 17-point play. So why don't we just take it one play at a time and see what happens. Let's get back to the basics.’”
Offensive coordinator Scott Turner simplified his plan, and Haskins was reminded of a message Rivera had been giving him.
He may have been 1-of-6 for 16 yards headed into the team’s fourth offensive possession, but he was making good decisions. “I always tell him about incompletions, if you’re throwing the ball to the right place, that’s the first step,” Rivera said. Haskins was going where he was supposed to with the ball, he just needed the execution to catch up with everything else. And soon enough, it would.
Similarly, on defense, coordinator Jack Del Rio got into a groove as a play-caller after good early-down play pinned the Eagles in long-yardage situations, allowing the DC to turn loose difference-making rookie Chase Young.
“It was just one play at a time, one play at a time, one play at a time,” said Rivera.
The breakthrough really came at the end of the second quarter: Fabian Moreau picked off Wentz inside the final two minutes, which set Washington up to go on a five-play, 45-yard drive to cut the deficit to 17–7. Then came that moment at halftime, and after the break it was all WFT.
In the fourth quarter, Washington held the Eagles to 13 total yards, while winning the final frame by a 13–0 count. Haskins answered the bell too, going a tidy, efficient 10-of-15 for 101 yards after the break. Put it all together and, improbably, the Washington Football Team was taking knees inside the Eagles 10 late in the fourth quarter—holding a 10-point lead over a team that looked like it was in a totally different stratosphere hours earlier.
Of course, Rivera knows how little all this could mean in the grand scheme of things, and his own condition is a grim reminder of how constant the challenges will be this year. He started chemo last year, and has treatments scheduled again this week. The halftime IV will be a regular thing for him, as will the fatigue he knows he’ll have to fight through.
“I got a little tired at the end, I did,” he said. “It was pretty good though. Getting the IV was a good move on our part. It just helped me sustain and make it through. And then afterwards, I got a chance to relax, and have a little something to eat before I left the stadium.”
He then paused and said, “So it was nice.”
Surely, Rivera gave himself a shot to enjoy this one, his first win in his second stint as an NFL head coach. And it had to make him smile too, thinking about what’s to come.
If Sunday was any indication, better days are ahead. For him, and for his team.
THE SAINTS ARE LOADED
Sunday was supposed to be about Tom Brady and his new home, and in the first quarter of Sunday’s NFC South showdown in New Orleans, that’s exactly what we got. Brady was electric on Tampa Bay’s first possession of the TB12 Era.
There was an absolute dime on a corner route to Chris Godwin, dropped in over two defenders, for 29 yards. There was a strike to Mike Evans that drew a 22-yard pass interference call. There was Brady burying his head and burrowing through the heart of the Saints front for a two-yard touchdown. And there was an emphatic spike at the end, thrown down so hard that it seemed Brady wanted it to be audible in Foxboro.
After that? Yeah, everything changed.
“Playing Brady's frustrating,” Saints DE Cam Jordan said from the locker room. “When you talk about it, it doesn't really matter what the offensive line that's in front of him is. It's not about the offensive line matchup. It's about whether our defensive line can get him off the spot and put pressure on him, because we all know that he has a fast release. He does have the genius, the IQ to check in and out of different offenses and plays on our defenses.
“So as much as we try to disguise, it is still Tom Brady. He's still the second greatest quarterback of all time. The first is Drew Brees.”
“I’m not kidding,” Jordan said, almost gleefully.
Thing is, this game didn’t wind up being about Brees either.
It wound up being about the more complete team, and for right now that most certainly is the Saints—who beat the Bucs 34–23, and would’ve won 41–23 had a late Alvin Kamara touchdown not gotten called back. And to prove it, New Orleans did all this while Brees finished an efficient, but pedestrian 18-of-30 for 160 yards and two touchdowns.
The real star of the game here? Maybe you’d say … everyone?
“Our defense has been doing this,” Jordan said. “Everybody knows what our identity is in terms of what our defense wants to do. We’d like to take over games. We’d like to say, Offense, we got this. When you can continue to put points up on the board as a defense as we did tonight, then of course our special teams come up with a big ball in that second half, that's just a momentous tidal wave that goes in our favor.
“So I don't know what the stat line was, but then you have Drew Brees and he's surgical, that precision that he brings to the game. You got guys like Mike [Thomas] and now Emanuel Sanders, you know you talk about Big Cookie [Jared Cook] and bringing in AK [Alvin Kamara], the way that he's always played with passion. Now that he's fully healthy this year, you're seeing the difference. So, y’know, I take it as a team win.”
So if you want the big-play rundown, here’s some of it:
• Kamara had a touchdown catch, then a touchdown run in the second quarter.
• Those sandwiched a pick from Marcus Williams at full extension over the middle.
• Margus Hunt blocked a field goal, leaving the Bucs with nothing to show for a 10-play drive.
• Brees hard-counted Vita Vea offside on a fourth-and-2, leading to a half-ending field goal.
• Janoris Jenkins jumped a Justin Watson sideline route for a pick-six in the third quarter.
• Sanders converted a crucial third-and-6 in the fourth quarter, then fought into the end zone for a five-yard TD on the next play. The Bucs closed to 24–17 and he made it 31–17.
• Brees set that up by dropping one in the bucket downfield to Cook for 46 yards.
• Taysom Hill did a bunch of Taysom Hill stuff.
• Mike Evans was hobbled, and Marshon Lattimore wasted no time getting in his head.
And so on and so on, and therein lies the truth. The fallacy of how this game was promoted all along was this: Both Brady and Brees have really solid rosters around them, brimming with blue-chip talent.
Early on, it looked like Brady’s might actually be the better one, with the Saints punting five plays in and the Bucs going 85 yards in nine snaps to take a 7–0 lead. From there, though, New Orleans settled in, and Tampa couldn’t keep with a team that can compare to anyone in young talent, the result of a pretty epic five-year run of drafting by Mickey Loomis, Sean Payton and Jeff Ireland.
“We had some things that we had to correct and once we corrected those, we were dialed in,” Jordan said. “We went back-to-back three-and-outs, and a turnover. When we’re dialed in, you should bet on us 10 out of 10 times.”
That only got clearer the deeper into the afternoon the game went and was punctuated by Payton emptying the barrels on a late drive that seemed designed to deliver a point. A double-pass from Brees to Hill to Kamara came with 2:33 left and the Saints up 34–23, and only a review on what looked like a Kamara touchdown prevented New Orleans from tacking on more.
But even without that score, the message seems to be clear on how good these Saints can be, and Jordan was willing to say they may be as good as any Saints team he’s been on since 2011.
“It's Week 1,” Jordan said. “I'll give that analysis at the very end of the year when I look back and say everybody captured their potential that we see on paper. Potentially, though, this is one of the most talented rosters I've seen put together on paper. We're 1–0. Let me know when we're 16–0 and we can discuss it. Or preferably 19–0.
“Then we'd really discuss it.”
Jordan didn’t seem like he was kidding when he said that either.
BILLS HANDLING PRESSURE
I’d argue few teams came into 2020 with the kind of pressure the Bills are facing. They’ve been to the playoffs twice in three years—and the Patriots are losing Brady, which forever had excused AFC East teams from winning division titles.
And with the Jets and Dolphins rebuilding, the Bills swiftly went from hunter to hunted.
By the looks of it, it didn’t affect their aggression much. Before you could make your second trip to the fridge on Sunday, Buffalo was up 21-0—and had it not been for an awkward, funky Josh Allen fumble early in the first quarter, it might’ve been even worse than that for the Jets. It was 14–0 before the Jets registered a first down in Orchard Park, and three plays after that finally happened, Buffalo embarked on a soul-crushing, 14-play, 68-yard march.
Bottom line: If the Bills were the hunted here, they were the grizzly bear that swiped the shotgun from the hunter and bludgeoned him over the head with it. And as head coach Sean McDermott saw it afterward, that happened because, as he tried to get his team to see all summer, nothing really had to change.
“It's so hard to win in this league,” McDermott told me postgame from his office at the stadium. “We had injuries today, our guys persevered. We faced adversity today. I think at the end of the day, this is a tough league to win in so you coach every week the same with respect for the opponent and be steadfast in your preparation to improve as a football team. Listen, we're going to go against a good Miami football team next week and, look, we got some guys that are banged up. It'll be a big week for us here.”
But this was a big week, too, in a couple of different respects.
The first one concerned the circumstance everyone was in—the offseason was different and it was hard to know how the team would play. The tack McDermott and his staff tried to take was to re-create game situations in practices as well as they could, but there wasn’t much telling how much it would translate onto the game field.
“[PR chief] Derek [Boyko], who's sitting to my right, would tell ya, what you saw today is how we've been practicing,” McDermott said. “We've been practicing in our stadium. We've been trying to simulate game situations, throwing different things at our offense, throwing different things at our defense, throwing different things at our special teams, no different. I thought our preparation and our planning was on point.”
And he got proof of that in how the team burst from the gate like Seattle Slew.
Which brings us to the second reason it was a big week—the quarterback. Josh Allen’s been maligned plenty for piloting a team that’s slowly become more and more talented around him, with guys like Tre’Davious White, Stefon Diggs, Tremaine Edmunds, Ed Oliver and Dion Dawkins now making up one of the NFL’s most talented young cores. The effect of all that, though, has been the perception that he needs to take a big step forward to unlock the team’s potential.
McDermott wasn’t going to address how much truth there is in that. But outside of the aforementioned fumble and a bad miss late in the red zone (that, of course, went viral on social media), Allen was effective in a lot of areas, going 20-of-26 for 161 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for 59 yards and another score on 12 carries. And, notably, shouldering the pressure he’s facing without much of an issue.
“I think one of the greatest assets that he has, he's a good teammate that remains humble and that's important, that the players see that,” McDermott said. “All that is good. He remains steadfast in his work ethic and things that he needs to improve on. I think that's a mirror of our football team, which is good when your quarterback is wired that way.”
We’ll get some answers on just how far the Bills can go relatively soon.
After next week’s game against the Dolphins, Buffalo will face the Rams and Raiders, followed by last year’s AFC finalists, the Chiefs and Titans, over a five-week stretch in October. And while Sunday’s game showed us the Bills are handling all the hype over how good they can be, those ones down the road figured to tell us a whole lot more.
A SURPRISE IN JACKSONVILLE
In case you missed it (and we’ll mention it later in the column too), Trevor Lawrence looked fantastic on Saturday night in Winston-Salem, N.C. Less than 24 hours later, Gardner Minshew looked even better in Jacksonville.
And if you’re wondering why I’m linking the two, I’m surprised you’re reading this column.
Going back six months now, all the way back to the Jaguars’ offloading of established veteran leaders like Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye in March, Lawrence Watch has been on in North Florida. A bevy of subsequent moves (most recently the trade of Yannick Ngakoue and release of Leonard Fournette) only added to the idea that this year in Jacksonville would be more about getting a certain Clemson quarterback next year.
One problem—that memo didn’t get to Doug Marrone or his players. But more than just that, the vision Marrone had for the team amid the roster shift (dumping a lot of guys who didn’t want to be there) came together in the fight the Jaguars showed Sunday, battling back from four different deficits over the course of the afternoon.
And when it was over, somehow, the Jaguars were on the right side of the scoreboard, after rookie CB C.J. Henderson broke up a Philip Rivers fourth-down throw to T.Y. Hilton to ice a 27–20 win in the only game played in front of fans Sunday.
“Honestly, the team knows that as players we can only control what we can control,” receiver D.J. Chark told me postgame. “We count on the coaches to put us in a good position, and the coaches told us that they had a vision of having a team that's united and together and that's going to play for each other. And we just all bought in. That's [Doug’s] vision, so that’s our vision. It's been pretty good for us.
“We don't really pay attention to what other people say. We understand the expectations aren't really high for us, but we still have a job to do and we do that together.”
Minshew, for one, did the job exceedingly well. The second-year quarterback was 19-of-20 (!) for 173 yards, three touchdowns and a 142.3 rating. He didn’t have an incomplete pass on any of Jacksonville’s scoring drives and consistently showed the feel for the game that was apparent last year and has become his calling card with the coaches he’s played for.
Now, can we sit here in September and say Minshew’s good enough for the team to pass on a generational quarterback prospect? Of course not, and if he is they won’t be in position to draft Lawrence anyway. But at least on this afternoon, he was plenty good for his teammates.
“We still got things that we can do better but 19-for-20 is something that you can't argue with,” Chark said. “He played with confidence throughout the whole way, and that's something that we expect from him because that's who he is. He comes to work. You don't really worry about next year's draft or anything like that because we have a whole year to play and we're going to make the most of it. He's a baller. At the end of the day, whether someone agrees or not, the numbers show it. And his play shows it as well.”
Marrone has more control than he’s had before to shape the team. As I understand it, he was the one who wanted Fournette gone—it had become painfully apparent that the former fourth overall pick wasn’t a culture fit. And it’s just as clear the focus has been on ridding the team of players who operated as if they were on scholarship.
We’re a long way from seeing the Jaguars’ final record or draft position, but for a day (with the Titans playing Monday) they in a place few expected to see them: alone atop the AFC South.
AN 'ELWAY' EXCERPT
My old buddy Jason Cole—an alum of Yahoo, Bleacher Report and the Miami Herald, and a veteran of three decades of NFL coverage—has a book coming out Tuesday on one of the most fascinating pro football figures of my lifetime. John Elway is the subject (the title is Elway), and the reporting and background in this book are outstanding. We’re about to give you an example.
In this chapter, Cole sets a scene where Elway believes John Fox and his two coordinators, Adam Gase and Jack Del Rio, have their eyes on their next jobs as the 2014 season is winding down. And Elway, as you might imagine, isn’t pleased with that. Here’s the end of Chapter 33 in the book …
In the months after getting the new contract, Fox seemed to recede from the challenge instead of responding to it. Fox’s deference to Manning also got on Elway’s nerves. Manning essentially ran the entire offense. While that was extraordinarily successful in the 2013 season, Elway saw the Super Bowl as a referendum on what the Broncos really needed to do. There needed to be more balance to the offense with an emphasis on the running game.
Just as Elway needed a running game at the end of his career, he felt like Manning needed the same thing. In addition, Elway thought Denver should have been playing to the strength of its improving defense. With Fox giving Manning carte blanche to run the offense, the overall approach wasn’t going to change. That led to flare ups during the 2014 season. Elway started to criticize Fox more openly around the Broncos facility. At one point, Del Rio got wind of it and criticized Elway during a team meeting. When that got back to Elway, the two men had a loud disagreement some people thought might end in a fistfight.
“I was just defending my boss,” Del Rio says, diplomatically referring to Fox. “I think some things were said that didn’t need to be said and I’ll just leave it at that.”
The tension got worse after Manning got hurt. By the end of the 2014 season, the Broncos offense was in trouble and everyone knew it. When Chicago fired coach Marc Trestman and General Manager Phil Emery and hired Pace to replace Emery, Fox saw the situation as a golden parachute out of Mile High City.
As the team readied for the playoff game against Indianapolis, other reporters were getting wind of the full rift between Elway and Fox. [Mike] Klis was asking questions about Fox’s future on the Friday before the game. [Jay] Glazer confirmed the story and put it out on the pregame show early Sunday. Denver’s flaccid effort against Indianapolis meant that three consecutive seasons under Fox had ended in vast disappointment in Elway’s view. Worse, Elway had seen this show in the first 10 years of his career. What the Broncos needed was a bold overhaul of the entire coaching staff in his view.
By the next day, Fox and the Broncos announced they had agreed to a “mutual parting,” a polite way of saying the team had fired Fox and he was content to leave. That’s when Elway went back to his roots. While he wasn’t going to hire [Mike] Shanahan, he was going to get the next best thing: Shanahan’s long-time lieutenant and Elway’s long-time friend [Gary] Kubiak. Kubiak had spent eight years with middling results in Houston and had spent the 2014 season as the offensive coordinator with Baltimore.
What Elway wanted was a disciplined approach to the entire operation. He wanted someone who would stand up to Manning and put in a running game Manning needed.
First, however, there was going to be a meeting of the minds between Elway and Manning and a bitter pill for Manning to swallow. Shortly after the season ended and Kubiak was hired, Elway and Manning met in Elway’s office. Elway described to Manning his disappointment with how the season ended. Manning expressed he was disappointed Fox had been let go and believed the team could still have won a title under Fox. At one point in the conversation, Elway referred to how he believed Fox, Del Rio and Gase were distracted during the playoff loss.
Then Elway asked Manning a rather loaded question …
S/O to Hachette Books for sharing the excerpt. You can order Elway on Amazon or barnesandnoble.com now, or get it at your local bookstore starting Tuesday.
The NBC broadcast definitely made SoFi Stadium out to be the star of its first Sunday Night Football show of 2020. But make no mistake: If you ask the Rams for the best part of the night, I think you’d get a unanimous answer. The L.A. offensive line stole the show. Yes, Sean McVay called a gem and protected them to a degree (pushing to get the ball out quickly), and Jared Goff, Malcolm Brown and Robert Woods played well. New defensive coordinator Brandon Staley had a nice debut, too, and Aaron Donald had an awesome moment (covered in the Best of the NFL internet below). But the Rams’ biggest issue last year was the line, and that problem vanished against a really good Dallas front Sunday night. Andrew Whitworth, Joe Noteboom, Austin Blythe, Austin Corbett and Rob Havenstein allowed just one sack of Goff and paved the way for 153 yards rushing yards and more than 35 minutes of possession. So at the very least, this serves as a good foundation, if not a turning point, for a maligned position group.
And now you see how the Patriots built their team. This really goes back a couple of years—to drafting a left tackle (Isaiah Wynn) and bell cow (Sony Michel) in the first round in 2018, and how they won Super Bowl LIII. The Patriots have been building a bully on offense for a while now, and Cam Newton’s presence (and this is no slight of Tom Brady) unlocked a lot of that. Just look at the play selection:
• 63 offensive snaps
• 42 runs
• 21 passes
Now, a couple of Newton’s runs weren’t called, and it’s unlikely we’re going to see a 2-to-1 disparity like this every week. That said, and like I said above, this is how the Patriots have been trending for a while—another zig when the rest of the league is zagging. This is not just a counter to the 220-pound linebackers and 245-pound defensive ends they see on the field. It’s also something that should specifically work this year. Back when the Patriots signed Newton, I had someone who was there in 2011 reach out and mention how that year, the lockout year, they knew team conditioning was going to be at a premium and the number of big plays would be up with out-of-shape defenses getting gashed. Why was this story being passed along? Well, the principle of 2011 applies this year, with all the lost time at the center of that. And presuming some teams will struggle with conditioning? Well, then a punishing run game spearheaded by a 270-pound quarterback probably isn’t what they want to see. Which is, in Year 1 post-Brady, what the Patriots have got.
Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky’s dime to Anthony Miller to beat the Lions was the throw of the day, and I don’t think many people expected that to come from him. First, credit to Miller, who played really well. That play call, as it was explained to me, was really about matching Miller up out of the slot and then Miller's beating Tony McRae, which he did. But it’s not like McRae got his pants pulled down on the play either. Trubisky had a small window to slide that ball into—and he put it there, capping a scintillating finish for the star-crossed quarterback and his teammates. He was 8-of-20 for 110 yards in the first half. After the break, he went 12-of-16 for 132 yards, including 8-of-10 for 89 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. The difference, to be sure, was made up of some small things (Jimmy Graham needed to be better in the first half, and the offense in general did, too, in particular on third down and in the red zone). But there was a big thing, too, with regard to the man under center. Chicago coach Matt Nagy told me last week he believed, watching Trubisky in camp, that all he went through his first three years in the league had given him the resilience to win the summer competition over Nick Foles. That resilience sure showed up in this one, too.
Kyler Murray’s quickly becoming must-see TV. And the DeAndre Hopkins trade paid dividends right away. It was easy to forget by the end of the Cardinals’ upset of the 49ers in Santa Clara that neither Arizona’s offense, nor its pilot, had the most impressive start to 2020. It started with a drive-killing Kyler Murray grounding penalty, which essentially ended a possession that was followed by consecutive three-and-outs. So Murray immediately faced an area where the Cardinals are looking for year-over-year improvement from the 23-year-old—they wanted him to stay in the moment when things aren’t quite right. In that moment Sunday, things most certainly weren’t. On Arizona’s fourth possession, Murray put his foot in the ground and turned the team around, driving the Cardinals out from their own one. That possession ended in a missed 52-yard field goal attempt. But Arizona reeled off five first downs in the process, getting things on track for good. The Cardinals scored on their next two possessions, cutting a 13-0 deficit to 13-10, and setting the stage for a very big second half for Murray. That’s where you saw his big 23-yard scramble for a score, through the teeth of one of the NFL’s best defenses, and his would-be game-winning 34-yard touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins, which was overturned on replay (it went down as a 33-yarder to set up a one-yard Kenyan Drake touchdown run). Murray showed lots of progress, and it started with his struggles early in the game.
While we’re there, Hopkins looks like he was worth the toll for the Cardinals. Yes, they gave up draft capital and big money for the ex-Texans star. But let’s really look at that now. Hopkins was acquired for a second-round pick, David Johnson and an exchange of fourth-round picks. And yes, the Cardinals gave him a two-year extension worth $27.5 million per year in new money, but that was spread over five years (he had three years left on his deal). So here’s the total price …
• The 40th pick
• $60.1 million the next three years (he’d been on the books for $39.9 million)
So essentially, it’s a pick that might’ve gotten them a receiver like Laviska Shenault or K.J. Hamler, and a contract that’s analogous to what Amari Cooper got in Dallas. All of which isn’t that wild. And Hopkins balled out on Sunday in his debut (14 catches for 151 yards). The move has the looks of one that’ll make this a period in which GM Steve Keim has rebounded nicely from a slump he’d been in for a year or two. (He also should get props for being willing to move on from Josh Rosen and hitch his wagon to Murray, when it wasn’t a very popular decision to make—or one that made him look particularly good at the time.)
Joe Burrow was money, even if it the Bengals weren’t. Brutal, how Cincinnati wound up losing that game: A ticky-tack OPI call on A.J. Green negated a game-winning touchdown catch from No. 18, and that was followed by kicker Randy Bullock getting hurt kicking (and missing) a game-tying, 31-yard field goal on the next play. So how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln? Actually, it was really good. In fact, Burrow showed plenty in getting the Bengals to the shadow of the goal line with a chance to win at the wire. He got the ball at his own 18, with 3:08 left and no timeouts, and promptly led Cincinnati the length of the field to set up what would’ve been a three-yard touchdown pass to Green. Maybe most impressive was how unaffected he seemed to be in that spot, calmly moving from one play to the next. “He doesn’t rattle at all,” said one Bengals staffer. And yeah, I get that the Chargers won the game. And the Chargers are going to be a good team. But to me, the takeaway on this one was that the Bengals sure look like they’ve got their quarterback.
The offensive pass interference calls on Green and Michael Gallup were pretty ticky-tack, given the circumstances. By the letter of the law, sure, Gallup and Green were probably guilty. But there was hand-fighting on both plays, and I think each was a spot where the ref should keep the flag in his pocket. I also can’t help but wonder whether this is residual from the 2019 pass interference review mess. Before the Nickell Robey-Coleman play in January of that year led to wholesale change in the way the rules were legislated, I remember OPI being a rarely called penalty. Last year, under the threat of review, I believe officials started to throw that flag more liberally. And Sunday, it felt like that spilled into places it shouldn’t have. Which is a shame. Neither should’ve been a deciding factor in a game.
Packers people consistently would tell you that for most players, and especially quarterbacks, it takes a couple years to really settle in Matt LaFleur’s offense. And good evidence of that would be how LaFleur’s old boss, Kyle Shanahan, handled an incoming Jimmy Garoppolo in 2017, making him sit for a few weeks despite not having better options ready on the roster. Likewise, internally, there was a level of expectation that the marriage of Rodgers to the offense might take a full year to take hold. If Sunday’s any indication, LaFleur and Rodgers are past the dating phase—the 16-year vet finished 32-of-44 for 364 yards, four touchdowns, no turnovers and a 127.5 passer rating. Likewise, Marquez Valdes-Scantling finally looked like the dangerous No. 2 to Davante Adams they believe he can be, and the Packers ran the ball well too. Now, as for that defense.
I didn’t watch much of Seattle’s win over Atlanta. But I did look at Russell Wilson’s numbers, and they looked close to perfect. He finished 31-of-35 for 322 yards and four touchdowns, and five different Seahawks had at least three catches (seven had at least two). And that’s with D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett as his top targets, both good players, but maybe not how Seattle would’ve drawn it up a few years ago. That Wilson can do this, and keep doing it, regardless of circumstances, is probably why he now garners so much respect across the NFL. In the QB survey I ran last week, with 53 coaches, execs and scouts returning ballots, Wilson didn’t get a single first-place vote, but was still a runaway No. 2. I collected lists ranking who those execs thought would be among the league’s top five QBs at the end of the year, and Wilson was on 48 of 53 ballots, which was way more than anyone other than Patrick Mahomes (who was first or second on every ballot.) To me, that’s a great sign of respect.
Speaking of Mahomes, I don’t think what his new teammate Clyde Edwards-Helaire did on Thursday night was any fluke. When Kansas City drafted him, they saw his ability in space and physical running style as ideal, given what else the offense has. Their speed at wideout means defenses have to put lighter boxes on the field, and it also creates room underneath with which backs can work. All of that came alive in the opener, and should keep going as long as K.C.’s burners on the outside remain healthy (also, I’d love to see a little more of Mecole Hardman).
SIX FROM SATURDAY
1) I’m optimistic that the Big Ten will start a fall season in October, as I’ve been for some time, and its champion has a legit shot to make the playoff. And that’s thanks to the work of a lot of people. Ryan Day, Jim Harbaugh, Scott Frost and James Franklin deserve credit for speaking up when it wasn’t popular to do so. Also: Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez played a very underrated role in making this happen. That’s the former first-round pick of the Colts out of Ohio State, for those who don’t remember.
2) I also think players like Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence—who NFL fans will obviously be hearing a lot from soon—found their voice over the last two months. And that’s one heck of a benefit that came out of a tumultuous time for college football. Coaches have always been the faces of the big programs, and they’ll continue to be. But the more comfortable the players become with talking, the better it is for them and the more ready they’ll all be for pro football.
3) Lawrence looked every bit the first pick on Saturday night. Every throw looked easy for him, and he continued to flash the wheels that we saw in last year’s College Football Playoff. Health-permitting, it’ll be tough to poke holes in him as a draft prospect.
4) I’m not going to lie … seeing Oklahoma walking a COVID-19 tightrope definitely gave me pause on what everything is going to look like at the college level in October and November, because Lincoln Riley has been about as diligent as anyone about respecting the virus with his team. It’s an example, too, of why testing daily, rather than two or three times a week, is key. Gaps in testing, quite simply, can open the door for COVID-19 to get in.
5) Riley can still coach QBs, by the way. For the first time in four years, the Sooners aren’t starting a senior. And that didn’t make a difference. Redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler was 14-of-17 for 290 yards and four touchdowns. (And yes, I know they were playing a team their scout team could beat.)
6) Observation: The bands help a lot, to distract you from the fact that you’re watching football in an empty stadium.
Every week, we’ll give you a Q&A with a star player from the Monday Night Football matchup. This week, it’s new Broncos corner A.J. Bouye.
MMQB: What’s been the biggest challenge of having to switch teams during a really weird offseason?
AB: I think the toughest thing for me was building up the chemistry with the guys. We didn’t have OTAs and stuff like that to spend time on the field and off the field with each other. We were able to get it done with virtual meetings, and as soon as I got here [to camp] I made that a priority. We’ve been clicking good, so I’m not as worried about it anymore.
MMQB: Was there stuff you’ve done to make up for what you lost?
AB: In camp, when we had certain breaks, we’d go eat together a lot. Once a week, we’d do DB dinners. We just made that a priority when we got back.
MMQB: What’s stuck out about the last month without the preseason?
AB: That is the biggest thing. Like you said, there’s no preseason, so it’s hard to evaluate where you’re at in a live game, even though the starters would have limited reps anyways. I think the coaches have done a good job making sure we’re being safe but doing everything we can to get that game feel. But really that’s been the most difficult part for me.
MMQB: What are you most nervous about then, given how different it’s been?
AB: I wouldn’t say I’m really nervous. The only thing I’d say I’m nervous about is if the season is gonna go all the way through, just because you keep hearing that a lot. I had two years where I practiced but I didn’t play in the preseason games, and I went straight into the game and it was really just adapting, getting used to it. Sometimes you don’t get going until Week 2, Week 3.
MMQB: How do feel about Vic Fangio’s defense and your fit in it?
AB: I love it. I’ve studied them since they were in San Francisco, and Chicago, too, and it was similar to what I had in Houston—you’re not predictable. They’re not gonna know what you’re in and have ways to beat you. It’s tough. That’s the best thing about it. Even when you’re one-on-one, our disguise helps things, always knowing where your help is. And then the DBs that I’m playing with, the linebackers, the defense in general, we have a lot of playmakers.
MMQB: What do you think about have to make up for losing Von Miller? Is there anything you can take from prior experiences, like maybe with J.J. Watt?
AB: I was just about to say that, on J.J. I told some of the guys, just because I’ve been in that situation with other players when we were in Houston. Yes, we lost an amazing playmaker who’s not gonna be out there, but it’s a chance for you to make a name for yourself and to step up and make plays. And I think watching guys in practice, we miss Von a lot, but we’re very motivated to go out there and show what we can do.
MMQB: Is there a little bit where you have to try not to do too much?
AB: Oh yeah, definitely. At the end of the day, we still have to do our jobs. You don’t want to strain to do something and get put out of position and make things worse. But when the opportunity presents itself, we’re all gonna make plays and we just have to know when that moment’s coming, and trust our technique and the scheme we’re in.
MMQB: Does it hurt to see your old defense in Jacksonville, and the team there, get broken up?
AB: It’s not difficult, just because my mindset was, as soon as I’d seen they traded Jalen [Ramsey], they were gonna go in a different direction. There wasn’t really much we could do. I think when it really hit me was when they traded Calais Campbell, it was like, O.K., now, you see what they’re trying to do. I hate to see what’s happened with the organization as far as making a fresh start. But at the end of the day, I’m happy to see players get to go somewhere and have an opportunity—especially Yannick [Ngakoue] going to Minnesota. You can see him thriving, because he’s gonna get to do certain things that weren’t done in other schemes.
MMQB: Can you help your teammates with Tennessee on Monday night, since you were in the AFC South?
AB: I told them, we have to stop the run. That’s one thing we really couldn’t do in Jacksonville. I just told them how we were attacked in Jacksonville, even though it was different schemes. Playing against different teams, they’d run different things than they ran against Jacksonville, but when certain things show up on tape, and I see it with other teams, it’s, O.K., now, I get why they run this, and who’s in this position and who’s in this position. I’ve been helping O.J [Michael Ojemudi] and Devontae Harris with that because I was playing on the right side a lot when we were matched up with Tennessee.
MMQB: Do you have a plan for the anthem yet?
AB: Not yet. But Coach Fangio pulled the leadership council to the side and he addressed us as a team, and told us the organization supports us. And honestly in my mind, I’ll probably stand. The reason I say that is because there’s more attention brought to this on a nationwide level, whether people like it or not. And that’s why this whole thing started, just to bring attention to it that it wasn’t getting. And just to have the Broncos and the NFL back us up with this means a lot. We let the guys in here, no matter who you are, if you decide to take a knee, we’ll be supporting you no matter what.
MMQB: Are you ready to play in an empty stadium?
AB: Yeah, I thought about what it’s going to be like, limited fans. One thing coach has done, he’s made sure we scrimmaged in the stadium without fans, he had the simulated crowd noise and things like that. It’s definitely gonna be different. We’re gonna miss the fans. That gave us that home-field advantage. ... It makes you appreciate having games like that where you have fans. It’s something we’re gonna have to get used to, not knowing when we’re going to have it 100% back. But after watching how it was with the Texans and Chiefs, we’re still in between the lines and that’s what we’re really focused on—football.
MMQB: You cool with the altitude?
AB: I’ve been training in it. You still feel something. But it’s not as tough anymore.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
I can’t stop watching this …
… Or this.
… Or this.
Dontari Poe, for the record, is No. 95, and the one Cowboy who knelt for the anthem.
I’d just say that if saying what he said there causes a single person to gather the courage to go get help, then that makes Dak Prescott a hero. And I don’t think I have to go much further on this than that.
Kyler’s gonna be fun to watch, and so is the NFC West race.
Don’t tell Gardner there’s another fair-haired quarterback out there for Jacksonville.
Wild but true.
I’d like to tell you I didn’t search for video of this after Kevin tweeted it. I cannot tell you that. (My take on the phony crowd noise is … pending.)
I’ll say it was a long journey getting here for Mitch (see his pinned tweet). Big s/o to my ex-NFL Network colleague Scott Hanson for obliging, after I put in the original ask way back in December (we finally got one!). The pressure is now on my buddy Andrew Siciliano to get an octopus call of his own.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
I’m filing before 3:30 a.m. ET—huge win for me and my editor, Mitch! And the MAQB should be coming to you within 12 hours or so.
See you guys then.