Last week, this weird season gave us Wednesday Afternoon Football and a wideout moonlighting as a starting quarterback. A couple of weeks before that, we got Kyler Murray’s fall-away Hail Mary. After all that we should’ve been prepared for anything 2020 could serve up.
So there we were around 4 p.m. ET, and at center stage was a fair-haired quarterback who has yet to take a single NFL snap—and won’t until September 2021, at the earliest.
That’s right, the pro football world was abuzz with the fate of Trevor Lawrence hanging in the balance. The Jaguars were on the goal line, about to force overtime. And the Jets had seemingly pulled out their first win, after stopping the visiting Raiders at the New York nine with just 1:37 on the clock. All that was really between Adam Gase’s team and its first win of 2020 was finding a way to keep a couple of heaves to the end zone out of Raider hands.
Little did we know how much that was to ask.
Vegas got the ball back at its own 39-yard line, as OT got started in Minneapolis, down 28–24 with just 35 seconds showing and no timeouts. On the first play, Derek Carr hit Darren Waller over the middle for 15 yards, hustled his guys to the line, and (tick tick tick) spiked the ball with 19 seconds left—enough time for two or maybe three shots at the end zone. And on the first one, it sure looked like Carr & Co. struck gold.
Nelson Agholor flat-out ran past, and got behind, safeties Matthias Farley and Marcus Maye. By the time he crossed the goal line, he was a good five yards clear of the coverage. Which is about how many yards Carr overshot him by, in what seemed to be a death knell of a miss, since there was no way the Jets would let that happen again.
Then, they did. Grinding away during the week, Raiders coach Jon Gruden had seen other teams' success running “spear” concepts—with receivers running deep in-cuts—on Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’s unit late in games. And having coached so many years against Williams, he had institutional knowledge of the veteran DC’s propensity for bringing pressure in this particular spot. That, he figured, would open up the spear concept.
So, in went the call:
Troff Left 77 Z Spear Takeoff.
“Have a play for any situation,” Gruden said postgame, via text. “Sometimes you hit the lottery.”
In this case, Troff Left 77 Z Spear Takeoff might’ve meant both teams hitting the lottery.
Week 13 is still two days and three games from completion, but we’re here with a loaded MMQB. Here’s what you have to look forward to this morning …
• The Patriots’ rise from the ashes in L.A.
• The Giants’ rebuild kicks into overdrive.
• How an interim coach got his guys to play.
• Full detail on the Niners’ relocation process.
But we’re starting with a story of the two worst teams in the league, and the quarterback they’re (not intentionally, we think) chasing, who might be the best to come out of the college ranks in a generation.
By now, you’ve seen the ball Carr dropped into Ruggs’s hands to give Vegas the 31–28 lead with five seconds left. It looked easy, of course, and there are two reasons why. The first is the above—Gruden had a feeling that the Raider DBs would be susceptible to that concept late in the game, because the tape told him they would. The second is the position Williams put corner Lamar Jackson in.
Ruggs is legitimately one of the 10 fastest players in the NFL, having run a 4.27 that he was disappointed with at the combine 10 months ago. Jackson, a At 6' 2", 205-pound undrafted rookie out of Nebraska, clocked 40s of 4.58 and 4.65 in Indy last February. And yet, Williams sent seven rushers at Carr and stuck a spy in the middle of the field, leaving three DBs back to cover three receivers releasing into the pattern.
The line of scrimmage was the Jets’ 46. Ruggs ran straight at Jackson and at about 16 yards chopped his feet as he if were running the in-cut. Jackson bit, and the Alabama product accelerated right past him. After missing the throw to Agholor, Carr wasn’t going to be off on this one. He dropped it right in the bucket, with Ruggs hauling it in as he crossed the goal line.
Raiders 31. Jets 28. And a lot of fallout to sort through—particularly after the Vikings held off the Jaguars’ comeback attempt and pushed Jacksonville to 1–11.
For the Raiders, this is pretty simple. The win moves Vegas to 7–5, and keeps the Raiders a game out of the sixth and seventh playoff spots in the AFC, occupied now by the Colts and Dolphins. A loss would’ve put them a half-game behind the Ravens and locked them in a tie with New England. So this one was big.
But it may have been even bigger for the team that lost.
No one in the Jets’ organization wants to hear it while the season is still going on, but it’s been hanging over the team for a while now—getting the first pick is different this year, and would mean another significant shakeup in 2021. That’s because Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is expected to be in this year’s draft pool and has been lined up by scouts with John Elway, Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, as the next once-in-a-decade QB prospect.
There’s no telling if the difference between the first and second picks this year will be like 1998 (Manning and Ryan Leaf) or 2012 (Luck and Robert Griffin III). But what we do know is Lawrence has a shot to change everything for someone.
And as November turned to December, it became abundantly clear that someone would be either the Jets or Jaguars. They’re the only teams left capable of making it to even 14 losses, which, at this point, likely eliminates everyone else, and explains why Sunday was so dramatic for not just the Jets and Jaguars fan bases, but everyone in football.
Indeed, if Lawrence becomes a Jet and gives the franchise the stability Elway, Manning and Luck once offered their teams, then maybe Troff Left 77 Z Spear Takeoff goes down in New York sports lore as a very big moment—and Williams is a sort of sideways hero in all this.
Is that weird? Sure. Maybe even a little dumb? Probably.
But I think I can speak for all us, especially in 2020, in saying that embracing the absurdity of the entire thing on Sunday afternoon was a whole lot of fun.
Buckle up, Jets and Jags fans. Four weeks to go.
SPECIAL DAY FOR A PATRIOTS LEADER
Devin McCourty is in his 11th NFL season, and going into Sunday, his 167th regular season game (and 167th regular season start), he had a premonition.
He thought he’d score.
Even for someone as accomplished as he is, a three-time All-Pro and three-time Super Bowl champion, that would qualify as a weird thing to forecast. McCourty’s a safety, and plays on special teams, which is why, for all those games played, he’s only hit paydirt three times (two pick-sixes and a kick return). But he had that feeling, and there was reason for it.
McCourty and his wife Michelle lost their third child, a stillborn daughter named Mia, back in May, and to honor her he wore a customized set of shoes for this week’s league-wide My Cleats My Cause event. The next child a couple has after losing a child this way, McCourty explained to me, is called a “rainbow baby.” So the shoes had rainbows on them and, before the game, Michelle texted Devin rainbow emojis.
“Representing my wife and everything we’ve been through, representing a foundation called TEARS, really, it was special for me,” McCourty told me from the winning locker room. “I had a feeling I would score today and my wife, and my kids would get to see those cleats front and center. I was ecstatic to get in the end zone and just represent so many people who have gone through that loss, losing a baby. I know that’s been tough for our family, but my wife’s really been the rock. And I was happy for that to happen today. …
“And as we continue to try to have rainbows, really the cleat was like my rainbow.”
McCourty’s touchdown happened, admittedly, in a different kind of way on the last play of the first half. The Patriots had gamed up a field goal block call that would free up reserve safety Cody Davis to burst through the ‘B’ gap, and it worked like they drew it up. Davis got his hand on Chargers kicker Michael Badgley’s low-liner of a 58-yard attempt, and McCourty scooped it up and outran everyone to end zone, to make it 28–0 at the break.
Therein lay the bonus—postgame, he also got to celebrate his team’s best performance in a season that, at a bunch of different points, looked like it was careening off the rails.
To say the Patriots routed the Chargers wouldn’t do the 45–0 beating justice. The offense played with identity, controlling the pace of the game on the ground behind Cam Newton and lead back Damien Harris. The special teams scored twice, and nearly a third time, with Gunner Olszewski returning one punt 70 yards for a score and another 61 yards to set up a field goal. And the defense shut L.A. out, and led Justin Herbert to his worst day as a pro.
The win pulls the Patriots back up to .500, at 6–6, in what’s been a very, very long year for the team. From the loss of franchise icon Tom Brady to a slew of COVID-19 opt-outs (including captains Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung), to dealing with the day-to-day that every NFL player faces in this new world, there were plenty of points at which New England could’ve chalked 2020 up as simply not our year.
But that never happened.
“It’s been a grind, man,” McCourty said. “You have a lot of change and then not a lot of time to work on that, and I think especially with this team [that hurt]—our staff does a great job in the offseason preparing and having a plan for what we want to do. So we lost all that this year. Then you lose guys that some you knew and some you didn’t know. I think we just continue to understand, ‘Hey, we’re in the process of getting better.’ And we had some tough losses that came down to final drives and final plays that just didn’t go our way.
“But we kept grinding and kept fighting. And we’ve had tough practices. We’ve been out there grinding. And it feels good to be at this level now. We’ve just got to keep playing well. We’ve got to keep winning and see where that puts us, but I love this group of guys.”
And that, of course, is a group that’s struggled in a way no Patriots team has in a long, long time, which, McCourty told me, is part what he loves about the guys.
“Perseverance,” he said “I think we think about 2020 as a whole being tough, and this has been a different year for the Patriots. I think every year when you come in, people expect certain things from the Patriots. Started off 2–4, not ideal. Not the way we wanted to start. But no one really blinked an eye, no one got worried. We just kept fighting. I think it’s a group that every day, you can come into work and be happy, be proud, because you’re working with a group of guys that just wants to get better.”
To their credit, they have gotten better. And after winning four of five, they’ve clawed their way back into contention for an AFC wild-card.
It’ll take some work, of course, from here. The Patriots are still two games out of the final wild-card spots. But as McCourty and some of the older guys in Foxboro see it, that kind of adds a new element to the way the team attacks December.
“It’s a good time to be playing well,” he said. “Every year, we say the football starts after Thanksgiving. We’ve got to continue to grind. This is the time of year, holidays are coming up, guys are getting injured, we’ve already played now 12, 13 games. It’s a grind. I think for us, we’ve just got to keep pushing ourselves. That can make a huge difference in these games really down the stretch. So that’s what our focus is.”
They get the Rams Thursday, and with a win there they’ll be back over .500, with three division games to close out the regular season. And probably a lot of teams that would rather not see them in the playoffs.
COLT MCCOY STEPS IN
You know Alex Smith’s story. You may not know Colt McCoy’s.
Two years ago, two weeks after Smith broke his right leg and entered into an incredibly difficult and long process of working his way back to full strength, McCoy, playing in his place, broke his own right leg. He didn’t have to undergo 17 surgeries like Smith did, but he did go under knife three times, and at one point spent a full week in a hospital bed right next to Smith’s in Virginia, near the Washington team facility.
“We were literally door-to-door,” McCoy says, “they’d roll us into each other’s rooms.”
McCoy came back a little faster than Smith did, even starting a game for Washington last year. But until Sunday, his drought of not having won a game as starter was intact—one that went all the way back to 2014.
And now that’s over. So we’ll get to the story of the Giants’ surge in a second. But first, there was a special significance to all this for McCoy, playing, and winning, in Seattle (the final was 17–12) as New York starter Daniel Jones heals a balky hamstring.
“Yeah, I think coming off the bench last week, and playing the second half against Cincinnati and doing some good things there, finishing that game off, first of all gave me a lot of confidence in my leg,” McCoy said. “Coming off that injury that has really sidelined me for the last 18 months or so, I think that really helped my ability to just focus on the game and know my limits. And then coming in here and finding a way to get a win and be a part of this team, I told the guys after the game I’m so proud to be a part of this group.
“I couldn’t say more.”
McCoy, clearly, has come a long way. So have his Giants.
From public hand-wringing over lap running in camp, to a 1–7 start, and now to a four-game winning streak, the progress hasn’t come all at once. It just seems that way, with Joe Judge’s crew going from afterthought to sole possession of first place in the NFC East (and yeah, it’s not a great division this year) in the blink of an eye.
But what a closer look shows is a team that was knocking on the door for a while before it made its move—right up a two-point loss to the Buccaneers on a November Monday night that served as the launching point for the winning streak. And if you look really close, you’ll see a crew of players that hasn’t wavered much from the direction Judge is giving them.
“Joe’s done a great job,” McCoy said. “He’s been awesome. He’s young, so he gets along with everybody. He has a unique ability to show his passion for this game and how much it means to him. He’s really smart on both sides of the ball and in special teams. The guys buy in. Everyone bought in. It was hard. Training camp was hard. Practices are hard. We’re grinding. But when we get out there, he makes sure everybody knows what our job is, what the expectations are, and people are bought in. We’re having fun.”
The buy-in showed in Seattle, with how the team fought through some jitters early on offensively, and how McCoy, in particular, had to get his sea legs.
“Seattle causes a lot of problems,” McCoy said. “They pressure you, they blitz you. Not playing in a while, you’ve got to get your feet under you, got to take a breath. I wasn’t having issues seeing the pressure or seeing the coverage, I was ahead of it a lot. I was seeing it too fast. Let it develop, let it play. Jason [Garrett] told me after the game that that’s so normal. Once we started running the football, I kind of calmed down.”
In the first half, the Giants had five offensive possessions: punt, pick, punt, punt, safety. And after that, things clicked, and New York scored touchdowns on consecutive second-half drives to turn a 5–0 deficit into a 17–5 lead. The Seahawks fought back to cut the lead to 17–12, but the Giants got the final stop they needed with a turnover on downs near midfield with less than a minute left.
And really, all that reflected not just what McCoy had done in stepping in for Jones, but also how far the offensive line and the defense as a whole had come. Which, to Judge himself, is another good sign that things are coming along.
“I don’t think it’s anything magical,” Judge told me. “Yeah, tough things happen, it’s 1–7. But if you can show them on tape every day, ‘Hey, this guy’s doing this better, you’re doing this better,’ they can see that. And they keep working hard. Then, hey, look, you can show why things didn’t go their way: Well, this is why it didn’t work. It’s not that we don’t have the opportunity to win. We’re making mistakes. And if we get these mistakes off the tape, all of the sudden we’ll start having better results. So you do that, and it all kind of ties together.”
It sure has for the Giants.
As for McCoy, in a week or two Jones will be back, and that means McCoy will return to his role providing depth. But he’ll still have a nice win in Seattle to tuck away—and pretty interesting perspective to share with his buddy Smith.
“It’s insane,” he said. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of Alex. We got to be really close friends. What he’s gone through, it’s nothing short of amazing and a miracle. I’ve certainly had issues of my own that were tough to go through, three surgeries and dealing with all that is hard. For both of us to be back out there is pretty crazy.”
Smith, by the way, gets his turn Monday night, as Washington tries to pull back even with the Giants in the NFC East, taking on the Steelers in Pittsburgh. Which is pretty remarkable too, and on a bunch of different fronts.
INTERIM COACH GETS HIS FIRST WIN
Darrell Bevell sure didn’t expect this to be how he’d get his first shot at being a head coach, after two decades as an NFL assistant, but he wasn’t going to waste the opportunity afforded to him either. And so he made the most of what he got the last week.
He became Lions interim coach two Saturdays ago, after the ouster of Matt Patricia, and soon thereafter held a Zoom meeting with the players. Sunday was a players day off, coming off a Thanksgiving game, and then Monday and Tuesday league rules mandated team facilities across the league to be shut down. Finally, on Wednesday, he got the players in, but by Friday a COVID-19 testing snafu forced everyone to go virtual again, at least for a few hours.
And then the team traveled to Chicago and trailed by 10 with five minutes to go. Down 30–20 with the clock ticking, Bevell saw what he had on the sideline.
“I saw how they reacted,” Bevell said. “You could see the look in their eyes. My message to them at halftime was to continue to play for 60 minutes. Continue to play with energy. Continue to play like they're a 10-year-old little boy, because we all love to play this game. And don't measure it. Just go out there, play, and when we look up at the end and it says zero, if we've done that, then we'll be able to be happy with the results.
“And it played out exactly that way. They believed the whole way through. They didn't ride the emotions of the game.”
From there, a 4–7 Lions team that had been through a coaching change eight days earlier made it happen.
• Starting with the ball at the Lions’ four with 4:33 left, Matthew Stafford connected on six straight throws for 96 yards, capping the march with a 25-yard touchdown strike to Marvin Jones to cut the Bears’ lead to 30–27.
• Three plays later, with 1:54 left, Romeo Okwara came screaming off the edge and stripped Mitchell Trubisky, and the Lions dove on the ball at the Bears’ seven.
• Peterson ran for two yards, then the remaining five to give Detroit a 34–30 lead with 1:37 left.
• Detroit’s defense got one final stop, stacking David Montgomery up on fourth-and-1 from the Lions’ 20 with 11 seconds to go to salt away the win.
Which is to say a team that had every reason to pack it in most certainly didn’t.
Bevell, for his part, did everything he could during the week to get guys dialed in. He harped on the privilege they have to play the game in the first place. He moved the schedule around to freshen things up a little, and tweak the setup of the players’ days and practices.
“I just wanted to have them have a new perspective,” he said. “And not look back, just look forward. But play with great energy, play with great joy, for a love of this game.”
And that part of the message carried right over to game day.
“We're in the pregame, like, We're in Chicago playing the Chicago Bears, your 10-year-old self would think it's a pretty cool deal. And it really is,” Bevell said. “We're all blessed to be playing this game. We're blessed in this time of COVID to be able to even be working. And it was, I mean, just perspective. It was really cool to see how they reacted today."
So Bevell has his first win as a head coach now. And this doesn’t mean the Lions are suddenly a threat to make the playoffs or anything like that.
But it could mean that the locker room, and the building in general, will be in a good place coming out of another lost season. Which sure does count for something.
49ERS MOVE TO ARIZONA
Because nothing’s a secret in the internet age, the location of the 49ers’ new home in Arizona didn’t stay under wraps for very long. A group of fans figured it out—and, truth be told, the team wasn’t really hiding it anyway—and the other day about 30 of them made the pilgrimage out to the pavement connecting the Westgate Entertainment District, where the team hotel is, and State Farm Stadium, where the team is practicing.
There, they created a spaced-out tunnel for players to ride their golf carts and minibuses through on the way to and from practice. They hoot, they holler. They can’t get autographs, for obvious reasons. But they’re there, and the team appreciates the gesture.
For the guys, it’s a little piece of normalcy, small as it may be, in a really weird circumstance.
The Niners were forced to Glendale this week as a result of Santa Clara County in California battening down its COVID-19 restrictions and banning contact sports in the area, pro or otherwise, until Dec. 21. The team’s there until at least then and is preparing to be there through the rest of the year, with its first “home game” at State Farm set for Monday night against Buffalo. Uprooting an entire football operation on the fly, clearly, wasn’t easy.
“I obviously played for a long time and was always cognizant of the herculean efforts to get training camp ready, to do a road trip even, there’s just a lot of moving parts that go along with it,” GM John Lynch said over the phone on Saturday morning. “But the NFL’s very rote too; year after year the cycle kind of repeats itself. So new places, new hotels, but everything is there so you can plan.
“I think that’s been the thing in general about 2020, and then obviously with this situation more than ever, just the fact that it came out of nowhere, and to have to respond and react that quickly, I’d like to look for an analogy, but I’ve never been through anything like this. I guess it’s like preparing for a run-and-shoot team and they come out running wishbone.”
Here, in a nutshell, is how it all went down.
Saturday, Nov. 29, morning: While the Niners were at a walkthrough, one of the beat writers covering the team gave 49ers PR chief Bob Lange a heads up that there was a press conference set for the afternoon, and pro and college sports in the county (which also is home to Stanford and San Jose State) might be in jeopardy. Lange, in turn, told Lynch.
“And so I said, ‘Bob, that doesn’t sound right. We’ve been in constant communication with our county about a lot of things but that’s not one of them,’” Lynch said. “They’d approached us about this idea of even more intensive protocol to keep going—like, ‘Hey guys, we want this to keep going, you guys have worked really well within the protocols but we need to ratchet them up.’”
Indeed, the Niners (primarily through president Al Guido) had discussed with the county the idea of a “soft” bubble, which would require players commuting only to and from work, and going nowhere else, as an alternative to a hard bubble, that would sequester players and coaches to the Santa Clara Marriott. Things went well enough during those talks that the Niners presented the idea to the players as a way to keep them around family.
So the idea of being forced from the county altogether was, really, the county lining up in the wishbone after the Niners had seen them for weeks as a run-and-shoot team.
Saturday, Nov. 29, afternoon: The aforementioned press conference happened as the team busses were heading to the airport for a trip to Los Angeles and Week 12’s game against the Rams. So as everyone boarded the plane, Guido, Lynch, Lange, coach Kyle Shanahan, owner Jed York and logistics staffers Steve Risser, Michael Slap and Stephen Spencer summited over options. But it was just as important to be clear with the players, so Lynch commandeered the P.A. system on the plane.
“There’s an order that we can no longer operate, practice or play games,” Lynch told the players. “So here’s our commitment, guys. We don’t know exactly where we’re going, but we’ve been working on this for a long time. And it’s not that we knew about this, we learned about it the same time you did, but contingency plans were ready. There’s a lot there, and we will have it handled, you guys focus on this game. Needless to say, that’s hard to do, but that’s what we’ve got for you.”
Lynch actually then reached out to his dad, who’s close with San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, opening the lines of communication on the Niners potentially moving to the GM’s hometown for December. The Niners kicked the tires on Dallas, too. But as Lynch said, contingencies were in place in the schedule, with the California teams’ slates tethered with other teams’ (Cowboys/Rams, Chargers/Raiders, 49ers/Cardinals) to allow for a situation where one team would have to crash on another’s proverbial couch.
As such, the scheduling of home games allowed for the Niners to move to the desert seamlessly.
Sunday, Nov. 30: San Diego did emerge as a real option for the team, in part because it had an open schedule and the city got word to Lynch that it could make it work. So what separated Arizona? In a word, infrastructure. The Niners agreed to go to Arizona, with talks spearheaded by York and Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill, in large part because the Cardinals could offer their ready-to-go training-camp setup.
Clearing the hurdle of finding a home was, of course, a big one. But so too was playing a 7–3 Rams team while all this was going on. Somehow, the Niners found a way to scratch out a win, even with every excuse imaginable available to them.
“What we asked from them, put that on hold for 24 hours, focus on this game and they did,” Lynch said. “You saw the result, it was an incredible win. Even the way the game went, we were up 17–3, looked like we were gonna run away with it, and then before you knew it, we were down 20–17. And to be able to endure that and then come back, and find a way to win, I can’t say enough about this group and this coaching staff.”
By Wednesday night, the Niners were not just on the ground in Arizona, but the coaches and players got there to find a fully functional setup thanks to the work of Risser and his ops staff, Michael Bracken and his video staff and, yes, the Cardinals, who helped direct the process and helped the Niners with everything, right down to lending them weight racks for a makeshift strength-and-conditioning area.
And as they arrived, there were a couple things the Niners wanted to get done that weren’t about the physical act of moving, but the emotional toll the year’s taken on everyone. Lynch and Shanahan took the temperature of the team on planning, after telling them: We will figure it out, one way or the other, you’re going to be with your families for Christmas (the players, at that point, asked about calling it now, and planning to stay in Arizona that week). And Shanahan gathered 20 or so players before that, with a simple message.
“Kyle said, We all know how hard it was to leave our families, and I’m just really concerned,” Lynch said. “A lot of us are gonna be in a hotel for a long, long time. The hardest thing about this year, especially when you leave, someone asks, ‘Well, couldn’t this be a great bonding thing for your team?’ Well, it’s hard to bond when everything that we’re telling them is so contrary to what we always sell about team. Distance yourself. Go to your room. That ‘s where Kyle, who’s always mindful of that, just said, We have to have each other’s backs, we have to look out for each other.”
Of course, Shanahan and Lynch were also mindful of everything the Niners had already been through. Wildfires and associated concerns over air quality put their opener in question. A rash of serious injuries took Nick Bosa, Jimmy Garoppolo, George Kittle, Richard Sherman, Jimmie Ward, Deebo Samuel and Solomon Thomas either for extended stretches, or the whole year. They went into their Thursday-nighter against the Packers severely short-handed and racked with COVID-19.
It’s been a lot. Which is both why Shanahan and Lynch were concerned for their players upon arrival in Arizona and confident that they can handle whatever comes their way.
“We certainly are battle-tested,” Lynch said. “And I think it does, even in a year like this, make your group very, very tight, because you’ve been through a lot together. And yeah, I think there is a resiliency now. Look, our world is having to be resilient right now. Our guys are very aware, we’re afforded this opportunity and I think, with the cooperation we’ve gotten, they understand we’re able to still go play the game that we love and make a living.
“And we’re also mindful. I think people sometimes think, Well, all these players make so much money, and you’re talking about being able to make a living. You saw the people we employ at games, the security people, it was important for us to keep that going so that a lot of people could earn their living. We’ve been through a lot though. We’ve got a big challenge.”
So far, the Niners have been up to it.
Baker Mayfield looked like the player John Dorsey thought he’d be in 2018. We’ve seen these sorts of flourishes from Mayfield in the past, of course, but I’d venture to say this was the best the third-year former Heisman winner has looked as a pro. He threw for 334 yards and four touchdowns. He completed 76% of his 33 throws. His passer rating was 147.0, and his offense converted 10 of the 16 third downs he faced. And embellished as the scoreboard might’ve looked, if you watched, nothing seemed fluky about the Browns’ 38–7 halftime lead. The run game was there, if not to the extent it has been at other points of the year. Myles Garrett’s return helped fuel the defense early (they did slip some in the second half). So where does that leave the team? My belief is that the foundation coach Kevin Stefanski and GM Andrew Berry have laid has the group in a place where, even with average quarterback play, they can be competitive week in and week out. But they’ll only be dangerous when they get to January if Mayfield can be dangerous—and on Sunday the guy who likes to say he wakes up feeling dangerous was just that. We’ll see if he can keep it up. The good news is he didn’t take this particular Sunday as his arrival, as he may have a couple years ago. “We are going to be happy about this win until we wake up tomorrow, and then we are on to the next,” Mayfield told reporters postgame. “This is not the end of the season. This is not what we set out to do. We did not set out to be 9–3. There is a lot of ball left, and we hope that way so job is not finished.”
The Eagles have painted themselves into a corner at quarterback. Doug Pederson finally did what a lot of people have called for, benching Carson Wentz in Green Bay amid another trainwreck performance. The fifth-year quarterback was 5-of-12 for 38 yards in the first half, went 1-for-3 for 41 yards on the first series of the second half (and the 41-yard completion was late and short to a wide-open Dallas Goedert on a coverage bust), then got yanked for Jalen Hurts. Pederson said after the game that he just thought his team needed a spark. Hurts gave them that, and made the Packers sweat a little late. But really, this isn’t about Hurts. Not when the Eagles traded a treasure chest of draft capital to get Wentz five years ago, and not when they doubled down on the investment, at $34 million per year, two offseasons ago. And you can excuse things away to injuries on the offensive line and swings and misses at receiver if you want. The bottom line is that when you pay a quarterback at that rate, you’re going to need him to be good enough to make up for the salary cap real estate he’s gobbling up, and Wentz hasn’t even been good enough to hold onto his job. So yeah, the Eagles got their spark, and Hurts got his reps, but the bigger question is where this leaves the team and its franchise quarterback going forward. Realistically, the Eagles are contractually married to Wentz for at least another year, and to a lesser degree through 2022. There are four games left this year, and I’m not sure exactly how you go about reestablishing him as your starter (if you even want to) after the way he’s played, and where it landed him Sunday. Do I think Pederson did what he had to do Sunday? Absolutely. Do I think it ends there? It really can’t. Now that this particular can of worms has been opened, it’ll follow Wentz every snap he plays, or doesn’t play, the rest of the year. And where the team is with its quarterback becomes the story of the offeseason in Philly. It really is amazing that we’re here. But Wentz consistently has looked unsure of himself, to the point where opposing defensive coaches are preying on that lack of confidence, and uneasy about everything around him for a long while now. He looks, for lack of a better word to describe it, broken. We’ll see how the Eagles go about putting him back together. If quarterbacking history is a guide, it won’t be easy.
Change is likely coming to the Chargers. Let’s say this first—Anthony Lynn has been exactly what his employers needed as the team moved from San Diego up the 5 to L.A., and the people who’ve worked with him there over the last four years (from players to front office folks, and everywhere in between) universally love him. And it’s hard not to really like him if you’ve been around him. But Sunday’s 45–0 beatdown felt a little like Lynn’s last stand. Before, the problem had been managing late-game situations, and not coming through when it mattered most as the season slipped away. This was different. The Patriots rolled up 45 points, despite Cam Newton throwing for just 69 yards. New England punted just four times, and the Chargers had 12 guys on the field for one of those punts and 10 guys on the field for another. The special teams also allowed punt returns of 70 and 61 yards (the former was a touchdown, the latter set up a field goal) to Gunner Olszewski, and had the aforementioned field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown. And Justin Herbert had his worst day as a pro, as the offense got shut out. And you get the picture. There was always going to be a decision at the end of this year. Last year, the Chargers gave Lynn a one-year extension to avoid having him coaching into a contract year. From here, the team will enter a critical window where it has Herbert, a budding star, at a rookie-contract rate, which will allow them to build around him aggressively. Then, there’s the business element of having to attract fans to SoFi Stadium next fall. Add it up, and no one was under the illusion that Lynn was completely safe entering the year. Now, at 3–9, he’s certainly not.
While we’re there, that was a bad look for the Bears out there Sunday. Blowing a 10-point lead to the Lions, after the Sunday night effort last week in Green Bay, and letting that happen at home (I know there aren’t fans, but still …) has put GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy in peril. Which is understandable, given the team has lost five straight, and the quarterback situation has gone up in flames again. What the Bears need to consider: The sand is running thin in the hourglass on a great defensive core. So going into this offseason, Chicago will have to decide whether it wants to make one more run with that group, or start a rebuild now, and which direction they choose could well color the quarterback decision. And then you have to consider whether or not Pace and Nagy are the guys to make that decision and pick the next quarterback. There’ll be a lot to digest, for sure. This we know: The Bears haven’t had back-to-back winning seasons in a decade-and-a-half. So there’s a lot to pick through on what’s gone wrong here. And it wouldn’t surprise me if, should the job come open, you see Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh sniffing around on it.
I liked what I saw from Tua Tagovailoa on Sunday. Let’s face it—that dude didn’t struggle much in college. Or he didn’t, at least, based on his on-field situation (obviously, injuries are another story). Which had to make the last few weeks interesting for him, personally. He was benched. He got hurt. Then, on Sunday, he staggered out of the gate, going 12-of-19 for 111 yards in the first half, with Miami failing to get in the end zone. And after all he’d been through, it’d be understandable if this just wasn’t his day. Instead, that was right where he’d turn it on—he went 14-of-20 the rest of the way for 185 yards and a touchdown in Miami’s 19–7 win over Cincinnati. But more than being able to win, to me, it was Tagovailoa hitting on-field adversity and keeping his head down that, I believe, gave Miami another thing to build on with its rookie, in how he was able to compartmentalize all the bad from a sideways first half. Even better, he fell on the sword for what did go wrong, telling reporters postgame, “Everyone was clicking on the offense except me. It took the second half for me to regroup with our guys and for us to go down and march the ball down the field.” Based on the stage he played on in college, you’d expect Tua to be like this. Still, it’s good to actually see it. And we did on Sunday.
The Colts’ defense deserves your attention. And maybe you took a one-week break from realizing it, since DeForest Buckner, Denico Autry and Bobby Okereke were out in Week 12, and the Titans plowed through them as a result. With the group back close to full strength? Different story. Yes, Deshaun Watson made his share of plays because, well, he’s Deshaun Watson. But when it mattered most, the defense came up huge. The rundown of Houston’s five second-half possessions tells that story: Punt, interception, punt, safety, fumble. And that safety accounted for both points scored after the break by either team. These aren’t your dad’s Colts. Which, based on how this is going, is probably fine by all the people who follow them in Indy.
Sean McVay doesn’t often take aim at his players, so his comment last week that “our quarterback has got to take better care of the football” commanded my attention. And I’m sure it commanded the attention of Jared Goff too, who’s mostly been less spectacular than his draft classmate Wentz, but steadier week-to-week. So how did Goff respond to McVay airing those grievances? Just as McVay hoped he would. Not only did Goff throw for 351 yards and a score on 37-of-47 passing, he also piloted an offense that registered multiple first downs on each of its first eight possessions, with four of those ending in touchdowns, and the final result being 38:53 of possession in a 38–28 win. For the record, the Rams turned the ball over just once—and that was a fumble on a fourth-quarter punt, which is to say the offense’s hands were clean coming out of this one. “I responded exactly how I expected to,” Goff said. “I’ve been through a lot of bad things in my football career before and I’ve consistently responded. This was no different. I just had to put my head down and keep working.” Next up: A home game Thursday against a suddenly hot Patriots defense.
Sunday night was another example of the edge Vic Fangio gives a defense. Forget, for a second, that the Broncos actually lost the game—and realize that Fangio’s defense forced this one into a phone booth. Nothing came easy for a Chiefs offense forced out of its comfort zone. Patrick Mahomes & Co. went into the half with 225 yards from scrimmage and three field goals on the board, which should tell you all you need to know. And remember, that’s a defense playing without Von Miller. There’s a reason why McVay raided Fangio’s staff for his new defensive coordinator, Brandon Staley, and why others will probably follow suit going forward. Even if the dam eventually broke, and against the Chiefs that’ll happen, that reason was on display all night. Given some time for Pat Shurmur to get the offense right, whether it’s around Drew Lock or someone else, Denver could have something here with its football junky of a head coach. And so long as there’s no late shift in thinking—I’ve been told consistently the team plans to stick with Fangio and John Elway until it gets more clarity on its ownership situation (many inside the team want Brittany Bowlen, who works for the team now, to get control)—the coach and his staff are likely to get that time.
The coaching carousel is spinning. And we’re going to have some lists and rumor columns for you in the coming weeks. But to start, here, I figured we’d give you the five names, among NFL assistants, that I believe are out front right now. They are:
Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy: He’s gotten a strong look the last two years, and folks in Houston and Atlanta are already turning over rocks on K.C.’s third-year OC. It’d seem his time is coming—though some believed he’d get a job last year and he didn’t.
Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll: His work with Josh Allen has turned heads, as has his creativity in deploying his moose of a quarterback. Daboll came up under Belichick, and called plays for Nick Saban at Alabama.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels: He, Raheem Morris and Jim Caldwell are the three retreads garnering early buzz. The idea of McDaniels landing with the Chargers makes sense for reasons we laid out in last week’s mailbag. Also, at 45, I think McDaniels is ready to take his second shot, even if that second shot isn’t perfect.
49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh: If you ask me for the assistant coach I believe is the closest to a lock to get a head coaching job, it’s Saleh. Outside of his lack of offensive background, he checks every box.
Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith: His name may have cooled a little. But he’s made magic with Ryan Tannehill, is creative as a play-designer and -caller, and has pretty good pedigree (his dad founded FedEx), too. He should be in the mix for multiple openings.
There are a lot of fun things to sort through from Sunday. So here are 10 more of them, as I saw them …
• Vikings rookie Justin Jefferson is a star.
• Saints coach Sean Payton’s doing a heck of a job with Taysom Hill (as expected).
• That does not mean Hill is the Saints’ QB of the future. I’d bet Payton has reservations.
• Packers workhorse Aaron Jones is a stud. And it’ll be fascinating to see if he gets paid.
• The Cards have last four of five—and I’d be mildly concerned with Kyler Murray’s play.
• I think Sam Darnold is going to make some team very happy in 2021.
• Darren Waller’s story (13 catches, 200 yards, two TDs in Jersey) continues to be remarkable.
• I’ll be interested to see where Jags coach Doug Marrone goes next, after all this is over.
• Jamal Adams is now having the impact the Seahawks traded for back in March.
• I don’t know where Matt Ryan and Julio Jones will be next year. But by the looks of it, both have handled a really weird situation in Atlanta well. I hope both play for winners in ‘21.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
1) I don’t know that the NFL scouting community is quite as hot on BYU QB Zach Wilson as those on the internet are. He’s fun to watch, no question. But I can say evaluators I trust that have watched Wilson have concerns about his overall lack of high-end traits, and in particular his arm strength. One scout pointed out how you can see it in how much he has to put into the more difficult throws—he’s not flicking his wrist—and that kind of kills the Patrick Mahomes comparisons I’ve heard people make. Now, that doesn’t mean he can’t be a first-rounder. He can be, because there’s certainly a lot of good in his game, and there are guys who weren’t overwhelming physically (Baker Mayfield is one) who have gone high in the draft. But it’s at least interesting seeing hype vs. reality on this one.
2) Justin Fields may not have had his biggest week statistically, as Ohio State beat Michigan State by 40, but I do think there are a few things from this week that teams will pay attention to in the spring. The Buckeyes, as you probably have heard, have been in the throes of a COVID-19 outbreak. Their game against Illinois was canceled and the MSU game was touch-and-go all week, and Fields responded in a big way. One, the coaches lauded his leadership getting his teammates through a strange week of prep. Two, he got it done playing with three starting linemen out, and through a slew of shotgun snap issues with his new center. Three, he set the example for everyone, on plays like this one. And really, this just backs up Fields’s reputation, which is in a good place going into draft season.
3) Maybe not this year, but going forward I’d keep an eye on Florida coach Dan Mullen potentially making the jump to the NFL. He’s drawn interest in the past. He’s got history developing quarterbacks—having worked with Alex Smith, Tim Tebow and Cam Newton as an assistant, and Dak Prescott and now Kyle Trask. And I think he’d have some level of interest in going to the pros. His Gators, by the way, moved to 8–1 after handling rival Tennessee on Saturday.
4) I told you earlier in the year that some scouts thought Alabama’s DeVonta Smith was a better player, and NFL prospect, than his ex-teammates Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy. And he’s spent the balance of the fall backing that up. Maybe blowing out LSU doesn’t mean as much as it normally would, given the state of the 2020 Tigers. But the Tigers still have a lot of DBs with big-time pedigree, and Smith still torched them for 219 yards and three touchdowns on seven catches in the first half alone (he finished with eight catches for 231 yards). Through nine games, Smith has 80 catches for 1,305 yards and 15 touchdowns (he’s also rushed for a 16th). And really the biggest questions on where he’ll go in April center on his size. Alabama lists him at 6' 1" and 175 pounds, and he looks slight, which raises concerns on how he’ll hold up, even when he’s making plays like this one.
5) Gotta love this and the job Indiana’s Tom Allen is doing. What that win over Wisconsin shows, I think, is that the Hoosiers aren’t just beating Penn State and Michigan in the Big Ten East. Right now, they’re legitimately better than them, and that’s an enormous feat at that place. I also think NFL teams can learn from the Allen hire—he wasn’t a popular pick, necessarily, but the people in Bloomington trusted the institutional knowledge they had on the guy, from Allen’s time as an assistant. And look at them now.
6) Stanford QB Davis Mills is interesting. A former five-star recruit, the fourth-year junior just made his 10th start—that number’s lower because of what COVID-19 has done to the Pac-12 season—in upsetting Washington. He’s been efficient. He’s got talent, clearly. Does he roll the dice and come out, given that NFL scouts were whispering about him before the year? I’d say probably not. But he sets up as someone who’d be pretty intriguing going into the 2022 draft cycle.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Baker wins the day.
Maybe Travis Kelce just really appreciated the Carr throw from earlier in the day.
I’d agree. And for all we’ve said about Belichick people falling on their faces as head coaches, Flores, Judge and Mike Vrabel are doing O.K. for themselves.
That’s been 2020 for the Chargers.
So Justin Jefferson wins and thanks Belichick in his (virtual) speech?
One reason why Rivers is so popular with his peers.
That’s bananas—50 years to the day!
NFC South official Twitter pages are the best.
History made in Atlanta today.
Sounds pretty thrilling!
Like we explained earlier, that whole situation was a work of art.
Sums it up.
This is a great idea. Hope more teams adopt it.
Congrats to Scott and all my old colleagues at NFL Network who help pull Red Zone off—it 100% changed the way we all watch football. And making that magic happen isn’t easy. Also, s/o to Scott. Could only wish everyone had the enthusiasm for their jobs that Scott has for his.
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, 49ers LB Fred Warner.
MMQB: How’s Arizona?
FW: Oh, it’s great, it’s actually really good. People keep talking about how obviously it’s a big deal that we’re having to relocate, pick up where we were in Santa Clara and have to move to Arizona. But I think they’ve done an outstanding job of just making it a seamless transition for us, making sure we have everything we need. They’ve just been making it easy on us. So I feel like it’s been great, great weather, all that.
MMQB: So as a 24-year-old guy, what’s the biggest challenge being there, not knowing when you’re going back to California?
FW: I do have a girlfriend who’s back in Santa Clara, so hopefully I’ll be able to get her out here for the holidays. And I’m big on routine, so just trying to make sure I keep my routine as similar as possible now that I’m in a different area.
MMQB: Is there any part of that that’s hard? I know guys might have a massage therapist, or a trainer, or someone or something they might lose here.
FW: No, not really. They’ve done a great job of making sure we have all those types of things—physical therapist, acupuncture, things like that. That’s available to us.
MMQB: I ran a poll of execs last month, and one question was which player league-wide doesn’t get enough credit. You came up a bunch. Where’s the difference in your game this year?
FW: Just really being able to be dialed into what my assignment is. In past seasons, it’s been just kind of learning the position. And I’m still learning, I didn’t play inside backer all of college. So just learning the position, now feeling comfortable in the scheme, being able to anticipate plays a lot more, I think that’s what’s helped my game a lot. And obviously developing more physically, keeping my weight on, has helped a lot.
MMQB: So what’s different about the position you’re playing now vs. in college?
FW: I was actually more almost like a nickel back in college. I was playing SAM [linebacker] but I was out in space a lot. Completely different from playing MIKE, being behind the line of scrimmage and having to read from back there.
MMQB: Do you feel overlooked at all, like you’re one of the best players in the league?
FW: Well, yeah. I’ve always told myself from the beginning that I’m the best. That’s nothing to take from people who are doing it an extremely high level right now. I tell myself that just to make myself work that much harder, because if I’m gonna say that I gotta make sure I prove it day in and day out, not just on game day. It makes me work that much harder and I feel like I’ve done enough to get my name in that conversation now, and I’m just gonna continue to work. Because like I said, I feel like you’ve gotta prove it every single week, it’s not just a one-time thing. You have to keep continuing to prove it.
MMQB: Losing Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas, and guys like Richard Sherman and Jimmie Ward for stretches, how has that changed your role on the team?
FW: Well, of course, the leadership part of it is the biggest change. When you don’t have a veteran like Richard Sherman, that guy, his presence alone, elevates the entire team. So when you don’t have that on the field, you gotta be able to step up. Me, as one of the leaders, you gotta be able to step right in and have guys look to you to be the guy. That’s what I take pride in each day, come to work and be the exact same person, so guys can look to that and try work their hardest.
MMQB: Have you started to find your voice as a leader?
FW: Yeah, for sure. I think just being more comfortable in the system, that has allowed me to be more myself, being able to be more vocal when need be. I’ve always been a leader by example first, coming in and being a man of action. That’s what I try and portray day in and day out.
MMQB: If there’s one thing you could snap your fingers and be better at, what would it be?
FW: Let’s see … I could be better in all areas, but if I could choose one, I’m always trying to improve on tackling. You can’t ever slack on that, and you can’t ever not get better in terms of knocking guys back, wrapping up, securing tackles, being aggressive. I feel like that’s an area I, and linebackers in general, can always improve. So, for sure, tackling.
MMQB: Sherman made a case for Robert Saleh to be a head coach. You feel the same way?
FW: One-hundred percent. One-thousand percent. He’s been such a huge part of this team, he’s so decisive in what he expects from this defense, he leaves no gray area for us. He’s such a smart coach in the way he’s been able to lead our group. I have no doubt he’d be an amazing head coach. So I’m looking forward to the time where he does get the opportunity. But for now, he’s gonna lead us, and lead us to playing good.
MMQB: What do you remember about playing against Josh Allen in college?
FW: It was the Poinsettia Bowl, it was 2016, and I remember for that game it was pouring rain, and I just remember he was out there slinging the ball around in the pouring rain. And I’m thinking, Wow. He probably threw for 300 yards. We ended up winning that game, but he had an amazing game. I think I had a solid game too. But he’s always been that guy with the huge arm that can get the ball into tight areas and can hurt you with his legs because he’s such an amazing athlete. I got a lot of respect for his game.
MMQB: What’s the biggest key to dealing with him now as a linebacker?
FW: It take a full group effort. It starts up front, guys making sure they have their integrity in their pass lanes, because the moment you start rushing up the field, similar to other mobile quarterbacks like Russell Wilson or Pat Mahomes, guys who are trying to escape the pocket and extend plays, you gotta make sure you’re keeping gap integrity. So that’s number one. And if you’re on the back end covering, you gotta make sure your eyes are on your man, and if he does escape, you’re keeping body on body in terms of the guy you’re covering. He’s gonna extend plays, and you gotta be able to plaster your guy and make sure he doesn’t get those windows that he wants.
MMQB: You’ll be eligible for a new contract after this year. Have you thought at all about how playing well here could mean some life-changing things for your family?
FW: If I’m being completely honest, I haven’t really thought about it. That’s something that other people might bring up here or there. But my whole mindset from the beginning of this was, that’s the goal, but the only way I’m gonna get to that goal is if I’m focused in on making plays and doing my job at the highest level possible. That’s why I’m always focused on that. All the other stuff will take care of itself if I’m doing that.
MMQB: Is there anything different or fun for you about playing in prime time?
FW: Well, yeah, I’ve always been a fan of the prime-time games. It’s played at night, you know the whole league’s watching, all the fans are watching at home. The biggest thing for me is knowing the whole league, all my peers, are watching, you always to want to gain more respect amongst them, amongst the coaches. This is the time to do that. And you don’t need to elevate your game, obviously you just want to play your game. But it adds that little exciting factor to it, playing at night, knowing everyone’s watching.
MMQB: Is it gonna be weird with Arizona as your home stadium?
FW: It’ll for sure be interesting, no doubt. But the thing I’m enjoying is we will have fans at the game, given the circumstances this whole season. That’s exciting. Being in Arizona’s locker room, I did think about that for a little bit. It’s sort of interesting. Should be fun, should be really fun.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
This week, you need to know when the rest of the games actually are. So to wrap up our Week 13 MMQB, here’s how Week 13 itself will wrap up … (See ya in a few hours for the MAQB.)
• Washington at Pittsburgh, FOX, 5 p.m. ET.
• Buffalo vs. San Francisco, at Glendale, Ariz., ESPN/ABC, 8:15 p.m. ET.
• Dallas at Baltimore, FOX/NFL Network 8:05 p.m. ET.