Lots to sort through coming out of the first NFL Sunday, with one game left in Week 1 …
• In the hours ahead of his first start in almost two years, from the Saints’ team hotel on Sunday morning, Jameis Winston had a call to make—to a guy who had maybe as big a hand in the way he’d play hours later as anyone. Drew Brees’s message to his ex-teammate was, as Winston expected it would be, a whole lot more than good luck. Brees reminded Winston to stick with the process. He reminded him not to get himself in over his head. And then, Brees said to Winston, “Go out there and light it up.”
Winston obliged, and in a very interesting way his unorthodox stat line reflected the lessons Brees taught him—to manage the game rather than take it over, to be as opportunistic as he was aggressive. More than anything, Winston said, it was to be efficient, and squeezing five touchdown passes into 148 yards is, if nothing else, that. And it played out that way in large part because Winston let a game controlled by the Saints’ defense and run game to come to him.
“I just trusted the process,” he told me. “I mean, [Sunday] was big from a touchdown perspective but the game was a managing game. I was just managing the game. I was taking what they gave me. I still have to get better and be a little bit more accurate in some areas, but it was a very simple game. Green Bay played a very conservative defense. It was just doing what I needed to do and when shots were there, hitting on them.”
And from the very first snap, Winston said, the lessons he took from Brees on that were there. “The first completion to Marquez Callaway, we ran a specific concept where we knew that we would get a one-on-one with AK [Alvin Kamara],” he said. “But I also knew that if the mike linebacker was shallow and didn’t get a lot of depth, I was gonna have the over right behind him. And Drew ran that concept over and over and over again, and I just saw how the defense was playing it, and I knew where to go with the ball instantly.”
So he did some things Brees did, and added the downfield element that Brees struggled with later in his career. But Winston said Brees’s fingerprints were even on those plays, like his 55-yard bomb to Deonte Harris. And while even Brees himself joked in voicing over the throw to Harris as a TV analyst—“Apparently this is what the Saints have been missing the last few years”—Winston swore Brees’s handling on that sort of call impacted him.
“Drew has run that play,” Winston said. “I was talking to [assistant head coach] Ryan Nielsen before the game—just because we didn’t have the alley yardage the past three years of his career, Sean was still calling those plays, giving them opportunity. And he was finding a way to execute it without the ability to throw the deep ball. He still was doing things despite what people may say he had limited abilities on. And that helped me so much as a player because I’m a guy that like, ‘Hey, I can do this. I can make every throw on the field. No questions about it.’
“But it’s so much more than making every throw on the field. Like if it was just about arm strength and the ability to maneuver the ball downfield, then a lot of people would be good quarterbacks. There’s so much more to it, and being able to experience someone using their strengths to help lead the offense over and over down the field was an advantage for me. Because I always knew, ‘Hey, that’s the way that I know, that’s just go downfield, give guys 50-50 chances at the ball.’ But Drew taught me a new way—being efficient.”
And yes, it had more of an effect on Winston because it was teammate, rather than a coach. In his year as a backup, he wasn’t just getting direction from Sean Payton and Pete Carmichael on what to do. He was getting to see one of the best ever go out and apply it.
“I think it was so helpful to see Drew command the offense, to see Drew and Sean communicate, to see Drew working within the concepts of this offense,” Winston said. “Because for the whole time that I’ve been the main guy, I developed relationships with the offensive coordinators and the quarterback coaches, but seeing the continuity last year with Drew and Pete and [former QBs coach] Joe [Lombardi] was very helpful in leading to how we’re doing things versus just, ‘We’re doing this.’
“Why are we running this play versus this play? I understand the why behind everything, because I could just watch Drew execute the concepts that we had in the game plan. I just went in, watched him execute the game plan. And most of the time when we were running the play, when Sean called a play, it was gonna be versus a certain look, because Sean is a freaking genius and understands how to make it work.”
So yes, Winston is in a very good place. But just as important, being in a great one last year set him up for this. And now we get to see where the former first pick can take it.
• One more Saints note, because I think it’s fascinating to look back at these things in the aftermath of some news. And the news peg here to take a look at New Orleans’s 2017 draft class is Marshon Lattimore’s getting a monster second contract. Which puts the team’s seven picks from that spring here:
CB Marshon Lattimore (11th pick) signed a five-year, $97.6 million contract.
OT Ryan Ramczyk (32nd pick) signed a five-year, $96 million contract.
S Marcus Williams (42nd pick) on a $10.6 million franchise tag.
RB Alvin Kamara (67th pick) signed a five-year, $75 million contract.
LB Alex Anzalone (76th pick) is starting and named a team captain in Detroit.
DE Trey Hendrickson (103rd pick) signed a four-year, $60 million deal with the Bengals.
DE Al-Quadin Muhammad started Week 1 for the Colts.
Given what a crapshoot the draft can be, these results are bonkers. And the Saints draft-and-develop machine is at it again. Third-round corner Paulson Adebo starred for New Orleans in the opener, and he was unearthed by the team in a pretty logical way. The Stanford product had a great sophomore year in the Pac-12 in 2018. He struggled a little in ’19, then opted out when the conference canceled its ’20 season. But the Saints felt like everything they wanted in a corner was there—he’s long, physical, smart and can run—and that the player they saw in ’18 could resurface if the kid got in the right program. And it sure looks like that’s what’s happened.
• On Sunday, video of Lions defensive backs coach/pass-game coordinator Aubrey Pleasant getting into a heated sideline confrontation with second-year corner Jeff Okudah went viral. And we had that video, plus later video (from ex-NFL CB Will Blackmon’s account) of the two embracing in the MMQB column. I made the point that football’s a pretty emotional game, and these things happen, but I figured it was worth digging around for a little more context (because I really think the reaction to these things on social media gets ridiculous). And the truth is pretty much what you’d think. A mental error from Okudah sparked the confrontation, with Pleasant’s yelling, repeatedly, do your job to his young corner—who may have had an interception if he’d stuck to his responsibility. The second video? It came after Okudah gave up a 79-yard touchdown to Deebo Samuel, a play on which Okudah should’ve played the ball. And really, to me, this was about knowing what sort of coaching each player responds to. In the moment of the mental error, Okudah needed tough love. After the physical error, he needed to be built back up a little. Ultimately, these sorts of juxtapositions happen constantly in the NFL—where a coach tries to give a player what he needs in the moment. And honestly, it’s always weird to me that anyone is surprised that a football coach would raise his voice. Particularly in the middle of a game. So yeah, I think it’s a little weird that people are worked up over the Pleasant video.
• It’s early, obviously, but the Chargers’ scouts and coaches—led by GM Tom Telesco, director of player personnel JoJo Wooden and head coach Brandon Staley—sure appear to have done a masterful job rebuilding a once-beleaguered offensive line unit. The big-ticket items were, of course, ex-Packers center Cory Linsley and 13th pick Rashawn Slater. But the team also poached Matt Feiler from the Steelers and Oday Aboushi from the Lions to play the guard spots, and they join holdover right tackle Bryan Bulaga up front. That’s four new starters, only one of whom is a rookie, and the Chargers were still, according to Spotrac, able to keep their spending at the position to 15.7% of their cap, which ranks 12th leaguewide. And with all those moving parts, line coach Frank Smith was able to pull the group together, and the new starting five, none of whom had ever played in a real game with anyone else on the line, limited a fearsome Washington front to just two sacks (and Justin Herbert lost a total of three yards on those). Just a really good job by the Chargers’ front office and staff here, and a little reminiscent of what the Browns did a year ago in fixing their line.
• When I was at Cardinals camp, a clear focus for the group was learning to win on discipline, and flipping some ugly numbers in penalties and turnovers that Kliff Kingsbury and his staff believe kept Arizona out of the playoffs in January. And it looks like the Cardinals are making progress there—Arizona took just 59 penalty yards and turned the ball over once in its 38–13 rout of the host Titans. “I think there’s a level of impact of having veteran guys on the team and just having them for their insights and just their knowledge of the game,” said fourth-year receiver Christian Kirk. “But I think for the core guys, especially the young guys, young core guys on this team that’ve been together for the past two to three seasons, we’ve seen a lot. We’ve had to go through a lot of adversity, and we’ve learned along the way. We all understand and have learned from those mistakes and learned from our past. We all know the opportunity at hand, so I think it was more of a sense-of-urgency type thing, and that’s the attitude that’s been set from training camp, offseason and going into the season at practice and competing every day. Just knowing that we have the team and we have the guys who are on this to really take this thing to where we want to go. I think it was just more a heightened sense of urgency to make those plays that needed to be made.” And like he said, having guys like J.J, Watt, A.J. Green and Rodney Hudson around to show them the way hasn’t hurt.
• While we’re on the Cardinals, here’s Kirk’s take on Chandler Jones, who rung up five sacks against Tennessee, in his first game back after losing most of last year to a torn biceps. “I don’t think anybody in the locker room had any type of doubt or question on if Chan could come back and play,” Kirk said. “We all know the type of impact that he has when he’s on the field, and I got to see it up close, me and a couple other guys, just training with him in the offseason, the way he was working. We all said it, just watching him day-in and day-out during the offseason back in April and May, we’re like, ‘Yeah, Chandler, he’s locked in and we can tell he’s gonna be different this year.’ I think we started to see it with what he did today. It’s one of those things where you gotta shake your head because he’s just so good. He’s the best player on that field. He proved that today.” He’s also a free agent after the season, so his timing with all this could wind up being pretty advantageous.
• The Jets’ offensive line got run off the field by a very promising Panthers defensive front on Sunday, and there’s not a ton of shame in getting whipped by Brian Burns, Derrick Brown, and Haason Reddick, et al. But it’s worth at least watching how New York’s coaches manage Zach Wilson the next few weeks. With Mekhi Becton out at least a month, the plan is to have George Fant flip over to left tackle and veteran Morgan Moses fill in at right tackle—and do it with a very good Patriots rush coming next week, and then a trip to Denver to face Bradley Chubb and Von Miller to follow that. I’d think, given these circumstances, the coaches will be careful in how they call the next couple of games, especially after Wilson got knocked around in the Carolina game.
• Titans coach Mike Vrabel made headlines in calling out Julio Jones for drawing an unnecessary roughness flag on Sunday, and it made headlines largely because it was Jones who he called out. “That’s absolutely nothing that we coach or teach,” he said Monday. “So, that would fall into the category of dumb s--- that hurts the team, right there, in bold letters.” And I don’t think it’s a mistake that Vrabel chose a prominent member, maybe the most prominent member, of the team for the tongue-lashing. Why? Well, it shows that no one is exempt after a loss like Sunday’s to the Cardinals. And if that’s what Vrabel was doing—going after the head of the snake, so to speak—it’s not too tough to figure out where he’s seen it before. Bill Belichick used to do it routinely to Vrabel’s old teammate, and buddy, Tom Brady.
• I’ve never at any point gotten the sense that Washington coach Ron Rivera was considering a reunion with Cam Newton, not this year, or last year. And it’s not because he doesn’t like Newton. In fact, I’m pretty sure he loves Newton, who was his quarterback for all nine of his years in Charlotte. I just think that for him and his staff, the prior relationships might make bringing Newton in as a temporary solution a little too complicated. So they’d stayed away from the idea of bringing Newton in, and I don’t think Ryan Fitzpatrick’s injury is going to change that (they also genuinely like Taylor Heinicke, for what it’s worth).
• Finally, a quick observation I posted on Twitter last night: The Dolphins tackle really, really well. Watching their defense play the Patriots, there were rarely, if ever, extra yards there for New England’s offensive players to churn out. And I think that Miami’s playing that way, and against a physical team like the Patriots, is a pretty good commentary on Brian Flores and his staff.
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