Conference Championship Previews, McCown’s Coaching Credentials, Stafford’s Trade Price

A look at the Bills’ defensive approach against Mahomes, the weather factor with Josh Allen, the advantages Rodgers has over Brady, a closer look at Josh McCown as a Texans head-coaching candidate, and Philip Rivers as a surefire Hall of Famer. Plus, musical guest: Neutral Milk Hotel!
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1a. The previous Bills-Chiefs matchup was a very un-Bills-Chiefs matchup: a combined 43 points and 347 passing yards. And a lot of it had to do with the Bills’ defensive strategy on a night when Patrick Mahomes still seemed invincible.

In an effort to prevent Mahomes from getting big plays, Leslie Frazier and Sean McDermott’s essentially lined up with four down linemen and then put seven defenders with their heels on the goal line on every snap. According to USA Today’s Steven Ruiz, the Bills didn’t blitz even once in that game (you’ll have to take his word for it because I’m not watching the film a third time).

The Chiefs responded by running it often and effectively: 44 times for 247 yards (excluding kneeldowns)—5.6 yards per carry—and controlled the clock for 37:45. Because of that, a streaky Josh Allen never found a rhythm as the Bills ran just 50 offensive plays total. Buffalo’s strategy in that game was steeped in logic, but it didn’t work. While they won’t necessarily do the opposite this time around (57 consecutive zero-blitz calls!), they will do something different.

Frazier will blitz more often in this game for a few reasons. First, mathematically, no one can call a negative number blitzes over the course of a game, not even Gus Bradley. Second, while the focus this week was on Patrick Mahomes making it through concussion protocol, he also limped through that third quarter against Cleveland last week due to a toe injury. One of the reasons you don’t blitz Mahomes is because of his escapability—if he buys time, you’re now trying to defend the Chiefs’ weapons with one less defender in coverage. But if Mahomes’s movement is limited, that changes your calculus.

A week ago against the Ravens, Frazier put together a great game plan, but that was also against a Ravens offense that was already limited in the passing game, and was even more limited due to the high winds in Orchard Park. Teams that have had success against Mahomes have heated him up and played good man coverage behind it. The Bills don’t need to completely abandon their defensive identity, but if Mahomes is healthy, Frazier and McDermott will have to role out something creative if they’re going to hold him in check.

AFC, NFC championship game preview

1b. I’m no Jim Cantore, but weather-wise it looks like they’re going to avoid the worst for the AFC title game. Rain is expected to clear out by kickoff, and while it will be cold with some wind, it will be nothing like it was last Saturday night for Bills-Ravens. 

While Josh Allen was originally drafted by the Bills due to his all-weather arm, his few low points this season have been in bad-weather games—that’s in part because a big reason for the Bills’ success is their ability to stress the defense vertically and horizontally, and of course passes that travel further through the air are going to be more affected by the wind. With the weather cooperating, Sunday might provide the high-scoring shootout we were expecting from these teams back in October.

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2. I’m not sure the Bucs would’ve beaten the Packers back in October had Aaron Rodgers not, very uncharacteristically, thrown a pick-six and another interception that was essentially a pick-six (returned to the Green Bay 2) in the game’s first 20 minutes. Similarly, even with Drew Brees playing the worst game of his Saints career, I’m not sure the Bucs would have won in New Orleans last week had Antoine Winfield Jr.’s punchout on Jared Cook not set off a series of Saints mistakes.

I would sum up this NFC title game as such: Aaron Rodgers plays in an offense that provides him with a lot of answers—wonderful designs, great play-calling. But, when plays don’t work, Rodgers still has the same improvisational magic he’s always had, and he can make things work anyway. It can’t be overemphasized how impressive this offense was against the Rams last week, and that was with Rodgers leaving four points on the field with a bad red-zone miss, and Allen Lazard later costing them seven more with an unfortunate downfield drop.

On the other hand, aside from being impossibly good-looking, successful and wealthy and being married to a supermodel who’s even more impossibly good-looking, successful and wealthy than him, it isn’t easy being Tom Brady. This Bucs offense provides few answers for him when facing capable defenses. And, unlike Rodgers, he’s not capable of consistently creating out-of-structure. Tampa’s late-regular season hot streak came over three games against two opponents (Atlanta twice and Detroit) with no semblance of a defense. Offensively, the Bucs looked decent against the Football Team in their playoff opener then shaky last week in New Orleans, a game they don’t win without the +4 turnover differential.

And regardless of what happened in the teams’ last meeting, if you need multiple takeaways against Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field in January—Rodgers has thrown one interception in eight postseason starts at Lambeau, and that was on a third-and-16 in the final minutes of a 17-point loss to the Giants in the first of those eight starts—that is a narrow path to victory.

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3a. One day, many years ago, my dear great grandfather, Gary Pennyworth Goodfellow Gramling IV, spotted a young toddler playing in the front yard of a home in his Annapolis neighborhood.* Upon seeing him, my great grandfather was heard to remark: “I do believe that lad, Billiam Belichick, will be a great professional football head coach one day. How I wish my beloved Roughriders would interview him for such a position immediately!”

And he was right! About the first part. Bill Belichick did one day become a great professional football head coach. Of course, had the Saskatchewan Roughriders brought such an inexperienced and unqualified candidate in to interview for the organization’s most important position, they would have been ridiculed at best, and subject to some form of CFL league office intervention at worst.

This is the part where I deftly transition to the Texans’ Friday night news-dump-y announcement that they “have continued discussions about [their] vacant Head Coach position with Jim Caldwell and Josh McCown.” Indeed, McCown might one day rival Belichick. And, to be fair, if there’s one thing the NFL needs more of, it’s out-of-the-box thinking. This assumption that he must “pay his dues” first? Well, if he’s ready to be a great head coach he should be hired immediately.

That said, let's run down what we know about McCown's coaching credentials. He has, literally, no professional coaching experience. Some, however, have touted his mentoring/player-coach impact at previous stops. Those last four stops were:

• Cleveland, where the Browns wanted him to share a QB room with Johnny Manziel.

• The Jets, who wanted mentoring for young quarterbacks Christian Hackenberg, Bryce Petty and later Sam Darnold.

• One season in Philly, where the Eagles generally succeeded under trying circumstances.

• And then there was last year in Houston. The Texans, who won a playoff game the previous year, went 4-12 and, if we’re being honest (and we’re always being honest), had some issues.

There’s a term I, personally, have coined: The NFL is a results-oriented business. A coach who was a part of those four teams, consecutively, would not get an interview for a head-coaching job. Now, some might argue: It is unfair that McCown would receive blame for what transpired with those teams—he was a player, his job was to play. That's true! But then, if that’s the case, we circle back to the sparseness of his coaching resumé, which is made up entirely of a stint as a high school position coach. It seems that, however you slice it, Josh McCown would benefit from some more experience before being considered a head-coaching candidate.

Ours is a fascinating world of complex wonders—I mean, have you ever thought about how your circulatory system works?!—so despite the above few paragraphs, and in light of all the variables that go into making a coach successful, it is well within the realm of possibility that McCown could, in 2021, become one of the NFL’s most promising young coaches if given the chance. And an added bonus: McCown’s likability is off-the-charts, and likability is in short supply among Texans leadership. All it takes is one team to give him a chance. But 31 teams didn’t consider it. And the one that did? … They don’t appear to be a model franchise right now.

3b. One alternative explanation for this whole rigamarole is, perhaps, the franchise is doing a favor for a guy who was a loyal soldier to an embattled front office last year. Now that McCown has interviewed as a head coach, other teams will begin thinking about him as a legitimate head-coaching candidate sooner rather than later. At the very least, McCown gets some interview reps in.

However, if that's the case, one’s mind does wander to three weeks ago, when Doug Pederson tried to do Nate Sudfeld a solid on the eve of Sudfeld's free agency. And look how it worked out for Sudfeld. (And look how it worked out for Pederson.) I guess my point is, when Pederson tapped Sudfeld on the shoulder that Sunday night, Sudfeld maybe would have been better off going, Naahhhh, I’m good. Sometimes it’s just a situation you’re better off not being associated with.

3c. The other take I've seen tossed out there is that McCown is such a good head-coaching candidate that they should hire him as head coach now rather than waiting. Though you’d think the fact that none of the other 31 teams showed interest in hiring him as a head coach throws a wet blanket on that theory. And, right now, no one else has a head-coaching vacancy, so there are no other competitors.

In light of all that, why not quietly put him on your coaching staff in a role more appropriate for his experience level and then see how it goes? If you go 4-12 again, it’s unlikely anyone is coming to poach him. But if you are in a position where someone is trying to poach him, that means you probably had a pretty good year, and you now have too many good current and potential head coaches on your staff. That’s a problem but not a bad one to have, especially compared to what’s been going on down there the past two years.

3d. However, since the Texans floated their McCown-as-legit-candidate talking points to their surrogates, they’ve painted themselves into a bit of a corner. They can go ahead hire a head coach with no previous professional coaching experience. Or, if they do the logical thing and bring McCown in as an offensive assistant, whomever they offer the job to knows there’s a real chance they’re just keeping the seat warm until McCown is deemed ready. There are only 32 of these jobs in the world, but I’d think that’s a pretty crummy—and, in many ways, insulting—pitch for what many already considered a pretty crummy job.

3e. I don’t run an NFL team. I don’t wish to—seems like that job leaves very little time for watching cartoons. But I think the easiest, most basic task for someone running an NFL team with a head-coaching vacancy this offseason was to schedule head-coaching interviews with Robert Saleh and Eric Bieniemy. To not do so is like being a delivery man and not putting your keys in the truck's ignition before driving your route. Instead you end up having to stomp your feet in an attempt to break through the floor of the truck so you can drive it Fred Flintstone-style.

*—That’s not a true story, but more importantly, I don’t know why I gave my pretend great grandfather so many names. I do, however, have a great backstory for why he was a Saskatchewan Roughriders fan living in Annapolis, but that’s a fictional story for another time.

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4a. Philip Rivers is a Hall of Famer. He’s was approximately the fifth best quarterback in the NFL over the course of a decade. Anyone bringing up the fact that he didn’t make an All-Pro team? Neither has Russell Wilson, and Wilson is surely on pace for Canton without one. (And please do not argue that Wilson’s ring makes the difference—at that point in his career he was along for the ride with the Legion of Boom and Marshawn Lynch, put Rivers on that team and the result is the same.)

4b. As for Rivers’s all-too-brief stop in Indianapolis, a series of tough breaks led to the Colts’ early playoff exit. But we all appreciated the fact that, like predecessor Andrew Luck, a love of all things literary came to the forefront for the Colts QB. Let’s once again enjoy his mid-play tribute to Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, from November:

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5a. I’d like to award official Kudos, the highest honor this column can bestow upon a civilian, to the new Lions brass for doing the right thing and agreeing to part ways with Matthew Stafford, who was forced to endure the Bob Quinn era in Detroit and should (rightfully) want no part of the years-long rebuild that it will take to recover.

Stafford is the most underappreciated quarterback in football and still in the back-end of his prime. He also has a bargain-basement contract for a legitimate franchise QB ($43 million over two years according to the good folks at Spotrac). Jalen Ramsey, Laremy Tunsil and even Jamal Adams drew multiple first-round picks despite offering far less in positional value, and each of them had market-setting contract extensions due. In that context, asking for multiple first-rounders for Stafford is wholly reasonable. If the Lions signal that they’ll take less in order to avoid dragging this out for a player they’ve already tortured with years of organizational incompetence, the market should be quite robust.

Stafford would immediately make the 49ers, Colts, Patriots, Saints or Steelers Super Bowl contenders. That would be good for those teams since winning the Super Bowl is an admirable goal for most NFL teams and would be good for Stafford because it would solidify his legacy as one of the great quarterbacks of this era (and quell the always rowdy QB Winz crowd). He would also make things awfully interesting in Denver, Carolina, Washington or—if they’re ready to win now (as they should be)—Miami.

5b. Indy would be great, and my heart swells at the thought of a Stafford-to-Terry McLaurin connection in Washington, but that’s really a question for my cardiologist. What I’d like to see is Stafford in Denver. Goodness, playing behind that solid offensive line, throwing to Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, complemented by a Vic Fangio defense. And straight-up two 1’s, since this year’s is top-10 (ninth overall), might get it done. They’d still be a half-step behind the Chiefs, but with Stafford that team moves from another double-digit-loss season to potentially on that AFC No. 2 tier with Buffalo and Baltimore.

5c. North Dakota State’s Trey Lance playing for Anthony Lynn in Detroit would immediately be one of football’s best young QB-coordinator fits.

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6. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Neutral Milk Hotel!

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