LOS ANGELES — Sean McVay strode through the bowels of SoFi Stadium with the edge of a high-wire Super Bowl finally wearing off. He’d traded his sweats for gray suit pants and a matching vest over a white button-down shirt. He had his defensive coordinator and close friend, Raheem Morris, flanking him and a vodka drink in his left hand in an oversize, silver cup emblazoned with the Rams’ logo.
And as he closed in on the team bus, taking him off to celebrate, the points he kept making about Super Bowl LVI only mirrored what he’s preached over five years in L.A.
“It epitomizes what’s great about our best players. They shine the brightest in the tightest moments when they’ve gotta do it,” McVay told me. “You hear me talk about competitive greatness all the time, being your best when your best is required. Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald. I thought [Andrew] Whitworth’s protection was outstanding. And they’re world champs now.”
The Rams—after elbowing their way through a tractor pull of a game and scoring a 23–20 TKO of a feisty Bengals team—sure are. And McVay wasn’t done.
“The best part about this team, Albert, is they played for each other,” he continued. “You bring in guys that are superstars like Von Miller and Odell Beckham [Jr.], and they were huge superstars that were instrumental in us winning this championship, but they wanted to win for their teammates as much as anything. I thought we came together as a team at the most important moments.
“That’s why this is so special, because everybody wanted it more for somebody else other than themselves.”
Over the last month, McVay talked about winning a Lombardi Trophy for Stafford. Eric Weddle talked about winning one for Donald. Everyone wanted to win one for Whitworth.
Which, really, is what McVay strived to build—we, not me—since he got the job in 2017.
That he’s accomplished it mattered a lot in Super Bowl LVI. It mattered when Beckham went down, with what the Rams fear to be a torn ACL. It mattered when the second half couldn’t have started worse, with a 75-yard touchdown heave from Joe Burrow followed by a Stafford pick. It mattered when Stafford and the offense got the ball back with 6:13 left and 79 yards to go. It definitely mattered when the defense needed one last stop.
And because the Rams could count on their best players, and their best players could count on one another, the team won it all.
The future has its uncertainties. On this night, that didn’t matter.
This night was everything the Rams had been building toward.
The 2021 season is in the books, and we’ve got a Super Bowl to recap. And in this week’s MMQB column, we’ve also got …
• Looming offseason questions for the Rams and Bengals.
• Lovie Smith on the Texans’ plans at quarterback.
• Mike McDaniel on buying in on the Dolphins as the job for him.
• Dennis Allen on replacing a legend in New Orleans.
… and a lot more. Now, let’s get back to the Super Bowl.
The game’s critical point came with 14:38 left in the third quarter. At one point in the second quarter, Stafford had a perfect passer rating, having thrown for 127 yards and two touchdowns while completing 9-of-10 throws. The Rams were up 13–3, and it looked like the Bengals might get blown out of SoFi Stadium. But Joe Burrow & Co. hung in, went into the half down just 13–10 and came out of the locker room swinging.
The first play from scrimmage was the aforementioned bomb from Burrow to Tee Higgins, on which the officials missed the receiver pulling Jalen Ramsey down by his facemask.
The second play from scrimmage ended in Stafford’s second pick of the night, a throw over the middle that bounced off receiver Ben Skowronek’s hands, and into Chidobe Awuzie’s.
Just like that, the Bengals were up 17–13, at the Rams’ 31, and had a chance to put a Rams offense that had just lost Beckham on a freak noncontact injury two possessions in the rearview mirror. Things hadn’t spiraled out of control completely for the Rams, but they very easily could have thereafter—which made McVay’s demeanor in the moment critical.
“He just said, ‘Hey, man, we’ll be all right. We’ll be all right.’ Just up and down the sidelines, saying it,” Weddle said on the field afterward. “And when he’s saying that, then the leaders say that, and we reiterate that to the young guy. We could’ve easily just went, ‘Man, this just ain’t our night’ and got blown out. But when you just stay the course, it was huge.”
Staying the course, for a star-driven team, means leaning on the best players on the roster, and that’s what the Rams did. Donald, coming out of a relatively quiet first half, sacked Burrow on third-and-3 from the Rams’ 11 to mitigate the damage of the Stafford pick. That led to a 38-yard Evan McPherson field goal, making it 20–13, Cincinnati.
Stafford then responded with a 10-play, 52-yard drive, with throws to Darrell Henderson, Brycen Hopkins and Skowronek—all having to play bigger roles in Beckham’s absence—to set up a 41-yard field goal from Matt Gay.
From there, the defenses took over. The next six possessions between the two teams featured a single first down, converted on a 16-yard throw from Burrow to Tyler Boyd in the first minute of the fourth quarter. And as that happened, the Rams started to get their edge with an adjustment Morris made to try to get Donald singled up more.
“Little bit of 5–0, make them block them all, man,” Morris said with a smile.
Indeed, Morris started sending more pressure at Burrow with the hope that it’d generate more one-on-one matchups for his best players, Donald in particular.
“You’re trying to feel their way out, and then Raheem just did an excellent job in the second half just being a step ahead of them on our calls and our looks,” Weddle said. “Switching up our fronts and our disguises on the back end to be able to make sure the IDs were somewhere else. That’s why we were getting AD one-on-one.”
And once Donald started getting to Burrow, the dam broke on the Bengals’ offensive line. Burrow wound up taking a Super Bowl–record-tying seven sacks, and the rush forced three straight hurried throws by the second-year QB after the Bengals grinded out a pair of first downs midway through the fourth quarter. That led to a punt, and the Rams’ getting the ball back one final time.
Which set up the biggest moments of the game.
Really, the first and only time it looked like the Rams might be on their last breath was on fourth-and-1 from their own 30, with 5:00 left. And where McVay went with the ball was a harbinger of things to come. After being held to a single catch through the first 25 minutes of the half—against a defense drilled down on stopping him with Beckham out of the game—it was Kupp’s time to reemerge.
On that fourth-and-1, McVay called a jet sweep, which Kupp took into open space off the right end of the line, easily moving the sticks with a seven-yard gain.
It wasn’t the only way the coaches were trying to get Kupp loose, just as the defensive coaches had worked to getting Donald positioned to make a bigger impact around the same time. Earlier in the half, one way was through an ill-fated double-reverse pass, one that Kupp airmailed over Stafford’s head, leading to Gay’s 41-yarder. Before the final drive, McVay and offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell huddled, to find more ways.
“Sean and I had a discussion on the sideline and said, ‘We just gotta keep the ball in Matthew’s hands, and if they want to try to double Cooper, great. But we can move him around and try to feature him, and Matthew will make it right,’” O’Connell said. “Got great [protection] by the O-line—everybody’s gonna talk about Cooper and Matthew, but our guys held up. Dropping back basically 16 out of 18 snaps on that drive, it was crazy.”
The fourth-down conversion, as a result, was the first of five touches for Kupp on the final possession, as the Rams motioned him, put him in new spots and did all they could to prevent the Bengals from throwing the kitchen sink at him. But, really, his two biggest plays came down mostly to his and his quarterback’s making them happen.
The first one was on a second-and-7 from the Bengals’ 46, with the Rams still having to fight tooth and nail even to keep the chains moving. On the play, Stafford dropped back, and Kupp was running an over route. Kupp ran through a soft spot in the Bengals’ zone, but had safety Vonn Bell covering the underneath area in front of him. So Stafford moved Bell outside with his eyes, then whipped back inside to Kupp for 22 yards.
“He’s gotta do something with Vonn because Vonn’s really instinctive,” O’Connell explained. “So if he just throws that, he’s gotta move him and throw it all at once. It’s what makes Matthew Stafford so special—his ability to see the field but then that next-level part of playing quarterback is what won us a Super Bowl. And he’s done it all year long.”
That put the Rams on the Bengals’ 24, and another eight-yard catch from Kupp, followed by an eight-yard Cam Akers run through the heart of the Cincinnati defense, got L.A. into first-and-goal from the 8. From there, the refs took center stage. First, a holding call on linebacker Logan Wilson gave the Rams new life on third-and-goal, and a first-and-goal from 4. Then, offsetting penalties negated a Kupp touchdown, and an interference call got the Rams to the 1, where it was, again, time for Stafford and Kupp to take command.
Once again, it was an adjustment to get Kupp loose that did it. On second-and-goal from the 1, McVay and O’Connell called a play designed for Beckham. Only it wasn’t Beckham in there.
“We said to ourselves, We’re gonna put Cooper out there. It really would’ve been Odell in that spot, but we said, You know what? We’re gonna move Cooper out there, let him go one-on-one to go win a Super Bowl,” O’Connell said. “And I didn’t expect anything else from those guys.”
Stafford calmly collected the shotgun snap and popped the ball to Kupp’s outside, which allowed for the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year to separate from Eli Apple to give the Rams the lead for good.
Burrow’s gutsy effort, playing on a leg that earlier in the game had gotten bent backward and in multiple directions, did have a last gasp to it. Getting the ball back with 1:25 left and two timeouts on his own 25, he hit Ja’Marr Chase on an out-breaking route for 17 yards, then Boyd over the middle for nine yards to get into Rams territory, in second-and-1 with a little under a minute left.
And that’s where, ultimately, Donald shut the door. First, he corralled and dropped Samaje Perine for no gain on third-and-1. Then, on fourth down, he beat Quinton Spain clean, and did it so fast Burrow could barely react. He got away for a second, but Donald kept with him and forced an underhanded throw into traffic that effectively ended the game.
“It’s everything that’s good about the Rams coming together at one moment, when our guy that’s meant so much to us, that’s meant so much to me, makes the crunch-time play in the biggest moment of the game,” McVay told me. “He’s so special. One of one. I love Aaron Donald.”
Really, Donald’s play mirrored Kupp’s—battling through an opponent geared to stop him, with the coaches eventually finding creative ways to position him to better generate production. And there’s something to that happening over and over again within a team.
“These players, these guys that made the plays, this is why you coach, because you get a chance to work with such special players. They delivered on the biggest stage in the tightest moments,” McVay said. “And that’s why they’re world champs, and I’m just glad to be a small part of it.”
McVay, of course, is more than just that, and he’s more than just the guru he’s stereotyped to be, too.
He’s a big piece of the Rams’ being able to build this way—capable of taking other teams’ malcontents, like Beckham and Jalen Ramsey, and melding them in with homegrown stars like Donald and Kupp—without risking the consequences another team might face.
“He builds authentic relationships one on one,” COO Kevin Demoff said. “You get in a room with Sean; he’ll make you feel like the most important person in the room—even if he’s never met you. Elite communicator, great mind, developer of coaches, developer of people, passionate about culture, passionate about people, believes that people make all the difference in the organization. He had a phrase all year: We’ll win with our people.
“And I thought you saw that tonight with the adjustments our coaches made, the way we fought through, and we won with our people.”
Another of those people is GM Les Snead. He was the one on the podium after the game, wearing a different hat than the rest of the Rams up there—it was a trucker cap with a patch saying “Not Broken” on it. The hat is from Bitty and Beau’s, a coffee shop in South Carolina that employs people with disabilities, and it’s taken on extra meaning as Snead has worn it since the team completed a winless November with a loss in Green Bay.
“This group proved to not be fragile, whether it was losing Cam Akers early, Robert Woods in the middle, going through omicron. Heck, OBJ tonight,” Snead said. “They kept playing one play at a time, and I give the players credit. They have the toughest job. Mine’s easy. They gotta go do it, they gotta jell, they gotta collaborate.
“I said it when we were losing. ‘Hey, we got some Batmans, right? But anti-fragile is when the Robins have gotta step up.’ Whether it’s Brycen Hopkins being active tonight and he has a career night. Whether it’s Ben Skowronek coming back after the tough draw. The Robins, along with the Batmans.”
And with the team taking big and sometimes expensive swings on guys like Ramsey and Beckham, it’s been on his department to find the Robins—and the Robins, as Snead said, mattered Sunday, too.
McVay was trying to process a win that “[hadn’t] sunk in yet” as he boarded that bus. But one thing he knew right away: He didn’t want to focus on the finality of it.
Still, the truth is this won’t be the same team next year. O’Connell is off to the Vikings this week. Whitworth is likely to retire. Donald didn’t shoot down rumors he’s thinking about walking away, too. Beckham is hurt and a free agent. Miller is also a free agent.
Everything could look different, and that’s why, going back to a conversation I had with him in June, McVay has wanted to live in moments like these when they come along. And he was doing plenty of living in this one as he sipped on that vodka drink Sunday night.
He’d appreciate what Morris gave him first: “Raheem Morris is one of the best coaches, best leaders, I know. We would not have a chance of being here without him. I couldn’t be more grateful. He’s like a big brother to me. He truly is a mentor, and I thought our defense, for all the stops that they got, was unbelievable. And without him, we wouldn’t be world champs. I know that much.”
Then, it was on to Stafford: “Everything. He’s meant so much to me, to our team. There’s a belief. He’s made me a better coach, he’s elevated everyone around him. I think he solidified himself tonight as a Hall of Famer.”
And then, it was on to what the whole team did in coming back from a winless November to get all the way here to the NFL’s mountaintop.
“I really thought that month of November, where we lost three games in a row, guys didn’t flinch, they didn’t blink and then we found a way to just reestablish an identity from the Jacksonville game moving forward,” McVay continued. “I thought the most special thing about it all was the response from the Niners' game—as heartbreaking as it was to lose that game, Week 18, the way we did—there was a resolve.
“What made our team great is we overcame adversity all throughout the playoffs and in different moments. The look in our guys’ eyes, there was a belief, there was a confidence that we could figure it out. And you know what? They delivered again, and that’s what makes this team special.”
They survived blowing a 24-point lead to Tom Brady in the divisional round. They came back from 10 down in the NFC title game. They came from behind again in the Super Bowl. And as McVay said, they did that because their best players made the biggest plays on the biggest stage.
It’s fitting that Sunday proved to be the best testament to that.
NEXT UP FOR THE SUPER BOWL TEAMS
If it sounds like a champagne problem, well, it certainly is one. But it’s also a fact—one that Bill Belichick would point out on a semiannual basis, that the Super Bowl teams are working weeks behind most of the league on the following season. And this year it’s even worse, because of how the 17-game season smushed up the winter calendar. The Rams and Bengals will be in Indianapolis in two weeks, and free agency’s roughly a month away. By the time we get there, both will have had to answer significant questions, coming off the high of playing on the biggest stage in sports. Here are three of those questions for each team.
For the champion Rams …
1) How will they survive the brain drain? OC Kevin O’Connell will head to the Vikings this week, pass-game coordinator Wes Phillips will likely join him there and secondary coach Ejiro Evero is going to the Broncos to be Nathaniel Hackett’s defensive coordinator. This, of course, isn’t McVay’s first rodeo. In fact, he might be the best in the league at maintaining a top-shelf coaching staff through attrition. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a challenge to keep doing it. The good news is old Rams assistants like Greg Olson and Liam Coen are out there for McVay if he wants to try to bring back some institutional knowledge.
2) How far will they go to keep Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr.? Both guys have made their money as pros. Miller turns 33 in March; Beckham will be 30 in November and will be coming off what is expected to be a significant knee injury (the Rams fear it’s an ACL). And while each guy wound up flourishing as the coaches figured out how to incorporate them in December and January, both are in position groups that already have expensive guys in them. So while the Rams have been open in saying they want both back, the question will be at what cost, and that question could be complicated by what guys like Cooper Kupp ($16.25 million APY), Robert Woods ($15.75 million APY) and Leonard Floyd ($16.0 APY) are making.
3) Will they adjust Matthew Stafford’s contract? Next year, 2023, will be a contract year for the quarterback. His cap hit is $23 million, which gives the team room to work with and a shot to create more space, if it wants, to keep guys like Miller and Beckham. So while the team does have significant roster questions to confront (another might be replacing Andrew Whitworth), this question might help the team to find some answers.
For the runner-up Bengals …
1) What will they do about the offensive line? Left tackle Jonah Williams is eligible for a new contract for the first time. Right tackle Riley Reiff, who ended the season on IR, is a free agent. Right guard is a question mark, too, depending on where the team stands on second-round pick Jackson Carman’s development. And the free-agent landscape is barren at those positions. It seems likely, then, that Cincinnati will sink some draft capital into fixing what’s in front of Joe Burrow.
2) Will they take care of Zac Taylor? The Bengals don’t hire any coach or scout thinking that person will be a short-term fix, and that was reflected coming out of 2020, when Cincinnati didn’t stand by just Taylor but his whole staff. And now, it’s time for the Brown family to puts its money where its actions have been and invest back in the staff, starting with Taylor, who’s due a new deal. Taylor, to be sure, wants to be where he is, so my guess is it won’t be a problem But it’s not done until it’s done.
3) Are they prepared for 2023? Burrow comes out of ’21 in a new stratosphere, right there with Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen among the best young quarterbacks in football—and poised to get paid like it when he’s eligible for an extension a year from now. So everything Cincinnati does over the next two offseasons has to be within the context of having a quarterback making close to $50 million per season a year from now. And that might mean front-loading a contract or two this offseason to keep the team together.
Lovie Smith and I had a lot to get to, but I wanted to start with him the other day on the Texans’ next big move (after his hire)—and that’ll be getting closure on a 13-month saga. Because regardless of how Deshaun Watson’s situation ends in Houston, the fact is that the fallout will likely dictate how the next five or so years go for the franchise. So as to how quickly Smith wants resolution on Watson’s standing with the team, he told me, “As soon as possible. I’m not running away from the question, but as soon as possible. There are things that need to be taken care of before the football part comes into play. We’re patient, we’ve waited an entire year and I just feel like this offseason, it’ll come to an end and we’ll get it solved and it’ll be good for both parties, whatever that might be. There’s no other answer to give right now except for that one, and we’re going to try to get it resolved as soon as we possibly can. But we don’t play tomorrow. We have a little bit of time, and we’ll get it done.” Should Watson settle the 22 lawsuits filed against him, chances are it’ll get done with a treasure trove of picks coming Houston’s way, particularly if other quarterbacks, such as Aaron Rodgers (we’ll get to him), stay put. Here’s a little more from my 20 minutes with Smith.
• Smith’s like the rest of us—he didn’t necessarily see this coming. And while he was at peace with the idea that he might not get a rare third shot at being an NFL head coach, he feels like he does have plenty to give. “I’m from a little hick town in east Texas,” he said. “So I think the odds of me ever being an NFL head coach were greater than me having an opportunity to do it again. But if the opportunity didn’t come back around, I was going to be O.K. with that. I love just the purity of the game and coaching it. That can make anyone happy, too. But I felt like I had a lot more to offer, and the situations, how they played out at my last stop in Tampa Bay, Chicago, again, I thought we could do some things if we got another opportunity. I tell guys, they always say, ‘How do you move up?’ Well just try to do a good job where you are, who you’re in charge of, and that’s what I tried to do last year.”
• Along those lines, he does think last year gave the Texans something to build on, and he’s going to work off that foundation, even with David Culley gone. “Two years ago, we had a big lead [24–0 against the Chiefs in the divisional round], looked like we were getting ready to go deep in the playoffs. Things can happen quickly,” Smith said. “When I mention the Cincinnati Bengals, that should give all of us hope of how there’s parity in the NFL and things can change quickly. You lay your foundation and then you go to work. It’s not like when I got into this chair, I said, ‘All right, what are we gonna do in training camp? Offseason program, what is it gonna be like?’ We have a plan. You put your plan into place, which we’re going to do, and go to work. Nick [Caserio] and I are on the same page, that’s what we were able to get last year on how we see personnel. … So we’re kind of ahead of the curve a little bit.”
• And on the subject of quarterbacks, Smith actually thinks the Texans have one, and that Davis Mills is part of what Houston can build on. “You look at the rookie quarterbacks we played against, [Trevor] Lawrence, [Zach] Wilson with the Jets, we played San Francisco with Trey Lance. Of all those guys we played against, Davis played as well as any of those rookie quarterbacks,” Smith said. “So everyone wants to talk about the quarterback, I like him. I like his demeanor, how smart he is, and I like that he and Pep Hamilton have been together for a year already. Those things should help us. Got a chance to see Brandin Cooks and guys like that, and know exactly who they are. And the foundation that we put in place on the defensive side, our system is already in.”
Now, Smith was sure to say Mills will have to earn it again: “We don’t give out starting positions in the spring, to anybody.” And everyone else will, too. The good news is, as awkward as the process of getting to Smith was, at the very least, the Texans feel like now, because Smith’s not new, they can hit the ground running. Which counts for something.
Mike McDaniel’s goal for about two decades has been to get in the seat he’s in now, as an NFL head coach. But over the last two weeks, it became the Dolphins’ job, specifically, that he wanted. And not just because Miami was the one team giving the Niners’ offensive coordinator an interview—it was more about what he heard, and then saw, once he got into the building itself. “It hit me right before I went in for the interview, because I got the tour of the building, they took me through everything,” McDaniel told me. “So I’m walking with [GM] Chris Grier, and I’m going through each department, and I have intel from multiple people that’ve been with the Dolphins’ organization about how great the equipment room is, how great the video department is, the PR department, the training room, all these departments. … It’s not a situation where if you don’t adjust those departments and bring in your own people, they work against you. And that’s a huge hurdle for a head coach, because all those people touch the players. … Denny Green used to say, ‘Everybody that touches the players, if you’re fired, they need to feel like they’re fired.’ And what’s unique, it was just a bunch of genuine people trying to do their job well. So then by the time I got to the interview room, right before I’m walking in, I’m like, You better get this.” And McDaniel did, accordingly, in large part because Miami bought wholeheartedly into who he is.
• So who is that? I’ve known McDaniel a long time but wanted to let him explain. “I guess you could go to Twitter for that one,” he said. “I think in practice, what that means is you’re only thinking about the content of what you’re talking about. You’re not thinking about anything else. And that is why that resonates with players, when you talk about ‘being authentic,’ it’s because what’s important is the content.”
• And as McDaniel sees it, being himself, in an entertaining and quirky way, can help keep people engaged—which answers some questions about how he’ll command the room. But nothing works better than maintaining a two-way street, which is why he sees relationship-building as the biggest key to his success. “It’s about being invested in people, invested in conversation,” he said. “Half the time people have their heads in their laps. … It’s even more pervasive now in this most recent generation, because it is a little more rare, just the truest human form of, ‘Hey, I’m looking at you, I’m listening to everything you’re saying and I’m digesting it.’ How can you tell? Because I just made a joke off of the third word in your sentence.”
• Of course, another part of who he is ties back to Kyle Shanahan. McDaniel's earliest memories of his then-future-now-former boss come from his days as a Broncos ball boy, when Shanahan, three years older than him, got the best Nikes because his dad was the coach. He can even remember getting in a hot tub in Miami with Shanahan before Super Bowl XXXIII. And years later, he wound up becoming the coach Shanahan trusted most (something we detailed in last week’s MMQB column). “Kyle did trust me a lot,” McDaniel told me. “And that was earned, because I was his longest-tenured assistant. … One of the best qualities about him is that he accepts all responsibility for everything that happens on Sunday, every play call and whatever. So anytime that he gives anybody any autonomy, it’s the greatest compliment he can pay. And yes, it is true that he probably gave me the most autonomy of anybody he’s ever worked with. … That’s also why he grinded me and made me better. Because if he was going to give me autonomy, he expects it to be to his standard.”
• The really cool thing is that McDaniel wasn’t just Shanahan’s right-hand man with the Niners, he was also that guy in Shanahan’s four previous NFL stops, so he worked with him from position coach to coordinator to head coach, and got to see not just that it unfolded as it did, but why. “It literally put me through reps of stuff that I’ll do today, stuff that I’ll do next week, stuff that I’ll do next month. ‘Hey, what do you think we should put on this calendar?’” McDaniel said. “Like everything, I was able to have access with him, see how he thought about it. To the point that we’re talking through signs on the door, what messaging do you want to present. I worked on every team meeting with him. So it was unbelievable preparation with someone that does it at a very high level. And I would be a fool not to be taking notes.”
And now, he’ll get to put those notes to work—and do it in a place he really believes will be behind him doing it, and doing it his own way.
Dennis Allen doesn’t think the Saints are broken—so any fixes he puts on the team may not even be noticeable. He does have some staff hires to make, of course. He’ll pick a defensive coordinator soon. They’ve got to work out how offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael will fit into a reworked offensive staff. They know special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi will be back. And as for the rest, Allen believes pretty deeply in what Sean Payton established over the last 16 years, maybe because he was a part of it.
“The foundation is there,” he told me Saturday. “The blueprint for how to do it is there. Now, I just gotta be me and put our own little spin on it. But I don’t see it as, Man, we gotta change this or change that. The core of what we do is who we are, and it’s been successful. And so you want to try to keep that in place as much as you can.” In other words, when you hear Allen wants to keep Michael Thomas in the fold, don’t be surprised. And don’t be surprised, either, if he puts guys like Cam Jordan and Demario Davis in front to keep selling what Allen’s been selling to them as defensive players for a long time. A few more notes, then, from Allen.
• He knows everyone’s paying attention to what the Saints do at quarterback. Jameis Winston’s a free agent. Taysom Hill and Ian Book are still around. And before Payton walked away, the feeling was New Orleans was readying for a run at Wilson, or someone on that level. We’ll see if it happens now. “Certainly, that’s an important position, and it’s an important decision for us and for our organization,” Allen said. “So like you do with everything, you evaluate the options and then you make the decision that you think is best for your team based on your situation. So yeah, it’s an important decision.”
• Allen sure thinks having seen Payton from a few vantage points, as a position coach and coordinator, and over two stints, is going to help him. “Sean was on top of all the details, and he was always out in front of everything,” Allen said. “And man, he really thought about everything within the organization and the mind never really turned off. And I think that’s why, when you start thinking about a guy doing it for 16 straight years, it’s like, ‘Ooh, that’s a lot.’ Because you never turn off.” Which alternately might explain why Payton needed the break, and how you should expect Allen to be in replacing him.
• Allen got lessons from his own experience as a head coach, too, over two-plus seasons in Oakland. And it’s helped in making him patient in assembling his staff, and an overall plan, even if he was hired nearly a month into the offseason. “I think it’s just kinda making sure that you don’t rush the judgment on anything,” Allen said. “Take your time when you’re making these decisions, and do what you think is best for the football team. That’s the most important thing. I think the other thing you kinda learn is you just gotta be you, and you gotta do it your way, and that’s how you’re gonna have a chance to have success.”
And the great thing for Allen is the Saints know exactly who he is, since he’s worked for the team for 12 seasons. Bottom line, he knows what’s worked, and how GM Mickey Loomis and assistant GM Jeff Ireland work—and the idea here is that’ll go a long way.
The Packers want to keep Aaron Rodgers, which is no surprise. Their stance hasn’t changed since last year. Whereas early last offseason the front office guys had issues even getting ahold of their quarterback, and Matt LaFleur was the only member of the brain trust who didn’t have some personal fence-mending to do, now the Packers are in a much better place to get Rodgers on board with their plan. Add that to the way Rodgers spoke lovingly of playing in Green Bay, and for the fans, after breaking Brett Favre’s touchdown record, plus his affection for his teammates and … is this a slam dunk? It’s not. But I think if the Packers can put a plan in front of him to act aggressively, give Rodgers a contractual nod reflecting he’ll be their quarterback for the next few years and manage the team’s salary cap complications all the while? I think they’ve got a shot.
As is the case with Russell Wilson in Seattle, so much will come down to what the player himself wants to do. But that Packers roster is still really good, and short of letting him pull tags on draft day or write checks in free agency, it sure looks like they’re willing to keep bending their old ways, as they have the last seven months, to accommodate Rodgers as he readies for his final shots at winning another championship.
Just doing early groundwork, I don’t sense much excitement from teams over the impending free-agent class. It’s really light on the offensive line and at corner, and the resumption of annual bumps in the cap (temporarily interrupted by COVID-19) makes it so teams that have stars to take care of can do so. Or at least they can franchise them. And that brings me to where, I think, the market will be most intriguing—at receiver. In the group:
• Davante Adams, Packers
• Odell Beckham Jr., Rams
• Chris Godwin, Buccaneers
• Allen Robinson, Bears
• Mike Williams, Chargers
Each of those guys is accomplished and in a normal environment could command a monster contract. The issue? I wonder whether it’s becoming too easy to find answers, and affordable answers, at the position. The last three draft classes have produced a significant number of star receivers. And while this year’s class lacks a Ja’Marr Chase, there’s plenty of depth again. So if you’re a receiver-hungry team, and you see how guys at the position are adjusting faster to the league coming out of college, and you see the options in the draft, would you pay top dollar for a veteran? My buddy Master Tesfatsion made the point a couple of years back that receiver might become like running back, where the number of options tips the supply and demand seesaw, and makes it harder for receivers to get paid. That could well play out a month from now.
There’s a lot of work ahead for Josh McDaniels, but the new Raiders coach is off to a heck of start, backing up words with actions. McDaniels said this in last week’s MMQB: “Would I like to have an opportunity to build the team the way that I feel like is the right way to do it? Sure. But I also know I don’t want to do every other role. I want to be good in the role that I’m good at, and that I’m supposed to be good at. And to have somebody that you trust and that you can lean on and count on in all those other areas, that’s really important.”
And that’s what people have gotten wrong on McDaniels. His choosiness in figuring out where to take his second shot, and even some of his trepidation with Indy in 2018, was about alignment, not control. He never went into an interview demanding his own GM, or final say on draft picks or free agents. More so, it was, Here’s my vision, and if you like it, here are people who can carry it out. In Las Vegas, a core of people who can carry it out are already in place.
• McDaniels has known GM Dave Ziegler since hosting him on a recruiting visit at John Carroll in the mid-1990s. He brought him into the league with the Broncos, and since worked with him in New England. Likewise, assistant GM Champ Kelly worked with Ziegler and McDaniels in Denver.
• McDaniels worked with defensive coordinator Pat Graham from 2012 to ’15 in New England.
• McDaniels had offensive coordinator Mick Lombardi (2019 to ’21), quarterbacks coach Bo Hardegree (’21) and line coach Carmen Bricillo (’19 to ’21) on his Patriots offensive staff.
Why does it matter? McDaniels’s two-year run in Denver illustrates it. Back then, he struck out on his first choice for defensive coordinator, then Eagles secondary coach Sean McDermott, and was matched with one he didn’t know, in Mike Nolan. Similarly, he was given control over personnel and had a GM, in Brian Xanders, with whom he wasn’t as familiar. And eventually, all of that added up. So the difference here? The learning curve will be shorter in getting things set up, and the language McDaniels speaks will be foreign to none of these guys.
The Kyler Murray situation is simmering. Sunday’s report from ESPN’s Chris Mortensen on where the Cardinals stand with their franchise quarterback was pretty damning. Mort said that sources called Murray “self-centered, immature and a finger-pointer,” and that Murray, conversely, is frustrated with the franchise and feels like he’s been scapegoated for the playoff loss to the Rams. The Cardinals responded with an on-the-record statement claiming “nothing has changed” between the team and the quarterback, and that the team is “excited Kyler Murray is the quarterback leading us.”
Really, to me, this boils down to a couple of things. One, Murray’s eligible for a second contract for the first time, and that means the honeymoon is over and nine-figure decisions are coming for the team. Two, my sense is people in that building want to see more leadership from Murray. Now, in his defense, he did host passing camps last spring and summer, as so many franchise quarterbacks do. It’s just that the Cardinals haven’t seen that leadership from Murray, who can be to himself and a little moody, inside the building, and part of it is that he’s not been the sort of early-in, late-out guy whom so many of his quarterbacking peers are. So add those two things together, and maybe the Cardinals want to see Murray evolve in those ways as they get ready to pay him. Or maybe this friction will linger, because it’s not great that Murray is having to confront these questions now.
What I do know is things were uncomfortable in that building after the season ended. A run-of-the-mill personnel meeting right after the loss to the Rams was abruptly canceled. Coaches didn’t get clarity on their fate for at least a few days. And there are a lot of things in flux for a team that actually had a really, really good year (one of which is the idea that baseball could come back into play for Murray again). My feeling is Kliff Kingsbury will find a way to work all of it out and put Arizona in a spot to regain the momentum he and Murray helped build after joining a team that was the worst in the league in 2018. But there’s definitely work to be done.
While we’re there, it’s really hard to assess the trade value of Jimmy Garoppolo. The reason? We still don’t know which quarterbacks are going to be available. There’s a good group of suitors out there ready to take a major swing at the position (the Broncos, Eagles, Panthers and Commanders). And the fewer top-end guys—such as Wilson, Watson or Rodgers—are available, the greater Garoppolo’s value will become. So yes, the Niners will be trading him and turning to Trey Lance. But just what he brings back is less certain. (By the way, while we’re there, I wouldn’t put Sam Darnold or Carson Wentz in that category. Neither of those guys played well enough, and both are too costly, for another team to move any sort of real capital to get them. Or at least that’s how I see it.)
Things could get really interesting for Dan Snyder in the coming months. We touched on this in Friday’s GamePlan, and Mike Florio hit on it over the weekend: The signs are there that the league might be gearing up to blow the top off Snyder’s transgressions and potentially force him to sell the Commanders (still weird typing that name). Commissioner Roger Goodell’s willingness to speak openly about the procedures for forcing an owner out, followed by Goodell’s directing media to check with NFL general counsel Jeff Pash for details on it, got the attention of plenty of others across the league. As did Goodell’s openly contradicting what the Commanders were getting out there, that they’d be running their own investigation into Snyder’s missteps. Implicitly, it sent the message that the gloves are coming off. And considering how hypocritical the league has been, when comparing how it treats players versus owners in these sorts of situations, it’s coming not a day too soon.
These are my quick-hitters from the Super Bowl …
• The officiating issue in the NFL is real, and I think the league has to think about more aggressively using the de facto SkyJudge to clean up obvious misses from the booth.
• Jessie Bates III (six tackles, interception) will be an interesting free-agent option for someone at safety, unless the Bengals just tag him instead.
• Tee Higgins really looks like he’s a few lapses in concentration away from becoming a top-shelf receiver. He’s tall, long, rangy; there’s a lot to like about his future.
• Joe Mixon’s touchdown pass to Higgins wasn’t an easy throw, and from the arc to the placement to the timing, the Bengals’ tailback really did nail it.
• The Rams really mixed up their coverages on Chase. And outside of his circus catch for 46 yards in the first quarter, and his 17-yarder at the end of the game, Morris’s crew more or less slowed him down.
• The Rams’ postgame party, for what it’s worth, was in this really cool old airline hangar down the street from the stadium. McVay took the stage with Demoff, Snead, EVP Tony Pastoors and owner Stan Kroenke just before midnight. They brought the trophy, too.
• I do wonder whether the Bengals will kick themselves over the play call on the second-and-1 with less than a minute left. Burrow had started rolling a little, and Samaje Perine’s one-yard plunge effectively killed the momentum.
• Credit to C.J. Uzomah for gutting that one out. And to Vernon Hargreaves for making his presence felt even though he wasn’t even in uniform.
• That the Rams did this with such a shaky running game makes all of it even more impressive. They rushed for 73, 70 and 43 yards in their last three games.
• I’ll say it again: It’s wild that Morris got only one interview this offseason.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
With draft season underway, we’re going to go back, as we always do, to making this section random thoughts (since the draft will be more prominent in each week’s column for the next three months). That doesn’t mean there won’t be college football or draft bullet points. It just won’t be the only thing I weigh in on.
1) The Bryan Harsin mess at Auburn is wild, and totally unsurprising. In fact, if you drew up that exact situation, removed all names and asked me what school it happened at, it’d take me one guess to get it. I don’t know how Harsin lives his personal life. I do know it’s messed up that people are recklessly using it to try to get a guy fired.
2) The Olympics flat-out shouldn’t be held in China, and if you want my reasoning, you can watch the HBO Real Sports segment on it, or read this mind-bending column from Dan Wetzel over at Yahoo. Maybe this isn’t getting as much attention because no one really cares that much about the Winter Olympics. But it should be.
3) While we’re there, that Qatar kept the World Cup is another symbol of what drives the decisions of governing bodies like the IOC and FIFA, which make the NCAA look like small-time pickpockets.
4) This being my first Los Angeles Super Bowl, I’ll say this: The city is not ideal for it. This one felt like Phoenix, Dallas or Houston with how spread out everything is, and downtown isn’t great as an epicenter for everything that goes along with the biggest sporting event there is in this country. That brings me to my main point on all these things, which is that New Orleans should host every Super Bowl.
5) I’m really interested to see how Joel Embiid looks now, with James Harden alongside him and that Sixers team fully in on him as the centerpiece. And whether Ben Simmons grows up now that he’s going to a place where it’s very clear he won’t be the man.
6) I’m excited I get to watch more Ohio State hoops with the football season over. I saw a bunch of the win over Michigan on Saturday, and that was one methodical, disciplined beating. Chris Holtmann’s got our guys playing tough and together.
BEST OF THE INTERNET
The idea of camera phones having existed while you were in college is scary enough for me.
Well done, Bengals.
Spot on, Shek.
And Chase is going to be awesome for a long time to come.
Mac’s a pretty likable dude.
$60 to get in the pond area, $12 to swim in it (probably).
Just beautiful all the way around.
Mike’s dad was my high school coach. I can confirm that this was his approach.
I thought I was the only one who kept noticing that.
The U’s own retains his crown as Tweet King.
As I was saying.
Burrow’s the guy you want to build around going forward, no question.
In the wake of the Beckham injury, lots of players brought up the turf.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
The scouting combine starts two weeks from Monday, which means the NFL has achieved its goal of closing every gap in the calendar, save for those couple of weeks at the end of June and beginning of July. And that means there’s not much time to catch your breath before we’ll be getting you up to speed on the pluses and minuses of Aidan Hutchinson, Kayvon Thibodeaux, Evan Neal and Ikem Ekwonu (who I’ve heard the Jaguars are already intrigued with as a potential first pick) before getting on a plane for Indy.
So yes, the season’s over. But it sure feels like the next one is already underway.
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