Ten weeks down! Hard to believe we’re that deep into the season. Let’s dive into the mailbag, and your mid-November questions …
From tildaddy (@tildaddy): Where do you put Mike Vrabel among other NFL coaches right now? He’s not a big scheme guy, but as far as a culture-building type coach he’s gotta be way up there.
Tildaddy, let’s start with the facts …
• Vrabel has had a winning record in all three of his full seasons for the Titans, made the playoffs twice and got to the AFC title game in 2019. He’s 8–2 thus far is Season 4.
• Among active coaches, his career winning percentage of .629 is fifth, trailing only Matt LaFleur (.783), Bill Belichick (.676), Sean McVay (.662) and Mike Tomlin (.639). Like LaFleur and McVay, his sample size is still relatively small. But four years isn’t nothing.
• He effectively transitioned the Titans out from Marcus Mariota in 2019 and helped to revive Ryan Tannehill’s career when no one wanted the former Dolphin. Mariota, of course, was the second pick in ’15. Usually, it takes a while for a franchise to recover from striking out at that position that high in the draft. Vrabel helped to make it happen without incident.
• He and GM Jon Robinson have been effective in problem-solving, too. The defense was a mess last year, and they rebuilt it on the fly, with their front—fueled by home-grown Jeffrey Simmons and Harold Landry, and veteran addition Denico Autry—is becoming one of the best in football.
• The Titans are also developing young talent at a high level under Vrabel, with stars like A.J. Brown, Derrick Henry and Simmons emerging, and veteran players like Tannehill and Kevin Byard performing at a peak level, on his watch.
So there’s all that. And I think you’re selling him short on scheme, too—probably because people assume a team that doesn’t throw the ball constantly is deficient in that area. The Titans are very good situationally and have real identity on both sides of the ball, with the malleability to match up with just about anyone. I would not say there’s a hole there, when it comes to how Vrabel’s staff coaches.
Add all that up, and I think Vrabel’s probably not top-five, because it’s hard to be there without having had a Super Bowl team (yet), but comfortably in the top 10 of guys you’d hire if you were starting a franchise tomorrow.
From Michael Manix (@theomanix): For the five first-round QBs taken in the 2021 draft, has the league perception changed regarding medium/long-term upside?
Mike, this has been asked a lot, so I figured we’d give you the order I think the quarterbacks would be redrafted in if you just had five random teams picking from them today. And to fine-tune this, I went to handful of personnel directors and posed the question to them.
And the first thing I’d advise we do is keep this simple. The first one to go would absolutely, positively still be Trevor Lawrence, something that also was unanimous with the scouts. The once-in-a-generation package of traits is there, and he’s already showing an ability to elevate those around him. He was drafted into a rebuild, which is why the statistics don’t accurately reflect his play. And not only does he have the highest ceiling, but if you put each of these guys in identical situations, I believe Lawrence would be the best right now, too.
Who’d go second is trickier, but the answer I got back, from the small number of guys I did a straw poll with, pinpoints the fourth and fifth guys taken—the Bears’ Justin Fields and Patriots’ Mac Jones. I think one way of couching the difference between the two actually also explains why Lawrence is on another tier. What separates Jones and Fields at this point, really, is what sort of system you want to run and how tolerant you are to ride out a young quarterback’s hiccups. Lawrence, on the other hand, could excel in any system.
There was also some split over whether the Jets’ Zach Wilson would go in front of the Niners’ Trey Lance, or vice versa. The issue with Wilson to this point has been questions that were raised on him coming out—whether he had the size to hold up physically and whether he too often played off-schedule and/or looked for the big play—have shown up. The issue with Lance is, obviously, the lack of evidence of much anything on his progress. Because of that, you’re projecting with these two more than the other three.
And remember, it’s still early. We have 10 weeks of information on these guys, we’ll get another eight this season and it’s certainly possible that we’ll look at this differently in January than we are in November.
But this much I will say: Given how the 2022 quarterback class looks right now, you sure get the feeling that Jaguars, Jets, Niners, Bears and Patriots should feel good about getting young quarterbacks when they did.
From Alexyz (@alexyz1): How good are these Patriots? From 1 to 10 ...
Alex, I’m gonna say they’re a solid 7, and probably a little ahead of schedule on their rebuild. And they’ve gotten ahead on their rebuild because their batting average for the 2021 offseason, to this point, has been outstanding. Matthew Judon (9.5 sacks), Hunter Henry (seven TDs) and Kendrick Bourne (520 receiving yards) have been hits as veteran additions; and Mac Jones, Christian Barmore and Rhamondre Stevenson have made a big impact right away as rookies. That’s six starting-level players, or 27% of a starting lineup.
I’ve said this all along—the team’s 2020 collapse was a talent issue. The Patriots didn’t draft well for an extended period, hung on to aging players and got old as a result, and had mortgaged contracts to make that happen and stay at least competent around Tom Brady. The damage done went deep enough, as I saw it, to the point where it’d take a couple of offseasons for the team to dig out of it.
Now, I still think the Patriots are another good offseason away from being a true championship contender again, and that actually puts them in a good position to take advantage of the second and third years of Jones’s rookie contract. It’s at that juncture that the Chiefs won it all with Patrick Mahomes, and that the Rams and Eagles went to Super Bowls after drafting young quarterbacks (though Carson Wentz wound up missing the game). If Jones keeps getting better, it wouldn’t be hard to envision the same scenario here.
But there’s no doubt that they’re a little ahead of schedule in reworking the roster, based on where they were coming out of last year.
From Derek Robbins (@coachdeek10): Why would the Steelers start Rudolph and not Haskins? They know what Rudolph is (stiff) and need to see if Haskins can play. Made no sense to sign Haskins if they aren’t starting him in that spot!
Derek, the best answer is going to bore you to tears, and that’s that the team is in the midst of a playoff race and needs to play the guy it believes is best for the team right now. And that guy, believe it or not, is Mason Rudolph. Ben Roethlisberger’s absence will likely be two games max, and there’s a chance he’ll be back Sunday against the Chargers. So this was never going to be a period earmarked for the development or evaluation of a single player.
Is it a great sign that Dwayne Haskins wasn’t out there Sunday, given all the information we have on Rudolph? It is not. But Haskins was signed, basically, as a long-term play for the Steelers, taking a flier on a former first-round pick, and hoping that the talent will show up with a little more maturity and time. It’s not over yet.
From R.B. (@Sports_Fi3nd): Do you believe that the Rams are not a physical team when it comes to opponents that prefer to run the ball more than pass? Do their recent struggles alarm you as far as what their potential can be this season?
R.B., I think it’s a fair question, and I think it’s easy to see how this could happen. For most of Sean McVay’s time in L.A., the Rams have actually been a pretty physical group. His early teams were built around a 230-pound tailback who wound up winning Offensive Player of the Year honors and led the team to a Super Bowl. But this year’s been different and has led the group down another path.
It started, of course, with the acquisition of Matthew Stafford, a quarterback brought in to open the offense up in ways Jared Goff couldn’t, and allow for McVay’s offense to attack defenses at all three levels of the field. Then, in July, Cam Akers, their jackhammer of a young tailback, blew out his Achilles. So it’s easy to see where a desire to get the most out of the new and incredibly gifted quarterback, and an injury to a bell cow tailback, would blend together to make an offense far more pass-happy than it intended to be.
The other issue there is that, generally, if you’re not physical on offense, it bleeds over on to the defense, because the way you practice over the summer, and even at points of the fall, can be dictated by the offense’s style of play.
So it’s pretty easy to see where a few different things could conspire to make the Rams susceptible against a team like the 49ers. The problem going forward would be that it’s tough to change the physical makeup/identity of an NFL team midseason. Getting Akers back, and that might or might not happen in January, would help. But I don’t think it would fix all of it. Which is to say that while the Rams are still a really, really good team, there is a blueprint to beating them now that they’re probably going to confront again at some point.
From Keith Pratt (@kpmilehigh): If Cam Newton gets the Panthers to the playoffs, does he get re-signed to a multiyear deal? Or do they still pursue Watson, Wilson or Rodgers for 2022?
Keith, the Panthers actually are a playoff team—at 5–5, they’d be the NFC’s seventh seed if the season ended today. If they stay there, and get into the postseason, then yes, I’d say the idea of Newton’s coming back is in play. But I don’t think it’d take just that for Carolina to welcome him back.
First, obviously, he personally needs to show he’s capable of being consistent as a starting quarterback in the NFL again, and it’s been more than three years since we’ve seen that from Newton. Second, it’d have to fit into their overall plan at the position, which is certainly complicated by Sam Darnold’s fifth-year option, which is locked in and fully guaranteed for $18.858 million in 2022. And that will, eventually, become a numbers game.
If the Panthers choose to keep Darnold on the roster at that number, it seems unlikely that they’d carry both Newton and a first-round rookie—by doing that, they’d be slicing into the reps the young guy is getting, and further complicating his path on to the field. If the Panthers choose to pursue a Deshaun Watson or Russell Wilson, obviously that would mean, unequivocally, Newton wouldn’t be coming back.
That means the two paths to Newton’s returning to Charlotte are either via an open competition with Darnold being more attractive to the team than the idea of drafting one (certainly possible, given what the 2022 rookie class looks like), or through the Panthers’ finding a way to dump Darnold’s salary.
Of course, Newton’s got some power over all this. He can go out and kill it on the field, and make it difficult for the team to walk away from him.
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From Jack Fitzpatrick (@jackjack9298): Can the NFL flex Monday night games?
Not this year, Jack. But starting in 2023, the answer is yes. And this week would actually be the week that it’d come into play. As part of ESPN’s new agreement with the league, and as its MNF package, starting in Week 12 in each year of that deal the league can flex games out to Monday. It requires 12 days’ notice, which means the day I’m writing this—Wednesday of Week 11—would actually be the day, calendar-wise, that the NFL and ESPN could make the season’s first MNF flex decision.
And it’s a fun exercise to look at how all of this would go down, were it in place this year. The Week 12 Monday-nighter is 3–6 Seattle at 3–6 Washington. Two teams with big fan bases and one star quarterback in the mix, but not the sorts of records that make sense for prime time. On top of that, Week 12 is Thanksgiving week, so there’d be two fewer games to choose from (with three games on Thursday rather than one).
So what would the league do? Well, Browns at Ravens is the Sunday night game that week, which means NBC would probably stand pat. Rams at Packers is on the slate, but Fox would definitely fight to keep one. So I’d be looking at Titans at Patriots and Steelers at Bengals, two games with potentially big implications, both of which are 1 p.m. games on CBS, as having the potential to be moved.
It’ll be interesting to see how this works in a couple of years, though I do feel kinda bad for fans who try to schedule trips to games around these things.
From Biddy Ross (@BiddyRoss): Who is the best young coach, who will be the next Josh McDaniels/Sean McVay/Arther Smith OC? The Jags could use some creativity.
Biddy, I think the guys there deserve time, and Urban Meyer will probably give it to them. But if you want some names, here are a few.
Buffalo assistants Ken Dorsey and Chad Hall: The former is the quarterbacks coach, the latter is the receivers coach; both have developed talent at their positions and are part of one of the more inventive offenses in the league.
Chiefs passing-game coordinator Mike Kafka: The ex-NFL quarterback might become a head coach before he becomes a play-caller—teams have tried to pry him from Kansas City to be an OC elsewhere.
Panthers receivers coach Frisman Jackson: An ex-NFL receiver, Arthur Smith interviewed him for the OC job in Atlanta last year, and there’s some coordinating experience here (he served as Matt Rhule’s pass-game coordinator at Temple).
Falcons quarterbacks coach Charles London: He was one of the most well-respected running backs coaches in football, and made a smooth transition over to quarterbacks earlier this year as part of Arthur Smith’s staff. As such, London has a good feel for the big picture.
Patriots assistants Nick Caley and Mick Lombardi: The 38-year-old Caley is another John Carroll product and is in his fifth season as a position coach with New England, having taken on the added responsibility of fullbacks in 2020. Lombardi’s been important in ’21 as the receivers coach, and has extensive background working with quarterbacks as well.
Cardinals assistants Cam Turner and Spencer Whipple: The 34-year-old Turner is the QBs coach, and has a rep as a great communicator who’s helped bring Kyler Murray along. Whipple, 32, is the assistant receivers coach and seen as a rising star internally, called plays when Kliff Kingsbury was out, and brings great attention to detail and vision for the game.
Buccaneers receivers coach Kevin Garver: The 34-year-old is in his ninth year working with Bruce Arians and worked at Alabama for Nick Saban before that. And over the last year, he’s been part of adapting Arians’s system for Tom Brady, who’s demanding of his receivers.
Browns tight ends coach Drew Petzing: At 34, Petzing’s worked in multiple systems, has been a close confidant of Kevin Stefanski for a long time and spent time coaching QBs and receivers in Minnesota. With a little more time, he’s got good coordinator potential.
Vikings quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko: Another coach well-versed in the Shanahan style of offense, Janocko’s still young, at 33, but has coached every position on the offensive side of the ball. He may be a couple years away, but he’s very well-regarded.
Packers assistants Luke Getsy and Adam Stenavich: Getsy was an OC at Mississippi State in 2018, helped develop Davante Adams as receivers coach, and now is quarterbacks coach and pass-game coordinator. Stenavich is a respected line coach and coordinates the run game. The Green Bay staff is loaded with good young offensive coaches, with Jason Vrable and Justin Outten there as other names to watch.
Rams assistants Thomas Brown and Wes Phillips: Brown, in a year as running backs coach, did enough to earn the assistant head coach title under Sean McVay in L.A., and was a coordinator at the University of Miami already. Phillips played quarterback, has coached the line and tight ends, and was promoted to pass-game coordinator this year.
Seahawks pass-game coordinator Dave Canales: The 40-year-old’s coached under Pete Carroll going back to USC and developed receivers like Golden Tate and Tyler Lockett in Seattle before moving over to quarterbacks in 2018. He’s seen a lot in 12 years there.
This list, for clarity’s sake, was in part what I know, and in part the result of asking around a little on Tuesday night—it’s not comprehensive, and some of these guys might be a few years away. Really, I just wanted give you all a few ideas to chew on.
And there are guys in the college game (Notre Dame OC Tommy Rees, LSU OC Jake Peetz, Ohio State WRs coach Brian Hartline) who have strong ties to the NFL and are seen as potential coordinators on the pro level. There are also some OCs working under play-calling head coaches in the NFL (Mike McDaniel in San Francisco, Alex Van Pelt in Cleveland, Nathaniel Hackett in Green Bay, Brian Callahan in Cincinnati, as well as long-time Saints OC Pete Carmichael) who would be good gets for other teams, if they could somehow be pried away.
So while the coaching carousel may have fewer obvious head coaching candidates than it has in the past, that definitely doesn’t mean there’s any shortage of good young coaches working in the league.
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