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Sean McVay’s Patience, Joe Burrow’s Magic, and How Super Bowl LVI Will Be Won

Also, Ryan Tannehill as the new Kirk Cousins, Kirk Cousins also as the new Kirk Cousins, the new head coaches, spelling lessons from The Simpsons, and more! Plus, musical guest: The Mountain Goats!

1. On Sunday, Sean McVay will coach in his second Super Bowl before the age of 40. Which sounds impressive, but he’s averaging only a Super Bowl every 18 years of his life. At this pace, he’ll still only tie Tom Landry for third alltime in Super Bowls coached, with five, and that’s only if he hits age 90, which is still a bit north of life-expectancy circa 2070.

But let’s set the future aside and focus on the present. On Sunday McVay’s Super Bowl counterpart will be a former assistant coach of his, rather than the greatest coach of alltime. It seems the mistake McVay made last time around, in a Super Bowl LIII loss, was going in with a pretty firm game plan for Belichick’s Patriots, only to watch the Patriots throw a series of curveballs (a 6–1 front, but more notably, a secondary that rarely played—and was not built for—quarters coverage going heavy on such zone looks). McVay and the Rams offense seemed to be finding a rhythm by the third quarter, but the Patrick Chung injury forced New England to adjust, and by the time L.A. had adjusted to the readjustment the game was already over because they only let you play for 60 minutes if the game isn’t tied.


From the Rams’ perspective, one positive about facing a Bengals defense that showed a little bit of everything defensively this season is that they therefore have to be prepared for anything. Cincinnati turned to heavy coverage in the AFC title game win over the Chiefs, dropping seven and often eight into coverage against Patrick Mahomes, shutting him out in the second half until a last-second field goal. That is how most defenses are now attacking elite quarterbacks, so Matthew Stafford can expect to see a mix of coverages, but probably not see many blitzes against a defense that just doesn’t blitz often anyway.

More than anything, I’d expect McVay to be very flexible going into Sunday. That means a feeling-out period over the first couple of drives as he tries to get a bead on what Lou Anarumo is throwing at him. The Bengals are a very good team, and a bad bounce or two can swing this game, but ultimately, a more patient approach from McVay and a general lack of flukiness over 60 minutes should result in a Rams win.

2. It’s been talked about non-stop for 13 days, but “right side of the Bengals’ offensive line, the desperate struggles of” is the biggest story of this game. Raheem Morris is going to line Aaron Donald and Von Miller up, together, against that right side frequently. Morris will dial up an occasional blitz to force one-on-one matchups across the line, but I’m not sure any two blockers will be able to handle Donald. Morris can drop seven and still probably get unrelenting pressure on Joe Burrow.

The Bengals typically address that protection issue by keeping a tight end in to help. But, really, the solution all season has been Burrow either quietly sliding to his right and away from danger, or making a great escape to buy time. Burrow will have to summon all of his magic against a pass rush with three finishers. There’s a very good chance this looks like the conference semifinal win in Nashville, but this time it’s not Ryan Tannehill and a hobbled Derrick Henry on the other side.

The other possible solution for the Bengals offensively is a healthy dose of run game and quick game. The Rams have had issues getting opponents on the ground at times this season, and Joe Mixon and Ja’Marr Chase are both studs. Though Chase is likely to be followed by Jalen Ramsey, one of the best tackling corners in football. The more likely scenario of Chase winning that matchup is beating Ramsey downfield, but how often will Burrow have enough time to deliver the deep ball?

3. I realize many readers will be watching a football game for the first time on Sunday—if that’s the case, this column is about your speed. But no one likes to be the newbie at the big Super Bowl party. So, while you’re getting fit for your formal wear and broiling those pizza bagels to the perfect game-time temperature, here are some Super Bowl factoids you can share at your party to amaze and impress your . . . coworkers or kid’s teacher or whomever is coming to your party because you invited everyone in your inbox as you realized you don’t have many friends:

• Despite popular belief, there is not a single “S” in “Cincinnati.”

• Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford is famous for making "pew-pew" laser-gun sounds every time he releases a pass.

• If there are any references to “sky judge” after a blown call, that’s a reference to, literally, God. Though, despite the whole omnipotence thing, God rarely bothers to correct calls in real time.

• The Super Bowl is not named after the popular toy the “superball.” Also, the superball was never popular. That’s why they were always in the candy dispensers outside Caldor. (The first part of this note is true.)

• Despite what you might assume, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow’s favorite film of all-time is not David Spade vehicle Joe Dirt, though he does think it has its moments.

A ram is a male sheep.

• Rams superstar defensive lineman Aaron Donald wears No. 99 in honor of eccentric former Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Turk Wendell.

• This is actual footage of Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase heading to the team facility after last spring’s draft. (R.I.P. Bob Saget, Marty was your finest and most memorable role):

4. One last thing about this game—or tangentially related to this game: Let’s hope the Bengals’ incredible postseason run, however Sunday turns out, will bring to an end the breathless coverage of training camp practices and general freaking out they incite. During the first week in August, the only stories coming out of Cincinnati were that Ja’Marr Chase was physically incapable of catching a football, and Joe Burrow was shrieking in terror and spiking the ball into the dirt on every practice rep. (Seriously, one outlet double bylined a piece that included a note about Burrow going 5-for-12 with an interception during an 11-on-11 session.)

I realize there isn’t much to write about over the summer and writing about football players doing football things* for the first time in a while seems like it would be worth it, but aside from reporting injuries or bottom-of-the-roster battles, it isn’t. Literally anything would be better than covering practice reps as if they translate to regular-season performance in any way.

Of course, the Patrick Mahomes is throwing too many interceptions in practice narrative in the month before he embarked on an MVP season wasn’t enough to quash this trend. If Burrow’s success can do it, it would be his most impressive feat yet.

*—The moment when the name of the column appears in the column! Like when Darth Vader says, “It’s Star Wars time!” in Star Wars. The first one, I think. Anyway, I believe that’s called a “title drop.”

5. The bulk of my days are spent editing others, and I’ve had two writers (who will remain nameless, but you know who you are) that have never been able to spell “Cincinnati” correctly. I share the following clip because it feels like the Football Things finale should have a Simpsons clip, and because it’s vaguely Bengals-related and therefore topical. But mostly I share it because watching this as a child is the sole reason I have never misspelled Cincinnati:

6a. The quarterback market will once again be worth paying attention to this offseason, exactly as it has been for every offseason of your lifetime unless you’re 106 years old.

The draft is nothing but wild cards (I, personally, have onboarded and exited the Malik Willis bandwagon multiple times over the past calendar year). Someone’s gonna get themselves Jimmy Garoppolo and that’s perfectly fine for a year, maybe two. Perhaps the most incredible thing is that Kirk Cousins, presumably a fit in Kevin O’Connell’s offense but still primarily a system guy, is set for a new contract at the perfect time again. With one set of quarterbacks aging out (Brady, Roethlisberger, Rivers) aging out and a handful of recent draft picks busting (Josh Rosen, Dwayne Haskins and Sam Darnold are already there, Tua Tagovailoa is trending in that direction), there are now more than a handful of teams telling themselves, “Man, if we only had a competent, league-average starter here; you know, like . . . Kirk Cousins!” I suspect Cousins is going to surpass Warren Buffett in net worth by the middle of this decade.

But the most interesting quarterback this offseason is Ryan Tannehill, who has quite a bit in common with Cousins. First, his name is an anagram for “Lanny Hartline,” which of course is the pen name Kirk Cousins uses for his self-published murder mystery romance novels set in outer space. Like Cousins, Tannehill has established himself as a great fit in the NFL’s trendiest offensive system. The past two postseasons have been a reminder that, like Cousins, Tannehill is probably a guy who can be part of a team that gets to the Super Bowl, but not really the reason they get there. And, like Cousins, Tannehill has a contract that has his team in a bit of a corner.

Two offseasons ago, the Vikings, up against the salary cap and desperate to find more room to keep any hopes of contention alive, restructured Cousins’s contract. At the time, Cousins’s deal had him locked in for one more season. The restructured deal gave Minnesota immediate cap relief, but essentially tied them to Cousins for two more years.

The Titans are currently in a very similar spot with Tannehill, and unless they can get in on an Aaron Rodgers/Russell Wilson sweepstakes (that might not happen anyway), they’re highly unlikely to find an immediate upgrade over Tannehill. The way Tannehill’s deal is currently structured, 2022 is for all intents and purposes the final year of his deal. The Titans, according to, are already projected to be $7 million over the 2022 cap. That means they’re going to have to restructure a number of veteran deals, and Tannehill will surely be one of them. But in order to get that immediate cap relief, it will likely mean turning some of those fake years on the back end of Tannehill’s contract into real ones. Basically, to get a restructure done, they’ll have to commit to him through at least 2023.

Riding with Tannehill isn’t a huge issue—he’s, conservatively speaking, one of the 20 best quarterbacks in football (probably more like top 12 or 15). But the Titans are trying to win a conference that features Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert and Lamar Jackson—all of whom are young and have or will content for MVP awards. Tennessee has gone one-and-done in the playoffs the last two years while getting subpar performances from their quarterback. And while a two-game sample size is not definitive, in a vacuum, it has to be difficult for an organization to convince itself that its 34-year-old system quarterback is going to go shot-for-shot over multiple games with the aforementioned quarterbacks anytime in the… well, ever.

6b. “Arlen lay ninth” is another anagram of Ryan Tannehill, which is why we all should have realized that the quarterback’s rise to prominence signaled that King of the Hill, the wonderful Mike Judge sitcom set in the fictional Texas town of Arlen, would (as it did) return to Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block, which at various times in its history has started broadcasting at 9 p.m.

7. Congratulations on your favorite team’s new head coach! You got a good one. Or not. We won’t really know for a few more years. Here are a series of poorly-thought-out, overly optimistic initial reactions to each head-coach hiring…

Nathaniel Hackett, Broncos: I always chuckle when Hackett is criticized for failing to get franchise quarterback performances out of Blake Bortles and EJ Manuel. He managed around Borltes’s many shortcomings masterfully—the Jaguars put up 45 points in Pittsburgh in a postseason game with a Hackett game plan that was an absolute masterpiece. And if you’re in the “anyone could do it with Aaron Rodgers” crowd, go back and watch Rodgers’s 2018 season; Matt LaFleur and Hackett got Rodgers back at an MVP level. Hackett has overseen a variety of different offenses and overachieved at every stop of his career. For a Denver franchise staring down another year of Quarterback TBD atop the depth chart, Hackett was a downright logical choice.

Doug Pederson, Jaguars: I know Jaguars fans had their hearts set on Byron Leftwich (I preferred Todd Bowles if you’re plucking from that Tampa staff, but no one will let me run an NFL franchise). However, after the last guy, the Jaguars just needed a coach who can run a professional football organization. So maybe this isn’t thrilling, but Pederson at least guarantees a certain level of competence that the organization severely lacked a year ago.

Brian Daboll, Giants: If reports that he loves Daniel Jones are true, the Giants absolutely made the right hire. Jones isn’t going to reach the Mahomes/Allen/Burrow/Herbert level, but he can get to Tier 2 in this league. The previous two coaching staffs made this offense into a circus—at times a very, very boring circus—and stunted Jones’s development along the way, but if anyone can get the man known as Abracadaniel back on the right track it’s Daboll.

Matt Eberflus, Bears: He’s an elite defensive mind, and the Bears seem like an organization that is going to win on that side of the ball if they’re going to win. The conventional wisdom is to hire an offensive head coach for your developing young quarterback because that way the coach won’t get poached for another head-coaching job. But I’d think Eberflus, who gave opposing quarterbacks fits with his coverages over the years, and the way he sees the game would end up being an invaluable resource for Justin Fields.

Mike McDaniel, Dolphins: A 49ers-style offense is probably the way to go with Tua Tagovailoa—an emphasis on quick-game and lots of defined reads that keep him from getting late in the down and melting. The question is whether hiring with the hopes of getting your young quarterback to Jimmy Garoppolo’s level is the way you want to go (and it’s difficult to trust the judgment of an organization whose most innovative roster-building idea over the past decade was, uhhhhh . . . tank, I guess?). But, as we saw in San Francisco with the investment in Trey Lance, at some point Miami will probably reach a point where they want to get more dynamic at the quarterback position (especially with five young quarterbacks more suited for the Marvel Cinematic Universe in their conference), and in the meantime this is a system that works for the guy who’s there now.

Lovie Smith, Texans: It’s a bizarre operation in Houston, but the following things are true about Smith: (1) He’s been a head coach in the NFL before and had tremendous success; and (2) his defense was decent last year—much better than anyone should have reasonably expected—despite an underwhelming roster. They should have hired Brian Flores, though I get that it’s awkward to hire someone who is currently suing you. (Though, really, if they are so convinced that Josh McCown is the NFL’s Steve Kerr, they better go hire him before someone else does.)

Josh McDaniels, Raiders: Retreads are fine. McDaniels gets Derek Carr in the midst of his best run. But the reason this hire is encouraging is that Patrick Graham is coming to coordinate the defense. Graham is tremendously creative and overachieved with an undermanned Giants defense. If he can maximize a subpar back seven in Vegas this team is going back to the playoffs, even in the stacked NFC West.

Kevin O’Connell, Vikings: As much as we all enjoy busting on the Sean McVay coaching tree thing, Zac Taylor is coaching in the Super Bowl three years after taking over the worst team in football, and Matt LaFleur has won 39 games and gone to two conference title games in three years.

Dennis Allen, Saints: This was the only opening where the team could decide to simultaneously tear down for a rebuild and—due to the atrociousness of the NFC South—win their division in 2022. Continuity makes sense.

8a. This is the last one of these columns, definitely for the season, seeing as the Super Bowl is the final game. But maybe ever. Though I always figured when it’s over I’d just stop writing them as opposed to announcing it’s over. I guess at this point writing that it might be the last one is a bit of an everyday brings you closer to death type of thing. However, just in case this is the last one, I want to finish with something—or, in this case, someone—near and dear to my heart: my friend and former SI colleague Jenny Vrentas.

The biggest issue in sports journalism right now is the journalism part of it, especially at a time when sports leagues, organizations and those within them have gained incredible power in our society. For a writer, getting to the top of this industry often requires that you assembled an impressive rolodex. You can text the general manager, or the athletic director, or the coach, or the super agent, and they’ll text you back. Of course, 99% of the time they’ll text back some inconsequential snippet (people will tweet that you were first!). Or, if it’s an important issue, they will share the message they want to get out, but only with the people they know will share it unfiltered.

With that in mind, back to Jenny. I’d like to highlight two series of pieces we did in our last year working together (coincidentally, both dealing with the Texans). She led the reporting on the bizarre developments within the Texans organization, as well as the reporting on sexual misconduct allegations against Deshaun Watson. We’re not going to reveal sources—in this shop we grant the right to speak anonymously to those who, in our judgment, have legitimate reasons to get that protection—but: The sources in these stories were people who normally don’t have their voices amplified. They’re whistleblowers, rather than powerful people, their lawyers or their publicists.

Most reporters, however, go straight to the lawyers and the publicists—it’s not only easier, but it’s now just accepted that in sports, powerful people and only powerful people get to tell the stories. (There were more than a few folks in sports and sports media crying conspiracy over our work on the Texans and Watson pieces because, for them, it was so difficult to believe anyone would dig and find a whistleblower, and then do the necessary vetting it requires to go forward with those accounts.)

Last month, Jenny left SI for a position at the New York Times. It was a bummer for us. But the Times (which also bought up The Athletic) is building the largest independent sports journalism operation out there and building it around a subscription model that very well could be the only way forward for the industry. Jenny is exactly the kind of journalist who must be a part of an operation like that.

8b. I don't think that was entirely proper tribute, but it's also coming up on 2 a.m. the morning of the Super Bowl, so as I've said to many a writer before: Yeah... it's fine.

9. Ladies and gentlemen, once again . . . The Mountain Goats!

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