If it looks to you like Sean Payton is pushing all the right buttons with his Saints offense, you might be interested to hear it actually extends past that.
He’s doing more than just anticipating which cards another coach might play against him on the field. He’s getting pretty good at playing the right ones in response. And it so it was that a red-hot New Orleans team got its warning this week: A cornered animal would be on the other sideline.
The Eagles were 4–5, but a proud champion coming off a tough division loss on national television. That, as Payton saw it, meant something—and he needed his guys to be aware of it.
“So we prepared for that this week,” 15-year veteran tight end Benjamin Watson told me late Sunday night. “It’s a really a testament to Coach Payton, understanding that each week presents his own challenges. Obviously, X’s and O’s present a challenge, but emotionally, as you mentioned, you come off a big win on a [national TV] against the Rams, then you go on the road, and you come home against Philly, a team that had a lot to prove.
“And so he’s been able to prepare us emotionally and mentally for the challenge specific to that week, specific to that opponent, outside of obviously just the game plan, and how we’re going to attack each opponent.”
The goal, then, for this week: Take the Eagles’ breath away. Keep ’em in that corner.
It was 10–0 after the first quarter, and 24–7 at the half. Forty minutes into the game, it was 38–7. When it was over, Drew Brees had 363 yards, four touchdown passes and no picks on 22-of-30 passing, and Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara had combined for 174 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries.
How bad a boat-racing was this? The disparity in points and total yards was greater in the Superdome on Sunday than in Alabama’s rout of The Citadel on Saturday. And maybe most impressive is how relentless the best team in the NFL—with apologies to the two playing tonight in L.A.—has been over the last three weeks.
As Watson insinuated, the Saints easily could’ve kicked back after dealing the Rams their first loss, 45–35, on Nov. 4. Instead, they kicked it up a notch, and kicked the rear ends of a couple pretty good teams, Philly and Cincinnati, by an aggregate score of 99–21. The schedule the rest of the way is tough—they play Atlanta and Dallas the next two Thursdays, and have the Panthers twice and the Steelers in December.
But increasingly, it’s looking like the Saints don’t have to worry about those teams, so much as those teams have to worry about the Saints.
If Week 10 was a dud (and it was), Week 11 certainly made up for it. Around 4:05 p.m. ET on Sunday, Bengals-Ravens, Texans-Redskins and Jaguars-Steelers were being decided all at once. And so we’ve got plenty to get to, including …
• A Steelers star on the book he read that explains how his team has fought through all the noise around it—and how Ben Roethlisberger made some noise at halftime to get his guys going.
• The Cowboys newcomer who’s making his bid for Defensive Rookie of the Year. And the Colts rookies who are making their own mark.
• How the Ravens coaches prepared to play Lamar Jackson the last two weeks, and what his teammates have seen from him.
• A thorough explanation on why the game tonight is being played in Los Angeles, rather than in Mexico City.
• A look back at Thursday night with Pete Carroll, and how his Seahawks seem to have sidestepped the need to rebuild.
But we’re starting with a Saints team that looks damn near unstoppable.
I’ve covered Watson in some capacity since his second NFL season—I was a Patriots beat writer for the MetroWest Daily News (and a Boston Herald backup beat guy) from 2005-07—and so the question I was dying to ask him when we got on the phone went directly to the perspective he has from those days:
Are these Saints as good as the 2007 Patriots offense he was a part of?
It’s a different era now, but New Orleans is averaging more points (37.8 to 36.8) and yards (427.1 to 411.2) per game than New England was then. And Brees’s passer rating (126.9 to 117.2), yards per attempt (8.9 to 8.3) and TD/INT ratio (25-1 to 50 to 8) are actually significantly better than Tom Brady’s were in his historic 2007 season. Which is really crazy.
“Obviously, 2007 in New England was really special,” Watson said. “And this year, in many ways, it kind of does [feel the same], just in the way that we’re able to execute on offense. We get up to the line of scrimmage, there’s not much that we call that we don’t think we can execute. You’ve got a variety of different guys that contributing in different ways. The only thing I would say different would be that the guys that are the stars of this offense are probably younger than they were in New England.
“We had guys like Randy Moss, Wes Welker, veteran players. We’ve got guys like Tre’Quan [Smith] and we’ve got Michael Thomas obviously and Alvin [Kamara] and Mark [Ingram], and Mark’s the oldest of those four. The offenses are a little bit different, but when you’ve got a guy like No. 9, when you have a guy like No. 12 in New England like we had, it just brings a whole lot of confidence.”
Payton had the Eagles so crossed up so quickly that in the second quarter, Mark Ingram could lightly jog the last seven or eight yards of a 14-yard touchdown run to make the score 17-0. Then there was a Brees’s rope to Smith on an in-cut for a 15-yard score to make it 24-7. And sideline dimes to Thomas and Kamara that pushed the Saints to 31 and 45 points.
Therein lies the trademark of these Saints—they keep coming. It’s a mostly young team built on a trio of bumper-crops drafts (Thomas, Kamara, Smith, CB Marshon Lattimore, RT Ryan Ramczyk, S Marcus Williams, LB Alex Anzalone, DT Sheldon Rankins, S Von Bell and DE Marcus Davenport were all part of the 2016 to ’18 classes) with graybeards like Brees and Watson mixed in, but there’s a common personality, too—one reason why you aren’t seeing the asleep-at-the-switch week.
“There is a certain characteristic, going back to your first question about the New England and the culture that’s there, as far as being steady, and understanding that you’re going to win and that’s great for a few days but nobody cares the next week,” Watson said. “And understanding that you have to approach each game specifically, you have to get ready to play each game because anybody can beat you.”
And same as in New England, that starts with the team’s Hall of Fame quarterback.
Watson recalled a play from Sunday’s game where Brees made a throw while taking hits from two Eagles at once. Brees, of course, turns 40 in January, and could have hung it up, with his Lombardi in tow, long ago. You just wouldn’t know that from watching him.
“Having been here for three years [2013-15] and then going away and coming back, he’s just as hungry as he was before,” Watson said. “He is obviously a Hall of Famer and the fact that he has records upon records, it doesn’t seem to matter. It just seems to matter that he wants to win right now. He wants to win every day in practice. He gets frustrated in practice if we don’t throw the ball well. He talks to himself and tells himself to get the ball up. He’s not complacent.”
The Saints clearly aren’t, either. In fact, if you didn’t know any better, you’d have thought they were the cornered animal on Sunday in the Superdome. They sure fought like one.
Lamar Jackson ‘Will Only Get Better’
You might think the Ravens would go into yesterday’s game against the Bengals, Lamar Jackson’s first NFL start, with a target number of runs for the first-round pick. Instead, they set a number of throws they wanted him to make.
That figure was right at 25, I’m told, and Baltimore fell short of it. Jackson wound up completing 13 of 19 passes for 150 yards and a pick while rushing for 117 yards on 27 carries. The idea was to ensure balance, and limit damage on Jackson, and the flow of the game took them a little off center.
But for a week, it worked. And it worked in a way that has those in the building pretty pumped for the possibilities ahead, given all the preparation that went into it.
How much? Well, we’ve detailed in this space how coach John Harbaugh presented a project—put together by coordinator Marty Morhinweg, QBs coach James Urban and assistant head coach Greg Roman—in April to detail to the scouting staff how they’d construct an offense that would work for both Jackson and veteran incumbent Joe Flacco. And we saw dribs and drabs of the results over the last two months.
So those offensive coaches huddled again during the bye week and examined all 188 quarterback snaps that Jackson had taken through the preseason and nine weeks of the regular season, to put together a plan to start him against the Bengals. The idea was to keep him out of crazy situations and make sure he was able to manage the bad ones.
One such instance arose early in the fourth quarter—on third-and-goal from the 4. The Ravens snapped it into a bad look, and rather than compound the issue, Jackson tucked the ball and ran, taking a relatively harmless two-yard loss that preserved a go-ahead field-goal attempt for Baltimore. And where the coaches were particularly happy was in game operation—Jackson’s cadence, the QB-center exchange, getting players lined up, etc.
Of course, Jackson running the ball 27 times, particularly with slim-ish frame, isn’t sustainable. Baltimore knows that. But in some cases, the Ravens were running RPOs, and on plays where Jackson kept the ball, the passing numbers obviously knocked down, and the rushing numbers ticked up.
Overall, though, Jackson’s debut represents the same sort of progress his teammates have seen in practice.
“We knew he would be fine,” safety Eric Weddle texted me after the game. “We’ve seen his growth over the past few months. I mean, if you would’ve asked me from OTAs and early training camp, I would’ve said there was no way he would be able to play this year. But over the last three months, he’s gotten so much better, mostly with the consistency and footwork and accuracy that you need from your QB.
“Over the last month, he’d make passes against us in practice where we’d sit back and say, wow, those are legit throws. And he was doing it more consistently. I think a lot of it has stemmed him working after practice with Urban. He’s been doing that for months. And he’s just getting adjusted to the NFL game. When you actually see how fast and explosive he is when he runs, it’s eye popping. And he will only get better throwing each week he works.”
Indeed, Jackson has stayed back for a half-hour each day to refine his footwork, and throw into nets. And it does sound like it’s getting him somewhere, both with his teammates and on the field.
Episodes 1 through 5 available now: An exclusive True Crime 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.
Don’t Tell Pete Carroll the Seahawks are Rebuilding
I talked to Pete Carroll the day after the Seahawks outlasted the Packers 27-24, and the ninth-year Seattle coach wasn’t pleased with the idea that his team was supposed to be rebuilding this year. To be fair, his team is 5-5 now, and the five losses have come by a total of 25 points, so he has every right to raise an eyebrow at that word.
“It’s just not in our mentality to think about rebuilding—like, let’s start over—it didn’t feel like that,” Carroll said. “We just retooled and kept going. And it’s great to have Russell [Wilson] and Bobby [Wagner] and Doug [Baldwin] and those guys together, the stellar leaders—we have great leadership on this team. They’re not taking any steps back to go forward. They just want to keep charging.
“So we really just don’t know any other way.”
Not by the looks of it, they don’t. Big names like Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril are gone, and Earl Thomas is done for the year and likely gone as a free agent in March. In their places? Names like Bradley McDougald, Tedric Thompson, Barkevious Mingo, Branden Jackson, Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers.
What hasn’t changed is what Carroll wants in his players, and the coach spent the offseason trying to re-establish that. He figured that by jettisoning older players who were on scholarship, it’d be easier to sell the dog-eat-dog competitiveness he wants in his program. And on offense, he hired coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and line coach Mike Solari, and drafted Rashaad Penny, to restore the run game.
That part, they got right. The Seahawks lead the NFL in rushing, and imposed that kind of will on the Packers on Thursday. Wilson and the offense got the ball with 4:11 left and a 27-24 lead. The next seven plays: Mike Davis for five yards, Wilson for eigth, Davis for four, Davis for seven, Wilson kneel-down, Wilson kneel-down, Wilson kneel-down.
“That is the style we’re trying to play to, it is kind of the finish we want to play to,” Carroll said. “We’ve been talking about that for a long time around here, forever. We want to run the football. We’d like to have it in the fourth quarter, to run the game out. That’s how we want to do it. So I’m really fired up about the way we’re running the ball, because it adds so much style to us, it’s impacting us. It’s giving us clarity.”
The hires of Schottenheimer and Solari were big in that, as Carroll explains it, they made Seattle more scheme-diverse than they were under zone-blocking guru Tom Cable. It led to targeting bigger players like D.J. Fluker in free agency, and getting more from monstrous former first-rounder Germain Ifedi. To augment it all, Seattle used a draft pick on blocking tight end Will Dissly, and has played tackle George Fant some as a tight end.
“We can utilize big dudes coming off the rock and being physical,” said Carroll. “It’s exactly how we want to play.
The other side of the ball has been more of a work in progress, but the collapse that some expected hasn’t come to pass. Griffin and Flowers have been more than passable as corners, and Frank Clark has helped make up for the loss of pass rush. And Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are still around to carry the torch.
So could all of this mean that, months after what looked like a teardown, Seattle could be ascending again? Actually, Carroll thinks that’s exactly what it means.
“I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Carroll said. “In the way we’re capturing the style and are able to carry out the philosophy, it’s going to take us through the next two or three years, I’d think, with continued growth, because there are so many young guys playing. But I’m not seeing anything about rebuilding. We have never, ever thought that way.
“We just needed to get organized and get going again, and with the changes that were made, we didn’t change our expectations or our standards. That’s why I’m disappointed we’re not further along with our record right now. That’s legit. We didn’t think we had to take a step back—you guys all thought that.”
I asked Carroll if, along those lines, the two close losses to the Rams, which are all that separate his Seahawks from first place, still gnaw at him a little. “How about a lot?” he answered. Then he expressed some regret over framing the team as having a two- or three-year window, because he doesn’t want to put a time frame on it.
And by the sounds of it, he really doesn’t want to wait that long either.
The NFL Still Wants to Play in Mexico. Just on a decent field
Some things maybe be cloudy on the NFL’s decision to move tonight’s game out of Mexico City, but I can tell you this with clarity—the league didn’t want to do it.
Only in the U.S. is football more popular than it is in Mexico. Per NFL research, the league has 21 million fans there, seven million of them avid, and three million boys and girls that play flag football as part of their physical education in school. If Mexico City were in the U.S., it would have the fifth biggest NFL fan base of any city. And it took work for the league to return there in 2016 after an 11-year absence.
This was, pure and simple, about an unplayable surface. How’d it go down? Here’s a quick timeline:
May: Televisa, the TV network that owns Estadio Azteca, had a natural grass surface pulled up in favor of the kind of hybrid of natural and synthetic turf that’s used at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.
Late October: Field experts from the NFL, the Rams (the nominal home team for the game) and the stadium authority inspect the field following a series of Shakira concert in mid-October, and it’s deemed playable, even if it’s a little rough. One source compared it to a football field in December in the Midwest. Not ideal, but certainly playable.
November 7: Televisa stages a 25th- anniversary concert for its version of MTV at Azteca.
November 10: Cruz Azul defeats Lobos BUAP 2-1 at Azteca. After the match, Cruz Azul coach Pedro Caixinha publicly rips the post-concert condition of the field—“We all know that it’s not right”—which gets the attention of NFL officials.
November 12: The Rams and the NFL send officials in a day ahead of the scheduled final inspection, and expedite their meeting schedule for the week.
November 13: The final inspection takes place, and the field isn’t close to playable. If Azteca still had a natural surface, the NFL could just re-sod the field. But with the new woven hybrid surface in place, that was impossible. So Rams/Chiefs was moved.
One thing that was made clear to me here was what one league source said directly, “We are not abandoning the Mexican market.” The league agreed last year to extend its deal to play a game a year in Mexico through 2021. But clearly, the NFL is not coming back without a resolution of the playing-surface issue, which puts everything in a holding pattern.
The upshot for the Rams here is that they’ve been given a chance to get a marquee game back home, and to do it at a time when their region is hurting—having been through wildfires and the Borderline Bar shooting over the last couple weeks.
“This is going to be a great game,” Rams COO Kevin Demoff said over the phone on Sunday morning. “And we think it can highlight the best of L.A., and the strength of our community in the wake of everything that’s happened. This is a unique opportunity we didn’t have 10 days ago.”
Demoff credited a handful of staffers—VP of strategy Dan August, manager of community affairs Zach Kinkaide, as well as Sarah Schuler, Mitchell Bornstein, Cory Befort and Chrsis Slepokura—with captaining the effort to move the game on the fly. Demoff said about 5,000 tickets will go to first responders and more than 70,000 tickets have been distributed with prices matching the ones for the TNF Vikings game.
All those people should get quite a show, even if it came to pass in a weird way.
For the Young Colts, the Future Could be … 2018?
If you’ve been reading all year, you know where I’m at on the Colts. And if you read last week, you know that Andrew Luck is just about all the way back.
But one of the cool things about everything that’s going on in Indy right now—with their 38-10 bulldozing of the Titans in the books—is how it’s hard to tell where the team’s ceiling for 2018 is now. I’ve felt all along that the Colts would be a force in 2019. Could they be in the process of moving the timetable forward?
If you consider the rate at which the rookie class is improving, it’s not impossible to see a team that could sneak into the playoffs and be dangerous come January. And after talking to rookie linebacker Darius Leonard postgame on Sunday, I get the feeling they’re well aware of that, even if they are new to the NFL.
“We all have the desire to win, and the desire to be great,” Leonard said from the victorious locker room. “You see a lot of rookies coming in [to work] pretty early, before a lot of other people. We’re doing the all the small things right to be great.”
Here’s how their Sunday went:
Quenton Nelson (6th pick)/Braden Smith (37th pick): Nelson started his 10th straight game at left guard and Smith his sixth in a row at right tackle, for a line that’s fast become one of the best in football. Luck hasn’t been sacked since Oct. 4, and the Colts rushed for (if you take out three kneel-downs) 105 yards on 25 carries. Also,thanks to the time he was given, Luck posted a 143.8 rating against the NFL’s top scoring defense.
Darius Leonard (36th pick): The Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate had seven tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and the first interception of his career—“It was crazy—I was actually in Cover 2, I was just sitting and spying the quarterback. And nobody was around me, and he threw it to me. I was like, thank you, and went from there.”
Kemoko Turay (52nd pick): The edge rusher returned from injury after missing the Jacksonville game and came off the bench to register his fourth sack of the season.
Tyquan Lewis (64th pick): Lewis came off IR just before the Jaguars game and has started both games since at defensive end, though his long-term future is likely as a 3-technique tackle. He rung up a tackle for a loss against Tennessee.
Nyheim Hines (104th pick): Playing the Corey Clement/Darren Sproles role in Frank Reich’s offense, Hines had 14 yards on five carries, and a 20-yard catch on Sunday.
Jordan Wilkins (169th pick): Wilkins finished up with 30 yards on four carries, and part of that effort was an aggressive 18-yard touchdown run.
And then there’s the rookie we haven’t seen yet: ex-Clemson receiver Deon Cain, the sixth-round receiver who’d been the revelation of training camp before blowing out his ACL.
It’s easy to see—looking at the totality of the rookie performance, and the renewed brilliance of Luck—how the Colts appear to be on the front end of something big. But Leonard, at least when I talked to him, wasn’t allowing himself to start thinking about that.
“We’re just gonna take it day-by-day, and just go from there,” Leonard said. “I’m not gonna make some proclamation. I’m just taking it day-by-day, not looking for anything crazy going on.”
Funny, because it seems like something pretty crazy is going on.
Vander Esch and the Cowboys Defense are Coming on Strong
No one would look at Julio Jones’ 28-yard gain on the second play from scrimmage in the Falcons-Cowboys game and point the finger at Dallas rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. But there was a lesson in there that injured vet Sean Lee, his linebackers coach Ben Bloom and defensive backs coach Kris Richard wanted to give him in the aftermath. And the favor they were doing Vander Esch would be repaid.
Lee and the coaches told Vander Esch that he was caught flat-footed coming up to cover the run on the play-action, and if he kept his feet chopping, he’d be in better position to recover. Atlanta would go back to the play late.
“I got sucked up on the first play, the first time they ran it, in the first quarter,” Vander Esch explained to me as he came off the team plane. “And then they ran it again, beginning of the fourth, and I got kind of got sucked up, but I patted my feet a little more, and dropped right where I was supposed to be. And it came off [Calvin] Ridley’s hands, and that was pretty much the moral of the story.”
Vander Esch was right there to collect the ball and return it 28 yards to the Falcons 31. Two Ezekiel Elliott runs later, and the Cowboys had a 19-9 lead, vital points in a 22-19 win that rookie kicker Brett Maher sealed at buzzer.
The play of Vander Esch—another DROY candidate—and the rest of the defense against the Falcons showed that the Cowboys are developing into a different type of team. Elliott has 388 scrimmage yards over the last two games, and that kind of offense, buoyed behind its line, is working to highlight an improving young defense that’s growing up quickly.
Vander Esch, by way of Lee’s injuries, has been thrust into the middle of it all, and has shown to be a quick study. The interception is one example of how, as one staffer explains, “he almost never makes the same mistake twice.” And the rookie, to his credit, says Lee’s been huge for his growth, as he learns the weak-side linebacker spot that’s been the vet’s home for years.
“It’s been absolutely miraculous,” said Vander Esch. “I absoluitely love the guy. I feel like I’ve known him my whole entire life. Growing up watching him on TV for years and years, and now getting the chance to play alongside him, get coached up by him—our relationship is absolutely amazing. He’s one of the most special guys I’ve ever been around.”
The Cowboys brass would tell you Vander Esch is pretty good too. And with other young pieces like Byron Jones, DeMarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith, Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis in the mix around him, Dallas has risen to eighth in total defense and third in scoring defense.
That kind of production is probably what got COO Stephen Jones excited enough to say to reporters post-game that Vander Esch might be the franchise’s best rookie defender since DeMarcus Ware was in 2005. I relayed that to Vander Esch. He hadn’t heard it yet, but sure seemed blown away.
“It’s an absolutely honor to have the trust and belief that the owners have in you like that,” he said. “I absolutely love the Joneses, I can’t thank them any more for giving me the chance to play for their team. I never wanted to be anywhere else. This is where I wanted to be the whole entire process. For me to get the chance to play for them now—and they took a chance on me—I just want to do everything I can to give back to them and make sure they get what they asked for. Everything and more.”
Looks like the Joneses are getting plenty as it is.
… OF THE WEEK
And this as a follow up …
I loved the Gruden & @derekcarrqb heated exchange & them rallying to win after. Shows they have a strong relationship & can handle healthy conflict. Love more that people who don’t understand competitive fire & healthy conflict freaked out on Twitter #NoConflictNoGrowth @Raiders— Trent Dilfer (@DilfersDimes) November 19, 2018
I think we all need to take a deep breath on the Jon Gruden-Derek Carr relationship, and not psychoanalyze every single interaction (if Gruden wasn’t getting after him, I actually think that would be a worse sign … shoot, now I’m doing it too). Coach-QB dustups aren’t uncommon—they’re just caught on camera more often now. And I think that’s what Gruden was getting at post-game when he was asked about it. Here’s his response: “That’s the first time you’ve seen it, it ain’t the first time it’s happened. We’re both competitors, we’re competing hard there. We had a man-to-man situation, he went for the big play, and we had a mild disagreement. But you know what? That’s part of this business. We’re going to have times when we clash a little bit. We’re also very supportive of one another. I’m very proud of him. He’s been through a lot this year. I’m glad he’s our quarterback.”
That said, I think it’s fair to call this Raiders partnership a work-in-progress. I just think it’s a little much to cherry pick an animated run-in on the sideline and position it as anything more than that.
“It could be whatever. Get a contract extension or something. Something’s going to happen. We’re going to wait until that time comes. I’m trying to live in the moment and thank God every day.” —Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on Sunday morning that Jacksonville will “likely” consider dealing their outspoken corner after the 2018 season. The interesting thing is that the Jags really don’t have to do anything. They have him next year at $3.6 million, and then on the fifth-year option in 2020 for around $13 million. And after that, they could tag him for 2021.
But Ramsey alluded to it there—most expect that he’ll push hard for a blockbuster deal this offseason, the first in which he’s eligible for one. And the reality is, he’s already been an issue for a team with a lot of them. So while I don’t think the Jags will deal Ramsey, I could certainly understand pondering it, especially with the brewing cap issues of 2019 in Jacksonville.
This, from San Antonio Express-News columnist Mike Finger. And it’s true, folks. Raise your kids to be backup quarterbacks. Josh McCown was pulled off the high school field he’d been coaching on in 2011 by the Bears and has made almost $35 million in the years since. Bears backup Chase Daniel has two career starts and has pulled down $28.3 million in his 10 years.
Good work if you can get it—and we’ll have more on McCoy shortly.
Two weeks ago we had a Miami/Florida State-style tunnel brawl break out between the Air Force Academy and Army football teams. This week Harvard players are giving Yale guys the ol’ one-finger salute, and I’m not sure what we’ve got left to believe in. Good thing there’ll be some civility in Columbus this weekend.
And since that’s a college football meme, here’s an NFL meme for you, which I saw via NFL Network’s Kyle Brandt …
S/O TO …
United Airlines and American Airlines for waiving change fees for travelers looking to switch flights from Mexico City to Los Angeles this weekend, an acknowledgment of the bind some football fans found themselves in with the move of the Rams/Chiefs game. I’ve been critical of the airlines plenty in the past—my loyal Twitter following knows that. And so I’m going to give them credit when they make smart, clear-headed calls like this one.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
The college football weekend, through NFL eyes:
1. Houston DT Ed Oliver’s run-in with coach Major Applewhite wouldn’t be a big deal if Oliver didn’t already carry a bit of rep in this regard. According to scouts, Oliver has been widely seen as high-maintenance, and as a guy who’s gotten things his way a lot (his high school defensive coordinator, A.J. Blum, was hired as his position coach two years ago) after arriving on campus as the first five-star recruit in program history. Bottom line, we’ll be talking about this very public run-in again in a few months.
2. West Virginia QB Will Grier didn’t win on Saturday, but he showed his competitiveness in carrying his team back and giving them a shot at the end against Oklahoma State. And NFL types love that about him. The question is, and has been, where his ceiling is. Some believe he’s a backup in the pros; others think he’s more. “The offense is funky, but he has arm talent,” said one NFC exec. “I’d like him on my team.”
3. Every week I’ve watched Clemson’s true freshman quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, he’s made a handful throws that have NFL written all over them. You don’t want to anoint someone too early in their college career—see: Hackenberg, Christian—but this kid’s tools aren’t hard to see.
4. It’s fair to think ex-Eagles and Niners coach Chip Kelly is making progress at UCLA. After an 0-5 start, the Bruins split their last six. And Kelly and company beat rival USC with just 57 scholarship players available on Saturday, which is 28 fewer than the NCAA limit. His team isn’t there yet, but it scraps and fights.
5. Speaking of Kelly, after he initially said no to the Eagles in 2013, Philly called Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. And other teams had previously expressed interest. The Irish coach’s star fell when the program slumped, and NFL people have always wondered if he was a little too tough, in a Nick Saban-type way, for today’s pro athlete. But now that Notre Dame has rebounded? It’s not impossible NFL teams start sniffing around again.
6. On a weekend scheduled to be full of mismatches—ahead of rivalry weekend—one name that stood out from a prospect-watching perspective was Michigan junior linebacker Devin Bush. There are concerns about his size, but he’s super instinctive and had 11 tackles, snuffed out a fake punt, and made a great play on a ball in coverage. I asked a scout there if he’s a first-rounder right now, and “likely” is the answer I got back.
1. When I talked to Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva postgame, he brought up a book he loves called Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. As he sees it, the book—which is about shared myths and achievements through the history of humankind—relates to his team’s resilience through all the noise they dealt with over the last year. “Our team is like that—we’ve all been there for so long, we understand each other, we know how it’s done,” the former Army Ranger said. “The main theme is there, that coach [Mike] Tomlin wants us to look after each other, our preparation, and not blink. That’s how he wants the personality of this team, sharing myths, sharing values. And at the end of the day, it’s that mature mentality that we have, that we haven’t done anything yet.” And so when I asked him if the Le’Veon Bell saga being over made a difference for the team on Sunday, his answer was what you might expect. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Le’Veon hasn’t been here, so from a team standpoint, it’s not a factor. We all shared the myth in the locker room—next man up. I was the next man up at one point. [James] Conner is the next man up. You’re expected to perform. I understand Le’Veon did that at a high level, but Conner’s not blinking. It’s what expected him to do. It’s this common myth we have about the next man up, you put everything aside, Le’Veon’s contract aside. We wish the best for Le’Veon. As a player, you want what’s best for him. But because he’s not around, we’re focused on the guys who are here.” Deep stuff. By the way, the Steelers came back from a 16-6 deficit in Jacksonville in the final five minutes of the game to win their six straight. We’ll have more on that in the Monday Afternoon Quarterback.
2. The Texans survived a couple Deshaun Watson interceptions, and a 63-yard field-goal attempt to beat the Redskins and get out of Maryland with their seventh straight win. “Survived” is the operative word—because this tough, gritty team is doing a lot of just that, surviving. The final was 23-21, and now a team that was 0-3 is a full two games up on everyone in the AFC South, which is pretty incredible. “It’s really a combination of coaching, leadership and character,” said safety Tyrann Mathieu over the phone after getting back to Houston. “There’s not a lot ‘me’ guys here, so it’s easy to get guys to buy in. We’ve got a pretty cool group, guys that take it seriously. And even when we were losing, we knew were close, and whether it was in how we were preparing or playing, we just kept making the commitment.” The big play in this one was made by another safety—rookie Justin Reid took a pick of Alex Smith 101 yards to the house, from one end zone to the other. And Mathieu says such plays are no mistake—they’re a result of everyone following the coaching and trusting one another on a team full of guys Mathieu thinks have certain things in common. “I do believe that,” he said. “Everyone competes, we have a lot of guys that have been counted out. It’s a nice mix.”
3. I’m not sure how any couldn’t feel terrible for Alex Smith in the aftermath of his broken tibia and fibula on Sunday afternoon, and you can count backup QB Colt McCoy among them. When I hit him up after the game, McCoy was sick for his teammate, but also looking ahead already to Thursday’s game in Dallas, which will be for first place in the NFC East. “I’ll have to knock off some rust, and hopefully we get a couple guys back from injury,” he said. “I’m excited about my opportunity.” The Redskins are working out a group of quarterbacks that includes Mark Sanchez on Monday, but my sense is they’re comfortable with McCoy as their starter. In 2017 they were prepared to go forward with the nine-year vet as their bridge starter if things went in a different direction with Kirk Cousins. And McCoy has played pretty well in five years under Jay Gruden, completing 70.5 percent of his passes with a 99.4 passer rating in limited action.
4. Give Raiders coach Jon Gruden credit for having his guys ready to climb off the canvas after their ugly Thursday night loss to the 49ers—it may have been two rebuilding teams facing off in Arizona on Sunday, but it took resolve for the Raiders to win that one, from a group that didn’t show much against San Francisco. After the game, Gruden pointed this out to me, via text, on his young players: “They love football, love to prepare, love to compete and respect the team.” If Gruden can get a young team going down the stretch … Remember, five first-round picks over the next two drafts.
5. I guess holding practice in the snow didn’t lead to a total mutiny in Detroit?
6. Panthers QB Cam Newton nicked up his ankle and knee up on Sunday, but the staff is optimistic he’s going to be OK. As for Ron Rivera’s decision to go for two, as I understand it, it’s as simple as Rivera said in his post-game press conference: He just wanted to end the game there. And to be fair, the play was dialed up for them. Newton just missed the throw to an open Jarius Wright.
7. If Sunday Night showed us one thing, from a global standpoint, it’s the importance of winning at the line of scrimmage. The Vikings O-line was no match for a Bears front stocked with the likes of Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Leonard Floyd and Eddie Goldman—Minnesota was held to 1.6 yards per carry and Kirk Cousins was harassed all night long. By the end, Cousins and the Vikings offense seemed reduced to getting the ball out quick to Stefon Diggs, and praying he could make something happen.
8. On the flip side, Mitch Trubisky remains a bit of enigma, but Bears coach Matt Nagy has been brilliant in managing him. And at this point, if giving Trubisky the green light to run the ball is what you need to do, well, you’re in a playoff race, so you do it. On Sunday Trubisky took that green light for 43 yards on 10 carries. To be fair, Nagy has been cautious, saying that Trubisky’s still very much a work in progress, which explain the ups and downs that we saw, again, in how he went from a stellar afternoon against Detroit last week to an average one last night.
9. The Bucs defense has played a role in a lot of get-right weeks for opponents this year, but Eli Manning’s numbers from Sunday should not be ignored: 17-of-18 for 231 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. It’s no coincidence, by the way, that it came on a day when Saquon Barkley went for 142 yards and two scores of his own on 27 carries. Eli’s slid into “the pack” of NFL quarterbacks—capable of being competent, so long as he has plenty of help.
10. Tampa has a very interesting decision to make at quarterback going forward. And I’d imagine the owners offer some input on this one, given how much is on the line. Jameis Winston played a lot better on Sunday. There’s merit to the idea of letting him play the final six games of the season so the team can get a better body of information before making a franchise-shifting decision on him in a few months. The risk is that if he gets hurt and can’t pass a physical in March, the team would be on the hook for his $20.9 million option for 2019. Further complicating the situation is that the entire football operation could be overhauled in January, meaning the people making the final call on Winston might not be in the building right now. So as I said, this one’s interesting.
It doesn’t get much better, from a regular-season standpoint, than what we’re getting on Monday Night—two 9-1 teams with offensive-mastermind coaches, bright young quarterbacks and explosive skill-position talent all over the place. And so I see this one a little like Super Bowl LII. Which is to say, I bet there’s a defensive play somewhere at the end that makes the difference, a la Brandon Graham.
That’s why I’m taking the Rams. I just feel like they’ve got more players—Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, Dante Fowler, Marcus Peters—capable of making that play of defense than the Chiefs do. So let’s go Rams 35, Chiefs 31 (with Donald causing a fourth-quarter turnover).
Also! The Thanksgiving schedule isn’t too shabby. We get to see the 7-3 Bears early in Detroit, have Dallas trying to pull even against the Redskins in the NFC East after that, and then get the Saints and Falcons in the nightcap. Which is all more than enough to cast yourself as the aloof guy in your family all day long. Trust me, I know. I’ve been that guy on Thanksgiving for a few decades now.
And with that … a special Happy Thanksgiving to everyone who made it all the way to the bottom of the column.
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