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MMQB: Who Knew About Bruce Arians’s Retirement and When

The Buccaneers kept the circle of trust regarding their head coach’s retirement very tight—and it included Tom Brady. Plus, coaches’ takes on the new overtime system, how Xavien Howard got rich (again), Bobby Wagner’s long-time impact in L.A. and more.

Jason Licht, in retrospect, says he should’ve seen it coming. During the Buccaneers GM’s recurring Friday meetings with his coach, Bruce Arians, the subject would come up more regularly. And then there was this dinner, about a month ago, right around combine time, when Tampa Bay still wasn’t sure what it was doing at quarterback.

The Bucs’ Plan A, of course, was holding out hope that Tom Brady would come back for a third year with the team, and 23rd in the NFL. But no one really knew. Which led Arians to consider everything.

“He’s got such loyalty to his assistants,” Licht said on Saturday morning. “He wanted to promote one of his assistants to head coach, in this case Todd [Bowles]—and he thinks the world, and we all do, of Byron [Leftwich]. And we’re all very confident Byron’s gonna be a head coach, maybe next year. But we started talking about that, If Tom doesnt come back, he’d said, Im not gonna leave you high and dry. Im gonna help you weather this storm with whoever the quarterbacks gonna be.

“Out of loyalty, of course, but he also wanted to make sure his coaches had a chance. And I know that he was probably thinking if we won six, seven games, we would probably open the search up next year—no guarantees.”

So Arians thought hard on that, and Brady made his decision on March 14. A day or two later, on that Monday or Tuesday (Licht can’t remember exactly which day), Arians showed up in the GM’s office with some news. What he’d said over a few drinks a couple weeks earlier had foreshadowed a shocker.

Arians told Licht the time to pass the torch was, yes, now. His exact words, as Licht remembers them, were, “I don’t care about more wins or even another Super Bowl. What’s more important for me is having my guys set up for success.” Licht, who first met Arians during the coach’s interview with the Cardinals nine years ago, got a little emotional. Arians as well.

“And I think at that point, he called Tom,” Licht said. “And I talked to ownership and let them know what he was planning on doing.”

The Bucs resolved to keep the circle of those who knew tight—it was Licht, Arians, Brady and ownership, basically—and were able to keep their secret for more than two weeks.

On Wednesday, the world found out, and the NFL had its latest stunner in an offseason full of them. By then, though, the guys in charge in Tampa Bay had plenty of time to digest a development that seem to arrive out of left field for everyone but those in the circle. And they think, with Bowles in charge, there’s a pretty good chance they’re better for it.


At some point, the offseason’s going to feel like an offseason, right?

NFL news has come fast and furious, pretty much since Matthew Stafford held up the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 13. This means, once again, we’ve got plenty to cover in this week’s MMQB. Inside the column, you’ll find …

• Takes on the new overtime system from both sides of the Chiefs-Bills epic that spurred it.

• How coaches are handling a more normal offseason program (starting today!).

• Insight into how Xavien Howard got rich, again.

• The impact Bobby Wagner made on the Rams before he was even on the roster.

And much, much more. But we’re starting with the power shift in Tampa that rocked the NFL this week.

Bowles, like the rest of Arians’s staff, had last week off as the Bucs brass traveled across the state to Palm Beach for the NFL annual meeting. He’d taken the weekend to visit his son, a sophomore defensive back at Rutgers, in New Jersey, before heading off to check on his house in North Carolina on Monday. He landed in Charlotte to a text from Arians that afternoon.

Hit me up.

Bowles called him, still on the plane. Arians asked when Bowles would be back in Tampa; Bowles said he’d be there about 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday. Arians said he wanted to tell Bowles in person. Tell me what in person?

“And he said he was gonna step aside and name me the head coach,” Bowles said over the phone on Thursday. “I was like, You gotta be kidding me. Immediately, I thought something happened. Initially, it’s that—What the hell happened? You sure? He said, yeah, he’d thought about it for a long time, and when I get back, we could talk more. Hung up the phone. And all day, I’m like, You gotta be kidding me.”

It was real, of course. Bowles talked to Licht twice Monday night and moved up his flight to Tampa so he’d land at 1 p.m. Tuesday. Bowles also talked to Arians again, and the second conversation went deeper into why Arians was walking away, and how he wanted to give Bowles the shot to coach Brady. Bowles then called Brady, and, soon enough, the deal was getting hammered out, with the Bucs having worked through the Rooney Rule logistics with the league at the meetings in South Florida.

The plan in Tampa, really since 2019, had been for Bowles to succeed Arians. But the timing? It hit Bowles the same way it hit the rest of us. 

He thought the succession plan could play out “at some point, but not now,” he says. “You go to combine, and then there’s owners meetings and you have the week off, you figure he’s going another year at least. And that didn’t happen, so it kind of caught me off guard that way. And like I said in the press conference, it’s bittersweet—I’m grateful and thankful that he’ll still be around and I can bounce some things off him.”


Now, before we go deeper into why Bowles is the right guy, and the right guy now, for a team that’s built to win in the moment, this is where we’ll acknowledge the obvious.

The whole thing does look weird, and it’s easy to tie Brady’s return to Arians’s departure and assume that Brady ordered all family business be settled before he came back.

Was there friction between Brady and Arians at times last year? Sure (it wasn’t either’s first rodeo in that regard). Was Arians’s program a little different than what Brady was used to, where Brady had to drive some of the discipline and structure he wanted the last couple years? Yes, and Arians actually empowered Brady and others, like Jason Pierre-Paul, to make Tampa a more player-driven program, particularly in the spring and summer.

I don’t know what Brady said to the Glazers that weekend he was at the Manchester United game. But I’ve covered the guy since 2005, and it would surprise me greatly if he marched in there and demanded anyone be fired. His feelings were known, I’m sure, which is just part of the equation here.

And everyone I’ve talked to in Tampa has maintained that Arians, Licht and Bowles are being forthright in the reasoning for the timing of Arians’s departure—Arians wanted to hand it to Bowles, but not in a situation that would be set up for failure. And Brady’s return changed the dynamic in that regard, where before he came back, without a quarterback, Arians would’ve been giving Bowles a team that would struggle immensely to clear the bar that was set the last two years.

“I don’t like to keep the fire burning, but I’m telling you, these guys have a great relationship,” Licht says. “I know there’s a lot of conspiracy theories out there, and I know you feel like you know Bruce, a lot of people do because he’s such an open book. But if you really knew him—the hours upon hours that I’ve spent with him, or his people have spent with him, his staff, going on four decades—it’s no surprise that he would do this.

“He’s all about giving and all about paying forward. I mean, he’s been instrumental with the league in setting up rules to interview minorities. It’s just him. He’s got a huge heart, his whole family. … It’s just … it’s in their DNA.”

And yeah, I understand some people’s minds won’t be changed on this. So we pivot here, and look at what Bowles being in charge means for the Buccaneers going forward.

A day after Arians had dinner with the Cardinals’ brass in 2013, Licht, then Arizona’s vice president of player personnel, picked him up at his hotel to bring him to the team facility for his interview. On the way, Arians said three things to Licht about what to expect, if he were to land the job.

  1. Win or lose, we booze.
  2. Buckle up, you’re in for a hell of a ride.
  3. We’re gonna win. We’re gonna set the culture, and we’re gonna win.

A few days later, after Arians had landed the job, Bowles arrived as defensive coordinator and projected the same sort of swagger. Don’t worry about the defense, Bowles told Licht. We’ll have a top 10 defense. If not better.

Sure enough, in Year 1, the Cardinals were seventh in total defense. Arizona rose to fifth in 2014, and then Bowles was gone to the Jets, getting his first shot to be a head coach.

Licht got his shot, too, becoming Bucs GM in 2014, which gave the two only a year together, but plenty about it stuck with both guys after they built a bond in ’13—with Licht being the No. 2 in scouting and Bowles the de facto No. 2 on the coaching side.

“Seeing Todd coach that year, even in training camp, and even going as far as the first OTAs, you know when you know,” Licht says. “You know a good coach, one that’s going to be a head coach. Some of them, it’s a little bit of a slow warmup and then you’re like, ‘Yeah, you know what? This guy could be.’ But with Todd, it was immediate. You knew he’s gonna be a head coach. Just the way he communicates, he’s one of the smartest coaches I’ve ever been around—and not just in football, he’s just got rare intelligence.

“And he just knows how to connect and push the right buttons on everybody, from all walks of life. He forms relationships in his own way with everybody in the building.”


That’s why Licht never blinked in the face of Arians’s long-held plan to pass the job on to Bowles—Arians and Licht agreed Bowles had been dealt a bad hand in New York—with the knowledge that the clock was ticking on Arians from the minute he arrived. “I knew when we hired him that he wouldn’t be here for 10 years as a coach,” Licht says. And it also explains Bowles’s first instinct, which was to immediately start reaching out to players.

Of course, in an effort to keep things quiet, he could only call Brady at first, which brings us to the other reason Licht thinks Bowles is right for the job.

So much of this story will come back to Brady, and there’s a synergy there with Bowles that has mostly been overlooked in the days following his elevation.

If Brady at all longed for the discipline and structure that Bill Belichick gave him, then he just got a head coach who’ll get him. Bowles cut his NFL coaching teeth under the same guy that helped mold Belichick into one of the best ever—Bill Parcells. As much as Arians is a life mentor for Bowles, with their relationship going back to Arians coaching Bowles as a college player, Parcells’s fingerprints are all over Bowles as a coach.

Bowles first worked on the coaching side in the NFL for Al Groh’s Jets, with Parcells in the front office. He then went to Dallas with Parcells in 2005 and followed him to Miami in ’08. Parcells, in turn, became one of the first champions for Bowles’s head-coaching candidacy, having made him Tony Sparano’s assistant head coach with the Dolphins.

So however Brady might feel through the ups and downs of a season, and through good times and bad, there’ll be a good chance Bowles will know where he’s coming from.

“Yes, for sure—100%,” says Licht, himself a former Patriots scout. “When you grow up in that system and you cut your teeth in that system—which I did as well—there’s just a certain understanding of why we’re doing things the way we are.”

And through working with a number of different quarterbacks in New York, from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Geno Smith, Bryce Petty to Christian Hackenberg, and through to Sam Darnold, Bowles already has had the experience to learn from in handling a quarterback.

It’s important, too, that he has that experience because he won’t be the one in Brady’s ear before every snap (that’ll be Leftwich, still) on Sundays, making his relationship with Brady, as a defensive-rooted head coach, a little more straightforward than it would be with an offensive play-caller type. Of course, having played for Belichick, Brady has had a lot of experience down that road, too.

“I think it’s important that the quarterback knows how you think the game, and how you want the game played, being on the same page that way,” Bowles says. “Whether you’re his coordinator or not, it’s very important for you to be on the same page so communication and the dialogue flows easily. And I felt like I could’ve done that a little bit more in New York, and I know I can do it a lot more here. And conversations will be completely different from that standpoint.

“Byron does an excellent job being an offensive coordinator, but it’s my job to be the head coach and everyone understands that. It’ll go accordingly. There are so many things you learn from the first time around. I don’t think I did a bad job being around quarterbacks, I just think that experience-wise, you see a lot of nuances that you wish you could’ve added to your coaching style. That’ll help me be a better coach for the quarterback.”

The good thing, for both, is thatthey aren’t starting from zero. They’ve learned each other already—there was a trash-talking type of competitiveness between the Bucs offense and defense the last two years that Bowles and Brady were both a part of—and that healthy respect for one another made the conversations between the two over the last few days pretty easy and natural, according to Bowles.

Bowles would also agree that there is a synergy already in place, one that’d be easy for anyone to trace back to their shared backgrounds.

“Ours is more based in simplicity—we’ll do whatever we can to win the ballgame, whether it’s a 6–3 game or a 30–29 game,” Bowles says. “We just want to win. We both have that drive and mindset, that we just want to win. That’s the biggest thing we have in common, which I love about him.”

Looking at the roster, they should have a shot to do a lot of it, at least for another year.

In that way, Arians is getting what he wanted, which was to give Bowles that shot. And now Bowles is the one that’s saddled with the zero-sum game that having Brady, at this stage of his career, on your roster presents to any coach.

So where so much of this situation is easier than the one Bowles was presented in New York (those Jets were badly in need of a teardown and may have gotten it a year or two too late) because his new office is down the hall from his old one, and he knows every coach, and nearly every player on the roster inside and out, he won’t get nearly the grace period he did in New York.

There, he won 10 games and missed the playoffs in Year 1, and it was (rightly) hailed a huge success.

Here? Anything less than a second title in three years could be seen as falling short. And that he’s O.K. with that alone makes him, as the Bucs see it, the right guy for the job.

“You always coach to win and play to win,” Bowles says. “You always set the bar high, and you’re always trying to reach that. … That part of it’s the easy part. With us, the competition and the chemistry is there. We fight. We just have to play smarter football, and finish plays, and understand what we need to do to get better. That part I’m excited about.”

In short, the work is what he’s excited about. And that has given a lot of others something to be excited about coming out of the Arians Era, the quarterback included.


Sean McDermott and I talked at halftime of Saturday’s Villanova-Kansas game—the Philly-area native definitely had a rooting interest—and the Bills coach used that game, which was already a little out of hand (and not in McDermott’s favor), to explain his feelings on the adjustment to the overtime rules the league passed this week.

Yes, he likes the change. And no, it’s not for the reason you’d think.

“The analytical research the league did, the numbers suggest that this is a healthy adjustment for the league,” he told me. “As you know, I’m sitting here watching this game, and this sport. There are things that happen in sports that relate to your question, Hey, do I feel some type of way, where I wish it was a year earlier with this rule? Nah, that’s sports. And some things that happen in sports where it's just the way it goes, that’s the way the ball bounces. That’s what we sign up for. I got no problem with that.

“But there’s a lot of evidence both on the field and then analytically as well that support this.”

So was the task that McDermott, the coaches, general managers, and executives in the room had for a spirited 45-minute conversation on Tuesday in Palm Beach—take the emotional piece out (for McDermott, that would be wondering what would’ve happened if Josh Allen had another crack at the Chiefs defense) and hone in on the data the league was putting before all of them.

For McDermott and many others in the room, the point that couldn’t be ignored, and the NFL’s analytics department presented (10 of the 104 pages of the competition committee’s annual report to the clubs was dedicated to overtime statistics), was the one on what was happening in the playoffs. Since the current overtime format went in for playoff games in 2010, 12 postseason contests have extended into an extra period. Ten of those were won by the team that won the toss, seven of those on the first possession.

What’s more, had it not been for the Bengals’ upset of the Chiefs in the AFC title game, that number would’ve been 10 of 11 coming out of 2021.

It’s similar, as we wrote on Tuesday, to where the league was with its kickers in 2010, where it’d become too easy for the team that won the toss to win the game. This time around, it’s quarterbacks, guys like Allen and Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow (all involved in playoff OT this year) that have become the cheat codes.

“I mean, I wish it would have happened a couple years back whenever I was playing the Patriots,” Mahomes told me on Wednesday, with a laugh. “No, I think it’s good. I’ve been on both sides of it. Especially in the playoffs, to be able to give guys chances to make plays, I think you want everybody to have a chance. And whenever, defense or offense, you don’t get the chance to be on the field, I feel like you kind of leave the game with a worse feeling because you know you didn’t have a chance.

“I’m sure you’ll be in games where you score first and you’ll be mad, and then you’ll be in games where you get the ball second and you’re able to score and tie the game back up and you’ll be happy. So you just play the game and find a way to win.”

“It’s your job to figure things out and win, no matter how things go, or how long things last—I agree with that,” McDermott said, when I asked about Mahomes’s comment. “It’s our job to figure things out. But overall, I think it’s a good thing for the league. When the game speaks, we at least need to listen. And in this case, not only did people listen when the game was speaking, but they’re adjusting, they’re evolving. I think it’s good for the game.”

And therein lies an important piece of this for McDermott and the Bills. Three years ago, the Chiefs proposed a similar change, coming off the AFC title game defeat to the Patriots that Mahomes was referencing. It didn’t get off the ground then, and some believed the reason why is that it was the aggrieved team, so to speak, pushing for that sort of change.

So this time around, the Bills made a conscious decision to let others push the issue, and the Eagles and Colts did, as did the Titans with a separate proposal (and so did Ravens coach John Harbaugh, with the “continuation” proposal we detailed last week). And the truth is, even McDermott himself had to come around to the change because he’s like a lot of defensive coaches—believing it’s a defense’s job to not let overtime play out like it did on Jan. 23.


“That’s real,” he says. “I don’t think knee-jerk reactions are healthy, and I don’t think it is one in this case. I’ve objectively questioned myself—Hey, make sure this isn’t just because it happened to you. I don’t think decisions made based on that kind of thing alone are sound decisions. It’s just the latest example of this occurring, so now it’s, Was that the final straw? So yeah, I just think that, as it relates to a defensive-backgrounded head coach, you always take it upon yourself to say, What could we have done better? Well, we could’ve played better defense. And that’s on me.

“Having said that, you have to take a wider-lens view of what is best.”

That wider-lens view, for much of the league, made clear that some level of adjustment was called for. What the adjustment would be, and how it’d be implemented, on the other hand, really was not, at least for a while in the room. In fact, needing 24 votes, I was told the NFL only had somewhere between 16 and 18 votes for the Indy-Philly proposal as it was written—for regular season and postseason. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie’s idea to vote on it as a playoffs-only measure ultimately is what got it through by a 29–3 vote.

But even then, I know at least one of the three teams (Vikings, Dolphins, Bengals) that voted against it did so with the feeling that it was being rushed through and that elements of the meeting and proposals were confusing. So we’ll see if all this is revisited at the NFL’s spring meeting in May.

For now, though, the change is seen as mostly a good thing, among those I talked to this week about it. And in case you’re wondering, no, McDermott hasn’t let himself daydream about what might’ve been if Allen had gotten his hands on the ball one last time at Arrowhead.

“Nah, I don’t go down that road,” he said. “I don’t know that that’s healthy, and we’re past that. And again, I think trying to do the right thing for the league, you have to take that out of your mindset, as you’re saying, objectively, what’s the best thing for the league as a whole—not just what’s best for the Bills—or taking the spiteful approach that this happened to us, and we were wronged.

“No, no, that’s what the rules are and that’s the way it is, and we should’ve played better defense and I should’ve coached better. But the vision going forward has to be what’s best for the league, so the game continues to evolve and the league continues to evolve.”

And soon enough, we’ll all get to see how big a step forward this change is for pro football. Or if it’s a step forward at all.


Coaches are pretty excited about having conventional offseason programs again, after two years of having to adjust. Those offseason programs kick off today—with the new coaches of the Bears, Dolphins, Giants and Saints welcoming their players back to work for 2022—and after talking to New York’s Brian Daboll about it over the weekend, it’s pretty clear that, as much as he might’ve learned about videoconferencing the last two years in Buffalo, he’s good if we never go back to the world of ’20 and ’21. “It was such a unique time for everyone,” he told me. “[With] Zoom, you try to make it as personal as you can, but you’re trying to do things over a computer, and you’re finding different ways to teach on Zoom. It’ll be good to have an offseason that’s normal, where you’re face to face and communicating on a daily basis. The Zoom stuff, that’s become invaluable, heck, we’re using it now during the draft process, but other than that … no.” And with that in mind, Daboll was nice enough to take us through where his Giants are at, and what he hopes to accomplish in his first spring with the team.

• As Daboll sees it, he and GM Joe Schoen have focused on five things over their first two-plus months on the job—they’ve hired staff; they’ve evaluated their own roster, they’ve done free-agent evaluations and signed a few guys; they’ve worked through draft prep; and they’ve installed their systems and implemented their playbooks with staff. All of it is building toward the start of training camp when the roster will be more complete, and not necessarily today.

• That said, for Daboll, as well as Miami’s Mike McDaniel, Chicago’s Matt Eberflus and New Orleans’s Dennis Allen, today isn’t unimportant. In fact, for these guys, they’ve had their whole careers to think about how to address their players on a Day 1 like this one. In Daboll’s case, he’ll talk, have a few others talk and try to keep things focused mostly on what expectations will be in the coming weeks. “It’s April 4, I don’t get too far in front of myself with speeches and stuff like that,” he says. “It’s, Here are the expectations, and here are the standards for the way we’re going to do things around here, and here’s a couple things that we want to accomplish the first couple weeks, from the fourth through the 15th. And then we’ll go from there.”

• Phase 1 work is relatively light—the players are allowed in the building four hours a day, four days a week for the next two weeks, and teams can only specify two of those hours to players (they can spend the other two hours lifting, etc.), with up to 90 minutes of work on the field, but without a ball and only with strength coaches. And while there’s only so much you can get done given all that, you can accomplish more than nothing. “The first thing is for the players to get into the weight room with the strength coaches and start their foundation in terms of getting stronger, quicker, faster,” Daboll says. “And then laying a foundation in the meantime for what we’re gonna do in the kicking game, on defense and on offense. It’s really just introductory phases to our program and how we’re gonna do things relative to strength and conditioning, and our playbook.”

• That said, there is something to making a first impression for coaches. And Monday will be a chance to do that, since most of the Giants’ players haven’t been around since the season ended—those that have been either live locally or are rehabbing. “We want to come across as an organized group that’s ready to go when they get there,” Daboll says. “The thing I did talk to the coaches about, look, the relationships that you start to build, this is when you start to build them, because in the end everything goes back to trust with these guys. So getting to know them, their family, what makes them tick, and also showing our personalities too, and letting them know a little about us.”

And that last part, to Daboll, is the most important in where things will go over the two weeks of Phase 1 and 11 weeks of the larger offseason program. It’s not like he’s going to have the Giants doing trust falls or playing the name game, but he has told his coaches where he expects their relationships to be. “You have to get to know your players,” Daboll says. “That doesn’t take two weeks. It takes a long time. And there’s gotta be some trust that goes into that, which is the first thing that we’re going to try to develop. Trust leads to respect, and ultimately respect leads to accountability. You being accountable to me, me being accountable to you, and not letting down the guy next to you, that’s an important part of building a team. Being open and honest with your players, and doing everything you can do to help them be the best that they can be. That’s what I’ve always tried to do, and that’s what we’ll try to do here.” For obvious reasons, it should be much easier to do that for first-year coaches this year than it was the last two years.

On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve got the Bengals, and coach Zac Taylor, and their decision to start their offseason program four weeks from now, on May 2. That’s two weeks after everyone else, and, of course, nearly a month after the four teams that kick off today, and credit to the Bengals staff on this, it’s an acknowledgment of what the team just fought through. Cincinnati (along with the Rams) just finished a 21-game season (including playoffs), which is a longer season than any team in NFL history has played. In fact, even a 20-game season was relatively rare in past years. So Taylor made the decision to take his foot off the pedal with his players—allowing them to do their work on their own through the month of April, in an effort to make sure they’re locked in and ready to go when they report next month—which also serves affirmation of his trust in the culture those players have built in the locker room. And Taylor also wanted to give his coaches a chance to be laser-focused on the draft the next three weeks. As we wrote back in February, the Bengals’ coaches are always involved this time of year with the team’s lean scouting staff setting up for the draft. This should allow for their work to be even more thorough in building what should be an important draft class for the team, when you consider how the big contracts that’ll come down the pike for the young core soon will make younger (and cheaper) talent on the roster more important. Overall, I think it’s a really solid idea by Taylor going into his fourth season, and, just logically, it’s not like getting a little less time with the players last spring did a ton of damage to his team in 2021.

My interview with Mahomes last week included a really interesting perspective from him on the quarterback movement around the NFL. As we talked, I threw a few numbers at him—the key one being that there are 15 quarterbacks in the NFL making $25 million per year or more, with just five of them still with the teams that drafted them. The 26-year-old didn’t skip a beat in telling me that, yup, he thinks there’s a lot of good to be taken from that. “I think it’s awesome,” he says. “Obviously, I’m in a situation in Kansas City where it’s very hard to envision me ever leaving, because of the coach, the front office, the ownership, everybody is so invested in Kansas City. But I mean, you’ve seen it in other sports, a lot of star baseball players, star basketball players, moving to different cities because with social media and TV markets and everything like that, you can be anywhere and still have success. So to be able to see some players move and try to find situations where they can win, and they have the best chance with a great team around them to have success, and still be able to have the marketability to be a huge star or whatever they want to do, I think it’s good for the NFL. Because you don’t have the same team winning every single year—really anybody can win every single year.” 

It’s worth mentioning, while we’re there, that in Friday’s GamePlan, Mahomes said he “knows” he’ll spend his whole career as a Chief. Still, if I were owner Clark Hunt, GM Brett Veach or coach Andy Reid, I wouldn’t take any of that for granted. The good news for Chiefs fans is, by the sounds of it, and how Kansas City has integrated Mahomes into different facets of the organization, those guys absolutely aren’t, and won’t.


The Dolphins’ deal for Xavien Howard is a nice example of a team keeping its word to a player, and mostly because there were plenty of reasons why it shouldn’t have. Miami’s promise to Howard—to look at redoing his deal, so long as his performance and health remained in a good place—was made when Brian Flores was the coach last summer. And even though Howard held up his end of the bargain through the fall and winter, he still had three years left on his deal coming out of 2021. So it was that a critical meeting happened on March 15, six days after Miami’s first proposal to Howard signaled that the sides weren’t very close to a deal. It was at that meeting that forward progress, for the first time since last summer, was made. Here’s how it all went down…

• The March 15 meeting was unusual in that players and coaches generally aren’t part of these things. But Howard and new coach Mike McDaniel were in the room with Miami GM Chris Grier and chief negotiator Brandon Shore, and agent David Canter, so everyone could put their cards on the table. Howard was clear in saying that he thought he was the best player at his position in the league, that he wanted to lead and win and, specifically, “I want to win here.” McDaniel responded that, with a new deal, he’d expect not just leadership, but for Howard to tell others how great the organization is, and how bad they want to win.

• The Dolphins got to other business—which wasn’t the easiest thing on Howard. They’d wind up signing Saints tackle Terron Armstead and trading for Chiefs dynamo Tyreek Hill, and then cleared cap space through restructures for players like Byron Jones. An unofficial checkpoint of April 4, the day Miami would open McDaniel’s first offseason program was approaching.

• After a reception at the NFL’s annual meeting in Palm Beach on March 28, last Monday, Canter tracked down Dolphins owner Steve Ross. The conversation was friendly, and Ross reiterated that the team wanted to get Howard taken care of before April 4, which Canter relayed back to Howard.

• At 11:24 a.m. on Friday, a revised proposal popped into Canter’s inbox. And he smiled and resolved to shut his life down for the next few hours and get to work with the Dolphins. In the new offer, Miami followed through in turning money that had been set up in per-game roster bonuses and incentives into real cash.

• At 5:58 p.m. on Friday, the deal was done. Howard went from having the 24th-most cash over the next three years among corners to second-most ($55 million), behind only Jalen Ramsey, and went from ninth in new money average among corners to first, with $18.25 million coming this year, $18.25 million next year, and $18.5 million in 2024, with another $1 million in incentives each year on a deal that’s worth $90 million over its five years (with another $5 million total in incentives).

And when it was done, Canter thanked top lieutenants Ness Mugrabi and Brian McIntyre for their work on it, congratulated Howard and settled in for dinner and some TV at home with his wife, Peri. “Brandon [Shore] is really shrewd and really good at his job,” Canter told me after it was done. “He and Chris looked at their roster, and said at the very least we want to have Xavien here for two more seasons.” And the Dolphins will keep him for that long at a rate that works for the team, with a structure that’s best for the player—getting cash in his pocket now, and fronting years three, four and five with $3 million roster bonuses due in March that will mean Howard either sticks around or hits the market at the height of free agency.

Which, honestly, in this case, isn’t just good for the player, it’s good business. Miami has a new coach, a quarterback it has to make a decision on between now and, say, March 2024, and a promising core that’s posted back-to-back winning seasons and was just supplemented with Hill and Armstead. Bottom line, either Tua Tagovailoa takes off from here, or the Dolphins are retooling again in a couple of years, and Howard needed to be part of that equation. And having such a good soldier happy and locked in, with a promise delivered, as McDaniel kicks off the offseason today? You’d think that sends a nice message to the rest of the team on the kinds of expectations the Dolphins have for ’22.

The Bobby Wagner signing in Los Angeles ends a decade-long saga for Rams GM Les Snead. And I love the tick-tock of this one. It starts with then-St. Louis Rams acquiring the sixth pick in the 2012 draft from Washington, part of Washington’s bold move up to take Robert Griffin second overall. The Rams then dealt down, again, from six to 14, and got the 45th pick as part of it. Here’s the rest …

• Snead took Michael Brockers at 14, and he’d eventually become a lunch-pail type of foundational piece, first for Jeff Fisher then for Sean McVay.

• At 45, the Rams had three guys they liked—Utah State linebacker Bobby Wagner, Cincinnati back Isaiah Pead, and Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David.

• In came the Bears, offering the 150th pick to move up from 50 to 45. Snead gambled that if he traded down, Wagner—whom Fisher loved, and was the sort of fast, long ’backer that’d always been the coach’s type—would still be there, thinking that Wagner missing the combine with pneumonia would leave his file incomplete with other teams.

• Wagner went 47th to Seattle, and the Rams picked Pead over David, then South Carolina G Rokevious Watkins with the 150th pick, acquired in the deal down.

• Absent Wagner and David, the Rams took Georgia LB Alec Ogletree 30th overall (with another pick generated from the Washington trade) the next year. Travis Frederick, Zach Ertz, Darius Slay and Gio Bernard all went within the seven picks to follow.

Watkins battled weight and injury issues and only played in one NFL game. Pead rushed for 78 yards on 19 carries in three years as a Ram. David is a three-time All-Pro who captained a Super Bowl champion in Tampa. Wagner became a Super Bowl champion and one of the greatest players in Seahawks history. And now, finally, it’s come full circle, with Snead landing Wagner after a decade for the eight-time All-Pro in Seattle. Best part? One of the things that lured him there—Snead’s team is coming off a championship of its own. And that Snead took lessons from the experience. In fact, after apologizing to Fisher for using the combined reasoning to move down, causing the miss on Wagner, Snead established the Bobby Wagner Rule, which is simply premised: If you like a player, don’t speculate on where he’ll be picked, just pick him. It’s a rule, you could argue, that has served the Rams pretty well in a number of different ways since. Which is to say, in a roundabout way, Wagner’s already had an impact on the place he’s going.

I think Colin Kaepernick sincerely wants back in the NFL, more than I would’ve said in the past. And I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because he’s turning 35 in November, and the sands of time are getting him to consider his athletic mortality. Maybe it’s seeing teams like Carolina and Detroit and Seattle seemingly keeping their options open at quarterback. Maybe he just misses being on a team. Whatever it is, watching him over the last few weeks, in organizing workouts and then a showcase on Saturday at halftime of Michigan’s spring game (pulling on a connection with his Niners coach, Jim Harbaugh, to arrange it), and his public declarations that he’s willing to come in as a backup, it sure feels like the tone in Kaepernick’s pursuit of a job playing football has changed. Simply put, it looks like he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get back in. “I would 100% agree with that sentiment, and maybe before I wouldn’t have said that,” said quarterback trainer Quincy Avery on Sunday. “The way he reaches out—Hey, make sure you pass this along to anyone you have a connection with—you can tell he’s actively anticipating going in and getting a job. I think he just wants an opportunity. He wants a fair shake.” Avery, who’d worked with Kaepernick once before, at UCLA a few years back, actually reached out to Kaepernick on Twitter when Kaepernick was looking for receivers to throw with and invited him to join his workouts in Atlanta. The day Kaepernick came, a couple of weeks ago, Bears QB Justin Fields, Giants QB Tyrod Taylor and free agent Josh Dobbs were working with Avery. And beyond just wanting to play again, according to Avery, Kaepernick didn’t look out of place at all among other guys training year-round to play the game at the highest level. “He was out there with three other NFL quarterbacks, and I thought he fit right in,” Avery says. “He made all the throws the other guys did. His arm is still very, very strong, you’re quickly reminded of that, just how strong his arm is. And he looked very comfortable doing all the things we’d normally do. … I was really encouraged by how consistently he was throwing the ball to NFL-level receivers after that amount of time off.” The upshot of what Kaepernick has done for the last month, to me, is this: His actions reflect a strong desire to climb the football ladder again, with no pretense that he’ll be entitled to skip rungs. And I can tell you, too, that a couple of teams I talked to believe this comeback attempt is a sincere one. We’ll see where it goes from here.

Diversity and inclusion were a big focus for the owners in Palm Beach this week. And I believe it’ll result in a very big step being taken, and maybe as soon as next month. I’ve explained plenty in this space over the last couple of years about what I believe to be the biggest complaint of Black head coaching candidates—when they fall short in pursuing jobs, they too often have to hear that owners just had a better comfort level with someone else. The remedy for that, to me, was always obvious. The league had to find a way to get those candidates in front of owners in non-interview settings to try and build meaningful connections that will carry over when those guys are vying for jobs. And the hope is that it’ll start at the May meeting, with bigger plans for owners and promising assistant coaches and scouts to be connected at next year’s combine and annual meeting. I’d expect more details on this shortly.

Good to see Frank Gore getting a nice, graceful exit from the league by signing a one-day contract with the team that drafted him. Gore isn’t the greatest running back ever. He never won a championship. He’s actually only been All-Pro once, and that was 15 years ago. But there is one thing that, I think, makes him unique—the number of coaches and execs who’ve worked with him who’ll tell you that he was their favorite player. Why? He was a great player, of course. But it’s more than that. It’s how he conducts himself, commands respect, and overcomes and proves people wrong over and over again, and that goes all the way back to the Niners drafting him in 2005 after their doctors failed him on his physical. Gore, for those that don’t know, had two reconstructed shoulders and two reconstructed knees entering the league out of Miami. “You go through not every grade [with the doctors], but the ones that were for sure rejects and ones that are close to being rejects,” then-Niners GM Scot McCloughan told me a few years back. “I was in there before the head coach got in there. And I’m sitting with the doctors and I saw Frank, I saw he had a reject grade just barely. I said, ‘Fellas, we gotta change this. I’m telling you.’ ‘Well, that’s what we saw.’ ‘I don’t care.’ I was young, I didn’t know any better. The majority of the time you don’t change those grades. The doctors are doctors. Of course, personnel guys aren’t doctors. ‘Hey, if it’s this close can you look at again for me, please? Really look at it and make sure the grade is right.’ I think they got the idea for what I was trying to say. They changed it a little bit so it’s not a negative, it’s more of a positive. They did it.” And from there, while Gore had a promise from one team that it’d take him in the first round, McCloughan leveled with him and told him he’d take him with the first pick in the third round if he was there. Gore was, and the rest is history. The guy who could barely pass a physical wound up playing 15 NFL seasons, and finished with an even 16,000 rushing yards, behind only Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton. And just as important, as I see it, he commanded respect in an NFL building the way few others could. Happy trails, Frank.

There’s less buzz ahead of this year’s draft than any I can remember. Maybe it’s because the news cycle has spun like a cyclone since February—and all the buzz has swallowed the hype that’d normally precede a draft. And I say that because I’m just now going to be diving in on draft stuff (I try to keep an eye on everything year-round, but obviously it gets more intense in April) to get ready for an event that’s a little more than three weeks away. But while we’re here, I’ll give you five things on this year’s class that I’m feeling now going into that …

1. It’s been widely assumed forever that Aidan Hutchinson wouldn’t make it past his hometown Lions, holders on the second pick. Now, it’s starting to feel like it’d be a surprise if he made it to them. Bolstering that idea is how the Jaguars put a repeat franchise tag on left tackle Cam Robinson and signed big-money guard Brandon Scherff. (The early buzz had been that Doug Pederson would lean offensive line with the first pick, and maybe specifically N.C. State’s Ikem Ekwonu.)

2. If there’s a leader in the clubhouse to be the first quarterback taken, right now, I’d say it’s Liberty’s Malik Willis. In the Mahomes/Allen Era, it’s fair to say you’re looking for quarterbacks with a high ceiling. And Willis, more so than the other guys in this class, has one. On top of that, though he is an on-field projection, because of the offense he’s coming from, he’s done well enough in meetings for teams to believe he’ll be able to handle more volume scheme-wise than he was asked to in college,

3. Georgia’s Travon Walker may be the one player who’s helped himself the most over the last two weeks. In the fall, scouts weren’t talking about him as a first-rounder. Now, it sure seems like he won’t make it out of the top 10.

4. The player I get asked about the most: Cincinnati CB Sauce Gardner. Per scouts I’ve talked to, his tape is as clean as anyone’s in the class, and he’s got the length that Seattle-system defensive coordinators—and there are a lot of them—covet.

5. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: There might not be a player in the class who’d have gone in the top 12 picks last year. But the second and third rounds are expected to be chock full of starting-level players. So if you’re a team like Atlanta (8, 43, 58, 74, 82), Detroit (2, 32, 34, 66, 97), Green Bay (22, 28, 53, 59, 92), Houston (3, 13, 37, 68, 80), Kansas City (29, 30, 50, 62, 94), Philly (15, 16, 19, 51, 83) , the Jets (4, 10, 35, 38, 69) or Giants (5, 7, 36, 67, 81), there should be very good opportunity to build up the guts of your roster.

I have quicker-hitting takeaways. As always …

• That the Dolphins were willing to trade DeVante Parker to New England was an eyebrow-raiser for me. Sure, he’s been hurt a lot, and Miami was running out of roster spots for receivers, which is why they were shopping Parker for the billionth time … But still.

• For what it’s worth, the trade was also a smoking gun on how out-of-nowhere the Tyreek Hill deal was for Miami. If they knew it was coming, maybe they don’t sign Cedrick Wilson from Dallas—and keep Parker instead.

• All the best to Malcolm Jenkins. I promise we’ll get some more on him and his retirement in the coming weeks. But for now, all you need to know about him is right there on his resumé. Few got as much out of the experience of being a pro football player, both on the field and off of it, as Jenkins did. I remember doing a draft diary with him in 2009 when I was at the Sporting News, and through the course of that hearing that his college coach, Jim Tressel, was telling teams that Jenkins was among the top five or so leaders he’d ever coached. And man did that ring true the last 13 seasons.

• More and more, it looks like the Browns are going to have to pay a very significant percentage of Baker Mayfield’s $18.858 million option for this year to get anything back for him. You can call it buying a draft pick if you want. I think it’s more of a tax for what they did to get Deshaun Watson.

• If Cleveland’s willing to do that, I still think Seattle makes the most sense. I’ve been told neither Carolina nor Detroit has much interest in Mayfield, so the potential landing spots are dwindling.

• I think odds remain that Philly and Washington start Jalen Hurts and Carson Wentz for their openers. I also wouldn’t rule out either taking a quarterback high in the draft. Ditto for the Steelers with Mitch Trubisky.

• Don’t look now, but the Jets have had a pretty nice offseason, in flipping their tight end room, adding Laken Tomlinson to the offensive line and getting Jordan Whitehead to replace Marcus Maye. And as we’ve said before, it smacks of what the Bengals did the last two years in free agency, in targeting veterans from winning programs to change the mentality of a place.

• Terrell Owens and Johnny Manziel in Fan Controlled Football? I honestly might have to tune in. Not even kidding.

• John Fox is a really nice hire for the Colts—they have a bunch of young defensive players (Kwity Paye, Julian Blackmon) that have shown the potential to become elite, and join the Darius Leonards and DeForest Buckners of the unit. And I think having Fox will help Gus Bradley in that regard.

• Here’s hoping that building an indoor facility is the start of a new level of financial commitment from ownership in Cincinnati. The Bengals are in a position to be really good for a very long time. Now’s the time for them to shed the “cheap” label that’s dogged them for decades.


1. North Carolina–Duke on Monday night was as good as it gets—and it felt a lot, to me, like the No. 1 vs. No. 2 Ohio State–Michigan game of 2006, a game that happened two days after Wolverine legend Bo Schembechler passed away. It’s impossible to replicate the sort of intensity a rivalry like that can generate and hard to understand it unless you’ve taken a side in one.

2. If the Tar Heels win tonight, that three-point dagger Caleb Love delivered on Saturday night becomes an all-timer. What an incredibly ballsy, clutch shot by Love.

3. Count me among those (everyone?) rooting for Tiger Woods to get back out there in Augusta this weekend.

4. The dynamic the Raptors are going to present some opponent in the playoffs—non-vaccinated players can’t travel to Canada—is bananas, and it’ll have everyone scrambling to figure out who has, and hasn’t, had their shots yet. As of right now, the Raptors hold the fifth seed and would play the Sixers in the first round. Philly, by the way, plays in Toronto on Thursday, so you might get a tell or two then on who the Sixers could be without if they draw the Raptors.

5. I’m so confused by the Academy’s reaction to Will Smith’s slap-heard-round-the-internet last week. They said they asked him to leave the Oscars. So then, I guess, he said no, and was allowed not only to stay but deliver a speech after winning Best Actor? What happened to kicking people out?

6. Big shoutout to our friends at Island Creek for the fantastic 73rd birthday dinner for my dad at the Winsor House here in town the other night. I’d recommend that place to anyone—it was my first time there (it opened a couple of months ago), and it was a home run.


Excellent summation.

The picture of ol’ Lenny ripping that dart is a winner every time.

If this is shade after what Jim Irsay said this week … good job working it into an ad, Carson.

Just a perfect picture.

One-hundred percent the truth.

The kid’s got swagger.

The correct comp.

Another winner from one of the best Twitter accounts out there.

A good example here on how, in a lot of cases, it’s the coaching, not the sport, that’s the problem for kids playing football.

This is from the Chargers’ All In series, and the episode itself (it’s on YouTube) was really good in showing the team welcoming Khalil Mack and J.C. Jackson to the team facility.

From Snead’s wife/my ex-NFL Network colleague/Duke alumnus Kara Henderson.

Good pull by Geoff Schwartz—and love it from Bacot.


Lousiana-Lafayette and Montana State have pro days today, USC’s Drake London will work out tomorrow and LSU has its Pro Day on Wednesday to wrap up the annual circuit.

What does that mean? You’ll start hearing soon about players making “30” visits (teams can fly 30 out-of-town prospects in for meetings and physicals) and doing private workouts with different teams. And all the while, scouts will start to filter into their NFL cities for draft meetings.

This means, as we said earlier, the draft really is almost here.

More NFL Coverage:

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Post–Free Agency NFL Power Rankings
Mailbag: Do the Packers and Chiefs Go After Top Receivers?