The Redskins are in first place in the NFC East, by more than a game, and somehow no one’s paying attention. Which is kind of funny, if you really think about it.
Ten years ago, when free agent Albert Haynesworth signed, and then promptly showed his true colors (the 2009 team was something else) in helping short-circuit the ill-fated Jim Zorn era, the ensuing circus garnered plenty of attention. Ditto from 2012 to ’14, when Robert Griffin III’s star rose and crashed with all the drama of a daytime soap opera. The last few years, the Kirk Cousins contract rollercoaster kept everyone locked in.
That’s without even going through all the coaches and executives clashing with one another, which only added to the once-proud franchise’s rubbernecking appeal.
Now? The Redskins are winning in Jay Gruden’s fifth year as head coach, but the team don’t get a sniff of the noise and attention it used to. Washington methodically took the Giants apart on Sunday, beating them on their turf, 20–13, to maintain a game-and-a-half lead over the reigning champion Eagles in the NFC East. That’s three straight wins by the way, if you’re counting.
“Yeah that’s to be expected,” Gruden said over his cell en route to Newark International Airport on Sunday. “We have to earn the respect of people, other teams and everybody worldwide, and that’s what we’re trying to do, so it’s just a day-by-day grind for us. You know, it’s not ever going to be easy. This wasn’t easy. This week is going to be hard. It wasn’t easy against Dallas, it wasn’t easy against Carolina.
“It’s just who we are, what we have to expect. Now if we keep doing what we’re doing, and doing it the right way, then we have a chance to maybe get recognized one day.”
Sense the sarcasm? That’s part of who Gruden is, but it also hit me as a sort of contentment from the Redskins coach. He’s seen the other side of it. And he comes off as completely comfortable having his team fly under the radar, even if the strides they’re making should be obvious to everyone.
Here’s the other thing: He really, really likes the makeup of his team. After nearly a half-decade at the helm, the roster is truly his. It’s not flashy, and that’s probably why so few are looking the Redskins’ way. But it’s remarkably functional, which is why they are where they are, regardless of whose eyes are on them.
We’re reaching the end of Week 8, and that means this is a busy week for league business—you’ll get some trade deadline stuff later in the column, and on the site today and tomorrow. There’s also plenty for us to get to on the field this week. Among the stories:
• The Rams are 8–0, and we’ll explain to you how Sean McVay’s staff almost predicted the way they’d take away Aaron Rodgers’sd last chance to beat them, and delve into the amazingly selfless move Todd Gurley made at the wire.
• The Eagles have found level ground, making it to 4–4. And they feel good about their place in the NFC East race. We brought in Zach Ertz to explain why.
• The venerable Adam Vinatieri is the NFL’s new all-time leading scorer, and we’ll travel down memory lane with the 23-year vet.
• The Seahawks are alive! Bobby Wagner joins us to go through how that happened.
• The Saints defense is also alive and well, and might make that team the most complete in football, something we examine in the Ten Takeaways.
• We’ve also got a full explanation of the weird end to the first half of Panthers/Ravens. That’s in the Takeaways, too.
We’re starting with the team no one wants to talk about, and how they got here, so let’s go …
There were two sequences that decided the Redskins the game on Sunday, and they happened to fall back-to-back in the final five minutes. Each can help to explain what kind of team Washington has become under Gruden.
The first came after a 46-yard pass interference penalty and a 32-yard catch-and-run from Odell Beckham had given the Giants first-and-goal at the eight. Another PI call, this one on Fabian Moreau, move the ball to the four. From there: Mason Foster and Da’Ron Payne stopped Saquon Barkley on a one-yard gain, and the Redskins forced two Eli Manning incompletions. The Giants settled for a field goal to cut the deficit to 13–6.
The second came on the ensuing possession, which started at the Washington 25. On the third play, Adrian Peterson took his third straight carry off right tackle, and ripped through the Giants defense for a 64-yard touchdown. And that was it. Ballgame.
So what ties the two? Gruden and the Redskins’ massive investment in big people, on both sides of the ball, allowed them to play bully ball when it mattered most.
“I’m a firm believer in line-of-scrimmage football. We invested a lot of money in our offensive line and draft picks, and we’ve invested a lot in our defensive line,” Gruden said. “And to me that’s what football’s all about. It enables you to protect your quarterback, run the ball, stop the run and get after the quarterback. It’s paying off right now.”
The rundown on the investment is pretty staggering. Among the five guys (including the outside linebacker) who start on the defensive line of scrimmage, three are first-round picks—Ryan Kerrigan, Da’Ron Payne, and Jonathan Allen. Preston Smith, who plays opposite Kerrigan, is a second-rounder, as is the third outside ’backer, Ryan Anderson. And Matt Ioannidis is a home-grown fifth-rounder.
On offense, left tackle Trent Williams and right guard Brandon Scherff were top-five picks. Right tackle Morgan Moses was a third-rounder, and center Chase Roullier was a sixth-round revelation. Left guard Shawn Lauvao was a decently-priced free-agent signing.
Factor in that Kerrigan, Williams and Moses have gotten big second contracts, and Gruden’s stating the obvious when he says, “That’s how we’re trying to build this football team.”
And it wasn’t only the Giants who got a look at that.
Gruden pointed to the challenges the run defense has been up against the last three weeks—facing Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey, then Dak Prescott and Zeke Elliott, and this week Saquon Barkley. The Redskins allowed 81 yards rushing against Carolina, 73 against Dallas, and 37 rushing on Sunday against the Giants.
Meanwhile, the ageless Peterson has found his footing, rushing for 345 yards on 67 carries (5.1 yard average) over those three games, bringing a physicality to an offense that was expecting to get it from rookie Derrius Guice, before the second-round pick blew out his ACL in August.
“He’s obviously brought a lot to this football team, his attitude,” Gruden said of the future Hall of Famer. “The receivers, tight ends, linemen, maybe they’re blocking just a little bit harder and a little bit longer than they would have for anybody else, because they know he can bounce it and make a big play at any time, and they all have a ton of respect for what he’s done in his career.”
Now, it’s not perfect. Gruden explained that while he’s thrilled with the work defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has done—“that New Orleans game [a 43–18 loss], that was tough, and they’ve been resilient, and dialed in since then”—he and the offensive coaches need to find a way to generate more chunk plays behind quarterback Alex Smith.
But there’s plenty to work with, as Gruden sees it, and that’s showing up all the way down to the details. One example: The Redskins are fourth in the NFL in turnover margin. Another: The coach was loves the work punter Tress Way has done in generating field position—“Tress Way is punting the s--- out of the ball.”
And that brings us back to that foundation, the kind of foundation, by the way, that the Eagles rode to a Lombardi Trophy last year, and adds up to a team that the guy leading it really likes.
“I do,” Gruden said. “Every week, it’s going to be a different challenge—next week, we have Atlanta coming. But I like the physicality we’re playing with. At the end of day, we may not have 12 Pro Bowlers on our football team, but we have a lot of guys who can play and play hard and are talented. So who knows what the end of the season will bring. But I know that our guys are playing physical, and that’s what the NFC East is all about.”
The same NFC East that, you may have heard (or maybe you haven’t), these Washington Redskins happen to be leading.
THE RAMS ARE FOCUSED, SELFLESS AND STILL UNBEATEN
You think the Rams have it working right now? How about this: Every week their coaches set goals for them going into Sunday. And one on the list for this week came up like pretty much everything else has this year for the team and its coaches: aces.
“We had a goal to take the ball away on special teams,” receiver Robert Woods explained to me on his way out of the Coliseum postgame. “And it literally came down to the last minutes of the game, in the fourth quarter, and it happened.”
When Ramik Wilson jarred the ball loose from Ty Montgomery with 1:56 left, it did more than just rob the Packers and the rest of us all from the sight of Aaron Rodgers getting the ball with a chance to take down the unbeaten Rams. It did more, too, than deliver the Rams to 8–0.
It affirmed what we’ve all seen in L.A. through two months—a loaded team playing with crazy confidence in Sean McVay and his staff. Andrew Whitworth explained it like this to me a few weeks back: “When I played in college for Nick Saban, you felt like every single week you went with a plan where all you had to do was execute the plan and you’d win. With Sean McVay, we feel the same way.”
And McVay delivering for his players is reciprocated through moments like the one we saw at the end of Sunday’s game.
After the recovery of Montgomery’s fumble, with the Rams up 29–27, Todd Gurley took a toss left with 1:05 remaining and knifed through the Packers defense to convert a third-and-10 from 21, and then some. As he crossed the 5, with the first down picked up and the path to end zone clear, he did something pretty smart. He hit the deck.
And he did so despite the fact that, with 15 touchdowns already on the year, he has a pretty good shot at breaking LaDainian Tomlinson’s single-season record of 31 scores, even though scoring would’ve left the window for the Packers to come back open about wide enough to slide a credit card through. What he did know is that if he went down, the game was over. So he did.
“That’s our team,” Woods said. “It’s ‘we, not me.’ We know those things will come. We know [Gurley’s] leading right now, on pace for something great. But our biggest goal is a team goal. So he finished the game, he sealed the game, and he’s a selfless player, you could see that there. We always say, ‘It’s gonna come, it’s gonna come, you don’t have to force anything.’ And that’s a great play, a great leader play.”
So if you consider that McVay and his staff set a specific goal that the Rams met at the most critical moment of the game, and that a star like Gurley is giving up individual achievements the way he did at the end, it makes sense that the players are even starting to sound their coaches a little. It’s true.
When I talked with McVay midweek and asked what he’s most proud of during his team’s hot start, he said it was how “connected” the group was. So guess what word Woods used when I asked him if he thinks what Gurley did could have a trickle-down effect?
“This team is a connected group,” the receiver said. “We’re all after the same goal, we all have the same mindset. Nobody’s thinking anything else but to take the clock out.
“I’d just say it’s a selfless team. We don’t think about situations like that—we think about sealing it off, about closing the game.”
It won’t get any easier from here. The Rams gets the Saints next week, the improving Seahawks after that, then travel to Mexico City for the Thanksgiving week showdown with the Chiefs. But based on how things are shaking out, the team that McVay is leading into those big ones doesn’t figure to fazed by any of it.
‘MUST WIN’ OR NOT, PHILLY NEEDED THAT
Considering what the Eagles came back from to capture a world title last year, it’d be hard to call an October game to avoid falling to 3–5 just nine months later a “must win.” Still, Philly had blown two double-digit leads in losing three of four heading to London, and stacking another loss on top of that wouldn’t sit well coming out of a long trip and into a bye week.
“We were in desperate need of a win, I’d describe it as that,” tight end Zach Ertz said from the Wembley locker room over the phone postgame. “Three-and-five is tough sledding in the NFL, and going into a bye week, it’s not the way you want to go about it. So 4-4 is a lot better. We were desperate for the win.”
And thanks to a fast-recovering quarterback and a couple breakthroughs before and after the half, Philly came away with that, 24–18 over the reeling Jaguars.
Let’s start with those breakthroughs. First there was the offense cashing in on a takeaway from the defense—Avonte Maddox stripped Jaguars receiver Keelan Cole with 1:29 left in the first half, and four plays later Wentz hit rookie Dallas Goedert with a 32-yard strike to make it 10–3. Then, right after the half, the Eagles put together a nine-play, 95-yard drive that had a little bit of everything. And finally, Philly got a red-zone touchdown on the possession after that.
Add that together, and the Eagles staked themselves to a lead in the fourth quarter, which is right where they blew games to the Titans and Panthers over the last month. This time the defense forced a turnover on downs with 3:41 to go, and the offense picked up a pair of first downs to put the game away.
“We needed a game that was going to be a dogfight where we’d be able to stand tall at the end and win,” Ertz said. “And so I’m proud of the way we fought. We had all the reasons to complain and moan about the past couple days—and guys didn’t even let that opportunity come into their minds. We took a red-eye Thursday night, got about no sleep, went right to meetings Friday morning. So yeah, I was proud of the way we fought, for sure.”
So where do the Eagles go from here? They’re still just 4–4, but two things should help, per my conversation with Ertz. The first one is the reemergence of Wentz, who lifted the team through left tackle Jason Peters’ brief departure from the game and right tackle Lane Johnson’s leaving the game for good in the first half.
Despite that—and tackle play has been an issue for some time now for the Eagles—Wentz posted a passer rating above 115 for the fourth straight week. Over that stretch his TD-INT differential is a sparkling 10–1, and he’s moving around better and better. Simply put, he’s a different player than he was when he first came back from the ACL, back in Week 3.
“Obviously when you haven’t played in a football game in 10 months, you’re not going to be as sharp then as you are two months later,” Ertz said. “He’s really moving well out there. He’s extending plays—I mean, the first third down of the game, he gets a ball batted, catches it and dives for a first down. I’m not gonna say that’s surprising anymore, because of how many plays he makes, but the guy’s a friggin’ stud. He’s one of the best players in the league, and he’s playing like it right now.”
And the second factor is this: The Eagles have had to acclimate to being the hunted, rather than the hunter.
“The saying that you’re getting everyone’s best shot every week is very true,” Ertz said. “We play teams that are very hyped up to play us, each and every week. And we understand that. Earlier in the year we weren’t playing 60 minutes of really good football. You can’t have those lapses in the NFL and expect to win. We’re two games right now away from 6-2 but we’re also a couple games from being under .500.
“So we’ve got the whole season in front of us. I’m not happy being 4-4, but at the same time I am happy with where we’re at right now.”
The best news for the Eagles is that the NFC East is still in play, and Philly gets Washington twice in December. The front end of that home-and-home is one of four division games the Eagles will play in their first five dates coming out of the bye. Like Ertz said, it’s all still in front of them.
Episodes 1 and 2 available now: An exclusive narrative podcast series from SI, re-examining the murder of Titans great Steve McNair. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you download your podcasts. And visit the podcast homepage for additional materials and updates.
ADAM VINATIERI’S RECORD, DECADES IN THE MAKING
I asked Adam Vinatieri on Sunday night if he remembered his first points as an NFL player. He did.
“A field goal in Miami, I believe,” he said, from the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum locker room. “And I believe I had to kick it twice, because there was a penalty on it the first time, so I had to kick it a second time. It was just a nice little chip shot on a nice, sunny, warm day in Miami.”
I went to the trouble of looking it up. He was right about all that. It was 93 degrees when the Patriots faced the Dolphins at what was then called Pro Player Park, on Labor Day 1996. Vinatieri, undrafted out of South Dakota State, drilled a 20-yard field goal early in the second quarter. The kick was negated by a false start from Max Lane (now the home-team uniform inspector at Gillette Stadium). That sent Vinatieri back to hit a 25-yarder, which he did to cut the Dolphins’ lead to 10–3.
Those Bill Parcells-led Patriots lost 24–10, as the Dolphins (with Jimmy Johnson in his first game as coach) held New England’s Drew Bledsoe and Curtis Martin in check behind a defense starting rookie Zach Thomas at middle linebacker. All of which is our way of saying this was long ago, And this is a long way of explaining what it took for Vinatieri to get here—and become the NFL’s all-time leading scorer.
On Sunday at the Oakland Coliseum, Vinatieri hit a 26-yard field goal for the Colts in the first quarter to tie Morten Andersen’s record of 2,544 points. A 25-yarder in the second quarter gave him sole possession of the record, and his 10 points in a 42-28 win over the Raiders put him at 2,550 points at the end of the day.
“There’s been so many people that have helped me along the way, obviously all my teammates that were on the field, unselfishly blocking and snapping and holding and doing all that stuff,” he said. “Over 23 years I’ve had a lot of great teammates. And that’s probably the thing I’m most proud of with it, because you can’t get to two-thousand, five-hundred and some-odd points without starting at 1.”
So to commemorate that, I asked Vinatieri to rank all those points in two categories, and here’s what he said:
Most memorable points: “There’s been a handful, many handfuls of special moments. But I think any time you can play in and help your team win a Super Bowl, those are the most special moments you can have as a football player. Probably the kicks in the snow to win the  divisional game, those were special moments as well. And I’d probably put my first game-winner, when I was a little bit on the hot seat against Jacksonville [in 1998], that would probably be right up there too. So those four or five kicks. And then there was running down Herschel [Walker on a kickoff in 1996] and throwing a touchdown pass [in 2004]—there are a couple other cool moments that have nothing to do with kicking, some pretty good ones in there.”
Toughest points: “Definitely the divisional playoff game, the one in the snow, the Tuck Rule game. Pretty much stacked up against you—you’re down by three, big snowstorm, it’s the end of the game, you miss it and the season’s over. I would think that one would probably be the most difficult. And the Buffalo game this last year was pretty wild as well, we had about a foot of snow on ground, pretty crazy game.”
The 47-yarder to send that Tuck Rule game against Oakland to overtime, by the way, was 17 years ago, in Vinatieri’s sixth year as a Patriot. He would last a decade in New England. He’s now been in Indianapolis for 13 years. And even though he’s made his money and now has four Super Bowl rings with two teams, and the scoring record, he says he’s not thinking about retirement: “If I’m still feeling good and I can still produce on the field, I’ll probably keep going.”
Why? Well …
“I wish you could’ve been in the locker room about 30 minutes ago when we came in after the win, and the guys were all jumping around, fired up, hooting and hollering,” Vinatieri said. “That’s why we keep doing it. There’s something about an NFL locker room that’s very, very addictive.”
But there aren’t too many guys who’ve been good enough to feed their habit for as long as Vinatieri has. Twenty-three years, and counting.
THE SEAHAWKS’ ‘REBUILD’ LOOKS LIKE IT’S WORKING
The Seahawks played their last playoff game 21 months ago, and only three starters are left from the defense that lined up that day. Gone are Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman and, for all intents and purposes, Earl Thomas. And after the 2018 team started 0–2, it looked like a pretty fair bet that the rebuild was underway in Seattle, and choppy waters were coming for Pete Carroll’s crew.
Since then, Seattle has somehow won four of five.
On Sunday that revamped defense held the Lions, who rushed for 248 yards in Week 7, to 34 yards on the ground. The Seahawks sacked Matthew Stafford three times. And on the other side, it was like old times—Seattle ground out 176 yards on 42 carries, and Russell Wilson posted a perfect passer rating.
Oh, and by the way, the Seahawks’ one loss in their last five was a street fight with the Rams, during which Seattle pushed L.A. closer to defeat than it’s been all year. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the players weren’t hearing what people were saying about them. They just weren’t listening to it.
“You had to hear it, because you got the questions constantly,” middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, one of the few holdovers, told me. “Everybody kept talking about a rebuilding year. But we had confidence in the people that we had in the room. A lot of guys were playing behind some great talent that hadn’t had the opportunity to have their number called yet. So we were looking forward to getting out there.”
In essence, Carroll and GM John Schneider made a bet this offseason. They could’ve tried to hold on to the old core for another year or two, but the way last season ended informed them that the end wasn’t too far off. And because so many of those players were on huge contracts and had such big reputations that entitled them to sizable roles, Carroll’s ability to sell his competition-driven program was hampered.
Cleaning the slate has allowed the coaches to convince players that most positions are in fact up for grabs, and that’s created an edge among the group that certainly was a part of the Seahawks’ identity when the old foundation was still young.
“My  draft class, everybody said we weren’t gonna be good, but there was hunger there,” Wagner said. “There was hunger there for the guys that played there before that went 7–9, and came close but didn’t win. You had Marshawn [Lynch], who was hungry. Everybody was hungry in their own right. And I feel like this is kind of the same thing.
“Coming into the year, we had the guys that played here last year, that were still here and that had the sour taste of 9–7. You had a draft class, people doubting them. It was a real doubted team.”
It’ll be tougher to doubt them now. A three-touchdown explosion in the second quarter put on Sunday put Seattle on top for good. The margin stayed in double digits through the second half with defensive guys like Bradley McDougald, Tedric Thompson, Shaquill Griffin, Tre Flowers, Frank Clark, Jarran Reed and Dion Jordan alongside the old warhorses Wagner and K.J. Wright.
A lot, of course, has changed. And the new crew isn’t out of the woods yet. The schedule stiffens the rest of the way, with another date with the Rams on there, as well as games against the Chargers, Packers, Panthers, Vikings and Chiefs.
But what Wagner and Wilson hoped coming into the year was that all the moving parts (and it was absolutely necessary to move those parts, given where things were going) wouldn’t do anything to budge the standard that they’d worked so hard to set. As far as that’s concerned, the last few weeks have shows those guys that at least has been accomplished.
“Every time you put that jersey on, every time you walk on that field on defense, we have a standard, no matter who’s playing,” Wagner said. “And it was important for myself and K.J. and everybody else to make sure that standard is upheld. It starts with defense, and then everything else falls into place. And the offense is doing great, and you see us making plays on special teams, and it’s a good collective effort.”
This Seahawks team right now is probably better than it was last year. And because so many of the players are new and/or young, there’s a decent chance things keep getting better from here.
… OF THE WEEK
CBS announcer Andrew Catalon, calling Colts TE Jack Doyle’s fourth-quarter touchdown. This is the great movie reference wrapped into a touchdown call of our time. And there’s no close second. Thank you, Andrew. That was beautiful.
One man saw this coming ….
And his faith never wavered …
Not in the least …
Insane that the Bucs are gonna win 56-54 in Overtime.— Conor Orr 🇦🇶 (@ConorOrr) October 28, 2018
Until the very end …
(… ran out when the Bucs defense couldn’t get a stop)
I’m a sucker for this stuff—and it does feel like a torch-passing. Peterson is 33 and was left for dead by everyone (me included). Barkley is 21 and just getting started. “I love what you’re doing, man,” Peterson says to Barkley. “I’ve been able to watch you so far, and you got it, man. You got it. … The sky is the limit for you. … It’s remarkable to see. Stay focused. Keep grinding. Obviously you know about work ethic. I’ve been watching you since college. Just continue to do that, man, you’re competing every day to be the best.”
Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy never lets us down! Fresh off his on-field confrontation with Texas coach Tom Herman in the waning moments of the Cowboys’ upset win, Gundy gave this detailed dissertation on social media in 2018.
… Just because I couldn’t choose between these two, and this was hilarious by the Seahawks.
S/O TO …
Steelers LB Ryan Shazier, who this week visited Hayden Hamilton at UMPC Children’s Hospital. Hamilton, a sophomore at Laurel High near Pittsburgh, suffered a spinal injury playing linebacker in an Aug. 31 game, which necessitated nine-hour surgery to isolate his fractured vertebrae and assess the damage to his spinal cord. Shazier called Hayden shortly thereafter to offer his help, and the two have struck up a relationship, which resulted in the Steeler’s visit to the hospital with a personalized jersey. Cool move to help a guy he certainly can relate with. And s/o to the Steelers too, for their graceful handling of the tragedy in their backyard this weekend, when 11 members of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood were shot to death. In announcing they’d have a moment of silence and prayer before Sunday’s game, Steelers president Art Rooney said, “Our hearts are heavy, but we must stand against anti-semitism and hate crimes of any nature and come together to preserve our values and our community.”
SIX FROM SATURDAY
The college football weekend through an NFL lens.
1. Alabama was off, which makes this a good time to take stock of the Tide’s sophomore phenom Tua Tagovailoa. Over his first eight college starts—the first eight games of this season—the Hawaii native has 25 touchdown passes and 45 incompletions, which seems like an impossible ratio. And how about this: The coaches are telling scouts going through Alabama that they see him as a Drew Brees type on the next level. Of course, you’ll have to wait to see, since Tagovailoa isn’t draft-eligible until after next season.
2. We’ve given you Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley as names to watch for January’s hiring cycle. We can put Purdue’s Jeff Brohm in that group now too, even after his team’s loss Saturday to Michigan State. Based on what I’ve heard for over a year now, teams have been looking at him in an NFL context for quite some time. And you add his seven years bouncing on and off rosters as a backup QB to his coaching résumé, and it makes sense. My buddy Pete Thamel put together a good story on him this week.
3. Just as an FYI, Riley’s name keeps coming up in regards to the NFL coach hiring cycle. I think it’d be hard for him to leave Oklahoma. But I’m pretty certain he’ll be getting a lot of inquiries. And for the record, here’s how he answered in the summer, when I asked if he had any desire to coach in the NFL: “Hard to say. It would be really difficult to ever leave this place. This place is very invested in me and my family. They gave me a great opportunity, and I think this is one of the best jobs, if not the very best, in all of football. So I don’t know. I really, really enjoy the college game. I don’t know that you can ever say never. I don’t know what the future will hold. But yeah … it’s hard to see myself ever leaving Oklahoma right now.”
4. Clemson DT Christian Wilkins scored a touchdown in the Tigers’ rout of Florida State on Saturday, and I had one evaluator hit me up to say this wasn’t just a novelty. “Any team that drafts him and doesn’t consider him a two-way player wouldn’t be getting the full value of the player.” His feeling? Wilkins has the bend, change-of-direction-ability, body control and ball skills to play part-time as a fullback in the NFL. As a defensive tackle, he’s considered a first-round prospect.
5. Scouts are taking note of Washington State QB Gardner Minshew. He’s not the prospect that Oregon’s Justin Herbert is, but seeing the two side-by-side two Saturdays ago got people’s attention – Minshew didn’t look out of place. There are still plenty of questions about how much Mike Leach’s scheme is lifting him up. But he’s been fairly impressive physically, so there’s some potential there.
6. I never thought I’d see Florida State lose like it did on Saturday. I don’t care how good the opponent was. That’s supposed to be Florida State out there.
1. I did some detective work on what transpired during the strange end to the first half of the Panthers/Ravens game, and got you some answers. Let’s go blow-by-blow. With 21 seconds left in the second quarter, Cam Newton scrambled for 11 yards to get into third-and-2 from the Baltimore 44. Carolina then called its final timeout. On the next play the Panthers lined up in the wrong formation; Newton recognized it and threw the ball away. Now it’s fourth-and-2 with five seconds left. The offensive coaches are told, with the play-clock running, that with the wind in the Panthers’ face, they’re out of kicker Graham Gano’s range. They send in a Hail Mary call, but Newton shakes them off—with the arm soreness he experienced during the week, there’s a question if he should be opening up and letting one rip all the way down the field. So the Panthers decide to take the delay of game and put big-armed backup Taylor Heinicke in to throw the Hail Mary, which they’ll run out of a formation with a bunch to the left. They line up. The Ravens are playing way off. Veteran tight end Greg Olsen yells to Heinicke, “I’m uncovered!” Heinicke sees it, takes the snap and quickly dumps it off to Olsen, who scampers out of bounds with a 13-yard gain and two seconds showing. So what would’ve been a 62-yard try by Gano becomes a 54-yarder, and Gano nails it. And there’s the story of how the Panthers went into the half up 24-7 on Baltimore.
2. While we’re there, the Panthers’ offense continues to be damn impressive. The Ravens came in with a league-leading 27 sacks and left Bank of America with zero, which is a sign of how Carolina has improved on the offensive line (with journeyman Chris Clark and promising 24-year-old Taylor Moton at the tackles), and also how Newton’s doing a much better job of getting rid of the ball, part of new OC Norv Turner and QB coach Scott Turner’s effort to get him to take easy completions. The run game’s emergence hasn’t hurt either—the Panthers went for 154 yards on 33 carries against Baltimore—as a new Newton (21-of-29 for 219 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs) has come to life.
3. If there was a trade-deadline swing game yesterday, it had to Chiefs-Broncos. Had Denver pulled off the upset at Arrowhead, the Broncos would have been knotted up at 4-4 with Dolphins and Ravens, just outside the playoff picture. As it is, at 3-5, Denver figures to be a seller. Demaryius Thomas’ availability has garnered headlines—Courtland Sutton’s emergence has made Thomas a little more expendable too—but the veteran wideout isn’t the only one you should pay attention to. Teams have been asking about corners Chris Harris and Bradley Roby. And while depth issues at that position may make Denver reluctant to move those two, I’ve been told that linebackers Brandon Marshall and Shane Ray can be had at reasonable prices. We’ll see where it all goes, but if Denver plans to draft a quarterback in April, the time to start building capital for a potential move up the draft board is now.
4. Check out my Sunday rundown for more trade names—among those I could absolutely see being dealt are 49ers receiver Pierre Garçon and safety Jimmie Ward, Giants corner Janoris Jenkins, Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and, if there’s a team feeling froggy out there, Browns quarterback Tyrod Taylor. It’ll be interesting, too, to see how the list availables grows over the next 24 hours. I’m expecting it to just that, based on all the noise over the weekend.
5. The situation in Cleveland remains unsettled, and nothing would surprise me on Monday. Moving on either head coach Hue Jackson or offensive coordinator Todd Haley would create problems, to be sure. The offense the Browns are running is Haley’s, and so they would have to figure a way for someone else to game plan it and call it—Jackson has respected Haley’s autonomy on that side of the ball, so he hasn’t been all that involved thus far—without adversely affecting the development of promising young players like Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, Antonio Callaway and Desmond Harrison. On the flip side, Jackson being shown the door would raise the question of whether Haley or defensive coordinator Gregg Williams should be interim coach. Or maybe, in each case, senior offensive assistant Al Saunders would be the one to take the helm. Either way, the priority for owner Jimmy Haslam and GM John Dorsey has to be Mayfield’s development, and the current state of affairs among the staff isn’t great for that.
6. If this is it, and the Steelers get Le’Veon Bell back after the Tuesday trade deadline, consider the last two months educational for them. James Conner, through seven games, has 599 yards and nine touchdowns on 127 carries, and 31 catches for 323 yards. Projecting that over 16 games, that’s 1,369 yards and 21 touchdowns on 290 carries, and 71 catches for 738 yards. Bell last year, in 15 games: 1,291 yards and nine touchdowns on 321 carries, and 85 catches for 655 yards and two touchdowns. Oh, and the Steelers are fourth in total offense, down from third last year, but they’re averaging 40.2 yards per game more than they were in 2017. I’m not saying Conner’s a better player. I still think Bell is. But this does go to show you the issue players looking to get paid at that position have: It’s too easy to find good backs (they’re everywhere), which skews the supply-and-demand equation.
7. The Ryan Fitzpatrick story—to all of us other than my colleague Conor Orr, at least—is too crazy to be true. But I don’t think he’s left Dirk Koetter with much of a choice to make. Fitzpatrick didn’t really deserve to be benched in the first place, given that the decision was based on a shoddy half against a very good Chicago defense. And if you take another look at Jameis Winston’s interceptions against Cincinnati on Sunday, you’ll see there was nothing fluky—no bad bounces or receivers falling down. They were all poor decisions and/or throws. The hard part for the Bucs is that if they do go with Fitzpatrick, they’ll miss the opportunity to gather more information ahead of making a decision on Winston’s $20.922 million option for 2019 (and who knows who’ll actually be making that decision in January and February). But at this point, selling Winston as the best option to the locker room would seem to be a non-starter.
8. The Saints may be the most complete team in football, and it showed again in their deconstruction of a very good Vikings team on the road on Sunday night. And while most of the attention is on what might be the best offense Drew Brees has ever had around him, the idea that the defense doesn’t have horses was wrong all along. Cam Jordan, Sheldon Rankins, Marcus Williams and Marshon Lattimore all have All-Pro ability, and there’s a solid second wave behind them in guys like Kurt Coleman, Alex Anzalone (who changed Sunday’s game, stripping Vikings star Adam Thielen), Marcus Davenport, Vonn Bell and now Eli Apple. In fact, over the summer, I was told that for the first time in the Brees Era, the defense was playing the offense to a training camp standstill. Early on in the season, the promise wasn’t showing up. More recently it has emerged, and that makes next week’s showdown against the Rams in the Superdome all the more interesting. We’ll have more on the Saints’ defensive renaissance in today’s Monday Afternoon QB.
9. Impressive work by Josh Rosen late in the Cardinals’ comeback win over the Niners—and it’s hard to believe that was the first time Larry Fitzgerald ever spiked the ball after a touchdown. And then, he apologized for it! The story’s kind of crazy. Fitzgerald said after the game that he was frustrated by his eldest son Devin’s decision to go to the Arizona State Fair rather than come to the game, and he took it out on … the ball? The grass? Both would’ve felt it, I suppose. “I was a little frustrated and had a heavy heart today,” he told reporters postgame. “My feelings were a little hurt, so I was carrying that around all day. So, when I got in there, I kind of let it out. To all the kids that are watching, I’m sorry. I set a bad example today.” I think this is probably an easy one to forgive. But that’s just me.
10. I’ll dedicate this last entry to the Red Sox, and the incredible change in mentality here in Massachusetts over the last 15 years. Maybe to understand it, you have to be from here. But watching that team growing up, there was an expectation that they’d blow it in the end, and usually in ridiculous fashion. I remember the Aaron Boone home run in 2003 like it happened yesterday, and I can tell you it wasn’t even remotely surprising. So to watch Sunday night with the full expectation that good things would happen—even that David Price would continue to reverse his old postseason history—was pretty wild. That team was relentless and clutch, and nothing you’d have expected the old Red Sox to be. Congrats to Alex Cora and the club.
So most of the talk over the next 36 hours will center on the trade deadline, and I think there are three reasons (which I also outlined in my Game Plan column last week) why there’s more activity now than there used to be. First, younger GMs are more open to doing things differently. Second, the amount of turnover leaguewide in GM spots means fewer players have in-house sponsors in the guys that drafted them. Third, the cap goes up $10 million every year now, giving teams flexibility.
We’ll have more trade talk on Monday afternoon, ahead of Tuesday’s deadline. But believe it or not, there’s a game in there, too, featuring the Patriots, humming along again, and the rebuilding Bills.
I’m not going to sit here and give Buffalo much of a shot, but I’ll say this again—I think GM Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott are doing the right thing this year. At some point they were going to have to rip the bad-contract Band Aid off, and this was the time they picked to do it. So they’re carrying more than $50 million in dead money on their cap, representing players not on their team.
That, if you’re counting from home, is almost a third of the 2018 cap. Add to that a dearth of rookie-contract talent—there are just five Bills draft picks that predate McDermott’s January 2017 arrival on the roster—and you have a pretty messy situation on your hands, which is all a product of what happened before the current regime arrived.
That doesn’t mean it’s automatic that Beane and McDermott will get this fixed. They need to be right on Josh Allen first and foremost, and continue to build on a solid group of young players they’ve acquired the last two offseasons. But they’re already showing a level of responsibility that’ll be needed to build the team correctly, all of which won’t help them much tonight.
The pick: New England 42, Buffalo 17.
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