• So we’re now 14 weeks into an 18-week season, and Jimmy Garoppolo is still leading the 49ers. And, full credit to Garoppolo, the quarterback was able to summon—from an up-and-down performance—his best down the stretch Sunday through the end of regulation and overtime in leading the Niners to a 26-20 win in Cincinnati. Has the year been a little awkward for him? Sure, it has. He came into it without another guaranteed dollar on his contract, and his team paid a king’s ransom to land his replacement, nine years his junior, in the spring. But he’s got the Niners at 7–6, with four wins in their last five games to put San Francisco squarely in position to win a wild card spot. “Oh yeah, Jimmy's our leader,” said receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who was on the receiving end of his game-winning touchdown pass in overtime. “His ability to lead is great. Everybody shows up for him, we all feed off of him. And we just take it week by week. We know how this league works, we know exactly how it goes, and we enjoy everything the week that we have together. And that's about it. We see him as the leader of the team, and I'm gonna ride behind him.” And really, the way this has all played out is good for everyone involved. Garoppolo gets to pilot a team he’s been with for five years. The Niners get a veteran quarterback starting, with a high-end developmental guy behind him. And Trey Lance gets to learn at a controlled pace—where, given his limited college experience, putting him out there with a contender right away would’ve been like letting a 16-year-old with a learner’s permit loose on the Autobahn in his first driver’s ed class. All this shouldn’t change the fact that Lance is likely to be the Niners’ quarterback in 2022. But it does stand to pull all parties in a better position than they would be otherwise going into the new year.
• This was probably a dumb question to ask, but I was wondering as Cordarrelle Patterson and I talked yesterday why, if he was leaning so hard into being a running back, why he hadn’t switched his number to something more traditional for the position, like a number in the 20s, or even a single digit, now that that’s allowed. Turns out, he’s got a really good reason for hanging on to a number, 84, that looks kind of weird on a running back. “That's the year my sister was born,” he said. “I can't get rid of 84 unless they ban me from 84.”
• One thing to add on the Jaguars’ situation to what I wrote in The MMQB—part of where the coaches stand on Urban Meyer actually comes down to the side of the ball guys are on. I’m told, for the most part, Meyer has let defensive coordinator Joe Cullen and his coaches do their jobs. The experience his offensive coaches have had has been very different, and that’s another thing that matches right up with how he led at Ohio State and Florida. While he evolved into more of a CEO/culture coach as the years wore on, he still would keep his finger on the pulse of the offense. And when things weren’t right, he’d lean hard on those guys because his background was on offense (though he actually never was a coordinator), and his friction with receivers coaches, because that was the position he coached coming up, was legendary. I don’t know if we get to 2022 with Meyer in Jacksonville. But if we do, as I said this morning, I’d expect very significant staff changes.
• Wednesday is the first day of the early signing period in college football, and just as it has had an effect on the hiring cycle in college football—accelerating it in a big way, to where we’re in mid-December and most of the big schools that were going to make moves have made those moves and hired new coaches—it’ll hit the NFL, too. That starts with the fact that it may be harder for guys with NFL aspirations, like Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, to detach from their schools, having full recruiting classes signed and full staffs in place with the hiring cycle complete. It also affects the NFL’s ability to pluck talented assistants from the college ranks. And, again, this dynamic was more at play this year, mostly over the last two weeks, but also in a number of earlier firings, than ever before. So it’ll be interesting to see in a month if it limits the college-to-pro coaching pipeline.
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• Baker Mayfield’s comments—about “internal” issues in Cleveland—are just another sign that the Browns’ culture isn’t quite where it was a year ago. There are, of course, other elements at work here too. Mayfield’s own health is one. The health of his backs and line are another. The Odell Beckham saga took its toll, too. But overall, those with the Browns concede the feel is different from last year’s tough, gritty group. This collection of players, which is still talented, isn’t seen as quite as self-starting as last year’s was. And that sort of thing can happen, and the good news is its impact in Cleveland hasn’t been enough to take the Browns out of an AFC North race being waged by four good, but flawed (and in some cases really beat-up) teams. But it’s definitely something worth paying attention to as we get closer to the offseason, as to how GM Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski might rework some areas of the roster.
• I had a coach comment to me how Tyler Huntley has grown into a pretty ideal backup for Lamar Jackson—a guy who’s competent throwing the ball, and brings the sort of skill in the run game where the Ravens don’t have to flip the apple cart over if/when Jackson goes down. And I know John Harbaugh said he expects to have Jackson against the Packers on Sunday. But Huntley's presence at least gives Baltimore a viable option if the smart play is to sit Jackson for a week as the Ravens try to hang on to their playoff standing amid a tidal wave of season-ending injuries.
• With both Jackson and Allen nicked up on Sunday, it’s worth revisiting the topic of how judicious teams have to be in putting the ball in the hands of mobile quarterbacks in the run game. Both are integral pieces to what their teams do in that area, and that’s especially true now with the Ravens’ top two backs out for the year, and the Bills' running backs playing bit roles in the Buffalo offense. I remember talking to Mike Shanahan about this years ago, and him saying that designed runs actually allowed for the scheme to protect the quarterback from taking a shot—it was the off-schedule plays that scared him. So I think there’s a balance teams like Buffalo and Baltimore have to strike, managing run calls that involve the quarterback, that put him in a better place to avoid a big hit, while also convincing him to be smart in the open field. And it’ll be important for both to find that balance. Eventually, all the hits wound up catching up to Cam Newton, and Newton’s built like a defensive end, which means, really, no quarterback is immune to the wear-and-tear playing that way can inflict.
• One thing that’s sort of interesting in looking at the game of Coach of the Year footsies that Kliff Kingsbury and Bill Belichick played the last couple days? How Kingsbury is the second guy who played for, rather than coached for, Belichick that’s had great success. It’s something I’m planning to ask around on, because both Kingsbury and Mike Vrabel seem pretty natural running NFL programs, something that hasn’t always been the case with guys who’ve coached for Belichick.
• With a predictable uptick in COVID-19 cases hitting the NFL now, and hitting Monday Night Football in real time, it’s worth considering how the league is going to handle the playoffs—and even if teams take it on themselves (especially in Northern climates) and choose to go to stricter protocols to try and keep their risk low. Work has already started on this, and one expectation already among teams is that the Super Bowl representatives will not be spending a whole week on-site, as was the mandate pre-COVID, in Los Angeles. As was the case last year, the plan for now is to have the conference champions travel in later during Super Bowl week. Plans are still being finalized, but the teams definitely won’t get in Monday or Tuesday, and many expect that the league will handle this year like last year, and have the conference champions travel in on the weekend, like they would during a normal game week.
• The MAQB is coming to you a little late this week, because I didn’t have internet on my flight to Dallas. Anyway, I’m here for the NFL’s labor seminar tomorrow and an owners meeting on Wednesday. Among the topics on the docket: Updates on coach hiring/diversity, fan engagement, events, finance and international.
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