MMQB: The NFL's Jenga Schedule Loses a Few More Blocks; Dak Prescott Injury; More

A wild NFL Sunday saw an overhaul of several teams' schedules, Cowboys star Dak Prescott suffer a gruesome injury and the Falcons make changes at coach and GM. Plus, who saw Chase Claypool coming, the 4–1 Browns, the Texans having fun and much more from Week 5.
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Between 7 a.m. and midnight ET on Sunday, we had the continuation of one COVID-19 outbreak, concern over another, massive schedule shuffling as a result, then an owner dismissing the head coach and GM who brought him to a Super Bowl just four years ago.

But the lasting image of Week 5 in the NFL came at about 6:30 p.m. ET, of a quarterback with so much on the line, his ankle bent the wrong way and the two head coaches he’s had as a pro—Dallas’s new guy in charge (Mike McCarthy) and predecessor (now-Giants OC Jason Garrett)—hovering over him as the cart pulled up to take his 2020 season away. The look on his face gave away that he knew, and McCarthy and Garrett did too.

Last night, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott underwent surgery after suffering a right ankle compound fracture and dislocation. And if you want to know what he means to his team, and what Dallas is losing, those images on the field told you. Before he was carted off with a bulky stabilizing brace over his right leg, dozens of Cowboys had joined McCarthy and Garrett on the field out of concern, and out of support for the fifth-year pro.

Prescott wasn’t the only one shaken.

“I mean, Dak's that all-around dude that you want in the locker room,” receiver Michael Gallup told me postgame, from the locker room. “He's a leader, he's funny. He's there first every day, he's the last person to leave. He just does what he's supposed to do. He makes sure that everybody else is doing what they're supposed to do as well. To see him go down like that, that's tough. That man hasn't missed a game in what, four, five years? Hasn't missed a practice in four or five years, I don't think.

“Just to see that, that's tough. So he's definitely in our prayers.”

The Cowboys did wind up outlasting the Giants. Prescott had earlier dug Dallas out of a 17–3 hole, and had the offense driving again when he went down, with the team up 24–23 in the third quarter. Joe Judge’s feisty crew took the lead back, 34–31 in the fourth quarter before Prescott’s backup, Andy Dalton, led long, consecutive field goal drives to tie the game then win it late.

And Dallas is now all alone in first place in the NFC East, the NFL’s low-rent district in 2020.

But all that doesn’t negate how everything changed for the Cowboys with one bad break over the first weekend of October.

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***

Welcome to the Week 5 MMQB column, and there’s so much going on that I hardly knew where to start as Sunday unfolded. So there’s a lot to get to in here, including …

• Sunday’s COVID-19 madness.

• Atlanta’s implosion.

• The Texans’ week.

• The Steelers’ resurgence.

• The Browns’ arrival.

But we’re starting with the Cowboys, and what Prescott’s season-ending injury means for America’s Team, both in the short term and the long term.

***

There was nothing out of the ordinary about the situation or the play call—the Cowboys were driving, in first-and-10 at the Giants’ 27-yard line, and the call was a simple quarterback draw. Prescott took the shotgun snap, dropped three steps, paused, then tucked and ran through an opening up the middle of the defense.

In the open field, he shook defensive back Ryan Lewis, cutting inside, then out, and broke to his left towards the sideline. On his way there, veteran DB Logan Ryan grabbed him from the side and got a fistful of jersey to yank the quarterback to the ground. But as Ryan pulled him down, Prescott’s foot got stuck in the turf, his ankle bent back the wrong way and that was really that.

“I've seen Dak run that play 100 times,” Gallup said. “And he didn't get back up on this one. I was the closest one to him. I didn't want to see it. Didn't want to think about it or anything like that. It's tough to see the leader that he is go down like that. Just prayers and, you know, hope to God. That's all I can say about that.”

There were lots of people out there who didn’t want to see an injury we’ll all likely see too much in the days to come. And the impact coming is obvious, both for now and for the future.

The present, to be sure, gets murkier for Dallas as a result. The Cowboys have never been more reliant on Prescott over his half-decade in town than they are now. The defense has been a mess. The offensive line’s been nicked up all year, and just got news that franchise cornerstone Tyron Smith isn’t coming back this year. The team’s constructed now to win with its receivers.

Bottom line: Prescott had to play well for Dallas to win and, for the most part, he had been. He and the offense faced double-digit deficits the last four weeks in a row, and fought their way back into all those games, winning two of them. The offense’s sudden explosiveness helped mitigated the defense’s growing pains, and the quarterback’s legs helped to cover up issues with protection resulting from the offensive line’s problems.

So that’s now. As for what’s ahead, the Cowboys can, and probably will, tag him again next year. Thing is, it’ll cost $37.69 million to do it, in a year in which the cap could fall all the way down to $175 million. And while that might be a nice way to hold his rights and see how his injury is coming along before waving in the Brink’s trunk, it’s important to remember that not doing a deal at that point will almost certainly mean unfettered free agency for Prescott in 2022. That’s because it’d cost the team $54.27 million to tag him at that point.

That means, come the spring, the Cowboys either have to pay Dak or hand him a ticket to free agency in 2022, and they’ll likely need to make that call before he’s ready to practice. Which makes it a thorny situation for everyone.

***

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Now, the silver lining for Dallas. While this wasn’t the right year for this to happen based on the structure of the team, the timing is better in terms of team depth at the position.

The Cowboys aren’t counting on a Cooper Rush or Mike White to develop anymore. When Prescott went down, it was Andy Dalton, and his 133 career starts, trotting off the sideline and onto the field. And the difference was felt right away. Two plays after Prescott went down, Dalton converted third-and-6 by fitting a tight-window throw to CeeDee Lamb, which set up a 12-yard Ezekiel Elliott touchdown run.

“He came over there and did the same thing that Dak does,” Gallup said. “He came over there and hyped us up. We got to make sure that we know he's in the game with us and we trust him. He did exactly what we thought he would do, let us know we're going to get this ‘W.’”

And Gallup did his part too, on the game-winning drive, with a couple highlight-reel catches to set up Greg Zuerlein’s game-winning 34-yard field goal. The first came on first-and-10 from the Cowboys’ 27 with 40 seconds to go.

Dalton took a quick drop from the shotgun and was flushed out to his right by Giants DT B.J. Hill. Dalton kept moving and moving and moving and, in the scramble situation, Gallup worked his way to the sideline and back to his quarterback.

“Just a broken-down play,” Gallup said. “Andy scrambled, and luckily I saw it. I just started breaking toward the sideline. He threw a great ball, I just had to make sure I got my feet down, and I did.”

The rest of was, well, pretty impressive. Gallup had to reach for the ball while falling out of bounds, and was able to haul it in while dragging his right foot across the AT&T Stadium turf. And it turned out that was just a warmup for the next snap.

The biggest difference on that one—a first-and-10 from the Dallas 46—was that Gallup knew well ahead of time the ball was coming him way. The receiver was taught to read the safety. In this case, that meant reading Ryan, and if Ryan came down in the box, Gallup would know he had a one-on-one deep and the ball was coming his way. At the snap, Ryan came screaming toward the line and Dalton launched a teardrop right into Gallup’s waiting arms.

Gallup went up for it and had the presence of mind on the back end to get both feet down.

“I knew that ball was coming to me,” Gallup said. “I just had to make sure [Dalton] was right, and Andy was ready to throw that deep ball. We were on the same page.”

That one was good for 38 yards to set up Zuerlein’s game-winner on the next snap. And so begins the rest of the Cowboys season—one that’ll be played moving forward without Prescott.

The players, for their part, have to believe much will stay the same.

“We're going to pick up where we left off,” Gallup said. “Obviously, Andy's not a big-time runner like Dak can be, but other than that I'm pretty sure we're going to keep it the same.”

And after a big win, that’s the way a player should be thinking.

Making it happen, as we all know, is a different deal altogether. But that, from here on out, is what the Cowboys will have to try and do.

***

THE BIGGEST SCHEDULE OVERHAUL YET

The NFL schedule looks different this morning than it did even 24 hours ago, and I wouldn’t bet against even more changes coming soon. Thanks to flare-ups this weekend in New England (a defensive player tested positive Saturday) and Tennessee (another coach tested positive Saturday), this is just where we are.

And at this point, the schedule grid feels like a Jenga tower one pulled piece away from collapsing, particularly now that six teams are through their bye weeks, be they scheduled or forced by the virus. Here’s the fallout from Bills–Titans and Patriots–Broncos getting moved out of their scheduled slots.

• Bills at Titans is now on Tuesday (10/13).
• Broncos at Patriots was moved to Week 6 (10/18).
• Chiefs at Bills, previously slated for TNF, was moved to MNF (10/19).
• Jets at Dolphins was moved to Week 6 (10/18).
• Jets at Chargers was moved to Week 11 (11/22).
• Jags at Chargers was moved to Week 7 (10/25).
• Chargers at Broncos was moved to Week 8 (11/1).
• Chargers at Dolphins was moved to Week 10 (11/15).
• Dolphins at Broncos was moved to Week 11 (11/22).

And as for what’s happening with the teams …

• I don’t think the Titans’ investigation will finish up until after they, presumably, play on Tuesday night. I’m told the main things at issue are that mask compliance appeared to be at around 75 to 80 percent (which, by the league’s standards, isn’t nearly good enough), and contact tracing showed that physical distancing in the building wasn’t where it needed to be. The league and union are also looking into whether there was any sort of coach direction on the player workouts at a local high school (not sure they’ll find anything there).

• An interesting point was raised to me on the Titans’ coach who tested positive on Saturday (with the test coming back on Sunday). Per people I’ve discussed this with, he hadn’t been in contact with other team people for over a week. So is it possible that he got it from a family member because he was home? Obviously, the dynamic for all 32 teams changed when camp ended (shortening everyone’s in-office hours), and people’s kids went back to school and spouses went back to work. It seems possible that’s what got this particular coach.

• The question of whether a tryout player might’ve brought the virus into the Titans’ facility has been raised. And presumably, that’s one reason why the NFL strengthened its rules on teams holding free-agent workouts and visits last week.

• The Patriots, meanwhile, got news of their fourth positive test in nine days very late on Saturday night, and informed players and coaches not to come in Sunday. This was after they’d spent their first day back in the facility, really, outside the facility. Meetings were held on practice fields, as was a walkthrough and a practice, and players didn’t even shower onsite (instead driving home to do that). The Patriots’ compliance, as we said in Thursday’s GamePlan column, has been very strong.

• Along those lines, I’m told New England coach Bill Belichick has come off as engaged and informed on the NFL’s COVID-19 calls. Which isn’t all that surprising—when Belichick sees something as important (we’ve seen it on rules issues), he won’t hesitate to find a way to get educated and involved.

• On Saturday, the Chiefs had their first positive test since practice-squad QB Jordan Ta’amu tested positive a week earlier. It was an assistant strength coach, which raised obvious concerns. But it was found that his contract tracing numbers were, surprisingly enough, very low.

• And now my opinion: Week 18 has to come into play soon. A week from now, 10 of the NFL’s 32 teams will have expended their bye weeks. So I understand trying to hold off as long as you can to try and preserve the calendar (and, let’s be honest, the sanctity of the TV schedule), but it sure feels like the dam’s breaking soon on that one.

Now, you want good news? The good news is we get football the next two days. Tentatively.

***

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THE FALCONS MAKE CHANGES

How does a coach firing fall this low in the column?

Well, there’s a lot going on. And the writing’s been on the wall for a few weeks on Falcons coach Dan Quinn—a good man who did a good job on balance, but got himself into a mess he couldn’t get out of fast enough this year.

The first thing that hurt him was history. He never lived down Super Bowl LI, and that stinks, but it’s the reality of all this. When his Falcons blew 20–0, 29–10 and 39–24 leads to Dallas, and 16–3 and 26–10 leads to Chicago, it was way too easy to point back to 28–3. And sometimes, in cases like that, it can get in a team’s head, and perception can become reality.

The other piece of history to look at is that the team’s 0–5 start wasn’t isolated. Last year, Atlanta came out of the gate 1–7, and Quinn got a stay of execution after the team rallied to 7–9 with a 6–2 finish. Which brings us to the second thing.

That would be that Quinn was very clearly put on notice—that decision not to drop the hammer by owner Arthur Blank was explicitly made in hopes that the positive momentum from 2019, when the players clearly fought for a coach they loved, would carry over into 2020. Five weeks in, even if some sort of miracle scenario could’ve been possible from here, it was crystal clear that Blank’s hope for carryover from November and December wasn’t fulfilled.

That GM Thomas Dimitroff went down with Quinn is mildly surprising in its timing, even if Dimitroff wasn’t going survive a second coach firing on his watch (after Mike Smith in 2014). But it does allow for Blank to get going on working toward remaking his football operation, which has a ton of questions going forward, given the financial commitments to players like Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Deion Jones and Grady Jarrett.

So for now, team president Rich McKay will oversee football ops, and a new head coach will be picked for the rest of the year. I know Raheem Morris was a strong consideration on Sunday night, with Dirk Koetter and Jeff Ulbrich also in the mix. And from there, the coach and GM searches here would seem to be pretty wide open, probably more so than in Houston. Speaking of …

***

A NEW ERA IN HOUSTON

J.J. Watt couldn’t have been off the field for more than 15 minutes when he tweeted this:

So naturally, when we talked after the Texans’ first win of the year, a convincing 30–14 beatdown of the Jaguars, and in the wake of everything that happened in Houston this week, I had to ask if there was anything more to firing that one off.

“I mean, it's been a long time since we had a win,” Watt told me. “Obviously, we started off 0–4. We lost the last game last year in pretty tough fashion. It's been a real long time since we got a win. So, finally, it feels good to have a win.”

And if there had been more to it than that, it’d be fair to excuse Watt for it.

The Texans fired coach/GM Bill O’Brien last Monday, installing Romeo Crennel as the team’s interim coach, and EVP of football operations Jack Easterby as interim GM. That illustrates how much has changed since the last time the Texans did have a win.

That was a 22–19 victory over Buffalo on Jan. 4, and Houston followed that by racing to a 24–0 lead over the Chiefs in Kansas City a week later. The rest, of course, is history. Patrick Mahomes wound up taking over in the second quarter of that one, and the Chiefs went on to win the Super Bowl, and, as Watt said, the Texans hadn’t won since. And therein is where, I think, the more implicit part of Watt’s tweet comes into play.

He didn’t say it himself, but the last few weeks in Houston were tense, with so much on the line for the franchise on a week-to-week basis as the losses mounted. O’Brien’s dismissal, at least, gave the players some certainty in where the franchise is going now, and Crennel was able to lighten the mood a little around the building in the aftermath.

“RAC's personality just does that naturally,” Watt said. “He's a fun guy to be around. Anybody that's ever had a conversation with RAC, I don't think you leave without a smile on your face. But one thing he did all week was just preach fundamental, everybody doing their job, and then helping out others after your job is done. So all week long, it was just kind of going back to the basics, going back to the fundamentals, doing your job, having fun, enjoying being out there. And I think that showed up today on the field.”

As Watt saw it, that emphasis showed up in two areas against Jacksonville.

The first is the most obvious—playing good fundamental defense means stopping the run. And the Texans did that against a Jacksonville team that’s always looking to be forceful in that area, holding the Jags to 75 yards rushing on 20 carries.

The second area was more situational, but every bit as important. The Texans’ defense was twice put in sudden change situations, coming off Deshaun Watson picks, and backed up in its own territory. The first time, in the second quarter, the Texans held the Jags to a single first down and forced a missed field goal. The second time, Houston blew up a trick play on fourth-and-1, forcing a fumble that Watt recovered.

“No matter what happened on the field, whether it was the defense gave up a touchdown or the offense threw an interception, the other group is ready to pop up off the bench and say 'We got this. We're going to make this right,’” Watt said. “And all day long, that was kind of our mentality, and everybody stepped up to the plate. That's how we got the win today.”

I did ask Watt how he managed the news personally this week, since he’d been with O’Brien for nearly seven years—”any time you separate ways with someone you've been with for a long time, it's going to be different”—and he took that chance to point out the energy and focus his teammates showed during the week leading into the game, and the energy the socially-distanced crowd brought too.

“We had a lot of fun,” Watt said. “Winning is fun. So it feels damn good to win again and it feels good to have fun doing it.”

So maybe the Texans, with a schedule that’ll lighten up, can find a way to play meaningful games in November and December.

But either way, everyone’s aware there are bigger-picture decisions coming. And as such, I did ask Watt about his own future—and if he wanted it to be in Houston, given the potential that the organization could look a lot different than it does now in 13 weeks or so.

“I've been here for a long time, and there's nothing that I want to do more than see this city win a championship, and bring this city a championship,” he responded. “That's been my goal from the beginning, and that remains my goal today. That is the No. 1 goal, and I'm not going to stop working toward that until they kick me out.”

And that’s even if the path to getting there is more muddled than ever before.

The Albert Breer Show is back on its own podcast feed! Subscribe for Albert's insight and info, with guests including the biggest names in football.

***

CHASE CLAYPOOL'S MONSTER DAY

I’m not sure many people saw what Chase Claypool did Sunday coming.

But Stephon Tuitt swears he did.

“I told them when we drafted him, This guy's going to be a freak of nature,” Tuitt told me.

OK, so he might not be the most unbiased source of information here.

“Everybody always gave me crap because we went to Notre Dame,” Tuitt said, laughing. “We kind of hold ourselves to a higher standard up there, that's all I'll say. … I always expect it. I'm not going to sit here and tell you I don't expect the greatness that comes from Notre Dame.”

And much as he might’ve been joking, greatness is what the Steelers got from Claypool on Sunday. The rookie second-round pick—a 6' 4", 238-pound specimen of a wideout—ripped through the Eagles for 110 yards and three touchdowns on seven catches, and rushed for a fourth touchdown, as the Steelers beat the Eagles 38–29 to move to 4–0.

But more than just what he did individually, Claypool is another example of a roster teeming with talent young and old, that’s got its quarterback back now, after finding a way to go 8–8 last year without him. So whether it’s the older guys like Tuitt, Cam Heyward, Joe Haden or Ben Roethlisberger himself; or the younger set like Claypool, Juju Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, James Conner, T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick, it’s not hard to figure out how the Steelers got to this point in the season still unblemished.

But the path there’s been winding. The Steelers’ bye week, you’ll remember, was collateral damage in the Titans’ COVID-19 outbreak—Pittsburgh didn’t get word until the Thursday before their scheduled game in Nashville that it was being postponed—and so the players had to switch gears on the fly. That they were able to, Tuitt thinks, is a good sign of where the team is.

“It was something that was unexpected,” he said. “You have a schedule, you follow the schedule. You have a routine, you follow your routine. And everything was at a halt. It stopped. And that was because of a team that ended up having an outbreak. And with that, we had to do what we had to do as a Steelers organization to prepare for what could've been instead of what we know is going to happen.

“But I think the organization did a great job in making sure we were prepared in case we had a game. But we didn't. And it was an unfortunate event to have a bye week so early.”

But Tuitt and his teammates didn’t waste it. In fact, instead of scrambling to make run-of-the-mill, I’m-shutting-it-down bye-week plans, Tuitt and some of his teammates did the opposite, just shifting their film study from Tennessee to Philly and getting early start on Week 5.

As they saw it, it paid off on Sunday. Tuitt didn’t want to get into specific details there, but he did mention his work on individual opponents, something that came up when he made one of the game’s biggest plays—a first-down sack with less than five minutes left and the ball near midfield. It turned first-and-10 from the 44 into second-and-13 from the 47, and put Jake Elliott in a spot where his go-ahead field-goal attempt would be from 57 yards.

“It was in a three-down rush, I came from the outside, I was in a four technique, and I went inside and I beat the guard back up the field,” Tuitt said. “And Carson Wentz still had the ball in his hand and I was trying to get to the ball, but I think he tucked it last second. When I grabbed his foot and fell down, it was hard to see if he threw it or not. As I got up, I got a chance to see the ball was still in his hands.

“That's a big-time play, because when you get a sack on a drive like that, a drive they're leading to get points, that changes the whole momentum just for them. That was a big time play for our defense, a big time play for our team.”

Elliott’s kick, as a result of that distance being added to it, sailed wide right, and Claypool’s fourth touchdown was forthcoming, creating a sequence that showed, again, how the Steelers are firing on all cylinders.

“We played like a team,” he said. “Every game is not going to be pretty, but when you win, it doesn't matter. And I think, offensively, defensively, we play for our offense. Our offense plays for our defense, special teams play for both. I feel like a lot of guys are stepping in and being unselfish. Really putting the team first. A lot of guys are understanding that with this situation, this scenario with the COVID environment, it can really put a detriment on us if any one of us is reckless. …

“A lot of guys are respecting that. Staying within the facility, staying with each other. We're just really playing for each other. Like I said, being a really good football team. We'll continue that week in and week out.”

I’ve wondered for a while if the Steelers would benefit from having had to go without Roethlisberger last year and Tuitt agreed that they had, in having to learn to win in different ways. And now, they have that ability and Roethlisberger.

Not a bad place to be.

***

THE BROWNS KEEP RUNNING

A few weeks back, Kevin Stefanski explained in this space the importance of being able to run the ball when the other team knows what’s coming—something the Browns did on a six-play, 75-yard, fourth-quarter drive (all runs) to put away the Bengals in Week 2.

That sort of thing happened again for Cleveland on Sunday, and this time against the NFL’s No. 1 defense, and even though the Browns were without the services of their star tailback, Nick Chubb. It was third-and-9, third-stringer D’Ernest Johnson was in, there was 2:27 to go and the Colts had one timeout left.

A first down would effectively end the game, and nine yards is a lot to pick up on a run play. But Stefanski called a run, and 28 yards later the Browns were salting away a 32–23 win that gave the franchise its first 4–1 start since Bill Belichick and Nick Saban were on the team’s payroll.

“That was a run we always have in every week,” center J.C. Tretter told me. “It wasn't a run we were going to feature heavily, and that was the first time we called it in that situation. They gave us a double-A gap look with the linebackers mugged. It's kind of a perfect call in that situation because we can block down on everybody, pull the guard around, and the guy that he's pulling for usually has already mugged up and is eaten up in the down blocks. So it almost gives us a free hat on the front side. It's a great call.”

It also worked to prove where the Browns are going.

Really, the team’s offensive line has been a problem since Joe Thomas retired after the 2017 season—and it was worsening to the point where in 2019 it was at a crisis point. So when Stefanski and new GM Andrew Berry arrived in January, fixing it became a huge point of emphasis. They hired Bill Callahan to coach the offensive line. They drafted Jedrick Wills. They signed Jack Conklin. And the hope was, eventually, this would all pay dividends.

I’m not sure anyone saw it happening this fast, though. And the 28-yard bully-ball run, with the third-string back ripping off a chunk to close out a game, is a nice illustration of it.

“Those four-minute situations, that's a lot of pride for the offensive linemen,” Tretter said. “Like you said, the defense knows that you're going to run, and it's just a clash of they know what you're doing, you know that they know, and you have to go out there and execute each run. And milk that clock out. Try to finish out the game. And that's the one thing you want to do. You don't want to give any life back to the other team and let them get a run at it. You want to put it out and just finish it with your guys holding onto the ball.”

That the Browns can do it is also a testament to Callahan himself, who built imposing lines with the Jets, Cowboys and Washington over the last decade, and seems to be well on his way to pulling the trick again in Cleveland.

“First off, experience is big. He's seen everything,” Tretter said. “It's great to talk through things with him because he's got an answer for almost any issue that pops up. And not just one way to pick things up or to draw up a run. He's got multiple answers for each look. And I think one thing that's really impressed me working with him is his ability to scheme up runs that open up big running lanes for us just based off film study that he does and understanding what the defense is doing. It's been really cool watching him work.”

It’s been cool watching the Browns work, too. And it’s been a while since you could really feel good about saying that.

***

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) reacts after throwing a touchdown pass against the New England Patriots during the third quarter at CenturyLink Field.

TEN TAKEAWAYS

This is a different Seahawks team. And that’s, in part, because it can’t win with defense quite the same way it used to. Which is O.K., because they have the MVP of the league at quarterback and, finally, need to really lean on him. So credit to Pete Carroll for trusting OC Brian Schottenheimer to build an offense that highlights the growth of Russell Wilson as a quarterback, and credit to Schottenheimer for (as it was explained to me) tailoring the playbook to find plays and concepts that Wilson owns, which gives him the ability to adjust them on the fly. And credit to Wilson for setting this incredible pace. It goes without saying that the 13-play, 94-yard drive to knock off the Vikings was a masterpiece. But a lot went into it, and it should be fun see that part of the Seahawks’ game continue to grow.

You have to give the Raiders credit. Coming off their opener in Carolina—and the Panthers are better than we thought—Jon Gruden’s crew faced a daunting four-game stretch ahead of its bye. And they found a way to split, beating the Saints and Chiefs, while losing to the Bills and Patriots. Winning in Kansas City, too, was a heck of a capper. There was a point in the day where I thought Derek Carr might get benched. His pick to Bashaud Breeland was hideous and set the Chiefs up to take a commanding a 14–3 lead. The Raiders seemed to lack purpose and Patrick Mahomes looked like, well, Patrick Mahomes. And that’s why what we saw from there was even more impressive. On the road, against the champs, somehow, the Raiders put their foot in the ground and came from behind. In the process, they. …

• Dealt Mahomes his first loss to the Raiders.
• Got Carr his first win at Arrowhead.
• Got a Raider QB to 300 yards at Arrowhead for the first time since 2002.

So, all in all, it was a really good Sunday for Vegas. And after the game, you could hear how Jon Gruden felt good for Carr, a quarterback he’s openly considered replacing in the past. “I'm just happy Derek got a big win when it didn't look good early,” Gruden said. “I give Derek a lot of credit; he's been through a lot here as a Raider. This was certainly a big win for him, and hopefully, we got a lot more big wins to come.” For now, it’s a good way to head into a week off, with the knowledge that what’s coming on the other side (Tom Brady and the Bucs) won’t be easy either.

One small nitpick with the Chiefs: the offensive line. If you look over their last six games, I’d say there were four where the opponent controlled the line of scrimmage for at least part of the game—the Niners in the Super Bowl, and the Chargers, Patriots and Raiders during the early portion of this regular season. Maybe they’re feeling the loss of Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff, who opted out to work on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle. Maybe Kelechi Osemele, who tore tendons in both knees Sunday, was a larger part of the issue of late. Whatever it is, the K.C. line seems a little less consistent than last year. Is it going to keep the Chiefs from getting to 12–4 or 13–3? I don’t think so. But these are the kinds of things that can sneak up and bite you in the playoffs.

DeAndre Hopkins’s success in Arizona didn’t help the guys in Houston. And I say that as someone who fully understood the reasons for the move—paying him again with three years left on his deal, based on where they were roster-wise, and the remaking of the culture they were trying to undertake, was a non-starter. But the fact is, Hopkins looks as good as he ever has playing with Kyler Murray and for Kliff Kingsbury, and that was again obvious on Sunday, as the Cardinals stomped the Jets 30–10. He’s also playing with a little edge he may not have had, absent the trade. After going for another 131 yards and a touchdown on six catches in Jersey, he told the local media, “Those guys trust me to get me the ball downfield. A lot of people look at me as just a possession receiver, I guess. And my abilities and my talent, obviously, today's and other games, show that I'm not just a possession receiver but I'm a downfield threat.” Now, the numbers back his claim up—he had catches of 45 and 37 yards (one of which was spectacular, and you can see in Best of the NFL Internet section below), his fifth and sixth of more than 20 yards this year. But it’s fair look at what he’s saying and understand there’s something there. The Cardinals, at 3–2, are the beneficiary. And regardless of how sound the reasoning the Texans had in March was to do the deal, Hopkins’s success hasn’t helped the people leading football ops in Houston.

It might be time to worry for San Francisco. The 49ers’ loss last week still stands as the Eagles’ only win. And what happened this week was worse. There was nothing fluky about the bludgeoning San Francisco took from a Dolphins team that traveled cross-country and came in with just a single win. They got outgained 436 to 259 in total yardage. They got out-possessed 36:53 to 23:07. They got outscored 43 to 17. The difference in team passer rating (154.5 to 46.3) was in triple-digits. And no one would’ve guessed that this game would go this way five weeks ago. But the biggest question now has to relate out to the future of the franchise at the most important position. Sunday marked Jimmy Garoppolo’s return from a high-ankle sprain, and it would be a short-lived one. The 28-year-old forced unsightly throws into coverage—underthrowing the first and airmailing the second—for picks on the team’s final two possession of the first half, and was yanked in favor of C.J. Beathard at halftime. “Just kind of watching how we were playing as a whole, how he was playing. You could tell he was affected by his ankle,” Kyle Shanahan said postgame. “But I know he doesn't normally throw the ball that way, and I think he was struggling a little bit because of it and the way the game was going, that I wasn't going to keep putting him in those positions knowing we were going to have to throw it a lot to come back.” Which is understandable, in a vacuum. The trouble here is that the Niners mulled other options at the position last spring (namely, Tom Brady), and so anything approximating a benching is going to elicit more questions. The first one is simple, and will be answered in the coming weeks—when push comes to shove, just how tethered to Garoppolo are the Niners? Remember, he doesn’t have another guaranteed dollar due on his contract. And there should be some enticing QB options out there, if he doesn’t get back on track.

I wouldn’t get overly concerned about Mike Thomas’s fight with Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. My understanding of what went down is fairly straight-forward. During a competitive, five-play red-zone drill on Saturday, Thomas took exception with something while Gardner-Johnson was covering him. Gardner-Johnson fired back. And the two were off, jawing at each other. A couple plays later, the temperature now rising, Thomas wound up and swung at Gardner-Johnson, who was wearing a helmet, and the two had to be separated. Then, Thomas hesitated to apologize which, I’ve heard, contributed to the punishment. That, as far as I know, was the end of it. Two guys who are over-the-top competitive lost their cool on the practice field. I think the Saints will be O.K.

The Rams continue to be a team to watch for me. They’re 4–1, with the lone loss being the game in Buffalo, in which they raced back from a 28–3 deficit to take a 32–28 lead before falling 35–32. And they’re doing this with a remade staff, a reworked roster and after cycling guys like Dante Fowler, Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks off the team. I also think their schedule has added an interesting dynamic. Check out the last four weeks …

• Week 2: LAX-PHL, 2,401 miles.
• Week 3: LAX-BUF, 2,217 miles.
• Week 4: Home game.
• Week 5: LAX-BWI, 2,329 miles.

That’s a lot of time in transit. And while they’re not exactly going through TSA at Terminal B, the pandemic has made everything about this sort of travel a little harder, and more stressful. Which is why Sean McVay sounded proud of his group when he was asked about the travel on Sunday, after beating his old team in Washington, 30–10. “I think [it’s] just what we've already kind of known, that this is a mature team,” McVay said. “They can handle a lot of things.” Next up: The Niners in Santa Clara next Sunday. You’ll remember McVay’s old buddy Shanahan swept him last year. Pretty sure he hasn’t forgotten it.

The Washington quarterback situation is going to remain fluid all year. I do know that the staff wants to give Kyle Allen a fair shot to show what he can do. And the more Alex Smith gets his feet wet football-wise, the more his experience level is going to show up on the field. So my guess is we’ll see some of both those guys. And Dwayne Haskins? I truly believe this is up to him from here. That Ron Rivera didn’t draft him is a very important nuance to this whole situation—there’s nothing really preventing Rivera from taking a quarterback high in the draft or signing someone like Cam Newton in 2021, because Haskins isn’t really a part of his record in D.C. So now, as I see it, it’s on Haskins to get a better grasp of the offense and show he can handle the demotion professionally. If he does that, I think he’ll get another shot by the end of the year. If he doesn’t, well, then it’s not hard to see where this one will wind up going.

I love where Carolina is going. The toughness and buy-in there has accelerated the team’s progress, and at this point, three straight wins are showing us some of that growth. They’ve done a lot of the bigger picture things well—Teddy Bridgewater’s playing smart, efficient ball (116.2 passer rating Sunday) with Joe Brady as his OC, and the team, even without Christian McCaffrey, scratched out 4.6 yards per carry in Atlanta. But what’s most impressive to me is how they’re winning on the margins. Take, for example, the guy who effectively ended Quinn’s five-plus-year run as Falcons coach, Juston Burris. He bounced from the Jets to the Browns to the Raiders and back to the Browns over the first four years of his career, logging practice squad time along the way. The Panthers gave him short money in March (two years, $8 million), and there he was in the end zone in the fourth quarter on Sunday to pick off Matt Ryan, with the Falcons in the red zone, down 20–13. And you can find stories like Burris’s all over that roster. It’s going to be fun to see where Rhule takes the whole operation from here.

If I’m the Bengals, I may be shopping for offensive line help. And I know you may have to overpay to get it this time of year. But Joe Burrow can’t keep taking shots like he did against the Ravens—the rookie was sacked seven times. If there’s one sure way to wreck a young QB, this is it. And I say that with the feeling that Zac Taylor, Brian Callahan and Dan Pitcher have done a really nice job developing him, and the understanding that, because of his aggressive nature, he gets himself in trouble sometimes. Which only should give you more motivation to protect him from himself.

***

SIX FROM SATURDAY

1) Trevor Lawrence looks like a nearly perfect NFL prospect at quarterback for Clemson, and the tailback who lines up next to him might be far behind. Do yourself a favor if you didn’t see Saturday’s game and find video of Travis Etienne’s evening. A lot of scouts were stunned he didn’t declare in January, and he again showed why, displaying power, versatility and big-play ability all night at The U’s expense. I asked a scout for a comp during the game and he gave me Dalvin Cook. He looks like a legitimate first-round pick.

2) For all the jokes, Lane Kiffin can really coach an offense. I’d have to look closer to see if there’s an A.J. Brown or D.K. Metcalf out there—it didn’t seem like it—but 48 points on Nick Saban’s defense is 48 points on Nick Saban’s defense.

3) Georgia linebacker Monty Rice is a blast to watch. I asked around some, and it doesn’t sound like scouts view him the way they did Alec Ogletree or Roquan Smith coming out. But Rice, currently seen as a solid day-two pick, is fast and instinctive, and he’s got a lot of ball left with which to improve his stock.

4) With Texas and Oklahoma presumably out of the running for the CFP, the Oct. 24 game between Iowa State and Oklahoma State looms as a huge one for the Big 12, and maybe in the NFL coaching carousel too. The Cyclones have rattled off three straight wins after a season-opening upset loss to Louisiana—upending both TCU and Oklahoma along the way—and their coach, Matt Campbell, remains a name to watch in the pros. The Jets kicked the tires on him before hiring Adam Gase (he turned them away early in the process), and the Browns have been connected to him at times. A win over Oklahoma State would set ISU up to go to Texas at 7–1 over Thanksgiving weekend. And that would keep him in the sights of teams looking.

5) Speaking of, if Tom Herman doesn’t survive the calendar year as Texas’s coach, he’d be a really interesting offensive coordinator hire for someone in the NFL. Herman’s creativity and ability to develop talent was apparent at both Ohio State and Houston, and it’s still there at Texas—even as other problems have festered.

6) Here’s one thing I forgot to include in last week’s MAQB: an assessment from a scout who worked Trey Lance’s final college game, a North Dakota State win over Central Arkansas last weekend. So I’ll give it to you now. “The athlete/runner was impressive, but he missed too many throws (early), then it felt like he was pressing. Came on in the fourth quarter and made some more throws, added some more runs, and his accuracy and decision-making were better late.” That makes sense, too, given that this really was Lance’s last shot at his first impression with a lot of teams. It’s obviously early, but the consensus on the 2021 quarterbacks seems fairly straight-forward for now. It’s Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Lance, in that order.

***

BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

I enjoyed all the hand-wringing over this. Tom Brady’s an intense competitor. Which has led to these sorts of moments, often, in the past. And his team wasn’t playing a particularly buttoned-up game on Thursday night. Hence, the intense competitor had a moment in a time of understandable frustration.

Pretty much.

You have to feel awesome for Smith’s wife and kids, too. Just an incredible moment.

Respect from the man who suffered a similarly gruesome injury 33 years to the day of Smith’s.

And respect from another guy who can relate.

And respect from the other side, too.

Ball skills. And balls. Crazy, gutsy catch by Hopkins.

Even got the sentimental music for the moment!!

Goff’s playing great, so we’re just trying to give him something to work on.

If you needed more reason to love Claypool …

… I’ll give it to you.

This is apparently a thing, because Tuitt used this line too, with me: “You've got a great quarterback that can lead you open, and if he throws you the ball and calls your number, make the play. And he called his number a couple times today and he was able to produce. It was a great connection between 7 and 11.”

Lots of well-wishes out there on the internet.

We’ll have plenty of time to discuss that last part.

I agree with Pryor on that. Jason’s a good dude.

That’s a good one. But not as good …

… As the one I found (Sorry, Scott).

That pizza looks good, and I’ll need more information on it.

***

MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT

Each week, we’ll connect with a player set to climb atop the Monday Night Football stage to get answers to a few questions. This week, Chargers first-round pick and rookie linebacker Kenneth Murray.

MMQB: You’re third on the team in defensive snaps. What do you think it says that you’ve gotten there as a rookie?

KM: I think it’s a testament to the coaches’ trust in me. I really think that’s it. Just being able to come in, have an understanding of the scheme and then being able to go out and execute. I think it’s the trust factor, that’s why you see me playing as much as I am.

MMQB: How’d you earn their trust?

KM: Just knowing what you’re supposed to do, day in and day out. If they don’t see that you’re able to grasp and understand and execute then obviously you don’t gain that trust. So I think it’s just being able to show I can go out there and execute.

MMQB: Is there anyone in the locker room who’s helped you get you ready to go?

KM : Yeah, really, it’s all the linebackers that were here before I got there. They’ve been a tremendous help—Denzel Perryman, Kyzir White, Drue [Tranquill], really everybody. It’s been a collective effort. They’ve all been helpful and trying to make my transition as smooth as possible.

MMQB: What’s been the biggest adjustment then?

KM: Obviously overall, you have some different things scheme-wise that I hadn’t been doing in college, that I have to get used to. Overall, that’s really it. It’s still football at the end of the day.

MMQB: You saw a version of the Saints’ offense at LSU in your last college game. Did that help you at all?

KM: To be honest, you look at it different, you game plan for it different and it’s also different for me because I have a better knowledge of the game than I did eight, nine months ago. All that factors into making it different. You’re looking at it from a new perspective, seeing what they do. They have a really good offense, a really balanced offense. I’m excited to play them on Monday.

MMQB: What’s the biggest challenge as a linebacker playing against the Saints offense?

KM: It’s a fun challenge for us because we see a team that’s really committed to the run game. And as a linebacker, that’s kind of like my baby. That’s the part of the game you take the most personal. So coming off a week where we may not have had the best week, run defense-wise, we’re excited to get out there and bounce back and get back to who we are.

MMQB: Obviously, Alvin Kamara’s the guy for them in that phase. What’s the challenge in dealing with him as a linebacker?

KM: He’s obviously a talented guy. But we have talented guys too. We look forward to going out there and competing, to be honest. He’s a guy that’s able to be shifty in and out of his cuts, so you have to know that when you’re attacking him and just go out there and play football.

MMQB: Were you paying attention to the hurricane this week, and how the game might’ve gotten moved to Indy?

KM: Nah, not really. I heard about it. But that’s all, I just heard about. I wasn’t focused on it much more than hearing it was a possibility. It doesn’t really matter, we could play in the middle of parking lot, we’re gonna go out there and play football.

MMQB: Coming in with fellow rookie Justin Herbert, how long did it take you to recognize what kind of player he is?

KM: I’d say it was in camp, just watching him throw the ball. He throws such a good ball. And then watching how mature he is. He’s able to look off safeties and use his eyes in different aspects. A lot of times you don’t see that in young quarterbacks. And so seeing things like that told me he’s a guy that’s definitely capable of being a great player in this league.

MMQB: Have you guys talked at all about how you both could be leaders here for a long time, based on the positions you guys play?

KM: Yeah, we obviously both factor that in and understand the position we’re in. And so for us it’s just to go out and continue to prove it on Sunday and do what we do best when opportunities present themselves leadership-wise.

MMQB: How would you assess your play through four weeks?

KM: I feel like I’m getting better every week. And I think that’s something I’ve harped on myself on doing, just trying to find something to get better at every week, really being critical of myself. For me, I feel like every week I see something a little bit faster, I read something a little bit faster, I’m able to make more plays. I’m flying around to the football and I think as long as I’m doing that, I’ll continue to see more improvement and more big plays in my game.

MMQB: I do remember hearing before the draft how high character you are. Why do you think people got that impression of you?

KM: I think that’s because of my focus and my determination to want to be great. I think that’s where it comes from. I understand what it takes, I understand it takes a lot to be great. That’s something I want to do. I don’t want to just be mediocre or average in this league. I want to be known as the best in the game during my time here in this league. I know it’s gonna take a lot. It takes a guy being focused. So that’s where I think that comes from.

MMQB: Anything extra for you playing on the Monday night stage?

KM: I mean, obviously, it’s Monday Night Football. You dream of playing in prime time, Sunday night, Monday night. So I’m grateful for this opportunity and I’m gonna go take full advantage.

***

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

It’s 4:52 a.m. ET, and I’m filing this story and going to bed. See you guys mid-afternoon for the MAQB.