MMQB: Inside the Trade Negotiations That Gave Matthew Stafford and Sean McVay What They Wanted

The first big offseason domino fell on the eve of an unusual Super Bowl week. Here's how Matthew Stafford landed in L.A. and why he and his new coach are excited about it. Plus, Ron Rivera's important benchmark, the Senior Bowl and getting to know Arthur Smith.
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It was 6:45 p.m. in Los Angeles and 9:45 p.m. in Detroit when the Rams and Lions jumped on a six-way FaceTime call and, true to 2020 form (even if it is 2021), there were technical difficulties. L.A. inner-circlers Kevin Demoff, Les Snead and Tony Pastoors were apart and in their own separate boxes on the screen, while the Detroit brass of Rod Wood, Brad Holmes and Mike Disner were gathered together in a meeting room on their phones.

As you might imagine, the group setting on one end of Saturday night’s megadeal was causing consternation—via an annoying echo created by Lions voices showing up on each other’s phones—on the other end of the call.

“Mute your mic!” said one of the guys in California.

Appropriate, given the teams were about create the first mic-dropping moment of an offseason that’s coming with the promise of quarterbacking chaos.

Minutes later, the deal was done. Matthew Stafford got what he wanted. Sean McVay got what he wanted. And the Lions, in an admittedly rebuilding posture, walked away with a massive haul. First-round picks in 2022 and ‘23. A third-round pick in 2021. Likely starting quarterback for next fall, Jared Goff. A new, fresh start for Holmes and Campbell.

Meanwhile, once the deal was agreed to, some 1,100 miles south of L.A., McVay and Stafford were sitting down for dinner to celebrate a fresh start of their own, near the Chileno Bay Resort in Los Cabos, Mexico, with Stafford’s wife Kelly and McVay’s fiancé Veronika. The coach and his new quarterback happened to be among a number of NFL people in Cabo last week—Saints coach Sean Payton and QB Drew Brees, Rams LT Andrew Whitworth and others were nearby, too, over the last few days.

A wild coincidence, to be sure, in a really wild few days that landed Stafford in his preferred new destination and McVay his preferred new quarterback. For both, there are things that they’re letting go of. Stafford’s saying goodbye to the only professional home he’s known in his 12 years in the NFL. McVay’s bidding farewell to a 26-year-old quarterback, in Goff, he built around during his first four years as a head coach, and grew a great appreciation for.

All the same, under the moon in Mexico, this was a time for everyone to embrace what’s ahead. As you might imagine, for those at the table, there was a lot to look forward to.

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***

If it seems like the early stages of Super Bowl week just got hijacked, well, that’s because that’s exactly what happened. Which is why this isn’t the way I’d normally lead the MMQB column the Sunday heading into Super Bowl week. But here we are, and here’s what you’ll find inside the first February MMQB …

• The top storylines for Super Bowl week (and what would’ve been my lede here if not for Saturday’s trade).

• The completion of Ron Rivera’s journey back from cancer.

• Arthur Smith’s acclimation into Atlanta.

• Highlights from Senior Bowl week.

And a lot more on—what else?—the QB carousel that’s starting to spin. Which, of course, is where we’re going to begin.

***

The Matthew Stafford sweepstakes lasted, in essence, seven days. And while the Lions certainly had the idea that they wanted it to happen quickly in the back of their minds—to get ahead of quarterbacks potentially flooding the market and bending the supply/demand curve, or Deshaun Watson turning Stafford into a consolation prize—there was no telling how quickly things would materialize.

They got their answer quickly, with interest rising fast in a quarterback that the NFL was resoundingly, if implicitly, endorsing as a star with the way the market for his services exploded.

Detroit, really, had been set up for this for a while. Stafford made his desires known to owner Sheila Ford Hamp and president Rod Wood the day after the season ended, and it was on the mind of the Lions brass as the group went through interviewing GM and coaching candidates. In fact, it was one area in which Holmes, who worked under Snead and helped evaluate Goff in 2016, distinguished himself.

In Holmes’s first interview with Detroit, he explained the process of picking Goff, and how the Rams had decided to take him over Carson Wentz five years ago. Back for a second interview, after being apprised of the situation with Stafford, rather that recoil, his excitement reverberated—not to move the team off Stafford, but for how he’d handle such a big-ticket situation, from getting value for the quarterback to finding his replacement.

Little did he know how soon all of it would come into play.

News of Stafford’s availability emerged two Saturdays ago, which is part of why the Lions figured dispatching Disner and Holmes to Mobile for the Senior Bowl—where they could meet with other teams—would be smart. The two came back late in the week with multiple teams willing to throw a first-round pick in the ring.

Word was that Stafford’s preferred destinations were, in order, the Rams, Niners and Colts. And while the Lions were always going to do what was best for the Lions (and Stafford didn’t have a no-trade clause to commandeer the process), they were also cognizant of what their former No. 1 pick wanted.

By the time things started to come to a boiling point, the Lions had an initial offer from the Rams (their 2022 first-rounder, Goff, and an additional pick) that wasn’t going to cut it. But it was that interest from the Rams—and that it became public on Friday night, via a report from ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler—that prompted a frenzy to land Stafford. By Saturday, the market had crystallized.

• Both Washington and Carolina had offered their first-round picks and then some. The Panthers’ first-rounder is eighth (that wound up being the highest pick offered) and their proposal came with a later pick. Washington packaged a third-round pick with the 19th pick.

• The Colts discussed packages of picks and players, but never actually wound up offering their first-rounder, the 21st pick.

• The Niners talked to the Lions in Mobile, but at the time were a little lukewarm and never made an official offer. They’d planned to circle back with Detroit after the weekend, but when things escalated Saturday and the Lions called back, the price had gone beyond what they were willing to offer (in part because they’re fine going forward with Jimmy Garoppolo). My sense is the 12th pick was never going to be offered.

• The Broncos discussed a pick swap with the Lions that would have equated to a late first-round pick, but it wound up becoming clear to Denver that they weren’t playing in the neighborhood where this was going.

• The Patriots and Bears both checked in. New England was willing to package a second-rounder with a player to get Stafford, which, when added to the Patriots’ absence on a list of preferred destinations (something my buddy Tom Curran reported on Sunday) quickly eliminated Bill Belichick & Co. from the chase.

• And finally, late Friday, the Jets checked in. The Lions circled back with New York on Saturday, but talks didn’t go very far.

That gave the Lions more than a quarter of the NFL in on the Stafford Derby—again, indicating just what the NFL thinks of No. 9. It also gave Hamp, Wood and Disner the knowledge that they’d accomplish a goal of theirs by giving Holmes the ammo to do what’s at the heart of what got him into that GM chair, and that’s evaluating college players, maximizing draft picks and, ultimately, building a strong, younger roster as a result.

Anyway, by midday on Saturday, Washington and Carolina had emerged as the favorites to land Stafford, and the Lions came to the realization that a deal could be in the offing. But if they’d guessed at that point where Stafford was going, they’d have probably been wrong.

Former Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford

***

It’s been two weeks since the Rams were eliminated from the NFC playoffs in the divisional round, and the way the season ended left plenty for interpretation. Goff was injured in Week 16, missed the team’s Week 17 game, then came off the bench after John Wolford started in his place in the wild-card round. Snead and McVay declining to commit to Goff as their 2021 starter turned heads, for sure, and provided a clue.

While the Rams were fine going forward with Goff and Wolford as their quarterbacks, just two years after signing Goff to a four-year, $134 million extension, the team was also very open to taking advantage of the expected unprecedented quarterback movement to come.

This, really, is who the Rams have become since returning to L.A. five years ago. For better or worse, there’s been absolutely no fear to flip draft capital for established stars, a trend that actually started right after the team flipped a group of picks to move up in the draft and land Goff himself. And with uncertainty over whether Watson or others would be available later in the winter, the Rams homed in on Stafford.

But talking about it was always going to be a lot easier than pulling it off. The Rams’ deal with Goff was, for the most part, ironclad for the next two years—$43 million of the $54.3 million he’s due is fully guaranteed with no offset language (meaning his signing with another team offered no relief)—making what was necessary in getting Stafford (shedding Goff) complicated. In essence, absent finding a taker for the deal, cutting Goff before paying him the $54.3 million over the next two years would have meant paying out the $43 million.

That forced the Rams to be flexible with the Lions, who had the aforementioned strong offers, but really did like the idea of getting a legitimate starting quarterback for Dan Campbell out of the deal. Making it even tougher was the fact the Rams didn’t have a first-round pick, their 2021 slot gone as the last piece of the Jalen Ramsey trade, which only gave the Lions impetus to ask for more.

Two things worked to buoy the Rams’ interest, and the first was McVay’s personal drive to get the deal done.

Along those lines, McVay was the one who called Rams owner Stan Kroenke on Saturday to sign off on the team going the extra mile to get it done, spurred by some extra tape work he and Snead did. That work only cemented what McVay loved about Stafford already—how quickly he processes, his pocket movement, his play urgency, his ability to throw off platform or in rhythm and his tough, fearless style—which pushed Snead into the mode where he was going into the afternoon with the intention of getting a deal done.

The second thing was that everyone the Rams asked loved and believed in Stafford. And that wound up including McVay himself, who happened to have a casual friendship with him. McVay is buddies with Bills receivers coach Chad Hall, from the days when the two were star high school quarterbacks in the Atlanta area (McVay at Marist, Hall at Wesleyan), and Hall’s sister happens to be … Kelly Hall Stafford.

Before this week, the Stafford-McVay relationship wasn’t a whole lot more than saying hello and maybe hanging out a little before games and at events. But it was enough for the Rams to match what they were hearing on Stafford with McVay’s own experience.

So, really, as afternoon turned to night on Saturday in Detroit, the Lions’ brass stayed in the office, and kept Hamp fully abreast of the situation—a deal most certainly could happen.

***

Jared Goff will reportedly have competition for the starting quarterback job if he remains on the Rams in 2021.

On paper, the return looks a little wild. But the Rams’ perspective on the deal was a little different than most.

First, as they saw it, if the first-round picks wind up being in the 20s (or later), then they’d have given up about what, on a points basis, Carolina was offering with the eighth overall pick. The old Jimmy Johnson draft value chart puts the eighth pick at 1,400 points, making it equal to two 26th overall picks (700 each). And getting a clean break on Goff, and offloading his deal, rather than having to smoke out suitors under duress was a big benefit.

The third-rounder they’re giving up this year, interestingly enough, they’ll essentially get back as a comp pick for the Lions’ hire of Holmes.

And Snead’s department has found a way to dig out guys like Cam Akers, Van Jefferson, Cooper Kupp, John Johnson, Taylor Rapp, Samson Ebukam, Gerald Everett, Jordan Fuller, Darious Williams, and Sebastian Joseph-Day outside the first round over the last few years. Of course, with a top-heavy salary structure, and no first-rounders the next three years, it’s going to be more essential to do it now than ever. But the Rams have shown they can.

With all this in mind, the Rams’ front office moved forward, knowing that, at the very least, it had to beat a current-year top-10 pick to get Stafford. As the group worked on it, a couple things came up. One was that Brees and Aaron Rodgers had only been to one Super Bowl apiece, Russell Wilson hadn’t been back to the NFC title game in five years and Ben Roethlisberger had only gone that far once since his last Super Bowl, 10 years ago. Another was a stat that a member of the brass saw on social media.

Lions QB Matthew Stafford, in 166 starts, has only had a 100-yard rusher 11 times.

Both things reinforced, to everyone in the room, how hard it is to win in the NFL, and how important it is, when you have a team you think is capable of making to the top, to give it every chance—even if that means walking away from a quarterback who’s second in wins to Tom Brady over the last four years (Goff is, with 42).

And in the weird circumstances of 2020, it meant Snead, Demoff, and Pastoors getting the deal done over FaceTime, out of the office and in different spots outside of L.A., with McVay hunting down his new quarterback to celebrate in Mexico in the aftermath.

So Stafford’s a Ram, under contract for the next two years at a relative bargain price of $43 million, and set to turn 33 on Super Bowl Sunday, and the message this sends to all of his soon-to-be-teammates couldn’t be clearer: The brain trust believes the team is ready to win very big and win very big right now.

Maybe it’ll work, and Stafford will be holding a trophy a year from now. Maybe it won’t, and the roster will be in ruins a couple years down the line, cap-strapped and bereft of young talent.

Either way, this mic-dropping moment for the Rams will echo for years to come.


SUPER BOWL STORY LINES

For obvious reasons, we blew up the lead item for this week’s MMQB. It’s not every day the league’s fourth-longest tenured quarterback gets traded (only Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan had been with their teams longer)—but it was one I was excited to write. And I’ll still get to. Our plan is to roll that story gets traded atop Wednesday’s mailbag, and it really poses a simple question.

Are Tom Brady and Bill Belichick keeping score?

I’m asking because, really, it’s been a constant question this fall. And to answer it, I want to a bunch of guys who know both well, and were cornerstones of the first iteration of the Patriots’ dynasty. Some said yes. Others said no.

“My answer to that is I think that the whole question, people questioning who was more responsible, or people choosing to say one or another, it’s being incredibly disrespectful to everyone involved,” said ex-Patriots exec Scott Pioli. “Because they did it together, and it’s not about one or the other. To me, this whole thing, the whole topic, is everything that’s wrong with our country. People think they need to divide to feel better about themselves.

“And why in life does this have to be reduced down to the disrespectful place of one or the other? Everything about that group was about team, unity, the collective greatness. Just like when I was there, people on the outside wanted to pull it apart. And they’re still doing that, just in a different way.”

“Yes, absolutely,” countered ex-Patriots center Dan Koppen. “And I’m not saying that it’s malicious. They’re just both highly, highly competitive people. Regardless of who it’s against, they probably want to win more than anyone else. … And at the end of the day, they’re human. It doesn’t matter if you’re No. 1 or 53 on the roster, anytime you leave for whatever reason—and he wasn’t cut, but in a sense he was, because they could’ve brought him back at that price—there’s going to be that feeling there.

“Anytime there’s a separation or a divorce, they’re human, they’re gonna have human feelings about that. Yes, that gives you motivation. When you’re talking about Tommy, those special types of players, they’re self-motivated, so this is just throwing extra s--- on something burning hotter than anything else. He’s still pissed he was drafted 199. And now he’s got something extra.”

Anyway, it was a really fun story to report out, and that’s just a little taste. Again, that’s coming Wednesday—and it’s one story line we’ll be tracking in Tampa. Here, then, are five more to keep an eye on.

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1) The end of the Year of COVID-19. The NFL made it. The league’s gotten 268 games played, and there’s one left, and that’s a pretty amazing thing, given all that stood in the way. But there’s no question the effects will be felt in Tampa. The Chiefs aren’t arriving in Florida until Saturday. All the media stuff will be virtual. Events will be toned down. The crowd of 22,000 in the seating bowl (there’ll be another 2,700 in the suites) will include 7,500 fully-vaccinated local healthcare workers (s/o to my old fraternity buddy Brad McKay, who’ll be one of them). Also, the seat covers over the front rows will be replaced by LED boards, and the empty seats filled with cardboard cutouts sold to benefit K.C. and Tampa charities. It should be pretty cool for a Super Bowl that’ll rival XXV (during the Gulf War) and XXXVI (post-9/11) in cultural significance in our country.

2) Mahomes vs. Brady. The Greatest Ever against probably the greatest current threat to that throne (admittedly, he has a long, long way to go, but he also has a lot of time to catch up), this’ll be the fifth time the two have locked horns, with the scoreboard even at 2–2 but Mahomes riding a two-game winning streak.

3) The staffs. Last year was about the head coaches, with Andy Reid finally winning it all against a coach, in Kyle Shanahan, clearly representative of where the NFL is going. This year, it’s about the staffs. Reid has one coordinator who’s been held up as the preeminent example of flaws in the NFL’s head-coach hiring practices (Eric Bieniemy) and another with a great history of being Brady’s Kryptonite (Steve Spagnuolo). And Bruce Arians brings as diverse a staff as we’ve ever seen in the NFL, with three Black coordinators and two women coaching.

4) The home team. The Buccaneers playing this game at Raymond James Stadium is about to become this year’s version of Did you know Jerome Bettis is from Detroit? So buckle up for that. And know that there is significance with regard to the game here. With both teams working from their home facilities all week, due to COVID-19 precautions, and the Chiefs coming in and planning to leave like they would for a regular game, this Super Bowl lead-up will take on a different, and more familiar feel for all the coaches and players involved.

5) The risks both teams took. Both Tyreek Hill and Antonio Brown are in this game, and how that’s covered—especially given that coverage will be so much different in general this year—will be interesting.

As always, we’ll have all these stories and more covered at The MMQB.


RON RIVERA'S BIG BENCHMARK

The best story of the NFL week, without question, hit Twitter on Thursday at 4:43 p.m. ET, and came from the account of Courtney Rivera (@NFL2UCLA). Courtney’s dad is Washington coach Ron Rivera, and the news she was coming with was five months and one week, precisely, in the making.

It wasn’t long before the elder Rivera confirmed it on his own account, beaming in a picture attached to the post, and holding a sign that says, simply, We kicked cancer’s ass.

“I was honestly relieved,” Rivera said over the phone, a day later, of the news. “I choked up a little bit. My wife was with me. It was just one of those things. We couldn’t wait to get out and call Courtney. She was part of this, she went through this whole thing with us. So she was waiting and she was really excited as well. Then, we got to share the news, obviously, with the rest of the family and most importantly, for me personally, with my mother.”

Ron’s diagnosis of squamous cell cancer back in August came as a “big shock” to his mom. The months to follow, because Rivera’s brother Mickey died of pancreatic cancer in 2015, really had been reliving a nightmare for Dolores Rivera.

And as you might imagine, her reaction to Ron being cancer free was succinct.

Thank God.

Remarkably, her son has accomplished a lot in the interim, as he fought cancer. Off the field, in his first year in Washington, he was positioned as the front man in an effort to clean up the image of a franchise embroiled in turmoil and beset by controversy. On it, he worked through an unstable situation and with a roster in transition. And he and the freshly-renamed Football Team found a way to win the NFC East (albeit with a 7–9 record).

But juggling his cancer treatment and recovery with that was never going to be easy. He had IV treatments at halftime of games. He battled fatigue. He had to learn to listen to his body and pull back at times in a business that constantly demands pushing forward.

Rivera, in essence, had to figure out how to do his job a different way, and still give everything he could to the players and coaches around him. Which is why, when I asked what advice Rivera would have for someone else in this situation, it was mainly to make sure there are people around you “that are there to help you.”

“You, quite honestly at times, have to be selfish,” Rivera said. “You really do. You have to put your phone away. You have to close your door. You have to take a nap. Rest is really important. That’s really when the body truly starts to heal itself.”

Over time, even if it never could possibly become routine, Rivera learned to manage the issues associated to his cancer. He built that half-hour nap into his days. He prioritized taking his medicine on time. He leaned on defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio—who’d been through a somewhat similar circumstance with John Fox in Denver—when his instinct may have been to backburner pain and fight through.

Maybe more important was that Del Rio was ready to jump in and lead the room on the mornings when Rivera had appointments, and if an appointment would run long, something might go wrong or Rivera would just get stuck in traffic coming back to the facility.

“Jack was ready at a moment’s notice,” Rivera said, “which really helped out a lot.”

Just as big were the advocates around Rivera. Team doctor Tony Casolaro and head athletic trainer Ryan Vermilion were caregivers and also key figures in keeping Rivera COVID-free at a time when he simply couldn’t afford any risk. Owner Dan Snyder and his wife, as cancer survivors, had insight into the battle their coach was fighting, and Snyder actually called the team’s insurance company to ensure Rivera had everything he needed, then got in touch with the Mayo Clinic to run the treatment plan by the experts there.

“They actually said, ‘Hey, that’s the perfect treatment,’” Rivera said.

And all those people were there for Rivera on the tough days, and he had a quite a few. One in particular that stands out came after one of his treatments, when he was under doctor’s orders to go straight to the training room for an IV upon return to the facility.

‘It was the hardest week,” he said. “And I came in, my wife had to go all the way to the back side of the facility and help get me out of the car. Her and our team trainer, literally arm-in-arm, shoulder-to-shoulder, carried me into the training room. And the look on [the players’] faces was like, Oh, s---, Coach is having trouble here. I mean, you can see they’re concerned. There’s genuine concern.”

Of course, that sucked while it happened, but afterward, Rivera said, “That was really kind of a cool thing, in terms of just knowing that these guys were really aware.”

Over time, that feeling was further cemented with unprompted well-wishes before chemo treatments and text messages after them, and players consistently checking in to make sure their boss was O.K. “It was cool how unselfish they were,” he said. And that showed up on the field, with the players taking on the traits of their coach in what they all hope was a foundation-setting season.

Now, Rivera isn’t out of the woods completely. His radiologist told him it’ll take six to 18 months for him to feel completely normal again. The GM search he ran the last couple weeks took a little out of him (and cost him a few naps). His voice is still a little hoarse, because his vocal cords are still swollen. He has fluid draining away from throughout his neck and nasal passages. And he’s been told he has to let the healing happen naturally.

“I’m still recovering,” he said. “But the best part is we got the good news.”

And great news it was.


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GETTING TO KNOW ARTHUR SMITH

I was like a lot of people who’ve been around new Falcons coach Arthur Smith—I heard about the rising young coach well before I knew who his dad was. But for obvious reasons, as he inched closer to reaching the top of his chosen profession, it increasingly became known that he was the son of FedEx founder Fred Smith (I did eventually figure it out).

Now? Well, now, as part of his place in the coaching carousel, it’s actually become a piece of how he’s introduced. And that’s fine with him. He’s proud to be his dad’s son.

But in turning over rocks the last couple weeks, I got an interesting take on all this from a team executive who interviewed him, as part of explanation on how his name got so hot. While Smith, to be sure, showed the sort of intelligence an entrepreneurial visionary’s offspring might, he also had a reputation for carrying a work ethic and passion for the game that you might not expect from a guy who, if we’re being honest, would be probably be O.K. in life without sitting in dark rooms at an ungodly hours watching football players on tape.

So when Smith and I talked the other day, that’s where we started.

“It was probably at the end of my high school career,” said Smith, who went to Georgetown Prep in D.C. and went on to play at North Carolina. “I certainly have other interests and I’m very curious about other industries, other things that I could have seen myself doing. But I knew I wanted to play as long as I could, and it was going to end at some point. We all want and we all hope to have a Bruce Matthews career.

“But it’s realistically not going to happen for most. And I always knew I wanted to be involved in football in some way. I think in a lot of ways it gave me an identity that kind of gave me a chance to prove myself, because I think there’s a lot of narratives about that, kind of what you’re saying. I think that people just assume that because of your background that you live a certain way or you have certain values.

“And it couldn’t be …” Smith then paused and continued, “it’s just false, and that’s why I always give everybody the benefit of the doubt to prove who they are, instead of just looking at your background saying, Alright, well, you live in Boston, you must be an a------.’”

We were both laughing at that point. I told him it might be a fair assumption. He kept going, telling the story of how one of his teammates in college was surprised that Smith came off as just one of the guys.

“I was like, What did this dumb--- think? That you were going to get driven in a Bentley to practice?” Smith joked. “It’s a credit to my parents, to my dad. Like I said, he’s a Marine at heart. he served in Vietnam, did two tours. And he went to Yale, but he said the best lessons he ever learned were from the USM, more than he probably did anywhere else in his schooling. So that probably helped.”

Safe to say, just as his dad established an identity for himself on different fronts, Arthur Smith, one of 10 kids, has done the same. A few more nuggets from our conversation …

Smith picked Atlanta, just as Atlanta picked him. The ex-Titans OC had options. Every team with an opening, all seven of them, put in for him. So as much as he did have to win the interview, Smith was also weighing one job against the next, in case he did have to pick between them. And so he made a ton of calls to his connections across the coaching business to identify what would be important to him and find a team that had it.

“Rarely do you get options,” Smith said. “So obviously, it was nice to have options in terms of talking to multiple teams, to kind of see the landscape. I just wanted to know that it was a stable structure. I didn’t care if the team had been there already or not. So that was a big deal, [as was] how collaborative it was going to be with the GM in place or if they were going to hire somebody.”

His background work (and he worked with Atlanta exec Ruston Webster in Tennessee, so there were things he already knew) showed the Falcons to have the sort of sustainable setup he wanted, and the clincher there, really, was the rapport he felt with owner Arthur Blank and president Rich McKay on his second interview.

Job No. 1 will be, then, building a similar rapport with his GM. Smith and new GM Terry Fontenot, coming over from the Saints, didn’t know each other before this month. That, of course, means they have a lot to do, and it’s starting with the coaches teaching Fontenot and the scouts what they’re looking for schematically, and from each position. Together, Smith and Fontenot will break down their own beliefs and build up one program.

“It’s huge,” Smith said. “The stuff that he values, his grading systems and coming from New Orleans. And stuff that we value as coaches, the type of players we want to fit the schemes we’re going to run. It’s got to be collaborative, it’s got to be open and there’s got to be compromise, which I’m very confident Terry and I will do. I love this experience that he’s bringing. We have to sit down with his staff and have some long, long meetings and make sure everybody is on the same page and everybody’s opinion is heard.

One thing that’ll be non-negotiable links to why he was such a hot candidate. And that’s building in the flexibility to get the most out of every single player. It happened, notably, with Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry in Tennessee—the careers of both took off on Smith’s watch the last two years.

“In praise of [Titans GM] Jon [Robinson], he kind of set the stage—here’s the kind of team we want to be,” Smith said. “And so that kind of made it easy and it was intentional, to make sure we had to put the players in the right spot to execute that. We were going to be going to heavy and physical because that pointed to their strength. And it really is as practical as that. Derrick is a volume carry guy. And he is very effective at it.

“So that part was pretty easy, it was just the discipline to make sure that we got him going in games. … And Ryan’s got a great skill set. I mean, that’s what got him drafted in the first round. And he’s been through a few different regimes. And it was kind of the perfect timing to be working with Ryan.

Operative word there: Practical.

The question, then, is whether it’s practical to keep Julio Jones and Matt Ryan around. Both are franchise icons, but they’ll carry a combined cap charge of about $64 million for 2021, with Ryan at 36 years old and Jones 32 at the start of next season. The Falcons also have the fourth pick in the draft, which presumably could be used on a quarterback, and a 26-year-old receiver, Calvin Ridley, who’s ready to be a No. 1 and eligible for an extension.

Smith wouldn’t say if he and Ryan, or he and Jones had spoken yet, only that he’d reached out to a number of players in the days after he got the job.

“It’s hard, until we get all the facts, and Terry and I go through the roster and map out, Here’s what we want to do in the short-term, long-term,” Smith said. “Obviously we’ve got to deal with the salary cap that’s here. And there’s some good pieces, but there are gonna be some decisions we’ve got to make going forward that may not affect 2021, but could affect the future, 2022, 2023 and on. That’s going to be a long process before we even get to free agents, figuring out what we want to do with this current roster.”

***

But Smith is excited about that, too. Famous as his family may be, the NFL is where he’s been able to make to his own mark. “When you’re working your way through and you’re saying, Oh, if I get a chance, I’d like to do it this way,” Smith said. “And now here it is.”

And getting here? That’s truly his.

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TALES FROM THE SENIOR BOWL

I always love being in Mobile for the Senior Bowl. But this year was different. Veet’s and the barroom at the Battle House were hollowed-out shells of what have been in Januarys past. The great restaurants downtown, places like Noja and Dumbwaiter, were walk-up-and-get-a-table empty during what normally is a busy week. Which, of course, is due to the situation we’re all in as Americans.

But from a scouting perspective, and for the reasons we laid out in this week’s GamePlan, the week was as important as Senior Bowl week has ever been. There’ll be no combine in 2021. Pro days will be managed and limited. Teams won’t be able to fly players in. All of which made this week the only chance coaches and scouts are guaranteed to have to watch the players move around in person and talk to them face-to-face.

So what was learned? Here are a few things …

• This is another bumper crop of receivers. Even with LSU’s Ja'Marr Chase, Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle, Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman and Purdue’s Rondale Moore absent (and Bama Heisman winner DeVonta Smith there but only for interviews), the receivers were clearly the most talked about position group. A number of them helped themselves.

D’Wayne Eskridge, Western Michigan: I had one exec tell me Eskridge won every one-on-one he saw him in this week. He’s a little small, but he’s got lightning short-area quickness, sticky hands, and always seems to be open. Literally everyone I talked to loved him.

Amari Rodgers, Clemson: He showed burst, savvy and play strength that, combined with his collegiate production, evoked some Sterling Shepard comparisons.

Kadarius Toney, Florida: He had accountability and maturity flags, but word is Toney really turned the off-field stuff around in 2020, and he’s a stick of dynamite as a player. He had a couple drops and a fumble in practices, but his movement skills are undeniable, and he got comps to fellow ex-Gator Percy Harvin from multiple scouts I talked to.

Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State: He’s built like a running back, and is a really good route-runner, which had him winning in drills consistently.

South Carolina’s Shi Smith and South Dakota State’s Cade Johnson elicited mention too, and you get the picture.

• The quarterback group didn’t generate very much excitement, and that includes Alabama star Mac Jones. That’s not to say Jones didn’t practice well. He did. It just wasn’t enough to change many people’s minds on him, good or bad. One scout I talked to said, “I think he’s just a guy,” while another called him “O.K.” I’m not positive Jones will go in the first round. We’ll see. He might. I just don’t have conviction on it after this week. Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond showed enough that one evaluator called him, “an intriguing developmental guy.”

• While top guys like Alabama’s Patrick Surtain and Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley weren’t in Mobile, and that’s part of the reason here, play at corner had NFL types believing that it’ll be a down year at the position. UCF CB Aaron Robinson and S Richie Grant were two guys who did stand out in the secondary. Robinson showed ball skills and an ability to play man-to-man, and both he and Grant showed polished technique and smarts for their positions. Washington’s Keith Taylor is another who had a good week—and played well in the game.

• A couple of defensive linemen helped themselves, and UCLA’s Osa Odighizuwa’s name was one that came up consistently, as a disruptive, long-armed, upfield/inside type of pass rusher. Notre Dame’s Daelin Hayes was another who showed good versatility. And Washington’s Levi Onwuzurike, more of a pure defensive tackle, was among the best players on the field—one 2020 opt-out who didn’t show much rust.

• The running back group had a couple stars in it too. North Carolina’s Michael Carter showed quickness, burst and vision all week. Virginia Tech’s Khalil Herbert also impressed with his quickness. And Demetric Felton, primarily a tailback at UCLA, played a bunch in the slot and looked really good.

• Wisconsin-Whitewater interior OL Quinn Meinerz came in as a dice-roll pick by the Senior Bowl staff, and he really changed some people’s minds on him. Showing good strength and an ability to handle a power rush answers what’s always going to be a question for a Div. III lineman trying to make it to the NFL. Western Michigan’s Jaylon Moore was another lineman who stood out, with his ability to play four positions. Conversely, Bama’s Alex Leatherwood wanted to prove this week he could play left tackle in the pros and showed the athleticism to pull it off.

• A couple safeties who elicited mention and were interesting to me: Virginia Tech’s Divine Deablo and Florida State’s Hamsah Nasirildeen. Why? They’re both gigantic. So fire up your Kam Chancellor comps.

And so begins draft season. Big shout out to Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy and his staff. What they pulled off this week, under these conditions, was pretty mind-blowing.


deshaun watson

TEN TAKEAWAYS

The Texans have a mess on their hands. First things first: This isn’t new GM Nick Caserio’s fault, and it’s not new coach David Culley’s fault. But Deshaun Watson’s not returning the Texans’ calls, and his issues with the team, I’ve been told pretty consistently, are over the heads of both those guys, and with owner Cal McNair and EVP Jack Easterby. And I think everyone needs to settle in, because it’s going to take a while for this situation to resolve itself, one way or the other. With that in mind, here are a few things you need to know …

• Watson’s issue isn’t that he didn’t get to pick the GM or head coach. He never asked to. But he was told that he’d be consulted during the search, and he was at first. Then, he had the rug pulled from underneath him with Easterby, who he believed would be more in the background on this, steering the process toward Caserio. That led to a heck of a capper—with Watson finding out about all this on social media. No matter where you stand on this, I think we can all agree that was bad business by the Texans.

• It’s not the first time Watson was put in this sort of spot. He found out about the DeAndre Hopkins trade last March the same way. He took that, and everything else that went down this year, in stride, and put together a high-end season individually despite it all. He was excited about the fresh start the franchise was about to get—and told me as much after a win on Thanksgiving over Detroit. So that the Texans are here now represents a clinic in mismanaging a star player. Or, really, any person you work with.

• The Texans blocked OC Tim Kelly from interviewing for OC jobs with the Titans and Lions, with the belief being that they wanted to hang on to him as an olive branch to Watson. The quarterback did, indeed, really like playing for Kelly down the stretch last year. I’m told he believes in Kelly as a play-caller. But Watson’s issues here, at least for now, are bigger than who’s holding the play sheet on Sunday.

• The hires of Culley as head coach and Pep Hamilton as QB coach, and the expectation that Josh McCown will come aboard at some point (I’m told nothing’s imminent on that front right now, and what his role would be is a work in progress) and perhaps even be positioned to succeed Culley gives Houston strong infrastructure for whoever the quarterback will be. And it seems to be a Watson-friendly setup. But, again, there are bigger issues to tackle first.

• This is going to have to be solved at the ownership level, and I don’t know how McNair can reopen the lines of communication at this point. Owners normally aren’t big on apologizing. But I’d have to think that would be the starting point here, and I don’t know if that’d even work. Also interesting will be whether McNair gets pressure from other owners to hold firm on keeping Watson, so as not to set a sort of NBA-style precedent for the rest of the league.

• The Texans, to my knowledge, have shut down all overtures for a Watson trade, since he requested one two weeks ago. But until this thing is settled, calls are gonna keep coming. At what point does Caserio have to start listening? And if he were to trade Watson, how much pressure would that put on everyone in the building? On the flip side, if Watson doesn’t show up in the spring or summer, how hard will it be for a first-year coaching staff to establish its program?

• I don’t think Watson has a single favored destination. My belief is his only priority will be to get to a place where he can win at a high level. So yes, the no-trade clause gives him a measure of control. But I don’t think he’d use it to veto everyone until he goes to a single hand-picked place. More so, I think he’d use it to avoid a bad situation. And, again, good and bad will be measured, as I see it, in football terms, and won’t be related to business opportunities, marketing or anything like that (he’s doing just fine in those areas).

So if you ask me where this is going, I’d say I don’t know. I’ve heard some people from rival teams say the Texans can’t trade him, and others say there’s no way they’ll be able to avoid that ending to this story. We’ll see what happens.

With that reality, I don’t know which domino will fall next. And that’s part of what drove the market for Stafford—it gave the Rams certainty, and it allowed the Lions to move to get the most for him, with other teams uncertain of which other quarterbacks could spring free in the coming weeks. Obviously, if Watson’s available, there’ll be a frenzy to poach him from Houston. But after that? Other teams are monitoring what the Jets do with Sam Darnold. Whether or not the Raiders move forward with Derek Carr always seems to be a year-to-year thing. The Eagles have been non-committal on Carson Wentz. Dak Prescott’s likely getting hit with the franchise tag for a second consecutive year. Cam Newton, Mitch Trubisky, Jameis Winston, Andy Dalton, Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Fitzpatrick are among those with starting experience who’ll be out there in free agency. For all the fun discussion we’ve had the last few weeks, the options out there, as of now, are just O.K. If Watson and Darnold become available, obviously, that’d change a few things.

Every little bit of information is going to count in this year’s draft. And I really believe that positions the Panthers and Jaguars as teams that’ll be playing from ahead in April. Both have coaches coming from college football (Matt Rhule and Urban Meyer, respectively), and assistants who came from separate programs at that level (Joe Brady in Carolina, and Charlie Strong and Chris Ash in Jacksonville), which means there’ll be dozens of players that those teams have background on going back to when the kids were teenagers. And that’s something I asked Rhule’s defensive coordinator, Phil Snow, about the other day. He said on the Senior Bowl team the Carolina staff was coaching alone, “There’s probably 10 to 12 players like that, yeah, that we’ve known for a while. … It does [help]. But it’s also important for seeing how far they’ve come. Do they like football? Have they really improved since high school? And those types of things. So it’s still important to be around them, even if you knew them in high school.” Two examples Snow raised to me, beyond the obvious Temple and Baylor connections he and Rhule had: Miami DE Quincy Roche was recruited to and played for Rhule at Temple for a year; and Georgia S Mark Webb, a Philly native, was a player Rhule recruited hard to Temple over a period of a few years. And there is track record of this working in the past, if you look. Both Jimmy Johnson and Pete Carroll drafted exceptionally well their first few years coming from the college game, and Chip Kelly hit home runs on Lane Johnson and Zach Ertz in his first draft after going from Oregon to Philly. So advantage Carolina. And advantage Jacksonville.

For reasons along these lines, it was interesting to see how teams deployed their personnel for the week in Mobile. The limits on staff attending—10 per team—made it so the Dolphins and Panthers (coaching in the game) had about six times more people there than most of their counterparts did. And a result of the restrictions made it so only two teams, the Bengals and Giants, brought any coaches at all. Both those clubs used multiple of their 10 slots on coaches, with their head coaches, Zac Taylor and Joe Judge, in attendance. Which is interesting, given that there’s no combine this year, only regimented, scaled down pro days; the probability that private workouts are going to be conducted virtually; and zero guarantee that any team official will be able to go face-to-face with any prospect again before the draft in late April. So Taylor and Judge, and Rhule and Brian Flores, are playing from ahead in that regard. Conversely, the Rams were one team that decided to eschew going to the event at all. Part of that was connected to how they’ve downsized their footprint at these events over the last year to begin with (they had fewer people at the non-COVID-affected Senior Bowl and combine in 2020), in an effort to work more efficiently. Another part is connected to the travel restrictions and current conditions in L.A. County.

I’m fascinated to see where the Packers go next. Coach Matt LaFleur’s already replaced special teams coach Shawn Mennenga with his assistant, Maurice Drayton, and Drayton’s really as much LaFleur’s guy as anyone is in Green Bay, since Drayton only predated the boss by a year there. But I’m more interested to see what LaFleur does with the defensive coordinator job, having let the inherited Mike Pettine go. If you read the tea leaves, there’s evidence he might think outside the box—like his buddies McVay and Kyle Shanahan did for their DC hires. Both rolled the dice with young guys, McVay with Bradon Staley and Shanahan with Robert Saleh, who they believed would bring difficult-to-deal defensive systems to the program. Both hires were wildly successful to the point where Staley and Saleh are now head coaches. To be clear, I’m really not sure where LaFleur will find his version of that guy. Maybe it’s somewhere on one of those staffs. Maybe it’s elsewhere. But it sure seems like there’s a decent chance it’s not a huge name—and a decent chance that’s a good thing. (One fun name would be Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, who interviewed with McVay for the job Staley got in 2020.)

The Packers shouldn’t begin to entertain the idea of trading Aaron Rodgers. I saw the LA Times’s Sam Farmer’s report that the Rams asked about him (doesn’t hurt to ask), which is prompting me to regurgitate a fact that I dug up and tweeted on Saturday. Twenty-two quarterbacks were drafted in the first round between 2009 and 2016. One—that’s right, one—remains with the team that drafted him. And that’s Wentz, who isn’t exactly on solid ground in Philly right now. As we said earlier, he’s the NFL’s fourth-longest-tenured quarterback. Know what that tells you? It’s really, really hard to find one, and even when you think you have your 15-year answer, you might not (see: Robert Griffin, Wentz, Goff, etc.) So every year you have a player like Rodgers is gold. And you don’t just casually discard a precious metal like that.

I loved what Jamal Adams said about Pete Carroll this week. In case you missed it, this was to the Seahawks’ team web site: “I’ll never forget, he brought me over there when I first got there and he said, ‘What do you want to prove? What do you want to get out of this trade? What are you setting yourself up for?’ I just remember telling him, ‘I just want to be the greatest to do. I just want to get all this, get all that, and win a Super Bowl.’ But he stopped me and he was like, ‘Hey, you don’t have to do anything special but just be you. You don’t have to change anything. I want you to come here and be Jamal Adams, be the best version of Jamal Adams. Whatever you want to do, on and off the field, for your future, whatever—do it to the best of your ability and just be a true pro at it.’ When he sat me down and told me that, it just really opened my eyes and took a burden off my back because I always was like, ‘I’m going to put it on my shoulders, I’m going to put it on my shoulders, I’m strong, I’m strong.’ Nah, it’s not about that. When he told me that, I knew from that connection, that day, it was going to be special. To this day, that’s my guy, man. I’ll run through a brick wall for him.” It’s also a really good example of how Carroll reaches guys—pledging that he’ll get the most out of them if they’re just themselves. It also speaks well to the synergy between coaching and scouting in Seattle, where, really, Carroll can trust the guys who come in will fit to the point where they can just be themselves and everyone can expect it’ll work.

The Eagles’ press conference wasn’t a great look for Nick Sirianni. But indications I’ve gotten is that he’s been willing to poke fun at himself for it, which is a good sign for the 39-year-old. One moment came with NBC Philly’s John Clark. “I gotta look at the tape,” Sirianni joked to Clark. ‘I’ll go back, just like I always do. And just like a game, there’s gonna be calls that you want back, and there’ll be calls where you say, man, that was a good call, I put my players in good position. So what do we do? We go back, we look at the tape, and the most important thing is you try and get better each day, over and over and over again, so you’re better the next time out.” The truth is, that was a tough spot for the new Philly coach to be in. He was standing alone at a podium, staring into a camera and reading off prepared remarks—which I think is always a mistake. He seemed nervous, and that was probably a result of the rough start. We’ll see if it actually relates to who he becomes as a head coach. But based on his reputation as a high-energy, detailed and diligent coach, my guess is it won’t carry over to the day-to-day of his job, which is a tough one to be sure, starting with the decision he and the front office have coming on how to handle Wentz (who, as of right now, isn’t exactly pleased to be there).

Steelers owner Art Rooney said “there’s still work to be done” in regards to the Rooney Rule, and I agree with him. Here’s more from Rooney: “We didn’t make as much progress on the head-coaching side as we would have liked. But I would say we did make some progress on the general manager side, which is encouraging. And then we’ll have to look on the coordinator side to see how much progress we make on that front. There are a lot of pieces to it that we’re going to have to sit down when it’s all said and done and really analyze what happened, and are there things we can do to strengthen the opportunities for minority coaches. I think last year we did take a number of steps that I think over time are going to pay dividends, but that’s not to say we can’t do more, and we’ll take another strong look at it this offseason.” The No. 1 frustration I’ve heard from guys on both the coaching and personnel sides is simple: Too often owners cite comfort level in going away from a Black candidate. One raised this quote, from Panthers owner David Tepper on Matt Rhule, to me: “He dresses like [expletive] and sweats all over himself. He dresses like me, so I have to love the guy. I was a short-order cook, he was a short-order cook. Nobody gave him anything, nobody gave me anything. He had to work hard for everything he got.” There is, of course, nothing wrong with Tepper saying that, but it illustrates reality that shared experiences and similar backgrounds bring about a feeling familiarity and, ultimately, comfort. How do you fix this? The easy answer would be more Black owners and team presidents. But that, obviously, can’t happen overnight. One thing I think would help would be creating more one-on-one and small group time between prime candidates and owners, whether they’re in social gatherings or, in COVID times, over Zoom. That, of course, won’t solve everything. But I do think the idea that an owner’s first time with a candidate wouldn’t come in a job interview would be a productive one.

I miss the Pro Bowl. Just kidding.


SIX FROM THE SIDELINES

With the college season wrapped up, we’re moving this section back out to general non-NFL stuff (which will include some college football stuff too, for sure.)

1) I stepped in it on the Baseball Hall of Fame debate the other day, but here’s my larger point: It’s absurd that sportswriters are arbitrarily deciding who did steroids and who didn’t during an era in which they were everywhere in the sport. It’s baseball’s own fault, and really the union’s fault too, for keeping testing out of the game for so long, allowing the public trust to fracture. So my suggestion is that you tell voters to vote on the players’ merits alone, and then denote the steroid era on their plaques. There are, no doubt, guys in now who were juicing during the same era Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were. And a big reason why we can’t tell who’s who is because a lot of people were looking the other way. So their penance, in my mind, should be getting lumped together in an asterisked era.

2) What LeBron James is doing at 36 years old is mind-blowing. He’s changed the math on the age of basketball players, the same way Tom Brady has for quarterbacks.

3) I’m old enough to remember when Tennessee was an absolute powerhouse, and not a school where the reaction to a coach hire is: “Is that the same Josh Heupel from the Oklahoma championship team?”

4) Night Stalker on Netflix is bone-chilling TV.

5) RIP John Chaney. The ex-Temple basketball coach was an American original. His Temple teams were always tough, and his press-conference confrontation with John Calipari is honestly probably one of the most memorable non-game sports-related moments of my childhood. They don’t make them like Chaney anymore.

6) So I guess Messi really didn’t want his contract details getting out there?


BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

That could be true.

Jay’s the best.

And here we have a message sent.

Any Ric Flair NFL analogy is gonna make it here.

I mean, let’s be honest, Rodgers knew exactly what he was doing from the jump.

Hilarious series from Pete on tackling the TB12 diet.

Not gonna lie—that was kind of emotional.

The incredible truth of the Texans’ situation.

For fun, here are the players who went in the four slots to this point: Titans WR Corey Davis, Patriots LT Isaiah Wynn, Falcons RT Kaeb McGary and Jaguars DE K’Lavon Chaisson.

I don’t know why Gronk tweeting the pirate sound from The Simpsons character is so hilarious to me. But it is.

Another big week for our guy Mitch Goldich. Hopefully you know the story by now.

It’s definitely always a weird Sunday.


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Again, it’ll be a different Super Bowl week. I get to Tampa on Wednesday (normally, I’d be on site finishing this column up), and I really have no idea what to expect the scene to be like on the ground.

But I’ll say this: I’m happy we made it to this point. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that having football helped in a really messed up year