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Joe Burrow Doesn’t Have All the Answers, But He’s Close

His gift to see the field separates the Bengals’ quarterback. Plus, the training secrets of the Bosa brothers, Jalen Hurts’s improvement and much more.

This was in the heat and humidity of a downtown Cincinnati summer day, and nearly a month deep into camp, with the Super Bowl champions on the other side—Jalen Ramsey, Aaron Donald and the rest of the Rams’ defense. And to hear Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan tell the story, his quarterback Joe Burrow was just kind of sick of L.A.

Not really the team or the players, so much as what they were trying to do to him.

“The Rams play this particular style—it’s an off-catch technique where they get vision on the quarterback, so they can break fast on the ball,” Callahan explained. “And he was like, O.K., we’re not doing this anymore.”

So Burrow looked over at Ja’Marr Chase, signaling in their own language, for a double move. Then, Burrow called for the snap, and from there it didn’t matter how many All-Pros or Super Bowl champions were lining up against them. None of them had a chance.

“It was a good rep,” Burrow said, recalling it Wednesday. “They have Aaron Donald and their pass rush, in my opinion, is the best in the league, so they can play more aggressive outside, because they know the pass rush will get home eventually. So you gotta just throw it by them every now and then to get a little more respect. And in practice, there’s not a lot of repercussions; there’s no seven points on the board in front of millions of people.

“But it did feel nice to get a long one like that.”

You could almost see the smile across Burrow’s face through the phone.

He and the Bengals have plenty to smile about these days. That “good rep” happened after Burrow missed three weeks of camp after an emergency appendectomy in July. It happened against a team that kept Cincinnati from winning a championship just seven months earlier. And while Burrow may shrug it off, it’s just another example not just of where Burrow’s taken the Bengals but where he’s capable of taking them from here.

Oftentimes, those of us on the outside of the NFL define a player’s potential through his measurables—height, weight, speed and strength. That’s where so many experts missed on Burrow over the years, for the same reasons Tom Brady was pegged as a system quarterback 20 years ago in New England.

Because what sets Burrow’s ceiling is what you can’t see.

“His command over the last year really grew,” Callahan said. “And that’s the fun part. You got all these reps invested, you know the guys you’re playing with, they know the offense, you can have a ton of fun as a quarterback. You can do all kinds of cool stuff. That’s what made Peyton [Manning] great. They could never be right. The defense could never be right, because he would see whatever was across from him, know what they were playing and know what the answer was.

“That’s the evolution you want, that Joe has the capability to be at.”

Simply put, it’s where Burrow is going, and where he’s taking the Bengals.

Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel, Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts

This is the last MMQB before the season starts when these columns become more game-centric, and so I’ve got a lot to give you all. Inside this week’s column, you’ll find …

• A look at Mike McDaniel, and how he knows what you’re thinking.

• How Jalen Hurts is getting better in areas quarterbacks normally don’t.

• The training secrets of the Bosa brothers.

And a whole lot more. But we’re starting with Burrow, the Bengals and where they’re capable of going in 2022 and beyond.

This immeasurable quality Burrow carries has to be, at least in part, God-given, because it seems pretty impossible that a third-grader would have somewhere learned it.

Burrow was 8, just starting tackle football, just starting as a quarterback, and it was then that he first showed this innate ability to process what’s in front of him better than just about anyone else.

Seeing Burrow was a smart kid, and knowing he was the son of a coach—his dad, Jimmy Burrow, had just gotten the job as defensive coordinator at Ohio University—his first coach in Athens gave him a very specific piece of freedom. He allowed for the new QB, if the center was uncovered, to tap the lineman on his side and run a quarterback sneak. Early that season, it might’ve been in his pee-wee team’s first game, the coach called a play with four receivers to Burrow’s left and an empty backfield. The call was a spot screen.

The young quarterback counted the defenders in the far flat, where the receivers were, then counted the number in the box, saw his center uncovered and tapped him on the side.

“And then he went about 70 yards on a quarterback sneak for a touchdown,” Jimmy Burrow said. “And literally that was third grade. So he’s been given the responsibility, the leeway to do those types of things for a long time.”

“I don’t really remember that part—I’m pretty sure it was called by our coach,” said Joe, when I recounted his dad’s story. “But that was one of our good plays. It was in third grade; teams really aren’t super dialed up to defend that sort of thing, so I took a couple of those to the house.”

The video shows a kid in a helmet and shoulder pads that look too big (the way they do for all kids that age) quickly pulling away from a defense that reacted a full tick slow—almost like the footage was a warning for how this 8-year-old would always look like he was a step ahead on a football field.

But to say that this is just a natural gift of his would be wrong, and even unfair. As Burrow himself looks at it, his unlearned talent is his ability to see the field. But having just that would be worthless without having answers for all the questions he’s presented with when he breaks the huddle and looks at the defense. All these years later, so much of the work he’s done is to match the number of answers he has to the number of things he sees.

“I could always just tell whether a play was gonna work or wasn’t gonna work based off the look,” he continued. “Like, I always knew whether it was gonna work or not, but I didn’t always know what to get to, to make it work. So I’ve worked really hard to have answers to every look I could see. And maybe I change it; maybe I don’t. But I’ve always had that feel.”

And that much has been clear pretty much from the jump in Cincinnati.

“He sees it so well,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “If you got a check in that week, he’s not gonna miss it. He’s gonna understand what we’re trying to get to. Now as you grow further, I think his comfort level—just getting out of a play entirely, something totally new because he likes what he sees—is there. He’s got full rein to do that.”

Of course, at the NFL level, that needs to be earned. In this case, it absolutely was by Burrow.

Bengals QB Joe Burrow

Burrow on his secret to success: "I've worked really hard to have answers to every look I could see." Jeffery A. Salter/Sports Illustrated

Having the freedom to make decisions at the line of scrimmage hasn’t taken long because of the rare combination Burrow has to add his gift (for seeing it) to his work ethic (to weaponize that with the answers).

But there are examples, plenty of them, that his coaches rave about from the past two years.

Here are four such plays only 30 starts into Burrow’s career:

Week 7, 2020 season

Opponent: Browns

Situation: Fourth quarter, 4:23 left, down four; 1st-and-10, Bengals 37

Outcome: 15-yard completion to Tyler Boyd

The call, a pick play, was identical to the one the Bengals ran on a fourth-and-4 the first time they’d played the Browns in Week 2 of Burrow’s rookie year—and Burrow found Boyd on that one with a tight back-shoulder throw to move the sticks. But Burrow also learned something on that particular play, watching the Browns’ defensive backs communicate and adjust for the corner covering Boyd out of the slot to bail out, run around the pick and cover him over the top (which was why the throw was a tough one to make).

This time, Burrow had the recall at the line to react in real time in a way few quarterbacks can.

“So Joe sees it, and counters that play,” Callahan said. “When you know they’re teaching guys to play over the top, you fake the pick and go vertical—fake it, and he comes back underneath. We never call that play because you gotta be dead right on it. But it’s in his toolbox, Hey, if you see the look, you can do it. So he remembered that moment, you can see him, he signals the initial play, wants to run this, then he sees those guys communicating, sees them talking to each other, and then he changes it to this one and TB hits it.

“And it’s a conversion, first down, it’s not a huge play, but it’s a 15-yard gain. It was that moment where I was like, Holy s---, that’s impressive. It’s his rookie year. He has the capability mentally to say, O.K., first and foremost, I’m gonna change the play. That’s the first thing. This makes more sense. Second of all, he had the wherewithal and recall to know that they were gonna play it that particular way once he saw them communicating. Watch out for the pick. Then signaled it, and then changed it, in probably 25 seconds.

“To be able to do that, and then it hits for a first down, those are the things, man. Those are things through the first season where we were like, God, this dude is on another level, processing-wise. Football is just easy for him.”

On tape, it looks like Boyd ran a little drag and found a dead spot in the defense—easy money. The truth is it only looked that way because Burrow made it so.

“Yeah, that was a fun one,” Burrow said. “That was exciting.”

The Bengals took the lead seven plays later on a fourth-down scoring pass from Burrow to Gio Bernard before the Browns came back to win the game on the following drive.

Week 4, 2021 season

Opponent: Jaguars

Situation: Fourth quarter, 1:09 left, tied; second-and-13, Jaguars 46

Outcome: 25-yard completion to C.J. Uzomah

Inside two minutes and with just one timeout, having battled back from a rough start to pull even with the Jaguars, this play happened with the clock running after Boyd picked up seven yards to cut first-and-20 to second-and-13. The key was the defensive coordinator, Joe Cullen, because he was new in Jacksonville from the Ravens.

“I’d known their coordinator had come from Baltimore, had a lot of experience there, and so I figured in some critical situation I was gonna get a zero pressure,” Burrow said. “And so I knew my answer as soon as I saw it because I’d prepared for that before the game.”

Indeed, before the snap, all 11 defenders crowded the line of scrimmage.

“We’re in empty (no running backs behind Burrow), and they show zero,” Callahan said. “And Joe knows, 100% I’m checking to this screen, except we were in a formation where C.J., the tight end, was all the way outside. We had never run it that way before. Joe didn’t care.”

“Like Brian said, we usually don’t throw that screen to tight ends,” Burrow said, “but I knew C.J. was gonna make it happen for me, so no hesitation.”

“It was just, I’m gonna check to the screen, I’m gonna beat the blitz,” Callahan said. “He checks to it, we get it communicated, throws it to C.J., C.J. rips off a 25-yard run. Now we’re at the 20-yard line and we’re gonna kick a field goal to win the game. … In that moment, with the pressure on to win the game, he sees zero. He recognizes it. Checks the play. Knows he’s gonna get hit. Gets the ball off.”

The Bengals did get that kick from Evan McPherson, minutes later, to win the game.

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Week 5, 2021 season

Opponent: Packers

Situation: Overtime, 7:27 left, tied; second-and-12, Bengals 28

Outcome: 12-yard run by Samaje Perine

Taylor remembered this one fondly—even though he couldn’t quite place it in the moment.

This wasn’t Taylor directing Burrow to do anything, even in a If they show this, do this, sort of way. It was Burrow seeing something and doing something all on his own.

“We called a pass on first-and-15 or second-and-12 or something, and all of a sudden, he’s handing the ball off for a 10-yard gain,” Taylor said. “And it’s like, O.K., well, I guess we’re doing that now. And that’s great to see, because most guys are gonna take every opportunity they can to throw it. But he sees something in the defense and he’s gonna take advantage of it any way we can.”

“That would’ve been against the Packers,” Burrow said. “We got a light box, and the Packers were playing [their safeties] really deep. It was either first-and-15 or second-and-12, something like that. We were able to get it back to a third-and-manageable, which was ideal.”

Indeed, situationally, Burrow’s job was to dig the Bengals out after a two-yard loss by Joe Mixon put the offense behind the sticks, and his audible to a Perine run led to an easy jaunt through that light box and into third-and-2. Cincinnati then capitalized by getting aggressive with a 21-yard back-shoulder connection to Chase to help set a 49-yard kick from McPherson to win it in OT. He missed, and the Packers won. But still …

Divisional playoff, 2021 season

Opponent: Titans

Situation: Second quarter, 5:16 left, tied; third-and-3, Bengals 32

Outcome: Five plays, 48 yards gained

The Bengals were coming out of a timeout and heading down the stretch of the first half.

And then the earpiece in Burrow’s helmet went dead.

“Zac was in the middle of calling the third-down play, and it went out halfway through it,” Burrow said. “I knew the rest of the play, based off the beginning of the formation, so I called that. But then, if I remember right, we were out of timeouts, so we couldn’t call one to get it switched out. So I knew I was on my own. I wound up calling four plays in a row.”

Burrow’s actually wrong about one thing there—the Bengals did have a timeout left. They didn’t use it. And in that spot? A lot of coaches would’ve called it. Cincinnati didn’t.

“Certainly they would,” Callahan said. “And some quarterbacks would panic.”

Burrow didn’t.

On the first play, he handed the ball off left tackle to Mixon for a yard. Then, the broadcast showed Burrow holding his hands over his helmet, and recognizing that, yes, the headsets were out, while Taylor was flipping over his playsheet and trying to talk through them. The quarterback had started toward the sideline, but instead of using the timeout, turned and went back to the line, and called the play. Taylor allowed it.

On his next call, he hit Tee Higgins for 15 yards on an out-cut to convert second-and-9, then he went to Mixon in the flat for another four yards. And then things got interesting on second-and-6 from the Titans’ 42.

“I had called one play that we usually pair with another play in case we get a certain look that we don’t like,” Burrow said. “And we got that look. So I had to change that play call to the play that we’d normally pair with it, and get the protection directed. So that was fun.”

Not so much for the Titans. Burrow did all the communicating necessary, on the road, in the playoffs, against the AFC’s top seed, while dropping from center into the shotgun—and then he decisively got the ball out for 22 yards to Higgins, on a dig, as the clock ticked down to the two-minute warning. Which, of course, isn’t easy. “And to do it in a way that is still attacking the defense and putting us in that position,” Callahan said.

“And after that we started joking with him. It’s like, Oh, yeah, the headset went out again,” Callahan continued. “It’s like the headset can’t always go out, dude. But I think he kinda liked that. He liked having that kind of control and command. … On that one, I just said, Good job to him. But that’s who he is. He never panics.”

Los Angeles Rams defensive end Aaron Donald (99) forces Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) to throw an incomplete pass during the second half of the NFL Super Bowl 56.

Burrow checked to the right play to win the Super Bowl but didn't have enough time to execute it.

Then there was the one that didn’t work, on the last game snap Burrow took. But even that one can be instructive to the point—a fourth-and-1 with the season on the line in the Super Bowl. And it’s best illustrated with differing perspectives on Donald’s signature play.

The Rams, as we detailed back in a story a week after the Super Bowl, saw nickel corner David Long as the hero of the play. Long felt Uzomah’s speed to the flat to Burrow’s left, and thought he was being cleared out to allow for the quarterback an easy window to throw a slant to Higgins. So Long stepped in Burrow’s vision, and the Rams thought that was what gave Donald the split second he needed to get to the quarterback.

But, it turns out, that wasn’t what Burrow was doing. Burrow, before the snap, had identified man coverage, and checked Chase to go over the top—in a Let’s end this now sort of way. He was never going to his left. His eyes were only there to pull safety Nick Scott out of the deep area to which Chase would run.

“We were going there the whole way,” Burrow said. “We got man and if we get man, I’m going to Ja’Marr. The safety [Scott] was off the hash, kind of helping on [Chase’s] side, so I knew I had to move him a little bit. And in the process of doing that, I didn’t have quite enough time to move the safety and get back to it.”

Sure enough, by the time Burrow had successfully moved Scott and pivoted to get to Chase who was running free past Ramsey, he had a faceful of Donald and that was that.

“He did check to me; he definitely checked to me,” Chase says. “I mean, at the end of the day, nobody really knows what would’ve happened. Nobody knows what would’ve happened, if it would’ve happened, I can’t dwell on that play.”

“I’m past it,” Burrow said. “Obviously, you would’ve liked to have that one, but we’re on to this year and making the most out of this year.”

Both, of course, have a better idea than they let on of what would’ve happened. In a way, though, the result only goes further to show why Burrow’s mastery of the details, and an ability to see and win on the margins, matters so much in just how close things were to everything being so different.

And that validates (as if he needed more validation) the work he’s always done sharpening the finer points of his game and the continuation of that as, now, he works furiously to make up for the time lost when his appendix burst. Last year, as he was coming back from ACL surgery, the focus was on increasing the velocity on his ball. This year, his progress as a pro has him at the point where what he’s doing is more granular.

Taylor, for his part, is looking for another leadership step. He’s facilitating it in empowering Burrow to teach new linemen Ted Karras, Alex Cappa and La’El Collins, along with the young guys, the offense. “His voice gets louder now in meeting rooms, whereas the installs are less Cally and I saying, This is how we’re doing it,” Taylor said. “It’s now way more, Joe, you got anything you want to add? Joe, you want to lead us off here with how you see this?

Callahan, meanwhile, could stand to see a little less courage from his quarterback. “The first quarter of the third game of the year on some heroic scramble where you’re gonna get smoked, if you make a 20-yard gain, it’s like All right, I mean, I get it. That’s just who he is,” Callahan said. “But sometimes just letting it go, living for the next one, is O.K.”

Burrow hears all that. He’s taken the leadership piece to heart with teammates. He knows there are plays he can give up on. But, really, there’s not one thing that he’s working on. Again, the steps he’s taken to plug holes left in his game now, at this point, just 28 months into his NFL career, have given him the freedom to work on, well, a little bit of everything.

“At this point, I think I’m happy with where I’m at everywhere,” he says. “So I can disperse that work throughout the entirety of my game and make incremental improvements on my overall game.”

Then, Burrow related that to where his team is, and how the Bengals came on at the end of last year, and what it’ll take to make that not what they were but now who they are.

“You want to be hitting on all cylinders early in the year, so you’re not going into the bye week 7–6 like we were last year,” he continued. “We want to be one of the top offenses in the league, and we have the capacity to do that year in and year out. But like I said, it’s gonna take consistency of work and preparation and practice. And so, yeah, I’d say [last year was] the start of something. But it’s not just gonna happen.”

That’s Burrow’s own way of saying that, no, at 25, he doesn’t have all the answers.

But he’s trying to get there. And the scary thing, for the other 31 teams, is he’s already a lot closer than almost everyone else.


Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel

McDaniel has faced a lot of arched eyebrows over his nonfootball-coach-ish appearance and presentation.

Mike McDaniel knows what you’re thinking.

In fact, the new Dolphins coach knows what everyone is thinking. And for a while, the stereotyping did get to him.

“It did early in my career,” he said. “I try to empathize. And I got comfortable with the thought of like, O.K., am I going to be mad at people for not expecting uncharted territory? People are playing percentages. You do it 100% of the time like when the receiver from Alabama that won the Heisman that we’re practicing against [DeVonta Smith] is skinnier than a lot of receivers. And I’m sure there’s a small percentage of the league that was like, That doesn’t look like what we’re used to.

“I’m not mad at people for not being visionaries. … They’re going in the abstract. At first, maybe it bothered me. But then it’s like, I understand. I have not spent any time being angry at people. How many times have I heard the whole Can he lead men? I guess we’ll see.”

Maybe the most interesting thing about the point he was making—McDaniel brought it up on his own after we’d started our on-the-record conversation with a discussion of his leadership style. I’ve known the skinny, 5'9" former Yale receiver for quite some time, and while I can say it’s accurate that he’s faced a lot of arched eyebrows over his nonfootball-coach-ish appearance and presentation, I did wonder whether we’d get to it when we sat down and talked.

That he took me there, and not the other way around, I think, is proof positive he has and will continue to take those sorts of questions head-on.

At least for now, it seems to be working. On the steamy, triple-digit-heat-index day I stopped by to watch practice, the quarterback that McDaniel’s been charged with advancing was asked in his press conference what’s been different about this year vs. the past two, under Brian Flores, and Tua Tagovailoa answered simply “everything.” He then added that McDaniel is perhaps the most optimistic person he knows, and that the team’s confidence has soared as a result over the past few months.

That, by the way, is because of who McDaniel is, which if you can’t tell, is unapologetically himself. And to sort out how to pull the idea of that altogether, Miami PR chief Anne Noland asked him how he’d explain what leadership means to him. The two workshopped it down to five words—Leadership is sacrifice and service.

“I really looked at what, on the day-to-day, that I view leadership as, and one part of it is service,” he said. “So you’re serving all these people. I mean, you’re doing the whole situation injustice if you’re not looking at how it’s that person’s dream to work here—the people in the lunchroom, the weight staff, the coaches, the players. So on a daily basis, I don’t have to give myself a pep talk. I’m organically motivated to serve them because I’m acknowledging that is my role.

“So I have to do everything in my power to make sure that time that they’re with me, which is a very large piece of the pie of their dream, that I max that out. That service is something that’s in the forefront of my mind all the time. In doing that, there’s a great deal of sacrifice if you’re gonna do it the right way, where I have to sacrifice feelings. It doesn’t matter if I feel like just shutting my door and having people leave me alone. I don’t feel like that’s right, because people need that role in one way, shape or form.”

And that part of the job is, well, different, too, than where McDaniel was working with Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, where he’d be given carte blanche to disappear on Monday and resurface Wednesday with that week’s run game plan—which is a big reason why the 49ers were such a nightmare to deal with on the ground the past five years.

All the same, by making himself available and setting an optimistic tone, McDaniel isn’t avoiding the harsh realities that a head coach has to deal with, even if those realities are packaged, again, differently than you might see them with another head coach. McDaniel’s been effusive in his praise of Tyreek Hill but isn’t afraid to call him out in a team meeting, the way he’ll criticize anyone who doesn’t have something down the way they need to.

Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill

McDaniel's message to his players: Everyone is accountable, including the player they pay the most.

“Who should be the most secure person in the building?” McDaniel said. “Probably the guy we pay the most. So what happens when you start meetings off every time and you praise him for stuff but immediately you explain, Hey, do this better; Or Yeah, it’s good, but this could be that much better?”

So when McDaniel puts GPS speed-tracking numbers from practice for every player up on the projector in a meeting, no one blinks. If Hill can be held accountable, everyone else can be, too.

And the message gets sent on a team-wide basis, too. For example, the Dolphins came out sluggish in their first practice, a nonpadded session, after a preseason win over the Buccaneers. As a result, McDaniel put the team in full pads the day before their joint sessions with the Eagles, for their first practice after their second preseason game.

“Why do you have to be an a--hole about it? Why can’t you just say, Hey, look, this is not good enough?” McDaniel continued. “I’ve always thought it was funny how there’s a misconception with players, that as a coach, people want to be liked. They’ll like you if you can help them. And if they know that you’re 100%, without an agenda, just flat-out trying to make them better.”

So in exchange for pushing them in these ways—McDaniel said a lot of players told him this spring’s OTAs were the most challenging set they’ve been through as pros—there’s a lot of other things that he’ll let go.

If Hill wants to go on a podcasting tour, so be it. On the day I was there, McDaniel joked that “Jaelan Phillips was wearing three-inch pants today, they were the highest things I’ve ever seen.” Other than maybe taking some crap from the guys over it, Phillips was going to get zero pushback on his choice of attire.

And in that particular case, McDaniel did have a more serious point to make. “I think it’s super important for him not to give a s--- if I care,” he said. “Like, What are we talking about?” Even better, as McDaniel sees it, if he lets everyone be themselves, he’ll have a better shot that they’ll buy into the coach being himself.

“Nowhere in the building do people ever think that I’m worried about how I’m coming off,” he said. “That’s not what it’s about. It’s about the meat and potatoes of what we’re doing. That whole comfort in the skin, there’s probably times I willed myself to be comfortable in that weird, steep auditorium that’s gigantic in there, as team rooms are, because I know that it’s my job to make people feel comfortable. If I am just … whoever myself is, then eventually they’ll realize that I’m not judging them for stupid, trivial stuff.”

So sure, there was a time when McDaniel let perception get to him, but one thing he never did was allow doubt about his fitness for a head coaching job creep in. In fact, he thinks it’s something he’s had in him since he was a kid, and the light bulb came on for him in making the correlation in his first year as NFL assistant under Mike Shanahan in Denver in 2005.

That team lost its first game, and fell behind 10–0 in its second game, before coming back to win that one, finishing 13–3 and making it to the AFC title game. What impressed McDaniel the most, looking back, was how the elder Shanahan—“this is a freaking football God to me”—drew belief out of the group, and a certain young assistant, too, to the point where by the end of the year, they didn’t think that team could be beaten (and they were shocked when it was).

And that belief shone brightest at the darkest time, which is where the leader-of-men questions loom largest. This is where some of the doubt on McDaniel has lived, and he’s not afraid to address that one, either. Because even if some keep harboring that doubt, he’s always known, even when he couldn’t show it, how prepared he is for those situations.

“I’ve been preparing for my whole life,” he said. “I’ve seen the world in a certain way from when I was super young. And I’ve always been able to see from a broader scope how things in the moment that seem terrible end up being the best thing that ever happened to you. Case in point: Pretty dark time when I stopped drinking. O.K., well, if I just observed life, that’s one of the better things that’s ever happened to me.

“I’ve always been able to look at things from that perspective, whether I was in high school, talking with teammates, college, friends, I’ve always been able to help motivate people in times of distress. I think what you’re talking about, that’s the part that no one’s been able to ever see, that I’ve always known was there. I mean, s---, I was the only child, single mom. No one had gone to college. I’m from nothing, but I’ve known that type of perseverance.”

McDaniel then told the story of how his wife looked into “some type of Eastern medicine” and it led them to a therapist of some sort. The woman met with the coach, to assess him, and called him an empath, meaning he had a strength in his ability to relate to other people’s experiences. “I’ve always known I can reach people,” he explained. “I think I’m pretty tough. I’ve overcome a lot. I’m already playing with house money in life in general.”

And that’s why, when the Dolphins aren’t undefeated anymore, a feeling every team over the past 50 seasons has had to reckon with, and more serious issues come up, he doesn’t have an inch of the uneasiness some on the outside might of his ability to manage that.

“That’s how I see the job, in the hardest moments where people are gonna be most uncertain about themselves or the team or really everything, that is my moment that I’m supposed to lead,” McDaniel said. “That is the moment that gives you purpose to be in the position if you’re trying to be in. … Why are you the person for the job? Well, that’s defined in those types of moments, and that’s what’s cool about the position.”

In those moments, McDaniel might surprise other people. But he won’t surprise himself.


Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts

Hurts enters a pivotal third season leading one of the best rosters in the NFL.

There are reasons, of course, to have doubts about Jalen Hurts.

He is, after all, the guy pulled from a national title game because his college coaches wanted to get aggressive throwing the ball, and didn’t think he could facilitate it. The same guy who, months later, lost a quarterback competition and, months after that, had to transfer to find playing time at a second school. And regardless of how well he played at that second school—he was a Heisman finalist—the NFL showed where it stood on Hurts by letting him slip to the 53rd pick (and many thought he was overdrafted there).

But here Hurts is going into a pivotal third NFL season not just a starter in the league, but one entrusted to pilot one of the better rosters in football, one that made the playoffs last year and has been to the postseason in four of the past five years. And that’s where we can get to the reason to believe in the 24-year-old Hurts.

He just keeps finding a way to get better.

“He loves football,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni told me just before a joint practice with the Dolphins. “He’s such a gym rat; he’s always into it. You expect that from a coach’s kid, right? Frank Reich would always say guys that love football that are tough, that are competitive, find a way to reach their ceiling. And that’s what I see in Jalen. He has all the intangibles. You just know he’s gonna get better.

“And he’s done it every year of his career, dating back to his freshman year at Alabama—getting better, getting better, getting better. Goes to Oklahoma, gets better. Then from his first year in the NFL to this year, you keep seeing big improvements.”

Of course, that’s not all that unusual. What is unusual is just how Hurts is getting better as a quarterback.

Normally, quarterbacks don’t get to the NFL and get a whole lot more accurate. Hurts has. Normally, quarterbacks don’t get to the NFL and make big strides in throwing with anticipation. Hurts has done that, too. And normally, a quarterback can’t do a ton to improve his presence in the pocket, either. And, yes, Hurts has also made strides there.

But what those close to Hurts will tell you is before he could make those leaps, he first needed to see himself as capable of it. Going from true freshman starter to benched sophomore to junior backup at Alabama wasn’t easy. And beyond just that, there was the simple truth—from high school into college, Hurts really was a dual-threat quarterback in the truest sense of the term. He needed his legs to cover up what he couldn’t do with his arm. So there was a reason why he lacked a certain level of confidence in that part of his game.

“I don’t think he’d seen himself do it at a high enough level,” said Quincy Avery, his throwing coach. “His time in high school, he wasn’t a great thrower of the football. College, he wasn’t that great of a thrower of the football. Tua [Tagovailoa] was markedly better than him.”

What Avery saw when he started working with Hurts, after his sophomore year with the Crimson Tide, was a rocked-up athlete who was built like a running back, strong as an ox. The problem was that created some natural stiffness in his body that restricted him as a thrower.

Over time, Avery said, Hurts has gotten more mobility and fluidity in his motion, a result of working smarter, not necessarily harder, in the weight room. And that opened the door for Hurts to enter a new world when it came to playing the position—seeing the improvement in how he threw the ball then changed his mindset, which gave him confidence, and then led to upticks in, again, accuracy, anticipation and pocket presence.

“So I agree that those aren’t usually things you can improve a ton,” Avery continued. “I think that it had kind of a cascading effect. His accuracy has improved. He’s just gotten more consistent in how he throws the ball, so he has more confidence now, which allows him to play with a higher level of anticipation. He just feels like he can make the throws. And they may have been throws he could’ve made before, but his confidence is so high that he’s playing with greater anticipation because he’s throwing the ball early.

“And I think that’s the biggest factor in all this, a level of confidence that I’ve never seen him with before in the way that he throws the football.”

It’s also, in Sirianni’s eyes at least, a result of Hurts’s resilience, which has always been there, whether it materialized in his decision to stay at Alabama after the title-game benching to compete with Tagovailoa for the job, or the one to go to Oklahoma where he knew the quarterback talent wouldn’t allow for him to slip much and keep a stranglehold on the job.

Hurts kept chipping away, regardless of how scattershot he might have been four or five years ago. And while he needed to build confidence in himself over time, he never let himself think doing the work somehow wouldn’t pay off.

“What I’m amazed with is he’s just unfazed by things,” Sirianni said. “It could be anything from a play in the game that doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to go to me yelling at him on the sideline or him scoring one of the biggest touchdowns of the year. And I know there’s been a lot of good touchdowns in the history of Philadelphia, but that one he had against New Orleans, kids all over Philadelphia are gonna be imitating that run where he jukes the defensive end, goes and scores to put the game away, for the next 20 years.

“And he’s unfazed by that. He’s got the same demeanor. The stadium falls on him in Washington, he’s unfazed. The guy hits him out of bounds in the first preseason game, the first drive; he’s unfazed. So I think it’s just who the man is. He’s unfazed by things, which is what you want. You want a guy that doesn’t ride the waves of the season. You want that with all your guys, but especially at that position.”

And, again, this is a pretty big year for Hurts. He’ll be eligible for a second contract after the season. The Eagles have two first-round picks with a promising quarterback class on the horizon in 2023. The team is built to win with strength on the lines of scrimmage, and a blend of youth and experience that few boast.

So maybe Hurts will have a massive year, and the Eagles will be cutting him a huge check in the offseason. Or maybe he’ll just be O.K., and can’t get Philly past Matthew Stafford and Tom Brady in the NFC.

Which way that goes remains to be seen. But regardless of what happens, it’s pretty cool to see how Hurts has become this sort of self-made passer and it’ll be fascinating to see where he takes it next—because if one thing is a safe bet, it’s probably that if there is a way to get better, Hurts is going to find it.


Joey Bosa, Nick Bosa, John Bosa

John Bosa (middle) vowed to tell his kids (Joey, left; Nick, right) everything about the NFL he wishes he had known as a first-round pick in the 1987 draft. 

About 10 minutes into our conversation about training and injuries, and where he can get better, the 49ers’ star 24-year-old edge rusher, Nick Bosa, let his frustration come out about the ACL he tore in September 2020.

It happened in Week 2 of that year against the Jets at MetLife Stadium. I’d asked whether he ever dwelled on his unfortunate injury luck, with the ACL injury added to a hip injury that ended his career at Ohio State two years earlier, and another torn ACL he’d suffered three years before that, putting an end to his playing days at St. Thomas Aquinas, the Jesuit high school he attended in Fort Lauderdale.

“Yeah, after it happens,” he responded. “But yeah … the only thing is I really think FieldTurf is a problem in the NFL. And the turf I played on in New York was brand new. It was super soft, and apparently, they rolled a cement roller over it twice after the game because we had two ACLs and a bunch of other injuries on it. So I think if the NFL cared about our safety at all, then we’d all play on grass like top soccer teams do. So that’s kinda b.s. to me.”

So, as you can tell, it’s something Bosa feels strongly about.

“Yeah, extremely,” he continued. “But when it comes to that play, like I do go on the field with a mindset of being aware and awake. Sometimes you could go on the field and early in the game just be kinda like out there without being super locked in.”

Which was a reference to it being a 10 a.m. body-clock game, another NFL creation he’s not wild about, and the lessons he’ll take from the experience.

That leads us here—Nick and his older brother, Joey, could be on the precipice, with better luck health-wise, on the type of season that no siblings this side of the Mannings have had in NFL history. Little brother is coming off a 15.5-sack season and has had a full, healthy offseason leading into a contract year. Big brother, meanwhile, was able to resolve a nagging neck issue last year, is in Year 2 with Brandon Staley and now has former Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack playing opposite him in Staley’s 3–4 front.

And just as important is how my discussion with Nick Bosa got to his stance on FieldTurf.

The reason he’s so willing to stick his neck out and say something about the surface he’s playing on traces right back to the level to which the Bosas have broken down the science of putting themselves in the right spot to succeed (something I did a story on predraft with Nick). A lot of players say that, for them, football is a business. Few put that into action like the sons of John Bosa, the Dolphins’ first-round pick in the 1987 draft, who made his mistakes as a player, and vowed to tell his kids everything he wishes he had known.

This offseason, all that kicked back into overdrive. After losing in the NFC title game, Nick Bosa did short getaways on four consecutive weekends to, more or less, get the need for vacation out of his system—“that was really enough”—and spent the rest of his time in Fort Lauderdale (he did buy a boat to make sticking around a little more fun) with his brother, working out in a gym Joey built in a building he bought downtown. And to hear Joey tell it, the time together was just as good for him as it was for the kid three years behind him.

“He motivates me just as much as I help him out,” Joey said. “He’s the guy that shows up every single day, no matter how I’m feeling. I’m b----ing and moaning about the sun or whatever, because I’m old now—at least I feel old. And he’s a huge motivating factor for me. Just the way he trains, how physically insane he is, the way he lifts and everything …”

Joey’s voice trailed off a little.

“But I always kinda look back to the tough times that we’ve had, because you spend that much time together and see your brother go through pain and with my neck, too,” Joey continued. “It’s easy to try to take it out on other people when you’re feeling like crap all the time, but I think those tough times really grew our bond.”

And it grew the bond with the third member of their offseason team—trainer Todd Rice who, the story goes, was let go by the Chargers amid a coaching change, and was quickly hired by Joey after the two had long talks about the methodology of strength training.

More or less, what Rice was saying made sense to Joey, which then led to Nick moving in with his brother after his college injury to start working with Rice, too.

“It’s not a new concept at all, actually,” Joey said. “Olympic lifters have been doing this since the beginning, when they started. He’s almost 60 years old, so he’s definitely not a new-school guy. He’s been doing it for many years. People just don’t like to listen. But, yeah, I mean, it’s a pretty simple way of training. It’s biomechanically sound. We don’t have 800 different machines in our weight room—this crazy technology or whatever.

“We train very simple. We don’t mix it up. We stick with our plan, and we kinda judge it by percentage and then work the weeks.”

“When you train in college, it’s a lot of just bodybuilding. It’s bulls---, honestly,” Nick added. “You’re just trying to prove that you’re a leader, and you’re not really optimizing what you could do as an athlete on the field. You’re just lifting a bunch of weight and getting as big as you can, and then going out there and risking things. Now that I’ve been with Todd, I’ve really stacked three amazing years.”

“I was just a meathead,” Joey continued. “So it’s not perfect. I wish more than anything I could’ve gotten a hold of this in high school when I was still flexible as a freshman, and it wasn’t this complete process of working backwards before we go forwards. Where, I mean, if you have flexibility, it’s easy to keep it, as long as you’re doing the right things. But if you’re super tight like I was, trying to get it back is a tough process. It’s changed the way I play. I definitely don’t think I’d be the same player without it. I know I wouldn’t.”

So inside this tight circle, for the first time, you had a new gym, a full offseason with two healthy players, a trainer who’d moved to Florida to work with them, and everyone fully committed and all in for almost a half year. They trained. They commiserated. Both guys grew. And just as Joey said Nick motivated him, Nick used Joey as a sounding board for some of his frustrations, stemming from little inconsistencies, from 2021.

The cool thing was the biggest issue that Nick had was something his brother, and very few others, could help with—how the frustration from the inconsistency was being caused by the constant stream of double teams and protection schemes geared up to slow him down.

“I wasn’t really ready for the attention I was gonna get as a player because I was double-teamed the most and I got chipped every play, and I kinda started feeling bad for myself,” he said. I was like, I can’t help this game. I’m getting doubled.”

And while he’s thought about reaching out to guys such as Aaron Donald for advice, it was easy this offseason to just get advice from Joey, and take it to his position coach, Kris Kocurek, in San Francisco. The wisdom is pretty technical—such as where to line up on a tight end to avoid setting up too wide, but also not so far inside so you’re a sitting duck for the tackle—but much of it boils down to how he’ll approach these situations going forward.

“This year, I’m coming in with the mindset that I’m gonna get doubled,” Nick said, “and need to be able to beat doubles.”

Which leaves him in a place to improve off a season in which he finished fourth in the NFL in sacks coming off a torn ACL, and leaves the brothers in the spot they’re in collectively, where some dreams they have could become reality.

“No numbers or anything like that, but I think we’d both like to be sitting together one day at NFL Honors, maybe for Defensive Player of the Year. “As long as we go out there every day and just play hard, we’ll be proud of where we end up. … He’s primed. I mean, he’s a total freak. He’s ridiculous. The shape he’s in right now is amazing. I can’t stay on my diet like he does. If I could, I’d have his six-pack, but I like cheating too often.

“And yeah, every year we want to have a great year, but I think mentally, more importantly than anything, I’m just feeling good—which will make it that much easier to come out and work hard every day. And we have that connection, so we can talk. He’s in great shape, obviously, and we all gotta try our best to stay healthy but it’s a long season. But knock on wood, it should be a good one for both of us.”

Which in this case could mean some history gets made. 


The Russell Wilson deal is really smart business for the Broncos. Before explaining why, getting through the particulars of the blockbuster five-year, $245 million extension is important. Some of what you need to know …

• Wilson gets $124 million fully guaranteed at signing—that adds up to the first three years of the deal.

• The $37 million he’s due in 2025 vests at the start of the ’24 league year. That means they’d have to cut him by March ’24 to avoid the guarantee climbing to $161 million. In that scenario, the Broncos would be paying Wilson $124 million over two years before saying goodbye ($62 million per!), which obviously isn’t happening.

• So as a practical matter, this is a four-year, $161 million deal with three team-option years tacked on at the end. In those first four seasons, Wilson will turn 34, 35, 36 and 37.

• That puts what the team is paying at $40.25 million per year. And from Wilson’s perspective he was set to make $51 million over the next two years, so this gets him $110 million in new money over the first two new years of the deal.

O.K., so why does this make so much sense for the Broncos?

To me, it’s relatively simple. The minute they gave what they did for Wilson in March (two first-round picks, two second-rounders, Noah Fant, Shelby Harris, Drew Lock and a swap of Day 3 draft picks), they hitched the futures of coach Nathaniel Hackett and GM George Paton to Wilson. In other words, if Wilson wasn’t going to be around three or four years from now, there’s a pretty good chance those guys wouldn’t be, either.

And with that as the backdrop—that this was happening sooner or later—sooner, with a quarterback especially, is just about always better. This offseason alone, the number of signal-callers with base pay topping $40 million per year went from three to nine, and that number is likely to keep climbing with Lamar Jackson’s situation still unresolved (we’ll get to that), and Burrow and Justin Herbert eligible for new deals in early 2023.

Plus, if you wait and go through another year, not only will the price go up, but you’d have one less existing year on the old contract to fold into the new contract to help manage the dollars (which is how Denver kept that four-year total around $40 million per year).

So that means all the work the Broncos did, from first broaching a new deal with agent Mark Rodgers around the league meeting in March, to new co-owner/CEO Greg Penner jumping in the past three weeks, to Rodgers flying to town early last week, was worthwhile. And now everyone can move forward with certainty, knowing what the future looks like, both from a team-building standpoint and a financial standpoint.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson

If Jackson’s looking for a fully guaranteed contract, Wilson’s deal likely means that he’ll have to wait. And that’s what’s so interesting about his situation with the Ravens—Jackson might just be willing to wait. I had a really smart exec tell me once that his job wasn’t to give a player what he was worth or what he wanted. Rather, it was to find the number he couldn’t say no to. That, to be sure, is a part of all these quarterback contracts. The Broncos found a number Wilson couldn’t say no to, the same way the Bills did with Josh Allen, the Packers did with Aaron Rodgers and so on and so forth.

Does Jackson have that number? Absent Baltimore being willing to do a fully guaranteed deal (I don’t think that’s happening), they’ll find out in a hurry. And if he doesn’t, that probably means he’s ticketed for the exclusive franchise tag next year (that one will likely change based on other negotiations, but would be set at $45.46 million right now), and maybe a second tag in 2024 (as it stands, he’d be at $54.55 million for that one).

Then, he’d get to free agency, unless the Ravens decide to tag him a third time at a number that would probably be around $80 million.

To me, that Kirk Cousins path to the market might be the only way for Jackson to get to where Cousins and Deshaun Watson are contractually, unless Baltimore is willing to start budging. Because if you look at the history of these things, those two guys were very different for a very specific reason.

When I asked agents back in 2018 whether Cousins’s fully guaranteed deal that March was a real turning point, the answer I got from most was simply that it depended on what happened with the next few guys. Then, Matt Ryan did a conventional quarterback deal, Rodgers did a conventional quarterback deal, Wilson did a conventional quarterback deal and, really, that was that.

Same thing this year in the aftermath of the Watson trade. Derek Carr, Kyler Murray and Wilson almost certainly got theirs, but fell short of getting fully guaranteed contracts, which allows for owners to say the Watson deal, like the Cousins deal, is an outlier.

So what did Cousins and Watson have in common? Simple. Both had multiple bidders, Cousins on the free-agent market, and Watson in a frenzied trade situation. And when you pit one team against another, as we’ve seen for nearly 30 years in free agency, teams will move off their principles or their rules to land someone. The Browns were trying to keep Watson away from the Falcons, Saints and Panthers, just like the Vikings were trying to keep Cousins from the Jets, who also offered a fully guaranteed deal for more money.

The Ravens aren’t competing against anyone for Jackson, and if they use the more expensive exclusive tag the next two years, they won’t have to worry about that until March 2025. Which is, again, why the next week has Jackson in a fascinating spot. And I will say that part of what made Jackson great is how he’s always done things his own way. Maybe this is another example of that.

I picked up a really fun nugget from Jets-Giants joint practice. You’ll remember last year ex-Jets coach Rex Ryan went off on New York radio about the comparisons made between him and Robert Saleh. Specifically, he said, “This guy is supposed to be a defensive guru. I take it personal. Everything I heard was this guy is a lot like myself, but without the bad part. Some of the bad part you need, because the team doesn’t want to play with any damn heart. That’s the thing that’s disappointing me. Don’t ever compare this guy to me.”

Ryan later said he regretted the comments, and talked Saleh in the aftermath, and as I learned a couple of weeks back, that talk went well beyond an apology and a few pleasantries.

In fact, nine months later, there are marks from the conversation on the Jets’ roster.

“Rex was awesome, he’s the one who reached out. He has the moment on TV and he called,” Saleh told me. “And you know what? I fully understand where he was coming from. … It was a good conversation, it was over a half hour, we had a conversation about different things, and I just asked him about how he handled the things. And I just wanted to pick his brain, he sat in the same chair many years ago, and he had a lot of success, so I was just asking him some questions. 

“And he shared how when he got to the Jets, he brought on guys like Bart Scott, [Jim] Leonhard, all these guys he knew that would not only be champions of the message, flag bearers, but also guys who understood his scheme and understood the style of play that they were looking for. He felt like that was such an instrumental part of his early success that, for us, it triggered thought: Hey, is it too late to take that same approach?

Saleh and GM Joe Douglas decided it wasn’t too late and went to work in March to find their so-called new flag bearers.

“Part of our entire charge since we got here is bringing in guys who love this game,” Saleh continued. “We’ve been talking about it, character’s been such a priority over these first two offseasons. And it’s not that it was deliberate, like we forced the issue, guys just became available. Solomon Thomas was available, and it’s awesome to have him in the building. Marcell Harris. Kwon Alexander. Laken Tomlinson.”

All four of those guys were in San Francisco with Saleh and Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, and so in all four cases, there was no guessing on what the Jets were getting. They knew it. And even in cases where there were players available that Saleh and Douglas liked that maybe they didn’t know personally, the Jets worked their back channels to make sure who was coming in would fit.

Jordan Whitehead, who’s shown signs of being a home run addition at safety, and played last year in Tampa Bay with a friend of the Jets’ Niners alumni club, is a really good example of it.

“Then Whitehead’s a guy who Sherm [Richard Sherman] called us on just adamant—adamant—that this dude was gonna be everything that we look for,” said Saleh. “So he was an easy one because he fit the mold of guys who love ball. We didn’t quite know him, but Richard Sherman was the one who championed that one, vouching for character and style of play and all that stuff.”

The difference all those guys have made, Saleh says, is palpable already. One is in the togetherness of the team, and the coach cited Alexander as being important in that regard, with Alexander going so far as to create personalized handshakes for each of his teammates. “He has a handshake with everybody on the team—a specific handshake,” he said. “Which, I have no idea how he remembers all of them. Everyone has their own. As soon as he walks in the building it was, Hey, come up with a handshake, and I’ll remember it.”

From a more football-centric standpoint, it shows up in how competitive camp was, which makes sense, because if the field is full of guys passionate about the sport, that would naturally create a strong environment.

“Not that it’s gonna translate to wins and losses, but the one thing that I feel has happened this training camp, at least speaking on the defensive side of the ball, is the volume of their voices—the communication, the chirping, the confidence, the speed—it’s elevated,” Saleh continued. “Not that it’s how you win and lose football games, but when you have that edge and you have that chippy-ness, and you have that relentless pursuit for greatness like these guys do, I think that matters; it does translate. How will it translate to Sunday? We’ll see. “

If it does, interestingly enough, Jets fans could have an old friend, and an unlikely one at that, to thank.

Deshaun Watson will start working this week toward Week 13. My understanding is that ahead of Watson’s suspension, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski, offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt and quarterbacks coach Drew Petzing worked with Watson’s throwing coach, Quincy Avery, to come up with an individualized plan, and throwing scripts, to keep Watson sharp while he’s away from the team.

That plan will be enacted this week by Avery and Watson who, for the time being, and until Watson’s allowed in the building, won’t be allowed to have contact with Browns coaches or anyone else with the team. As I’ve heard it, Watson and Avery will conduct sessions to include field drills, film and board work four days per week, and that’ll go for the next five weeks, with Watson allowed to return to the Browns’ practice facility Oct. 10, and begin practicing five weeks after that Nov. 14, ahead of his Dec. 4 return to the game field.

At least on paper, that looks like plenty of time for Watson to get reacclimated, though it’s fair to ask how rusty he’ll look after about 23 months without playing in a real NFL game.

I really like where the Vikings are. And it’s not just centered on what my buddy Ty Dunne wrote for his excellent site. It’s also because I love how new Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell and GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah resisted the urge to detonate the roster, mostly because what they found wasn’t really broken, with that feeling backed up by the roll call of Rick Spielman–Mike Zimmer players held over by the new guys.

It’s Kirk Cousins, of course. But it’s also Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson (O.K., that one was easy), Eric Kendricks, Harrison Smith, Danielle Hunter and a bunch of other guys who’ve won a lot of games in Twin Cities.

“I’ve never thought that [it was a rebuild], from the time I really sat down to interview about possibly become the head coach of this team,” O’Connell told me. “I got a lot of respect for the coaches that were here before, the team that was put together, some of the football principles that are in place already. Now, obviously my football philosophy and culture, the things that mean a lot to me, may or may not be different in certain areas. And that’s really where the leadership comes into play. 

“I think we’ve got really good group that’s bought into that. It’s early, Albert, but ultimately in the end I feel like we’ve at least established that standard so now we can coach off of it on the football field, if we need to coach harder or we need to adapt or change to fit what the identity of this team is gonna be.”

And therein lies why, as you’ll see this week in our staff predictions, I have the Vikings in the playoffs.

I really think the blend of old and new in the building, both on the roster and in coaching, plus maybe a little bump from the change in atmosphere, sets the ceiling relatively high for O’Connell’s group. I also believe that the investment he’s made in the current guys, in allowing the team’s leadership council to help chart the course, will help quicken the process of getting new schemes installed and playing fast.

“He wants feedback,” Cousins said. “He’ll ask for a meeting on Zoom just to connect with guys, and tell them the schedule, and ask if they have any thoughts on it. During OTAs, he was telling us what his plan was gonna be for the three weeks. He doesn’t just make decisions in a vacuum. He wants feedback before he does it.”

“I feel like he’s a players’ coach,” Jefferson added, with an arm slung around his QB. “He likes to get feedback from the players, he likes for us to be comfortable, he loves to connect with us, just have fun with us. I like that in a coach. He’s been phenomenal.”

So will that add up to wins? I actually think it will, at least in the short term. Because as the new brain trust’s actions would indicate, there’s a pretty nice core already in place.

It’s good to see that Jordan Poyer will be playing Thursday. Bills coach Sean McDermott indicated as much over the weekend, with Poyer coming back from a hyperextended elbow and a contract dispute that lasted for a good chunk of the offseason. And, to be clear, it’ll be good to see Poyer out there because he, along with his running mate at the position, Micah Hyde, have been at the heart of the Bills’ rebuild since the start, with those coming aboard in McDermott’s first year.

But Poyer’s case is an example of how the strengthened holdout rules have created awkward situations for teams and their players.

Way back, before the 2011 CBA was done, a player like Poyer could take a stand on his contract, and stay away from camp, and those sorts of holdouts could, at times, expedite a resolution (be it a trade, a new contract or an agreement to play out the year). But in ’11, and then ’20, owners tightened up the rules to a point where, just logically, a holdout didn’t make sense to anyone but the Aaron Donalds of the league.

And so now you get these situations where players are sitting out practices while in the building, and teams are acting with less urgency to get deals done and, well, things can get awkward.

I don’t think Poyer’s situation will be like that. And I’m not pining for the era of the 25-day holdout to return. But there are consequences to handing teams this sort of hammer.

While we’re on the Bills, all the best to Dawson Knox’s family. The Buffalo tight end’s 22-year-old brother, Luke, a linebacker at Central Florida, died Aug. 17, an unimaginable tragedy; and over the weekend, Knox shared his thoughts for the first time, via his Instagram account.

“There’s no words to describe these last few weeks,” he said. “All I know is that I am beyond grateful for the outpouring of love and support for my family. Luke is not lost, because we know exactly where he is. God’s got him, and I know I’ll be seeing him again one day. Luke’s legacy will continue [to] live on through all the lives he’s impacted in incredible ways. This isn’t a goodbye, it’s just a see you later. I love you Luke.”

If there’s one silver lining in this otherwise-terrible story, it’s that the Bills’ fan base, which always seems to step up in these sorts of situations, has done it again. At last check, close to $200,000 was raised in the younger Knox’s honor to benefit P.U.N.T. Pediatric Cancer (Buffalo fans did similar drives after Josh Allen’s grandmother died, and after Andy Dalton led the Bengals to win over Baltimore that clinched the Bills’ first playoff berth in 17 years).

I think, to close the book on it, the Niners’ decision to renew (temporary) vows with Jimmy Garoppolo is an attempt to make chicken salad out of the chicken you-know-what. I can also say with confidence that, when the team went to its 30-year-old now-backup quarterback, it did so knowing that it was working with an idea that really was not what anyone wanted.

Garoppolo wanted to start. The Niners wanted picks for him.

Garoppolo had shoulder surgery in March, which made it tough for any team to grant his wish, especially since this happens to be a contract year for him. And because it was hard for quarterback-needy teams to reckon with the idea of trading for a quarterback with a balky throwing shoulder, it became impossible for the Niners to get fair value for him.

Which is why we’re here with a compromise that has Garoppolo back as the backup—with Kyle Shanahan having declared Trey Lance the starter—on a deal worth, purposefully, less than the rookie deal Lance is playing on. Doing the deal, which has a $6.5 million base, $500,000 in per-game roster bonuses, and $8.45 million in incentives, buys both sides time to see if, either through injury or poor play, another opportunity arises for a trade.

In the meantime, and if one doesn’t, if Garoppolo does get a chance to play, because of injury or whatever else, between now and the end of the year, there’d be no better place for him to showcase himself for 2023 than with a team and in a scheme he knows inside and out.

So as we said in the mailbag last week, this is in no way ideal. But I understand why the Niners would do it. There’s too much on the line with the roster to worry about hurt feelings. And while I’d heard the news was, as you'd expect, a little complicated for Lance to take at first, he’s a smart, mature kid who I believe can handle it. Truth is, if he couldn’t, you might have bigger questions about where the Niners are at the position.

Cam Newton is one of the most important figures the NFL has had over the last couple of decades—his impact really changed the game—but I understand why he’s having trouble finding work. And I don’t think it’s really about whether he’s one of the top 32 quarterbacks on the planet. More so, it’s that starting quarterback, and backup quarterback, are very different jobs.

The former has an offense built for him. The latter has to fit one built for someone else.

To maximize Newton, you have to build the scheme around him, and what at least was his pretty rare ability to run the ball from the quarterback position. If he’s your backup, you’re not doing that. And look around. How many offenses are built in a way that would work for Newton? Baltimore, maybe. Anyone else?

That, by the way, isn’t the only issue Newton is facing. But it may be the biggest one.

There’s a reason, of course, why the Panthers signed Newton only when he was in position to become their starter last season, and why the Patriots let him go when he lost the starting job in Foxborough in 2020. Part of it is, sure, it’s hard for people to square his big personality with the job of backup quarterback. But it’s more because, really, from a football standpoint it’s difficult to give him a job that has him holding a clipboard Sundays.

Newton told the Pivot Podcast that last year, with the Panthers, he “put myself in another f----- up situation.” But as I see it, that’s the sort of situation that’ll have to arise again for him to reemerge in the NFL. Which is too bad. Because, again, he’s a pretty historic player, and it’d be awesome to see him get another shot or two to see whether he can make it work.

We’ve got quick-hitters to close out the takeaways—your last set before game details start to populate (and dominate) the column. So let’s get to those …

• Jason Peters would be a smart signing by the Cowboys, even if just a sort of mentorship/insurance policy for rookie Tyler Smith. And I think they’ll get that one pushed across the goal line shortly.

• Did you know that Tom Brady is the only nonspecialist in his 40s in the league? It’s true. And Cardinals punter Andy Lee is the only other 40-something, period. Peters signing in Dallas would change that, and 49ers kicker Robbie Gould turns 40 in December.

• I think Matthew Stafford’s going to be fine. The Rams and his throwing coaches had to do plenty to manage his elbow issue last year. The difference this year is he’s getting ahead of it more aggressively. Which is a good thing.

• Really cool of the Texans to host the Uvalde High football team at their opener this week.

• Losing Harold Landry for the year merits more attention than it got last week—the Titans’ best pass rusher tore his ACL in practice. No Landry means it’ll be easier for teams to focus on shutting down Jeffery Simmons inside.

• Jalen Thompson’s three-year, $40 million extension in Arizona is very well-deserved. The Cardinals think he already might be their best safety, and everyone knows how they feel about Budda Baker. Having two interchangeable pieces like that has been huge for Cardinals DC Vance Joseph.

• I mentioned this in my camp wrap-up, but I figured I’d put it on the record here—the Giants really like what they’ve gotten from an off-field standpoint from No. 5 pick Kayvon Thibodeaux. They thought going into the draft that others were missing on him from a character standpoint, in reading too much into the team of advisers he had around him. As New York’s new brain trust saw it, that was just a sign of the times in college football’s new NIL-driven world. Thus far, at least, they think they got that one right.

• The Ravens’ preseason streak is still one of the strangest things in the NFL. They’ve won 23 in a row. And I have no idea if there’s a greater meaning to it or not.

• Good for Josh Gordon, doing everything he can to keep playing, by joining the Titans’ practice squad. It’s not hard to root for the guy, after everything he’s been through. And there are a lot of folks who’ve worked with him over the years doing just that.

• That Bears president job, which will be vacated by the retiring Ted Phillips, should be a coveted one, at a pivotal time for one of the league’s flagship franchises, with a potential move to the suburbs on tap.


1) It was so good to be back at Ohio Stadium on Saturday (and a big shout-out to the journalism students I spoke to ahead of that Friday). The atmosphere in the place was off the charts. And I’m biased but for a big night game like that one, few places in college football bring the stars out and generate atmosphere quite like The Shoe.

2) C.J. Stroud’s got a lot to clean up after Ohio State rode its defense and run game to a bully-ball win over Notre Dame. But he also has time, and it’s understandable why, coming back as a Heisman Trophy front-runner and potential top draft pick, he might be pressing a little.

3) Anthony Richardson’s name is one to know, if you don’t know it already. The Florida quarterback’s always been an outsized talent. And in winning his opener against Utah, the big, fast, strong-armed star showed that he’s come along since last year.

4) It’s wild to think it’s possible the two best prospects among the starters on last year’s Georgia defense might be two guys who weren’t in last year’s draft. But it’s pretty easy to argue that defensive lineman Jalen Carter was the cream of that crop, and corner Kelee Ringo might have an argument to be No. 2. Add their return to that of edge rusher Nolan Smith, and it’s not hard to see how the Bulldogs embarrassed Oregon.

5) North Carolina–Appalachian State is another reason why college football is so great—a game no one expected to matter Saturday morning had everyone’s attention at 3 p.m. And by the way, Carolina QB Drake Maye, who was once an Alabama commit, could be interesting down the line as an NFL prospect.

6) I like the College Football Playoff move to 12 teams (even if I’m an advocate for it to be harder to get in, to maintain the importance of the regular season, I get that this is where the times are taking it). And if there’s one change that’s needed, it’s that the quarterfinals should be on campus. No fan is traveling to three playoff games, and the only people who’d be upset to see these games held in home stadiums would be the bowl execs who’ve been scamming everyone for decades. I think the conferences and schools could afford, at this point, to tell those guys where to get off.


What a great quote.

Lots of criticism of Bill Belichick this summer, and plenty of it’s valid. But you really can’t question whether the guy’s still all in on the job. He’s shown he is in pretty much every way.

Exactly right.

Those numbers are pretty good, I’d say. #analysis

Jason Jenkins’s celebration of life is Monday at Hard Rock Stadium. RIP, Jason.

Still a weird situation in San Francisco, even if you think (and I do) that Kyle Shanahan will figure it out.


We’ve got a lot ready to come at you on the site all week. Our annual staff predictions will have all our award picks and Super Bowl matchups. Plus I have a few more things for you before Thursday’s opener.

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