The scenario I drew up for Todd Bowles on Friday afternoon was specific.
Say you’re coming off Week 12 again—and off that loss to the Chiefs. And I tell you that, 10 weeks later, in the Super Bowl, your defense, the same one that lost to K.C. on Nov. 29, would become the first to hold Patrick Mahomes out of the end zone, in Mahomes’ 56th start as a pro?
“I would’ve said, Show me that gameplan,” Bowles says, laughing and leaning back in a big leather chair, five days removed from Super Bowl LV. “And I’d have tried to steal it.”
Now, it will be other people stealing the gameplan from him.
The story of the 2020 Buccaneers will be seen—rightfully so—through the lens of Tom Brady winning a seventh title, and taking home this particular Lombardi without Bill Belichick, but rather with a whole new crew of coaches and (save for Rob Gronkowski) teammates. But the story of the Super Bowl itself really shouldn’t be. What happened on Feb. 7 was about more than just No. 12—it was about the reasons why Tampa became the perfect second destination for his NFL career. It was about Bruce Arians’s program and flexibility in bending to meld two different ways of doing business. It was about the O-line that kept Brady upright, and the talented crew he was throwing too. Most of all, it was Bowles’s defense, on the evening Mahomes finally met his playoff match.
In Mahomes’s previous eight postseason starts, the Chiefs had scored 31, 31, 51, 35, 31, 22, and 38 points—and the 22 came in the Divisional Round win over Cleveland, when Chad Henne finished while Mahomes was in concussion protocol. Holding any team in a Super Bowl to three field goals is a major accomplishment—in the previous 54 Super Bowls, only two teams had failed to score a touchdown. Doing it against Mahomes and the Chiefs? Mind-blowing.
And the really wild thing about the plan that got it done was how it made the impossible task of slowing Andy Reid’s offensive juggernaut down somehow, in application, fairly rudimentary. Which, as those around Bowles know, is sort of the 57-year-old’s specialty.
“He’s a brilliant mind, and he can teach it and make it simple,” says Arians, who’s known Bowles since coaching him as a player in the mid-1980s at Temple. “I mean, he can teach it and make it so simple for the players. There’s a lot of guys that know the game, but can’t teach it.”
Super Bowl Sunday would hold up as a shining example that Bowles can, and at a higher level than most. And as we’ll explain, there was a lot more than an afternoon’s work at play in what Bowles put together for the Chiefs.
The offseason’s underway, and we’ve got another loaded MMQB for you. In this week’s column, you’ll find …
• Texans owner Cal McNair on J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, and Jack Easterby.
• What scouts on the ground at Clemson thought of Trevor Lawrence’s Pro Day.
• News and takes on the NFL’s unsettled quarterbacking landscape.
But we’re starting with a look back at how Bowles, and his defense, pulled off the (very) improbable.
Todd Bowles’s story begins with who he is—and how those around him have known for a very long time how capable he was of coaching the game he did at Raymond James Stadium eight days ago. And that starts with Arians, and where he was 25 months ago in mulling a comeback to coaching after missing it badly in his year away—and how, when decision time approached, he was tracking his old DC from Arizona.
Bowles had just been fired after four years as the Jets head coach, and was in demand.
“He had a bunch of offers,” Arians says. “And it was really, really important for me, if I was getting back in, to have the best—and that’s him. I’m not sure I would’ve done it without him and Byron [Leftwich]. He was a huge part of it. It’s one of those situations where I never even have to go down the hall. I’ll just say, Hey, what do you think? And I know our defense is in great hands.”
Just as Arians knew, players did too. Ndamukong Suh was one of them, for sure. Bowles almost got him to join the Jets in 2018, before Suh decided he didn’t want to go to a place in the midst of a rebuild with a rookie quarterback (he chose the Rams instead). A free agent again in 2019, Suh liked Arians’s mindset, and the roster GM Jason Licht had built in Tampa. But the real draw was the chance to see through all the reasons he once considered the Jets—a chance to play for Bowles.
"It was just the way he's always carried himself,” Suh says. “I got to meet him a long, long time ago when he was in Arizona. There was a guy named Jim Washburn that I'm super close with and was my coach in Detroit and in Miami. They're very close, and I got to sit down with him and understand—then really just watch them from afar, him and Coach Kacy [Rodgers]. Then having the opportunities to really speak with him, understanding how he wanted to use me in his defense, it was appealing to me.
“That's why, like you said, you take that leap of faith with a strong gentleman like that and we just went from there."
Shaq Barrett came too, on a one-year deal, with the promise that Bowles’s defense would unlock his considerable potential. (It did, and he was franchised in 2020 as a result of it.) And through the draft, the Bucs added guys like Devin White, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Antoine Winfield Jr., to a core that already had Jason Pierre-Paul, Vita Vea, Lavonte Davis, Carlton Davis and Jordan Whitehead.
The group really started to jell over the last month of 2019, and that carried over, for the most part, into 2020. Going into that first meeting with the Chiefs, the Bucs boasted the NFL’s fifth-ranked defense, and top run defense, with a 7-4 record attached to it.
And then the first quarter of the first Chiefs game happened—Tyreek Hill finished it on pace for 800 yards (he had 7 catches for 203 and 2 TDs through 15 minutes), and Mahomes with a perfect passer rating 11-of-14 for 229 yards, 2 TDs). The score was 17-0, and it felt like it could’ve been worse. But Bowles calmly diagnosed the problem, and the Bucs kept playing.
“We were in man, single-high man coverage maybe four to five times that entire game and they burnt us on three of them,” Bowles says. “Two of them happened in the first quarter, one of them we just busted a coverage on and we got to see their speed full-on. And I don't think our guys in the secondary were as mature at that time, getting mentally involved, as they were later on in the season. Of course, that takes time.”
On the technical end—knowing how exactly to attack the Chiefs—the benefit of going through what the Bucs did would only pay off if they happened to see Kansas City again, and that could only happen in the Super Bowl. But the other part, about maturity? The Bucs could attack that one right away.
Much was made in the aftermath of the Super Bowl of the importance of the Bucs’ bye week for Tampa’s offense—and how Brady and Arians spent it diving deeper into melding what Arians had always done with what Brady did particularly well. It turns out, over that time, the group on the other side of the ball had a similar reckoning.
In looking back at the team’s first 12 games, and maybe at least in part because the Bucs’ bye week came so late, Bowles and his lieutenants had noticed some details slipping. So they dedicated most of the two weeks between the Chiefs and Vikings games drilling down on the fundamentals.
“We study every week, and we didn’t have the bye until Week 13, so you game-plan so much that you forget about the fundamentals,” Bowles says. “Press coverage, using your hands and tackling, keeping your head on the inside or outside, moving your feet in press coverage, zone drops, understanding what we're trying to do and not trying to get too over-elaborative with the scheme, we were just going back to fundamentals that way.”
For Suh and the defensive linemen, Rodgers held individual meetings with cutups of each guy that he called The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. On each reel, players got positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and, at times, probably wanted to look away.
“There were some ugly things on there,” Suh says. “There was some stuff that we gave up that was definitely embarrassing, some plays that guys wished they had back.”
But it also showed the defense—which, again, was a Top 5 unit going into the Chiefs game—that it had another gear in it, and the symbiotic relationship between a veteran front end and a young back end only fueled that idea. The older guys were a compass for the younger guys to progress to, and younger guys brought energy and (Suh’s word) swagger to the older guys whenever they needed it.
Long story short, the defense found that gear in the playoffs, when White returned and the turnovers started to come, an occurrence the coaches and players alike believed was a result of all the fundamental work that had been done.
"I think that the simplest thing that clicked for us was that guys realized that you don't have to do anything special,” Suh says. “All you have to do is execute. And once we execute, the football Gods are going to pick and choose, Hey, you get an interception, you get a forced fumble, you get a sack fumble. That's kind of how the game works. But everybody has to be in the right place and execute.”
Two takeaways led to touchdowns in the second half of Tampa’s Divisional-round win over a Saints team that swept the Bucs in the regular season, and a third set up a four-minute drive by Brady and the offense that closed the game out. Likewise, the Bucs turned the Packers over twice in the NFC title game, and got two red-zone stops—one of which wound up being the difference in a 31-26 win.
That alone gave Arians a familiar feeling going into Super Bowl week: He didn’t even need to go down the hallway. The defense was taken care of. Even against the Chiefs.
“They’d just done it against Aaron Rodgers, and he was the MVP,” Arians says. “Our red-zone defense, they were the No. 1 Red Zone team in the league, and they struggled to get in.”
After the lessons learned on Nov. 29, both in imploding in the first quarter and in rebounding to allow just 14 points over the final three quarters, the brilliance of the plan Bowles emerged with for the Super Bowl really wasn’t about how the Bucs would cross up the Chiefs, so much as it was what they needed to do to beat them. In that way, it leaned back on what Arians has always loved so much about Bowles as a coach.
“The brilliance was the simplicity,” Suh says. “A lot of the things that Coach Bowles is known for is how creative he can be—and we had those creative blitzes, we had all those things up, and we ran a couple of them. … But I think he also just had the confidence in us up front, and really the secondary guys too.”
As such, the things Bowles told his players they had to accomplish was straight-forward.
• Stop the run with a six-man box, allowing for the coaches to keep two safeties deep, and accomplish the first goal—taking the deep ball away from Mahomes.
• Eliminate the quick strike by taking away Mahomes’s first read, which meant staying on top of receivers at the line, and giving the guys jamming Hill and Travis Kelce help. And when the Chiefs do hit the quick ones, rally to the ball and tackle.
• Plaster receivers in scramble situations—which meant seeing Mahomes break the pocket, and immediately picking the guy in your area when he was able to do that.
‘Those are the three things we harped on, but at the same time we didn't try to overthink it and make the game overly complex,” Bowles says. “Football is football, so what we went into the week before the Super Bowl, the week that we game-planned, and we didn’t try to add any extra things the next week. We kinda wanted to get all of that part down, and those guys did a good job of focusing on the game plan of what we had to do to get that done.”
The bet Bowles made was twofold. One, that Tampa might give up some yardage if Mahomes wanted to run with the ball (“You'd rather have him running six, seven yards than throwing the ball 60”) or if the Chiefs committed to giving it to their tailbacks (“We knew we were gonna give up 3 or 4, we just didn't want them to get the15-to-20 yard runs”), but that White would be good enough spying Mahomes, and Vea, William Gholston and Rakeem Nunez-Roches would be enough in anchoring the run defense in a six-man box to limit the damage.
Two, that if the Bucs could take away the quick strikes on Mahomes’s first read, more often than not, Mahomes would start drifting and a pass rush fueled by Barrett, Suh and Pierre-Paul would get home.
“He's not going to have a clean read to set his feet,” Suh says. “That's where you see the tipped balls and interceptions. You see the balls thrown out of bounds just because, ‘Man, I can’t get this dude from breathing down my neck.’"
By halftime, it was 21–6. By the end of the third quarter, it was 31–9. And Suh and his teammates were calling to Rodgers for the kill shot.
“We told him, Coach, let us loose, let us go,” Suh says. “Because our real game plan was to move Mahomes to his left, our right, and get him rolling out that way. Because it's hard for a right-handed quarterback to throw that ball that way. So we forced him that way. But then at this point in time, we’re all athletic, we can all move, we can all make plays, we just have to keep contain for the most part, but just take your shot. And once you take your shot, everybody else rally and go from there.”
The kill shot landed just after the five-minute mark. At that point, Rodgers had acquiesced, and let his guys go. And when the Super Bowl streaker caused a stoppage, Suh went to undrafted free agent linebacker Cam Gill with a plan.
“I told him, We've got the loop called up and we’re going to run it a little bit different,” Suh says. “You’re going to line up outside of me, and he’s going to hard count, then line up inside of me and run at the tackle. I’m going to speed rush this edge and speed and dip and swipe. And either I’m going to get the sack or you’re going to get the sack as you loop to the other B gap.”
The result: They both got the sack, meeting at Mahomes, again drifting to his left and—for one of the first times of his young career—completely out of answers.
“It worked out perfectly. The rest is history,” Suh says. “Obviously we got to the quarterback and made a big play and got to celebrate.”
The play itself was a microcosm of all this.
It was young (Gill) and old (Suh) working together. Bowles had known all along he could trust his vets up front. But when I asked what he was most proud of in the Super Bowl, one thing he pointed to specifically was how the young guys passed receivers off in motion, and communicated so everything the Chiefs did pre-snap did nothing to screw with the plan. Which was a sign Bowles could count on them, the same way he could count on Gill to help close the game out—and the same way he always knew could count on Suh.
It was the simplicity of the plan, which allowed players ownership to the point where they could make the sort of adjustment Suh did on the fly. And at the same time, it was playing on those fundamentals, with Suh and Gill attacking, but staying disciplined in their rush, the sort of thing that showed up all game. It also showed up, Bowles pointed out, on White’s interception in the end zone. “Sometimes he drifts in coverage and I'd been harping on him all week on that,” Bowles said. “And he went to the right spot and he made the play.”
More than anything, it was just execution of that plan come to life. On the play, that young secondary that needed to grow up two months ago took away Mahomes’s first read and any opportunity to go deep, which forced the quarterback to drift to his left, again, and right into the Buccaneers’ hands. The rest was academic—with Bowles’s bet paying off in Mahomes’s lap.
Five minutes of game clock later, and Bowles had his first title as a coach, to go with the one he won as a player in 1987. And when I asked him about the plan itself, and people calling it brilliant, he told me the word that popped in his head was “appreciative.”
Of the job Rodgers did readying the D-line to stop the run out of a six-man box. Of what Larry Foote did to prepare his outside linebackers to play run-stuffing stunts that were key. Of Mike Caldwell in having the inside ’backers set to play man coverage (David on Kelce was huge), and adjust the tackles as needed. Of Nick Rapone to have safeties schooled on depth and playing with disciplined eyes. Of Kevin Ross for having his corners ready for the ultimate challenge, and of Lori Locust, Cody Grimm and Tim Atkins too.
And, of course, of the players who carried it all out.
And as we worked through it, the words of another coach who Bowles has worked with, and considers a mentor came up—to sum up the story of one night played out over six months.
“Like [Bill] Parcells said, Nobody remembers what you did in September, October, November.” Bowles says. “December games matter. You can be Rookie of the Week in Week 2. Nobody's going to remember that in Week 14. You have to play good football in December, no matter what anybody says about you before then. And if you have a chance to be in a position to play those games in December and make them meaningful, you have to be an all-around, good football team.
“The other stuff is experience and it helps you through the season. But December football matters. We played decent football in December.”
And, clearly, that set the stage for what was to come.
CAL MCNAIR ON WATT’S DEPARTURE AS THINGS GET MESSIER IN HOUSTON
I got a few minutes on the phone with Houston owner Cal McNair on Friday. He did the call (and I know a couple one-on-ones with other reporters too) to put a bow on J.J. Watt’s spectacular 10-year run as a Texan and that, of course, was a very worthy topic of discussion, considering all that Watt’s accomplished.
Watt’s an all-timer. He won NFL Defensive Player of the Year three times, made first-team All-Pro five times, and was an all-decade defensive end, on top of winning Walter Payton Man of the Year and SI Sportsperson of the Year in 2017 for his herculean Hurricane Harvey relief effort. When the former walk-on from Wisconsin arrived as the 11th pick in the 2011 draft, the fledgling Texans had never been to the playoffs. They’ve made it six times since.
As he said himself on social media, after last year’s wreck of a season, Watt asked the Texans for his release, and the sides mutually agreed to part ways. He leaves as the greatest player in the 19-year history of the franchise.
“It’s kind of hard to put it into a sentence or two, because he’s meant so much to the team and the city,” McNair says. “He did unbelievable work on the football team and for the people of Houston. His legacy will be here, it’ll be here for years. And, again, it’s bye for now, but it’s not bye for good. He’ll always be a Texan. He was one of the best defensive players in NFL history, he’s beloved here in Houston, people will remember him for his efforts on Harvey and raising millions of dollars for Harvey.
“He’s been a great role model for fans, for teammates. He really showed people how to do things the right way.”
McNair, for his part, remembered things both personal (his son and Watt shared a birthday and had a tradition of trading video messages to each other) to professional (he pointed to Watt’s pick-six against Cincinnati in his first playoff win and his game-turning sack against Buffalo in his last playoff win) in explaining why it was important for the Texans to have a clean break from one of the faces of their franchise.
Houston probably could’ve gotten a pick for him. He turns 32 next month, and is due $17.5 million for 2021, the final year of his contract, so it wouldn’t have been a first- or second-round pick (in this cap-sensitive environment, giving up any sort of draft asset for a pricy, older player would be tough). But they could have gotten something. In choosing instead to allow Watt to control his next step, the hope is he leaves with good feelings for the place.
“There are several reasons [for not trading him],” McNair says. “But suffice it to say, we evaluated those, and we’re confident that this is the right one for J.J. and for us. And it’s one we mutually came to and agreed on. And we felt that it was really the right one for J.J. Not every decision is easy or easy to understand. But we always want to do right by our players and our fans. And we want to focus on bringing a championship to Houston.
“But this gives him time to kind of pick his next destination, and we felt like it was the right thing to do for J.J.”
And that’s, of course, a genuinely nice thing—that team and player pursued the sort of split that won’t leave loose ends to tie up when the time comes to put Watt’s name in the Ring of Honor at NRG Stadium and decide whether or not anyone should ever wear 99 again (the Texans have never retired a player’s number).
All of that said, a lot of other things aren’t going so smoothly for McNair’s team, and those things, really, come down to two people: quarterback Deshaun Watson and EVP of football operations Jack Easterby. I asked McNair about both, starting on where things stand with Watson, and where the effort to reach out to him and repair the relationship stood.
“Well, that is a separate issue and not our focus today,” McNair says. “Today’s about J.J. But there has been a lot of misinformation out there, and I’ll sort of leave it at that for Deshaun. But he is a Houston Texan, and I expect him to be a Houston Texan. And I’ll leave it at that.”
Then, I asked if there was any more clarity, a month after the hire of GM Nick Caserio, whose candidacy was championed by Easterby, on where Easterby fit into the football operation, given that he’d served as interim GM for most of the 2020 season.
“Well, I appreciate that [question],” McNair responded. “This really isn’t the right time to talk about the details of our front office. It’s about J.J. and honoring him. I have had some public comments previously, and so those are true, I’ll stand on those. But our collective actions and united mission is executing a business and football strategy that, again, wins championships, creates memorable experiences and does great things for Houston.”
I understand why he didn’t want to address Watson and Easterby on Friday, and why it made sense for the organization to give Watt his day. But this isn’t going away, and to me, this entire thing is about managing relationships, and the Texans’ failure in that area. We’ve been over it before. The Texans didn’t need to tell Watson he’d be involved in the coach or GM searches. But once they said that they would, it was on them to follow through with it—and not have Watson find out who his new GM was the same way he found out about the DeAndre Hopkins trade in March (via Twitter).
It’s easy to see where Watson would feel, at best, patronized. He’s as even-keel and level a personality as you’ll find, and played great this fall with a five-alarm fire burning around him—that his frustration has hit the point where he’d ask to be traded says everything on how poorly the Texans have handled the situation.
As for Easterby, if he thought the group of GM and coach candidates gathered by Korn Ferry was lacking (I’m told he did), he was well within his rights to push Caserio (which he did) as the best option (and I think Caserio probably should’ve been at the top of the list to begin with). It was the act of doing it in the shadows, and going around people like team president Jamey Rootes—who resigned last week—that is the problem here.
And now, bringing in his protégé, ex-Lions character coach Dylan Thompson, to be director of team development only shows a further lack of ability to grasp the situation. Thompson’s job—and I’ve heard Thompson was great with players in Detroit—will be to work with Texans players on a deeper level. But how would anyone expect a group of players that don’t trust Easterby to trust Thompson, and not believe Thompson is just an agent of Easterby’s?
The bottom line is it didn’t have to be this way. The Texans didn’t have to promise Watson anything. They certainly didn’t have to execute a GM hire without telling him beforehand. Nor did they have to allow for yet another split in the organization to fester (who has a power struggle during a GM/coach search?), which instantly put everyone on watch for what Easterby’s role would be going forward. And they could’ve waited to hire Thompson.
Instead, now, their new coach and GM, who had nothing to do with creating this mess, are charged with cleaning it up. And the collateral damage is the potential split with a 25-year-old quarterback with the promise to be able to run with Patrick Mahomes for the next decade.
Job 1 is obvious, which is doing everything possible to get Watson back on board.
Job 2 is to do better managing relationships internally, to create a more unified building.
The truth is, if the Texans had done a better job with Job 2, Job 1 wouldn’t even exist.
And if you want to take it back to where McNair and I started our talk, if Houston were a healthier place right now, it’s possible Watt wouldn’t be saying goodbye at all.
TREVOR LAWRENCE AS ADVERTISED AT PRO DAY
The 2021 draft news cycle got a kickstart this week with Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence staging his personal Pro Day at the Tigers’ indoor facility on Friday. And the supernova of a quarterback prospect touched all the bases in the hour or so that he and a group of 31 NFL evaluators, from 17 teams, were out there.
The day started with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney addressing the scouts and coaches, telling them what kind of kid the 21-year-old Lawrence is—“He isn’t marrying his high school sweetheart. He’s marrying his junior high sweetheart,” Swinney told them. It ended with Lawrence fist-bumping every NFL person he saw leaving the facility, while thanking them for coming, something they all took note of.
“Kid just gets it,” says a Clemson staffer, when I apprised him of that. “Every single bit of it.”
And in between Swinney’s words and Lawrence’s farewells was a performance that was short of perfect, but every bit as electric as you’d expect from a guy who’s been discussed in an NFL context since his senior year at Cartersville (Ga.) High.
“He was as impressive as advertised,” says one veteran evaluator in attendance. “The ball jumped out of his hand, even if it sailed on him a couple times. He throws with good base and balance, and he’s such a good athlete for his size. To see a guy at 6-foot-6, with that kind of foot quickness and agility is really, really impressive.
“It’s really a combination of the physical ability and everything you hear about his intangibles, how good a person he is, how smart he is, what a great decision-maker he is. That physical skill set, and the intangibles, and coach Swinney let everyone know what kind of kid he is.”
And this particular evaluator adds, “His best throw was his last throw, obviously they were showing him push it down the field. But in general, really good throws outside the numbers, that ball was tight, you could see it spinning so tight out of his hand. The couple times it sailed, he got a little loose. But that’s very nitpicky. It was a really strong workout.”
“Really good day overall,” says a second evaluator who was there. “Everything he showed on tape showed up in the Pro Day. He’s big, athletic, he can throw from the pocket, he can throw on the run going either direction. He’s accurate to all levels. … A little bit [imperfect], there were a couple things. The final deep ball was great. The other two weren’t his best throws. … A couple to his left just sailed on him a little.
“But the only guy out there who he played with was [Cornell] Powell. He just got to work with the other guys recently. It was really good overall. The dude showed why he’s going first overall.”
This evaluator added that even in the limited rough spots, “He was unfazed with the incompletions, whether it was his fault or not. He has great presence, a great demeanor, and an ability to interact with all the people there.”
Also in attendance was his next head coach, Urban Meyer, who Lawrence had actually consulted with on whether or not he should go through with the Pro Day. The decision to do it this early was connected to a call to have a torn labrum in his left (non-throwing) shoulder surgically repaired ahead of his NFL career starting.
Meyer laid out three scenarios for Lawrence. He could delay the surgery to allow for him to throw to his own receivers at Clemson’s Pro Day on March 11. He could just eschew throwing all together, since he didn’t really have much to prove in order to be the first pick in April. Or he could try and put together an early Pro Day, without as much prep, and with a scramble for receivers (ex-Jets/Clemson WR Charone Peake and ex-Niners practice-squad WR Chris Finke were lining up alongside Powell).
“He said, ‘Let’s go’,” Meyer told NFL Network’s Jane Slater after the Pro Day. “That’s a guy that loves football.”
It’s also a guy who’ll be a Jaguar in two months. But you knew that already—and so did the 28 NFL guys who were there from other teams. What those guys did walk away with was a little more context on where Lawrence stacks up historically as a prospect, as well as a visual setting of the bar for their trips to BYU (Zach Wilson), Ohio State (Justin Fields) and North Dakota State (Trey Lance) to see the quarterbacks who’ve spent the last couple years chasing No. 16.
“You hear everyone talk about generational talent,” says the second evaluator, “well, the only one I’ve studied who’s like him is Andrew Luck. Between those two, I’d rank Andrew slightly ahead of Trevor. But it’s close.”
Which is why we can say now, on February 15, that the first few minutes of draft night won’t bring any surprises.
1) I think the Eagles have to trade Carson Wentz soon. The market’s not strong for Wentz for a variety of reasons. The contract (a team trading for him is locked in for two years, at $47.4 million) is one issue. The tape, which was horrific last year, is another. A third less-talked-about problem is the growing reputation Wentz has of not reacting well to hard coaching. All of which is why the Eagles’ initial asking price—the return the Lions got for Matthew Stafford—was enough of a non-starter for some teams to drop out of the running altogether. Ultimately, I think GM Howie Roseman’s goal, in asking for so much, was to come away with a 1 and something else. At this point, I don’t think he gets a first-rounder for Wentz at all, without some strings (maybe a salary dump or picks going back) attached. Which, if you look at what we were saying when Wentz was benched in December, isn’t all that surprising. This is just who Wentz is as a quarterback right now. And the proof is there in that the teams that know him best, the Bears (John DeFilippo) and Colts (Frank Reich, Press Taylor, Mike Groh) haven’t put together a strong enough offer to get Philly to jump. My guess is he lands in Chicago, and that’d be good for him. DeFilippo played the bad cop in Philly for Wentz over the quarterback’s first two years in the league, and going there would force Wentz to confront the lingering hard-coaching question head on. (Indy would be good for him, too, for a lot of obvious reasons.)
2) I don’t think the Raiders are trading Derek Carr. Like we said last week, that’s the impression that teams who’ve inquired have come away with as well. And the word I’ve gotten from people in Vegas too. I do say that with a caveat—It’s possible that Jon Gruden becomes smitten with a quarterback in the pre-draft run-up, or that Watson becomes available, and Vegas decides to go all-in on him. But right now, given the Raiders’ cap situation (tight) and where they’re drafting (17th overall), the smart money has Carr playing a fourth season for Gruden. It’s also worth noting, while we’re here, that Carr has posted three 4,000-yard seasons and has improved his passer rating—which topped 100 the last two years—every year he’s played for Gruden. There’s no question that, at first, there was friction as a result of Gruden’s tough-love approach and propensity for constantly seeking a quarterback upgrade. But since, I think things have stabilized, which, to me, is an acknowledgment by the team, and the coach, that they’ve got a pretty decent situation as it is. And especially now, with Carr under contract over the next two years for a total of less than $40 million. (As for Marcus Mariota, the Raiders’ lines are open for calls.)
3) A lot of Matthew Stafford’s words to Mitch Albom were interesting. But I thought a combination of two things the new Rams QB said to Albom, the legendary Detroit sports columnist, really stood out above the rest. In Albom’s second column off the interview, Stafford seemed to acknowledge (by not confirming or denying) that the Patriots weren’t on his list of preferred destinations. He then said this about his old coach, Matt Patricia: “He and I had a good relationship, no matter what anybody wants to say. I could go into his office and talk to him, he could get me on the phone whenever he needed to. I think we both grew in that relationship. I have a lot of respect for him and who he is, as a football coach and an unbelievable mind.” That jibes with what I’d heard, which was that after a rocky start, Stafford and Patricia’s relationship improved, to the point where it really was, like Stafford is saying, healthy in their last year together. Remember, at that point, they’d been through a lot together, from Stafford’s wife Kelly’s brain tumor to all the challenges that 2020 brought. And so the idea that Patricia’s presence in New England kept him off Stafford’s list, to me, was always shaky. The reality is actually worse for the Patriots—that list of preferred destinations, Stafford told Albom, was all based on having an ability to win a championship. And so you could deduce that Stafford didn’t see the Patriots that way, which takes away the carrot that Bill Belichick has dangled in front of free agents for two decades. One year post-Brady, and New England looks like it will be in line with everyone else trying to attract veteran players, without the ring-chasing lure it’s possessed forever.
4) Speaking of the Patriots’ rebuild, I think Belichick’s actually been forthright in saying things went sideways when Brady found a way to maintain his level of play. And my smoking gun in the whole thing is Brandin Cooks. My understanding is Cooks was initially acquired, in 2017, as a piece for Jimmy Garoppolo, not Brady—with the feeling being that the Patriots would play more of a downfield game once Garoppolo became the quarterback, presumably in 2018. And that played out. Cooks was a good player, but a bit of an awkward fit for Brady stylistically in 2017. Brady, for his part, didn’t drop off, even a little. That year, he was the NFL’s MVP. That, of course, hastened the trade of Garoppolo to San Francisco and, months later, the trade of Cooks, who simply didn’t carry the same value to the team that he would’ve had the team morphed its offense to what Garoppolo did well in 2018. Beyond that story just being an interesting one, it also shows how Brady’s play wound up bastardizing the rebuild a little. At that point, the Patriots were older, and had a bunch of heavy contracts tied to those players. With Brady proving he could still win championships, the expected rebuild got pushed back a year, then, after Brady won his sixth title in 2018, two years. Eventually, the dam did break. But the Patriots got another ring out of it, with the downside being the contract debt they built up in keeping those teams together (also, drafting well could’ve solved some of this, and the Patriots didn’t draft well). And while it was a zillion percent worth it, the Patriots did pay the price in carrying around $30 million in dead money last fall. Now, with the books clean, we get to see if Belichick can build back what he initially expected to build back two or three years ago.
5) My guess is that Sam Darnold’s name will continue to come up. We told you last week four teams called the Jets, in the aftermath of the Stafford trade, to inquire on Sam Darnold’s availability. More have called since, I’m told, and the answer those teams got was the same that the ones calling before got—Check back with us soon. Right now, the Jets coaching staff is working through its tape evaluation of the draft-eligible quarterbacks, which is a huge piece to all of his. The job, for the Jets right now, is to compare and contrast what it has in Darnold (at 23, with a year plus an option year left on his contract) to what Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, or Trey Lance (coming on new/affordable rookie deals) could be for them. There are a lot of teams that would be obvious potential landing spots. Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Chicago and San Francisco make sense, pending what happens with Wentz, and the scarcity of available names (and I mean actually available, not just potentially available) right now could drive Darnold’s value up. Either way, it’s a good spot for Jets GM Joe Douglas and new coach Robert Saleh to be in.
6) I think the Jets and Dolphins are in position to deal their Top 3 picks. That doesn’t mean either will (I think the Jets, for one, are more likely than not to stay put). It does mean that there will be a market for both the second and third picks. Teams will emerge from the Wentz situation with a quarterback. Others are quietly looking for an upgrade over who they already have, or for an heir to put behind an aging starter. I think because of all that, teams will look at 2 and 3 as potential places to get those things, and with four guys that I believe are seen as worthy of going in the Top 10, whoever gets there will have options. Would teams have to go that high to get them? Well, if you’re paying attention …
7) The Falcons had a very strong presence at Lawrence’s Pro Day. And it wasn’t just the number there—a league-high four—it was who made the trip. The Atlanta traveling party included coach Arthur Smith, GM Terry Fontenot, offensive coordinator Dave Ragone, and VP of player personnel Kyle Smith, where most teams sent college scouting directors, national scouts or area scouts. So why would they go, knowing Lawrence ain’t making it to their pick at 4? Well, there’s always the just-in-case element here. But moreso, it’s what another scout offered as a reason. He said that he wanted to be able to see Lawrence in person to help him really understand the difference between him, and Wilson, Fields, and Lance, so if his team were to decide to take a quarterback (this team would be one that would look at it), he had proper context for the situation. Which tells you Atlanta is probably seeking the same sort of context. Yes, owner Arthur Blank has said Matt Ryan will be on the roster next year. But no, he didn’t say it wouldn’t be with his heir apparent there too, competing for playing time. So put the Falcons square in play for a quarterback at 4.
8) I think Russell Wilson’s displeasure relates to Aaron Rodgers’s. You got my take on Rodgers’s rumblings almost a month ago—I saw it as a calculated play to try and pressure the Packers to act with the urgency he has (as a guy who turns 38 this calendar year). And my feeling on the Seahawks quarterback is similar. Wilson wants more help, and that part isn’t new. For years, his camp would quietly grumble about the state of the offensive line, and later the issue was the scheme and skill players. The difference, this time, is that it’s playing out publicly. The trigger, really, for all this is the path the Bucs, Chiefs and Bills took to the top of the league. Each got it right at quarterback, yes. But each also aggressively surrounded that quarterback with investment. Investment on the O-line, investment at receiver, and investment in the coaching staff. And naturally, when another quarterback sees how well Tom Brady did after forcing his way into a better situation, it only makes sense that others would give his gameplan a shot. Rodgers has never been afraid to say some of this stuff publicly. But doing it this time gave Wilson cover to drop his own complaints into the box. And, to be sure, I don’t know if this is about to become a trend. I think that sort of will connect to whatever outcome Rodgers and Wilson get from it.
9) You should listen to what Solomon Thomas said. “The NFL needs to do a better job with turf,” the Niners defensive lineman told Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area. “It should be all grass fields. We should take care of our players. Safety should be number one.” And I can tell you this is a hyper-sensitive topic for players. They’re very particular on the fields they play on, as they should be, given the level of investment they put into their bodies. In fact, Thomas’s words—spurred on by a conversation on the carnage the Niners incurred on what was considered a loose turf field at MetLife Stadium—only echoed what we’ve heard from other players. “The data stands out and the numbers are staggering in the difference in injury rate,” Browns C/NFLPA president J.C. Tretter said in September. “We all should be working toward the safest style of play, and we know the dangers of playing on turf. It’s not good for players, it’s not good for the GMs and the head coaches, it’s not good for the owners and it’s not good for the fans. Increased injuries are not good for anybody.” So why are so many fields artificial? It probably wouldn’t surprise you to hear money’s a part of it. It’s difficult, and expensive, to maintain grass fields into the winter in Northern climates. And turf fields are better if you want to properly monetize your stadium—you, for sure, have a lot less to worry about in hosting a large-scale concert or rodeo or monster truck rally if the artificial stuff, and not really grass, is what’s being covered up. So for both sides, there’s money on the line here. I’ll be interested to see if owners listen to the players on this, since it is, at its root, a health-and-safety concern.
10) Urban Meyer couldn’t be the coach to hire Chris Doyle—and he should’ve known that. I don’t know the ex-Iowa strength coach. But I do know, after asking around last week, that the Jaguars weren’t the only team to kick the tires on him. People who know him well figured that his landing spot would be strategic—in a place where people vouching for him would carry weight. Instead, he landed with the Jaguars, which was (and this is coming from someone who’s bullish on what Meyer is capable of in the NFL) really the one place he couldn’t go. After the Zach Smith fiasco in 2018, for which Meyer was suspended at Ohio State, he had to know that his hires were going to be scrutinized, and that a hire like this one—regardless of what level of vetting was done—wasn’t going to fly. And that’s not about being in the NFL, by the way. I believe the same thing would’ve happened had he taken, say, the Texas job. The only difference here is that it might’ve happened faster, because in Jacksonville Meyer does have an owner, and billionaires don’t like being publicly embarrassed. And again, I think Meyer’s going to do really well in Jacksonville (you can read my column from January on why). But he certainly could’ve been a lot more self-aware on this one.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1) RIP Terez Paylor. We’ve lost too many people in our business over the last year, and I’m sick over Terez being one of them. When people asked of late who I’d want to bring aboard the next time we hire people to our NFL staff, Paylor’s name was one I always raised. And it wasn’t just because I liked him (though I really did). It was because people I respect told me how he loved the job and worked his tail off—a necessity in a business where you won’t make a dent working 9-to-5. There are too few people like that, that like the job enough where the hours don’t matter. And I also know he considered it, at its core, a people business, and did his best to try and know as many as he could (another thing central to being good at the job). Sending my best to all who were close to him.
2) Given what’s happening with quarterbacks now, I saw this quote from Nets guard James Harden, to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, as interesting. Re: his trade from the Rockets: “Apologize for how it went down, but I guess I had to do what I had to do in order to get to where I wanted to go. And credit to Houston, they didn’t necessarily have to trade me to Brooklyn. They could have traded me anywhere, but those are some stand-up guys over there. And it ended up the right way, but just didn’t like how that month or two played out.”
3) Chris Holtmann is one hell of a basketball coach. And Ohio State/Michigan is gonna be No. 3 v. No. 4 in hoops on Sunday, which is pretty awesome.
4) Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel on Netflix is absolutely terrifying. And how that hotel was still there after the history it had (they said that 80 people died in it over a 10-year period) is mind-blowing. Be sure to check it out.
5) Having a backyard rink is great until a big snowstorm comes. Then, you become Backyard Rink Guy. And that means watching the status of the rink like a guard in a prison tower every time there’s any sort of weather outside.
6) S/O to my buddy McKay for his Super Bowl performance.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Brady seems pretty calm and unfazed here.
Which is why we’re actually starting here, just so you know how this is gonna go.
Mike Evans, introducing his quarterback (Note: Trophy still aboard the S.S. Brady).
Not gonna lie, I got nervous watching this, even though I had zero to lose.
Throw doesn’t look as difficult here—but that Lombardi does weigh 7 pounds, and we have someone next who can probably verify that.
And that someone is not pleased with the events of Feb. 10.
Think he’s looking for White Castle?
Looks like he wanted to recap with his receiver on the play first.
Not sure it’s fair to bring Gronk into this!
… And he’s out.
Clearly, Eminem approved of the parade (and use of his intellectual property).
How the day ended (maybe).
And here’s your reenactment. Honestly, I believe this—that one day humanized Brady and landed more new fans than the Super Bowl did. Because he’s doing what I think any of us would think we’d do in the same spot. Good for Tom.
Elsewhere this week on the Web …
Cool story on Panthers PR chief Steve Drummond, who’s now graduated to being one of owner David Tepper’s top advisors.
RIP, Steve McNair. Valentine’s Day, by the way, also happens to be the birthday of two other former Pro Bowl quarterbacks, in Jim Kelly and Drew Bledsoe.
Good message from Julian Edelman.
That was out of nowhere.
Really nice, fitting tribute by the Chronicle.
This gif is gonna get a lot of meme mileage.
This is pretty awesome. And makes me feel a million years old (Antoine Sr. was a senior at Ohio State when I was a freshman).
Happy trails to the Pouncey brothers. I’m always amazed by siblings like the Pounceys and Wattses and Mannings. Getting to the NFL requires so many things going right. Having one NFL player in a family is a needle-in-a-haystack sort of thing. Having multiple grow up under the same roof is bonkers. And being in a position where two could play in the NFL for a decade, and retire together, is borderline incomprehensible.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Some players will be cut in the coming weeks, but action on signing them may be slow until the cap is worked out. It’s hard for teams to know where they’ll stand, and how they should spend, when they’re looking at a range of around $20 million ($175 million-$195 million) on where the ceiling might be. And if enough teams are playing patient until the cap is set, that will make it harder for street free agents to drum up a market, which could mean their smartest play is to be patient as well.
But don’t worry, there is plenty of activity coming. Even if we have to wait a while for it.