In a weird way, the stage for the most impactful thing we saw on Sunday may have been set in a relatively meaningless Fiesta Bowl three years ago. You’ll have to follow me on this one.
If you Google “Joe Burrow UCF hit,” you’ll see it. In the first quarter of that January 2019 game, Burrow took a vicious blow while a defender was returning a pick-six that put LSU down 14–3 against undefeated Central Florida. After an up-and-down first year in Baton Rouge, after transferring from Ohio State, Burrow was leading a team some thought would pack it in that day. Instead, the hit itself sparked something in the quarterback that became contagious.
The Tigers rallied to beat UCF 40–32. But something even bigger grew from it.
“We played UCF and he got hit, and they were saying how that transformed him,” his LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase said late Sunday afternoon. “But he just … after that hit, I just felt like he got back into the playbook looking at more stuff than he even needed to. He started realizing what his job really was, and he took off from there.”
“He was just real big on communication and timing with his receivers,” Chase continued.
LSU won a national title the following year, and yet another payoff came in Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday—with Burrow and Chase teammates again, and their Bengals facing an impossible third-and-27 from the Chiefs’ 41, with 3:14 to go, tied with the two-time defending AFC champion Chiefs at 31. And that’s because it’s a play that happened thanks, again, to all the time the two have spent building that communication.
The call, as Zac Taylor explained it to me, had a seven-man protection on, since Kansas City had been blitzing. To Burrow’s left, there was a two-man progression, with Taylor giving the quarterback instructions that they needed nine yards or so to set up an Evan McPherson field goal. To his right, alone, Chase was deployed, per Taylor, “as a yes-no for the quarterback, based on whether the Chiefs pressed the receiver. Corner Charvarius Ward did, so Chase said he “just took a speed release, got to the outside and ran a go.”
From there, Burrow put up an absolute dime, knowing exactly where Chase would be, and Chase smoothly snagged it and passed the sticks just as Ward pushed him out of bounds.
“That chemistry, they’ve invested thousands of reps before they ever became Bengals on that type of throw and catch,” Taylor said. “We saw it on the LSU tape, we are now seeing it on the Bengals tape and it’s just … it’s a fun thing to watch.”
On this Sunday, how Chase and Burrow have shaken up the Bengals’ identity was clear.
In the process, they just so happened to shake up the AFC playoff picture, too.
There was a lot going on in that early window Sunday, so we have a lot to get to in the next-to-last MMQB of the 2021 regular season (coming to you in ‘22!). Inside this week’s column, we’ve got …
• A good look at where the Buccaneers stand going into Week 18 (weirdness and all).
• An appreciation for the job the Raiders have done through a tumultuous year.
• Examples of how the Rams keep showing their toughness.
• Takes on the Cardinals’ rebound, a tough week in the NFL and more.
But we’re starting with the Bengals and the Titans, and how the AFC playoff chase is materially different than it was 24 hours ago.
We’ll tell the longer story in a minute, but the abridged conclusion to third-and-27 was a McPherson field goal as time expired. It won the game for the Bengals, moving Cincinnati to 10–6 on the season.
That locked up the Bengals’ first AFC North title, and playoff berth, in six years. And that result reverberated four hours down I-71 and I-65 in Nashville.
It was there, after the Titans’ 34–3 win over Miami, that someone told Ryan Tannehill in the locker room that the Bengals were tied with the Chiefs and driving. A few minutes later, an assistant coach broke into Mike Vrabel’s postgame address to tell the group that Burrow & Co. had, indeed, pulled it out.
Which meant Tennessee was in position to take the AFC’s No. 1 seed.
“Vrabel tried to play it down a little bit,” Tannehill told me a few hours later. “But guys were excited and definitely having a good time.”
Deservedly so—as remarkable as the Bengals’ renaissance behind Burrow and Chase has been, what the Titans have accomplished this year is right there with it. And that’s because they’ve been without their version of Burrow or Chase since Halloween.
Of course, Derrick Henry hasn’t been the only one missing. The Titans have used a total of 88 players this season, which is an NFL record for a nonstrike season, with a week to go. They have started 52 different guys, a combination of, yes, the same sort of COVID-19 issues everyone’s been through, but also a rash of injuries in a lot of key places, and on offense in particular.
And Sunday’s dismantling of a Miami team that came to Tennessee riding a seven-game winning streak was an incredible example of how the whole thing has played out.
The Titans, again, sans Henry, went three-and-out on their first two possessions. There was no panic. They stuck to the plan on offense, which has always been to be the tougher, more physical team. Unsurprisingly, it worked.
The next three possessions: touchdown, field goal, touchdown.
“At the end of the day, we’re not front-runners,” Tannehill said. “We’re not a team that’s gonna panic when things don’t go well. … We’ve been down in games, going way back. We’ve had two-minute drives to win. We’ve won pretty much every way, and there’s never any panic. There’s a lot of belief that as long as there’s time on the clock and we’re within striking distance, that we’re gonna find a way to win the game.
“And you mentioned not starting the game off with points early, and there was no panic on the sideline. Guys still had confidence.”
The Titans finished the first half with 84 yards on 19 carries. They finished the game with 198 yards on 40 carries, which left Tennessee two yards short of hitting 200 yards rushing for the third time in five games—all with their bell cow, and best player, on the shelf.
“I think it comes down to the kind of football that Coach Vrabel and [GM] Jon [Robinson] want to play,” said Tannehill. “They want to play tough, physical, downhill-run football. And ultimately in the run game, it all starts up front. I’m not taking anything away from Derrick; he’s one of the best, if not the best, running backs in the game, but it all starts up front. You have to give credit to the offensive line, and the tight ends and physical receivers who were not afraid to stick their nose in there and give our backs some creases.
“And then, you got [D’Onta] Foreman and [Dontrell] Hilliard, guys that weren’t even on the team and were able to kind of step in and play big games for us.”
Foreman went for 132 yards on 26 carries and Hilliard for 45 yards on eight carries. But more than their production, their stories say a lot for what Vrabel and Robinson have built, too.
Hilliard was signed to the Titans’ practice squad on Oct. 27 and played his first game with the team in Week 11. Foreman, who played six games for Tennessee last season, joined the team’s practice squad on Nov. 2, right after Henry got hurt, and got in his first game the following Sunday. And that those guys have become integral pieces to an identity carved out over four years, even though one has barely been around for two months and the other had to leave and come back, says plenty about what and who the team is.
There are other stories like theirs, too. Veteran corner Buster Skrine signed with the team on Nov. 23, and ex-Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham on Dec. 9, and both played key roles on defense on Sunday (Cunningham led the team in tackles).
“We’ve dealt with more than we’d like to this year in that area,” Tannehill said. “That’s one thing that Vrabel’s always preaching. … Take advantage of the opportunity; you don’t know when you’re gonna get another one. And guys have really bought into that, and you’ve seen it happen. You’ve seen guys take advantage of the opportunities and get more opportunities because of it. So I’m proud of our guys, and the resiliency that we’ve shown throughout. …
“Things may not always be perfect, may not always be pretty, but we’re going to buy in.”
And that leaves the Titans with a chance not just to lock up the No. 1 seed with a win Sunday in Houston, but also get a bye that could be invaluable as the team gets healthier. It’s already started to come together in that department, with A.J. Brown’s spectacular Week 16 return against the 49ers, and Julio Jones’s getting healthier (though he landed on the COVID-19 list this week). Having the extra week, of course, would only help those veterans get closer to 100%.
Then, there’s the idea that Henry could slide back into the lineup, too—which should be quite the unwelcome prospect for the rest of a conference that’ll now likely have to go through Nashville to make it to the Super Bowl. When I brought it to up to Tannehill, he said he’s thankful that the new IR rules have allowed the team to keep the door for guys to come back this way. “It’s obviously been good for us,” he said. “I think it’s been good for the game, just putting better quality football out there.” And yeah, he’s really excited about the obvious.
“It’s huge, just knowing that Derrick would have a chance,” he said. “We didn’t know when it was going to happen or if it was going to happen. And hopefully, he can just keep progressing on the path that he’s on. But yeah, there’s definitely some excitement, obviously, getting one of the best players in the league back.”
Without him, we’ve learned about the Titans.
With him, they’re going to be very difficult to beat. Especially if they’re the No. 1 seed.
And speaking of tough outs …
The correlations between what Burrow and Chase were a part of at LSU and what they’re doing in Cincinnati doesn’t stop with that one play, of course.
Before Burrow and Chase took center stage in Baton Rouge, the offense there was as old-school as it comes, there to supplement stellar defenses at best and be carried by them at worst. By the time those two left, Burrow, Chase and the Tigers had broken all kinds of NCAA records. And in Cincinnati, the same pattern is continuing, with a not-so-subtle burial of any notion that the same old Bengals are coming back.
“It’s earned confidence,” Taylor said. “It’s not a bunch of guys that are talented but they sometimes put in the work, sometimes they don’t. These guys work as hard as any group I’ve ever been around, and they let their talent take over in these critical moments. And so the whole team just believes in each other. We don’t roll out there and think, O.K., well, if we have a great plan, we have a chance.
“Our players believe that we’ve got as good of players as anybody in the league, and if we go out and play our best football, we can play with anybody. That starts with Joe Burrow. That goes to Ja’Marr Chase. It goes across our whole team right now, all these guys that we got in that locker room. They’ve got the trust of their teammates and they’ve proven us right.”
“We just realized the playmakers we have now,” Chase added. “Quarterback’s playing excellent football right now. Receivers are, too. Running back is, too, you know. Our O-line stepped up this year. Defense stepped up, too. So it’s a lot of pluses on both sides of the ball we can talk about.”
They needed all of that Sunday, playing a Kansas City team that rolled into Cincinnati having won eight in a row and had home field throughout the AFC playoffs at stake.
The Chiefs promptly took a 14–0 lead. When the Bengals answered, the Chiefs swung right back to make it 21–7. Cincinnati answered again, and Kansas City made it 28–14, so for the balance of the first half, the Bengals kept swinging and the Chiefs kept countering. And that’s when, on this Sunday, something new wound up happening.
“It just takes one play, and we know that,” Taylor said. “We’ve been able to score on short drives all season. It just takes one play to get the momentum back to where we can get rolling a little bit. And again, some of these losses we’ve had, we were down 24–0 to the Chargers and we got back within 24–22. And then we had a turnover for a touchdown. But those moments have allowed, even though they were in losses, this team to believe that no matter the circumstance, no matter the score, we’re never out of the game.”
And it was Chase, over and over again, who was making those plays for Burrow and the Bengals.
The first one came just two snaps after the deficit got to 14–0, on a second-and-7 from the Bengals’ 28. Chase caught a Burrow dart just outside the left hash and essentially split the defense up the middle for 72 yards. “The defense was in zone,” Chase said. “I ran a little out route, a 10–12 out route. Sat down in the zone, found a hole and then made a play with my feet.”
Chase’s next touchdown wasn’t as sudden—it capped a nine-play, 75-yard drive—but was another example of the Burrow-Chase dynamic, with Burrow firing a sniper shot to Chase’s back shoulder, right over Ward and the pylon, for an 18-yard touchdown. “That one was a fade route,” Chase said. “I got pressed, and we were talking about that during practice. Joe said if I got pressed on that fade, he was going to throw it. So yeah …”
And then, there was the second-half tone-setter, with Chase coming wide open down the left sideline for a 69-yard touchdown on the third play after the break, which really got the Bengals in shouting distance, the deficit cut to 28–24. “They were in Cover 2, and the safeties weren’t getting off the hash—they weren’t wide enough off the hash,” Chase said. “That was from one of our directives at halftime, so we came out, that was one of the first plays we called after halftime. Watched the safety sit on the hash, and Joe threw it away from him.”
The rest of second half was nip and tuck. The rest of the third quarter was scoreless. The Bengals then took their first lead, with a five-yard touchdown pass from Burrow to Tyler Boyd capping an eight-play, 86-yard drive to make it 31–28 with 11:44 left. The Chiefs answered with their only points of the half—Harrison Butker kicked a 34-yard field goal after the Bengals’ defense got a red zone stop—to make it 31–31. And third-and-27 was right after that.
On their way down the field for McPherson’s game-winner, after the Burrow-Chase moment, there was one last piece of drama. The Bengals got to first-and-goal at the 1, and the Chiefs’ defense bowed up for three straight stops, putting Cincinnati in fourth-and-the-game with 58 seconds left, at which point Taylor put his offense back out there. Kansas City appeared to get a stop, only to have offsetting penalties reset the down. The Bengals went for it again, and K.C. got another stop, only that one was negated by an illegal hands-to-the-face flag.
And even with the failures of two short Burrow throws, Taylor stood by his decisions.
“Our season’s on the line right there,” Taylor said. “Division championship, playoff berth. Are we gonna be aggressive and go take it? Or are we gonna kick a field goal and let the best offense over the last five years in the NFL take a crack at it? And all it takes is for Tyreek [Hill] to get loose on one play, or a 60-yard bomb on a DPI. Despite the faith I have in our defense, we were in a position to go take the game, and we felt like we had to do it.”
The difference after the illegal hands-to-the-face call? It allowed the Bengals to bleed the last 46 seconds off the clock, which they had backup QB Brandon Allen do (with Burrow nicked up on the final fourth down) to set up McPherson for the winner with two seconds left.
All that was left after that was celebrating, and Taylor—who was driving to catch his son’s AAU game when we talked—promised he’d do that with some pizza with the kids later Sunday night. But in the moment, even if there wasn’t time to reflect, the emotion of getting there showed, both as he came off the field and again in his postgame press conference.
“A lot of hard work went into this,” he said. “It’s taxing on the players that are here, the coaching staff that’s here, the families, so just in that moment, O.K., we won the division. We didn’t do everything that we’re setting out to accomplish, but it is a big moment for this organization, these players and coaches. And you gotta do that so that your other dreams are alive. You get the opportunity to go to the playoffs and do those things. You had to do this first.
“And so it’s not an emotional moment because like, All right, our season’s complete. We won the division. That’s good. Let’s focus on next year. It’s not that at all. This league is so hard, and it does create tough moments for you and your family, that it was a nice moment to enjoy. We’re gonna enjoy it for the rest of the day, and then we’ll move on to Cleveland.”
But the overall dynamic, it seems, is changing fast, and that starts with the mentality that guys like Burrow and Chase have brought into the building. And you can hear it in the way they talk—there’s no hesitation with any of it.
So is it time to start talking about Burrow as league MVP?
“He should be in the race,” Chase said. “Definitely.”
And is Chase himself Offensive Rookie of the Year?
“I better be,” he responded.
These aren’t the Bengals you remember.
THE BUCS’ STRANGE DAY
With the Fox score bug counting the seconds down to three minutes left in the third quarter, the network cut to Antonio Brown doing running jumping jacks through the end zone, then flashing the peace sign to the crowd before vanishing up the tunnel as the Bucs’ offense broke the huddle for third-and-7. There was a dead spot in the call, before veteran play-by-play man Chris Myers collected himself and told the audience what he was seeing.
“Antonio Brown … that’s Antonio Brown without his uniform, we are told,” Myers said. “Without his jersey …”
Myers sounded a little stunned, and for good reason.
A guy who’s pushed the limits of what any of us would expect to see from a football player had done it again. Brown, it turned out, got into an argument with coaches over playing time, yanked his pads off and, upon Tampa Bay star Mike Evans trying to coax him back into the fold, chose instead to, in all likelihood, end his NFL career right then and there, with his team trying to battle back from a 24–10 deficit against the Jets in New Jersey.
The Bucs did wind up coming back to win in dramatic fashion, and we’ll get to that.
But first things first, and as amazing as what Tom Brady pulled off in the game’s final minute to get the victory was, what everyone watching will remember this game for is what happened about an hour before that. Brady, for his part, showed empathy toward Brown—a player he championed in Tampa from the start, and one he helped drive the Bucs to sign—and the truth is that he wasn’t the only one.
“I was in the game when it happened,” another hero of Sunday’s win, Cyril Grayson, told me from the locker room postgame. “I actually had no idea that it was happening at the time. I guess I was so dialed in. I mean, it’s unfortunate. I have a good relationship with him, but it is what it is. And whatever’s best for the team in that type of situation, I guess. It would hurt the team if we would pay a lot of attention to it.”
Now, here’s the harsh reality: This is what the Bucs signed up for.
The fashion in which he orchestrated this particular exodus was new and shocking, but the act of Brown’s elbowing his way out of town is nothing new. In Pittsburgh, a place Brown spent nine years, it was the Steelers’ giving fellow receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster a team MVP award that set in motion his trade out of town. In Oakland, it was his resistance to adhere to NFL helmet rules. In New England, it was, well, a whole host of things, including an open and public shot at ownership.
My old friend Troy Brown, who played 15 years in the NFL and is now a Patriots assistant, used to have this saying he’d use on the shows we did together: Money only makes a player more of what he already is. The application of that premise works here, too, though it’s less about finances and more about opportunity.
The way Brown has been treated the last few years, frankly, has reinforced the notion that, with time, his talent would trump everything else. The Raiders traded for him despite the fact that to get there, he shoved his way out of a place that won every year, helped him set all sorts of individual records and has been historically accepting of all sorts of different personalities. The Patriots got him because the Oakland experiment took just six months to fail miserably. And the Bucs got him because it took him just 13 days to blow the chance to compete for a championship with Brady himself a year earlier, making him toxic.
This most recent case? The Bucs, like the others, were mesmerized by Brown as a player, which eventually loosened the reins on Brown the person, to the point where he went from being on a zero-tolerance policy in Tampa to being able to forge a vaccination card, lie about it, get suspended for that and keep his job.
His post-suspension run with the Bucs didn’t even last seven quarters. He had 10 catches for 101 yards last week against the Panthers, and then came Sunday. So it was that another gamble on Brown came up snake eyes.
Now, the upside?
The Bucs responded in a very big way. Brady converted that third-and-7 in the third quarter with an eight-yard throw, got Tampa Bay in the end zone five plays later (finding Cam Brate for a four-yard touchdown on fourth-and-goal), and wound up 14-of-22 for 182 yards and two touchdowns in the game’s final 18 minutes, after Brown’s outburst.
And he and the Bucs saved their best for last, playing a feisty Jets team. The Bucs got the ball for a final time with 2:12 left, at their own 7-yard line, down 24–20 with no timeouts left. What followed was a clinic in Brady’s effectively handling the loss of a star player on his own—something he’s done over and over again, both in New England and now Tampa.
“You’re just around somebody who just has a great aura around himself,” Grayson told me. “I think that it just rubs off. That aura surrounds the whole team, and I think that we have the confidence that no matter where we are, if we get the ball on the last drive then we have a chance to win. So I think everybody in that huddle, everybody on the sideline, nobody had any doubt that we could get it done.
“Everybody put their hand in and planned to do what we prepared for, and we made it happen.”
Even better, Brady did it by throwing to the guys in the spots Brown and Chris Godwin (done for the year with a torn ACL) have held. All eight of Brady’s throws, six of which were completions, good for all 93 yards of the drive, were directed to two players: Grayson, who was on the practice squad last week, and Tyler Johnson, an emerging 2020 fifth-round pick.
And it was Grayson who came up biggest in the end. With the team in first-and-10 at the 33, and 21 seconds left, Brady found him streaking down the right sideline, and put one on him at the 5. Grayson climbed the ladder to pull it down, over Jets safety Elijah Riley, then spun into the end zone.
“It was an option play for the inside guy and a clear out for—well, let’s not say it was a clear out, but a go on the outside,” Grayson said. “It’s one of our two-minute calls, and that was the signal that he gave us. They were in Cover 2, and that was the hole shot. If the out was covered, then we thought the hole shot would be wide open. So it just was a great call and perfect coverage by them, but it still worked.”
And once he caught it, the only thing on Grayson’s mind was, “Get in the end zone. Score. I had a play last week where it should’ve been a touchdown, but I guess I didn’t turn on the jets early enough. So I was just thinking get in the end zone. Win it for the team.”
Grayson ultimately would. And with Brown gone—Arians made that part official after the game—he’s in line to get more opportunities like this one.
We also know, from history, that Brady can win with less.
That said, because Brown’s so talented, he was no longer the bonus piece to the offense that he was in 2020. Part of the reason Brady and the Bucs hit a rut midseason was because they’d lost Brown and Rob Gronkowski to injury, and they’d become reliant on those two.
So maybe this will burn the Bucs. Or maybe it won’t.
If it does? They’ve got no one blame but themselves.
Week 18’s going to be fun. So to set all of it up, I figured we’d give you a quick look here at where everything stands.
• In the AFC, five playoff spots have been clinched, and the Titans, Chiefs and Bengals have clinched division titles. The Bills and Patriots have the other two spots, and the former can win the East by beating the Jets next week. Meanwhile, the Colts, Chargers, Raiders, Ravens and Steelers remain alive for the final two spots. The Colts are in with a win over the Jaguars. The Chargers and Raiders play Sunday, with the winner getting in. The Steelers (who finish off Week 17 on Monday night) and Ravens need some help.
• In the NFC, six playoff spots are locked up, with the Packers’ having locked up the No. 1 seed and the North, and the Bucs’ and Cowboys’ having clinched division titles. The Rams and Bucs are also in, and L.A. can win the West with a winner over the Niners next week. The Eagles are in as a wild card. The Niners can grab the last spot with a win or a Saints loss to the Falcons. The Saints get in with a win and a Niners loss.
So the NFL decided to put the Chiefs on Saturday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. ET, and they’ll be playing for seeding against the eliminated Broncos; and a Cowboys-Eagles game that’ll be purely played for seeding on Saturday at 8:15 p.m. Naturally, the one winner-gets-in game—Chargers-Raiders—will be the 272nd, and final, game of the regular season.
The Rams deserve our attention—again. L.A. lost three games in a row and went over a month without a win, and at that point it was popular, and justified, to raise questions about how tough the team was. The Titans bullied them on a Sunday night. The Niners ran them over on the following Monday night. And the Packers controlled play throughout their playoff rematch coming out of the Rams’ bye.
A month later, this sure seems like a different team. The Rams fell behind 10–0 early on in Baltimore on Sunday. Matthew Stafford threw two first-half picks, one being another pick-six. They compartmentalized all of that after the break. Stafford didn’t miss in the second half (14-of-14, 162 yards, TD). The defense clamped down. The team came back, and in dramatic fashion, for a playoff-clinching 20–19 win.
“I mean, it’s a tough team,” Stafford told me postgame. “It’s a mentally tough team, whether it’s something that we’re dealing with on the field or something that we’re dealing with off the field, that’s either in our control or out of our control. I feel like our guys do a great job of taking advantage of whatever opportunity we have. And if that opportunity is to go out there and play with whoever’s available, then we go out there and do that.
“And if that opportunity is, Hey, here’s the ball with six and a half minutes left to go win the game, we take advantage of that as well. So it’s a tough group that’s doing a nice job of finding ways to win.”
Of course, Stafford was referencing something specific there—only in this case, the Rams did it with four and a half minutes left. They cruised through the early stages of the drive, showing, again, the top-end talent that they have. More impressive, though, might’ve been what happened after that—when the Ravens tightened up in the red zone to force a fourth-and-5. On that fourth down, the pocket collapsed around Stafford. He took aim and side-armed a ball through the rush into the outstretched arms of, yup, Odell Beckham Jr.
“He was kind of on the backside of the play—Cooper [Kupp] hit me on the frontside of that thing and did a nice job of covering that up,” Stafford said. “I peaked backside to Ben Skowronek. He was running the basic and then was able to find Odell, and he did a great job of making sure he got to the sticks. I felt like that guy was driving his outside shoulder, so I was able to throw one with some heat on it, inside, and he did a great job of strong-hand catching that thing and making sure he was getting us the first down. A huge play.”
The next play just so happened to be the game-winning one—a play, per Stafford, designed for Kupp to draw coverage and free Beckham in the right flat. Like it was drawn up, coverage followed Kupp to the back of the end zone, Beckham was open, he caught the ball hard by the sideline, reached it over the pylon and the effectively won the game.
And so it was that the Rams came back from deficits of 10–0 and 16–7, and that they did it with a newcomer like Beckham is, regardless of how talented he is, another good sign that the Rams are ready for the playoff grind—because it signifies, among other things, how the team has replaced a cornerstone like Robert Woods.
“We’re in a good spot [with Odell],” Stafford said. “He’s a really talented player. He creates separation. He’s got great catch radius and great hands. So when you’re able to do that, it’s a good thing for a quarterback. Really just proud of all of our guys stepping up in response to Robert going down earlier in the year. And we’re doing it, obviously Cooper’s having a great year. Odell’s a real talented player. But we’re kind of just, whoever’s in there, I’ll go through my progressions, try to throw to ball to them and make sure we get positive plays.”
And ultimately, being there allowed Stafford to fight through his own rough start. “I’ve played a lot of football before, had tough starts, had tough endings, all of it.” he said. “You just gotta continue to play. I think our team does a great job of doing that, just continuing to play, down in and down out. And things turned around for us.”
They did on Sunday, for sure. You could say, in a way, they have on their season now, too.
Next week’s rematch with the Niners, with the NFC West at stake, should tell us more.
The Raiders are a great story. And before we get started here, I’m not saying that to minimize the events that brought the team here. The Jon Gruden email situation was, and obviously remains, an ugly one, and the result of Henry Ruggs III’s decision to drive drunk was both tragic and reprehensible. Nothing can erase what happened there. But if we’re being fair to the guys who remained in the aftermath, they had nothing to do with any of that, and given every excuse to pack it in the last three months, they’ve gone the other way.
After taking that fight to Indy on Sunday, where they got a gritty 23–20 win, Las Vegas is 9–7. That means the Raiders will finish over .500 for the second time in 19 years and, as we mentioned earlier, they’ll go into Week 18 in a win-and-in situation.
“Every team is different, but we’ve had the same core guys for two or three years now,” receiver Hunter Renfrow told me postgame. “And so, it’s one thing to think we’re built with the right stuff, but it’s another thing to finally have proof that we are. And to win three down the stretch, I think it’s pretty good proof, and a fourth would be amazing.”
Renfrow played a big role in this one—and is indicative of how the team’s been built, carrying the edge of a former walk-on who made himself into a factor in college and now as a pro. His 41-yard punt return in the first half set up a field goal. Early in the fourth, he was on the receiving end of Derek Carr’s 11-yard scoring strike on fourth-and-2, paying off a Rich Bisaccia (more on him in a minute) gamble and putting Vegas ahead 20–17. And he saved his best for last, which came on third-and-10 from the Colts’ 48, 54 seconds left and the game tied.
Renfrow ran a short choice route on the play and was covered tightly by Kenny Moore II. Without it open, Derek Carr scrambled right, Renfrow saw a coverage void in the middle of the field and started sprinting into his quarterback’s field of vision. Moore followed him, and Renfrow says, really, it was the placement of the ball, high and away, that set him free.
“He threw me open, for sure,” Renfrow said. “Kenny Moore, obviously, is a Pro Bowler and he was in tight coverage, and Derek just threw it where only I could get it and gave me a chance. And I’m appreciative for that opportunity. They trust me, trusted that I wouldn’t let it get picked.”
At time, though, Renfrow worried he’d done the wrong thing—catching the ball, sliding to the ground, then getting up to score a 48-yard touchdown, before worrying that he should’ve just stayed down so the Raiders could milk the clock and kick a game-winning field goal, rather than give the Colts the ball with 40-plus seconds to go.
“I should’ve,” he said. “It was a situation where you don’t really anticipate. It kind of was a broken play, and you’d just be hitting that choice route for four or five yards, not for 20 down the field. So it’s kind of like playing baseball. You know how many outs there are, and you know which bag you’re throwing to and then everything gets scrambled up and you don’t know what’s going on.”
Thankfully for Renfrow, a review showed Moore got a hand on him, and that allowed Vegas to milk the clock and set up Daniel Carlson’s 33-yard game-winner at the buzzer, giving the Raiders a third straight win after they’d lost five of six in midseason and setting up next week’s showdown. And surprise, surprise, it’s Bisaccia, the career special teams coach, who’s led them here, keeping their heads on straight through a lot of ups and downs, with some of those downs being much more serious than what happens on the field.
“He’s just a leader of men, to be honest with you, cliché as that is,” Renfrow said. “He cares about us. And any profession or any sport or any business, really, if you have people who care about you and believe in you, then you’re gonna be successful. You’re gonna want to play so hard for them. And because of his ability to relate to everybody, but also his ability to care on a personal level with us, it just makes you want to go out there and win games.
“And I think you’ve seen that the last three weeks. We wanted to win for him. And I don’t know how this is all going to shake out, but we would love to win, maybe make some noise in the playoffs and retain him. So we’ll see.”
Neither of those things seemed possible a month ago. Both are in play now.
The Cardinals answered the bell. Last week was a good time for people to dredge up old questions about Arizona’s operation, its quarterback and its coach. It’s fair game. Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray are in Year 3, Arizona has a veteran roster, and this was always going to have to be the year for that crew. And for the most part it had been, until recently, when the downturn many were waiting for hit—with three straight losses to follow a 10–2 start. Which, of course, put plenty of pressure on the Cardinals, having to carry all that into Dallas to a play a Cowboys team trying to stay alive for the No. 1 seed.
Yes, Arizona wound up beating Dallas, 25–22. But just as important, the Cards were able to manage the moment of a big game on that stage, amid a significant losing streak. And it showed in the most significant spots on Sunday.
• On defense, it happened with less than 11 minutes left, and Dallas trying to convert a second-and-11, with the Cardinals’ lead down to a single possession, at 22–14. On the play, Dak Prescott stepped up in the pocket, then scrambled into the teeth of the defense. As he dove for extra yardage, top-10 pick Isaiah Simmons dove at him to punch the ball out—and once it came out, another linebacker, Dennis Gardeck, recovered it. It put Arizona on the fringe of field-goal range. Five players later, Matt Prater was knocking his kick home from 38 yards out to make it a two-possession game again.
• On offense, the pressure only amped up from there. The Cowboys quickly drove the field on their next possession to make it 25–22, and that left the Cardinals with a first-and-10 at their own 24 with 4:42 left. A play later, Murray scrambled for 15 yards to move the chains. Two plays after that, he found Zach Ertz on an out cut to move them again, then ran a speed option perfectly, freezing and pitching to Chase Edmonds, who picked up 11 yards. And two plays after that, Murray sprinted left on a zone-read keeper to convert second-and-4 and, for all intents and purposes, end the game.
The bottom line in all that—that’s a really good Dallas team that was at home, and with a lot to play for, and Arizona turned some bad momentum around against them. Which gives the Cardinals a chance to win the division next week, if they can beat the Seahawks and get some help from the Niners. Either way, this was a big one, and winning against Seattle, regardless of what happens with the Rams and Niners, would put Arizona in a nice spot heading into its first postseason in six years.
If this was it for Russell Wilson in Seattle, I’m glad he got a nice exit. Yeah, it was the Lions, but a lot about Sunday was what the Seahawks were hoping for coming into 2021: The run game was dominant (265 yards), Wilson was razor sharp (20-of-29, 236 yards, four TDs, zero INTs) and the home team controlled play from start to finish. That it hasn’t been that way all year? Well, that’s a big part of why this probably will be it. And in certain ways, postgame, Wilson sounded like he was saying goodbye (if so, the $2.7 million donation his foundation gave to Seattle Children’s Hospital in December was a nice way to do it).
“I was thinking about joy. I was thinking about our fans, and what a special moment just to be able to win this game here at home for our fans and for them to feel that energy again,” Wilson told the Seattle media after the 51–29 win. “I felt like throughout the whole game the crowd saw that energy and got to feel us and vice versa. And that was really special tonight. So anytime you see those kids, too, you always want to … they’re screaming your name, to give them a towel or sign their jersey, those kind of special moments are always amazing. And obviously I love the city. It’s been such a special journey. And obviously to be able to win tonight was a great game.”
Now, Wilson did go on to say “I hope so,” when he was asked whether he expects to be a Seahawk next year. But looking at it logically, the team needs to rebuild, and Wilson was motivated to rattle cages last year because he was worried what his future, and opportunity to win, might look like going forward—and that was coming off a 12-win season. My guess is 6–10 won’t do much to change his feelings, and I wouldn’t be shocked at all if this plays out like Stafford’s situation in Detroit did last year, with everyone working together to achieve as clean a break as possible. Either way, I’m glad that Wilson, an icon in that city, got a good memory to take with him, if this is it.
The fourth-down argument got a new layer with the Eagles’ path to the playoffs. And you don’t have to look hard to see it. Philly scored two touchdowns Sunday. Both came on fourth-and-goal situations, and both came with first-year coach Nick Sirianni hitching his wagon to the Eagles’ vaunted run game and veteran back Boston Scott. The first came with the Eagles down 10–0, on the 2, with Scott taking a shotgun handoff right into the teeth of a Washington front pushed hard off the ball by Philly’s line, scoring easily. The second came from the 1, with Jalen Hurts tripping, but getting the toss to his right out to Scott, who beat the Washington defense to the corner and hurdled Kendall Fuller into the end zone. In a 20–16 win, those decisions, and plays, were the difference. And for his part, Sirianni said those were mostly motivated by how the game started.
“I know I’m going to get some questions about how the defense started. Did you see some of the throws [Taylor] Heinicke was making early in that game?” the coach asked at his presser postgame. “Getting away from the pressure that we were getting on him and making plays—the guy was playing good, so I felt like in those scenarios we had to be aggressive. … I’m always going to look at the chart, see what it says, and then make a decision based on what I think is necessary with that game.”
In this situation, he had the right idea, and he has had a lot lately, even from a big-picture standpoint (i.e., resetting the offense with a run game styled on the Oklahoma scheme Hurts was so effective in as a collegian). I don’t think Sirianni would be my pick for Coach of the Year—I think I’d go with Vrabel or Matt LaFleur. But the Eagles’ new coach would be right there after those guys for me and no doubt deserves consideration.
I know how tantalizing the idea of Trey Lance is for 49ers fans, but Sunday was a good sign, to me, that Kyle Shanahan and his staff have done right by the kid. And I think that’s apparent with the growth from one start to the next. Against Arizona in Week 5, Lance looked, to put it lightly, lost, and the Niners needed to use him as a runner way too much just to play competitively on offense. “He looked bad vs. Arizona,” texted one coach who studied him in the aftermath. “Accuracy and touch wasn’t good, and he got hit way too much. If Kyle calls it like that, it’s not sustainable.” Indeed, against the Cardinals, Lance had more carries (16) than completions (15), and the Niners lost.
This week? Yeah, it was the Texans, but the Niners were far less reliant on Lance’s legs (eight carries, 31 yards), and Lance was way more efficient throwing it than he had been in October (16-of-23, 249 yards, two TDs, INT, 116.0 rating).
“He’s here for a reason,” George Kittle told reporters postgame. “We drafted him third overall for a reason. He’s a good player. Just go out there and play football. I mean, there’s stress, there’s pressure. But when you have fun, it’s a lot easier. He did a good job, he flushed it, he came back and I thought he played a really good game.”
As I see it, and I think the Niners see it, too, bringing Lance along this way prevented him from creating bad habits in games that could be hard to reverse, and the benefits of that showed on Sunday. Add that to the fact that Jimmy Garoppolo, on balance, has played really well this year (with a few really bad moments mixed in), and I don’t even think the quarterback decisions were that difficult the last few months for those coaches. This was just the right thing to do, with the hope they’ll have a good young quarterback ready to roll in 2022.
I think Coach of the Year probably has to be LaFleur right now, with his old boss Vrabel a close second. He’s now gotten to 13–3 in each of his first three years as head coach. Before this run, in the 101-year history of the franchise, the Packers had never even gotten to 12 regular-season wins three years in a row. And in the 98 years before LaFleur’s arrival, they had five 13-win seasons total (1962, ’96, ’97, 2007, ’11).
Yes, he has Aaron Rodgers. But even Rodgers hadn’t had this level of consistent team success until now. And this year, in particular, LaFleur had to manage what was an awkward, awkward situation. Like most of us, he has bosses, and he had to deal with his bosses feuding with his quarterback and maintain the relationship he’d built with quarterback through it. He did all of that, he’s integrated new pieces and he’s kept his team’s focus where it needs to be. Now, obviously, he’s going to be judged on his postseason success—and with the Packers’ having locked up a bye and home-field advantage for the playoffs, again, the pressure is going to be on everyone in Green Bay to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time in 11 years. Whether they can or not may well play into the team’s future with Rodgers. But if we’re judging LaFleur just on what he’s done to this point? I’d tell you he had a very challenging job for the balance of this calendar year, and he’s absolutely been equal to that challenge.
This was a tough week in NFL circles. Over the last few days, the football community lost the iconic John Madden, legendary player and coach Dan Reeves, and long-time Bears beat reporter Jeff Dickerson. I wrote something live the other night to memorialize Madden but wanted to be able to touch on all three guys in this space. So here goes …
• When Bill O’Brien and I spoke about Madden a few days ago, he mentioned how former Penn State and Raiders linebacker Matt Millen connected him with his Millen’s old coach after O’Brien left the Nittany Lions for the Texans. O’Brien mentioned how close the two were, and I meant to reach out to Millen, but the end of the week got away from me a little. So when Millen popped up on Fox’s postgame show, after calling the Panthers-Saints game, I was paying attention. And fittingly, he delivered a nice tribute to Madden in front of a turducken.
“John, for me, was a teacher first. He’s always been a teacher; he always was,” Millen said. “I got a kick out of when we were doing the documentary, and John, they played the piece where he said, ‘I’m never gonna coach again.’ That was wrong. John never stopped being a head coach. And he was a coach with his television crew, just like he was a head coach with the Raiders. He was a head coach with me every time I was around him. John was the guy, he was my mentor, who taught me all kinds of things.
“The biggest thing I’m gonna miss about John, we always had a lot of fun—whether it was talking about a turducken and how it got made, or the no-dumping-on-the-bus rule. Of course, I broke that one. John Madden, I love the guy, and I had a lot of fun with him, and I’m gonna miss him a whole bunch. … Today, we did a series, and a boom came out. I was like, ‘Where did that come from?’”
I think we can all say it came from a good place. And Millen’s point, that Madden never stopped coaching, was well-taken. It was one that O’Brien, Ron Rivera and John Harbaugh all made to me the other day, and all the way through, even down to his video game franchise—from which so many kids learned the intricacies of football—there’s no question Madden never stopped coaching.
• Dan Reeves, like Madden, made an impact in plenty of different places. It happened first as a player, when he went from South Carolina quarterback to undrafted free-agent safety to Cowboys halfback, and then eventually evolved into an ahead-of-his-time do-everything tailback, who even threw a touchdown in the famous Ice Bowl on a halfback pass.
But what most will remember him for is his work as a coach. After apprenticing for nearly a decade as a Tom Landry assistant in Dallas, he got the Broncos’ job in 1981 and stayed there for a dozen years, reaching the Super Bowl three times. After that came stints with the Giants and Falcons, where he buoyed a reputation for orchestrating quick turnarounds, getting New York into the playoffs in his first year there and Atlanta to the Super Bowl in his second year back in his home state.
And over time, he became known as one of the most respected older gentlemen in football. That much was proved, to me, in what John Elway—who’d feuded with Reeves as a player in Denver—said about him the other day.
“Dan was a winner,” Elway said. “I owe a lot to him—he was instrumental in my career and growth as a quarterback. … With Dan, you knew you were going to be in every game. You always had a chance with him on your sideline. As the head coach, Dan was tough but fair. I respected him for that. We may not have always seen eye to eye, but the bottom line is we won a lot of games together. Looking back, what I appreciate about Dan is how he gradually brought me along to help me reach my potential.”
To me, that last part is what makes a lot of great coaches, at any level—knowing what’s best for a player, even if he doesn’t necessarily agree in the moment, and sticking to the plan, even if it’s uncomfortable. Elway also mentioned in his statement that he believes Reeves, who went to nine Super Bowls total, should be in the Hall of Fame. There’s a good case there.
• Finally, there’s Dickerson, the incredibly well-liked and well-respected ESPN reporter. The best stories I can tell of Jeff are from when I’d see him at camp in Bourbonnais, Ill., or at the Bears’ facility in Lake Forest, and I’d ask about his family. His wife’s experience with cancer was long, and everyone knew how difficult it was on him. But before long, he’d start talking about his son, Parker, and you’d leave the conversation amazed at how he was dealing with everything that was on his plate, even after his wife’s death.
It was heartening to see the GoFundMe page for Parker explode with donations this week, a good sign of what people thought of Jeff. Jen Etling Hobin set up the page with a goal of raising $100,000 for Parker’s education. By last check on Sunday night, the total was close to $1.1 million going to an 11-year-old who’ll have to go forward without his parents. (Good on ESPN’s Adam Schefter for relentlessly promoting the effort on social media this week, too.)
We’ve got your quick-hit thoughts off Week 17 right here …
• Not for nothing, but Brandin Cooks hit 1,000 yards receiving for the sixth time in his last seven seasons. Given how his concussion issue followed him around earlier in his career, it’s hard not to be happy for him. He’s a real pro, and it’s easy to see why GM Nick Caserio wanted to keep him around.
• I’m not sure whether we’ll have coaching movement Monday. Presumably, it’d be tough for the Bears to move on from Matt Nagy after they scored a convincing win on Sunday. Which leaves the just-eliminated Vikings as one team to watch. The Broncos have been another, but I think that one’s still a little up in the air, and they play Saturday, which would give them a natural head start next weekend anyway if they wanted one.
• Watching Mac Jones vs. Trevor Lawrence provided a real-life case study in why the environment around a young quarterback is so important. I’ll have more on where Lawrence stands in the MAQB later Monday.
• Watching Joe Judge’s postgame rant after an embarrassing loss in Chicago was interesting. What’ll be more interesting is seeing which pool the Giants pick their next GM from—the one inside their own family (with someone like Kevin Abrams), the one tied to Judge (Tennessee’s Monti Ossenfort is one with that connection) or someone from the outside completely. What the team does could be a bit of a tell on how much rope Judge will get.
• The Jets are improving, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a layup for the Bills next week.
• Speaking of the Bills, their miscues in the first half in the snow against the Falcons make it fair to ask whether they should be rooting for un-Buffalo-like conditions in the first round of the playoffs. Especially with the probability that it’ll be New England coming to Orchard Park then (if both teams win Sunday, that’ll be the result).
• In a must-win game Sunday, Chargers QB Justin Herbert sucked all the drama away from his team’s showdown with the Broncos to stay in the AFC playoff picture. He was excellent in going 22-of-31 for 237 yards and two touchdowns. L.A. still seems like a dangerous team to me (yeah, I think I’m falling into the trap again).
• Sean Payton’s done an incredible job getting the Saints to 8–8, all things considered. We say teams are “a quarterback away” a lot. New Orleans really is.
• De’Vondre Campbell’s and Rasul Douglas’s emerging as key pieces for the Packers is another sign of how good GMs have to be in new areas in the era of COVID-19 (the Titans are a good example of it, too), when fixing on the fly and having experienced help on hand is a must. GM Brian Gutekunst, the villain of the offseason, is having quite a year.
• This is all very weird, that there’s another week to the season. And I’d never complain about what I do for a living, but I don’t know that many people in the NFL are fired up there is a Week 18 in the first place, other than the ones cashing checks off it. It’ll be interesting to see what everyone says a month or so from now.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
1) It seems as if we had a real dust-up over players’ opting out of bowl games again, so I figured this would be a good time to go back to the person I think spoke about this most eloquently: former 12-year NFL tackle Eric Winston, who was NFLPA president when Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette became the first ones to skip their bowl games. Winston said this to in the immediate aftermath of those calls by two guys who wound up being top-10 picks: “This is really the first professional financial decision they have to make. It’s whether to risk what they have to play in the bowl game. Take Leonard Fournette, because he’s a consensus top-five pick. You can put a value on that. You say, this is what the second pick of the draft is, this is what the seventh pick of the draft is. And what is the upside of going and playing in the bowl game? It might be a lot. It might be none. In his case, it’s probably not a lot, if not none, right? So you have to then ask yourself, ‘What does that mean to me?’ … I don’t say, ‘This guy’s right or this guy is wrong.’ I applaud them for standing up and making a decision, just like I applaud the guy from Texas A&M [Myles Garrett], who sounds like he’s gonna be a top-five pick and says, ‘Hey, I wanna play.’ There’s no right or wrong answer. I applaud both of them. The ones that I hate to see are guys that say, ‘Oh man, I never really thought of that.’” And that’s where I’m kind of at on this, too—it’s good that these players have more information than ever, and you’d hope they make informed decisions as a result.
2) That said, knowing how some of these teams think, I’d bet the question of football character comes up a lot in scouting meetings in these situations. What’s football character, you ask? I remember first hearing about it covering the Patriots—it was almost a prereq for a roster spot in New England—and it basically prioritized guys who needed their next snap of football like they needed to draw their next breath. There were a few guys I can remember who embodied it. Rodney Harrison was one. Tedy Bruschi was another. So I can see where teams might do a little extra work on a player in that department if a guy opts out.
3) And that brings us to Ole Miss QB Matt Corral, who got rolled up Saturday night in the Sugar Bowl, was quickly declared out and returned to the stadium on crutches later in the game. Obviously, his injury served as a flashpoint in the New Year’s Day argument over opt-outs. So how good a prospect is he? It depends on who you ask. Some have drawn the Zach Wilson comparison. Others aren’t sold he’s an NFL starter. “I think Corral is a fringe guy who could start with the right pieces around him, but he’s not ideal,” said one area scout assigned to the Rebels. “Zach had more physical ability. Corral is tougher, mentally and physically, from what I’ve heard. For a small guy that doesn’t live on the deep ball, I expected Corral to anticipate and process better.” So let’s hope Corral’s O.K. and see where things go from here for him.
4) Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean keeps checking boxes. He was immense in the Bulldogs’ blowout win over Michigan. Off-ball linebackers typically have a hard time, in this era, going in the top 20 or so picks. But Dean, who’s very good from an intangibles standpoint and a really good athlete, has a shot to be where guys like Roquan Smith, Devin Bush Jr. and Tremaine Edmunds were going out.
5) I don’t think Friday night will, or should, affect Aidan Hutchinson’s draft stock much. He’s very worthy of going in the top five. However, based on where scouts have been on these guys, and the way the games played out, I think you can see the difference between Hutchinson and Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux, and Alabama’s game-wrecker Will Anderson, who isn’t draft-eligible until 2023. That difference? That even game plans built to stop Anderson can’t do much to slow him.
6) Hats off to Luke Fickell and Cincinnati. The Bearcats really hung in there against the most talented team in the country, a huge accomplishment for a Group of 5 team—and, as I see it, something NFL teams should pay attention to if they eventually consider Fickell a candidate in the pros.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
This was a bad moment at FedExField …
… And this was worse. I really do believe Washington’s got people in place now, from Ron Rivera, to Martin Mayhew and Marty Hurney, to Jason Wright, but there are still signs of how far the Football Team has to go, on the field and off of it.
There’s the video of Taylor becoming a little overcome with the moment.
And again … things have changed in Cincinnati.
There’s another example.
And this right here is an incredible tweet—from Burrow’s former Ohio State teammate during Burrow’s second year on campus, when he was battling with highly touted true freshman Dwayne Haskins to back up J.T. Barrett for the Buckeyes.
Fox is … right? And oh, by the way …
There’s the culprit.
The only thing that was new here was the way it went down. And about that …
This is the most complete video of the whole situation that I’ve seen. From there …
The plates on that SUV behind him are New Jersey, so that checks out. And then …
This couldn’t be wilder. (For more, @dannyboyhustleshard on IG has you covered on AB’s ride into the city from East Rutherford.)
Owens is right. He never went quite this far.
Like we said, Vrabel is right there for Coach of the Year.
Based on the injury situation around the NFL … teams might take Mitch up on that.
That’s an incredible stat, if something of a coincidental one (pick-sixes can be circumstantial).
It’s not much of a coincidence that the Patriots have three guys like that in the running back room, at a time when front sevens are uniformly getting smaller across the NFL.
I love game weekends in Green Bay. I’ve also been there for weeknights in the winter, and it’s not an easy place to be (and to be fair, summer is very, very nice in that area).
Can’t wait to see Britain Covey signed by the Patriots as an undrafted free agent on the evening of April 30.
I got my guy Mitch an answer, and the first he’ll see of it is when he’s editing the column (What’s up, Mitch?!). The Music City Bowl was played on Thursday in Nashville, and the end zones were painted for that one. The Titans then replaced the sod in the end zones for Sunday’s game, but it rained on Friday and Saturday in Nashville, making it impossible to repaint the end zones. You heard it here first, Mitch (or maybe you didn’t).
(Ed. note: We got the answer like 16 hours ago, but thanks.)
MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
Every week, we’ll talk to a prominent player about to step on the MNF stage. This week, ahead of Browns-Steelers, we’ve got Cleveland’s star rookie linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
MMQB: Are you at the point of the year where you don’t feel like a rookie anymore?
JOK: I wouldn’t necessarily say my mindset has changed this part of the season. Much rather, it was instilled in me early in the season by some of the veterans. The saying is always, ‘You’re not a rookie anymore.’ That was always the same, and while you are, in theory, a rookie still, the mindset was instilled in me that you can no longer think like someone who’s of a rookie status—or think like somebody of a rookie mentality. … You must think like you’re a professional. You must think like you are a veteran, in a sense.
MMQB: So what’s the difference now from earlier in the year?
JOK: Right, the difference between just a rookie mindset and a veteran mindset—in theory, of course. This is not set in stone—more rookies may believe that they have mistakes to make. Or they may take a loose mindset where, If I make this mistake, you’re not gonna say much; I’m a rookie. If you take a veteran mindset, it’s more of Look, I can’t make these mistakes because the team is counting on me. I have to be here at this time. I have to be here in this play. I must communicate this in this play. I can’t forget a communication. So it’s more of an accountability mindset from then to now.
MMQB: So you played that overhang position at Notre Dame that scouts say can be tough to project to the pros. How different is what you’re doing now?
JOK: I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s too much of a difference. I mean, I do play a little bit more in the box here, but I still play some snaps on the edge. I still play some snaps in the apex. I still play snaps in the box. I still am on the line, in terms of the defensive patterns and the type of scheme that we want to bring with blitzes and stuff like that. So I think there’s just a different name for it. In college, I was called rover, and the NFL I’m called a will. And that could change too, depending on the package. So I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a big difference, just in terms of the thing that I’m actually doing.
MMQB: So are you comfortable now with how that role has evolved?
JOK: It’s just about confidence. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever felt a lack of confidence. I don’t think I’ve ever went into games like, ‘Oh, well, I’m gonna start slow. I’m gonna look at this.’ What I will say is what I’ve improved on was my ability to watch film, and the things I look for now versus then. That, I will say, improved, just being in the room with a bunch of veterans and being in the room with guys that understand how to watch film. I think that is the thing that has really improved for me. I wouldn’t necessarily say anything from a play standpoint I was ever lacking confidence for or didn’t feel as comfortable with.
MMQB: Were there vets who helped you learn to watch film?
JOK: Oh yeah. Malcolm Smith is the primary and Anthony Walker. Those two have been really phenomenal just in terms of looking at the smaller details of a quarterback or a smaller detail of offensive scheme. Those two definitely came into the consideration when we’re talking about the help that they’ve given me.
MMQB: Have the last few weeks, going through the COVID-19 situation, shown anything about the team, you think?
JOK: Yeah, this is a strong team to be able to persevere through everything we’ve been through. … The mantra’s always next man up. The mindset is always it’s a family, so if one goes down or if one’s not necessarily playing as well, we have to pick up the slack. So it’s not necessarily something that’s foreign to us, but this is what the standard is in the end—that we must persevere, we must be persistent in whatever trials we’re going through. And I think that mindset has been installed ever since even my draft interview with the Browns. The standard was smart, tough and accountable. And the smart, tough and accountable all speaks for the going through the trials and the going through of hard situations.
MMQB: You were hurt the first time the Browns played the Steelers, but is there anything you can take from the tape?
JOK: Oh yeah, oh yeah. That’s a team that likes to use the snap count to their advantage with a veteran quarterback. He likes to take his time and really read the defense. So you can’t necessarily be so quick to react or quick to show the coverage or show the blitz. So it was more of a patience game. It’s more of a smart game, just in terms of being patient and really disguising it to the best of our ability.
MMQB: Have you guys talked at all about the fact that this could be Ben Roethlisberger’s last home game in Pittsburgh, and what the environment might be like because of that?
JOK: Yeah, I mean, that definitely came up. A guy like him with a record and the legendary status he has, it’s definitely gonna come up. And we can use that to our advantage, or it could hurt us. And of course, our point is to use it as our advantage. If that’s his last game, he may be focused on that. He may try to do too much. He may try to do something that he’s never done before. All these different things could occur, so we’re looking to use that in our advantage rather than something that may motivate them.
MMQB: You’re from the same area as Mike Tomlin. Do you have a relationship with him?
JOK: Yeah, I do. I have known him a while. My high school [Bethel High School (Va.)] head coach was good friends with him, Coach [William] Beverley. [Tomlin]’s from Denbigh, which isn’t too far from my house. We talked a lot [before] the draft, funny guy. We talked actually in the first game, after the game. He made some smart comment. He’s a funny guy, man, and I’m glad he’s having his success over there.
MMQB: This will be your first Monday-night game, outside of the weird 5 p.m. game in Week 15. Is there anything significant about that for you?
JOK: It’s a longer wait. So I guess that’s the only thing that’s gonna be different. We’re still putting on the pads. We get to watch other teams play. I mean, I wouldn’t say there’s necessarily anything too different about playing on Monday night. And again that’s a perspective thing, and that’s a mindset thing. … It’ll be something to play on Monday night, but I’m not taking it as something that’s rare or anything. That’s just where I’m at with it.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
The Lions and Jaguars will be picking first and second in the 2022 draft. And the Lions will have an opportunity to coach in this year’s Senior Bowl. Priority is done by draft order. The Jags will have a new staff, and new staffs generally don’t accept invites to Mobile; the Texans are slotted, right now, as the third team in the order.
Who picks first will be determined Sunday, and the difference between No. 1 and No. 2 might ride on how you view one edge rusher (Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson) versus another (Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux).
So, yes, draft season is not that far off, which is hard to believe.
Enjoy the football while you’ve got it!
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