Mailbag: Will Matt Nagy Give Up Play-Calling Duties in Chicago?

Answering questions on the Bears' play-calling, the Patriots and Jets as potential trade deadline sellers, what the Giants would do with the No. 2 pick and whether or not the Browns will be O.K. without OBJ.
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Week 8 starts Thursday, next Tuesday is the trade deadline (and there’s some other stuff going on that day too), so we’ve got plenty to dive into. Let’s go …

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From Don S (@DSReal2828): Is Matt Nagy living in fear of a cuckhold situation in which he has to step aside and watch his offensive coordinator come in and fix the team’s offensive troubles?

Don, the answer to that is no: I don’t think there’s an insecurity there. Nagy believes in his ability as a play-caller, and that’s part of the equation here. Put this in real-life terms for a minute. Let’s say you were fighting for your job and let’s say there were a half-dozen elements to the job. And you could delegate those tasks, but wouldn’t be cut breaks if any of them weren’t taken care of.

My guess is most people, in that scenario, would think back to why they were hired and what they did well in a job previously and hang on to those responsibilities, but maybe delegate the rest. That’s why so many head coaches want to call their own plays when they get the job, and why it’s so often the last thing they want to delegate away.

I also think Nagy’s really good at that part of the job, despite the recent results. It’s no secret where the Bears’ biggest issue is right now, and that’s not even at quarterback—it’s what’s in front of the quarterback. If Chicago can’t get its line in order—and remember, the team fired O-line coach Harry Hiestand in December—then the rest won’t matter. So maybe they’ll add someone between now and next Tuesday. Maybe the answer is there internally. I just know that until the line plays better, it’s going to be tough sledding for that offense.

For that reason, I’m not sure how much of a difference it would make going to Bill Lazor as play-caller at this point. Lazor, the OC, was the play-caller in Miami in 2014 and ’15 and in Cincinnati in ’17 and ’18. It feels, to me at least, like making that move would be needlessly pulling a lever to shake things up. And if it doesn’t work, it’d be tough to turn back again.

From Houston Football (@Houstonfootbal3): How soon can the bottom-ranked teams start interviewing for GM and HC candidates? Sorry that the Texans fans (and soon other) sound like broken records each week—hanging onto shreds of hope.

Houston, there are no rules preventing teams from interviewing guys who aren’t employed now—you may remember Washington having its process going full-steam ahead last December after Jay Gruden was let go, with the hire of Ron Rivera essentially done before the team played its last game of 2019. Now, you can’t interview guys who are working for other NFL teams, of course. But college coaches and those between jobs are fair game.

And they’re fair game, believe it or not, even for teams that haven’t fired their coach yet. You saw that with the Cowboys last year, with the team working through a flirtation with Rivera, an interview with Marvin Lewis and the full-on consummation of a relationship with Mike McCarthy before Jason Garrett’s ouster. While most teams won’t be that overt about it, plenty at least start doing background work before officially firing coaches.

Since you’re asking about the Texans, this, of course, would allow them to talk to, say, a Dabo Swinney, David Shaw or Matt Campbell, or a Jim Caldwell or Marvin Lewis, but not a Robert Saleh, Eric Bieniemy or Josh McDaniels. So, yes, they (and the Falcons, for that matter) can get a significant head start on the coaching carousel by talking to some of those guys and doing all the background work they need to without having to hide it.

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From Mike Durand (@MikeyD_31): Are the current struggles with Cam Newton and the Patriots any indication that it won’t work long-term here? Is the possibility of an extension in New England waning/done?

Mike, I have to admit it’s caught me a little off-guard. And I think there’s some reason for concern. Watching Newton on Sunday was jarring. He looked like he had issues seeing the field. He looked unsure throwing the ball. He ran the ball only six times. The whole thing came off flat-out sideways, and I’m not sure whether it’s injury, the way the Niners played him or his fit in the Patriots’ offense. But it’s not the same as it was in September,

The caveat here is obvious. Newton got thrown into a weird spot coming off a solid three-game start. He found out he’d miss the Kansas City game less than 36 hours before the scheduled time for kickoff, and then went into a Denver game that was moved twice with minimal time on the practice field after COVID-19 cases kept popping up in Foxboro. And all that would probably have an effect on anyone playing a position that takes so much work.

That makes this week’s game critical, and what’s so interesting about it is that he’ll be up against a team, in Buffalo, that knows him as well as anyone. Bills coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane were with Newton in Carolina for seven years. So if there are real, identifiable, non-injury/COVID-19-related problems there, then these are guys who’d be able to find and exploit them.

All of that, by the way, is a long way of saying I think the Patriots are in a precarious position with Newton going forward. Signing him now certainly would have different context than it would’ve a month ago. On the flip side, getting to the offseason without a real answer at the position would be scary for a team that hasn’t been in that sort of spot, believe it or not, since the early 1990s.

From Taylor Nock (@TaylorNock): Should the Pats go full tank and have a fire sale? If so, who should stay and who should go?

Taylor, I don’t know what full tank would even mean for the Patriots. How many of their players would have legit value elsewhere? With those who don’t, but are still good players, would you bench them? Cut them? Would 68-year-old Bill Belichick sign off on intentionally losing games?

I think you know where I’m going. It’s not happening. That said, I do think the team owes it to itself to be as honest with itself as possible. I’ve been wrong about this with the Patriots before (2014, infamously), but I don’t think they have a championship roster. And winning championships is where the bar sits in Foxboro, so long as Belichick’s the coach. Which makes the next question about who on the roster has any sort of discernable value.

Stephon Gilmore would be the first name that pops to mind. The “raise” the Patriots gave him in September was really a restructure—the team moved $4.5 million from 2021 to 2020, which took his likely cash total for the year to $15.5 million. Part of the reason for that was that Gilmore didn’t want to play for $11 million this year. So with that $4.5 million gone from his 2021 money, how do you think he’ll feel about playing for $7 million next year?

That’s why other teams took the move to bump Gilmore’s pay as a sign that the Patriots plan to move on from their star corner next year, the last year of his deal. Otherwise, the logic goes, they’d have extended him. And if you don’t see yourself as a contender this year, it’s at least worth investigating Gilmore’s value, which New England actually already did in floating his name to other teams before the draft and again during training camp.

What could they get? Well, there are 10 guys who’ve been dealt for a first-round pick or more the last two years. All of them were 27 or younger at the time of the trade: Brandin Cooks (24), Khalil Mack (27), Amari Cooper (24), Odell Beckham Jr. (26), Frank Clark (25), Laremy Tunsil (25), Minkah Fitzpatrick (22), Jalen Ramsey (24), DeForest Buckner (25) and Stefon Diggs (26). Gilmore is 30 and seeking a third contract, making his situation more analogous to Darius Slay’s earlier in the year. Slay fetched a three and a five from Philly for Detroit.

As for who else on the roster would be tradeable, Joe Thuney would have a market, but the fact that he’s on the franchise tag (similar to Yannick Ngakoue) limits his value, because his new team wouldn’t be able to extend him and would be looking at a ballooned tag number to maintain control over him. Other than that? Isaiah Wynn would have value, but I don’t know why the Pats would deal a 23-year-old left tackle. David Andrews? Devin McCourty?

The cupboard isn’t stocked. But the Patriots should still explore all the options, as I see it.

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From bodotdot (@bodotdot): Which defense has surprised you the most?

I’ll say the Rams, Bo—they rank sixth in the NFL in total defense and second in scoring defense, and that’s after letting Dante Fowler, Nickell Robey-Coleman and Cory Littleton walk, cutting Clay Matthews and trading Marcus Peters. Clearly, Sean McVay seems to have hit a grand slam in replacing a legendary defensive mind, in Wade Phillips, with 37-year-old ex-Bears and Broncos assistant Brandon Staley.

Monday night was just another example of how fearsome they’ve become, and it’s not just Aaron Donald. Leonard Floyd looks reborn, Terrell Lewis’s potential (albeit with a ton of injury issues) is clear on the edge and rookie safety Jordan Fuller was quickly becoming a star before landing on IR a couple of weeks ago. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So the Rams would be No. 1 on the list for me.

Among the others, I think you have to give 49ers DC Robert Saleh a ton of credit for the work he’s done without having Nick Bosa, Solomon Thomas and Richard Sherman on hand, and the Colts’ rise up the charts wasn’t out of left field, but is impressive nonetheless. The Steelers and Ravens are top-shelf, too, but that was largely to be expected.

Odell Beckham Jr. React

From paul pop jr (@pmpjr): True or false: The Browns without OBJ will be fine?

True, Paul. So there’s perception and reality with Beckham. Perception holds that he’s still every bit as productive as he was over his spectacular three-year start in New York. Reality holds that he had more than 90 catches and 1,300 yards, with double-digit touchdowns, in 2014, ’15 and ’16. In the four years since, he hasn’t cracked 80 catches or 1,100 yards, and has 16 touchdown catches total.

Injuries, of course, have played into that, but he was nicked up a bunch in his first three years, too. He’s still wildly talented. He’s still relatively young (28 next week). For those reasons, I think it’s fair to ask why he hasn’t been a dominant No. 1 since getting hurt in October ’17 and getting paid 10 months later. Beckham’s last year as a Giant was a mess (remember the Lil Wayne interview?), and his two years in Cleveland haven’t been much better.

That’s why I think the Browns will be fine. They haven’t been overly reliant on him in Kevin Stefanski’s first year (he was on pace for a 61-catch, 851-yard, eight-touchdown season), and I think you can argue that Baker Mayfield’s best off playing quarterback like a point guard, and not having to worry about getting Beckham touches could be freeing for him. You may remember trading Randy Moss having that effect on Tom Brady in his MVP year of 2010.

So yeah, I think the Browns will be fine, and have a decision to make in the spring (though I’d probably keep Beckham, since his contract is pretty reasonable now and his trade value will likely be low).

From Obed (@kwakuchief7): Do the Giants select Fields when they are picking top 3? Also, will Gettleman be making that pick?

Obed’s going with “when” not “if” here, and I can understand why he’s frustrated. So I’ll start here: If that top-three pick is No. 1, the team should take Trevor Lawrence, trade Daniel Jones and not look back. If they have the second pick? That’s trickier.

I think the situation is still fluid, to be honest. But Ohio State QB Justin Fields’s opener against Nebraska—a 52–17 win in which his only incompletion went off his receiver’s hands in the end zone (Fields was 20-of-21 for 276 yards and two touchdowns) should serve as a good momentum-builder for the junior, who’s probably the leader in the clubhouse to be the second pick now. So getting the second pick would present a dilemma for the Giants.

Sticking with Jones would, of course, mean going with what you know. By the time we get to April, the Giants’ staff will have had 15 months with the 2019 first-round pick, and a full season of evidence on how he fits the program and the offensive system. Thus far, there’s plenty of reason for optimism that Jones can be the kind of decade-and-a-half answer at the position that Eli Manning was.

Going with Fields, on the other hand, would probably give them a little more upside—I’d say the Buckeye captain probably has a stronger arm, probably is faster and has definitely played on bigger stages than Jones had coming out of Duke. It also would allow them to restart the QB on a rookie contract clock, whereas the big decision point on Jones would be coming in the spring of 2022. And the reality is for a new coach who wasn’t around when Jones was drafted, it would also buy time and flexibility to be deliberate in building the team.

All that is to say there’s merit in each direction. And I can’t tell you who’ll be making that call come April. GM Dave Gettleman could retire, could be moved into an advisory role or could still be in charge. I wish I had a better answer for you than that.

From R.B. (@Sports_Fi3nd): Why have Joe Douglas and Christopher Johnson gone in this direction with the Jets by not firing Adam Gase yet? Do you think that Douglas will trade as much as he can to help quicken the rebuild with as much draft capital as possible?

R.B., I’m not really sure it’s up to them right now. The election is Tuesday. Thereafter, the team’s controlling owner (and U.S. Ambassador to the U.K.), Woody Johnson, could be fast-tracked back to the States. And if you’re Woody, and you know that you might be back running the team by Thanksgiving, it might make sense to put a moratorium on big-picture decisions until there’s clarity on that, especially if part of that picture might mean writing checks for the next two years to make your head coach go away now.

As for Douglas’s place in all this, he’s let the NFL know the Jets are open for business and to bring him offers. The trouble is the dearth of guys with actual value that it makes sense to deal. It doesn’t make sense, really, to entertain dealing Sam Darnold until you know where you’re picking in April, and Quinnen Williams and Mekhi Becton are 22 and 21 years old, respectively, and look like foundational pieces for the rebuild. So dealing them would be cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Beyond them? Marcus Maye would have some value. Jamison Crowder, anyone? George Fant? There just aren’t a lot of guys there that would really help the Jets bolster their already-rich war chest of draft picks. So we’ll see whether Douglas can work any magic.