After it was over, and the Chiefs had survived rolling out in the AFC divisional playoffs with a skeleton of their normal offense and a win, Andy Reid called his quarterback to the middle of the locker room at Arrowhead and asked him to break the team down. So Chad Henne stepped forward and spoke from his gut.
“Hey, you guys make it easy on somebody like me stepping in,” Henne told his teammates. “You make my job easy and welcoming with the confidence that you show me when I have the chance to come in and play. And I appreciate that.”
This sort of chance isn’t a common one for Henne, it didn’t come under great circumstances (backups usually aren’t playing because things are going awesome) and the best-case scenario for the Chiefs is that the 35-year-old will be back on the bench when K.C. plays for a second straight AFC title against Buffalo in six days. But at the same time, these moments can also reveal a lot about a guy who hasn’t played, and how his team feels about him.
Rest assured, these Chiefs really like Henne. More than just that, they trust him too.
The “like” part is well-established in the locker room and was clear in how starter Patrick Mahomes tweeted his trademark #HenneThingIsPossible hashtag after being evaluated for a concussion and ruled out of Sunday’s game. That one was fired off, with a Gif of Kevin Garnett yelling, while the Chiefs-Browns game was still going on.
The “trust” part came minutes later when Andy Reid, faced with fourth-and-one with his team hanging on to a 22–17 lead, kept his offense on the field, sans running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, receiver Sammy Watkins, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and, unexpectedly, Mahomes. So there was Henne, with less two minutes left, and a total of 43 game throws (32 of them in Week 17) on his ledger over his last six NFL seasons coming into the day.
“There’s a certain trust with how [GM] Brett [Veach] does his job, and with our coaching staff—we know he’s going to supply us players that when you put them in, they’re going to be able to do their job, as long as we’re coaching good,” Reid told me over the cell, a couple hours afterward. “That’s part of it. Listen, man, you’ve been along long enough on this thing to know that we just kind of go to the next man up. And we try to live it.
“Not just say it, but live it and show trust that way with our guys.”
By now, you know what happened next. Henne validated Reid’s trust, finding Tyreek Hill in the flat to cover the ground needed, and then some. The Chiefs knelt on the ball. And Reid’s crew is bringing the AFC championship game to Arrowhead for the third year in a row.
But getting there? There’s quite a backstory for Henne, for Reid and for the Chiefs.
Twenty-eight teams down, and four still standing as we get the divisional round MMQB rolling. Inside this week’s column, you’ll find …
• The belief Tom Brady has ingrained, and the standard he’s set, in Tampa.
• A look at just how dominant the Packers were on the ground.
• How the Bills’ defense won the night in Orchard Park.
• A dive into the early days of Urban Meyer’s Jacksonville tenure.
Plus, we have a bunch of backstories on how hires went down this week that I think you’re going to love. But we’re starting at Arrowhead, and with the story of how the Chiefs survived the one injury they presumably couldn’t afford to sustain.
Every week, the night before the game, coaches meet with the Chiefs quarterbacks to go over which plays they like on fourth downs against whichever defense they’re facing. They go through fourth-and-10, fourth-and-five, and fourth-and-one to try and gather a list, should those situations come up—and most of the time doing going through it with the backup quarterbacks is like putting up a second pane of glass to break through in an emergency.
So on Saturday, did the coaches really think that what Henne chose would matter less than 24 hours later? Probably not. But there’s a reason you go through the exercise, and in that meeting Reid, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, pass-game coordinator Mike Kafka, pass-game analyst Joe Bleymaier and line coach Andy Heck all signed off on it.
Still, being good with it on Saturday night and pulling it out a quarter and a half after Mahomes went in the concussion protocol for Henne to run it are two different things. And this particular fourth-and-one was going to be snapped with about 1:15 left and the ball at the Chiefs’ 48. Converting would end the game. Falling short would give Cleveland the ball, down by five, with less than half the field to cover.
Which illustrates how good Reid, and Henne too, felt about the concept—a rub route that would have Travis Kelce setting a sort of natural pick to free Tyreek Hill in the right flat.
“This was his play. He wanted that play,” Reid said. “Mike Kafka, he had it on his sheet, and EB had it on his sheet. They pulled it up right away and just said, ‘Hey, this is the play that he wanted, let’s go for it.’ Upstairs, Joe Bleymaier, before the [Henne] run [on third down], we had a pass called obviously and he said, Listen, if it’s short, Coach, you’ve got a big decision to make here. But we’ve already done the exercise and Joe’s part of that, too. He’s in the room.
“So we just go. EB looked at me and I just gave him a thumbs up: Let’s go. Gave Mike Kafka a thumbs up, he was good with it. And Joe was good with it and the guys upstairs. Coach Heck knows it’s a great protection, so he was good with it the night before also.”
More than anything, Henne was good with it. On the previous play, third-and-14, he’d made the run that Reid was referencing, somehow accelerating and turning the corner on the Browns’ defense for a 13-yard gain that fell painfully short of the line to gain. So he wanted to finish the job, and the game, right then and there. And he was confident that the Browns would play aggressively and, in doing so, right into the hands of the play he’d picked.
“These situations, you know that they’re most likely going to be in man situations, that’s what they showed on film,” Henne told me postgame. “Possible blitz time for them. And what better way [to deal with that than to] get outside the pocket, get a clean pocket and put one of our best receivers in a one-on-one situation. Tyreek had one-on-one, made a quick move and got to the flat. All I had to do was put it where it needed to be.
“He did the rest. I like it there. Kelce was No. 2. Outside, it was Demarcus [Robinson]. You have some of your best guys in those positions that you want to get the ball to.”
And Henne told me that the play “absolutely” played out like he thought it would. The ball was snapped. He rolled right. The Browns were in man, Hill beat M.J. Stewart off the line, Kelce was in the way of Stewart for just long enough and Henne’s hard count caught just enough of the Cleveland defense flat footed that the completion to Hill wound up being an easy-money five-yard gain.
Of course, getting to this moment was a lot of tougher for Henne.
When Veach went to meet with agents and look for a veteran backup quarterback to take Alex Smith’s roster spot at the 2018 combine, he specifically told his lieutenants, “I’m looking for a guy that’s married with kids.”
It was tongue-in-cheek, of course, with a tinge of seriousness.
Veach wanted to add not just a depth piece but someone who could be a real resource to Mahomes. The next month, Henne arrived in K.C. after a free-agent visit with the Titans, and Reid was quickly smitten, instructing Veach not to let Henne leave the building without a deal done. The Chiefs and Henne came to terms that day—and Henne and Mahomes got to work soon after that, with Mahomes winning league MVP that fall.
The next year, Henne got hurt, and Matt Moore came in to replace him. When Henne got healthy, the Chiefs kept both around, with Henne’s place on the team unmistakable.
“Pat’s got two dinosaurs in there with Chad and Matt,” Reid said. “It’s just a great atmosphere. Both of them are very supportive. I think the thing I like the best out of this was the respect that the players had, whether it’s Patrick or the players around him in that huddle before him. And that doesn’t just start tonight, that’s the way he handles himself. How excited they were when he made that run and was able to get the first down on the throw … that speaks volumes.”
But even with that respect clear well before Sunday, there were bumps after Henne got healthy last year. When Moore got sick, Henne dressed in his place for the AFC title game against the Titans. He was then expected to dress for the Super Bowl, but Moore wound up dressing instead—which would be a pretty crushing blow for any football player, whether they were playing or not.
And while Henne wasn’t happy about it, his true colors wound up shining through in how he handled it.
“That was the organization’s decision,” Henne said. “I couldn’t fault them for that. I was just trying to help out the quarterback room best as possible, make sure they were prepared and if they needed anything from me, I would be there. And obviously, the Super Bowl is what it is. Of course I wanted to be out there and be dressed, but I understood their decision and kind of just rode with it.”
The brass was watching and, as a result, he was the first veteran quarterback the Chiefs brought back (they’d re-sign Moore later in the offseason) when the new league year came, which positioned him perfectly for the opportunity that eventually came on Sunday.
Oh, and that part about being married with kids? There was an added bonus Sunday, too. Since Henne’s playing time has been so sparse over the last six years, really, into the latter stages of this year, his seven-year-old son Chace and five-year-old daughter Hunter had never really seen him play. They’d been to games, sure, but only to watch their dad wear a ballcap and headset, carry a clipboard and run on the field for the occasional kneeldown.
So handling the disappointment of not dressing in the Super Bowl like he did set Henne up to have his kids finally see him play a full game, in Week 17, and then finish off a playoff win as Kansas City looks to defend its title.
“It means the world to me,” Henne said. “Chase was very young when I was starting in Jacksonville, so he definitely doesn’t remember. And Hunter wasn’t even born. And then I had six or seven years without playing, and coming here, just getting that opportunity, it definitely means the world to me just for them to get to see me. Icing on the cake for my career that my kids got to see me play and come out with this victory.
“It’s definitely something special that we’ll all cherish for a really long time.”
He’ll always have that 13-yard run—Reid said the players gave Henne a hard time about a hit he unnecessarily took on that sort of attempt in Week 17. “[This time], he took off and did it,” Reid continued. “Pretty amazing deal. We don’t look at him as a runner, but boy, he sure did a nice job on that one.”
And he’ll always have the memory of the fourth-and-one throw to put another Lamar Hunt Trophy in the Chiefs’ crosshairs, and all that went into getting there personally.
“I mean, 13th year, all the work that I put into it, always stayed ready in the offseason workout-wise, really pushed myself,” he said. “Obviously when I got here with Patrick, freak of nature, had to try to keep up with him. But I push myself each and every year, try to get better at different things. For all that work I put in for that long a time, to finally come through in a big moment and be able to help the team just makes you appreciate all the work that you’ve done.”
The Chiefs, for sure, appreciate it too. And they hope that this cameo of his has come to its end.
That’s not shot at Henne. That’s the life of a backup quarterback—one that Henne proved on Sunday he’s pretty damn good at living.
BRADY ELEVATES THE BUCS
Sean Murphy-Bunting is 23 years old, and just 21 months ago he was a second-round pick out of Central Michigan. He spent his rookie year as a reserve corner on Bruce Arians’s first Buccaneers team, a group that hung around a while, but was kept out of the playoffs by consecutive losses to end the season.
In short, he really didn’t know what was coming when Tom Brady became a teammate.
Now, he knows.
“Tom’s not only a superstar, he’s a champion,” Murphy-Bunting said. “So he brings that mentality, that mindset each and every day to work. He’s a true vet and a true professional. And he just brings the excitement and energy out of his guys. He shows up to meetings early, he sits in the front every meeting, he always has his notepad, whether it’s a five-minute team meeting or a 30-minute team meeting.
“His habits are just so good that they rub off on everybody else. It makes everyone want to buy into what he’s doing and how he’s doing it, because of how successful he’s been by doing these things.”
Murphy-Bunting is willing to admit it’s taken his game to another level, and the payoff came Sunday. It came individually, in that the second-year corner was able to pay back Brady for the impact he’s made with an absolute game-changer of an interception. And it came as a team, for sure.
The Buccaneers are going to the NFC championship game.
Imagine how absurd that sentence would’ve looked 12 months ago. So while Murphy-Bunting kept rattling off names as we continued talking—and saying how Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul, Lavonte David and Shaq Barrett take a similarly impactful professional approach to their day-to-day work—the truth in the Bucs’ 30–20 win over the Saints, a win that avenged a regular-season sweep, was really there in plain sight for everyone.
Brady’s changed everything in Tampa, pretty much overnight.
Next Sunday’s showdown at Lambeau will be Brady’s 14th conference championship game, and he’s played in 12 since the Bucs had last won a playoff game, nine since they’d last made the playoffs at all. The win in the Superdome was his 32nd in the playoffs, which is twice as many as any other quarterback ever (Brady’s idol, Joe Montana, is second with 16). The Bucs’ franchise had six playoff wins total coming into this year, over their 44-year history.
But perhaps the biggest gap Brady has bridged between what he came in as and what the Bucs have mostly been over time is more abstract than that—he brought belief.
The Buccaneers twice came back from 17-point deficits this fall. The last time Tampa had one of those in a season was in 2011. And likewise, a slow start in Sunday’s rivalry game did little to shake a suddenly very-self-assured group of Buccaneers.
That’s where Murphy-Bunting’s big play comes in. The Bucs started the game with consecutive three-and-outs, and allowed the Saints to control the ball for about eight of the first 11 minutes of the first quarter. Tampa did respond with a longer drive, but stalled out in the red zone, setting up a Ryan Succop field goal that made it 6–3, New Orleans.
The Bucs, at that point, just needed a spark, and the team’s week-long emphasis on the turnover battle would create one.
“It was more so just kind of playing ball at the end of the day,” Murphy-Bunting said. “It wasn’t any special thing I saw. We were in man-to-man. I had Mike Thomas in the slot. So I was out here anticipating a slant. I think he was trying to work his way inside. And I got my hands on him and it made him kind of slip on his route. Then he broke it out. So when he slipped it under, I looked back and the ball was there.
“Just caught the ball and made a play that way.”
Murphy-Bunting wasn’t down—taking the ball from there and streaking 36 yards down the sideline, and getting it to the Saints’ three, from where Brady would throw his first touchdown pass of the day on the next play.
“It was just a momentum play, that’s all it was,” Murphy-Bunting continued. “It was the spark that we needed. We needed a spark to get in the red zone. We needed a score. Got the ball back to my guys in a good situation and they made the best of it. Made a big play in the end zone. The main thing was just creating those sparks and keeping the momentum, keeping the field position, and keep getting Tom the ball back.”
And that became the theme of the afternoon. Antoine Winfield Jr. forced a third-quarter fumble from Jared Cook, Devin White covered it and Brady found Leonard Fournette for a six-yard touchdown five plays later. Then, in the fourth quarter, White picked Drew Brees off to set up the Bucs’ last score of the day. And a third pick, from safety Mike Edwards, put the game away.
Really, it was that simple. Three takeaways set up touchdowns. A fourth closed the game out. And the Bucs got out of New Orleans without turning the ball over once, which reversed the way the two regular season games between the teams went down (the Saints won the turnover battle by a collective count of six to two in those two games).
“We knew that the more we could take the ball and put it in Tom’s hands, take it out of Drew’s, is a better situation we’d be in,” Murphy-Bunting said. “We just had an emphasis on taking the ball away any way we can.”
As a result, Murphy-Bunting gets to go to work in Brady’s Tampa for another week—and at this point he knows what that means.
“Definitely, man,” he said. “You’re a young guy and you don’t show up with a notebook, everybody’s going to look at you crazy. Like what are you doing? You don’t look prepared. So I promise you, I’ll carry my notebook, my iPad, everything. I’m going to look prepared.”
The Bucs sure did on Sunday, and only needed 199 yards from Brady to get the job done.
Which is a pretty good indication of how he’s rubbing off on everyone.
THE PACK GET BACK
The guys Brady and the Bucs will face on Sunday aren’t your older brother’s Packers. And you don’t need a lesson in analytics to see it.
Consider Green Bay’s run/pass split on Saturday at Lambeau: 36/36.
It’s no accident either. At Matt LaFleur’s Lambeau, this really is the idea, regardless of who the quarterback is.
“Yes sir,” tailback Aaron Jones said, over the phone from the victorious locker room. “That opens up a lot of things. It keeps defenses guessing. They can’t just say, O.K., they’re going to throw the ball, or they’re going to run the ball. You don’t know. So I like that. It keeps you guessing, it keeps you on your toes.”
And on Saturday, the Packers got the Rams on their toes, then knocked them flat on their backs in a could’ve-been-worse 32–18 beatdown. It’s a credit to Sean McVay and his players that this thing didn’t get more out of hand, because it easily could have.
The Packers controlled the ball for more than 36 minutes, and just about doubled the Rams up in yards (484 to 244) and first downs (28 to 17), while being nearly three times as efficient on third down. Part of that, of course, is having MVP lock Aaron Rodgers taking snaps for you. But on an afternoon during which the star quarterback had a relatively quiet 296-yard, two-touchdown effort, it was pretty clear how much more Green Bay is now than one player.
We’ve heard a lot about the Packers’ weapons—and how Rodgers may not have the level of receiver that, say, Mahomes has. And that may be true. But what he does have is a damn well-rounded team that isn’t asking him to dress in a phone booth every week.
Jones and the run game showed that pretty clearly in the second half on Saturday. After grinding out 74 yards on 18 carries as a team in the first half, LaFleur turned to Jones to kick off the second half with a run call that Jones remembered the Packers running for rookie A.J. Dillon on Green Bay’s third offensive snap—Dillon took the handoff off the right side and burst through for nine yards.
“I went in motion [on the play], a bubble motion, and it was him who ran it,” Jones said. “And he ended up one-on-one with a safety and ended up getting nine yards. Any time you get nine yards and it’s pretty much untouched, if it plays out like that again, you have a plan for the safety, you’ll be able to break.”
On the first snap of the second half, Jones had a plan.
“On this one, the ‘backer crept over, so the middle of the field was kind of wide open,” he said. “The safety drops down, [center] Corey Linsley is working up to the safety, and it just leaves me wide open. There’s another safety in the middle of the field, and I just cut back on him. But like I said, it all starts up front for us. They did a great job of blocking. Not just up front, the tight ends as well, them and the receivers.”
Sixty yards later, the Packers had moved the ball from their own 25 to the Rams’ 15, and Jones punched it in from a yard out five plays later, to push the lead to 25–10. Jones, Dillon and Jamaal Williams kept chipping away from there.
That led to a dull, if effectively-executed fourth quarter, with a big play finally popping after the Packers missed on a couple earlier—this one ending in a 58-yard touchdown from Allen Lazard—and Green Bay consistently performing in short yards (a perfect six-for-six on third-and-less-than-five, with 17 yards rushing on three carries of third-and-one-or-two).
And with that, the Packers are back where they were a year ago, in the NFC title game with a shot to go to the Super Bowl.
Last year, on that stage, Green Bay basically got run out of the building by the Niners in 37–20 loss that felt like it could’ve been 67–20. That night in California, Jones and a couple teammates chose to linger out on the field to see the festivities—and take in what they were missing. It was done, of course, with a purpose, and that purpose is now here.
“It’s definitely stuck with me,” Jones said. “It left an ugly taste in my mouth last year. I stayed on the field and watched the confetti come down and them celebrate. Just soaked it in, you know? It’s a feeling that you want to get rid of and I think we’re right in the perfect place to do that. We’re right back where we need to be. We’ve just got to handle business.”
Now, all that that stands in their way is the greatest playoff quarterback ever.
Part of the Packers’ motivation? Proving their guy is right up there with him—and getting Rodgers back to the Super Bowl for the first time in a decade.
“Well, it’d mean a lot,” Jones said. “He’s a great quarterback. If you asked me the greatest quarterback, it’s him. It’s only right he gets some more.”
BILLS WITH WIN DEFENSE
I found this recounting of Bills coach Sean McDermott’s message to his team, as relayed to me by defensive back Taron Johnson, really interesting.
Enjoy it tonight. Take care of your body tonight. We’re back to work tomorrow.
I don’t know if this Buffalo team is going to win the first Super Bowl title in franchise history, and exorcise all the demons of the 1990s. But if you’re asking me if they think they will, the answer is an emphatic yes. The Bills have won eight in a row—the Hail Murray was their last loss—and Saturday’s 17–3 victory over the Ravens was the seventh double-digit win over that stretch.
And in that way, this was more of the same. Yet, in another, it was something new. Only once during Buffalo’s eight-game win streak have the Bills held an opponent to fewer than two touchdowns, and that was in the team’s Monday night massacre of New England. This one was different than that in that the Bills didn’t just prefer the defense play its game—they needed Leslie Frazier’s group.
Frazier’s group, in turn, answered the bell.
“Yeah, I feel like we took a step today,” Johnson said after the game, but before knowing their AFC title game opponent. “And we’re going to take a step next week. That’s what we need to do to win. So one more game until the Super Bowl, and that’s what our eyes are on. This game, whoever it is, coming up next week.”
Obviously, now we know that opponent will be the Chiefs—and because of the multifaceted nature of this Bills team, an upset at Arrowhead seems a lot less absurd than it would have eight or nine months ago. And imagine how we’d feel if we saw Josh Allen’s ‘A’ game on Saturday night.
The truth is, that kind of performance wasn’t in the cards for either team in blustery Western New York, so both sought a different way to win the game, with one adapting better as the game went on than its opponent.
And the Bills would need to adapt because the start wasn’t pretty. Gus Edwards kicked the game off with runs of 12 and 10 yards. Then, J.K. Dobbins chewed up another nine, and the Ravens seemed to be on their way,
Baltimore ran six straight times to start the game and churned out 42 yards in the process, moving the ball from its own 25-yard line to the Bills’ 33. But it really stopped there, and mostly for good. The Ravens had their moments, but after that six-carry, 42-yard start, they only ran for 108 yards on 26 carries the rest of the way, and Lamar Jackson couldn’t do much to make up for it, posting a 61.5 passer rating, before leaving with a concussion.
The Bills weren’t lighting the world on fire themselves on offense, but the third quarter gave them all the scoring they’d need. An 11-play, 66-yard drive gave Buffalo a 10–3 lead, and then came Johnson’s 101-yard pick-six.
“Well Coach made a great call,” Johnson said. “He called ‘blue,’ it’s a Cover-2 look. Basically, I was just reading Lamar’s eyes. He took me right to the ball. I had the seam, and I think he was trying to throw an over to 89 [Mark Andrews] I believe, and I saw where he was going with the ball and just stepped in front of it. Caught the ball and thought about taking a knee, honestly. The first thing I thought about was taking a knee. Then I saw that green grass on the right side.
“And I knew only one person was there to have a chance to get me, and that was No. 8 [Jackson]. Luckily, I had my teammate, Tre White, next to me. So he led me into the end zone.”
White, in fact, seemed to beat Jackson in a foot race down the field—no small feat—before cutting him off from Johnson’s path to paydirt.
Which led me, because I like races like this, to ask if White’s faster than Jackson.
“I have no idea,” Johnson said. “I know for that play, he might’ve been. I don’t know about all the time, but I know for that play he was definitely faster.”
And on this night, the Bills were definitely better, and because of a defense that buckled down early, and delivered the big play late. Really, there wasn’t any big adjustment, either. The idea was simply to keep following a game plan they thought would work for them, if they could just play a little more disciplined and in their gaps. Once that happened, after a little acclimation to seeing Lamar & Co. at game speed, it really was curtains for the Baltimore offense, and another win for the ages in Buffalo.
“It was probably the second, third drive that we felt like we were going to be able to handle it, we just had to keep making plays,” Johnson said. “And the biggest thing was we wanted to get the ball. We had to win the turnover margin. Our offense did a great job. Did our offense have a turnover? I don’t think they had a turnover. So they did a great job taking care of the football. And thankfully I got that interception and it swung the game.”
As a result, they’re going to the AFC title game. It’s been 27 years since the Bills made it that far.
“It’s just a blessing,” Johnson said. “Being on this team, such a good team, such a great quarterback, it’s a blessing. Just taking advantage of it. We can’t have a great team like this and not make it to the places we’re trying to make it to. So really just taking advantage of this opportunity, because this doesn’t happen every year. We’ve got to make it count right now.”
You get the idea.
URBAN MEYER BUILDS A STAFF
So we’ve had wall-to-wall coverage of the Urban Meyer hire—and I’d suggest you take a look at my column from Thursday for the rundown on how I see the Jaguars going forward with the ex-Florida and Ohio State coach in charge. But for now, here are a few things to take away from the week that was in North Florida.
• Ryan Stamper is an important person in that organization now. He played linebacker for Meyer at Florida (I can remember when I went down there for a story in 2010, Stamper was the player that UF gave me to talk about Meyer), and followed him to Ohio State to run player development there, eventually ascending to an assistant athletic director title. The Jacksonville native’s title will be director of player assessment, and my expectation would be his fingerprints will be all over the program as someone Meyer really trusts.
• It’ll be interesting to see where the GM position goes. Interim GM Trent Baalke remains in the running to take the job full-time. And my understanding is that ownership really likes Baalke, something that’s obviously a factor since, well, that’s who writes the checks (EVP of football administration and technology Tony Khan, Shad’s son, helped hire Baalke through his friend, Baalke’s ex-co-worker and current 49ers executive Paraag Marathe). Whether or not Meyer tries to steer the hire in another direction, I think, will come down to his research into it, which is ongoing.
• Another important hire for Meyer will be a strength coach—anyone who knows him would say Ohio State’s strength coach, Mickey Marotti, was vital to just about everything Meyer did there. Along those lines, I’d keep an eye on ex-Ohio State linebacker Anthony Schlegel for the role. A two-year starter for the Buckeyes, Schlegel served as an assistant strength coach under Marotti during Meyer’s early years in Columbus.
• The defensive staff is starting to crystallize. Meyer’s first swing for a coordinator was going to be at ex-Falcons coach Dan Quinn, but Quinn was scooped up by the Cowboys before Meyer officially took the job in Jacksonville. Sans Quinn, Meyer’s spoken with Quinn’s ex-assistant and close friend Raheem Morris, and Morris will fly to Jacksonville for a Tuesday night dinner and Wednesday interview with the team. If everything goes well, Morris could be hired on the visit.
• That side of the ball will be loaded with experience. Morris may bring ex-Jets and Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton with him from Atlanta. Ex-Rutgers coach Chris Ash is already aboard and at work, and ex-Texas coach Charlie Strong is coming too. The Jags hope to land Ravens defensive line coach Joe Cullen as well, though they’ll likely have to give him an elevated title to get him aboard.
• On offense, I know Scott Linehan’s name has been floated out there. I’d keep an eye on ex-Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, too. And the idea of Colorado State coach Steve Adazzio coming on as offensive line coach has been discussed. Things have been rocky at CSU for Addazio, but I’m not sure if he’d leave. Adazzio was Meyer’s line coach, assistant head coach, and, eventually, offensive coordinator at Florida.
Now, if you double back over those names, you see a lot of former head coaches who have either deep background with Meyer or a wealth of NFL knowhow. And I think that makeup, and the right GM, are important with an absolutely critical offseason—given all the cap space and picks—ahead for the franchise.
I do know one thing. The Jags have been fairly irrelevant for a while. They aren’t anymore.
I’m not ruling anything out on the Deshaun Watson front. Remember, new Texans GM Nick Caserio saw his college teammate—Josh McDaniels—go through a situation like this when he got his shot at a top job, and we know how the Jay Cutler circumstance in Denver played out for everyone involved. The truth is that no one really came out of that a winner (McDaniels probably would’ve been better off sticking with Cutler, and Cutler would’ve been better off in Denver), and I imagine that’s something Caserio would look at and consider. We haven’t gotten much of a tell yet on where this is going, but one could be coming. Where the Texans go with their head coach hire may well foreshadow what comes next. I had a friend of Caserio’s mention this to me this week: Bringing in Eric Bieniemy for an interview, with all the water under the bridge, actually carries some risk for the team. If Houston talks to him, and goes in another direction, Watson could see that as a thinly-veiled attempt to placate him. Bottom line, things are in a very fragile place now. And how Watson feels about the Caserio-run portion of the coaching search will almost certainly impact how Watson looks at the team. All I know is players like Watson don’t grow on trees. And sure, having a high pick to take his replacement, or someone else’s young quarterback, might sound O.K. on paper. But it would be a significant step back for a franchise that’s lacked stability at quarterback, save for a few really good years from Matt Schaub (and Schaub’s obviously no Watson), since its inception.
Panthers owner David Tepper was all parts hedge-fund manager in his GM search. And here’s how to explain it: Tepper made clear to candidates, and those who were part of his search committee, that he wanted the GM hire to be a value add. In other words, after interviewing internal candidates, and having a year working with Matt Rhule, redundancy of skill set to people already in the building would be a strike against anyone. That’s why, through the process, the team took a good hard look in places some weren’t, with cap/analytics candidates coming through (Cleveland’s Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kansas City’s Brandt Tilis interviewed, and Baltimore’s Nick Matteo turned down a shot to) with the normal scouting types. So what does new GM Scott Fitterer add? One, he was on the ground floor in Seattle to see Pete Carroll’s college-to-the-NFL transition. Two, he worked in Carroll’s kingdom, with a coach who had a level power in personnel decisions (for what it’s worth, Carroll’s and Rhule’s styles have similarities, too). Three, he has a vast level of experience, spanning college and pro scouting, cap management and trades. And four, Fitterer got along easily with those in the room—which is why the process moved so fast. In fact, one story from that time really encapsulates it. Fitterer had asked Rhule about developing and playing young players (a staple in early-Carroll Seattle). Rhule responded with example after example from last year of rookies and other young guys growing into big roles fast, and he then explained how important it was to him to maintain a “start-up mentality.” Tepper then jabbed at Rhule, saying the coach had stolen that phrasing from him. At which point Fitterer jumped in and deadpanned to Tepper, “And you stole it from Jeff Bezos.” That brought the room down—and showed everyone the potential for chemistry there. And the best part is that the Panthers knew that was there quickly. Fitterer wasn’t in the first wave of interviews. Last weekend, after meeting with those internal candidates, Carolina decided to reset, and a request went in on Fitterer Sunday afternoon. Monday, he had his Zoom interview. Tuesday, he flew to Charlotte. Wednesday, he had his second interview. Thursday, he got the job. Which is a pretty good indication of how quickly an impression was made.
The Jets really did want a wide-open process. And as such, owner Christopher Johnson, president Hymie Elhai and GM Joe Douglas did their best coming out of a season-ending loss in Foxboro to wipe the slate clean completely—and look under every rock (offense, defense, special teams and college) while really starting anew on Monday, Jan. 4. That meant making calls on a lengthy list of candidates, and the feedback on 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was remarkably simple. It was, You just gotta talk to him. And it didn’t take long for the ultra-energetic Saleh to make his presence felt, even if it was virtual. But that much the Jets expected. All you need is a TV to know how Saleh can bring it. But what Johnson, Douglas and Elhai were struck by was how poised and thoughtful Saleh was, even with all that energy, in detailing his plan. And that showed up with a technical mishap on their Zoom interview. Saleh’s internet was spotty early on, then dropped out altogether. He and his wife have six kids, and when Saleh got back on he joked that all the virtual learning happening in his house was sapping the internet away from him—then easily went back into explaining how he’d help to get the Jets off the ground. (Part of that plan, by the way, laid out a roadmap for offensive stability past expected OC Mike LaFleur, should LaFleur get plucked away.) It was a small moment, but another sign to the Jets’ brass that there was a lot more to Saleh than the intensity they’d seen on Fox on Sundays the last couple years. They felt strongly enough coming out of the first interview (and they liked Arthur Smith too), that it was tough to let Saleh leave Jersey after the second interview to go talk to the Eagles in Florida, and then the Chargers in California. But they went through with it and wound up getting their man soon thereafter. And the cool thing here, to me, is because of the way the Jets set up the process, Saleh really did have to win the job, which obviously now he has.
The Falcons took advantage of the 10-week head start they had. Which is why Arthur Smith, the Titans offensive coordinator, was connected to Atlanta in the rumor mill before the interview process even got started. Getting there meant, for the team’s decision-makers, a lot of time on the phone, and that time spent crystallized exactly what kind of candidate they’d be looking at in Smith. Ex-Titans GM Ruston Webster was with Smith for five years in Tennessee, seeing him go from defensive QC to offensive QC to an offensive line assistant to assistant tight ends coach, so that gave Atlanta a good starting point of reference. And what Webster told them matched feedback from Titans coach Mike Vrabel and Vrabel’s predecessor Mike Mularkey, and, as one person involved explained, it was easy to see recommendations coming were founded more in respect than about those guys liking Smith, which really validated his stock exploding this year. And Smith, due to all that interest, really packed his interviews in. He sat with the Chargers eight days ago, just hours after Tennessee was eliminated by Baltimore, then got up the next morning and, first thing, interviewed with the Falcons, coming off to the Atlanta folks as fresh and on his game. The football stuff, of course, was never hard to see. Both Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry saw a gigantic uptick in a production in Smith’s two years as coordinator, and both are much richer (both literally and figuratively) as a result of having worked with Smith. And when the whole package that the Falcons had dug into (an offensive coach with an Andy Reid-type of demeanor) matched the person, this one became academic, at which point it came down to Atlanta’s ability to land Smith before someone else tried to.
The Lions’ hire of Brad Holmes is right along the lines of what they were looking for. We told you a couple weeks ago that Detroit would, first and foremost, be looking for a scouting type to be its new general manager, and would set things up to support that person. That’s where they arrived this week in landing Rams college scouting director Brad Holmes for the job. And in landing Holmes, the Lions really looked at GM Les Snead’s department in L.A., and said, give us that. Detroit liked hearing from Holmes about how the Rams do things differently, mixing analytics and an intellectual way of looking at players with traditional scouting, while seeing that he’d change some things too. In fact, one big moment in the interview came when Holmes was asked by the Detroit brass to go through each of the four GMs and five head coaches he’d worked with, and identify one thing he learned from each of them, and one he didn’t like that he’d do differently than them. One by one, Holmes calmly and logically knocked those out, then gave a cutting, honest assessment of the Lions roster, and a bold plan for what he’d do if he landed the job. And when asked about the hole in his resume—that he lived in Atlanta for a team that was in L.A.—Holmes joked that he may have actually been bordering on California residency, with all the time he was out West during the year to pitch in during vital junctures in the calendar. Add that to Holmes’s involvement in building a playoff roster without a first-round pick the last four years, and the Lions felt pretty good coming out of the first round of interviews about how Holmes would fit in. And how he’ll fit in actually meshes really well with what Holmes is accustomed to. In order to get the GM job closer to a true scouting job, the Lions are putting VP Mike Disner in charge of much of the football-operations end of things, which means Holmes won’t have to worry about managing areas like travel, nutrition, training and equipment. And Disner, Holmes and the new coach (presumably, Saints assistant Dan Campbell) will all report to Lions president Rod Wood. That’ll make Disner’s job description mirror Rams VP Tony Pastoors’s job description, and Holmes’s mirror Snead’s, with Wood in the role of Rams COO Kevin Demoff.
The Broncos’ ability to land George Paton should tell you John Elway’s being forthright as far as his plans to walk away. We’ve said this a few times now: Really, for Elway, this was about getting ahead of what may have been inevitable a year from now. The Denver legend is entering the last year of his deal. If the Broncos had followed the initial plan to stick with the group they have running the football side now, and waited for Brittany Bowlen to become controlling owner (the trustees hope that happens in the next year), Elway and coach Vic Fangio would’ve been under evaluation through 2021, and a potentially awkward situation could arise at the end of next year with the most iconic figure (by far) in franchise history at the center of it. Elway, in doing this, defused all of that. He gave himself a graceful exit. And he potentially added a new layer to his legacy—I’m told he liked the idea of identifying his replacement. Now, obviously, the concern of all the candidates involved here was that it may not be a real GM job, and that Elway would hover over the new hire. Conversely, I was told that outside of looking at the logical candidates that had Denver roots (Chicago’s Champ Kelly, San Francisco’s Adam Peters, Tampa’s John Spytek, New England’s Dave Ziegler), Elway wanted to take a good swing for the fences, which signaled to me that he wasn’t looking for someone to be his puppet. That swing was Paton, and that Elway connected on it tells me he is, truly, in the process of walking away. Otherwise, I can’t see why Paton, a hot commodity for a while now for GM jobs, would’ve taken it. I know he got assurances this would be a true GM job. His actions very strongly say that he believed the Broncos when they told him that.
This sucks for Eric Bieniemy. It really does. I’m told he’s gone the extra mile this year to answer all questions in his interviews—and has been very upfront on stuff in his background that’s been problematic for teams. And it’s too bad his shot hasn’t come as quickly as shots did for his predecessors in Kansas City, Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy. But it’s not like this is unprecedented. Mike Zimmer waited forever for his shot. So did Tony Dungy. And Saints OC Pete Carmichael is a good example of a coach who hasn’t gotten a chance with a lot of the same marks on his resume that Bieniemy has. Carmichael coached a future Hall of Fame quarterback through a mountain of statistical production and personal growth. He also works alongside a legendary play-calling coach. Bieniemy’s a really good guy, in my experience around him. He’s well-liked in the building in K.C. I hope his time comes. It seems to me like the match for him hasn’t come along like it did for those other guys. And I’m really not sure there’s a ton more to it than that. The good news is that being with Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes should have a way of protecting his stock, so he won’t suddenly fall off the radar in a year or two.
We’ve got more coaching/GM nuggets. Here are 11 …
1) Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley had done really well in his interviews, and I had written in this space that, if he didn’t land the Chargers, Texans or Eagles jobs, he’d be set up well for 2022, in the way that Robert Saleh was going into this hiring cycle or Brian Flores was going into 2019, with the point being that word gets around. But that doesn’t apply to Staley anymore, since he landed the Chargers job. So if you want a replacement for him in this category, Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett is another name to follow, along those lines, after a very solid Falcons interview.
2) Staley’s candidacy for those jobs was also monitored closely in San Francisco. Staley considered 49ers run-game coordinator Mike McDaniel for his list as OC, and my sense is that it’s going to lead to McDaniel getting the offensive coordinator title with the Niners instead. McDaniel’s the one assistant who Kyle Shanahan has brought with him to all his stops, which says all you need to know.
3) An interesting name to watch: Colts secondary coach Jonathan Gannon. He could wind up in Atlanta in a co-defensive coordinator situation (with Dean Pees), or with Josh McDaniels, should McDaniels land the Philly job. But most likely now, I think, is that he will wind up in L.A. as Staley’s defensive coordinator. Gannon and Staley were actually lined up last year to be co-coordinators for McDaniels, if McDaniels wound up in Cleveland.
4) Staley could keep Shane Steichen as OC, with the ship likely sailed on McDaniel. Steichen is under contract with the Chargers through 2021, and wasn’t fired with Lynn earlier this month. One interesting piece of feedback I got on Staley: He’s the rare defensive coach who sees the game through a quarterback’s eyes because, well, he was one at the Univ. of Dayton (Marvin Lewis had that sort of background too). So it wouldn’t be a shocker if Staley was a little more involved on offense than some might expect.
5) Just as Holmes filled the Lions’ desire for a scout as GM, Dan Campbell checks the “leader of men” box Detroit brought into its coaching search. Among those who took up for Campbell with the Lions: Saints coach Sean Payton, Bengals coach Zac Taylor, NFL exec Dawn Aponte and a lot of guys on the Saints roster. Campbell also had the in-house support of a couple people on the scouting side who were in Detroit when Campbell was there as a player.
6) I think Leslie Frazier has a real shot in Houston, and there’s an interesting offensive coordinator name attached to his candidacy: Colts quarterbacks coach Marcus Brady. Brady’s very well-regarded in Indy and has an interesting resume, with much of his professional career, both as a player and coach, spent in Canada.
7) I’m not sure that the Panthers are done adding personnel folks, though it’s possible they’ll wait until after the draft. Having an assistant GM is one thing that’s been discussed, as part of Tepper’s effort to modernize the building.
8) While we’re on the Panthers, Titans director of player personnel Monti Ossenfort did very well with the Carolina people, in reaching the final stages of their interview process. Ossenfort, as we’ve mentioned before, could eventually wind up with his old friend Joe Judge in New York. Between that and VP of player personnel Ryan Cowden being a strong GM candidate in Washington, it sure looks like Tennessee GM Jon Robinson’s got a nice little personnel tree growing—and could have some guys to replace soon.
9) Iowa State coach Matt Campbell drew interest from more than half of the seven teams with openings during this hiring cycle, before recommitting to stay in Ames. My sense is he does have a curiosity on coaching in the NFL. So keep that name in mind going forward.
10) The lack of interest in Ravens’ lieutenants in mind-boggling to me. Coordinators Wink Martindale and Greg Roman, and director of player personnel Joe Hortiz—the No. 2s to John Harbaugh and Eric DeCosta—wound up with a grand total of zero HC/GM requests. Wouldn’t you at least want to info-gather from those guys?
11) One guy in Baltimore who did get requests was Matteo (director of football research Scott Cohen and receivers coach David Culley got single requests too, from the Texans), and he’ll be one to keep an eye on. Tepper had him in on the recommendation of the NFL Management Council, on which Matteo served before joining the Ravens two years ago.
The league has shown some rationality in GM and coach search season. I’ll give you the story of Chiefs assistant director of player personnel Ryan Poles. During Kansas City’s bye week, the Panthers put in to interview him. And he couldn’t interview in-person, thanks to COVID-19 protocols that dictate guys who work out of their team facilities, on teams that are in the playoffs, can’t interview until after their team is eliminated. So Poles pleaded his case. He told the league he’d had COVID-19 over a month ago. He tested positive for the antibodies. And he’d built a long string of negative tests since testing positive. The NFL had its doctors go to work on his case and, eventually, ended up clearing him to travel to Charlotte for the interview. Poles didn’t get the job. But for a 35-year-old, getting the experience was very, very valuable. And giving him that chance, to me, reflected the NFL being willing to take a common-sense approach in what’s really a once-in-a-lifetime circumstance for everyone. Good for the league for doing that.
I’m gonna miss the combine. In case you missed it, on Friday we detailed what’ll likely happen to the different elements of the combine, with the idea of holding the even en masse, on time and in Indy basically dead. It really is a great event for all of us. And I know through the regionalized medical checks, Zoom interviews and formalized pro days, there’ll likely come ideas for the league that stick. But I’m really rooting for the combine to come back, held as it normally is in 2022. It’s the closest thing we have in the football world to what baseball’s Winter Meetings are. It’s so much more than just the workouts. It’s where free agency starts (maybe not legally), trade talks get underway and, really, every NFL offseason begins in earnest. I totally get why we can’t do it this year. I hope no one gets ideas about making some of this change permanent.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
1) Smart move by Bill O’Brien, taking the Alabama OC job. As Steve Sarkisian showed, it can lead to a head coaching job with a college blueblood. As Brian Daboll showed, it can create a new path for a coach with eyes on being an NFL head coach. So O’Brien—who I still believe is a really good head coach—is creating multiple paths for himself here. And in a place where there’s a high probability of success.
2) This weekend, everyone got to see J.K. Dobbins and Cam Akers shine on a big stage. Clyde Edwards-Helaire will have another shot next weekend and, potentially, in the Super Bowl. Jonathan Taylor and Antonio Gibson were also impact players for playoff teams, and James Robinson and D’Andre Swift flashed a lot of potential for non-playoff teams. And you’ve got Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, Trey Sermon and Chuba Hubbard coming this year. This is why running backs don’t get paid. It’s not that there aren’t great ones. It’s that there are too many really good ones. And if you can get one on the cheap with a draft pick, why pay for the position?
3) Having been at the title game live, I’ll say this: DeVonta Smith is incredible. The body control, hands and feet … the Alabama star deserves every ounce of the Heisman he won a couple weeks ago. But at about 170-or-so pounds, it’s a little hard to find an NFL comp for him, which is why I’m not sure he’s a lock to go in the top 10 (he wouldn’t last long after that, but smaller receivers typically don’t go that high.) So I asked around and one NFC exec gave me a pretty decent NFL parallel for Smith: Emmanuel Sanders. I like that one.
4) I can remember a few years back hearing that Nick Saban harbored some level of regret over leaving LSU because he’d have had a shot at becoming the Tigers’ Bear Bryant—something that would be impossible at Alabama because, well, they already have one of those there. So the simple fact that Saban has matched Bryant’s six national titles as Tide coach, and passed Bryant for titles overall (seven to six) is bananas. I don’t know that anyone can ever be what Bryant was at that school. But Saban’s making everyone reckon with the idea.
5) So how will the opt-outs be affected by not playing this fall? Probably not much. I’d be pretty surprised if Oregon’s Penei Sewell, Penn State’s Micah Parsons or LSU’s Ja'Marr Chase fall out of the Top 10, and Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater and Miami’s Greg Rousseau could sneak into that territory too. Combined 2020 season snaps from those five: Zero.
6) A PSA: Monday’s the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft. But that’s only for guys who came into the season as juniors or redshirt seniors eligibility-wise. Guys with senior standing will be automatically entered into the draft pool, and those guys then have until March 1 to pull their names out if they plan to use the NCAA’s one-time eligibility mulligan (for the pandemic season).
BEST ON THE NFL INTERNET
Seeing this really got me down. Brees was a year ahead of me in school in the Big Ten. And I don’t know if it’s because he’s my contemporary, but it really sucked seeing him go out like that.
And this was pretty cool. Brady’s last words on the way out were telling the Brees boys: “Be nice to your sister.”
Yes it was. Also, Tomlinson’s an all-time great and has been retired for almost a decade, and I can remember watching that draft from my frat house. The big news: The Chargers dealing out of taking Mike Vick, and getting picks that wound up becoming Tomlinson, Tay Cody and Reche Caldwell, as well as veteran kick returner Tim Dwight, out of the deal.
Am I the only who wondered what all that talent would’ve looked like with Jameis Winston as triggerman? Probably.
Bucs’ GM pulling no punches!
Yup, no question.
Didn’t know Coach Winters from The Program was a Browns fan! (But he’s right, in this case).
Everyone has to be