Two big games tonight, and a lot of questions associated with them to answer. But we’ll start with the big news of the afternoon …
• The Texans firing Bill O’Brien qualifies as seismic news in the NFL, and ends a tumultuous few years in the organization, during which Houston ousted two general managers and brought in a former team chaplain as EVP of football operations, then added the GM title to the head coach’s business card. And now, that EVP of football operations, Jack Easterby, sits atop the organizational chart on the football side. If you’re getting Game of Thrones vibes, I don’t blame you.
The interesting piece, to me, is that O’Brien’s appeal to owner Cal McNair over the last 16 months—since ex-GM Brian Gaine was fired—was to conduct a cultural overhaul of the organization, building behind a certain type of player and through the lines of scrimmage. In doing so, the core of the roster changed radically, and the team’s supply of draft picks was used as capital to implement the new vision.
And now, after one draft and one free agent period, the plug has been pulled on that project, not much more than a year after the plug was pulled on Gaine, who only lasted 16 months as GM after Rick Smith (who predated O’Brien in the organization) was fired. For those keeping score, that’s pretty much a how not to on building a team.
Which leaves the Texans with McNair and Easterby.
• So where do they go from here? Easterby, I’m told, very much has McNair’s ear, and word is that was a factor in all this. The EVP of football ops—whose reputation league-wide isn’t in a great place right now—also has some strong connections to keep an eye on.
The first and most obvious one is to Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. McDaniels had planned to bring Easterby with him to Indianapolis in 2017, before his deal with the Colts fell apart. Easterby is also close to, and shares an agent with, Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio. The two, you’ll remember, were together at New England’s ring ceremony in June 2018, just as Gaine was being dismissed.
The expectation at that point was that Caserio—who’s also very close with O’Brien, as is McDaniels—would join his friends in Houston as the new Texans GM. But the Patriots blocked it from happening. Now, a fair question resulting from all this would be whether Caserio and/or McDaniels would go there after what happened to O’Brien.
And maybe the most intriguing name here is one outside the Patriots' extended family. I’m told Easterby, a South Carolina native, is very close with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. Swinney, of course, won his first national title at the school with Houston’s Deshaun Watson as his quarterback, and has repeatedly compared Watson, as an athlete and a figure within his program, to Michael Jordan.
• I’m not sure why, but I feel obligated to do quarter-season awards. So here’s my stab at those, with the acknowledgment that we still don’t know that much about all these teams yet.
MVP: Russell Wilson, Seahawks. This seems sort of obvious. But I still think Patrick Mahomes is the best player in the sport, and Buffalo’s Josh Allen has shaped up as a real dark horse. And if Dallas can get its act together, Dak Prescott’s outsized statistics could put him square in the running too.
Offensive Player of the Year: Alvin Kamara, Saints. After Michael Thomas gets back, I’m not sure Kamara will keep getting the touches he’ll need to win this award. But through four games, he’s been off the charts—averaging 4.7 yards per carry, ranking fifth in the NFL in catches (30), and getting in the end zone seven times (four rushing, three receiving).
Defensive Player of the Year: Myles Garrett, Browns. He’s on pace for 20 sacks, and if you watch him play, you see it’s not fluky. Right now, he’s the most dominant defensive player in football and he was an absolute game-wrecker back in his hometown of Arlington, Texas this weekend.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Joe Burrow, Bengals. I don’t think this one is particularly close right now, though Justin Herbert could close the gap if he wrests the Chargers starting job from Tyrod Taylor.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Chase Young, Washington. I know he’s hurt, and missed the game against Baltimore on Sunday. But Young has looked like one of the 10 best defensive players in all of football when he’s been out there. If injuries continue to hamper Young? Baltimore linebacker Patrick Queen and Colts safety Julian Blackmon are two to watch.
Coach of the Year: Sean McDermott, Bills. I don’t know that there’s a team that’s rolling out there right now that’s a real surprise, so I’m giving it to the guy who I think has done as good a job as any in taking his team to the next level. Buffalo looks fully capable of getting 12 or 13 wins, and McDermott’s a huge part of it.
Comeback Player of the Year: Aldon Smith, Cowboys. Smith’s been a bright spot for a really shaky defense. But remember, if Alex Smith sets foot on a football field this year, we may just have to give it to him.
• So, on that Cowboys defense: Those who’ve evaluated the team see a whole host of problems. One is that it looks like coordinator Mike Nolan is trying to do too much, and the players don’t seem to know where they’re going. Run fits are a problem. Coverage pickups aren’t clean, and receivers are running free. And some front-line guys like Jaylon Smith haven’t performed, and replacements like Joe Thomas haven’t shown they can play. Bottom line, it’s a mess. We’ll see if Nolan & Co. can clean it up. Getting Leighton Vander Esch back will, eventually, be a good step.
• This is pretty remarkable: Eagles 2018 seventh-rounder Jordan Mailata started at left tackle on Sunday night and held up pretty well (outside of an untimely false start on a third-and-1) through 62 snaps of action. Why is it remarkable? Well, you may remember that Mailata never played a down of college football. The native Australian was a rugby player growing up, making it to the professional ranks (and even fighting through heart surgery) with the South Sydney Rabbitohs. The 6' 8", 346-pounder always had it in the back of his mind that he wanted to try American football—he was initially inspired by the movie The Blind Side. And sure enough when he remarkably made it, that’s right where he was playing, protecting the quarterback’s blindside like Michael Oher once did. And Philly will really need Mailata to keep it protected, too, with Jason Peters on IR and Andre Dillard out for the season.
• We mentioned in the MMQB column how good the Colts’ defense has been so far this year. And as a result, I think guys like Darius Leonard (who’s groin injury, I’ve heard, puts him in the week-to-week category) and DeForest Buckner could land in DPOY consideration. Here’s another name to watch: Julian Blackmon (as mentioned in the DROY section above). The third-round pick is playing the sort of role that the Colts saw Malik Hooker (who hasn’t been able to stay healthy) playing the last few years, and through four weeks they see a guy who’s got a shot to be special. He fell to 85th overall after tearing his ACL last December, which kept him from showing his freaky athleticism at the combine. But Indy saw a late first/early second kind of prospect, and what they’re getting might wind up being even better than that. His instincts and ball skills have drawn some comparisons to Chiefs star Tyrann Mathieu—though he’s more of a deep safety than Mathieu is. So keep an eye on No. 32.
• The NFL’s conference call on COVID-19 came and went on Monday afternoon, with further penalties threatened and more data dropped on the league’s head coaches and general managers. Three things were notable in the memo that followed. One, the league is tightening its protocols, and has agreed with the union to lengthen the on-boarding process for free-agent tryouts, limit the number of tryouts per week, implement a video monitoring system and ban gatherings outside the facility. Two, the league has discussed additional steps, including making all meetings virtual, mandating masks or face shields at practice and walkthroughs, decreasing the size of traveling parties, reducing time in common areas (like the cafeteria or locker room) and monitoring contact-tracing data daily to cut down on close contacts. Three, the league threatened fines, draft-pick penalties, and game forfeitures. So, yes, the Titans’ situation, and the Chiefs/Patriots game getting pushed, have reverberated on Park Ave.
• Conversely, I’ll say this: I do think teams feel like the league office has been tone-deaf on this and doesn’t understand the challenges facing people on the ground. And the proof, to them, is the tendency to point the finger at individual teams, coaches and players for all that goes wrong, while never being shy on lapping up credit when things go right. I can say this: The effort made by a lot of coaches, GMs and players has been pretty strong in trying to make all of this work.
• Here’s a name to watch Monday night and moving forward: Patriots RB Damien Harris. The Alabama product was at one point regarded by scouts as a first-round talent. He stayed in Tuscaloosa for his senior year, and was overtaken that fall by Raiders star Josh Jacobs, and there were questions over his passion for the game at the time, which led to his fall to the third round of the 2019 draft. But the ability was always there, and Belichick’s always going to get the truth on Tide players, given his relationship with Nick Saban. Which tells me Saban thought Harris had it in him to be a good pro, because I don’t think Belichick would’ve taken him otherwise. Now, we get to find out.
• And here’s another name to watch: Patrick Mahomes. Getting to see the Chiefs quarterback in primetime is always a good thing, and so that qualifies, on some level, as one good thing to come from COVID-19 making a mess of the schedule this week. Should be a fun one.