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MAQB: Joe Burrow's Toughness Helps Him As a Leader; Taysom Hill Contract Incentives

Zac Taylor compares his QB to a linebacker. Plus, Taysom's full list of possible payouts in 2021, injuries to Christian McCaffrey and Jack Conklin, coach salaries and more notes from around the league.

Thanksgiving is in the rearview, and we've got just one more game until December football. Let's go ...

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• Sunday, during the first half of Bengals-Steelers, a replay of Joe Burrow going toe to toe with T.J. Watt caught my eye, so I took some video of it because it looked so unusual—a quarterback engaged in the sort of deadlock with the monstrous Watt that you’d normally see from linemen going at it after the whistle. Both guys were clearly trying to get the other guy on the ground, Burrow wasn’t going down easy and the scene got the eye of another former Ohio State quarterback who knows the Bengals QB well.

Herbie’s right, and I’d imagine there’d be a big pop in the meeting room, too, when that video played. So Sunday night, when I had Bengals coach Zac Taylor on the phone, I asked him about it. He hadn’t seen it yet. But as I described it, he was hardly surprised.

“No, I think Joe thinks deep down he’s a linebacker,” Taylor told me. “That’s what he thinks. And that’s kinda how he plays sometimes, and sometimes I gotta hold my breath when he plays that way. But that’s just the mentality he has. And he’s the son of a coach. He’s grown up around football, he’s grown up around being tough and then understanding what toughness is, how that can help you as a leader.

“You don’t always have to just be the most vocal guy yelling and screaming at everybody. You lead through toughness, you lead through knowing what you’re going to do and accomplishing the task that you’re supposed to accomplish. And Joe does that. He’s our linebacker playing quarterback right now, and the team really responds and feeds off of that.”

We wrote about the culture change that’s happened in Cincinnati this year in the MMQB column—one reason why Taylor said he wasn’t overly concerned with the team’s two losses before its bye metastasizing into more. And having a quarterback like this, obviously, is a big part of that.

• With the news that Taysom Hill may start at quarterback on Thursday against the Cowboys, it’s worth looking at what it’ll means for him contractually, with the new complex deal that he signed. The agreement was to pay him at one level (around $10 million per year) if he’s playing his normal jack-of-all-trades role and another if the Saints decide to go with him full-time at quarterback. And the benefits of playing quarterback could kick in right away, although it’s highly unlikely many of the 2021 incentives are achieved. Here they are …

1) $150,000 for 3,250 passing yards
2) $150,000 for a passer rating of 90 or higher (minimum 224 attempts)
3) $150,000 for 25 passing TDs
4) $150,000 for 65% or better completion percentage (minimum 224 attempts)
5) $150,000 for 600 rushing yards
6) $150,000 for 70% playing time and 11 wins
7) $150,000 for 70% playing time, 11 wins and a bye
8) $150,000 for each playoff win in which he plays 50% of the snaps
9) $250,000 for league MVP

Right now, Hill has 56 passing yards, eight attempts and no touchdown passes. That means he’d need 531 yards per game to hit the passing yardage incentive, more than four touchdown passes per game to hit the touchdown incentive, and he’d need to throw the ball 36 times per game to be eligible for the rating or completion percentage incentives. That means the most likely ones for him to hit would be the team incentives for playoff wins. And Hill’s contract does go forward like this after this year too, with higher stakes (the individual statistical incentives, for example, jump from $150,000 per to $500,000 per in 2022) after this year. It’s an interesting way to do a deal, for sure. And while it could make it costly for the team to work Hill in at quarterback down the line, the team is protected to a degree, in that he doesn’t just have to play quarterback to get pay bumps—he has to play quarterback well.

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• Last week, we dove in on Jonathan Taylor and how a truly special back can be worth a high draft pick and a big second contract. This week, Christian McCaffrey’s situation gave us the counterpart—and pretty emphatically. Getting McCaffrey signed in the spring of 2020 was one of Matt Rhule’s first big moves as Panthers coach, and it’s understandable why you’d do it, rewarding an in-house player who’s reflective of what you’re building and positioning him as a leader. The four-year, $64 million extension was done with the fourth year, and the fifth-year option, left on McCaffrey’s rookie deal, and it was easy to see where Carolina would have confidence in his durability. He’d played in 49 of 49 games as a pro (including a playoff game), with 629 carries and 309 catches under his belt. On top of that, he only missed one game in three years at Stanford, played in 37, and had 632 carries and 99 catches over that time. That’s a remarkable track record. And so there was no real way to guess what has happened since—an ACL injury took him out last year and ankle injury torpedoed this year and, now, with his season declared over, he’ll have played in 10 games and missed 23 over the first two years of his new deal, which were initially covered by his old deal. It’s a bad result all the way around. But if you’re the team in a situation like this, given what McCaffrey’s meant to the franchise, on and off the field, I’m not sure there was much of a choice but to extend him. And if you’re a high-end running back in a situation like this? Seeing what’s happened with McCaffrey is another example of why, once you’re eligible for a second contract, you should have sharp elbows at the negotiating table.

• Losing Jack Conklin for the year is another blow to the identity the Browns built in 2020—an identity that hasn’t shown up when Cleveland’s needed it to this year. Last year’s group was rugged and resilient. This one hasn’t shown the same sort of personality when it’s needed it. And I’m not sure that’s anyone’s fault in particular. Some of the offseason additions, like Jadeveon Clowney, haven’t been quite the fits they were envisioned to be. Obviously, the Odell Beckham Jr. saga didn’t help, nor did the more recent Baker Mayfield drama. So I’d look for the Browns’ personnel moves in early ‘22 to focus back on setting the culture where it needs to be. That doesn’t mean this season’s over, by the way—the team is still 5–6. Things can change. But it’s pretty clear that, as of now, Berea’s a different place than it was a year ago.

• ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on Sunday night that Oklahoma’s looking at Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury as a potential replacement for Lincoln Riley, and Kingsbury addressed it on Monday, saying, “I don’t get into those things. My sole focus the last couple weeks has been the Chicago Bears and, after watching them on Thanksgiving, it needs to be, because they’re a really good football team and had a big win, and so that’s where my focus has been.” Given another chance to squash the idea that he’d leave Phoenix for Norman, Kingsbury deflected again. And I can’t say with 100% certainty why he did it—but if you were looking for a new contract, it’d make all the sense in the world to keep the idea there’s a real competitor for your services out there alive. Good for Kingsbury. It doesn’t take much for a coach to get fired in the NFL, so it makes sense to exert leverage when you have it on owners who are under no spending limits when it comes to paying the nonplayers in their football operations.

• While we’re there, it’ll be interesting to see if the explosion of coaches’ salaries at the college level—with 10-year deals done for USC’s Lincoln Riley, Michigan State’s Mel Tucker and Penn State’s James Franklin—winds up trickling up to the NFL. At my last count, nine of the NFL’s 32 head coaches were averaging eight figures per year (in a new-money calculation). For comparison’s sake, here are some of the players making $10 million per year: Sam Hubbard, Rodney Hudson, La’El Collins, Kendall Fuller, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Eric Kendricks, Ereck Flowers, Taysom Hill, Ronald Darby, Shaq Lawson … and you get the idea. In almost any case, a good head coach is simply worth more than he’s making, and the newest explosion of TV money coming in, to me, means owners who care about winning should be spending to get the spot right, period.

• Peeking ahead to Week 13, the Monday-nighter might be the headliner—with the Patriots’ taking their six-game win streak into Buffalo with the AFC East lead on the line. New England won 12 consecutive division titles prior to last year, when the Bills became the first AFC East team to sweep New England in 20 years, and won the division by three games, while finishing six clear of the Patriots. Taking all that into account, I asked Devin McCourty on Sunday night if the idea that the division goes through Orchard Park, rather than Foxboro, for the first in forever is any sort of motivator. He answered in a very Patriot way. “Nah, honestly I don’t care about any of that. It’s about this season. This group of guys have fought their butts off. As a leader, I want to help these guys and show what it’s been like to play in these games. I don’t care who’s on the schedule, who’s next. I think that’s what it’s about. And I’ve learned that from the guys that’ve been ahead of me. Those guys have been locked in for whatever that season is, and we’ve leaned or their experience and they passed that down to me. I try to do the same thing.

• If Dan Quinn does, indeed, get the reins for the Cowboys on Thursday, and the Cowboys play well, it’ll be interesting to see if that might help his candidacy to get a second shot as a head coach. Quinn’s still just 51, went to the Super Bowl, and the playoffs twice, over six years as Falcons coach. Really, until his final year, he also didn’t have a real train wreck season—his nonplayoff years were 8–8, 7–9 and 7–9—and he pulled his 2019 team out of a ditch to save his job after that season. He’s also helped develop young guys like Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs in Dallas this year. Look at the big picture, and you’d think he profiles as someone who might get a second chance, and maybe especially in a cycle that isn’t loaded with obvious candidates.

• It’s worth noting that on Monday alone, a head coach and two of the NFL’s best defensive players (T.J. Watt and Titans safety Kevin Byard) landed on the COVID-19 list. So it sure feels like this is becoming a part of the story of the season’s stretch run, and it’ll be interesting to see if teams take precautionary measures to limit spread this year, like some did last year, to try and create a competitive advantage in December and January.

• National TV games have a way of serving as a referendum on struggling teams, and so Monday night’s an intriguing one for those following the Seahawks’ situation closely. And it’ll also be worth seeing—especially without a ManningCast—whether anything came out of the broadcast team’s production meetings with Russell Wilson in the lead-up to the game. His future, obviously, will only become more of a front-burner topic the further Seattle falls out of contention. And right now, as it is, the Seahawks are in a very unfamiliar spot. A loss Monday night would give them eight for the year, which would be their highest total in a decade.

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