Mailbag: Why Ravens–Steelers Is on and Why No Week 18 Yet

Week 12 is wrapping up with Wednesday afternoon football. Here's why the NFL still hasn't pulled the lever on a Week 18. Plus, your questions on GM and coach hirings and firings, Matthew Stafford's future, Carson Wentz's play, the 49ers moving to Arizona and more.
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This season was never going to run perfectly smoothly, and if a 3:40 p.m. ET kickoff on a Wednesday doesn’t fully illustrate that to you, I don’t know what will.

Yes, the Ravens made it to Pittsburgh. Yes, after a round of rapid tests came back clean, they’ll play in a game tonight against their archrivals. Yes, they’ll turn around, and absent further spread of the virus, play on consecutive short weeks coming out of this.

And my suspicion is that if you told any of us back in July or August that this circumstance would arise in December, no one would’ve been shocked. But now that we’re confronted with the NFL and NFLPA trudging through patches of tall grass on the COVID-19 playing field they’ve created, it sure feels different.

So you can imagine how Baltimore’s players felt boarding that plane Tuesday night.

Some, I’m told, had the fear that, in light of positive tests returning Tuesday for rookie safety Geno Stone and an equipment man, they got on that flight without their exposure to COVID-19 being contained. Others were angry that they’d have to play a game without having a shot to really prepare for it—their last full practice was on Nov. 20, 12 days before kickoff against the Steelers.

But they also know the score here. Getting paid this week means playing in the game in Pittsburgh (Calais Campbell, an NFLPA exec board member reminded them of that during an emotional Zoom call early in the week) and that wound up winning out.

This is the bargain everyone made over the summer, with the decision to move forward.

john-harbaugh-ravens-steelers-covid

So why not push the game to Week 18? Why go forward with it? Well, for one, the NFL wants to hold back on pulling the Week 18 lever for as long as it can. Getting NBC its inventory is a factor too, no doubt. But medical clearance, from the league’s docs, the union’s docs and the team’s docs, did need to come—and they gave it, with the knowledge, again, there would be imperfections. Here’s some more on that.

• Decisions are made primarily to prevent spread. And the feeling on the Ravens’ situation is that spread was contained. The players and coaches weren’t physically around each other over the last week, outside of physically-distanced walkthroughs on Monday night and Tuesday, where the risk of transmission is low.

• The data the NFL has gathered was that more than 90% of the positive cases have come within five days of a close contact. The Ravens and Steelers was scheduled to play last Thursday, so we’re past that window, even from the original date of the game. Everyone who was been deemed a high-risk close contact of a positive test has either contracted the virus or is now isolated.

• That brings us to the case of Stone. In the end, Stone coming up positive wasn’t a surprise to the league. He was identified as a close contact of, among others, quarterback Lamar Jackson. His positive result just didn’t come early enough to keep out of walkthroughs on Monday and Tuesday (that, again, were physically-distanced). The question, then, is why Stone wasn’t ID’d earlier as a high-risk close contact. I don’t have an answer to that right now, other than to say that I was told that the team was fully cooperative in Stone’s case, and that continued investigation revealed he was connected to previous cases.

• Where’s the league’s motivation on this? We outlined a lot of it above. But here’s one thing that stuck out that one involved person told me on Wednesday morning: “If they play the game today, and there’s an outbreak on the Steelers, the season is effectively over.” The NFL’s saving grace in all this is that there hasn’t been transmission on the field at all, and poignantly that it hasn’t happened where one team is passing it to another. Bottom line, the NFL can’t afford to allow the virus to cross the proverbial (and literal) line of scrimmage. And beyond just keeping people safe, that would be reason enough not to risk that happening.

• How the league handles Ravens strength coach Steve Saunders’s case merits watching. His case is considered central to a lot of the spread in Baltimore.

So all that has put us where we are now, kickoff approaching, and one team scratching and clawing to the starting blocks with an undefeated team waiting in a sprinter’s stance. We’ll see how that goes.

And maybe we should’ve expected some sort of circumstance like this to arise all along.

Now let’s get to your mail …

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From Guilty As Charged Podcast (@GACPodcast17): What (if anything) are you hearing about potential coaching/front office changes for the Chargers?

Hey Guilty. At this point, I think it’s fair to say that Anthony Lynn is fighting for his job. He’s a good man and a good coach, and was the perfect guy for the situation the Chargers were in the last few years. But contractually, he’s at a crossroads. The team did a one-year extension with him last year so he wouldn’t have to coach into the final year of his deal, and that leaves the Chargers in a position where, normally, you either extend a guy or cut bait.

Right now, at 3–8, an extension would seem unlikely.

And I think if the Chargers do move on, the focus would go to finding the right guy to make the most out of the window they’re entering into—with a young quarterback on a rookie deal. One early name I’ve heard, along those lines, is Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who’s developed non-first-rounders like Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett and Matt Cassel into starting quarterbacks. Interestingly enough, in an interview with our old buddy Peter King before the draft, Herbert raised McDaniels’s name.

Asked by King who he was excited to meet at the combine, he answered, “Coach McDaniels with the Patriots. That’s a guy I’ve always watched, always looked up to. I love their offense.” (They did wind up meeting.)

As for the front office part of it, I know the Spanos family really likes GM Tom Telesco. Enough to let him hire a third head coach? That I’m not sure about. But he’s built a strong roster, and is generally well-liked in the building, and his connections would help in a coaching search. (Also, it’s at least worth noting that he and McDaniels were once college teammates, and I believe those two would be a good working fit for one another).

From israel serrano (@ICP4LYTE): Bears clean house?

Isreal, that’s a firm maybe. What we saw Sunday night wasn’t good, and Matt Nagy’s reaction with the media on Monday—in publicly calling his team out—was confirmation that the coaches saw it like the rest of football-viewing America did. And while that kind of effort can often be a flashpoint for a regime on the ropes, the Bears’ fast start to this season has kept Nagy and GM Ryan Pace in a spot to recover.

Simply put, the Bears are still in the race, and that remaining shot to make the playoffs puts the guys in charge in a position to get another chance in 2021. Also, the next four games on the schedule, before the regular-season finale against the Packers, are manageable: Lions, Texans, at Vikings, at Jaguars. So it’s not impossible to see a scenario where Chicago’s at 9–6 going into the Green Bay, playing to get in the playoffs.

Separate from that, there’ll be this question: Who do the McCaskeys want picking their quarterback in 2021? Pace, of course, oversaw the team’s transition off of Jay Cutler in 2017 and a remaking of the quarterback room that led to the big-ticket signing of free-agent Mike Glennon and the trade up for Mitch Trubisky. Faced with the failure of that plan, he gave Trubisky another shot in 2020 and traded for Nick Foles to compete with him.

And that, really, is the thing here. In going forward with the current guys, you’re implicitly trusting them to fix those mistakes (Nagy, to be fair, was in Kansas City in 2017, and part of the decision to trade up and draft Patrick Mahomes there, while Chicago was dealing up for Trubisky). Where the Bears will pick in the first round is up in the air. Whether they’ll be in a spot to deal for a vet like Sam Darnold to try and capitalize on the twilight of a dominant defense remains to be seen.

What ownership can control is who is making the calls when they get there.

Eagles QB Carson Wentz is tackled

From Danny (@bettheover85): Is Doug Pederson to blame for what’s going on with Wentz?

Danny, Wentz’s collapse is perplexing, no doubt. And I believe there’s plenty of blame to go around. The line’s gotten old and hurt. The tight ends have trouble holding up physically. The receivers haven’t been good enough, despite a lot of resources being thrown at the position. Wentz himself has been through injuries. The Eagles are still looking to replace the infrastructure the 2016 and ’17 staff had, with OC Frank Reich and quarterback coach John DeFilippo. So the environment around Wentz isn’t what it was his first two years.

Pederson is absolutely a part of that. He has a hand in the team-building process. He promoted Mike Groh to OC when Reich went to Indy, a move that failed spectacularly. And my expectation is that owner Jeffrey Lurie is going to take a long hard look at his head coach after the season as a result. How much is he to blame? Because there are so many factors here, answering the question is shooting at a moving target.

This much I know: Wentz appears to be a broken player. In fact, one scouting director who defended the quarterback to me earlier in the season circled back via text on Tuesday morning with this, “Man, I was wrong on Wentz. He looks completely shot.” Philly’s married to him contractually for at least one more year, and probably two. It’s incumbent on the Eagles to do all they can to try to get him right.

Where does Pederson fit into that? We’ll see.

From Tom Marshall (@aredzonauk): Is Matthew Stafford's future in Detroit now up for debate?

Yes, Tom, and largely because we don’t know who the GM or head coach will be in six weeks. Sheila Ford Hamp made a strong statement to her fan base, in her first big act as controlling owner, by blowing up her football team’s brain trust in one fell swoop, at a time when many expected the Lions to at least slow play the decision on GM Bob Quinn. Which is enough to tell you that no one’s really safe in Detroit right now.

What will go into the next GM and head coach’s decision? A few factors.

• Stafford turns 33 on Super Bowl Sunday. That’s an advanced age for a pro football player, but as quarterbacks go it actually means that he can comfortably count on playing for another half-decade at least, if he wants to. And there’d be value for the team in having a quarterback it can win with for the time being (à la Alex Smith back in Kansas City, or Teddy Bridgewater now in Carolina) while it looks for a long-term answer.

• Stafford’s contract makes him very tradeable, given how it would look to a prospective suitor. He’s due just $43 million over the next two years, an incredibly affordable rate for a starting quarterback on Stafford’s level.

• The trouble with that is what a trade would look like for the Lions. As it stands, Stafford’s on the books with a $33 million cap number for 2021. If the Lions trade him, they’ll have $19 million in dead money to deal with. If the plan is to draft a quarterback in his stead, then that’s manageable, because a rookie will cost a fraction of what a veteran does. But if they’d then move to acquire a veteran starter, the charges will add up.

And the other factor, of course, is how quickly a new coach and GM believe they can win with a core group that’s headed by left tackle Taylor Decker, tight end T.J. Hockenson, receiver Kenny Golladay (who’s a pending free agent) and corner Jeff Okudah. So, yeah, there’ll be a lot to sort through.

Joe Burrow

From Bo (@purpskultrooper): Hypothetically, say the Bengals have the opportunity to draft Justin Fields, if Burrow’s mobility is sapped in any way by the injury, do they flip Burrow and take Fields?

Bo, Bengals owner Mike Brown loves Ohio State guys, so it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he’s gotten a good look at Justin Fields and likes him. But he and that organization—from scouting chief Duke Tobin to head coach Zac Taylor and on down—really love Burrow (who, it’s worth pointing out, is an Ohio State graduate). And so I don’t think there’s any way, barring something going wrong with surgery, that Cincinnati would move off Burrow.

In fact, his injury actually may set them up to really fix things around the quarterback. Right now, they’re in position to pick third. Presuming Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields go first and second (I think that’s the most likely scenario, but obviously there’s a ways to go until April), then the Bengals will be positioned to take Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell, considered by most scouts to be a true franchise offensive line prospect.

And the offensive line group in this year’s draft has depth to it, too. So theoretically, they could get an interior lineman in the mid 30s. Then, they’d be talking about, potentially, Sewell at left tackle, Jonah Williams at right tackle and a rookie joining an interior that needs work. Maybe they’d throw a free agent into that mix, and then they’d really be on their way to fixing the problem, and keeping Burrow upright whenever he returns.

From Daniel Trugman (@dtrugman2): What's in it for Arizona to let the 49ers play "home games" there? Presumably it will make the 49ers more comfortable for their Week 17 "road game" with Arizona?

Daniel, I think this is actually a really nice story: The Cardinals didn’t have to help the Niners, you’re right about that, but they chose to because they recognize the situation San Francisco is in and that any one of the 32 teams could easily be in that same sort of spot. Someone with the Niners mentioned to me the other day how easy it was working with the Arizona organization through a very difficult situation.

So I think owner Michael Bidwill and his team deserve credit for seeing the bigger picture here, and being less concerned with the competitive aspect of this.

From Shedrick Carter (@shedrickcarter2): Which open job is the most enticing around the league?

Shedrick, right now, I’d say on the GM front, the Jags’ opening is the most enticing one, when you really look at what’s in front of the new guy coming in. Dave Caldwell, the outgoing GM, sold ownership previously on a Cleveland-style teardown, and that vision is right there in the resources the team will have going into 2021.

• A likely top-two pick in a quarterback-rich year.

• Multiple picks in the first, second, third, fifth and seventh rounds.

• A layer of promising young talent (Josh Allen, C.J. Henderson, Laviska Shenault).

• About $115 million in cap commitments for 2021, second lowest in the league.

To me, if I’m a GM candidate, that gives me an incredibly opportunity to build my way, from the ground up, and around a quarterback who’ll be on a rookie deal for the next three to four years. It’s a rare spot to be in, which puts the pressure on the Khans to get that hire right.

And if I’m a coaching candidate? The Chargers’ and Texans’ situations jump out at me because of the young quarterbacks in place. Gun to my head here, I’d go L.A. over Houston, just because Herbert is younger and still on a rookie deal, and there’s a little more talent on that roster than there is on the Texans.

From Matt Ramas (@matt_ramas): Will Eric Bieniemy be coaching the Texans or Falcons (or somewhere else) next year?

Matt, I think both those teams will at the very least interview him. And I know the Falcons, for one, have already taken a close look at the Chiefs offensive coordinator. Also, both franchises are acutely aware of the issue the league has had with the hiring of minority candidates for GM and head coaching positions.

All that said, I do believe that the hiring of a GM could happen first in both those places. If it does, then I think you have to wait to see who the GM is before saying anything definitive on what happens with the head coaching position.

From Houston Football (@Houstonfootbal3): GM and HC musical chair: Texans, Jags, Jets, Lions. Who else? Would like to hear your take on the GM candidates.

Hey Houston, we’ve covered the Bears and Chargers already in the column. I know the Vikings came up last year, but I think with the contracts those guys signed shortly after the 2019 season—very real extensions, from what I heard (with Mike Zimmer’s topping $8 million per year)—Minnesota’s brass is safe. Likewise, I think the Broncos will stick with Vic Fangio, and wait until their ownership situation is sorted out before really considering any sort of sweeping change in football operations.

On the other hand, head coaching jobs with the Jags and Jets, obviously, could come open. I think Mike McCarthy will survive in Dallas, but if things get worse there in the next month, I guess that could change. And maybe there’s a surprise or two coming, too.

As for GM candidates, there’s a really strong list this year, a result of the pipeline being clogged up a little with less turnover in those positions over the last few years. We’ve got our annual future GMs list coming to you soon. But for now, there are a significant number of guys who should be relatively familiar to those who follow this stuff: Kansas City’s Mike Borgonzi, Minnesota’s George Paton, New Orleans’s Jeff Ireland and Terry Fontenot, Seattle’s Scott Fitterer and Trent Kirchner, Dallas’s Will McClay and San Francisco’s Adam Peters.

From Moose Block (@moose_block): Week 18 games now seem likely. If so, does the Super Bowl get pushed back a few weeks?

No, Moose. If Week 18 is enacted, then the bye week before the Super Bowl would be eliminated. That would actually make it easier to maintain playoff bubbles, too, since they’d be doing it for four weeks, rather than five. And the owners already voted to allow an inequity in games played, and to go to a 16-team playoff format if significant games have to come off the schedule to complete the season in an 17- or 18-week timeframe.

All of which should tell you that they’d really, really like for Super Bowl LV to be played on Feb. 7, as scheduled. The truth is it’s going to be hard enough to pull of that sort of mega-event to begin with in this environment. So it makes sense that the NFL would rather not have to move it around on the calendar to make it work.