It definitely feels like the regular season should be over right now. But don’t let the standings confuse you; we’ve got one more week to go …
• Trevor Lawrence was identified as a true freshman at Clemson to be destined to go No. 1 in the NFL draft, and there’s a good chance he’d have been the first pick in 2019 and ’20, before actually going first in ’21. As such, he was generally lined up with John Elway, Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck—a true once-in-a-decade type of quarterbacking talent. And here we are, 16 games later, and Lawrence has the worst passer rating of this year’s five first-round quarterbacks, and is 16 points back of Texans rookie Davis Mills, a third-round pick. Here are Lawrence’s numbers …
336-of-570 (58.9%), 3,418 yards, 10 TDs, 17 INTs, 69.6 rating.
Now, to be fair, none of the other rookies have had to deal with near the mess that Lawrence had. His head coach didn’t make it to Christmas. What skill-position talent he had around him has been consistently hurt. His offensive line was never very good. And to his credit, he’s handled it all with poise and professionalism—one head coach told me that Lawrence’s demeanor through all this reminded him of Troy Aikman going through the tumultuous Cowboys season of 1989. Still, it’s hard to sit and assign away all the blame. The truth is, after seeing him play in the NFL, there are new questions on where he is as a quarterback. And I was able to gather some in talking to scouts and coaches who’ve studied him and gone up against him.
“I think he’s going to be really good,” said one AFC defensive coach. “You see the size, the arm talent and mobility. I think two things are hurting his development: He doesn’t have playmakers at receiver or tight end. Losing [D.J.] Chark was a big deal. I also thought he would process faster and get the ball out quicker. That’ll come with experience, but you can confuse him, and he holds the ball.”
“He’s been where I thought he’d be,” added an AFC scouting director. “He has to process in the pocket faster. He doesn’t see the field as well as you’d think he would. He’s not inaccurate on the whole, but he misses more open throws than he should. Rough first year. … All the physical stuff is very high level, but I thought he’d be a little further along instinctively.”
“One that stood out was the level of athlete he was in college; that’s not as pronounced at this level,” said another AFC exec. “They don’t run him much—he ran it a lot at Clemson—so that stood out to me, that he doesn’t create, doesn’t show as much athleticism as you’d have thought to create and extend plays, and be more of a dual threat. It’s equalized a little at this level.
“The areas I had concern, the ability to make full-field reads, and consistency in poise on third down at the college level, you’re seeing both now. He’s not as poised or confident in the pocket. He doesn’t look like he has the processing down to get through progressions and find open guys. Some of it might be the coaching. But this generational talent, you don’t really see that. … He’s less Day 1 start, and more could’ve used some time to sit and learn.”
Of course, none of this means Lawrence won’t make it. From a mindset standpoint, he’s handled everything as well as you could expect a 22-year-old to, and the physical talent, like these guys said, is all there. Part of the problem, to be sure, was the simplistic system he played in at Clemson. The Texans actually adjusted their offense to work for Deshaun Watson when he was a rookie coming of the school, then built from that baseline. Maybe that’s what Lawrence needs now. And, of course, it’s not his fault that he’s behind where Luck or Manning were coming in. But it does bring context to the gap between the way we were all talking about Lawrence for three years and what we’ve seen since April.
• The post–Antonio Brown Buccaneers have an interesting challenge in front of them—for the first time since signing Tom Brady in March 2020, they’re facing questions on receiver depth, with Brown gone and Chris Godwin out for the year. Mike Evans is still around. After that, there are questions. On Sunday, Tyler Johnson played 66% of the snaps on offense, Cyril Grayson played 64%, and Breshad Perriman played 15%, while Scotty Miller dressed but didn’t play on offense, and rookie Jaelon Darden sat on the COVID19 list. What does each bring? Here’s a snapshot …
Johnson: A 2020 fifth-round pick who has some stylistic similarities to Godwin, and got playing time as a rookie in the playoffs amid last year’s talent-rich group, but still needs some development.
Perriman: The former first-round pick has the kind of size/speed combination Bruce Arians prizes, and will play more now with Brown gone. He was a significant factor for the 2019 pre-Brady Bucs, too.
Miller: He had turf toe earlier in the year and has struggled some to build on a promising 2020, because Perriman took snaps from him while he was hurt (the two play similar roles for Tampa, and Perriman is bigger). There could be more opportunity there for Miller now.
Grayson: A revelation as a former track guy who’s turned himself into a legit receiver—and earned the trust of Brady to the point where the QB went to him with the biggest throw of the game on Sunday, which Grayson turned into a 33-yard game-winning touchdown.
Darden: The rookie’s got dynamic ability, but at this point, it’s tough to expect a ton from him. He has six catches on the season, and his last one came before Thanksgiving. The Bucs have tried to work him into the lineup more.
So there’s some promise there, but a lot of work to be done. On the bright side, the team should enter the playoffs deep and at full strength at tight end, which does mitigate the receiver need a little.
• I wrote about the Brown situation in the MMQB column. And really, I think the lesson everyone needs to take is less complicated than much of the discourse out there. Arians and the Bucs have, essentially, made a string of football decisions here, if we’re calling them what they are. They signed Brown last year because it’s what their quarterback wanted, and Brady’s the most important person in that organization. They brought him back because in his 2020 stint, he proved a valuable commodity for the offense and one that helped them cheat a tight salary cap (his production far outweighed his price, because his off-field issues drove down his market value). And they’re cutting him because the bad he was bringing to the team finally outweighed the good.
The NFL is like a lot of workplaces. You can have issues, so long as your talent/ability outweighs them. Fair or not, the bar for bad behavior is much lower for the assistant than it is for the person in the corner office. From a football standpoint, Brown’s production and relationship made him a corner-office guy in Tampa. Which is to say he had to screw up pretty badly, and be a real problem to get pink slipped. And it took him a few months, but he got there.
In the end, the takeaway for me is that the Bucs simply couldn’t rely on Brown anymore, and that’s really where it stopped making football sense to keep him around.
• One thing I’ll take from my conversation last night with Bengals coach Zac Taylor, after Cincinnati won the AFC North title, is the appreciation for the franchise he’s with. Over the years, that team’s taken plenty of shots. But the Brown family’s always brought two specific things to its coaches. One is presence, and the other is patience. And so it’s been that with their support, and faith in his plan, Taylor was able to ride out two playoff-less years, and go into a third season with all three of his coordinators (Brian Callahan, Lou Anarumo and Darrin Simmons) intact, which in turn gave the whole staff a foundation to work off of.
“They’re present, and they see it.” Taylor said. “They’re at practice every day, and they see it. And we meet and we communicate about games, players. They don’t want to get into that, but it allows for us to operate how you should operate any team or business, where there’s open communication, and that way you don’t go three or four weeks without speaking and then you hit some tough bumps in the road and everyone panics.
“Everyone knows what the plan is. Everyone’s on the same page. I just love it here. I love it. I love everything about it, and it’s allowed us to build this thing the right way and create a really solid foundation to continue to build off of. This year, and years in the future. …
“These coaches, the criticism doesn’t bother us. The job security thing doesn’t bother us. It bothers you when it affects your family, but I just got belief in these guys that we picked to be here and coach these players. Not many organizations allow you to have the patience to stick with the plan that you believe in. Usually, two years, there’s not great success on the field, you gotta make a change or else. Or else.
“And that’s just not the way that Mike Brown operates, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that. Because he stuck by us, he’s been patient with us, he understands the vision we’ve had. … It’s a special place to be a part of, and you leave—every time you interact with Mike or anybody else—wanting to win for them. They’ve invested their whole lives in this, and they’ve been great to me and supportive of me, given us everything we’ve needed. And again, this is just the beginning. That’s what our players and coaches have been preaching. This is just the first step to some really great things in our future.”
To me, it’s a really interesting perspective to hear from a coach at a time when so much focus is on which ones are about to lose their jobs. And the reward for that patience for the Brown family looks like it’ll be a pretty bright future.
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• While we’re on interesting side notes from my Sunday conversations, Titans QB Ryan Tannehill gave me another one. Steadily, over the last few weeks, his team has gotten healthier and healthier, a sort of roster reloading that could be punctuated in a few weeks with the return of star tailback Derrick Henry. And as Tannehill sees it, that’s the result of a pretty positive trend of rule changes that have come to the NFL, and one that accelerated with COVID-19, and that’s giving teams added mechanisms to bring guys back off IR.
“I think that rule change has been good for football, of being able to get guys back off of IR,” he said. “I think it’s obviously been good for us. I think it’s been good for the game, just putting better quality football out there, because you’re not having to make decisions to IR guys the rest of the season. You can IR guys for enough time to get them healthy, and then when they are healthy, they can come back and play for the fans and put on a good show, and help the teams win. So I’m all for that rule change.
“I think it’s played a big impact on our team and a lot of teams. So yeah, just knowing that Derrick would have a chance. 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.”
I’d guess that getting, and keeping, as many teams as possible at full strength, or keeping them close to it, in a sport where the injury rate is 100%, is a good thing.
• There are a lot of good Dan Reeves stories going around in NFL circles in the aftermath of his death, and most have to do with how the former Super Bowl coach and Super Bowl–winning player carried himself. And a good one I got on Monday came from more recently, well after he’d hung up his whistle. He was set to call a Patriots game one winter a few years back, and it happened to be a frigid night at Gillette Stadium. He boarded the press elevator there and saw the lady who was running the elevator, in charge of getting people up and down, shivering. So as the elevator got to the press level, after it emptied out, Reeves hung behind, pulled off his gloves and gave them to the woman, saying, “You look like you need these more than me.” And it seems like everyone had stories like that of a guy who’d become almost the ultimate Southern gentleman of the NFL. Reeves has a pretty real Hall of Fame case too. This stat I came across today is pretty amazing: As a player or coach, he participated in nine Super Bowls, which puts him behind only Bill Belichick (12) and Tom Brady (10) in that category. We’ll have more on Reeves, from someone pretty close to him, to top Wednesday’s mailbag column.
• Thus far, we’ve had Packers coach Matt LaFleur and Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy come out and say they plan to play to win this weekend (their teams are in different spots, of course, with Green Bay coming off a win and having nothing on the line; and Dallas coming off a loss with a shot to get the No. 2 seed, which could mean a home divisional round game). And usually, ahead of this final week, that’s the approach coaches take early, with some, at times, later reversing course. What I’m interested in is the new dynamic at play here—and whether the extra game players will have on their legs this year makes any impact on decision making on roster deployment Saturday and Sunday. Going all the way back to the summer, coaches talked about having to prepare for a 17-game season, and the toll it’d take. This, then, is where everyone would really be feeling that toll.
• I had a reader bring this idea up to me, and it’s a good one: The NFL’s putting the Chiefs and Cowboys on Saturday could well be a harbinger for plans to have those two host games on the Saturday of Wild Card weekend (the Cowboys would, obviously, be perfect for the primetime spot). It would allow for two fewer teams to be on short weeks, but since both the Chiefs and Cowboys are on the road this Saturday, making it so the two set up to host next week don’t get to play consecutive home games levels the playing field a bit. Since Dallas has won its division and is locked out of the top seed, we know the Cowboys will host a game next weekend. The Chiefs still have a shot at the No. 1 seed, and a bye, but that would necessitate the Titans’ losing to the Texans. Otherwise, they’ll be home for Wild Card weekend as well.
• Coming out of Sunday, it’s hard not to have lingering doubts about Tua Tagovailoa’s future in Miami. He really struggled early in the year, and bounced back nicely when George Godsey became his play-caller. But the Dolphins, through their seven-game winning streak, did get fat on a few cupcakes, and that’s going to have to be a part of the evaluation too. We now know the Dolphins are going to miss the playoffs, which means, presuming everyone remains in place (I wouldn’t totally rule out a shakeup somewhere in the operation), coach Brian Flores and coach Chris Grier will be going into Year 4 still looking for their first playoff berth since taking over in 2019. Which means they’ll likely be tying their job security to whoever’s playing quarterback for them.
• It’ll be interesting to see Monday night, and next week, how Kevin Stefanski plays his hand with the post-elimination Browns. I do think there’s a very solid foundation in place there, and that’s a credit to him and GM Andrew Berry. But the makeup of this team, from what I’ve heard over the course of the year, is a little different than last year’s scrappy underdog. So I think the last two weeks of the season could serve as a good chance for the Browns’ brass to assess which guys are all in with them, as they look at potential changes for 2022.
• MMQB: Teams Clinch As Playoff Field Takes Shape
• The Buccaneers Enabled Antonio Brown Until the End
• Madden’s Revolutionary Impact, Style Will Never Be Replicated
• Brady Says Antonio Brown Needs Help. We Should Listen.
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