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Ten Non-Super Bowl Story Lines to Follow in the NFL

Sean Payton’s future, the Texans’ head coaching search, the quarterback contract market and more matters that still need to be settled.

Over the next few weeks, you’re going to see a great deal of content on this site devoted to the four teams remaining in the NFL playoffs. If you’re a fan of one of the other 28, that can be a bit of a drag. So, as we head into the meat of conference title game coverage and the two-week long colonoscopy that is Super Bowl coverage, we wanted to devote some space to 10 story lines regarding the rest of the NFL that matter a great deal. Some of you will be stressing out the result of head coaching searches. Some of you will have an eye on the quarterback contract market. We’re going to bottle that all up into one fountain soda combination sure to make your stomach rumble.

1. What is going to happen with Sean Payton?

Back on Jan. 7, we wrote this column about what Payton should do. Interestingly enough, our harmless suggestions there sound a whole lot like what some NFL insiders have reported Payton might actually do this week. He has still not committed to a return. Even the owner, Gayle Benson, said at an event on Monday that she wasn’t sure what Payton’s eventual decision might be. There is an aggressive television market out there right now. It would be the perfect landing spot for a coach who could step away for a year and allow the chess pieces to fall into place. In the meantime, he could make beaucoup money, travel with a television crew all over the country with access to every facility in football and give the right job an opportunity to present itself while the Saints roster rebuilds from the stress of a decades-long stretch of relevance.

The complaint I most received from the Payton column was that linking Payton to outside opportunities seems like a yearly event. And indeed that’s true. Payton has been forever connected to the Dallas Cowboys job. He has been linked to various trades and maneuvers as far back as I can remember covering the league, which I started doing in 2010. All I can say is that what I wrote felt like common sense to me at the time. New Orleans is a full-scale rebuild. Veteran quarterbacks aren’t going to flood the market and rescue all these quarterback-needy teams. It’s going to take Payton two or three years to get this team back to full strength. He could absolutely make the playoffs in 2022, but it would take a gargantuan effort and depend on the health of Taysom Hill and the maturity of someone like Jameis Winston. Why not try your hand in the booth while the stream is filled with gold, then return to the NFL as a desired free agent, perhaps somewhere closer to home—and with a better quarterback. Payton is in his late fifties, which, in the coaching world, means he has an entire second act that’s yet to play out. He could be a lifer in New Orleans. He could be Andy Reid, or Jon Gruden.

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton on the sidelines in the second quarter against the Carolina Panthers.

2. Who will the Texans hire as head coach?

I can say that Josh McCown has been on my future head coaches list prior to this season. I can say that I once profiled McCown as the consummate backup quarterback when he was working behind Sam Darnold during Darnold’s rookie year. I can also say that, according to one person familiar with the Jets’ setup that year, McCown kept Darnold from getting destroyed by a very poorly designed offense. He was kind of, in a way, a member of the coaching staff that year, translating different aspects of the offense and, sometimes, pointing out irregularities in the scheme, play design or audible call list that would have seriously impeded Darnold’s ability to execute. While McCown’s career was winding down, the idea that he would quickly vault to a high-ranking NFL coaching position existed out there.

I can also say that the recently retired QB to coaching pipeline will start providing a more expedited path to the head coaching position. Mike Kafka retired in 2015 and could be a head coach as early as next cycle. Kevin O’Connell retired in 2012, was a quarterbacks coach by 2015 and could be a head coach as early as a few weeks from now. McCown played much, much longer than any of these players and built a much larger network in that time. You could count some—or many—of those playing years as hybrid years on the coaching staff. While this doesn’t—and shouldn’t—negate the very sound argument elsewhere that he’s clearly cutting the line, not paying his dues and could end up the face of a very real racial hiring disparity among NFL coaches, it will be the reasoning of those who advocate for his hiring.

All that said, this would be a tough one to sell. The Texans let go of David Culley, one of the few Black head coaches in the NFL, after he coached one of the worst rosters in the NFL to four wins. They did this, theoretically, to clear the deck for McCown. They did not have McCown coach the team last year, because he would have been pummeled by Deshaun Watson questions and wilted under the weight of public perception.

He still might. The Culley firing should have freaked some people out around the NFL. It will probably scare prospective assistants, veteran coaches that the Texans would like to surround McCown with. Given how much Houston would have at stake in legitimizing McCown early, the likelihood that they would quickly dismiss “underperforming” assistants and use them as scapegoats is high.

The Texans clearly do not care what other people think. If they want to hire a second straight candidate who has no head coaching or coordinating experience at the NFL level, they will do it. There certainly doesn’t seem to be any pushback, or moderate concern, from ownership.

3. Lamar Jackson’s contract negotiations could be a roller coaster ride

Lamar Jackson is self-represented and is an extraordinarily unique player, not only in terms of skill set, but in how a front office might gauge his long-term value. Unlike the only player in his class to have received a second contract thus far, Josh Allen, Jackson’s postseason resume is comparatively difficult to look at. Over four postseason appearances, he is 1–3, with a 55.88 completion percentage, three touchdowns and five interceptions. He has a bad throw percentage in playoff games of 20%, which is six points higher than Allen. He has one playoff game of more than 200 passing yards, whereas Allen has not yet had a playoff game with fewer than 200 passing yards.

Before you copy and paste this paragraph and put it on Twitter with the note: oh look, here’s the next way people are going try and delegitimize Lamar Jacskon by using faulty postseason stats … know that I would hand him $40 million a season right now without a second thought. I think Jackson is transcendent; a face-of-the-franchise player who, like all quarterbacks, could use a little luck in the injury department, a boost on the skill position player front and some schematic diversity.

My point in circling his postseason stats with a red pencil is that … this is what negotiating with a team is like! They’re going to poke holes in his impressive body of work to try and hammer him well underneath the $45 million threshold set by Patrick Mahomes. It’s going to be weird and uncomfortable. There will probably be some hard feelings … if Jackson even makes it that far. Baltimore’s front office is revered around the league. Being a good front office is almost always synonymous with a lack of sentimentality. Would they care if Jackson bet on himself, played on the fifth-year option and failed? Not nearly to the degree we would probably think. Could we envision a future in which Jackson is not a member of the Ravens? Why not? In the end, it would seem likely Jackson locks into some kind of long-term pact in Baltimore. He’s too special to let go of. That said, we don’t necessarily have a precedent for this kind of extension, especially for a player who, as of now, is not utilizing the services of an agent to handle the grimy work.

4. What happens in the event that Tom Brady retires?

On a recent episode of his podcast, Brady laid the groundwork for a potential retirement, citing some understandable concerns, such as his wife fearing for his safety and what his kids need from him at this moment. Brady does not owe anybody anything at the NFL level. He has amazed us for decades and has attained a level of greatness that will not be replicated in our lifetimes.

That said, if he leaves, the Buccaneers are going to turn into somewhat of an unmitigated disaster. They have a laundry list of free agents prepared to abscond if Brady walks away. Just as quickly as he amassed this traveling super show, he can collapse it and vanish out of town, leaving nothing but a patch of worn grass in his absence.

While this was easy to see at the time of the Brady signing, I am no longer among the cynics chuckling at the possible wreckage. General manager Jason Licht proved me and everyone else who doubted the validity of this experiment wrong. They won a Super Bowl. Nothing else matters (unless, of course, you’re the kind of person who was bothered by the Antonio Brown signing before it was an on-field issue). If Brady leaves Tampa Bay, does the decision play into Payton’s decision to remain in New Orleans? If Brady leaves and the Buccaneers’ free agent class scatters throughout the NFL, does it open the door for Matt Rhule to save his job in Carolina with a playoff season? Does it propel the Falcons’ rebuild timeline and somehow lift them into the playoffs? Which team responds with a free agency power play sensing a balance of power?

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If Brady decides to retire, will Bruce Arians? Would he turn the gig over to Todd Bowles, or Byron Leftwich? What kind of interest would a man who wrote a book about his career called The Quarterback Whisperer have in manning a sideline without Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer or Tom Brady?

5. What do the Eagles do with all those first-round draft picks?

If you’re making an executive of the year list and not including Howie Roseman at the very top, I think your list needs to be reevaluated. Roseman stockpiled the Eagles with a troika of first-round picks and  shipped a rapidly depreciating asset out of town. He looks less villainous for his unceremonious Doug Pederson firing now that he has compiled a young staff full of potential future head coaches.

The only issue with having so much ammunition this year (currently, picks No. 15, 16 and 19, plus No. 51 and No 83 overall) is that there is not a quarterback to trade up for (that we know of, currently. We always seem to manufacture one out of thin air after bowl games). So, Philadelphia could either look at this as a foundational draft for their defense or for eventually replenishing their rapidly aging offensive line, or they could try and convert those assets to 2023 picks. One smart draft observer once said how few teams realize the value of next year’s draft picks during the current year’s draft. I have heard it called “stealing money.” Teams want what they want now. Patient teams can get what they want much later, and get potentially higher picks at far less of a cost.

Roseman’s draft record is not perfect, but he seems to have nailed this wide receiver and the offense makes a strong case for retaining Jalen Hurts as QB1 for the foreseeable future, which allows the Eagles to build a competitive roster around the developing passer.

6. Speaking of the Eagles, what do the Colts do with Carson Wentz?

Here’s something of a guarantee: the Colts will go into 2022 with an attractive backup plan if Wentz is their projected starter. They have no choice. The quarterback movement landscape is not as fertile as we once expected. Aaron Rodgers is probably not making a life-changing move to depart the frigid upper midwest, only to find himself fleeing just south to Indianapolis. Russell Wilson didn’t have the Colts on his hypothetical wish list. They will probably need to settle for Wentz plus a high-upside prospect in the draft. Or, Wentz plus a Ryan Fitzpatrick/Jacoby Brissett. I think the situations in Indianapolis and Cleveland will turn out remarkably similar. Both of the teams will be somewhat cagey and noncommittal throughout the offseason while feverishly turning over every rock in the background.

7. Speaking of Carson Wentz, are there any surprise Doug Pederson-esque firings?

Dueling, contradictory reports of you-know-what-hit-the-fan meetings between Kliff Kingsbury and Cardinals brass offer no real unvarnished representation of the truth. But they do open the door for the idea that something is irreparably broken in Arizona, and may have been all along. It doesn’t look as cartoonish for an organization to let go of a head coach well after Black Monday now because they get their first pick of coaches who went deep into the playoffs, or perhaps a hot candidate who was closed out of the dance because of some agent-driven sleight of hand.

While I’m not saying Kingsbury will be the late firing, there was certainly some trepidation about his future heading into the year. An excellent start staved off those questions until the Cardinals were throttled by the Rams in the opening round of the playoffs.

Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury watches game action against the Los Angeles Rams during the second half in the NFC Wild Card playoff football game.

It could be anyone, anywhere, for any strange reason. Pederson didn’t want to part with certain staff members. Payton is still reportedly entertaining overtures from jobs outside of the NFL. Rhule was literally just linked to the Michigan job if Jim Harbaugh somehow becomes a candidate for the Raiders gig. If we thought eight openings was wild after a far more conservative estimate, we may not have seen anything yet.

8. Where does the post-bowl game quarterback landscape leave us?

Kenny Pickett? Sam Howell? Matt Corral? Desmond Ridder? Malik Willis? Carson Strong? Right now, this draft class has the feeling of the 2011 draft class if you remove Cam Newton from the equation. There is no No. 1 caliber player. That said, coaches have more schematic avenues to win with non-traditional talents than ever before.

At some point this offseason, we will fall head over heels for one of these prospects. The natural flow of events will look something like this:

• Team realizes they have no shot at a veteran QB that improves their roster and starts to feel the desperation

• Owner starts making it clear they would like to sell “hope” in 2022

• General manager starts plodding around to pro days and bowl games, talking himself into one faulty prospect or another

• Scouting grades get skewed as a result of the organizational push for a quarterback

• Media swoon builds around skewed grades.

Ah, winter into spring. A favorite time of year for so many reasons.

9. What does a reimagined Giants roster look like?

I don’t think there was a more significant hire in the NFL, and there may not be for a long, long time. Regardless of whether Joe Schoen is a success, he’ll be the first truly neutral set of eyes on the Giants’ roster in more than half a century. George Young passed the gig to lieutenant Ernie Accorsi, who passed the gig onto lieutenant Jerry Reese, who passed the gig to one-time lieutenant Dave Gettleman. While there is something to be said about the Giants’ recent success—which could have colored their inclination to keep the job in house because the formula was working—it also likely created some destructive groupthink tendencies. Gettleman, for example, could never be objective on Saquon Barkley, Daniel Jones or Leonard Williams. Reese could never be objective on players like Olivier Vernon, or any member of his splashy, rescue-boat free agent classes. Thus, the internal politics formed a standard operating procedure that forced the Giants to miss out on some good players and fall behind in terms of what other smart front offices are doing more regularly to score more contributing players.

This team could look very different in a matter of months. Exciting? Maybe. Terrifying? Possibly. But the Giants knew they could not keep walking the same path with so much at stake.

10. Does the drumbeat for altered overtime rules or Sky Judge grow louder?

The NFL’s stuffy old guard ignores great rule change proposals every year. But coming off whistle-gate, coming off some wild, phantom flag performances in the playoffs, coming off the Bills-Chiefs title fight that could have been so much more, do they finally take a step toward sensible solutions?

Of course not. But that won’t stop us from rattling the cage and doing our best to turn this game we all know and love into the Alliance of American Football Part Deux. 

More NFL Coverage:
MAQB: Potential Last Dance for Tom Brady
MMQB: McVay’s Faith Rewarded; Best Weekend of the Year
Thirteen Seconds: Mahomes and the Chiefs Win an Instant Classic
The Super Bowl Stakes: Measuring the Meaning of a Ring for Each Quarterback