The meltdown coming out of halftime happened, and now the Rams’ defense was responding in a very big way. Over the Bengals’ next four possessions L.A. yielded just one first down. On the sideline, amongst the guys pulling that off, there was eerie calm; defensive coordinator Raheem Morris described it as similar to what you’d see around a pitcher throwing a no-hitter. It was quiet. No one dared look at the big picture and risk putting the stakes ahead of the next play.
Maybe, deep down, Morris had a feeling it was coming. Maybe the other Rams defenders did, too, since Aaron Donald had seemed to find his voice and became more vocal as a leader during the playoffs. Regardless, Donald’s timing—as it would be with the biggest plays in the biggest game of them all—was flawless.
When Matthew Stafford hit Cooper Kupp for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:25 left, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year jumped up off the bench like a rocket was shot up his rear end. Morris could hear him coming, “letting everyone know this is our moment, this is our time, get ready to stand up.” And as Donald made his way through, looking each one of his defensive teammates in the eye, Morris knew exactly what to do. It was time for him, and his coaches, to get the hell out of the way.
“[Donald] walked up and down the bench, and to me, as a coach, when you see that, him talking to all the guys, that’s when you know, Let’s step back, coaches; he’s got it from here,” Morris said Friday. “You feel like you can’t do anything wrong when you have that. To have that feeling basically throughout the playoffs and be as calm as I was able to be because of it, because of these guys, how they reacted, and how they played, how they communicated with each other. Even though we might have given up something where it’s like, O.K., we messed that up, we got it, we know.”
It was the ultimate in what a coach aspires to have—the definition of a player-led team.
“As he’s walking the sideline, I can see him coming, I don’t even want to hear what he’s saying, because I know it’s impactful,” Morris continues. “And it’s way more impactful than anything I would’ve done, it’s way more impactful than if Sean McVay had done it. When players do it, and do it for each other, it’s everything you dream about as a coach.”
To be sure, there was brilliance in the plan Morris put together to combat Joe Burrow and the Bengals’ explosive offense a week ago. There were little things he noticed on tape, and in what Cincinnati said during the two-week run-up to the game. There were adjustments made during a 10-minute halftime staff meeting that paid off for the Rams in a very big way. We’re going to get to all of that. But the true genius in the job Morris and his defensive coaches did in shutting the Bengals out over the final 25 minutes of the Super Bowl is simpler than any of it. Really, it was just knowing when it was time to let their players take over.
It’s the first offseason MMQB column of 2022, and this week we have …
• Doug Pederson on Trevor Lawrence, Trent Baalke and the Jaguars.
• Lovie Smith on the NFL’s hiring problem.
• An explanation of some of the Patriots’ staff shuffling.
And a lot more. But we’re starting this week with one last look back at the Super Bowl, and how the Rams’ defense got it done when L.A.’s banged-up offense needed it most.
The look in Donald’s eye before the final series manifested in two of the biggest plays a defensive player could hope to have on the Super Bowl stage. The first was his one-armed wrangling of Bengals tailback Samaje Perine on third-and-1, the second his game-ending pressure of Burrow on fourth-and-1—and that isn’t necessarily new. He’s always played with an intensity and edge that most truly great players on his side of the ball have.
The difference this year—and really, just late this year—came with how Donald learned to channel it for his teammates, with in-season acquisitions Von Miller and Eric Weddle giving him little nudges along the way to use his voice more for the good of the team.
“Aaron is kind of to himself, he’s really quiet, he goes about his business, he works really hard, he makes people follow with his leadership, he makes you follow with his examples,” Morris says. “But he really got vocal when Eric got back, in the playoffs. When the playoffs started, it was a whole different feel for how Aaron Donald addressed the football team, how he addressed the defense, how he called us up after and before walkthrough.
“By him talking, I think it really made the love of his teammates come out. You saw him and Von Miller become extremely tight. Jalen Ramsey, too. When he called us up, man, it wasn’t people meandering to get in the circle, it was a full-blown sprint to make sure you got there so you could be there for Aaron Donald and hear him talk. It was really special to watch.”
“His words resonate not only through the players, but through the coaches and the entire building,” Weddle texted Sunday morning. “His voice is powerful.”
And that really had to be our jumping-off point, because it plays to the point Morris kept making over our hourlong conversation—the plan he built was pulled off by the players. What Donald did at the end of the game, of course, best illustrates that.
But a day later, before he and Morris made off to (fittingly) Cabo for a couple of days away, McVay made the point that it also illuminates Morris’s greatest strengths as a coach, and why he was such an easy hire a year ago after the Rams lost Brandon Staley to the Chargers. McVay then recounted his fiance, Veronika, saying, “Raheem, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him have a bad day,” to drive home how people gravitate toward his DC.
“He's the epitome of a coach who can be an ignitor, where you’re just bringing people together and raising everyone’s level,” McVay says. “That’s what he’s done. And then, I couldn’t be more impressed with his ability to continue to put our great players in the right spots so that they can shine. And then his feel for the flow of a game calling it. He’s got this energy and presence, but he is so calm and has such a great demeanor on game day.
“I thought he made some great calls in the most crunch-time moments of the Super Bowl. Some of the fourth downs, some of the third-down stops, once they get into the tight red area on some sudden changes. It was really … what he did with our defense was incredible and remarkable, and man, he’s special. He really is.”
In short, like Donald, Morris was at his very best when the Rams needed him to be.
Morris’s 3-year-old son Jalen has a habit of asking the same question after games: Daddy, did you tackle? After wins, dad tells son how his team did. After losses, it’s, No, we didn’t tackle well, we lost the game.
To the 46-year-old coach, it’s a reminder of the simplicities of football, which he learned coaching a very simple, very sound defense as a young assistant in Tampa Bay two decades ago. He’s now leading a far more complex, Vic Fangio-inspired scheme in L.A., but the lessons, reinforced by his son’s naivete, remain: While the new system allows him to give opponents plenty to think about, his foundation is making things easy on his own players.
That’s where Morris’s weekly “Tackling Plan” was born. Each week throughout this season, the Tackling Plan laid out a number of bullet points for Rams defenders, to boil down each game to a small number of things they needed to do to win. In the days after the NFC title game, Morris presented four of those for the matchup with Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase & Co.
1) Stop the big play with two-high looks. The most obvious thing to Morris in studying the Bengals was the number of huge plays they made down the field to Chase and Tee Higgins.
“So early in the game, I put a cloud on top of the coverage and almost dared them to run,” Morris says. “And not from an arrogant standpoint. It was that these guys were really built on explosive plays.”
2) Combat the Bengals’ empty looks. Morris credited the advance scouts and quality-control coaches in finding that against “like” defenses—teams that play the Fangio scheme (Chicago, Green Bay, Denver)—Cincinnati was disproportionately lining Burrow up in empty sets, which allowed him to see the field and adjust faster and get the ball out quickly. That, to Morris, meant the Rams had to think, adjust and react accordingly.
“It was, we have to control their empty, and we have to control our own empty answers,” he says. “Meaning, whatever we were willing to check to versus empty, we had to be on the same page, and same screws, in order to get those things accomplished across the board.”
Sure enough, the Bengals’ first play from scrimmage was a quick-hitting connection from Burrow to Tyler Boyd out of empty.
3) Physically and mentally affect the quarterback. This started with Morris’s reverence for Burrow—“I got so much respect for what Joe Burrow did this year.” Thus, he knew he couldn’t give Burrow an inkling of what the Rams were doing presnap.
“That was the beauty of Eric Weddle; he was able to be in tune to the game plan so much,” Morris says. “We talked about it prior, how we wanted to show two-high shells, and sometimes we wanted to show low-high looks and make them two-high shells, and he has the ability to go out there and put all those things together based on one call that I make and what we talked about through the process of the week.
“[Burrow] really performed at his best this year, throwing it to Tee Higgins and throwing it to Ja’Marr, that’s where they made some of their big explosive plays. I wanted to be able to limit that exposure with questions. Which side is the cloud? Which side is quarters, which side was actually playing man? Was it both sides? Was it a replacement zone? I wanted to make him think about those things on the sideline.”
4) Put your demons to sleep. The image of Deebo Samuel slicing through the Rams’ defense for a 44-yard touchdown on a tunnel screen in the second quarter of the NFC title game kept Morris up at night—and it wasn’t just the play itself, it was that it was part of a recurring theme for his unit. All year they’d had their issues in the screen game, and so confronting that problem would be Morris’s final point of emphasis. It was even more so after Morris listened to what the Bengals were saying about dealing with the Rams’ front.
“They talked about spreading it out, they talked about getting the ball out of his hand, using a lot of quick game and things of that nature,” Morris says. “So I wasn’t going to be lulled to sleep pressuring him, or putting extra people in the backfield, and allowing them to screen us to death.”
Morris said he was “shocked” the Rams didn’t see more screens from the Bengals. What they did see really didn’t go anywhere—Joe Mixon had five catches for a single yard, Perine didn’t record a catch and the receivers’ big plays did, indeed, happen downfield.
That brings us to the plays that defined the game. Morris picked out five. Two came before the half. Three happened after the break, and the adjustments the Rams made during it.
Rams 7, Bengals 0. 0:36 left in the first quarter. Third-and-10, ball at Rams’ 11.
Three plays earlier, Chase had beaten Ramsey down the field for 46 yards, which had followed Mixon picking up the Bengals’ initial first down of the game, on a 13-yard run. The call was Crank 1 Y Special, with “Special” indicating there’d be double teams on the two receivers to the field (Chase and Boyd), and Ramsey would be on his own to the boundary. To disguise it, the Rams gave Burrow indicators that they were in a two-high or quarter/half look, before switching into the actual coverage at the snap.
Morris said Burrow quickly identified the switch, which brought him to the one-on-one—Ramsey vs. Higgins. Ramsey is getting what Morris calls the “hard down.”
“He understands he’s gonna be in harm’s way, and he’s gonna have those downs, he knows it, he embraces it, and for him to make that play when he undercut it, it’s exactly what we talked about all week in his film study,” Morris says. “It’s exactly what we’ve talked about when we put him in harm’s way, with what offenses want to do.
“That play, I go back to my experience working with Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay being on the offensive side of the ball, and knowing those premiers we look for from an offensive standpoint. It was a great play call and great execution by the Cincinnati Bengals. But it was better execution by Jalen Ramsey.”
And maybe just as impressive, the pass breakup (and, yes, Ramsey gave Higgins’s undershirt a little tug) came just three snaps after Ramsey was on the business end of Chase’s chunk play. Meaning that Morris isn’t just trusting Ramsey to blanket Higgins. He’s also trusting him to put the Chase play behind him and stop what might’ve been a momentum shift.
“He is one of one,” Morris says. “I know we say that about two guys on our football team, but he’s one of one for a lot of different reasons. I thought that moment was one of his biggest moments of the season.”
Rams 13, Bengals 10. 0:48 left in the second quarter. Third-and-6, ball at Bengals’ 25.
This one comes back to another pregame point of emphasis.
“Throughout the week, we had stressed how good this team had been in two-minute, end-of-the-half,” Morris says. “They were putting up points, man. They played the middle eight as well as anybody throughout the season. And I told the guys going into the game, whether they were in tight games or behind in the first half, for whatever reasons, the middle eight had been their deal.”
That came into focus with Jessie Bates’s pick of Stafford at the two-minute warning. Burrow followed with three quick completions. The Bengals then used their first timeout ahead of the third-and-6. Another first down would get Cincinnati going, with two timeouts left, and reprise visions Morris had burned into his head all week, of a catch Higgins made on the Ravens, and one Chase made on the Packers in two-minute situations to swing games.
Morris got the Rams in their “gold” front, which presented the overload to Burrow’s left and put Ramsey on Chase to that side—again putting the onus on his best corner, this time with showing just a single-high safety behind him, to buy his rush time.
At the snap, Burrow looked to Chase. Ramsey had him. He then progressed, and the hope was that a postsnap switch to zone, after showing man presnap (and having Chase manned up to the outside) would get Burrow to hesitate. It did. The “Tess” pressure call got home on Morris’s bet that Burrow’s protection would slide to the overload. Leonard Floyd engaged left tackle Jonah Williams, Greg Gaines looped around Floyd, Williams slid to Gaines, and that freed Floyd to take down Burrow.
“For those guys to go out there and perform in that moment, I thought that was a big deal, because of how we game-planned and what we talked about during the week and how we had to attack these guys in two-minute and at the end of the half,” Morris says.
Having been in the Super Bowl three years earlier, McVay had a detailed plan for the break.
“When you have 30 minutes instead of 12 minutes, it’s really important for us to allocate the time accordingly,” McVay says. “Typically, maybe you get together with the staff for a couple minutes and then you get the players, and then it’s time to bring them up and go back out for the second half. Well, our players, we kinda let them just unwind. We did a little rest and recovery period for the first 10 minutes, so we had a full 10 minutes as a staff to make those adjustments.”
And that allowed for Morris and the position coaches to work through a plan. First, the Bengals had started to take his invitation to run the ball—and Mixon was averaging 5.7 yards per carry—so Morris talked to defensive line coach Eric Henderson on showing more five-man fronts to bottle that up. Second, Morris worked with secondary coaches Ejiro Evero and Jonathan Cooley on getting into dime, with a sixth defensive back, more on third down (something outside linebackers coach Chris Shula brought perspective on from the booth) as Morris planned to crank up the pressure over the second half.
“You’re thinking, hey, if we can put a little lid on this run game, and start to pressure these guys as we go on some of these third downs, maybe we can create some turnovers,” Morris says. “We didn’t get the turnovers. But we got a couple of the big-time stops that you needed to keep giving our offense the ball.”
“They kinda let their game plan unfold and he had a good feel for how to be more efficient on the early downs, and then pick and choose our spots to be able to rush five or four,” McVay adds. “Being able to get in certain front structures that we felt like got guys soloed up or isolated some matchups where you get Ernest Jones on a back and he’s being able to win on a sack … it was a huge reason we won the Super Bowl.”
Bengals 17, Rams 13. 11:03 left in the third quarter. Third-and-3, ball at Rams’ 11.
Higgins beat Ramsey for a 75-yard touchdown (yes, the refs missed one there, too) on the first play from scrimmage in the second half. Stafford threw his second pick on the second play from scrimmage, one that bounced off Ben Skowronek’s hands and into those of Chidobe Awuzie. And then, Burrow scrambled out of empty on a fourth-and-1 to get the Bengals into the red zone with a chance to take an 11-point lead.
“This is their moment now,” Morris says. “They’re right there.”
That put tremendous pressure on the Rams to make something happen on third-and-short, and put Donald in position to make his first game-changing play of the night. One benefit of going with more pressures and five-man fronts coming out of the half is it would make it tougher for the Bengals to double Donald. And on this particular play, that was the idea. The Rams lined Ernest Jones up on top of center Trey Hopkins, with Gaines then engaging him, to ensure Donald would be singled up on right guard Hakeem Adeniji. The rest went as expected.
“They went to what most people call a 5–0 protection, their five on our five,” Morris says. “And when that happens, that’s usually a good matchup for us with No. 99. … And what he did with that guard was one of the most impressive sacks I’ve seen all season. Going with the one against Arizona that he had on the first play of the game, it looked exactly the same. He’s able to walk a grown man back to the quarterback and bring him down to the ground.”
Interestingly enough, the adjustment to play more dime worked there, too, where Taylor Rapp was in at a linebacker spot to cover Boyd’s choice route—“He absolutely did a great job in coverage, moving his feet, sitting tight, being patient on the route, and absolutely taking away Joe Burrow’s first read,” Morris says.
The Bengals kicked the field goal to go up 20–13, and most importantly the post-halftime tide had been stemmed. “Complementary football is sometimes just bringing up the other guy,” Morris says. And in the wake of Odell Beckham Jr.’s injury, Tyler Higbee’s absence, and a disastrous start to the second half, his defense had done that for the offense.
Rams 23, Bengals 20. 0:48 left in the fourth quarter. Third-and-1, ball at Rams’ 49.
After Kupp’s touchdown, Burrow hit Chase for 17 yards on a catch-and-run thunder route, Boyd over the middle for another nine yards, then bailed on a shot play that wasn’t there on second-and-1, throwing the ball out of bounds. The stoppage allowed Morris to get into Weddle’s ear—Hey, this is short yardage. The Rams left their dime personnel on the field, but crowded the line to combat the run, knowing the Bengals still had two timeouts.
The call was a fire zone, designed to cause chaos in the backfield. “Where you should try to run versus a dime defense, we’re shooting a guy through the bubble, we’re letting the other guy wrap around with some movement up front, and we’re getting the movement by the line,” Morris says.
From there, Donald recognizes the tight end motioning back across to create an extra gap, which is how he knew he’d have to out-reach Adeniji, who was trying to seal Donald off and create that extra gap, and yank Perine to the ground from behind.
“We were able to get to one we really liked, one of our pressures,” Morris says. “And we get to that pressure and then I watched Aaron Donald again take a man, hold him up with one arm, switch his mindset from pass rush to playing the run, just because of the call, be able to push the man back, and not only push the man back into the hole so he couldn’t get through there, he’s actually able to grab the running back with one hand and pull him back across the line of scrimmage.
“Now, he didn’t do that alone. There was Greg Gaines, squeezing that thing from the other side to make that hole tighter, there were people in the box that were shooting their hands. But he absolutely did that. I just marvel at the strength, marvel at the ability to do that.”
And Donald wasn’t done.
Rams 23, Bengals 20. 0:43 left in the fourth quarter. Fourth-and-1, ball at Rams’ 49.
Here’s where Morris put the pressure on all his cover guys—“everybody’s got a man now.” And this would become a player’s play more than even Morris anticipated. The call was a four-man rush with all that man coverage while giving the cover guys help to the inside.
At the snap, Burrow immediately looked to Higgins. David Long saw where the play was going—he was on tight end C.J. Uzomah, but felt how fast Uzomah was trying to get to the flat, and stopped for a second, gambling that they were clearing him out to run Higgins across the middle. So when Burrow looked, not only was Darious Williams covering Higgins, but Long was sitting in the passing window. Burrow hesitated, and that was all L.A. needed.
“By the time that happens it’s too late,” Morris says. “And they did double Aaron Donald. They did exactly what you’re supposed to do as a coach, and he wins on the edge of the left guard so fast that the help can’t even get there before he gets his arms around [Burrow]. Because the man was that determined and knows that much—he’s seen double teams, he knows what they look like, he’s not gonna quit. And when he felt that, he was gonna win that thing.
“That’s what I mean by this thing is done by the players. That wasn’t any genius call that I made. That was the players going out there and executing their job at the highest level.”
When Morris said the double was there, I was confused, because all any of us saw was Donald roasting Adeniji one-on-one. But Morris was right. If you look at the play, Hopkins was peeling off to help on Donald at the snap. As Morris says, Donald simply anticipated where that help was coming from, rushed away from it to give Hopkins a longer path to get him, and won so fast that Hopkins couldn’t make it there in time.
Which is how the Rams’ best player won the Super Bowl.
In the aftermath of the win, Morris told me the thing he was most proud of was “just going out and doing what you said.” Turns out, the championship itself fulfilled a promise from the defensive coordinator to one of his closest friends when he offered him the job. “I’m not coming here to do anything else,” Morris told McVay a year ago. “I’m not coming here to get my next head-coaching platform. I’m coming here to win a championship for you.”
Therein, you can see how his contentment now, with the job done, connects back to how easy it was for him to choose the Rams over his other options in the first place.
“It was a layup,” Morris says, “to be able to go coach with one of your great friends, to be able to go coach the best defense in the world, at the time, they were No. 1 in defense, and to be able to go out there and let those guys know, Man, we’re here to win a championship. Nothing else was gonna matter to us. All the pressure we got from the outside, all-in or not, it didn’t matter. We were already all-in, from the start.”
And incidentally, Morris calling the 2020 Rams unit, the one he didn’t coach, “the best defense in the world” ties the whole thing together.
Could he help the players? Of course Morris could, and did. But another part of the deal was always going to be knowing when to get out of the way and let his defense be just that.
Doug Pederson is well aware of what his first responsibility is in Jacksonville. That would be to get Trevor Lawrence right, after Lawrence’s rookie year went about as wrong as it could possibly go. And one thing that should help is that this won’t be Pederson’s first rodeo. In his first run as a head coach, Pederson got to work with Carson Wentz from the start, seeing the highs (an MVP-level campaign in Year 2) and lows (a messy ending in 2020 that got Wentz traded), and everything in between. In going through all of it, Pederson told me Friday he took one overriding thing that he hopes will serve him well with Lawrence. “It’s the one-on-one relationship that Carson and I had, really from Day One, when we got him in the building, just building that,” Pederson says. “I think that's important, too, from a play-caller/quarterback standpoint, having that interaction. It’s not always about football sometimes. It’s life. And I think building that relationship with Carson right away really helped in his success as a quarterback, especially those first two or three years that we had. And that’s the one thing I take away, is just pouring myself as much as I can into Trevor and find out what makes him tick. And he can find out what makes me tick.” Pederson actually first met Lawrence back in 2018, visiting his youngest son at Clemson, while Lawrence was a freshman who’d just gotten to campus for spring ball. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney was taking Pederson around, and made sure to get him in front of his prized quarterbacking prospect—“Keep your eye on this kid,” Swinney told Pederson. “He’ll be in the NFL someday.” Swinney was right and, obviously, Pederson has heard plenty about Lawrence since. And to be clear, he does see plenty of what others saw to start calling Lawrence a generational prospect after Lawrence won a national title less than a year after that chance meeting. “A lot of what he is and who he is as a quarterback obviously can translate over to the pro game,” Pederson says, “because offenses are being geared more towards that style of quarterback. But at the same time, listen, third down in the NFL is a huge down. Red zone in the NFL is huge. And there are situational things that we can teach and he can learn and grow and get better at. That’s how you play the quarterback position. And sometimes in college, you’re gonna line up and you’re gonna be the better football team every Saturday. You got superior talent and we’re just gonna walk over opponents. But here in the NFL, you gotta watch tape, you gotta study, you gotta be prepared because everybody’s good. And that’s week-in and week-out, so that’s the thing now that we can help Trevor with, and help him become a much better pro from his rookie year into his second year—teach him how to watch tape, what to study, what to break down, and really provide the resources for him so he can be successful on game day.” Here are a couple of other things I took from catching up with Pederson the other day.
• As he did with Wentz, Pederson plans to meet Lawrence halfway, and learn more about what he did at Clemson, and what he likes, to build the Jaguars’ new offense. “I think that’s the way our league is now,” he says. “It’s really, you gotta find that common ground and that’s what we did with Carson. Let him verbalize what he likes, what he doesn’t like. And listen, we have playbooks and pages of stuff, but it’s what he likes. We don’t have to run it all, but we gotta find that common ground. That comes through getting to know each other, and that’s the important part. And yeah, it’s that coming together where we want the quarterbacks to be involved and give us their input because that’s how we shape our system.”
• There was plenty of trepidation in the coaching community on the Jaguars’ job, given GM Trent Baalke’s track record. But Pederson sounded optimistic on where the coach/GM relationship is going in Jacksonville. “A lot of these reports that are out there are from a lot of unnamed sources,” Pederson says. “I can remember my time in Philly, back in ’16, there were a lot of unnamed sources that thought I wasn’t very good as a head coach. But they never put their name to it. And I’m like, ‘Well, what good is that? If you’re gonna say something, at least own up to it.’ And so my philosophy with things like that is I want to get to know the person. I want to get to know Trent Baalke, what makes him tick, his family, his likes, his dislikes and his history as a GM. All those things. He’s had a lot of success in this league. And I’ll tell you something—we’ve connected from Day One, all the way back to my first interview with the Jaguars. … I can go sit in his office, he can come sit in mine and we don’t even have to talk ball. We just tell stories and that’s how you get to know people.”
• To that end, Pederson did a lot of work over the last year with The 33rd Team, the football think tank founded recently by ex-NFL execs Joe Banner and Mike Tannenbaum. And through that, he learned a lot more about the jobs of people such as Baalke. “The big thing is just the evaluation process, how the general manager sees things differently than the head coach when it comes to your roster and the personnel side,” Pederson says. “And that was very valuable to me. Learning that, that’s helped me here, dealing with and working with Trent Baalke so closely. It’s given me a little different perspective on how the roster can be constructed, but at the same time, I feel that I have a better understanding of that and I can really be of more value to an organization.”
• Pederson also got valuable family time over the last year, and he sounded pretty grateful he got it. He was there to welcome a grandson, and to see his oldest son get married, and then was able to spend time with his brother, who had cancer and passed away in October. “It just puts everything into perspective,” Pederson says. “What we do is a game, what we do is entertainment. But those are real-life experiences that, sometimes, as coaches, we miss those opportunities. I was just so fortunate and happy and glad that I was able to be there for people.”
Now, the job will be to be there for Lawrence and the rest of the Jags, and he’s refreshed for it and ready to roll. “Just getting back with the players, that’s what I missed,” he says. “Being a former player, you miss the locker room, and being a coach and trying to be a player’s coach, whatever, you miss the guys. You miss the work, you miss the grind, being around your coaches, but the guys, that’s what I miss the most about it.”
Lovie Smith sees responsibility coming with the opportunity he has in front of him. Smith’s eyes are wide open to the reality of where the NFL is right now—before he and Mike McDaniel were hired, the league was down to just one Black head coach, and three minority coaches, among its 32. Smith became the first Black coach, along with his mentor Tony Dungy, to lead a team to the Super Bowl, back when the two faced off in February 2007, and he’ll agree that there hasn’t been enough progress since then. “You just look at society first,” Smith says. “When I got to Chicago, Jesse Jackson became a mentor, a good friend still, and if you just listen to him talk about all the things that they did, you go back to the ’60s, the ’70s on what we thought, just in society, you had to do, trying to get rights, equality, all of that. A lot of things happened. Then, all of a sudden, you look at society right now, we’re kind of split on a lot of things. It seems like we’re going backwards on a lot of things. Before you know it, that’s how life can happen. I was one of seven Black head coaches. And all of a sudden you look up, it’s not like that anymore. And you have to acknowledge that and start working from there. But the solution? First off, there’s 32 owners. And it’s going to take an owner saying, ‘Hey, I want this guy. Yeah, he’s Black, but I want this guy.’ I’ve heard all these things, ‘Well, owners don’t know that many Black guys.’ I don’t buy that, but if that is the case, it’s left up to guys in our positions. We have to get more Black candidates in a position to show you who they are, what they can do. I’m talking about, it's left up to head coaches, all 32 teams. How many Black guys do you have? How many young Black coaches do you have on your staff? How many Black men are in positions where they’re calling plays, those things that they look for in a head coach? How many teams are doing that? It’s just not the Rooney Rule getting interviews at the end. I’ve been on interviews like that, it’s more … I think I’ve gotten three chances, based on me being a good position coach, and when I got a chance to coordinate, I showed people what I could do then. Which led to me becoming a head football coach. And that’s what I tell all guys; you gotta go through it. It’s not going to be fair all the way, but you gotta stay the course, and that’s how it happened. Look at our staff, look at our staff, look at my last staff at Illinois. Look at my last staff with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That’s what we need to do.” Indeed, Smith’s putting guys such as offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton in position to advance. And like he said, it’s going to be up to owners to do the rest.
I can’t wait to see how the Brian Flores hire plays out in Pittsburgh. And this is all separate from his lawsuit. There are a few reasons why.
• Flores is an excellent tactician. The system he comes from, too, in New England, is very different from Pittsburgh’s. It’ll be fascinating to see where Flores can make his presence felt, going from a defensive system that morphs on a week-to-week basis to one that’s more about dictating terms to an offense based on what it does. And that he’ll also be melding with Ravens-raised first-year coordinator Teryl Austin makes the dynamic even more interesting. It at least feels like Mike Tomlin’s trying to inject new ideas into his operation.
• Flores was already a really good head coach, but the biggest issue he had in Miami was being able to keep a healthy, stable staff, and relationship with his personnel department. In Pittsburgh, he’ll get to see a place that functions at a very high level in those areas, and in a different way than New England did (where it’s a monarchy built around the head coach). And I think that will be good for Flores whenever he gets his second shot.
• I’m excited to see how Flores can help individual players. In his time as a position coach, he flashed really good acumen to get the most out of guys. He was New England’s safeties coach from 2012 to ’15, helping to lead Devin McCourty’s transition from corner, resurrect Patrick Chung’s career and develop Duron Harmon. The three years that followed, as linebackers coach, he absolutely got the most out of players like Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy. It will be fun to see how he’ll affect guys such as Devin Bush and Minkah Fitzpatrick (and maybe Fitzpatrick in particular, since he made the mistake of trading him away in ’19).
Will any of this affect the lawsuit? I doubt it; I know that Flores is pretty principled, and I don’t think having a job will lessen his desire to do what he feels is the right thing. And I’m pretty sure the Rooneys and Tomlin will have his back in pursuing the right thing. But the one thing, to me, that’s not really debatable is how strong a hire this is for Tomlin, something those who know Flores well keep affirming. “I think it’s a phenomenal hire,” says one ex-Flores coworker. “You’re bringing in a guy with a personality that’s like the head coach’s, and who’s going to have new ideas. He’ll go in there and say, This is how we kicked this offense’s a-- and this is why. It’ll be a fresh outlook for them. And I think the guy’s gonna be motivated, too, because he wants to be a head coach again.” Bottom line, the Steelers just got better.
The Patriots’ moves are strikes for stability—but they are risks. Really, over the last month, Bill Belichick has empowered three guys to help mitigate the losses of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and director of player personnel Dave Ziegler to the Raiders. The first two are Joe Judge and Matt Patricia, both of whom figure into the equation of replacing McDaniels. As it stands now, Judge is expected to work with the quarterbacks, and Patricia with the line, and each will do so without much experience having coached offense before they became head coaches over the last few years (Judge came up working with the special teams, Patricia on defense). Which, obviously, is a dice roll given the critical point that Mac Jones is at. (For what it’s worth, I’ve heard the Patriots haven’t so much as talked to Adam Gase about their OC opening, and things have been quiet on the Bill O’Brien front as well.) Then, there was the decision to go with college scouting director Matt Groh to replace Ziegler, who had replaced Nick Caserio a year ago. My sense is Belichick turned to Groh—who wasn’t a manager in any way until last year (he was the team’s national scout from 2019 to ’20), and was an area scout just three years ago—largely because he wanted someone in there with background in the organization and someone he thought would be around a while. Eliot Wolf was essentially Ziegler’s No. 2 over the last year, spent a decade as a director in Green Bay, was an assistant GM for two years in Cleveland, and is actually younger than Groh. But Wolf has also long been in the mix for GM jobs across the NFL, and interviewed for the Bears and Vikings’ jobs in January (feedback I got was that he was considered a strong candidate in both spots). And that, to some degree, makes him a flight risk, and it was probably tough for Belichick to swallow the idea of having to replace his personnel chief for a third straight year in ’23. So he went with a guy he likes a lot, and one, like Judge and Patricia, he can count on sticking around for a while. We’ll see how it goes.
I like Mike Florio’s take on grass fields. The Pro Football Talk founder made the case that all NFL fields should be natural grass—a point Browns center/NFLPA president JC Tretter made in 2020, and one, I think, the great majority of NFL players would back. So why isn’t it that way? Well, there’s the natural difficulty that teams in domed stadiums would have growing and maintaining it (though Vegas and Arizona have gotten around that by having their fields on giant trays that go outside the stadium for the grass to grow). Then, there’s what happens with natural grass fields in northern climates. But really, this does boil down to money, and in more than one way. The first is that it’s way more expensive, and labor intensive, to maintain a natural grass field. The second is that, given the cost of stadiums now, most owners want to run a million events through them, from concerts to college games and so on, and it’s much more difficult to do that when you have a natural grass surface (for obvious reasons). Thing is, there are solutions to that; they just aren’t cost-effective ones. In Vegas, the Raiders have a grass field that’s for NFL games only. They have a separate turf field for UNLV’s games and other events at the stadium, with the tray system preserving the grass. The Packers maintain a hybrid surface in the NFL’s coldest climate that they’re very protective of (signs on the field on non-gamedays ask that people stay off it), and that isn’t cheap but is best for those who play on it. And the Ravens switched back to grass in 2016, with team president Dick Cass explicitly saying then, “Principally, we did it for our players.” Meanwhile, other teams have eschewed grass for predictable reasons. The Panthers ditched their natural surface this year. The Rams decided to go with turf at SoFi Stadium when it was determined a second team would be playing there (I’ve been told if that was a one-team stadium, it’ll likely would’ve had a grass surface). And so it is that we’ve had a situation like Beckham’s last week. To be clear, I don’t know whether the turf was to blame for Beckham’s injury, which is what reignited this debate over the last few days. What I do know is Tretter presented a lot of data showing that it certainly could have—NFLPA research revealed that players had a 28% higher rate of noncontact lower-extremity injuries, a 32% higher rate of such knee injuries, and a 69% higher rate of such football/ankle injuries on the fake stuff. That should be enough for the league, and individual teams, to take a serious look at this.
While we’re there, stay tuned on the debate over the NFL combine bubble. In case you missed the rules, here are the CliffsNotes.
• Players will be restricted to secure combine venues for the entirety of their stay in Indianapolis. Players who break this restriction will be sent home.
• Players will be allowed to invite one medical support person into the bubble.
• The medical support person must be fully vaccinated and have all applicable boosters.
• All meals will be provided by the combine.
Now, this is a problem for a lot of prospects because they generally have support systems built around them—nutritionists, trainers, strength coaches, massage therapists, etc.—to maximize what they can do for teams in Indianapolis. And generally, the big agencies will bring those people to Indy to continue their work with the players while they’re going through the testing. That’s why you’re hearing agents, and now the union, upset with the COVID-19-fueled changes, and why there are rumblings that some top prospects, who don’t need the combine the same way a middle-round guy might, could pull out of the event altogether. So yes, you’ll be hearing more about this in the coming days, as agents continue to work on a potential boycott of the televised portions of the event (as my buddies Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero reported Sunday). What’s really interesting to ponder is whether this will bring bigger change to the event in the future, just as the league prepares to try to move it around to different cities and monetize it more than it already has.
I try next week to get you excited for the combine, but this draft class is definitely lacking in sex appeal. We might be looking at the worst quarterback class in nine years. There’s no Ja’Marr Chase at the skill positions, nor is there a freak-show defensive player such as Chase Young or Myles Garrett. The top 10 could feature a number of offensive linemen (Ikem Ekwonu, Evan Neal among them) and a safety (Kyle Hamilton). In short, it will be tougher to put together a sizzle reel to get everyone fired up for those three days in April this year (to the point where the host city itself, Vegas, might be the star). But here’s one story line that we’ll dive into next week: The last two Super Bowls were largely won by dominating pass-rushers. And when you look back at the 2017 Eagles, the Cowher/Tomlin Steelers, the ’12 Ravens, Tom Coughlin Giants and ’15 Broncos, you can see those aren’t exactly anomalies. It will be interesting to see how rushers are valued this year, with a couple of good-but-maybe-not-great prospects in Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson and Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux atop the class, and solid second group headed by Florida State’s Jermaine Johnson right behind them.
I believe Kevin O’Connell and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah when they say Kirk Cousins is their guy, for now. Sure, it’s what the new Vikings coach and GM have to say. But O’Connell has coached Cousins before, likes Cousins, and Cousins sets up as the perfect sort of bridge quarterback that the team will need as it gets its new program off the ground. The reality is that most fan bases that have a mid-level starter such as Cousins want their team to be better at the position—and I understand where it might feel being the 48-win NBA team that’s good enough to stay the course, and never bad enough to get that franchise-changing talent. I look at it a little differently. To me, Cousins could be to O’Connell and Adofo-Mensah what Alex Smith was to Andy Reid in Kansas City. Smith gave Reid five years of stability at the most important position, made the Chiefs a consistent playoff team and, just as poignantly, bought Reid time to find the next guy, where he never had to panic and overdraft some kid or overpay for a veteran. Eventually, Reid found one he loved in Patrick Mahomes, and by then the Chiefs had built great infrastructure for a young quarterback to enter into, which also gave them flexibility, without a ton of needs, to get aggressive and move up to get the Texas Tech phenom. In a certain way (and even though we don’t know whether Trey Lance will wind up being anything close to Mahomes), Jimmy Garoppolo did the same thing for Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch. So is Cousins remaining a Viking in 2022, price tag and all, a bad thing for Minnesota? I really don’t think it is.
The ball is in Aaron Rodgers’s court now. Everyone has said the right things to this point, and the Packers have even backed their words up by hiring Rodgers’s confidant Tom Clements back, five years after Mike McCarthy fired him. It was notable, too, that Rodgers thanked both GM Brian Gutekunst and president Mark Murphy—the two guys he’d taken most issue with through last year’s drama—in his MVP speech. So what’s left? Well, as I see it, with the Packers now having mended a bunch of fences, the “personal” box has been checked. And that means this will be a professional decision, and come down to whether Green Bay can put in front of Rodgers a plan that convincingly shows it can manage a weighty cap problem (the Packers project to be $40 million over), take care of the quarterback’s own contract situation (he’s going into the final year of his deal), and still field the sort of contender it has over Matt LaFleur’s first three years in charge. Which is a lot better than the place the Packers were in a year ago, when they spent a couple of months of the offseason unable to get Rodgers to even return their calls.
To wrap up the takeaways, we’ll give you our first offseason set of quick-hitters. Here you go …
• I don’t know that Tom Brady has any issue directly with Bruce Arians. But I have heard there were things about the Bucs’ program that frustrated him (which might be natural, considering how tight a ship he was coming from when he got to Tampa).
• I look forward to the post–Super Bowl wires shows—Inside the NFL, Turning Point, and Mic’d Up—every year, and this year’s didn’t disappoint. Great work, again, by NFL Films.
• I knew things were getting out of control at the Rams’ parade when Matthew Stafford suddenly broke out the Southern accent. And while the turnout (and that weird reggae horn) showed the team still has a lot of room to grow in capturing L.A., the players and staff sure played like champions out there.
• We addressed the Kyler Murray situation last week, and it’s been status quo since. But his ability to switch sports remains the most fascinating part of the whole thing to me. As his draft position would indicate, he had a lot of promise as a baseball player. And he’s still just 24 years old.
• Why is Roger Goodell getting another extension? Well, have you seen the numbers?
• While we’re there, the Broncos are for sale, and it sure looks like the futures of Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and Commanders owner Dan Snyder could be subject to further review soon, with how freely Goodell spoke last week about rules to oust owners. What’s interesting about the timing of it? Gambling money is goosing the value of NFL franchises, so this probably isn’t an inopportune time to sell a team.
• I like the hire of James Bettcher in Cincinnati—he and Bengals DC Lou Anarumo worked together in New York in 2018. Bettcher is ultra-creative and should be good for the team’s emerging young linebackers, Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt (both of whom played great in the playoffs).
• Bettcher choosing to go to Cincinnati is also a good sign that Burrow’s starting to make it a destination. Now, we’ll see if they can get a Terron Armstead (or Brandon Scherff or Ryan Jensen) or two to bolster that idea.
• Evero is a really good get for the Broncos. Denver’s new defensive coordinator is almost defiantly a non-self-promoter, but the guys in L.A. know how good he is.
• While we’re there, with Evero’s departure, and Wes Phillips likely going to Minnesota with O’Connell, McVay is going to be down to just three assistants left from his original staff (Eric Yarber and Zak Kromer on offense; Shula on defense). Which only makes his sustained success with the Rams more remarkable.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1) As I write this, I couldn’t tell you won the slam dunk contest, and I used to love it. I’m honestly not totally sure why I don’t care anymore, but the lack of star power in what had been a signature event for the NBA is probably one reason for that. (But I am very much looking forward to reengaging with the NBA over the next few weeks, which is what I usually do once football season is over).
2) Ditto for the Winter Olympics. Maybe I’m just getting old. But it does feel like no one I know cared at all. Which is really something when you consider how the IOC sold its soul (again) to put the Games where it did.
3) I know people are going to have really strong takes on Michigan basketball coach Juwan Howard taking a swing at a Wisconsin assistant Sunday afternoon, after the Badgers beat up on the Wolverines. I don’t really have one. It was dumb, and a head coach can’t do that under any circumstances. He should serve a lengthy suspension for it. And that’s really the extent of it for me. It’s not a complicated thing.
4) Lane Kiffin declaring himself the “Portal King” is classic, and why I hope college football never changes—I’m here for every bit of the absurdity.
5) The striking thing to me about the labor strife in baseball is how little most people are paying attention to it, when you compare it to where we were during the 1994 strike (which was the biggest story in sports). But sure, go ahead, fellas, turn more people off to your sport.
6) I’m going skiing this week, and I can’t wait. Nothing’s more effective in clearing my head, and my kids are finally getting old enough for family ski trips.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Maybe I’m biased, but I think Cassel’s got Football Twitter Rookie of the Year locked up.
Stock … rising!
As I said, the Rams won the parade.
There are a ton of reasons to feel like Mahomes is a great dude. This is another one.
Fogo de Chao is legit. But going there at 11 a.m. is aggressive.
I worked with Irvin for six years at NFL Network, can 100% visualize this situation playing out in my head, and am fully jealous that Kevin got to witness it and I didn’t.
So that one parade moment, with the photographer falling from the stage, wasn’t great for Stafford. But he and his wife did their best to make good on a bad moment—pledging to pick up Kelly Smiley’s medical bills and get her new equipment to replace what was broken—and in situations like this I think it’s usually good not to overreact. Especially when someone has a reputation like Stafford’s (I haven’t met anyone who’s worked with him who doesn’t like him).
You might be surprised to know how far accountability like this gets a coach with his players. Good on Zac Taylor for taking full responsibility. And it was also interesting how Morris went out of his way to defend Taylor on this one, when he and I talked through that sequence. “People want to criticize the Bengals for not having the other back in there, Mixon, but it was their two-minute offense, they’ve executed that way the whole year, it’s what they do,” the Rams’ DC says. “And Aaron made a heck of a play. People are acting like Samaje’s a second-class citizen. Man, this guy’s a really good running back in this league, and he’s gotten them going in the playoffs.”
What a huge win for Rancho Bernardo High.
I’ll say this—I’ve gone to some rather embarrassing lengths to ensure I get Marriott points on work trips in the past. And I have no regrets.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
This, on paper at least, should be the only quiet week for NFL news between now and the draft. Which means, with the last week having been occupied with Super Bowl cleanup, the league is closing in on its goal of having everyone talking about football all the time.
And yeah, that means less downtime for all of us.
But this job still beats working for a living.
More NFL Coverage:
• GamePlan: What Trends From the 2021 Season Will Continue?
• How the Rams Got Away, Found One Another, Then Found a Way
• Matthew Stafford Rewrote His Story With a Super Bowl Season
• How Aaron Donald Became Aaron Donald