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Mailbag: Another COVID-19 Tipping Point, Wilson Vs. Rodgers, Tua Time

More positive tests in New England and Tennessee have brought more challenges as the NFL tries to navigate its season on schedule. Plus, comparing MVP cases for Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers, the top running backs in the NFL, Romeo Crennel in Houston, the Bears' QB battle, Tua time and more.

Wednesday morning seemed like another COVID-19 tipping point for the NFL.

The Cam Newton infection in New England is no longer an isolated case. The plan to reopen the Titans’ facility has been scuttled. And the path out now is a lot less clear.

So we’ve got some quick hits here—following the news that New England’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore, and two more Titans tested positive for COVID-19—to try to create some sort of road map for what’s coming, with so much still unknown.

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• Logically, the NFL can’t give the Titans the green light to reopen their facility for another two days. That means they’d be returning to the building on Friday, and my guess is, thanks to all they’ve lost, they wouldn’t run a full-go practice on Day 1 back in the facility. Which then would mean, if they were playing Sunday, they’d be doing it coming off two weeks without a real practice. Which creates more player safety questions.

• That, of course, is assuming that the Titans don’t have any more positive tests on Wednesday or Thursday, which, we’ve learned by now, would be a dangerous assumption to make.

• All eyes now go to the league’s investigation into Tennessee’s handling of this, and part of that, I’m told, is looking into whether players congregated outside the facility after the shutdown. Which would explain continued positives more than a week after the shutdown.

• As for the Patriots, Gilmore, I’m told, was one of Newton’s close contacts last week. Part of the reason the Patriots–Chiefs game was delayed was because Newton had an abnormally high number of close contacts, and in an effort to isolate them New England flew those close contacts to Kansas City on a separate plane from the rest of the traveling party.

• Which, of course, raises the question of whether close contacts should be forbidden from traveling going forward, something that might be considered if more Patriots from that second plane test positive.

• In light of these events, it’s worth checking out the new protocols that went to teams this week. If you look closely enough, you can see the league’s concerns and where they might’ve seen line-stepping the last few weeks.

We’ll have more on this, of course, in Thursday’s GamePlan. For now, your mail …

From Josh (@LUISGARCIASZN): If Rodgers and Wilson finish with similar stats at the end of the year, does Rodgers get the edge for MVP because of who he’s throwing to?

Josh, I assume you’re a Packers fan, and I think it’s fair to say that both guys have done a really nice job, based on who’s around them. Aaron Rodgers deserves credit for helping to transform journeyman tight end Robert Tonyan into a genuine threat, and not missing a beat with Davante Adams out of the lineup. All the same, Russell Wilson gets points for building a strong relationship with D.K. Metcalf so quickly, and his overall level of production.

Both those guys are in the chase, and I wouldn’t count Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen out of the race yet either. It’s been only four games—and while we knew Lamar Jackson had a shot at this point last year, it really wasn’t until midseason that we all started to gain real clarity on it. And since there’s been a lot of strong quarterback play across the league, I think it’s way too early to draw conclusions.

From Big Mike (@Big_Mike_150): Can the NFL change the schedule and give each team a second bye week? That would make it much easier to fit in postponed games.

Big Mike, it’s probably too late to weave second byes into the schedule, but there would be good logic in adding a Week 18 to the end of the regular season, as a placeholder for postponed games. You could do it, in fact, without pushing the Super Bowl back, and it would serve as a trap door for the league as bye weeks come off the table in the coming weeks (the first scheduled ones are this week) and back the NFL into a scheduling corner.

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So what would the casualty be in doing it? The Pro Bowl. And that’s it. You eliminate the Pro Bowl (quite, honestly, I can’t imagine it’ll be played anyway, given the issues flying people into a central location from all over the country presents) and move the three weeks of conference playoffs into the final three weeks of January. Simple, and it would even help with logistics if you wanted to institute a playoff bubble at that point, since the playoffs would be only four weeks, instead of five.

From NeuroticGuru85 (@Guru85Neurotic): How many games do the Texans give Romeo to try and salvage the season before the fires ale?

Neurotic, he gets three weeks to show he can make something of what’s left of Houston’s season. The Texans play the Jags, Titans and Packers before the Oct. 28 trade deadline, which also happens to land square in the middle of Houston’s bye week. If the team is 0–7 or 1–6, I think the brass will have to consider dealing guys who won’t be around in 2021 (like WRs Will Fuller and Kenny Stills, who are both in contract years).

Then, the question becomes who you trust to make the trades. Romeo Crennel’s a capable coach, but making moves like those aren’t in his area of expertise. EVP of football operations Jack Easterby is the lead dog in the building right now, but doesn’t have the relationships across the league that most top football execs do. So my guess would be that Easterby would carry final say, and director of player personnel Matt Bazirgan would facilitate.

And yes, this is part of the problem with firing your coach so early. Planning for the future can be complicated, with so many people at work unsure they’ll be a part of it.

From Tyler Stahl (@SKOLSTAHL): Is Dalvin Cook the BEST RB (overall skill set) in the NFL?

Tyler, love your question. My answer is no, but he’s close.

As I see it, there’s a new prototype for the NFL back. The ideal, now, is the 230-pounder who can play on all three downs. That’s why Zeke Elliott got drafted fourth. It’s why Saquon Barkley went second. It’s why Todd Gurley went 10th, despite coming off a torn ACL. All those guys were more than tailbacks, of course, because they brought ability in the passing game. But they also had the size to play an old-school game, too.

To me, the value in that is enormous, because it forces other teams to keep certain defenders on the field, the same way a two-way tight end would. In other words, if Elliott’s out there, it’s hard for the other team to take that third linebacker off the field—and if the defense stays in its base, then Dak Prescott & Co. are going to have matchups in the passing game.

And if you want an illustration of the advantage that creates, go back and watch the only touchdown drive of Super Bowl LIII, and see how Tom Brady feasted on bigger Rams defenders, throwing out of 22-personnel (two backs, two tight ends) all the way to a championship.

Cook’s a little smaller than those guys, as are Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey. So they’re different players. All really good in their own right, but not quite the prototypes that the bigger guys are—which is why two of the them were top-five picks, and the other would have been if he hadn’t gotten hurt.

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From Tom Marshall (@aredzonauk): Does the pitiful Cowboys' defense only serve to bolster Dak’s leverage?

Tom, I appreciate the question, but I don’t think Dallas’s creaky wagon of a defense does much to Dak Prescott’s leverage. His importance to the 2020 season? Absolutely. His leverage after it? Not really. In fact, if Dallas feels like an overhaul is needed on defense, that could actually work to make the team feel a little less urgency—and not inclined to force through a massive quarterback deal for a team that’s just not complete enough.

Now, that said, Prescott has a lot of leverage. I think that, in particular, is more about how he’s come along the last few years as a player on an individual level—he looks more capable of carrying a team now, rather than just being a sort of bus driver—and what the franchise tag affords. Tagging him again next year would cost Dallas $37.69 million. Tagging him a third time in 2022 would cost the Cowboys $54.27 million.

That means three things could happen for Prescott if he decides not to sign an extension. One, the Cowboys could decide not to tag him and he’d be a free agent in March. Two, he could take home $37.69 million next year and hit free agency in 2022, having made $69.10 million over two years. Three, the Cowboys could pay him $91.96 million over the next two years and he’d be free in 2023. In all three scenarios, he’d be getting filthy rich and hitting free agency before his 30th birthday.

They say your leverage is your options, and the above options sound like pretty good ones, so long as Prescott stays upright and playing well. Which means it’s on the Cowboys to somehow put a better one in front of him.

From almendros_NFL (@almendros_NFL): Two players you would trade for Patriots offense?

It’s that time of year! I know how badly you all want the NFL to be more like the other sports leagues around the trade deadline, and I get it. To be fair, it has gotten better. Since the league moved the deadline back, and since we’ve gotten some more aggressive people in those GM chairs, there has been more movement. And so I’ll give you a couple of guys who I’d like as potential fits to help Cam Newton out.

One is Giants receiver Golden Tate. He’s now been in Bill Belichick–tree programs in both Detroit and New York, and I know coaches there liked him, which would indicate that he’d be a culture fit. He doesn’t specifically fill the speed void in the Patriots’ receiver group, but does cut a profile—crafty, smart and experienced—that Belichick really likes in his receivers (Mohamed Sanu notwithstanding).

Then, there are the Texans receivers. Both Fuller and Stills would add a big-play element to the Patriots offense that it’s missing, and each, again, is in a contract year. And if you really want to take a swing, it might be worth asking about A.J. Green, who’s playing on a franchise tender and may be in his final year in Cincinnati.

From Charlie (@itschar1ie): When is Tua time?

Charlie, it certainly got my attention on Monday and Tuesday that Dolphins coach Brian Flores first hesitated to affirm Ryan Fitzpatrick as the team’s starter for Week 5, and then that the team felt compelled to announce he will be on Twitter. That doesn’t portend well for Fitzpatrick’s grip on the job.

The Dolphins are 1–3. Their schedule going forward is manageable. They play what’s left of the Niners, what’s left of the Broncos and the Chargers over the next three weeks. And I think that means two things. One, Fitzpatrick will get a fair shot to remain the starter. Two, the team should know by the end of October whether it has any shot at contending for a playoff spot this year.

If it doesn’t, it’ll be clear, and Tua Tagovailoa will probably go in, with the team’s focus shifting toward 2021.

From Dashawn (@Dashawnstatic_): Is this the worst defensive play in NFL history? It feels like there are no good defenses and teams are playing pitch and catch on offense.

Dashawn, I think there are a lot of reasons. Among them …

• Empty stadiums.
• Lack of preseason tape.
• Influx of great young receivers.
• Innovative offensive coaching.

And there’s more, too. Call this a tease—we’ll be covering it in this week’s GamePlan.

Mitchell Trubisky and the Chicago Bears will face the New York Giants in Week 2 of the 2020 NFL season.

From Caleb Poppeldinchov (@caleb_poppel12): Should the Bears go back to Mitchell Trubisky if Foles continues to struggle? I’ll hang up and listen!

Caleb, I think the Bears have to stick with Nick Foles for the time being. And I think that ties into the decision to go to Trubisky to start the season. In simple terms, it was always going to be easier to go from Trubisky to Foles than to go from Foles to Trubisky.

That’s just the reality of it. Trubisky already had his fifth-year option declined and watched the team trade for a QB with history with the coaching staff. And so if he lost the position battle in camp on top of all that? It would have been pretty tough to go back to him afterward. Conversely, Foles has made a career of being an effective arm out of the bullpen, and so coming out of the summer without the job was never going to faze him much.

And that’s why, since the competition was neck-and-neck, it made sense to give Trubisky one more go of it, considering all the team had invested in him over the last three years. Now that they’ve yanked him? Again, tough to go back to him, and I think they owe it to themselves, and the other 10 guys in the huddle—Foles is more adept at running the offense as it’s called, and adjusting within it, which helps everyone else—to give their new quarterback a little time to figure things out.