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MMQB: How the Bengals and Rams Punched Their Tickets to Super Bowl LVI

Joe Burrow admits he may have been surprised at the start of the season, but not anymore. Eric Weddle relays Aaron Donald’s message. Plus, Joe Schoen’s job ahead, Nathaniel Hackett’s experience, the Buccaneers’ future and scouting the Senior Bowl.

Joe Burrow spent the balance of the season telling anyone who’d listen that the old Bengals were dead and gone, that this group he was growing with wasn’t going to live down to any sort of previous expectations, that the wheels weren’t going to suddenly come off like so many people thought they would.

Yet, even for him, this was something else. Pretty wild? Burrow laughed through the cellphone.

“Yeah, it is,” he acknowledged.

So, yes, a few months ago, the mere idea of the totality of what just went down at raucous Arrowhead Stadium would’ve been a bit much. Even for him. But by the time Bengals got here, the truth is, anything seemed possible to Burrow and to everyone else on his team.

“I think if you had told me before the season, I would’ve been very surprised,” Burrow admitted. “But I’m not surprised right now because we’ve gone through a whole year. I know the kind of team that we have, and I know the guys that we have in the locker room. So right now, I’m not surprised. But if you were going to tell me after last season or in OTAs, I think I would’ve called you crazy.”

Following last season, Burrow was in California, rehabbing from December ACL surgery. In OTAs, through May and June, he was still limited, and his team was just trying to get its head above water after a 6-25-1 start to Zac Taylor’s time as head coach.

Less than a year later, they’ve all proved that anything is indeed possible. Cincinnati dethroned the two-time defending AFC champion Chiefs on Sunday. The Bengals are going to the Super Bowl for the first time in 33 years.

“If you’re a competitor and you believe in what you’re doing, you dreamed about this day every day of your life,” Taylor told me, as he boarded the bus. “And every single day that I’ve driven home from work, I’ve envisioned the people on the streets out there celebrating, getting ready for a parade. I think anybody that’s ever done anything special, or been a part of anything special, has had those same dreams. And we hope to make them reality.”

They’ll have that chance in a week. But for at least a night, they were going to drink this in.

Because how they got here, coming back from down 21–3 against a championship team that came out of the gate like a thoroughbred, is just as incredible as the once-unthinkable concept just that they got here in the first place.

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Championship weekend is complete, and Super Bowl LVI is set—it’ll be the Rams and Bengals, on the Rams’ home field. And we’re covering all of that and more in this week’s MMQB. Inside the column, you’ll find …

• How the Rams met their moment, with a guy no one expected to be here for it.

• Some quick notes on the game to come in two weeks.

• More on the Tom Brady drama over the weekend.

• Our conversations with new Giants GM Joe Schoen and Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett.

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And we’ve got all the coaching-carousel buzz you can handle, too. But we’re starting with the amazing comeback story of a team no one thought was capable of something like this, and how it all came together at once.


Things looked as bleak as they could have for the Bengals with 5:04 left in the first half. At that point, Patrick Mahomes was 13-of-14 for 154 yards and three touchdowns, the Chiefs held a 226 to 82 edge in total yards and it felt like you might as well start putting the plastic over Kansas City’s lockers to brace for the champagne.

Then two things happened.

First, with 1:15 left in the half, backup/journeyman tailback Samaje Perine took a Burrow screen pass and weaved through the Chiefs’ defense for a 41-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 21–10. Then, after Kansas City answered by slicing right through what had been a vulnerable Bengals defense, moving the ball 80 yards in 56 seconds, Cincinnati finally got the tide-turning stop it needed.

On second-and-goal from the Bengals’ 1, with five seconds left, Cincinnati defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo deployed an extra man in the flat to Mahomes’s left, to guard against the Chiefs’ propensity for swinging the ball out there to their speedy receivers in short yardage. Sure enough, that’s where the ball went. Mahomes got it out to Tyreek Hill, who was met by that extra man, Eli Apple, who took Hill down as the clock expired.

“That’s all the structure of the defense,” safety Vonn Bell told me, as the buses pulled away for the airport. “Eli just made the play.”

And here’s maybe the most interesting part of the play—where so many people have been focusing on bad Bengals history, this one happened to recall all the good that’s come through 2021. A similar stop against Jacksonville in a Week 4 Thursday night game, with Cincinnati down 14–0, prevented that one from going to break at 21–0 and wound up sparking the kind of furious comeback they’d need in the AFC title game.

“Against Jacksonville, they had a chance to kick a field goal to go up 17 points, and they chose to go for it on the one-yard line and we made a stop. And that absolutely gave us momentum going into the locker room at halftime,” Taylor said. “And so same situation today. We made a stop, we go in the locker room down 11, which is the same deficit we had against the Chiefs four weeks ago.

“So our guys knew four weeks ago we did it; we can do it again today.”

But where that comeback a month ago showcased the singular talents of Burrow and his LSU running mate Ja’Marr Chase, this one would show everyone how well-rounded this group had become.


2021 AFC champions Cincinnati Bengals

The Apple stop was nice, of course. But it didn’t erase the rest of a first half that didn’t offer much else in the way of Cincinnati defensive stops. The Chiefs, in four possessions, had been in third down only four times, and they converted all of them. Mahomes looked borderline unstoppable, and Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill had combined for 133 yards and two touchdowns.

Something had to change, but the Bengals resisted any urge to flip over the apple cart.

Instead, Anarumo came up with a couple of fixes. Cincinnati would deploy a spy on Mahomes for the rest of the game—in most cases, it was linebacker Logan Wilson—to prevent the quarterback from getting loose, and they dropped eight into coverage more often, particularly when the Chiefs closed in on the red zone.

The decision to drop more guys into coverage came for two reasons. First, and most obviously, the Bengals wanted to take away more of the short stuff Mahomes had feasted on before the break. Second, the coaches sensed their pass rushers were wearing down a little chasing Mahomes around and figured giving a guy a snap in coverage would essentially help save his legs for the end of the game.

“We just had to settle in, play our brand of football,” said Bell. “We knew we were playing against a hot offense, so they’re gonna make plays. … We just had to stick to it and just keep on going play after play, and just stacking good downs, to get stops.”

The stops came. The Chiefs got just two first downs in the third quarter, and Mahomes went from 18-of-21 for 220 yards and three touchdowns in the first half to 3-of-9 for 17 yards in the 15 minutes to follow.

And near the end of that frame, the Bengals’ defense finally got the game-turning takeaway that, over the course of the quarter, guys could feel coming, with Mahomes getting less comfortable. It was on a second-and-3, the Bengals down 21–13, with Mahomes coming off a play-fake on an RPO. Defensive linemen B.J. Hill, another of the team’s big veteran acquisitions, got in Mahomes’s passing lane, got a hand on his throw and tipped it to himself.

That gave Cincinnati possession at the Chiefs’ 27, and finally, after just two catches and eight yards in the first half, Chase got going. A 17-yard crosser from Burrow to the rookie on second-and-5 from the 22 got the Bengals to the 5. Three plays later, on third-and-goal, Burrow put a dart on Chase’s back shoulder in the end zone for a two-yard touchdown, which tied the game at 21 after a two-pointer.

“It was just one-on-one, throw it up to my guy and let him make a play,” Burrow said. “That was … not much on my end. That was all him.”

Just like that 21–3 had become 21–21, and the Chiefs were the ones on the ropes going into the fourth quarter.


On Saturday night, as they went through their final review, Taylor and Burrow discussed third down—and how the Chiefs might try to take Chase and the ultrareliable Tyler Boyd away. Burrow told his coach he had a plan for that.

“When we talked about third down, I said, ‘O.K., if they do this …’ and he made the comment, ‘They do that, I might run for 100 yards,’ Taylor said. “And again, it’s a great coverage. It takes away some key receivers. Makes it really hard to get open. The one thing you can’t really account for is the quarterback run, and Joe understands that. He’s quick with his decisions to do it.”

And he needed to be, twice, at the game’s most critical junctures.

The first play was a third-and-6 from the Bengals’ 24 with 11:45 left. The pocket collapsed around Burrow. He somehow fought from the grasp of All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones inside the pocket, then escaped him a second time outside the pocket before bursting up the left sideline for a seven-yard gain that moved the chains.

The second was three plays later, on third-and-7, when the rush pushed upfield, and Burrow simply, and decisively, tucked the ball and took it up the middle for 11 more.

“Both times they played what we call double-double, they were doubling Tyler and they were doubling Ja’Marr,” Burrow said. “And when they do that, they don’t have anybody on me, unless they want to drop eight and spy. I knew that was going to be part of their game plan going in, so I was ready to run if I had to.”

That put the Bengals at the 45, and they needed just 21 yards thereafter to set rookie Evan McPherson up for the go-ahead 54-yard field goal—Burrow had enough confidence in McPherson that he played conservatively on the final third down of the drive, checking it down to Perine. “We knew we were in field goal range, and I didn’t want to take a sack,” he said.

And then Burrow went to the sideline, up 24–21, and let the defense go to work.


Joe Burrow playing for the Bengals.

Much has been made of how Burrow’s changed everything in Cincinnati, and rightfully so.

But if you ask Burrow himself, there’s a lot more to how these Bengals react in adverse situations, like the one they were in through 25 minutes in Kansas City, than just his own flat-line demeanor when the pressure gets turned up.

“When you’re in the locker room with everybody, you know early on what kind of team you’re going to have,” he said. “It’s hard to explain, because I’ve been on a lot of teams, and the locker room isn’t always like what we have here. Everybody talks to everybody, everybody hangs out off the field, you can sit down at lunch and have a conversation with anybody on the team and it’s not awkward.

“It’s kind of just hard to put into words what that means, but you know it when you see it, and we have it.”

Burrow then said it “absolutely” showed up when things looked bleakest Sunday, and it would again when it came time to win the game.

“That’s why I’m sitting here saying I was calm in the situation, because I believe in our players. I believe that Joe Burrow’s gonna find a way to get it done,” Taylor said. “He’s gonna make a play when there’s not a play to be made. And that’s just what he does. But it’s not just him, it’s everybody. Our whole team. So that calmness just comes because I know our guys believe we’re gonna get it done, and you just let them go do it. And they did it.”

The defense did it twice to finish off the game.

The first occasion came at the end of regulation. Mahomes, predictably, got hot again and drove Kansas City all the way to first-and-goal from the 5. Jerick McKinnon picked up a yard to get to second-and-goal from the 4, and that would wind up being that. With Mahomes spied, and the Bengals committed to keeping him from getting outside the pocket, edge rusher Sam Hubbard tracked him down for a five-yard loss, then a 15-yard strip sack, with guard Joe Thuney’s clutch dive on the ball preventing that from ending the game.

A Harrison Butker field goal forced overtime, but the Bengals’ defense wasn’t done coming. After winning the toss, Kansas City took possession at the 25 and, after two completions, a frustrated Mahomes pushed the ball downfield to Hill on third-and-10. Star safety Jessie Bates tracked it perfectly, and popped it up and into the waiting arms of Bell.

“Man, we just knew that when it’s crunch time, 15’s gonna find his guys,” Bell said. “And with 10 [Hill], you could read [Mahomes’s] eyes. It was a heck of a play by Jessie, hitting the ball out, and I’m just there running to the ball.”

At that point, Burrow had no doubt what was next.

“We’re gonna go win the game,” he said. “I knew we had great field position. We just needed about 15 or 20 yards to get it in range for Evan. We ended up getting it down there even further with the run game. But I knew what was going to happen right after that.”

And that Cincinnati could lean on the run game was part of the plan from the start.

When it looked like the Bengals were banging their heads against the wall, Taylor kept going back to Mixon and Perine, and that’s even though, outside of a 23-yard Mixon run in the first quarter, Cincinnati had just 45 yards on 16 carries through three quarters.

“It was hit or miss early in the game,” he said. “We had some good runs, and we had some that were zero or one. But our defense was playing, the game was never out of hand in the first half, and so we felt like we could stick with it. We’d done that against the Chargers—when we were down 24–0 and we still didn’t abandon the run game. And then we came back, and we’re down 24–22 with really a chance to go win it. And so we weren’t gonna panic in any of those situations.

“We knew that we needed to keep the pressure off of Joe, too. They’ve got a great pass rush.”

He also did it with the hope that the dam would finally break on the Chiefs’ defense, and it did after Bell’s pick. Mixed in with eight- and nine-yard strikes from Burrow to Higgins were runs of four, two, seven, 13 and two yards for Mixon that pushed the Bengals in position for McPherson to bang home a 31-yard game-winner.

Which, of course, he did.


On Sunday morning, the idea that the Dolphins were smitten with Burrow before the 2020 draft surfaced again, with an NFL Network report detailing that Miami was willing to package three first-round picks to move from No. 5 to No. 1 to get the ’19 Heisman winner. I brought it up to Taylor as we wrapped up our conversation.

Taylor didn’t refute that it happened. But he did say that neither owner Mike Brown nor scouting chief Duke Tobin ever brought that to him. If they had, it would’ve been a waste of everyone’s time, and pretty much everyone in the building knew it.

“That was never discussed,” Taylor said. “Maybe it’s that phone call that never got passed along to everybody else, just because we knew exactly what we were doing. Weren’t even entertaining it. You could’ve given us 100 first-round picks and it wasn’t happening. There was never really any conversation about that.”

The Bengals thought Burrow was special then, and they know it now.

But what’s really happening in Cincinnati, and what happened over those three hours Sunday, is more than what one player can do for a team.

Burrow, as we talked, kept citing a defense that held Mahomes—Patrick Mahomes—to just three points through the final five minutes of the first half, all 30 minutes of the second half and 5:34 of overtime. He talked about what Mixon had done, and how his offensive line, with so many moving parts (rookie Jackson Carman came in at guard in relief), rode out some early issues.

Clearly, he believes in the group.

And in turn, the group believes because of him.

“The ultimate warrior, man,” Bell said. “Man, he’s the ultimate competitor. He got me in his corner. He always got a chance to win. We just need to get the ball back to him, as much as possible. He’ll get the guys in the right spots, in the right situation. He’s a magician back there, the game’s slowing down for him and he’s making the plays. … We knew he could be a special, special talent, and that’s what we’re showing the world now.”

The Bengals have sure shown everyone what he, and they, are capable of.

And the truth is, at this point, it’s more than even they thought they would be.


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RAMS’ LEADERS SHARE A MESSAGE

The Rams’ gut-check 20–17 win over the Niners, giving L.A. its second NFC title in four years, will be remembered in a few different ways. It’ll be remembered as Matthew Stafford’s redemption game, after a dozen years spent without so much as a single playoff win in Detroit. It’ll be remembered as the night Sean McVay broke his Kyle Shanahan hex, snapping a six-game losing streak to his old Washington colleague.

But if people really look under the hood of this Rams team, they might find something else—that this one came on a night when an all-time great asserted himself in a new way.

Bottom line, by the time George Kittle hauled in a 16-yard touchdown pass from Jimmy Garoppolo to make it 17–7 with 16:59 left in the NFC title game, Aaron Donald had seen enough. He’d seen enough of the Niners’ bullying the Rams and playing more physically than the Rams, and wasn’t going to let it happen again.

His unmistakable message to his teammate during an impassioned speech that the Fox cameras wound up catching: Just stand up to them.

“AD brought us all up after that last touchdown and he just said, ‘Listen, we’re not doing this again. We’re not getting into this again. We’re gonna win it. We’re gonna put our foot down, play for each other, fight to the bitter end, fight for your brothers, everything you got in you,’” veteran safety Eric Weddle recalled to me, from just outside SoFi Stadium postgame. “And it’s pretty fitting that we were on the field to beat the team that we did and earn our way to the Super Bowl. It’s pretty incredible.”

Donald’s urgency, really, was indicative of the urgency with which the entire Rams organization has operated—and all of that’s well placed. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year turns 31 in a few months, and as physical a game as he plays, these shots aren’t going to come forever. Likewise, Von Miller, 32 and traded for in November, is on the back nine. Odell Beckham Jr., though still 29, has had to feel his football mortality, too. And then there’s Andrew Whitworth, who somehow is still playing left tackle in the NFL at 40.

Add that to a need to take advantage of the prime years of guys like Cooper Kupp and Jalen Ramsey, and the big-ticket acquisition of Stafford, and, well, those last 17 minutes were important ones for a lot of people in Los Angeles.

That includes Weddle, who somehow was playing every snap of a playoff game, at 37, just after the Rams asked him out of retirement and off his couch at the end of the regular season.

“I would have said I would bet my life savings that that would never happen,” said Weddle, explaining where he was mentally a few weeks back. “Because it wouldn’t. I mean, it’s still hard to fathom. Two and a half weeks ago I was at home, the Weddle taxi service for all our kids’ sports, and a call from [defensive coordinator] Raheem Morris changed the fortune of my life. And now starting the NFC championship, and winning, and heading to the Super Bowl, I mean, you literally … it’s just hard to … I just feel like it’s just meant to be, man.”

And in so many ways, all of this urgency—punctuated by Donald’s words—showed up when the Rams needed it most against the Niners.

Stafford responded to the Kittle touchdown by piloting a seven-play, 75-yard drive, going 5-for-5 on that possession and capping it with a third-down dime on a corner route to the spectacular Kupp for an 11-yard touchdown. The defense followed that up with stops on second-and-1 and third-and-2 to force a punt. After that, good fortune shined on Stafford when Jaquiski Tartt dropped an easy pick on the first play of the ensuing series.

The quarterback made the Niners pay for it, with a 29-yard dart to Beckham coming two plays later and a head hit from Jimmie Ward on Beckham tacking 15 yards onto it. And it wouldn’t be the last big throw Stafford would make.

“Jared [Goff] was a really good quarterback, and Matt’s taken this to the next level,” Weddle said. “The confidence, he’s just the general, how he runs the ship, everything. He’s it, through and through, out of the quarterback position; he runs our team. And he showed it tonight.”

He showed it with a bullet thrown to Kupp over the middle for 16 yards on third-and-10 to set up Matt Gay’s game-tying 40-yard field goal. He showed it again with throws of eight yards to Kendall Blanton on a third-and-1 and 25 yards to Kupp again on third-and-3 to position Gay for the go-ahead 30-yard field goal. And then it was time for Donald’s defense to take control and put an end to three years of hard luck against the Rams’ rival.

For the guys on the back end, it was also time to atone for what happened the series before—when a potential pick to win the game for the Rams bounced off Ramsey’s chest, and Weddle missed a shot at snagging the deflection when he slipped on the turf.

“That was a typical Jimmy throw that he makes every game,” Weddle said. ‘You’re like, ‘That’s the one.’ And that’s the one that we missed on.”

With so much on the line, and the requisite urgency, they wouldn’t miss again. The Niners got the ball with 1:46 left at their own 25, and two plays later it was third-and-13 with 1:19 to go—and Garoppolo in a desperate spot, prone to giving the Rams’ defense a second chance to make the play Weddle thought he or Ramsey should’ve made earlier.

At the snap, Donald drove guard Daniel Brunskill back into Garoppolo’s lap. Then, as Garoppolo bailed from the pocket to his left, Donald disengaged from the block and gave chase. He ran Garoppolo down near the sideline, and as he got him, Garoppolo flipped the ball into traffic.

“I literally saw A.D. coming and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s gonna sack him,’” Weddle said. “And I saw him flip that ball in there. I said, ‘Oh my gosh. He just did it.’ He just did … Jimmy does those weird plays sometimes in a game, and it went right to us.”

Travin Howard was waiting, and that was that.

And so now all those guys are going to the Super Bowl—and Weddle most remarkably so.

Remember, when Morris called, Weddle was retired, and not “we’ll see” retired, but fully gone-from-football retired. When he decided to come back, it’d been 14 years since he last made it to a conference title game. He made his return to that round Sunday and will go to his first Super Bowl in two weeks. And he’ll do it, after initially being asked by Morris and McVay to play a few snaps a game, as a full-time starter.

“I love challenges,” he said. “I love the thought that no one gives me a chance and the thought of doing something that’s never been done before. I relish that opportunity. And I’ll bet on myself any day of the week. Did I think it was crazy? Yeah, but I’m crazy at heart. Shoot, I mean, I don’t know, why not take that chance when Raheem calls me and then I call a couple players and circle back a few hours later to Sean to make sure this is real life?

“I mean, it started out as can they give you 10, 15 snaps on Monday night. I gave them 19. We go to Tampa, I gave them 61. And now the rest is history. So I’m just taking the second chance, man, this second chance of playing this great game that I love so much that people in my position never get. I don’t live with regrets.”

Thanks to how Stafford and the Rams are playing down the stretch of these games, Weddle isn’t being given much to regret anyway. And by the sounds of it, Donald was intent on making sure that was the case Sunday.


Tom Brady leaves field with Buccaneers.

THE BRADY REPORT(S)

Let’s start here: I wouldn’t doubt the reporting of ESPN’s Jeff Darlington and Adam Schefter on Saturday’s Tom Brady hysteria. And separately, I also don’t think Brady would’ve wanted the news of his retirement to upstage the conference championship games, nor would it make sense for his camp to push the bombshell out there on a January Saturday.

That said, I can give all of you a timeline on how this went, if you’re interested in how the sausage is made.

2:29 p.m. ET: Darlington and Schefter simul-tweet, “Tom Brady is retiring from football after 22 extraordinary seasons.” I happened to be at lunch with my buddy (and old NFL Network colleague) James Palmer at Rye in Kansas City (which is really good, by the way).

2:46 p.m. ET: After sending out a flurry of texts to different people, Bucs coach Bruce Arians responds to my asking whether Brady has informed the Bucs of his decision to retire: “No, he hasn’t.”

3:28 p.m. ET: Additional confirmation comes back that Brady himself is informing those close to him that he has not come to a final decision on whether he’ll play in 2022.

3:40 p.m. ET: The TB12 Sports official account deletes a tribute tweet it had posted in the immediate aftermath of the Schefter-Darlington report.

3:59 p.m. ET: Tom E. Curran, who’s covered Brady since the start of his illustrious career, reports that the Buccaneers’ quarterback is out of the country and will be for the next week, and surmises, “While Brady may intend to retire, it seems like a final, final, FINAL decision hasn’t been rendered or articulated.”

4 p.m. ET: Our buddy, and Sports Illustrated alum, Mike Silver reports for Bally Sports that Bucs general manager Jason Licht is among the people to whom Brady has passed that message along.

Now, I can imagine how frustrated Brady might be over all of this.

I’d venture to say no player in NFL history has put more into a playing career than Brady has. It’s hard to imagine, anyhow, the way he way he lived his life, the investment he made in his physical performance or the time he spent in transforming himself from skinny sixth-round camp fodder into the greatest quarterback to ever buckle a chinstrap has been matched.

As such, I can 100% see where, just as he took that level of ownership over every step of his career, he’d want to retain ownership of how its final stages would play out.

Here’s the thing, though: When you’re someone like Brady, moments like these don’t belong to you alone. And once Brady confirmed reports over the week before the Bucs’ final game, last weekend’s loss to the Rams, by saying that he would indeed consider retiring as his offseason began, it was going to be pretty tough to control the news of that decision, whenever it came.

So now, everyone gets to wait for final word from the quarterback himself.

When word does come, we can all appreciate a career that will never be matched. He won four Super Bowls after he turned 37—which is as many as any other quarterback has in a full career. He took home seven Lombardi Trophies in total, which is more than any NFL franchise has, and won 35 playoff games, which is 19 more than the next quarterback on the list (Brady’s idol, Joe Montana). He’ll walk away the league’s all-time leader in passing yards (84,520), passing touchdowns (624), pass attempts (11,317) and completions (7,263).

Quite simply, his highs (dethroning the Rams at 24 years old, going 16–0 while breaking the single-season TD record, coming back from 10 down against a generational defense in one Super Bowl and back from 28–3 in another) were higher than those of any other player in the history of the league and lasted longer than anyone else’s, too. And, by the looks of it, we’ll have some more time to commemorate all of it down the line.

10 SI daily cover stories

SUPER BOWL STORY LINES

Time to kick things off! And to do it, here are 10 Super Bowl LVI story lines you’ll soon be tired of.

1) Is this who Matthew Stafford always was?

2) How time on Sean McVay’s staff rejuvenated Zac Taylor’s career.

3) Can the Bengals’ offensive line hold up against Donald, Miller, etc.?

4) Jalen Ramsey vs. Ja’Marr Chase.

5) Joe Burrow, culture changer.

6) Why didn’t Raheem Morris land a head-coaching job?

7) Andrew Whitworth, the oldest full-time left tackle in league history.

8) Cam Akers’s remarkable comeback.

9) The Brown family’s return to the big stage.

10) Another Super Bowl home game—but how much does L.A. care?

And I’m sure we’ll have plenty more to ruminate on over the next couple of weeks.


TEN TAKEAWAYS

I had a lot to catch up on with new Giants GM Joe Schoen, but I wanted to start with a question that I don’t think is asked much of people in his spot. Or at least I wanted the answer to something. New general managers aren’t like new coaches. They don’t get to finish out the season with their previous teams. And so Schoen was one person I thought of last week while we were all watching the Bills-Chiefs classic wind down. Where was he? How did he watch that?

“Yeah, it’s crazy,” he said Saturday morning. “I was in an extended stay, fully furnished apartment in New Jersey watching the game, like in my bed screaming and yelling and punching. Excitement to depression. So yeah, I was by myself. I prefer to watch games by myself, anyways, even when I used to be a road scout or national scout and I wasn’t with the team. I like to pace a lot, and I get pretty emotional watching it on TV.”

In his front-office role in Buffalo, Schoen told me, he missed just one game in five years, a 2020 matchup against the Jets, because he was scouting and couldn’t get back. He planned for it to be a one-off, too. After the Bengals beat the Titans, ensuring the Chiefs-Bills winner would be the AFC title game’s home team, he told his old boss Brandon Beane, “Save me five seats in your suite, and I’m going to drink a lot of your beer.” And then, with 13 seconds left, he broke his own rules by texting his wife, “Looks like I’ll be in Orchard Park next week.” We know the rest. “I feel for all those guys because they worked so hard—always, since July when they reported. To get all the way to that opportunity, just to have 13 seconds left to close it out and then to not do it, I mean that was a tough one to get over.” And from there? For Schoen, it was back to work on the Giants’ coaching search and getting acclimated to his new team. He and I discussed that, too.

• Schoen was effusive in talking about Beane’s preparing him for the job, mostly just by letting him see everything that was part of the GM job—from making sure the grass gets cut to hiring a video director to coordinating with medical people. Beane’s background was in that area and, opposite of Schoen, he had to learn the scouting side as he rose through the ranks with the Panthers. And seeing Beane become a complete GM showed Schoen plenty. “If you’re an offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, special teams coordinator, whatever it is, when you become a head coach, you don’t have as much time to go lock yourself in a room for 12 hours a day and watch film and game plan,” Schoen said. “It’s no different than me. I’ve been here for eight days now, and I’ve watched one player. I think I’ve watched one college player in eight days. [Titans GM] Jon Robinson sent me a text when I got the job, and he’s told me this before, like, General manager, I generally manage a lot of stuff. And it’s not just watching film for 10 hours a day and setting a draft board. Luckily, I’m in good shape on that from my fall.”

• The Bills did a lot right, and there was an overriding thing Schoen’s taking form there. “Treat the building like you do the roster,” he said. “You want to bring in the best players at the positions and create depth, and that’s kinda how we attacked our staff. Now when we got there, [owners] Terry and Kim Pegula hit the reset button on the college and pro staff. They fired everybody. We got there, there were zero scouts. So we started with a clean slate, and we brought in a lot of talented personnel people, a good mix of veterans and youth that were really good at their jobs. Then we implemented a process, and we were able to execute it. Same with the coaches. Sean [McDermott] was able to hire a really good coaching staff. You’re not gonna get it perfect—you move on from some people—but at the end of the day, over time, we had the right people in the right seats that were really passionate about their jobs, and they were really talented.”

• There was a separator for Brian Daboll, Schoen’s offensive coordinator from Buffalo, in winning the coaching job. It was one Schoen saw coming, and, no, it wasn’t a single relationship Daboll had. It was his ability to quickly build new ones. “He’s a people person,” Schoen said. “In the Buffalo building, he’s well liked. And part of our interview process, we spent about three hours with each candidate—Steve Tisch, John Mara, Chris Mara, myself—and then we would have them go through different parts of the building and meet with different people, and it was just his ability to connect with everybody in the building. For people that he doesn’t know, I saw it on a daily basis in Buffalo, but it was his ability to go throughout the building and connect.”

• And then, there was the obvious with Daboll. “Maybe a little bit of the tipping point would be Brian’s work with quarterbacks,” Schoen said. “Knowing where Daniel Jones is and the offensive staff that he can potentially put together, along with the defensive staff and special teams. We’ll see how it works here with the staff. But yeah, his history on the offensive side of the ball and the quarterbacks, that played a part in it. All the candidates were really good. We didn’t go into it saying, ‘We got to hire an offensive guy or defensive guy.’ We really wanted the best leader.” (We’ll have more on Daboll’s work with Josh Allen in the MAQB later on Monday.)

• From here, Daboll acknowledged the first job will be evaluating the organization, and that job starts now. But as he sees it, in certain ways, he’s already playing from ahead. “I’m still trying to get a feel for what everybody does,” Schoen said. “But I’m going to have all the resources to do anything I need, if I do need to make changes, make changes to the facility or whatever it may be. Whatever you need, if it’s going to help us win football games, we’ll do it for you. And I got that word from John Mara and Steve Tisch on the interview, and I truly believe that. Listen, John, Steve, that’s all they want to do, is win. Whatever it takes, they want to win, and they took a chance on me and I’m a very loyal person. That’s the weight of the world on me. I want to prove them right.”

And he knows it’ll take a lot of work for him to get there, which is why maybe there was a small silver lining for him in getting to skip the trip back to Orchard Park this weekend.

I thought Nathaniel Hackett’s getting the Broncos’ job was particularly cool—because his 74-year-old dad, Paul, who was once Joe Montana’s position coach, got so close but never quite there. Paul did become the head coach at USC and Pitt. He never made it to be an NFL head coach, though. And so, yup, when his 42-year-old son got that call last week, there was special significance to it. “We’re really close, the two of us,” Hackett told me Sunday morning. “He’s just been there for me through everything. And you know he’s always gonna tell you the truth, and he’s helped me develop as a coach, as a person, as a husband and father. So when you have a guy you love so much, it’s something. … Obviously every coach’s dream is to become a head coach, and it was pretty cool. Unfortunately, it was over the phone, but you could just feel it. Him and my mom, because when you grow up in this profession, and you go through all those ups and downs, your family becomes so close. … It meant the world to him as much as it did for me, just to be able to tell him. I mean, it was a beautiful thing, and I can’t wait to hug him. I can’t wait to see him for the first time and hug him.” Like I said, pretty cool. Here are a few more nuggets from the new Denver coach.

• I asked Hackett about Aaron Rodgers’s role in getting him here, and he was, to be clear, very complimentary of the reigning MVP. That said, as he sees it, what’s been just as valuable is the variety of quarterbacks he’s coached. “I’m lucky because I’ve coached so many different quarterbacks with so many different skill sets, so many different personalities,” he said. “And so I think it’s just so great for a coach, for me to develop and understand how to work with so many different kinds of people. Aaron was completely different than the next guy. And every quarterback is different. You never want anybody to be the same. You want everybody to be who they are, and the player that they’re gonna be. I think you learn something from all those guys. You learn the things that I probably could have done better and the things that I did good that I need to do even more. And working with Aaron was unbelievable.”

• The other thing that helped? The variety of offenses Hackett’s been in, from his dad’s old-school West Coast scheme to the hyper-tempo attack he ran at Syracuse and in his early days as an NFL coordinator, to the Shanahan-styled look he helped Matt LaFleur run in Green Bay. “For me, before I even got to create my own, I was in about eight different offenses,” he said. “So you see how eight different people all think it’s the right way. And then you add in my father’s, from the West Coast era. And I love knowledge. I love learning. I love finding out where plays were invented, why they were called what they were called. I mean, heck there are terms that I would ask anybody that I’ve worked with. I’d say, ‘Do you know why they call it that?’ And they might not know. It’s just kinda what you do, what you’re supposed to do. So I think that the last offense that I had to learn was this Shanahan world—I think that was a big, intriguing thing for me to go to Green Bay, to be able to get that from Matt.”

• And another element Hackett will take from LaFleur: how the Packers’ coach took his Shanahan roots and input from all his assistants (Hackett included) to build a new Green Bay offense. You can expect something similar in Denver. “That’s the only way you evolve. That’s the only way to grow,” he said. “I don’t want to just be playing and just do what I do. Everything’s about growth. I mean, this game evolves. This society’s evolved. Everything’s evolving. Everything’s changed. My dad always used to tell me, Change is the norm. Nothing stays the same. So embrace it and learn it and gain knowledge. I mean, there’s a reason why I wanted to study neurobiology. It’s the hardest damn major, or one of the hardest majors, at my school. So push yourself, learn more, find out why it’s hard, find out about physics, find out about it, get answers.”

The pursuit of those answers starts now for Hackett. He says his connection with GM George Paton was pretty close to instant, and the priority will be establishing similar ones with his players—“This is all about them.” But he’s also giving himself time to enjoy what’s been a monumental few days for his family. One came at his press conference. He was walking off the stage and saw his daughter. “Dad,” she said, “I think you’re actually really famous now.” He laughed. But the truth is, because of his history and backstory, he’s trying to soak all of that in. “I’m just trying to lock them away as best as I can because you’ll never get your first head coaching job again,” he said. “I’m just so grateful for it.”

The Buccaneers’ immediate future is pretty murky. Last week, I had a back and forth with a team official who agreed that Brady’s decision on whether to come back in 2022 created a significant fork in the road for the entire franchise. If he were to return, the Bucs would, of course, kick the cap trouble down the road for another year and mortgage contracts to make room to try to bring back everyone possible to make another run at a championship. That, of course, is what you do when you have a player like Brady, and it’s unlikely Brady would return without assurances that the Bucs would go through with all of that. If he doesn’t come back? Well, then, in all likelihood, it’d be time for a franchise reset. The proof is in the team’s list of free agents. Check out the starters alone:

• G Alex Cappa
• CB Carlton Davis
• RB Leonard Fournette
• WR Chris Godwin
• TE Rob Gronkowski
• C Ryan Jensen
• DE Jason Pierre-Paul
• S Jordan Whitehead

Now, the Bucs do have some $20 million in cap space to work with. But a Brady retirement would actually eat into that—with his figure jumping from $18.4 million to $32 million (with dead money accelerating onto this year’s cap) if he hangs ’em up, and putting Tampa tight to the limit. Which is why, in all likelihood, a bunch of names on that list will be gone next year. My guess is the Bucs will try to keep young homegrown stars like Godwin and Davis, but even that will be complicated. That brings us to the good news—there’s still a nice base in place. In Devin White, Antoine Winfield Jr., Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and Tristan Wirfs, there is a core of players still on rookie contracts to build around, and veterans like Lavonte David, Mike Evans, Vita Vea and Donovan Smith should be back to help with the transition. And the reality always was—and the Bucs knew this going into their Brady era—that there was always going to be a rip-the–Band-Aid off year when all the debt was going to come due. If Brady were to play next year, it’d likely happen in 2023. Now that it looks like he won’t, the Bucs will probably eat it next year. But you know what? That doesn’t mean doing what Tampa did the last two seasons was any less worth it.

The Vikings’ coaching search should pick up steam in the coming days. New GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah wasted very little time jumping in on the team’s coaching search. Before his arrival, Minnesota had interviewed Dan Quinn, Todd Bowles, Raheem Morris, Nathaniel Hackett, Kevin O’Connell, Jonathan Gannon, Kellen Moore and DeMeco Ryans. And on Saturday, the Vikings entertained Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham over Zoom—which was notable for a number of reasons. First, Graham and his fellow Ivy Leaguer Adofo-Mensah were actually put in touch through mutual connections and built a strong relationship over the last year or so. Second, Adofo-Mensah raised Graham’s name to the Vikings in his interviews as he pursued the GM job in Minnesota. And third, Adofo-Mensah’s respect for Graham, which came quickly as the two got to know each other, is why the Vikings made the late add to the interview list. Bottom line, it’d surprise no one who knows the two if Graham is among those who get an in-person interview this week. With Hackett and Quinn off the board, I’d keep an eye on Ryans and O’Connell too. And obviously, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh qualifies as a wild card here.

jim harbaugh (3)

Speaking of Harbaugh, if the last three weeks showed us anything, it’s that he will eventually come back to the NFL. Maybe it’ll still be this year. Maybe it won’t. And yes, as we wrote the last couple of weeks, there is the added benefit for Harbaugh here of making the people who made him take a pay cut in 2021 squirm. Accordingly, the dance he did with the Raiders really always made sense—he has history with the Davis family (he coached in Oakland in ’02 and ’03), and Vegas was committed to giving its next coach the structure that coach wants (interviewing GM candidates to match the coaches, with Ed Dodds paired with Harbaugh, like Dave Ziegler and Champ Kelly were with Josh McDaniels, and Jon Spytek and Dwayne Joseph were with Todd Bowles).

Harbaugh also nearly took the job in 2015, before deciding to go to his alma mater. But the Vikings situation? That one’s different. Rather than back-channeling interest and then having informal discussions with the team, as was the case with the Raiders, Harbaugh more formally auditioned for the Vikings’ job. That’s something college coaches usually won’t do unless they’re dead set on going to the pros, because of the implications it can have on recruiting. Chip Kelly, Doug Marrone, Bill O’Brien and Matt Rhule did in past years, because it was more or less a foregone conclusion they’d wind up in the NFL. With others who are less certain, like, say, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, Ohio State’s Ryan Day or USC’s Lincoln Riley, NFL interest is handled much more delicately. So it’s fair now to consider the implicit message from Harbaugh to be clear. Whether it’s this year or not, and so long as the opportunity presents itself, he’ll eventually find his way back to the league.

While we’re there, big credit to the Raiders. Their parallel coach and GM searches—spearheaded by owner Mark Davis, interim president Dan Ventrelle, adviser Marcel Reece and consultant Ken Herock—were run with purpose. They wanted to land a coach to build around for the next decade, and they essentially invested in the process. All those GM candidates? They were interviewed either before, or on the same day, as the coaches they were paired with. As for McDaniels, specifically? Ziegler has been his top GM choice for a few years and was the GM he proposed to the Browns upon interviewing for the Cleveland job in 2020. The Raiders also interviewed Champ Kelly. That one was positioned as a GM interview, but it was really more about vetting him for a role under Ziegler, whom he worked with in Denver under McDaniels a decade ago. There’ll be more names to come that’ll further prove out how complete McDaniels’s vision for a football operation really is. That, more than control, was what he was looking for in his second shot at being a head coach, a chance to work with people who’ll line up with him philosophically. In Vegas, he’s getting that.

The Bears have moved quickly, and it shows there was a plan to what they’ve done. Within a few days of one another, Chicago tabbed Chiefs exec Ryan Poles as general manager and Colts DC Matt Eberflus as coach. But the next steps, to me, showed the most promise in where Poles and Eberflus might take Chicago after this. By Saturday morning, Poles had poached Eagles codirector of player personnel Ian Cunningham (an Ozzie Newsome protégé, former Ravens college scout and rising young executive) from Philadelphia. And as that was going on, Eberflus had his eyes on bringing Packers pass-game coordinator Luke Getsy aboard as his offensive coordinator, and taking no fewer than four of his defensive assistants with him from Indianapolis (Alan Williams potentially as coordinator; with David Borgonzi, David Overstreet II and James Rowe as the others who could go with him). Now, do I know that all of these hires are going to work? I do not. But what I can say definitively is both Poles and Eberflus arrived knowing how they wanted to stock their staffs, and that’s usually an early sign that there’ll be alignment within the organization—it’s something we saw quickly in Buffalo five years ago, as Beane and McDermott remade the Bills. And now, we’ll see what they do to lift up their young quarterback and manage a still proud, but aging defense.

If I were Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence, I’d already be thinking about asking for a trade. Just consider how the Jacksonville job was looked at last year (No. 1 pick with a generation QB prospect available; multiple picks in Rounds 1, 2, 4 and 5; $75 million in cap space, patient ownership) to how it is now (a mess in need of significant fumigation), and you get a picture of what Lawrence is up against going forward.

Dan Quinn said thanks but no thanks early in the process. Doug Pederson, I’m told, was lukewarm about the chance to go there, given what he’d gone through in Philly and the structure in place in Jacksonville. And then, there was the Byron Leftwich situation last week. Leftwich reportedly explored the idea of bringing Arizona VP of pro scouting Adrian Wilson with him (Leftwich and Wilson struck up a relationship working together during the Bruce Arians years in Arizona), and I heard Bucs director of football operations Shelton Quarles was part of Leftwich’s ideal plan, too. Add up the decisions Quinn, Pederson and Leftwich made, to approach a chance to coach Lawrence (and a team with some other good, young talent too) with so much trepidation, and it leads back to one place: owner Shad Khan’s overall track record and his newfound loyalty to GM Trent Baalke, whom plenty of coaches don’t trust and won’t work with because of a reputation that grew in San Francisco and has lingered over two years in Jacksonville.

Only the Raiders have had as much time to work on finding a coach as the Jaguars have, and Vegas’s search was orderly and strategic (they interviewed GM candidates attached to big-name coaches before interviewing the coaches themselves, to give those coaches what they needed to accept the job, which McDaniels ultimately did). The Jaguars’ process has been anything but, and the news, from my pal Ian Rapoport on Sunday morning, that they are suddenly targeting a new candidate, O’Connell, is more proof of it. I think O’Connell will be a really good head coach. But why is it that a team that fired its coach in mid-December is bringing in a new candidate three weeks after the season ended? Just mind-boggling. So if I’m Lawrence, heading into a critical stage of my career, and in need of development, I’m considering all options, including the nuclear one.

The Ravens landing Mike Macdonald as defensive coordinator is doubling down on what Baltimore’s built over John Harbaugh’s 14 seasons. Harbaugh got to Baltimore in 2008 and held over defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. Ryan left the next year, and Harbaugh promoted Greg Mattison. Two years after that, Chuck Pagano was promoted to DC. A year after that, Dean Pees got that bump. And six years after that, it was Wink Martindale moving up. This one’s along those lines, even it’s not a direct promotion the way the others were. Macdonald spent seven formative years in Baltimore, moving from intern to quality-control coach to secondary coach and, finally, to linebackers coach over Martindale’s first three years as coordinator. Then, Harbaugh recommended him to his brother, looking for a new coordinator at Michigan, and the Wolverines had their best year in two decades. From there …

• Jim returned the favor from a year ago, in giving Macdonald a glowing recommendation in how he ran the defense from the lead chair and called it on game day.

• All of Macdonald’s personal traits—hard-working, thoughtful, collaborative—fit what John Harbaugh wants in his coordinators. And the Ravens weren’t guessing on those.

• Macdonald had been an integral part of the reimagining of the scheme, working under Harbaugh and Martindale from 2018 to ’20, a shift that put more power in the hands of players to adjust on the fly to all that today’s offenses throw at a defense.

And that brings us back to the top here, and that’s Harbaugh’s belief in developing and moving coaches up from within. As the Ravens see it, and as is the case in other places like Kansas City and New England, doing it that way is building on who you already are. Which, really, is exactly what Baltimore did with a critical hire.

My quick-hitter thoughts from the championship games are right here. Come get ‘em …

• The Bengals took crap for letting Carl Lawson go in favor of Saints free agent Trey Hendrickson. And I know Lawson’s hurt. But Hendrickson’s much more of a menace than Lawson ever was—and I like Lawson as a player. The Bengals got that trade off right.

• Chiefs left tackle Orlando Brown had his ups and down (again) Sunday. Will the Chiefs be willing to hand him $20 million per year? It’s a question that’ll have to be confronted in the coming weeks, with Brown’s contract expiring.

• Mixon’s an electric runner and worth all of the four-year, $48 million deal he signed.

• After a couple of early drops (at least one of which could’ve drawn a penalty), Higgins really settled in. He’s got size and athleticism, and a very bright future.

• The Chiefs have a lot of good, young talent (Nick Bolton, L’Jarius Sneed, Juan Thornhill, Willie Gay, Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith) on rookie contracts, which is a must after you pay your quarterback like Kansas City did.

• The bar Taylor planned to bring the game ball to on Sunday night, after the charter got back into town: a place called Zip’s, in his neighborhood in Cincinnati.

• It feels like the opening for the Niners to turn the page and go to Trey Lance is there now. But say this for Garoppolo—he handled a super-awkward situation with a lot of class.

• That Niners defensive line is gonna be a problem for a long time to come.

• The Rams’ in-stadium hype man is absolutely ridiculous.

• If the Bills feel sick to their stomachs over all of this … I understand.


SIX FROM SATURDAY

We’re going to carry on a (sort of) annual tradition in this space here and hand off the pen to Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy. Senior Bowl week starts Monday in Mobile, Ala., and I’ll be there. For NFL teams, it’s really the beginning of draft season, when coaches start to jump in on what’s a year-round process for their scouts. As such, there’s plenty to look out for, and fortunately for us we’ve got Nagy to help give you an idea of what to look for the next few days. So here’s Jim …

Last year’s Senior Bowl roster produced a record 106 drafted players, which accounted for 41% of the 2021 NFL draft class, and our staff is excited to see how the ‘22 group of prospects performs this week in what scouts consider the first major step in the draft process. Here are six things to look for this week in practices and the game if you are following along on Twitter (@JimNagy_SB, @seniorbowl), NFL Network or ESPN. The game will be nationally televised Saturday, Feb. 5 at 2:30 p.m. ET on NFL Network.

• Everyone knows that QB conversation drives the draft narrative every year, and this year’s Senior Bowl QB group is the deepest in recent memory, with five of the top six graded prospects (all but Ole Miss junior Matt Corral) headed to Mobile. While there has been plenty of star power at the position over the past decade, with NFL talents like Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, Josh Allen and Justin Herbert showcasing their skills here, this year’s class features five players who have first-round grades with multiple NFL teams we traded notes with over the course of the college season. Those five players are (in alphabetical order): North Carolina’s Sam Howell, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, Nevada’s Carson Strong and Liberty’s Malik Willis. The sixth passer in this year’s game, Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe, who broke Joe Burrow’s FBS single-season records for passing yards and passing touchdowns, is also a fringe top-100 player entering the week. It is almost a leaguewide consensus that these six signal-callers, along with Corral, are the clear top seven QB prospects in the draft. But the order in which teams have them ranked right now is all over the board. What happens this week in Mobile will greatly determine how this year’s QB class shakes out when we get to late April.

• Three years ago, the Senior Bowl produced five first-round offensive linemen (the Falcons’ Chris Lindstrom at No. 14, Vikings’ Garrett Bradbury at No. 18, Eagles’ Andre Dillard at No. 22, Texans’ Tytus Howard at No. 23 and Falcons’ Kaleb McGary at No. 31), and this year’s OL group could easily match that. In fact, our scouting staff has more offensive linemen with Day 1 or Day 2 grades than we did back in 2019. Some of the players we know are carrying first- or second-round grades around the league right now are Boston College’s Zion Johnson, Minnesota’s Daniel Faalele, Northern Iowa’s Trevor Penning, Kentucky’s Darian Kinnard, Central Michigan’s Bernhard Raimann, and LSU’s Ed Ingram. A few potential risers we think will also be in the Round 2 mix once we get to April are Tennessee-Chattanooga’s Cole Strange and Central Michigan’s Luke Goedeke. There are simply too many good players to list specifically in this group. If your team needs immediate offensive line help, Mobile is the place to find it this year.

• This past Saturday, we hosted the inaugural HBCU combine in Mobile in conjunction with the NFL. It was a great event with the aim being to create better exposure opportunities for HBCU players with NFL clubs. This year’s Senior Bowl will feature the top two HBCU prospects in this year’s draft—Fayetteville State CB Joshua Williams and Southern OL J’Atyre Carter. Williams is a long-bodied and efficient moving cover player whom teams that play a high volume of press-man will covet. He is the type of small-school corner that was rarely challenged at the Division II level, so this will be a big week showing how he can match up against potential Day 2 picks like South Alabama’s Jalen Tolbert and SMU’s Danny Gray, among others. Carter is a thick, proportionately built college tackle who projects more as a guard at the next level. We got our first live look at him the first week of the season when Southern traveled to Troy, and Carter immediately got our attention with his NFL-starter-level tools.

• If you’re looking for a non-P5 prospect who could propel himself into first-round conversations coming out of Senior Bowl week, look no further than UTSA CB Tariq Woolen. The almost 6' 4", 215-pound converted WR is expected to run in the low-4.3 range at the combine, and he will assuredly be one of the top HWS. (height/weight/speed) prospects in the 2022 draft. Woolen caught our attention during tape work last spring with his size, explosion and physicality. Unlike most converted wideouts, Woolen is not afraid to strike people. He was coached this year by a former NFL corner and thus made big strides when it came to both technique and overall understanding of the game on the defensive side the ball. From a size perspective, Woolen is similar to former Syracuse standout Ifeatu Melifonwu, who shined last year in Mobile after playing in the game as an eligible junior. Melfonwu was drafted in the third round last year by the Lions, and he looked like a building block for Dan Campbell’s team as a rookie.

• Most years we struggle to find more than four or five senior tight ends we feel strongly about getting drafted by the time April rolls around, but this year was different. This is by far the most talented group of tight ends we’ve encountered the past four years, which is why we ended up inviting nine, rather than the usual six. Colorado State Mackey Award winner Trey McBride is probably the consensus top guy in the group, so he is jockeying more for overall position in the draft than within the position group rankings. Most teams have McBride as either a late-first- or early-second-rounder, and this week will be an opportunity to display his high-end athleticism and overall competitiveness in front of key NFL decision-makers who probably didn’t get to many Mountain West games in the fall. Coastal Carolina’s Isaiah Likely, an athletic run-after-catch threat, is a favorite among NFL scouts, and we think Ohio State’s Jeremy Ruckert will help himself by having the opportunity to show what he can do with more pass-game targets than he got with the Buckeyes. Last year, Georgia’s Tre’ McKitty benefitted greatly from his week in Mobile, because he caught everything thrown to him. McKitty caught only six passes his senior season in Athens, but was still taken in the third round by the Chargers, largely because of how he looked in Mobile.

• Quarterback and tight end are certainly deep position groups in this year’s game, but the defensive line position, particularly at edge, will likely produce the most impact players at the next level. If this year’s NFL playoffs have shown us anything, it’s that you must have guys who can consistently pressure the quarterback, and teams looking for help in that area will find plenty of prospects who have proven they can do that at the college level. A couple of big men whom we expect big weeks from are Georgia DT Devonte Wyatt and Penn State edge rusher Arnold Ebiketie. Wyatt was a key cog in the Bulldogs’ ferocious front seven, but we think he’ll start making a name for himself this week in Mobile. Sources at the school have been telling us for two years how Wyatt could run in the high-4.7 range at 320-plus pounds, and he made a nice jump on tape this year, showing better ankle flexion and block defeat skills. Wyatt possesses the type of explosion that stands out in one-on-one pass-rush drills and usually creates buzz among NFL executives. Our scouting staff liked Ebikete over the summer, watching his Temple tape, but he took his game to another level this year after transferring to Penn State. He is lightning quick, he dips and bends naturally to slide around blocks, and he is a relentless finisher. Wyatt and Ebikete are two guys who could potentially make millions here in Mobile this week, and it would not surprise us if both end up in the first round come April.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Albert for sharing his MMQB column platform with us, and we are grateful for the more than 900 credentialed media members for making the trip to Mobile this week.


BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

True.

See … that’s not cool.

Again, four world titles after he turned 37.

Tweets like this are how Cassel got himself verified, folks.

Still hard to fathom going from all that in the first half to three points in the second half and overtime put together.

Can’t really be $300 … can it?

I respect this.

Can’t remember the last time I saw a flop this bad.

I send many regrettable things pregame—but I didn’t kill off the Bengals!!!

Cigar smoking videos it is!

Joseph Lee Burrow.

From the Bills’ QB himself, right after the Bengals lost the toss.

Love the guys who wear their heart on their sleeve on days like today.

This was after Jalen Ramsey got into Robbie Gould’s face, just before halftime of the NFC title game, and is more proof Robbie vs. the Rams was a nice surprise for championship Sunday.

Love it.

Liked it better when he was just a fan of sports.

Great accountability.

Garoppolo’s done plenty for the Niners. And if Lance becomes a star, Garoppolo deserves credit for playing the role of Alex Smith to Lance’s Mahomes—navigating an awkward situation while maintaining a relationship with, and helping to bring along, the younger guy.

Just unreal.

Love this—great show of appreciation from Kupp on Robert Woods’s role in his development.

Starting to feel like doubting him is like doubting Brady.


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Sean Payton walks away an all-time great.

We’ll have more on Payton, obviously, in the weeks to come. And it shouldn’t take much longer than that for the statue to go up in front of the Superdome.

Simply put, Payton was a transformative figure for his team and the league. He won 152 games (161 including the playoffs) in New Orleans, seven division titles and Super Bow XLIV, while guiding the franchise out of its post-Katrina troubles. The Saints were important for the whole region during that time and have never been more relevant, for a variety of reasons, than they were over Payton’s years.

I’d suggest checking out this week’s “Hurry Up” on YouTube for more—we had one of Payton’s ex-coworkers and an ex-player tell stories and explain why he was so good at what he did, and what he was like to work with.

Will he be back in 2023? We’ll see. I can certainly conjure a scenario where Payton likes doing TV and likes the lifestyle, and maybe becomes this generation’s Bill Cowher—being a coach who hung up his whistle at a relatively young age because he’d adapted to the trappings of a media career. Or maybe he’ll be right back at it after a year off.

Honestly, I don’t think he knows which way that’ll go. Nor do most coaches. You sort of have to live it first.

And he’ll have plenty of time to do that and figure the rest out.

Congrats on a great run, Sean.

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