Last year was supposed to be the offseason of unhinged quarterback movement, and, yes, a few guys did change teams. Matthew Stafford’s a Ram, Carson Wentz is a Colt, and Sam Darnold was traded to the Panthers, spurring a deal that sent Teddy Bridgewater to the Broncos.
But the guys who rattled cages the hardest last spring? They went nowhere.
So it is, with the trade deadline having come and gone, that the supercharged offseason of the relocated star signal-caller may be coming after all, just a year later than many people forecasted it. Deshaun Watson wasn’t traded before Tuesday’s deadline, and Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers are still with the teams that drafted them, and all that’s setting up is what could a pretty wild winter in the NFL.
“Everyone’s preparing for that, we all know it could happen,” said an exec from a team that figures to be in the mix. “We’re planning for it accordingly.”
And there you have what would be my under-the-radar story of a week in which the news cycle was moving like a 5-year-old on a sugar high.
Watson’s legal situation made it tough for the Texans to get full value for him in a trade, but his desire to start over somewhere else hasn’t waned in the least. Rodgers reported to Green Bay over the summer with the promise that a reworked deal was coming. It did—cutting a season off the old contract and making 2022 a contract year for the league MVP. Meanwhile, Wilson showed up the earliest of the three, at the end of OTAs, with the agreement that he and the Seahawks would focus on ’21 with no promises past that.
All, at the very least, have set the stage for their exits a few months from now, and the probability that Houston, Green Bay and Seattle oblige is much higher than it ever was a year ago. And with the trade deadline in the rearview, the idea that all three will be on the market at the same time, ahead of the start of the league year, just got very real.
So buckle up for that—and a full recap of the week that was in this week’s GamePlan.
In this week’s Friday column, we’ve got a lot to get to. Including …
• The week’s best games, including one greatly affected by the week’s events.
• Four things to following, including a big revenge game in Charlotte.
• My continually terrible gambling picks.
• How the Raiders come out of what’s been a very difficult year.
But we’re starting with the blitz of news we got over the last three days.
And since there’s a lot to get to, we’re going to do it bullet-point form, like we normally would on Monday afternoons. Ten things on the last three days starting … now.
• I do believe this week will test the strength of Rodgers’s relationship with the Packers, which could affect where everyone stands come February. Rodgers was in what looks like clear violation of COVID-19 protocols—failing to wear a mask indoors at press conferences, even while his unvaccinated teammates did their media availabilities via Zoom to satisfy the rules.
In following up on the potential violations, I’d heard about a rule change that unvaccinated players had pursued to make exceptions on masks for media availability, since all media are masked for indoor pressers and the podium keeps reporters distanced, and also because masks basically outed them for their vaccine choice. And early in camp, one rule adjustment did take place, with unvaccinated guys no longer needing to wear masks for outdoor media availability.
But after checking with people at both the league and union, my understanding is the rule on indoor press conferences (with exceptions made in larger structures like fieldhouses and practice bubbles) remains unchanged. Unvaccinated players are required to wear masks indoors at all times at team facilities, with no exceptions other than to eat.
Additionally, the league issued a statement on how the rules are enforced that included this passage: “The primary responsibility for enforcement of the COVID protocols within club facilities rests with each club. Failure to properly enforce the protocols has resulted in discipline being assessed against individual clubs in the past.”
Now, clearly, the Packers got some of their players to play by the rules for press conferences, and that puts the team in an interesting spot and begs a straight-forward question: How will this be explained to the league? Will it be positioned as a team problem? Or as a Rodgers problem?
With so much uncertainty over the future of the relationship between the team and Rodgers, how the Packers answer that question will be interesting. And as sensitive as Rodgers has been in the past, you can bet he’ll be interested to know whether the team falls on the sword for him. If the Packers do? Maybe that’ll help set the stage for a longer-term reconciliation. If they don’t? Look out.
• In the shorter term, the first day Rodgers can be available again to the Packers is Nov. 13, the day before a home game against the Seahawks. And of course it’s never ideal to have a player, especially a quarterback, playing without having been at a single practice during the week. But, because it’s Rodgers, it’s fair to say his return for the Seahawk game should be regarded as a possibility, so long as he tests out of the protocol.
Still, I have to wonder how Jordan Love’s play on Sunday will factor into the decision-making there. If Love falls on his face, you’d think the Packers might move heaven and earth to make sure Rodgers is ready to go against Seattle. If Love stars, maybe they’d not only feel more comfortable sitting Rodgers, but also want to get a longer look at him.
Fact is, the Packers can pick up a lot of valuable information on their young quarterback while Rodgers is on the sideline. They had him drinking from a firehose in the spring (one coach estimated to me that if there were 300 snaps in OTAs, Love took 270 of them), and played him a lot in preseason games.
But seeing a guy in real game action, with a defense game-planning for him, is a different deal altogether, and Love knows it, just like everyone else knows it. So this has become a big Sunday for the Packers in a way they never imagined it would.
• Browns coach Kevin Stefanski addressed his players on Wednesday morning on Odell Beckham Jr. in a very direct way—more or less delivering the message that they should expect to be without Beckham for the rest of the year. And that was really the capper to a 24-hour period that stunned a lot of people in the building.
I can’t find anyone who says Beckham was outwardly a problem in Berea. He was quiet, and wasn’t exactly a leader, and there were some questions about his competitive level in games. But no one I talked to classified him as a problem in the way people might imagine.
One coach characterized Beckham like this: “Not distraction at all from my vantage point.” Another said Beckham’s been “really good” and that he’s “surprised, but shouldn’t be” by the events of the last week. The tweet from LeBron James and video from Odell Beckham Sr. (detailing instances in which Beckham Jr. was purportedly open and missed by his quarterback) also seemed to blindside Baker Mayfield, and that part of it is no small thing.
Add that to Beckham’s failure to go to his coaches with his issues before making them so public, and there’d seem to be a massive breach of trust here, one that will be hard for Beckham to come back from. I think, ultimately, that’s why the Browns are drawing a line in the sand here. You can’t throw your quarterback under the bus like Beckham did, and you certainly can’t do it the way Beckham did, coming out of leftfield with the haymaker.
• The tricky part for the Browns now is how to handle this without just giving Beckham what he wants. Rewarding Beckham’s actions with what he wants—midseason free agency—would be a tough precedent to set. I’m also pretty sure Cleveland doesn’t want Beckham to resurface on, say, the Ravens or Chiefs (both teams could use another receiver), where he’d be positioned to keep the Browns out of the playoffs.
But Beckham has leverage here in that his return to the locker room, absent a reconciliation, would have the potential to be a massive problem for the current team. And since the trade deadline’s gone, and rules keep the Browns from keeping him sidelined for more than four weeks (and that’d be under a conduct-detrimental suspension), cutting him is the only way to say goodbye, if Beckham doesn’t agree to Watson-style leave.
Beckham’s subject to waivers, of course, But would another team pick up the $9.25 million left on his contract for this year? There are actually only eight teams that even have the cap room to. So if the Browns waive him, there’s a good chance he’ll clear waivers, and then he’d get what he wants, which is to pick his next home.
• Last thing on this: The Browns are going to get some valuable information on Mayfield through this, in that it’ll show how he handles a really difficult situation.
That video Beckham Sr. put up on Instagram? I was told by Browns people that there’s so much information missing there that it’s not even worth looking at. In some cases, Beckham was doubled, or under cloud coverage, and the read took Mayfield elsewhere. In others, Mayfield’s missing Beckham was simply because Beckham was deeper in the progression than where Mayfield went with the ball.
Conversely, a couple of people pointed to what could be the final target of Beckham’s career, in the fourth quarter against the Steelers. On the play, Mayfield, playing hurt to begin with, got knocked silly and drew a personal foul flag. As a result, his ball went high. And Beckham, seeing a safety bearing down, got one hand on the ball before pulling up and spinning out of the his way.
It would’ve been a tough catch. It was a bit of a hospital ball. And despite that, one coach said to me, on that play, “Jarvis [Landry] would’ve gotten two hands on it.”
Also, there’s a feeling that Mayfield might benefit from not having to look Beckham’s way all the time to make sure he’s engaged—with the hope being that Beckham’s absence can free him to play the position a little more like a point guard again.
• Part of the reason why the Texans felt comfortable keeping Watson around? Interestingly enough, it’s because he really hasn’t been an issue at all in the building—he comes in, works out, and has been fine when encountering teammates and coaches. I think that’s one reason why Houston probably felt like the team had weathered the storm in July and August in this all being any sort of distraction as David Culley worked to build his program in Texas.
• I’d expect the Dolphins to be involved again in February. Sure, Tua Tagovailoa could really come on down the stretch and convince Brian Flores and Chris Grier that it’s worth going forward with him. But I’d expect the bar is going to be set high on getting those guys to do that. If Miami doesn’t make the playoffs this year—and the Dolphins are 1–7 right now—then Flores and Grier will be fighting for their jobs in 2022. And the question would then become which quarterback they want to hitch their job security to. Seems unlikely it’d be Tua.
• The Saints were pretty aggressively scouring the market for receivers in the days leading up to the deadline, and the Lions kicked tires on those at the position too. These are things you can file away for the offseason, when thinking about what teams will be out on the market looking for help at certain positions. Depending on who’s tagged, Davante Adams, Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin and Courtland Sutton are among the potential free agents at that position. And Saints receiver Michael Thomas could well be on the trade block, too.
• On the Von Miller trade, we broke down what the Rams did (and the Broncos too) in this week’s MAQB. But I’d encourage everyone to check out the Hurry Up on the site Friday. We had ex-Eagles and Browns exec Joe Banner on, and he dove into why the Rams’ team-building philosophy, as a former NFL team-builder himself, is so different—and something that could change how the league does business.
• Our prayers are with the family of Tina Tintor, the 23-year-old woman killed by Raiders receiver Henry Ruggs in Tuesday morning’s crash in Vegas.
And so closes this week. Here’s hoping next week is a little quieter.
FIVE STAR MATCHUPS
1) Packers at Chiefs (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET): This game was one of two the networks most lusted over out of all 272 when the league was assembling the schedule in the spring (Tom Brady’s return to Foxboro was the other), and just like that it’s lost a lot of its luster, because we don’t get Aaron Rodgers vs. Patrick Mahomes. Still, this one has a ton of curb appeal. The Chiefs have a shot to get over .500 for the first time since Week 1; and the Packers, and the other 31 teams, get a real look at Jordan Love in a very a big spot, which should be awfully informative.
2) Titans at Rams (Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET): Von Miller came close to playing last week (the Broncos considered playing him in a pass-rush only role), so he should at least be close physically this week too, and it’ll be fun to get a first look at him alongside Aaron Donald, after spending the balance of his career as the guy every offense focused on. Also, this is our first chance to see the Derrick Henry–less Titans after his foot injury (Henry has played in 55 of Mike Vrabel’s 56 games as Tennessee’s coach).
3) Browns at Bengals (Sunday 1 p.m. ET): It’s hard to say exactly where all the Odell Beckham drama will be 24 or 48 hours from now. What we do know is that, really, for the first time since they were hired in January 2020, coach Kevin Stefanski and GM Andrew Berry are being confronted with a very Brownsy situation. It’s a credit to those guys that they effectively killed the circus for 21 months. But it’s back now, and it’ll be interesting to see how this new regime, which has had such an incredibly impressive start to its tenure, will handle it.
4) Cardinals at 49ers (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET): The Cardinals finally have a loss on their ledger, and may not have their quarterback on Sunday either—with Kyler Murray still rehabbing an ankle injury. And this one is pivotal for both teams. For Arizona, to show, again, strength in the face of adversity (that happened earlier in the year, in Cleveland, when Kliff Kingsbury was shelved less than 48 hours before kickoff). For San Francisco, it’s to keep hopes alive in the NFC West, and build off some positive momentum after a resounding win in Chicago. We’ll know a little bit more about both teams on Sunday night.
5) Vikings at Ravens (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET): The last we saw of the Ravens, they were getting run off their own field by the Bengals. They’ve had a chance to lick their wounds (even if that won’t bring J.K. Dobbins, Ronnie Stanley or Marcus Peters back), and have a chance to turn things around in a hurry with manageable games against the Vikings and Dolphins in a five-day stretch. Meanwhile, for Minnesota, Rodgers’s absence could create an opportunity to get back in the division race, but the Vikings will have start make up ground now to have any hope of catching the Packers.
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FOUR THINGS TO FOLLOW
How will Sean Payton deploy his quarterbacks? I’ve been warned by a couple of people in New Orleans this week not to rule out some sort of unconventional method of replacing Jameis Winston from Payton. And that puts the idea of a quarterback shuttle—something that’d be a bad idea for most coaches—very much in play, so long as Taysom Hill is cleared to play coming off the concussion. It makes sense too, for two reasons. One, because Hill and Trevor Siemian have contrasting holes in their games. And two, because the Saints, with Michael Thomas now officially down for the year, are lacking for real threats in their skill group outside of Alvin Kamara. I’d expect that something pretty creative is coming for the Falcons on Sunday.
Can Tua Tagovailoa make a statement? I wrote this in my mailbag on Wednesday, and I do believe it to be true—the Dolphins’ Deshaun Watson pursuit was more about a unique opportunity presenting itself to get a top-five-ish quarterback with five years left on his contract than it was a matter of being out on the fifth pick from two drafts ago. That said, I didn’t see the Giants or the Bengals or the Chargers out there in hot pursuit. Nor were the Niners or Jets, two teams Watson had been linked to since the spring. So even though the Dolphins aren’t out on Tagovailoa, the last couple of weeks have shown they’re not all the way in on him either. And that can be a tough pill for a player to swallow. Now, we get to see how Tagovailoa responds with, in reality, his place as an NFL starter on the line.
Stephon Gilmore revenge game? Gilmore played just 17 snaps last weekend against the Falcons, but looked phenomenal in doing so. One veteran scout said to me that the tape showed “why he’ll be a Hall of Famer.” The 31-year-old was assigned to Falcons rookie phenom Kyle Pitts when he was in the game, and more or less held him in check completely before scoring the game-clinching interception. He did it while working his way back into game shape, too, in his first game in almost a year, and using his smarts as much as physical ability. And in getting himself ready for that, the Panthers have seen a guy who very clearly carries himself as a pro, which gives you every indication he’ll get better from here. It sure will be fun to see how much better he’ll be Sunday, when his old team, one he was at odds with (for a number of reasons), coming to town.
How will the Raiders rebound? What happened this week was much bigger than football, but, man, have those coaches and players in Vegas been through a lot. And they’re going cross-country for a 10 a.m. body clock game against the Giants. I have no idea what to expect this time around from Rich Bisaccia. But owner Mark Davis told me at the league meeting last month that he isn’t planning to start any sort of coaching search yet, because he wants to give Bisaccia and his staff a real chance. And if Bisaccia pulls the team out of this, and turns its 5–2 start into a playoff berth …
TWO BEST BETS
Season record: 4–12 (this isn’t going very well).
Cowboys (-10) vs. Broncos: I may not trust Dallas completely quite yet, just because of history. But I’m getting there.
Chargers (-2) at Eagles: I just think the Chargers are better. And coming off a pair of losses, they should be pretty desperate too, which usually helps.
ONE BIG QUESTION
In the wake of the Von Miller trade, what’s the downside of the Rams’ approach?
Mostly, it’s that you’re shortening your margin for error. Because you’re spending money on big stars, you’re going to need more players on rookie contracts filling out the second tier of your roster. And because you’re shipping draft picks off to acquire those stars, you’re trying to do it with picks that are further down the line in the draft order.
Therein, you’ll find something you have to give GM Les Snead, coach Sean McVay and their staffs credit for.
Simply put, it’s pretty staggering how many hits the Rams have had later in the draft.
Their starting center, Brian Allen, was a fourth-rounder in 2018. The left tackle on Sunday, with Andrew Whitworth out, Joe Noteboom, was a third-rounder in ’18. Their starting tailback, Darrell Henderson, was a third-rounder in 2019. One of their starting receivers, Van Jefferson, was a second-rounder in 2020. Terrell Lewis, starting at outside linebacker opposite Leonard Floyd, was a third-rounder in ’20. Taylor Rapp and Jordan Fuller, the team’s starting safeties, were second- and sixth-rounders respectively.
Then, there’s Ernest Jones, a ’21 third-rounder, who was coming around so fast that the team felt compelled to dump Kenny Young for a bag of tees to clear the way for him. That trade also helped spark the Miller conversation with Denver, while clearing cap space that made it easier to take on the former Super Bowl MVP.
And obviously, looking at all this, it’s a credit to how Snead and McVay have identified needs and then talent to fill those needs, how Snead’s gone out and gotten that talent and then how McVay and his coaches have developed it.
As we said on Monday, there’s this idea out there that the Rams are reckless.
Based on what I know, I’d say they definitely aren’t.
More NFL Coverage:
• Aaron Rodgers Could Avoid Vaccine Scrutiny for Only So Long
• Week 8 Takeaways: Feisty Divisional Games, a Wide Open AFC and More
• MMQB: Saints Beat Tom Brady Again, Familiar-Looking Patriots and More
• Trade Deadline Grades: Von Miller, Melvin Ingram, More