I’m not sure whether there’ll be any topping what we just saw this weekend. So I’m sorry if this week’s MAQB is a letdown after all that …
• If you ask me now, I’d say Tom Brady will play a 23rd, and final, season in 2022. But all I know, and all I think anyone knows at this point, is that there really isn’t one determining factor here. There’s a lot to take into account. Family. The state of the Bucs. The grind of getting ready to go through another NFL season. Physically, Brady sure looks like he can do it. We’ll see whether he wants to. And the fascinating thing is it sets up a very real fork in the road for the Buccaneers. Among their free agents: WR Chris Godwin, TEs Rob Gronkowski and O.J. Howard, RB Leonard Fournette, C Ryan Jensen, G Alex Cappa, DT Ndamukong Suh, DE Jason Pierre-Paul and CB Carlton Davis. And to manage all of that, they should have somewhere between $20 million and $25 million in cap space. Second-contract guys like Godwin, Cappa and Davis won’t be cheap to keep, and the franchise tag (they used it on Godwin last year) for those guys would eat more than half of the current available space. Now, cap gymnastics can be done, and if Brady comes back, the Bucs most certainly will do some. If he’s not? Well, then there’s less reason to, and a year of pretty serious retooling would likely be in store.
• I had good conversations with a couple of special teams coaches Monday morning, and one was nice enough to take me through his kickoff rules in light of the way Bills-Chiefs went to overtime Sunday night—after Buffalo decide to kick away with 13 seconds left, which gave the Chiefs the chance to let the kick go and save every second remaining on the clock. “This one’s a very good question, it’s a unique situation,” said one NFC special teams coach. “Typically, I factor in, one, who’s the returner? And, two, who’s the quarterback? … Typically, the rule of thumb is two to eight seconds left is a squib kick, and you’re banking on the ball on the ground adding hang time. You kick it deep; that’s four seconds in air. The ball being on the ground longer, it’s just like hang time, but it throws off the timing of the return. With one second left, I’m kicking to the front line, know the clock’s going to be at zero by the time they get down, it forces them to perform the end of the return. Eight seconds or less, that’s what most coaches are thinking. You get to 13 seconds, you’ll usually have a kicker bang it out. Now, if Tyreek [Hill] is back there, you’re definitely kicking it out of the end zone, 100%. If it’s [Byron] Pringle, he’s dangerous, too, they got one called back earlier on him. But the thing is, it’s 13 seconds, and if they have to use five of that, to get the ball to the 27-yard line, what do they do then? And for the Chiefs, you got Mahomes, all those weapons, that’s why they pay him half a billion, [Dave] Toub isn’t having Pringle take it out. If you don’t have Mahomes, and the backup, Chad Henne is in, to me, Pringle takes it out.”
So, the thinking goes, you give the Chiefs what they don’t want, and that’s fewer snaps for Mahomes. Also, on a squib, the special teams coach continued, the target is to have the ball fielded in between the 10 and 20. At that point, the returner has a decision to make—get down around the 15 or take time off the clock. The risk, of course, is the kicker doesn’t hit it right, and the up man gets it to, say, the 40. But even then, the Chiefs probably would’ve had eight or nine seconds left, and two snaps, rather than three (which is about where they ended up, anyway). It’s an interesting discussion.
• The coolest thing, to me, about the adjustment that Mahomes and Travis Kelce made on the fly to make their 25-yard connection down the seam happen was all the nuance that went into in a short amount of time. Here’s their explanation, and we’ll add some color on the back end …
The idea, simply, was to exploit a dead spot in coverage, with corner Levi Wallace protecting the sideline (which, again, I don’t really get), linebacker Matt Milano covering an area around the hash and a lot of space in between the two. To set it up, Kelce reduced his split, then angled his route toward the sideline, which got Wallace backpedaling toward the boundary—and kept Milano from cheating over. So when Kelce flipped back inside, Wallace was off balance and Milano was too far away to make a play. Sometimes, football isn’t so complicated. This was one of those times. Mahomes and Kelce pretty much saw the Bills open a door for them and walked right through it.
• We explained the Jim Harbaugh/Ed Dodds connection in the MMQB column Monday morning. There is one more layer to it that I forgot to mention—and that one runs through Colts special teams coach Bubba Ventrone. Ventrone played for Harbaugh in San Francisco and has stayed in touch with him. And Ventrone is close with Dodds, to the point where Ventrone would’ve been one of his top choices for a head coach if he were to land a GM job somewhere in the last couple of cycles. Also, for what it’s worth, Harbaugh’s Michigan assistants don’t seem to know what he’ll do yet. Of course, the Raiders would have to offer him the job first. We’ll see whether it happens.
• Things should get interesting over the next couple of days with Chiefs executive director of player personnel Ryan Poles. He’ll be in Chicago on Tuesday for a second interview, then go to Minnesota on Wednesday, and it wouldn’t be a stunner if the Bears tried to prevent him from getting on the plane to Minneapolis. Poles could be paired with Brian Flores or Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, with whom he’s connected through mutual friends. Eberflus happens to have his second interview with the Bears on Wednesday. If Poles winds up in Minnesota? Eberflus could still wind up with the Bears’ job and could be paired with Colts exec Morocco Brown. Another wild card to consider there is Chiefs assistant GM Mike Borgonzi. Eberflus works with Borgonzi’s younger brother, Dave, the Colts’ linebackers coach, and the Bears have obviously shown interest in the Chiefs’ model in pursuing Poles.
• Here’s what Deebo Samuel said Jimmy Garoppolo told the huddle before the Niners’ game-winning drive at Lambeau: “Jimmy comes in the huddle with all that energy, and yells, ‘Put everything out there on the line for your brother, and just go out here and make plays.’ And that’s what we did for him.” Garoppolo’s not perfect. But the chemistry on that San Francisco team is an important element of who they are, and moments like that one only illustrate how beloved he is in the locker room. And there’s no question that the right thing to do all along for a veteran-laden team was to give them the win-now quarterback. If Trey Lance isn’t ready to play next year, then, sure, that’s a red flag. But this year, I do believe Kyle Shanahan and his staff did the right thing.
• On the overtime rules, my take is that I just think the sport simply isn’t structured for something fair—each possession is too important, and there’s no way to create a system in which everyone is going to wind up with the same number of possessions without risking endless games. I’ve long been an advocate of playing, in the regular season, a normal timed period that’s not sudden death. But with player safety paramount, I know the union and league are trying to limit the number of snaps added to a game (it was why they cut regular-season OT to 10 minutes from 15), and I’d think that premise would restrain what the league could do with playoff overtime, too. For the record, I don’t mind the Chiefs’ proposal of two years ago, which would have guaranteed at least one possession for each offense. But I’m also at the point now where I’ve accepted that football overtime is never going to be completely fair. Because, as the saying goes, life’s unfair.
• Nathaniel Hackett is back in Denver for a second interview Monday, and this one is fascinating because of his connection to Aaron Rodgers. That connection is why Hackett’s been connected to the Broncos’ job for a few months. It’s also why if Denver winds up with Dan Quinn, Packers pass-game coordinator Luke Getsy would likely be a solid candidate to land the offensive coordinator job. Getsy interviewed with the Broncos last week and was eliminated from the head coach search over the weekend, too.
• Rams OLB Von Miller had five tackles and a strip sack Sunday. Odell Beckham Jr. finished with six catches for 69 yards. But if you think that told the story on the impact the two had against the Bucs, I think it’d be worth it to you to take a second look. As Sean McVay and his staff have learned to use those two, it’s been pretty clear to everyone that the Rams have become more dangerous—which has at least given the coach the feeling that his team is still ascending, with the Niners looming in the NFC title game six days from now. “I think they’re really coming into their own. They’ve gotten enough time with us,” McVay told me. “Von’s been outstanding, Odell’s made his plays, and so those two in particular. And then, I know he had a couple tough fumbles [Sunday], but Cam Akers is going to be a guy that we're going to have to really lean on as we go forward in the NFC championship.” Akers, of course, has reemerged as the Rams’ lead back, just six months separated from Achilles surgery.
• We’ll wrap up with an old story line from training camp that’s rung true as the season has worn on: The infusion of veteran talent the Bengals put into their secondary the last couple of years has paid major dividends. Back in the summer, the coaches told me having guys from winning programs, such as Chidobe Awuzie from the Cowboys, Trae Waynes from the Vikings, Mike Hilton from the Steelers, and Vonn Bell and Eli Apple from the Saints had brought an intensity and detail to practices that forced everyone to grow up quickly. And that’s happened, as the defensive backfield has led the way for an improving defense with a knack for the dramatic. Hilton had a pick Saturday, Apple forced another and incumbent star safety Jessie Bates III, who’s benefited from all this help around him, came down with one as well. And outside of a couple of big plays to A.J. Brown, the Bengals didn’t really yield much to the Titans through the air all afternoon. It’s important they’re in good shape there, too, because everyone knows what they’re up against next week.
• A Fitting Final Game for Tom Brady (Yeah, Right)
• Thirteen Seconds: Mahomes, Chiefs Win an Instant Classic
• Measuring the Super Bowl Stakes for Each Remaining Quarterback
• MMQB: McVay’s Faith in Stafford Rewarded on Year’s Best NFL Weekend