MMQB: How Tom Brady Lifted the Bucs and the Chiefs Returned to Meet Them in Super Bowl LV

How a familiar face transformed an organization we haven't seen on this stage in a while and how last year's champs are scary on both sides of the ball. Super Bowl LV is set, and we've got early themes. Plus, Brandon Staley, Robert Saleh and Dan Campbell discuss their new jobs (and that press conference), Philip Rivers's legacy and much more from Championship Sunday.
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The Buccaneers’ idea to sign Tom Brady all along was about a whole lot more than just putting a quarterback on the team. GM Jason Licht needed all of five words to explain that to me four days after No. 12 put pen to paper and committed to moving more than a thousand miles south.

“The standard has just risen,” he said.

The hope, Licht continued, was that Brady would bring something, and leave that something behind even after he was done playing. That the bar in Tampa would be raised, and Brady’s ways would rub off on his new teammates. That all the talent the Bucs had would be taken to another level because Brady’s way—a relentless, unbending drive to win every little part of every day—would become their way.

We saw that Sunday at Lambeau Field.

In the first half, it was Brady turning the improbable into a stake in the Packers’ hearts, converting a fourth down that most teams wouldn’t have gone for, then throwing a 39-yard touchdown pass to Scotty Miller with one second showing on the clock. In the second half, it was an overlooked defense playing championship ball as Brady hit a rough patch and threw three picks, setting up No. 12 to close the game out in the final three minutes.

This, of course, didn’t happen overnight for a franchise that hadn’t been to the playoffs in 13 years and hadn’t won a postseason game since Super Bowl XXXVII (that was 18 Januarys ago). It took time spent on the Berkeley Prep high school field in the spring, and on the training camp field in July and August, and then a whole season leading up to their 19th game. And, really, Bucs 31, Packers 26 was proof, for the third week in a row, that it’s working.

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“He expects greatness every day,” Licht texted, this time in flight on the team’s ride back home to Florida from Wisconsin. “No one panics with him here. We expect to win. It’s unreal.”

So maybe the rest of us shouldn’t be surprised, either. We’ve had 20 years to get used to it.

See, the inevitability of Brady mounting a comeback (like he did against the Seahawks and Falcons in Super Bowls XLIX and LI) or a game-winning drive (like he did against the Rams in Super Bowl LIII) in a big spot really hasn’t gone away. It just, over the last year, changed colors. And it’s clear that the new NFC champs, 10 months into this unexpected marriage, are well aware of what 12’s bringing to the rest of the guys in pewter.

“Playing with Tom is amazing, man,” Shaq Barrett said from the locker room after a three-sack afternoon. “You can just count on him. Count on him in any situation. He’s been in everything. He’s so confident and comfortable out there. Throwing the ball on third down, Tom Brady’s going to make the right decision. You know he’s going to make the play. And that’s what you continue to see out of him year after year. And I’m happy to have him on our team.

“And he’s leading us to the Super Bowl.”

***

Championship Sunday is in the books, and Super Bowl LV is set—the Chiefs and the Buccaneers will square off in 13 days, with the Bucs set to become the first true home team in Super Bowl history. We’re going to preview that one, and we’ve got plenty more for you, too, in this week’s MMQB column …

• A look at Brandon Staley’s incredible ascent.

• Why Robert Saleh picked the Jets.

• How Dan Campbell can laugh at his presser, too.

• Where Philip Rivers’s legacy is.

But we’re starting with the Bucs, then the Chiefs, and from there we’ll give you a quick scouting report to get you ready for what’s coming on Feb. 7.

***

This, to be clear, wasn’t Brady’s best day. His numbers were just O.K. His second-half line was actually kind of dreadful—7 for 14 for 78 yards, a touchdown and three picks.

But his impact, in how the Bucs played and drilled down in crunch time, was undeniable.

And it took me back, again, to another checkpoint in Brady’s indoctrination to the Tampa Bay organization, and Tampa Bay's players’ indoctrination to Brady. I was at Buccaneers training camp on Aug. 24 and was told the day before that the new quarterback had kept his teammates behind after coaches left a meeting. He wasn’t pleased with how a practice had gone, and it needed to be addressed. It wasn’t a reading of the Riot Act, but it was firm.

“He just said, Hey, there’s too much talent in here for this,” Bruce Arians explained to me when I asked him about it then. “We didn’t have a great practice. It was probably the worst practice we’ve had. And it was still a really good practice, I thought. We just dropped some balls. And it was just reinforcement. Hey, there’s too much talent in here. We’ve gotta pick it up, we don’t have that much time left.”

Really, this was the message that was coming through: Make my habits yours, and hold yourself to a higher standard, because you’re capable of more.

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The Bucs showed what Brady saw in them on Sunday. It showed early on offense, with the quarterback proving a 43-year-old surgeon on third down—he completed his first six third-down throws (four on third-and-long) for 141 yards and a touchdown. After the Packers finally got a couple of third-down incompletions out of him, Brady went ahead and converted a fourth-and-four, throwing a flat route to Leonard Fournette, which set the stage for the long Miller touchdown that made it 21–10 at the break.

After that, an uneven Brady meant the defense would have to step forward, and the guys on that side of the ball knew it. No. 12, of course, didn’t make Devin White, Lavonte David, Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh or Barrett the players they are—it’d be ridiculous to assert that idea. But he did give those guys a certain belief that, because they’d done the work, good things would happen for them.

And those guys needed it after Aaron Rodgers marched the Packers 75 yards on eight plays, then 68 yards on 13 plays on consecutive drives to cut a 28–10 deficit down to 28–23.

“It was just us being not exactly where we needed to be at,” Barrett said. “It was not thinking football. We were playing it, but we weren’t thinking it. And you could see the results from the couple drives they had.”

Which is actually where the difference that Brady’s made lives in all the Bucs, regardless of whether he’s throwing a guy the ball or watching him play defense from the sideline.

“Coming in early, or staying late, or just doing a little extra work, it’s stuff like that,” Barrett said. “We had good attitudes and good locker rooms these last years as well. So it wasn’t too much of that. But just having him and his impact, his leadership and then his winning tradition that he had in New England down here, that [makes] a big difference. So everybody’s just gravitating to him, wanting to do more—be more like Tom Brady. Because we see why he’s Tom Brady.

“I think they said this is his 10th [conference] championship win, or something like that? He’s been there before, he knows what he’s doing. So why not learn from that guy?”

When it mattered most, the Bucs’ defense showed they have. With 2:21 left, the Packers were in first-and-goal from the eight. On first down, a mistimed RPO fell incomplete. On second down, Barrett came screaming upfield and Rodgers climbed the pocket, eventually forced to throw off balance and over the head of Davante Adams. On third down, the pocket broke down, and Rodgers, hurried, passed up what looked like a path to a touchdown run by throwing against his body and into coverage. Safeties Mike Edwards and Anthony Adams—in for injured starters Jordan Whitehead and Antoine Winfield Jr.—converged on the ball, and the intended target, Adams, never had a real shot at it. Which the Bucs thought would lead to a fourth-and-eight try with Rodgers on field.

Instead, Matt LaFleur sent out the field goal team.

When I asked Barrett if he was surprised, he answered, “100%. Me, personally, I thought we were staying out there. Like, if not now, then when?”

But the Packers sent Mason Crosby out to make it 31–26, and Barrett had a feeling that his afternoon might be done—in large part because he knew the offense had a chance to put the game away, and he’s seen what Brady does with those chances.

“I knew the way our offense was playing, they were not getting the ball back,” Barrett said. “I had the utmost faith and confidence in our offense that they would get the first downs, make the plays necessary to close the game out. And that’s what they did.”

It may have taken a questionable pass-interference call and a third-down end-around from Chris Godwin to get there, but Brady & Co. made good on Barrett’s premonition and got into victory formation with two seconds left. And the way the game swung back around—from offense to defense and back to offense—was indicative of a team, and not just a single unit, that’s learned how to win as a group with Brady.

“We most definitely picked the offense up when they needed us to, and they pick us up when we need them to,” Barrett said. “And it was a mindset, like, No matter what happens, we’re not losing this game. We’re going to do whatever’s necessary. He threw the picks and it was, Don’t worry, we’re going to go out there and make a play. It’s nothing to be worrying about. I love being in positions like that. Honestly, if you want to be a great player, you’ve got to be in positions like that. That’s how you make your name.”

Lots of Bucs have made their names the last few weeks and, even if Brady won’t say it himself, it’s in large part because—as Licht said it would, back just after the St. Patrick’s Day signing—the standard rose. Brady expects a lot of himself and his teammates, and now everyone expects more of themselves and each other. Which is how you get the kind of team effort the Bucs did, one first punctuated by Brady’s play, and later supporting it, when Brady hit some bumps.

“I don’t think about what it means for me,” Brady said after the game. “I do think about what it means for everyone else.”

Brady then added that it’s been “just an incredible journey for all of us. [I’m] just proud to be a part of it.”

And an awfully big part of it he is.

***

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THE DEFENDING CHAMPS ARE ALIVE, TOO

This quote, from Chiefs edge rusher Frank Clark’s postgame presser, sums up where Kansas City is as a franchise:

“Nah I ain’t got nothing to say to [Brady],” he said. “I’ll see his ass at the Super Bowl.”

That’s not Kansas City’s scoreboard-breaking offense talking. It’s a suddenly stout defense.

Maybe I’m writing this because, at this point, it’s hard to find much more to say about Patrick Mahomes (29 for 38, 325 yards and three TDs Sunday), Travis Kelce (13 catches, 118 yards, two TDs) and Tyreek Hill (nine catches, 172 yards). Even without Sammy Watkins, or a fully healthy Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Le’Veon Bell, or Mitchell Schwartz at right tackle, the Chiefs look obscene again on that side of the ball.

The difference at the end of last year for the team, and into this year—as the Chiefs went from fun-to-watch contender to champion—has come on the other side of the ball, with a bold reworking of the roster from GM Brett Veach (bringing in names like Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu) and the hire of Steve Spagnuolo.

Again, it’ll be hidden under an avalanche of offensive production and highlights, but it shouldn’t be, because when the Chiefs were down 9–0 against Buffalo, really, they needed stops.

What Clark’s quote reflects is a confident defense capable of getting them.

Over the first 10 minutes of the second quarter, as the Chiefs’ offense rang up 21 points, the defense held the Bills to 17 yards, a single first down and two punts, which effectively turned a 9–0 deficit into a 21–9 lead. From there, a red-zone stop and a pick from Rashad Fenton, who came in hobbled by ankle and foot injuries, helped capped a 38–6 run that turned a promising start into a humbling loss for Buffalo.

Maybe most impressive was the job the Chiefs did on the Bills’ stars. Josh Allen threw the one pick to Fenton but easily could’ve had two more—easy ones thrown by a bewildered QB and dropped by Juan Thornhill and Charvarius Ward. Stefon Diggs was held to a pedestrian six catches and 77 yards, with 34 of those coming on one catch late in the fourth quarter. On the ground, Allen became the Bills’ primary threat, which wasn’t a great place for Buffalo to be.

Add all that to what those defensive players were seeing from their own quarterback, even before the game itself, and this was going to be a tough one for the Bills all along.

“[Pat] was in the locker room and he had that look in his eye like, ‘Don’t forget about me,’” Tyrann Mathieu told reporters postgame. “Just watching him work throughout the week, he was the same old Pat, the same teammate, the same leader, moving around, trying to extend plays. On top of that, he’s a gamer. It doesn’t necessarily matter the situation or the circumstances. He tends to rise above all that.”

But you sort of knew he and his offense would. When the defense does, too?

The Chiefs are capable of being pretty scary.

***

SI Daily Cover

MORE TITLE-GAME THOUGHTS

Five quick-hitters off the conference championship games …

1) LaFleur is going to get shredded for his decision to kick the field goal down 31–23 from the Tampa eight. I at least understand the decision. The Packers had all three of their timeouts. They were on the right side of the two-minute warning. They’d just need one stop and they’d be playing for the win with Aaron Rodgers as triggerman. Now, the problem: Brady was the other team’s quarterback. Being realistic about it, getting that stop was never going to be easy. Arians has shown, with Brady as his QB, a willingness to be aggressive closing teams out in those situations.

2) Rodgers was quick to say the fourth-down decision wasn’t his, and that’s true. But he wasn’t blameless here—his decision not to tuck and run on third-and-goal from the eight may have cost the Packers a chance to tie the game and at the very least kept the Packers out of a more manageable fourth-down try. Instead, Rodgers threw across his body into coverage. (And, no, I’m not buying that the Packers would consider moving on from him in 2021. Maybe 2022, depending on how he plays, and how Jordan Love comes along. But not 2021.)

3) Bucs DC Todd Bowles was the coach of the day for Championship Sunday. The vaunted Packer run game was held to 67 yards. Rodgers was sacked five times. Adams was held in check, and Green Bay’s offense was never able to establish a consistent rhythm.

4) The Bills are going to be fine. That team is loaded with young talent, and guys that are worth paying and building around for a long time to come.

5) If there’s one nit to pick in Allen’s game, it’s the blips he still has in trying to play hero ball. It doesn’t take Bill Walsh to spot it—and it’s on Allen now to find the right side of the fine line between being a monster at extending plays and taking unnecessary risks. The good news is it looks like he’ll have offensive coordinator Brian Daboll around in 2021 to help him work on that.

***

Patrick Mahomes plays in the 2020 AFC Championship

FIRST LOOK AT SUPER BOWL LV

After calling around, here are a half-dozen themes we gathered on Super Bowl LV, 13 days out …

The teams are very different from each other. “Tampa was a much tougher matchup for us because physically they’re just bigger,” said one exec who played both. “Kansas City is much faster and more explosive and dynamic.” Which brings to the table the question of how much the Bucs may take advantage of that edge, because it might behoove them to from a game-management standpoint.

The Bucs will need to slow down the game. “For me, Tampa has to run the ball and control the clock—you must do that against the Chiefs,” said another exec who went against both. “You have [OC Byron] Leftwich, Arians, Brady. They need to run the ball and control the clock and eliminate the big plays. Keep it in front of you and inside. [The Chiefs] live by the big play, and as much as you think they won’t force the ball downfield and hit the home run, it’s always coming. As long as Tampa makes them earn everything, runs the clock and controls the ball, they’ll have a shot.”

The Chiefs’ tackles could be a problem. “The one clear thing to me is the Chiefs’ ability not just on the edges, but with their O-line in general, to stand up to that rush with Barrett, Suh, JPP, pretty much anyone in that front seven,” said an AFC exec who knows both rosters well. “Can they keep the pocket clean consistently with their line? That’ll definitely be a major key.” And this was said to me before Eric Fisher went down with an Achilles injury against the Bills.

The Bucs’ secondary could be an issue too. “The young secondary of Tampa Bay vs. that pass attack, can they play disciplined enough for long enough?” asked an NFC exec. “They’ve had their issues that’d show up here in scramble situations, being able to plaster and stick to your man, rather than playing with dirty eyes and looking for Patrick.”

Edwards-Helaire, Darrel Williams and Bell could be impactful. It’s not so much about being the 1960s Packers out there as it is about staying out of obvious passing situation that allow Bowles to dial up pressure. “You don’t have to run for 150 yards, but you have to make it balanced,” said the NFC exec. “If you’re one-dimensional, you’re giving Bowles something to work with. So go establish the run game to stay out of long yardage.”

Brady should have opportunities, matchup-wise. And that’s even with the acknowledgment that the Chiefs’ defense sparkled against Buffalo. “With Tom’s ability, and K.C. overall, their defensive construction, I’m not that concerned about their corners. Can the secondary stand up to this group, with Antonio Brown, Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, Scotty Miller, whoever you put in there? That’d be a challenging matchup.”

And no, I’m not ready to make a prediction yet. There’s plenty of time for that.

Now, on to the rest of the league.

***

Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley during a scrimmage at SoFi Stadium.

BRANDON STALEY’S RISE

The first thing most people looked at after the Chargers hired Brandon Staley—who isn’t exactly a household name to the casual NFL fan—was his résumé, and rightfully so. By standards of the job the 38-year-old just took, his does look, at least on paper, a little thin. He has four years of NFL experience, including one as a coordinator, and even his 11 years in college football show just one year at a Power 5 school (at Tennessee, as a grad assistant in 2012).

Rest assured, Staley’s worked hard to make up for what he lacks. And as he explains it, it’s not hard to deduce that what happened with the crosstown Rams’ resurgent defense over the last six months was no accident, nor is it so bonkers that it led to this result.

“What’s difficult for people to understand is that, even though I was in college from 2006 to 2016, I had a lot of access to the league,” Staley said over Zoom the other day. “I knew a lot of coaches in the league. I was serving a double education. I kinda looked at it like Good Will Hunting. You were getting the Harvard education for a dollar-fifty in late charges at the public library. I’d been preparing. I knew what the NFL was about. I knew how people were playing. I was aware of a lot of different systems.

“So when I got there, I felt very comfortable.”

I’ll say this after talking to Staley on Friday: It’s easy to see what also got Philly so interested, and why others who’d talked to the new Chargers coach figured he’d land a job.

His path may be unique. But Staley’s got a developed idea of where he wants to take the Chargers from here, born of all that research into the NFL game that started with six days spent at Saints training camp in 2009.

He was there that summer as a guest of QB coach Joe Lombardi, who’d been his OC during his single year as Mercyhurst’s quarterback, after playing his first four college seasons at Dayton. Over that week in New Orleans, Staley worked closely with Lombardi and just-promoted coordinator Pete Carmichael. At the time, Staley was the D-line coach at D-III St. Thomas in Minnesota, a year away from becoming a coordinator (albeit at the junior college level) for the first time.

The experience took him back to his playing days as a quarterback.

“I was with Sean Payton and Drew Brees, Mark Brunell, Joey Harrington, Pete and Joe,” Staley said. “I had this really unique lens to watch that up close and really learn that offense, which has been the most successful offense over the last decade-plus. I was able to see that up close and personal. I was able to see Drew every single day, that intensity, that focus, that discipline, that command.

“I said, Hey, if I want to be somebody as a defensive coach, I’m gonna have to be able to compete with this guy. It’s an experience that I certainly trace back to. Those two guys [Carmichael and Lombardi] in particular meant a lot to me, because my view of defensive football can be explained through how I see the game offensively.”

From there, Staley went back to climbing the ladder, going from St. Thomas to Hutchinson [Kansas] Junior College to Tennessee to John Carroll University to James Madison and back to Carroll. But he never again took his eyes off the NFL—spending his free time on tape the same way Will Hunting did on elaborate math equations. In time, Staley developed an eye for seeing the game globally, a defensive coach by trade seeing the field like a quarterback because that’s what he’d been, and also because of what he saw in New Orleans.

Over time, as that was developed, what Staley brought to the table grew well past what his job title indicated. Yes, he was a defensive coach. No, that wasn’t where his skill set ended. As he kept growing, he started looking at other guys who had backgrounds like his.

“If you take a look at the history of the game, there’s been some pretty special defensive coaches that have had great young quarterbacks—Jimmy Johnson, Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, John Harbaugh, Mike Tomlin,” he said. “I’ve really tried to model a lot of my game after those guys. And what I think a defensive coach can do, what you must do in order to be successful, you must operate at the same speed and tempo of that player.

“The quarterbacks in this league at the highest level, they just operate at such a different level than everybody else. I knew that for a defense to be able to compete with those players, because it starts with them, you have to be able to operate like they do and understand how they operate and why they operate that way.”

That flows right into maybe the biggest question that lingered with the Staley hire, beyond just his relatively light NFL experience: What does this mean for Justin Herbert?

The concern, of course, in hiring a head coach with a defensive pedigree, is that with some success from the quarterback and some wins in the standings, a team might be dealing with a revolving door at the offensive coordinator spot, which could destabilize what Staley wants to build for Herbert. He counters that idea with a vision for what he wants to have offensively (again, he was a quarterback) that will remain in place, regardless of who is holding the play sheet on Sundays.

I asked (since I know there was interest in both Rams OC Kevin O’Connell and 49ers OC Mike McDaniel) whether that meant, just as his defense would have a Vic Fangio look to it, that his offense would be Sean McVay–centric. “That’s a fair, broad way of looking at it, stylistically,” he responded, while adding it would be tailored to the players, too. He pointed to what guys like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady had during their primes.

“What those great players, those great quarterbacks and those coaches have in common, there was system continuity over the course of their entire careers there,” he said. “What happens in today’s football game, you hire a coach and it’s almost like, Oh, you’re subcontracting a side of the ball. Like, Hey, I’m bringing in this system that I don’t really know a lot about. My thing is, I have a belief system of how we want to play, of how our offense should look. I’ll try to have an influential hand in supporting it.

“When good things do happen, you have a succession plan in place, and as the head coach you have command over that side of the ball. So when good things do happen for people, there are people in place and a plan in place to just keep it moving. That was the vision that I had for Justin and the Chargers.”

There is one last thing to address here—and that’s where Staley came from. Yes, he was at John Carroll four years ago. If those words don’t resonate with you, then you haven’t been paying much attention. It’s the alma mater of New England’s Josh McDaniels and Dave Ziegler, Houston’s Nick Caserio, ex–Indy GM Chris Polian, ex–Jags GM Dave Caldwell and Baltimore’s Greg Roman, not to mention Don Shula, London Fletcher and, interestingly enough, Chargers GM Tom Telesco.

So as Staley sees it, having been at JCU is a plus, not a minus. He still references his final year, 2016, as a “really special run”—the Blue Streaks beat both Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater, which would be the D-III football equivalent of beating the Celtics and Lakers in the ’80s. He believes it’s served him well the last four years, since a connection through Carroll coach Tom Arth to Bears assistant Dave Ragone (Arth and Ragone were high school QBs at St. Ignatius in Cleveland together) opened the door for Staley to work with Fangio.

“Coaching at John Carroll is a lot more like coaching in the NFL than any other place I’d ever worked,” he said. “I’d say the way that we operated there, and who we had on our staff, I think there are five guys off that staff who are in the NFL right now. … And it’s what the school represents. What the school represents is character and capacity. You’ve got a lot of good men and women that go to that school that have really high capacity.

“It’s a competitive place, if you know anything about it. It’s just a really unique environment, and, I think from a football standpoint, the standard of excellence going back to Don Shula, London Fletcher, it represents a lot of things that translate to pro football. It’s a really competitive thing. In this league, what sets people apart is character and capacity. And I think there’s a lot of that at Carroll.”

For what it’s worth, Staley and Telesco didn’t really know each other through their Carroll connection, other than brief hellos before games. But because of all of it, Staley had an idea of what he’s getting in his new GM. It’s fair to reason Telesco feels that way about his coach, too.

***

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WHY ROBERT SALEH CHOSE THE JETS

Robert Saleh knew he’d get a bunch of head-coach interviews coming out of the 2020 season and, as all coaches in that spot do, the 49ers’ defensive coordinator spent some time researching each of the teams he’d sit down with. He wound up interviewing with six of the seven teams with openings (the Texans being the exception), and met with three of them (the Jets, Eagles and Chargers) in person.

Most of the background he dug up checked out. But there was one exception.

“A lot of the interviews, you go through it, and you’re like, Huh, that’s exactly what people told me it was gonna be,” Saleh told me late Friday. “When I walked into the Jets [interview], the Zoom call, it was like, Oh, that wasn’t that bad. I was expecting something different. I was expecting something disorganized. Instead, what I got was a very organized interview, a very collaborative interview. It felt like it was done really, really well by them.

“And then I was brought here, and you can take every preconceived notion and you can take all the perception and throw it out the window, of what people think of this place, just because of the way [owner] Christopher Johnson, [GM] Joe Douglas and [president] Hymie Elhai were.”

So much so that when Saleh went to get into his car service ride to head off to Florida for his interview with the Eagles, he texted his wife, Sanaa: Honey, if they call, we’re going to New York. They later called and, in a twist befitting Saleh’s good feeling for the organization, he did more than take the job—he actively chose the Jets.

It’s hard to say whether Saleh would’ve gotten multiple offers if he’d waited for things to play out a little longer. What I know is that the fact that Saleh didn’t feel the need to wait is a serious step forward for the organization.

Saleh explained that he very much liked Johnson’s manner, calling the outgoing controlling owner (Christopher’s brother Woody is coming back from his stint as U.S. ambassador to the U.K.) “a sweetheart of a man.” He liked Elhai’s vision, after seeing 21 years of ups and downs from inside the organization, for establishing a healthier, more collaborative environment. And he loved what Douglas was looking for. “Joe genuinely wants a teammate,” he said. “You could feel that. You can feel that he’s looking for someone to partner with.”

“I really believe in people, and when you talk to those three, and the fact that they allowed me into the circle, there’s no way those three are gonna fail,” Saleh said. “When you have a combination of people like that, you almost have to be unlucky not to succeed. I really think they’re gonna get this organization moving in the right direction, and so that’s why it was so intriguing and why I was so excited when the call came in that we had an offer.”

Now, the Jets have the longest running playoff drought in the NFL and are coming off a 2–14 year. There’s a lot of work to be done, and Saleh’s already digging through it, with Mike LaFleur and Jeff Ulbrich on board as his offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively. Deciding Sam Darnold’s fate, and whether to take BYU’s Zach Wilson or Ohio State’s Justin Fields with the second pick, is near the top of the list—my understanding is no decision’s been made—and that’s just one area of the roster that needs reworking.

But there are good options to consider at quarterback, at least, and resources (two first-round picks, five picks in the first three rounds, cap space) to take care of the rest. And after seeing good GM-coach relationships firsthand in Houston (Rick Smith–Gary Kubiak), Seattle (John Schneider–Pete Carroll), Jacksonville (Caldwell–Gus Bradley) and San Francisco (John Lynch–Kyle Shanahan), Saleh think he’s got a clue of what will and won’t work as he and Douglas try to align their beliefs.

“[In Jacksonville], on defense, we were able to build that thing, and we built it into a pretty darn good unit. But on offense it just didn’t work out the way we wanted it to,” Saleh said. “And for really similar reasons, it didn’t work out in Houston on the defensive side, until Wade Phillips got there, just from a scheme standpoint. And then you get to San Francisco, same thing, coaches, scouts collaborating, John and Kyle, unbelievable relationship and just a great focal point on scheme, and what we felt it would take in regards to players, scouts, messaging, all of it tied together, and we go to a Super Bowl.”

Saleh continued diving into what made San Francisco work: “There’s conviction on both sides of the ball; we’re gonna get good players here. We’re gonna find ways to make the players who are here fit within the schemes that we have and those players are going to play to their absolute best. When you combine all those aspects together, I think that’s what creates special organizations.”

And very clearly, Saleh said, as he and Douglas went through everything, it was obvious they both saw this aspect of the job the same way—and that’s a heck of a starting point.

In fact, as a guy who came into the process with the potential to have multiple options, Saleh got exactly what he was looking for. It just came from the place where he may have least expected it to.

“We get one shot at this,” Saleh said. “You get one shot to make an impact, and you want to do it not where you have full say or anything, but you want to do it where you know you can work with the people that are in it. This is still a people business, and it is people that make things special. Having the ability to match with somebody who genuinely wants to do this together, and it’s not, Here’s the players I picked, go coach them, that was a very, very big focal point for me as I went through this process.

“And Joe and Hymie and Christopher, the language they spoke, it became a no-brainer.”

Which is something even Saleh himself didn’t see coming.

***

dan-campbell-press-conference

ABOUT DAN CAMPBELL’S INTRO ...

Dan Campbell’s introductory press conference turned a lot of heads and, as you might expect, the new Lions coach’s phone blew up in the aftermath.

“I’ve been bombarded,” Campbell said Friday night. “Everything’s been really positive from my friends and family, but they’re gonna say that. They’re friends and family. I’m sure after they got off the phone they said, Man, what a lunatic!

And then Campbell got something a little less polished from an expected place.

“My wife was like, Yeah, you probably could’ve stopped at one kneecap,” he said. “And I’m like, Yeah, you’re probably right. My wife, she’s great. She can be pretty critical of me. She lets me have it. I respect the hell out of her for that. She doesn’t sugarcoat anything. So there was a little bit of Oh boy, what have you done? I’d say, yeah, maybe I took off too many body parts there.”

But in a way, he gave the Lions what they were looking for—energy, excitement and passion. Detroit was looking, first and foremost, for a leader-of-men type, and they’re getting that in Campbell.

In fact, one important reference Campbell got came from Saints GM Mickey Loomis, and it spoke directly to that. Loomis told the Lions that if he ever had to replace Sean Payton, Campbell would be on the short list of internal candidates he’d trust enough to promote to the top job. Loomis, in his time in New Orleans, has made two head-coach hires. One was Payton. The other was Mike Neu, for the Arena League’s VooDoo.

Neu went on to become Payton’s QB coach, then the head coach at Ball State, his alma mater, where this year he won a Mid-American Conference title. Which is to say Loomis has done well with those hires, so his word carried weight.

Of course, Campbell’s a different guy from Payton. He’s not the offensive mastermind that Payton was upon arriving in New Orleans 15 years ago. Then again, he has a ton of experience that Payton didn’t—and much of that came over his 11 years as an NFL player, experience that he thinks sets him up uniquely to turn the Lions’ organization around. Because as he sees it, that has to start with the players.

“I know what it’s like to be in their shoes,” Campbell said. “Everything from offseason training, strength, conditioning, nutrition, the sports science part of it, to playing between the lines, to being in the meeting rooms, to listening to a coach, to the installs, and then certainly to going out on the field, walkthroughs, practice, conditioning, meetings after practice, getting ready for the game, day before the game.

“From pregame warmup to how you play the game to after the game, when you come in. Everything that deals with the games, but everything beyond the game, getting ready for the season itself—I’ve been in their shoes. And I remember thinking what I thought worked well and what I didn’t think worked well. I’ve been blessed to be around a lot of good coaches—a lot of good coaches—and some great coaches, and there’s a lot of lessons that you learn.”

To illustrate that for me, Campbell brought up a little thing, but one that’s significant in today’s climate. He remembers, as a player, grinding through a two-hour meeting and needing to go to the bathroom, then raising his hand, asking and being told something along the lines of, Just sit tight for another 15 minutes. Back then? You just listened. Now? Everyone knows, in Campbell’s words, “There’s a better way to do things.”

“I remember thinking, You know what? This could be done better,” he continued. “And I know as a player, I wish that we had certain things. You’re installing for 20 minutes, man, you’re flowing, and then bam, let’s get up and move around, go check your phone, go to the restroom, whatever you need to do. Now let’s get back in after a three-minute break.”

Campbell, over the last five years, got to see Sean Payton, who was with him under Bill Parcells in Dallas, adapt in those ways and also on the field. “Even game day: We gotta get these guys going. I gotta get Mike Thomas touches. We gotta get AK [Alvin Kamara] his touches. We gotta get Terron Armstead rolling at left tackle. We gotta run at him a little bit, let him go. We gotta get Drew Brees lathered up. Man, he’s conscious of these things all the time. He’s always thinking, How do I make this better for the players?

So that’s the kind of head coach Campbell plans to be—one that, through his staff (fellow ex-players and Parcells guys Aaron Glenn and Anthony Lynn are on board as defensive and offensive coordinators, respectively), is very player-centric. And that’s why it was interesting to me to see one of the guys he was with in Miami, ex–Dolphins WR and current Ohio State receivers coach Brian Hartline, go to bat so strongly for Campbell as the memes and tweets on his presser got rolling.

Hartline, a rising star in coaching, didn’t mince words on his belief in Campbell.

“I think more than ever, players gravitate to those that understand their situation and have been in their shoes,” Hartline told me via text. “When coaches used to ask players to jump, they used to ask how high? Now when they are asked to jump, they ask why—I used to ask why? Credibility is hard to earn and easier to lose. As a former player, you have some credibility built in and a couple less obstacles to overcome but you still have to earn it.

“The path to credibility may be a little easier. If you speak of testimony and not of theory, you have a chance. Plus, he’s a dude. Always has been.”

So this will be interesting. Building out the staff and handling the Matthew Stafford trade will be the first tests for Campbell and his new partner, GM Brad Holmes. More will come. And again, as Campbell sees it, experience will help him there, too—experience specific to the Lions.

After all, Campbell was a player in Detroit from 2006 to ’08. His last experience there was the infamous 0–16 season. But what he saw, underneath the surface of it, were good people (he spoke glowingly of his personal feelings for Matt Millen and Rod Marinelli) who never quite got aligned right. As such, and after seeing how the Loomis-Payton partnership hums, relationship-building with Holmes is a priority among Campbell’s short-term goals.

As for his long-term goals, well, Campbell wasn’t afraid to get fired up again, like he did during his double-kneecap Zoom call with the Detroit media.

“Well, what are we doing?” Campbell said. “Why are we doing all this? If you were sitting in my seat, what would be the ultimate goal for you?”

“To raise the trophy?” I answered.

“Absolutely,” he said. “That’s the final vision of this whole deal. Otherwise, what are we doing? I didn’t just get this job just to get paid and sit here and laugh and have a good time. The ultimate goal, you’re dang right, it’s to raise a trophy in the freaking city of Detroit. That’s the ultimate goal. It’s gonna take a while. It ain’t gonna be easy.

“But man, that’s what we’re shooting for.”

***

philip-rviers-retires-as-we-knew-him

PHILIP RIVERS’S LEGACY

Mike McCoy had promised Philip Rivers he wasn’t constantly going to wheel the quarterback up to address the team. But the then-new Chargers coach had established a routine of having a player talk to the group the day before each of the team’s games, and one Saturday in 2013 he asked Rivers to do it.

Rivers, predictably, delivered. He told a story about his daughter. A few minutes in, he started to get emotional. McCoy looked into the crowd. Everyone was getting emotional.

“That was really the impact he had on everyone every day,” McCoy said Sunday.

Rivers has retired at 39, and to fulfill the second of his stated dreams, following in his dad’s footsteps as a high school football coach (he’s already in place as the new HC at St. Michael Catholic in Fairhope, Ala.) He made eight Pro Bowls and finishes fifth all time in passing yards (63,440), fifth all-time in passing touchdowns (421) and 12th all time in career passer rating (95.2).

McCoy calls him a “first-ballot Hall of Famer, no doubt.” Whether he is or not will be debated over the next five years.

Here’s what we know: Those who were around him felt his presence daily, and that’s because few in that presence loved the game quite as much as he did. I can remember having a conversation with him three summers ago about how he already had drawn up, with the help of his brother, what his high school football scheme would look like. That only underscored a simple fact. He could never get enough of the sport he loved.

“You gotta start with the work ethic,” said Norv Turner, who preceded McCoy as Rivers’s coach in San Diego. “People say this, and it’s a cliché, but he truly was the first guy in and one of last to leave every day. I’d go down to the video room, and he’s looking at plays from five years ago, and asking me why this team was doing that. He was all football, all the time. And that’s really the way he grew up.”

Turner recalled telling his players every year on Thanksgiving, on their way home, to call someone in their life that they really appreciated, who had a big impact on them, either as a player or a person. To extend the tradition, this year Rivers called Turner, and their conversation quickly went from personal stuff into football—and what the Colts were doing. “Our best stuff is still your stuff,” Rivers told Turner.

Just as every conversation would veer back to the game, the importance of every shot he had to play was always obvious to the guys who worked with Rivers—and never more so than before the 2007 AFC title game. Rivers tore his ACL against the Colts in the divisional round, and the Chargers were able to keep it quiet. Rivers pushed to play. He had the knee scoped that Monday, and the course was charted from there.

“He wanted to play,” Turner said. “I was reluctant because he was a young player, with a long career in front of him. The doctors reassured all of us, if he could withstand the pain, soreness and awkwardness and be effective, he wouldn’t do any more damage—they’d have to fix it after anyway. They had him hooked up to a machine that kept his knee moving so it wouldn’t swell, he had the scope Monday, he didn’t practice until Friday. He looked good on Friday, and played good against an undefeated team. Looking back, it’s incredible.”

Rivers and the Chargers lost 21–12 to the Patriots that afternoon in Foxboro, and it stands as the closest he got to the Super Bowl glory his 2004 draft classmates Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger each experienced twice. But that day showed the football-watching public—still skeptical of a very demonstrative quarterback with a bolo tie and thick Alabamian accent—why the people around him thought what they did of him.

All that emotion that spilled over was really just passion, for the game itself and the people he got to play it with.

“He truly loves the game of football—everything about it,” McCoy said. “It’s not just playing on Sunday, it’s the preparation too. What’s special about Philip, what makes him elite, is how he loves the game and does everything possible for his teammates. He loves practice, him and [Eric] Weddle would be out there chirping during practice, and that’s two of the smartest players I’ve ever been around. It was so fun to work with him.

“When you have a player like that, who’s so good, so smart and who’ll work that much harder than everyone, he’s going to want you to give him so many answers. He wants to know what to do in every situation. I remember saying I wanted Philip to complete 70% of his passes. People thought we were crazy. We wanted to give him those answers and have the freedom to check to whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, so he could get there. A week or two in the office with him and I said, Whoa, this is gonna be easy.”

So now, a bunch of high school kids are going to get the benefit of all that knowledge and, more so, get to understand what makes Rivers who he’s been the last two decades.

“I’ll say this: The kids he’s gonna be working with, their parents, they have no idea how fortunate they’re gonna be,” McCoy said. “They’re working with a great person. Not just a coach, a great person. He’s going to teach these kids so many things outside out of football that they get to take with them. That’ll be the luckiest team in the country.”

McCoy and Turner, his head coaches for a decade, should know. And if that’s how Rivers is going to be remembered in the NFL—that the guys around him really loved playing with him this much—that’s not a bad legacy to leave.

***

Matthew Stafford attempting a pass

TEN TAKEAWAYS

The Lions are doing the right thing. I view Detroit's situation with Matthew Stafford as significantly different than where the Texans are with Deshaun Watson (we’ll get to that one below). Stafford approached owner Sheila Ford Hamp and team president Rod Wood right after the season ended and more or less asked for a fresh start. It’s understandable. Matt Patricia was the third head coach fired in his 12 years as a Lion, and he’s played for four offensive coordinators, six quarterbacks coaches, two team presidents and three controlling owners. In that time, he’s made the playoffs three times. So as he saw it, it was time. The Lions asked him to wait for a new GM and coach to be selected. He agreed. The candidates who came through knew a Stafford trade was in play, and Holmes, Campbell and Wood called him this week to tell the quarterback that they’d field offers. Which really does make this a mutual agreement to part ways. I love Stafford as a player. I also understand why the Lions would agree to this. The roster needs work—and it’ll probably take a couple of years to get it where Holmes and Campbell want it. Having an unhappy quarterback beaten down by years of losing as the face of that project really isn’t what anyone is looking for. So dealing Stafford gives the Lions a shot to build from the ground up, with a top-10 pick to go fishing for his replacement and a chance to get a good return while his value is still high. As for a team bringing him in? One former Stafford coach told me Saturday, “He’s very underrated. Toughness, intelligence, arm talent, all of it’s at a very high level. He’s elite. He really is.” He’s also under contract for the next two years at $43 million (a very affordable rate) and doesn’t turn 33 until next month. It sure looks, on the surface, like the Lions should be able to get a first-rounder and something else for him. But depending on what teams like the Texans, Falcons, Rams, Raiders and Niners decide to do, the market might be a little clogged at the position, which could create a bargain for someone.

Indianapolis seems like the natural landing spot for Stafford. The question, then, becomes whether GM Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich would see Stafford as a Band-Aid or more than that. The team went with a Band-Aid last year, in Rivers, after taking a shot with Jacoby Brissett in 2019 (and that was after Jimmy Garoppolo’s name briefly came up in the DeForest Buckner trade talks with San Francisco). Might they want to fix the position once and for all? I think that would be preferable. You could point to the Buckner trade as an example of Ballard being aggressive in the way he’d have to be on Stafford—but Buckner’s 26 and a definite long-term cornerstone. My guess would be that is what Ballard’s looking for. Maybe Stafford is that. Or maybe a big move up in the draft gets him there. Remember, Ballard was part of the vetting of Mahomes in Kansas City and saw the benefit of going all in on a young player at the position and dropping him into a readymade situation. Only he knows if there’s a quarterback in this year’s draft class that he sees like the Chiefs’ folks saw Mahomes in 2017. But if there is one, I’d bet he wouldn’t be scared to move way up the draft board, get a cost-controlled young passer and use the leftover cap space to start paying the guys they’ve been building around (like Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard).

The Eagles’ coaching search may have been disjointed, but there have been some good early signs in staffing. One is the arrival of defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon. The other is the retention of offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland. Both guys had options. One chose to come to Philly, the other chose to stay. Gannon likely could’ve been DC of the Bears or Chargers (he and Staley are very close), or co-DC in Atlanta, and was lined up to be Josh McDaniels’s DC if the Patriots’ OC had landed the Philly job. He picked Philly as a destination and to go with Nick Sirianni. Likewise, Stoutland would have no trouble finding work elsewhere (Alabama had been a rumored destination before the Tide hired Doug Marrone as OL coach) if he wanted to force his way out—and he’ll remain. These are little wins, but show a level of belief in Sirianni. As for Sirianni himself, here’s the scouting report on the ex–Colts offensive coordinator, since many of you probably hadn’t heard of him before a few days ago …

• Emotional, which cuts both ways. Very fiery, but can take losses hard.
• Creative in reaching guys (playing music for players, using movie clips, etc.).
• Very detailed—and took some of that from working with Brian Daboll in K.C.
• Has an extensive film library, which supports his desire for all that detail.
• Grinds his staff hard, assigns them big-picture projects, challenges them in creative ways.

And here’s another plus: He truly won the job. He and his family happened to be vacationing in South Florida when the Eagles put in the request to interview him late Monday night. He drove over to Palm Beach, where Philly was doing its interviews, Tuesday morning. He was back there Wednesday night for a follow-up interview, and Thursday he had the job. One other important note, before we move on: I’m told Indy coach Frank Reich delivered a sparkling recommendation. Obviously, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and GM Howie Roseman know Reich well—the three won a championship together—so what he said did go a long way.

Josh McDaniels deserves another shot. My understanding is the Patriots OC approached the Philly job a little differently than he has previous ones. Simply put, he was ready to take it as it stood, without some of the structural changes he’d talked about with teams in previous years—and to me that shows he knows he’ll have to work on some level of compromise if he’s going to get a second shot at being a head coach. That’s a good thing. But it should be noted that a lot of McDaniels’s ideas of the last few years look pretty good in hindsight. It didn’t work out, but his desire to align with Ballard in the first place was pretty smart, given where the Colts’ roster is now. Also, the staff he had lined up to go with him to Indy looks pretty solid now. Joe Judge is the Giants’ head coach. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus has been in the mix for head-coaching jobs. His offensive coordinator, Jake Peetz, is the new OC at LSU. And his secondary coach, Gannon, has gotten hot, as we noted. And if you look at the people who were potentially going to Cleveland with him, you’ll find similar results. Gannon and Staley were lined up to be co–defensive coordinators. Dave Ziegler—who’s being promoted to replace Caserio in New England—was going to be his GM. Don’t take any of this the wrong way. The Colts did great in identifying Reich and the Browns nailed it with Kevin Stefanski. But if you look at McDaniels and his ideas, a lot of them look … pretty good now. And he interviewed well enough in Philly that he was the favorite coming out of last weekend, before the Eagles reset with a second wave of candidates. These are all things I think teams need to keep in mind in 2022.

I think Leslie Frazier is the favorite for the Texans’ job. And the Bills’ defensive coordinator, as I see it, is exactly what Houston needs—a sort of adult in the room. I also know that Frazier feels good enough about it to the point that he’s assembled the foundation of a coaching staff (I’d heard Marcus Brady was on it, but he comes off the table now, with the Colts having promoted him from QB coach to offensive coordinator). Now, whether the Texans go through with a full second round of interviews (Eric Bieniemy is still in the mix for the job, too) remains to be seen. And maybe how Sunday went will have an effect on that. But if Frazier gets the job, I really think it’s a good example of how an organization backing a candidate can help. Bills co-owner Kim Pegula felt so strongly about Frazier that she planned to bring him with her to the league’s annual meeting last year (before it was canceled) to get him in front of owners so they could see what she did. Similarly, the coaches, scouts and everyone else seem to be rooting for him here. Which says something about who the guy is. We’ll see where it goes, but good on the Bills for going to bat for Frazier—there’s a reason why that place is becoming one where people want to work.

The Texans are sending signals that they’ll try to keep Deshaun Watson. Word is floating around that Watson is resolved to get himself out of Houston, and that the one thing that won’t change—who owns the team—is a big part of the problem. But the Texans very clearly aren’t giving up yet, and their handling of offensive coordinator Tim Kelly is a tell on that. The Lions, Titans and at least two other teams put in requests to speak to Kelly about jobs, and the Texans blocked those teams from talking to him. Watson, it’s been well-established, really liked playing for Kelly down the stretch, and in the midst of a messy situation, in 2020. Will keeping him on the staff of a Frazier or Bieniemy prompt Watson to reverse course? In a word, no. I was told Saturday night that while Watson likes Kelly, the issues he has with the organization run much deeper than who his OC will be. But I do think it’s at least a small sign that Caserio is going to work to get Watson back in the fold—which, in my mind, is exactly what he should be doing.

Networking for minority candidates needs to be a focus for the NFL going into 2022. If there’s one frustration I’ve heard about from Black coaches about how hiring’s gone the last few years, it’s this: Too often they have to hear that an owner was just more comfortable with another candidate, with that candidate usually being a white guy. And so if that is truly a problem, that the owners need to get more comfortable with young Black coaches, then I believe it’s incumbent on the league to do everything it can to create symposiums or social events (when it’s safe to do so) to help those guys get networked with the people who are making these decisions. I mentioned Thursday in the GamePlan that I believe there’s been too much focus on single cases. I think it’s important to get new names into interview room. (I’ll repeat these rising stars: Marcus Brady, Ejiro Evero, Larry Foote, Aaron Glenn, Jerod Mayo, Aubrey Pleasant, DeMeco Ryans and Anthony Pleasant.) Doing well in interviews before people thought they’d get jobs really helped, for example, Brian Flores and Saleh. Both wound up being popular names and, ultimately, becoming head coaches the year after. And it certainly can work that way for someone else, too.

There have been a lot of people upset with the rules this year. And mostly, that displeasure centers on how the process punishes coaches for advancing in the playoffs. It’s not hard to understand it. While, again, there’s a good chance Bieniemy or Frazier will land the Texans job, that would mean just one assistant coach will have been plucked from the four conference finalists, which is a pretty low rate considering how good those four programs are. So how do you fix it? I’ve gotten a common solution from some, which is to push the interview process back past the Super Bowl. That’s problematic for a number of reasons, from losing a month of the offseason to the issues new coaches would have filling their staffs as a result. Another solution that I think makes sense would be to allow teams to announce hires while teams are still in the playoffs—then have those coaches appoint interim head coaches for the gap between the hire and their seasons ending. (I’m not totally sure what the argument against that one would be). Either way, it does feel like this is something that will be discussed in February and March at the league level. We’ll see what sort of change it leads to.

The hire of Charlie Frye is good news for Tua Tagovailoa. Brian Flores brought the former Browns quarterback to Miami as QB coach this week, and Frye has a pretty deep history with Tagovailoa. Frye, most recently Central Michigan’s offensive coordinator, worked closely with Tagovailoa at Elite 11 when Tua was a high schooler. I’m told that Frye and Tagovailoa had a great connection, and the experience was impactful enough on Tagovailoa that he chose Trent Dilfer, the head coach of the Elite 11 program, to do his predraft prep. At the very least, I know Flores doesn’t make mistakes on these sorts of things, and this feels like an olive branch as his staff goes to the Senior Bowl to starting figuring out what to do with the third pick. (Credit to Flores, too, for this sort of outside-the-box hire, rather than recycling someone who might have less of a chance to actually add something.)

While we’re on the topic of coaching staffs, credit to McVay for continuing to work on his group. Both new special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis and defensive coordinator Raheem Morris are rock-solid additions and show a certain ruthlessness and relentlessness in the way McVay makes sure he’s getting the best people he can around him. Add that to the fact that, now five years in, he’s established a very strong definition in what the Rams are in each phase—and has worked to maintain that continuity for the benefit of the players and the personnel department—and you’ll see why McVay’s so much more than just a play-caller and designer for the franchise. And by the way, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see similar aggression in how McVay and GM Les Snead work on the actual roster this offseason.

***

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SIX FROM SATURDAY

I’m headed to the suddenly all-important Senior Bowl on Monday. Here are six guys I’m interested in hearing about from all the scouts and coaches who will be there …

1) Mac Jones, QB, Alabama: Jones’s production speaks for itself, but there’s a perception among scouts that his physical traits are pretty average. The week in Mobile gives him a shot to disprove that and help himself the way Senior Bowl alums like Carson Wentz and Baker Mayfield have in the past.

2) DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama: The Heisman winner’s mere presence is notable, even if a dislocated finger (the stitches have been out only 10 days) will keep him from doing any of the physical work. What he weighs in and measures out at will be a story, since his slight frame is the big knock on him. And he’ll have the chance to get in front of teams, as will fellow injured stars Landon Dickerson (torn ACL) and Trey Sermon (dislocated collarbone). Any little bit can help Smith in what should be a heated race to be first receiver taken.

3) Najee Harris, RB, Alabama: Harris is built like an Adrian Peterson or an Eddie George and was the No. 1 recruit in America the year he graduated high school. The question, really, is whether he’s got elite speed, and the answer could determine whether he'll go in the first round. Looking like a freak show (again) on this stage would help. (And yes, that’s three Bama guys in a row to start my list.)

4) Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida: The Mobile native has a ton of ability. He’s a high school quarterback who was moved around a lot in college and absolutely exploded during his final year in Gainesville. He had 70 catches for 984 yards and 10 touchdowns, 19 carries for 161 yards and another touchdown, and was explosive as a return man. There are some lingering character questions, so interviews will be big for him.

5) Chazz Surratt, LB, North Carolina: He’s a cool story (he started seven games at quarterback as a freshman for the Tar Heels) and an absolute terror as a three-down linebacker. This will be a good shot for Surratt to showcase his ability to play both the pass and the run.

6) Quinn Meinerz, OL, Wisconsin-Whitewater: This take was viewed by the Senior Bowl folks as a little bit of a gamble. But we’ve seen Division III linemen (Ben Bartch and Ali Marpet) use Mobile as a springboard in the past. Maybe Meinerz can, too. (Also, that makes two Whitewater references in this week’s column, if you’re keeping score.)

***

BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

Really, at this point, Mahomes can say whatever he wants.

And yes, we will.

Confession: I’ve been kind of fixated on Reid’s mask for a while, too.

Tony Romo had me today, too, right up until he said he thought the Patriots would be right back on these sorts of stages again next year.

Literally looks like the high school player who’s going Division I, and playing with and against a bunch of guys who won’t play at any level of college.

Yikes.

I thought the Bucs would be good, just not this good. Looks like Dickie V is similarly surprised.

Like I said, bright future in Buffalo.

Gronk dances like me at $2 Long Island night (Wednesdays at Too’s) in 2000.

This is nice …

… and so is this.

That’s the Bucs GM and the head coach he worked for in Arizona, then coaxed over to Tampa.

Ouch.

I was a senior in college.

Pretty good call.

The mayor knows.

Very weird.

The Tweet King retains his crown.

Chase Daniel = great culture guy.

Some of them were actually really good!

***

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

The buildup to the Super Bowl is going to be a lot different this year, for sure. The teams won’t arrive in Tampa until, at the earliest, two days before the game. And the scene around the event will most certainly be toned down.

So if you’re someone who rolls their eyes at the hype, this is the year for you.

If you’ll miss it? Well, look no further. We’ll have plenty here for you at The MMQB.

Read more of SI's Daily Cover stories