AROUND THE NFL
The Watt brothers were 3-0 this weekend, playing on three different days. Peter King:
Connie and John Watt flew from Wisconsin to Kansas City to watch their son Derek Watt play fullback and special teams for the Chargers in their 29-28 win over Kansas City on Thursday.
Connie and John Watt flew from Kansas City to New Jersey to watch their son J.J. Watt play defensive end for the Texans in their 29-22 win over the Jets on Saturday.
Connie and John Watt flew from New Jersey to Pittsburgh to watch their son T.J. play linebacker for the Steelers in their 17-10 win over New England on Sunday.
“Ninety-eight days ago,” Chicago coach Matt Nagy said over the phone Sunday night.
Hmmmm. What happened three months ago or so?
“That’s the night we lost in Green Bay,” Nagy said after the Bears beat the Packers at Soldier Field and won the NFC North for the first time in eight years. Sunday’s win avenged that Week 1 loss to Green Bay. Remember? Aaron Rodgers came back from what appeared to be a knee injury to lead Green Bay to a stirring 24-23 victory—and the Bears were left with enormous regrets. The biggest: a Rodgers throw into cornerback Kyle Fuller’s breadbasket with 2:40 left in the game that could have ended the game. But Fuller dropped it.
“I will remember that night for the rest of my life,” Nagy said. “I will remember the look in those players’ eyes. I looked at those 50 guys and told them, ‘This is happening for a reason. You’re not gonna trust me right now, but this is a long season, and we’re only at Week 1 right now, and we’ll be okay.’ I wanted them to feel it for six hours, and then, next morning, to walk in with a smile on their faces.”
Nagy reminded his team of that night before Sunday’s 24-17 win. He reminded Fuller of the interception he dropped—not to torment him, but to talk about how he came back from it. “You rebounded to lead the league in interceptions,” Nagy told him. This morning, Fuller and Miami’s Xavien Howard are tied for the league lead with seven interceptions.
Nagy’s the first Bears coach since George Halas 98 years ago to win 10 games in his first season. He loves history, and he’s blown away by his place in the Bears pantheon. But none of that’s going to matter if he can’t get the up-and-down Mitchell Trubisky to play an efficient game in January. The Bears will be a tough out because they’re so good on defense. But Trubisky’s the X factor to how far they can go in the postseason.
On Sunday, QB AARON RODGERS completed a run of 402 passes without an interception. But Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com says that an INT is not the only “bad play” a quarterback can have:
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is still the best in the NFL at avoiding interceptions. Unfortunately, too often he’s avoiding interceptions at the expense of making productive plays.
We’ve noted before how Rodgers is throwing the ball away more than any other quarterback in the NFL, but there’s more to it than just that. Rodgers’ accuracy is hurting even when he isn’t trying to throw the ball away. In Sunday’s loss to the Bears, he twice missed open receivers for what should have been touchdown passes. He’s scattering the ball around the field in ways he hasn’t before, and the result is that Rodgers has thrown more incompletions than any other quarterback in the NFL.
Rodgers also avoids interceptions by taking sacks too often. In fact, if we add up every quarterback’s interceptions, incompletions, sacks and fumbles and compile them all into one stat we’ll call “bad plays,” Rodgers is actually the worst in the NFL.
Here are the quarterbacks ranked by the most bad plays in the 2018 season:
255 Aaron Rodgers
230 Case Keenum
223 Eli Manning
221 Jared Goff
It’s worth stating the obvious, that the leaders in “bad plays” are not actually the worst quarterbacks in the NFL. In fact, to lead the league in bad plays you’ll probably have to start every week, just to get an opportunity to throw that many incompletions, and the really bad quarterbacks are the ones who don’t start every week because they get benched. But a quarterback with a lot of bad plays has certainly not had a great season, and few would argue that Rodgers, Keenum and Manning have all been disappointing this year — and Goff has rapidly become disappointing after getting the season off to a great start.
Simply avoiding interceptions should not be the goal of a quarterback, and when we praise Rodgers for his league-low two interception rate this season, we’re overlooking all of his other bad plays. As Paul Noonan wrote at SB Nation’s Packers site, there is such a thing as being too careful with the ball, and that’s what Rodgers has looked like this season: He so badly wants to avoid throwing interceptions that he’ll either take a sack or throw the ball away rather than try to hit his receiver in a tight window. And hitting his receivers in a tight window is one of the things a great quarterback needs to do.
Rodgers is 35, and if his down year is just a natural part of a quarterback getting older, that would be understandable. For as impressive as it is that Tom Brady and Drew Brees continued to play at a high level long past age 35, not every quarterback ages the same way. Maybe Rodgers just isn’t destined to be as good a quarterback in his late 30s as he was when he won the Super Bowl MVP at age 27, and the regular-season MVP at age 28 and again at age 31. It happens.
The problem for the Packers is, they can no longer afford for Rodgers not to be great. Rodgers was previously on a very affordable contract, but the Packers decided this year to rip that contract up and give him a new, much more lucrative contract, even though he still had two years on his old deal. That decision now looks like a mistake, as the Packers are on the hook for a deal that sees Rodgers’ cap hits grow to $26.5 million next year, $32.6 million in 2020 and $33.5 million in 2021. It won’t be easy to build a better team around Rodgers while he’s taking up that much of the salary cap. Especially if, as he gets older, he continues to struggle with accuracy and avoiding the pass rush.
So the Packers need Rodgers to stop making so many bad plays. Even if that means throwing more interceptions.
Maybe if we have time, we’ll try to figure out who are the worst in percentage of bad plays. The QBs who are asked to pass the most will tend to show up on a counting list like Smith has produced.
NEW YORK GIANTS
If the Giants can get WR ODELL BECKHAM Jr. semi-healthy he will play again this season. No resting. Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:
Sunday’s shutout loss to the Titans ended any playoff pipe dreams for the Giants, but it didn’t change their hopes in regard to getting wide receiver Odell Beckham back on the field this season.
Beckham has missed the last two games with a quad injury that he described as a “hematoma” on Facebook last week. On Monday, Giants head coach Pat Shurmur said that Beckham is feeling better than he did last week and that there hasn’t been any thought to shutting him down with an eye on 2019.
Shurmur also said he’s “hopeful” that Beckham will be able to help the Giants find their way back to the scoreboard against the Colts this week.
“He’s like every other player,” Shurmur said, via Newsday. “We’re going to try to get him back for this Sunday.”
Beckham has 77 catches for 1,052 yards and six touchdowns as a receiver and he’s also thrown two passes for two touchdowns this season.
Good to see QB JOSH JOHNSON get an NFL win – seven years after his first NFL start.
Austin Knoblach of NFL.com:
Washington Redskins quarterback Josh Johnson made his first start since 2011 on Sunday, and he made the most of it.
The journeyman signal-caller earned his first career NFL win in the team’s 16-13 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Johnson didn’t have the greatest of games — he completed 16 of 25 passes for a modest 151 yards and a touchdown — but it was enough for him to reflect on the long road his career has taken.
“I’ve always had belief in myself that I can do things like this, but, I’ve never been one to talk about it because talking does nothing,” Johnson said after the game. “… Just to have it go our way and be able to just have everything that has been building up in me for years and finally let it out, it was a relief. Honestly, it was. It was just a relief.”
For a guy who’s been part of 13 NFL teams and appeared in 32 games since 2009, Johnson didn’t think he’d ever guide a team to victory. When Dustin Hopkins kicked the winning field goal Sunday, Johnson dropped to his knees in celebration.
“I know every opportunity I get could be my last one,” Johnson said. “That’s just the reality of my situation. I just want to leave it all out on the field. I owe this game that much because I love it that much. I mean, I’ve put in this work; I’ve stayed around this game for this long. For me to go out there and not leave it all out on the field, I would be disrespecting it. So, at the end of the day, if I have an opportunity where I know I can make a play, I’m going to go do that. I mean, we ended up pulling out the victory, so it worked out for us.”
The big question is whether Johnson can win again. With the Tennessee Titans and Philadelphia Eagles standing in the Redskins’ way of a surprise NFC playoff berth, Johnson’s likely going to have to lead the Redskins to multiple wins to give Washington a postseason chance in its post-Alex Smith world.
As surprising as it might be to see Josh Johnson as an NFL game-winning quarterback in 2018, at least one of his teammates isn’t surprised.
“He has an aura, a presence about him,” running back Chris Thompson said, per Michael Phillips of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Even in the meeting rooms, he just came in and took things over.
“It’s a lot like Alex (Smith), it’s not his words, it’s the feeling you get when you walk by him and talk to him.”
It’s looking like Steve Wilks is one and done in Arizona.
It takes more than two hands to count the number of unpleasant Mondays the Cardinals and coach Steve Wilks have suffered through this season, and the latest one was no different.
Wilks held the usual day-after news conference following the 40-14 loss to the Falcons on Sunday and said the usual things.
Most likely, he is as tired of saying them as we are of hearing them.
This is little consolation to him, but Wilks probably will have to do this only one more time, next Monday. It seems a foregone conclusion the day-after news conference on Dec. 31 will be about his firing.
What remains in question is if it’s a package deal, with General Manager Steve Keim sharing boxes and packing tape with Wilks.
This could be the worst Cardinals team since the franchise moved to Arizona in 1988, so jobs will be lost, starting with that of Wilks.
Will that be the end of it?
Keim’s resume warrants more time
My hunch is that team President Michael Bidwill gives Keim another year to repair the damage that’s been done, and I think it’s warranted.
Neither Wilks nor Keim did their jobs well in 2018, but Keim has a resume that warrants another season on the job. In his first three years as general manager, the Cardinals won 34 games, the most successful three-year period in franchise history.
That should count for something: Another year to put the team back on the right track.
But it’s unfair to blame just Wilks for this year’s 3-11 record.
Wilks failed miserably as a head coach, most notably in failing to properly utilize talent and make adjustments on game day. But poor drafts in 2016 and 2017, coupled with miscalculations in free agency, led to a roster lacking in talent.
That’s on Keim, who made matters worse by missing training camp while being suspended for extreme DUI.
Firing Keim now, however, would be a mistake and not because he signed a four-year contract extension last February.
Keim deserves to stay because there was a time in the not-so-distant past that he was one of the better general managers in the NFL.
He traded next to nothing to get quarterback Carson Palmer. He traded for pass rusher Chandler Jones and signed him to a long-term contract. He drafted David Johnson, Tyrann Mathieu, Markus Golden, Deone Bucannon and John Brown. He found key, economical free agents in the summer to address weaknesses, such as John Abraham, Eric Winston, Tommy Kelly and Josh Bynes.
There was a time when Cardinals fans viewed “Keim time” as a good thing.
The 2013 through 2015 seasons were heady times for the Cardinals, and some in the organization let it go to their heads, at least subconsciously.
They forgot one of the oldest cliches in sport is also filled with truth: Be humble or get humbled. Keim, and the whole organization, should be as humble as monks now.
Too many high draft picks have failed, and too many free agents have not panned out. Combine that with a rookie head coach, and it’s no secret why the Cardinals are 3-11 and the leading contender for the first overall pick.
I would bet on Keim bouncing back.
Keim’s loved football since he was a kid. He dreamed of being a general manager since he studied draft magazines instead of his science homework. The sport means a great deal to him.
He hasn’t consented to interviews outside his weekly ones with the team’s flagship radio station, but having known him for close to 20 years, my guess is that Keim is both mad and motivated.
It’s a good combination.
The tricky part to firing Wilks and keeping Keim is that Bidwill would be allowing Keim to help pick a new coach. And if the Cardinals have another bad season in 2019, that coach will be working with a new general manager.
It’s a risk I would take.
While Bidwill is evaluating others in the organization, he should also look at himself.
Since his family owns the team, Bidwill obviously is going nowhere, but he has to take ownership of this debacle, too.
He’s a hands-on owner who was involved in hiring Wilks, signing free agents and drafting players. When times were good, Bidwill was given plenty of credit, deservedly so, and he accepted it.
Now that the team has regressed to a level not seen since the Sun Devil Stadium days, Bidwill should shoulder a share of the responsibility.
Maybe he will whenever he speaks publicly. That’s likely to be Dec. 31, the day after the season mercifully ends.
Mike Florio on others who were canned after just one season:
The notion of a coach getting only one year on the job always sparks surprise, but the reality is that plenty of coaches have found themselves out after only one year on the job. Wilks would join the likes of Chip Kelly and Jim Tomsula, a pair of back-to-back one-and-done coaches with the 49ers in 2016 and 2015, respectively. Before that were Browns coach Rob Chudzinski (2013), Jags coach Mike Mularkey (2012), Raider coach Hue Jackson (2011), Seahawks coach Jim Mora (2009), and Dolphins coach Cam Cameron (2007).
Other coaches fired after one season since 1980 include Art Shell (Raiders, 2006), Marty Schottenhimer (Washington, 2001), Al Groh (Jets, 2000), Ray Rhodes (Packers, 1999), Joe Bugel (Raiders, 1997), Pete Carroll (Jets, 1994), Richie Petitbon (Washington, 1993), Rod Rust (Patriots, 1990), and Les Steckel (Vikings, 1984).
The Seahawks were done in by penalties Sunday, including one in overtime that its perpetrator remained livid over. Brady Henderson of ESPN.com:
The Seattle Seahawks committed a season-high 14 penalties for a franchise record 148 yards in their 26-23 overtime loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
Cornerback Shaquill Griffin took issue with one of the flags — a pass interference penalty called against him that set up San Francisco’s game-winning field goal in overtime.
“The penalty that they called on me, it was a terrible call,” he said inside a silent Seahawks locker room, repeating a word he used a few times.
Griffin was in coverage against Dante Pettis on a second-and-15 play when he was flagged. The penalty moved the 49ers from their own 44-yard line to Seattle’s 41. Robbie Gould kicked the game winner from 36 yards out four plays later.
“I kinda knew they was going to try to call a penalty on someone the way they were calling penalties on offense, and I made sure as soon as I seen the pass in the air that I wasn’t going to touch him or grab him,” Griffin said. “I was just going to stick my hand out, knock it down and roll over. That’s exactly what I did. When I stood up and looked at the [official], he looked at me and threw it. So it’s something I can’t take back, and it sucks the way it ended, but it was a terrible call.”
Griffin said he never got any explanation from the official who threw the flag.
Coach Pete Carroll said he didn’t have a good enough look at the play to offer any thought on whether the penalty was warranted. He noted the poor timing of Griffin’s pass interference and a holding penalty on backup right guard Ethan Pocic, which negated a 32-yard completion from Russell Wilson to J.D. McKissic on Seattle’s first and only possession of OT. The Seahawks punted the ball away for good two plays later.
The loss means they’ll have to wait at least another week to secure a wild-card berth. According to live projections from ESPN’s Football Power Index, Seattle (8-6) still has a 99 percent chance of reaching the postseason.
You can see it here. We agree with Griffin.
Denver coach Vance Joseph didn’t have a fruitful game on Saturday against the Browns and now comes word that his GM John Elway came close to firing him last year. Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:
The Broncos are out of the playoffs for the second consecutive year, and head coach Vance Joseph is on the hot seat. And now a very surprising name has been floated as a potential replacement: Mike Shanahan.
Shanahan, of course, won two Super Bowls with the Broncos, when Broncos General Manager John Elway was his quarterback. And Elway reportedly considered firing Joseph after last season, and hiring Shanahan to replace him.
Longtime Denver sports columnist Woody Paige reported that Elway and Shanahan met a year ago to discuss the possibility of Shanahan returning to the sideline. Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that he heard the same.
Standing in the way was Broncos CEO Joe Ellis, who said if Elway was going to move on from Joseph, he needed to conduct a full coaching search, and not just hand the job to Shanahan. (Elway would have to interview a minority before hiring Shanahan to comply with the Rooney Rule.) Elway eventually came around to giving Joseph a second year in Denver.
But now that Joseph’s second year has ended out of the playoffs, the Broncos may be ready for a new head coach. Could Shanahan be the guy? It’s entirely possible. The 66-year-old Shanahan has said he would like to coach again, if he finds the right situation.
Elway is likely to begin conducting another coaching search in two weeks. Shanahan may be on his list of candidates.
Things were testy between Jon Gruden and QB DEREK CARR about 6 weeks ago, but Michael Gehlken of the Las Vegas Review-Journal says things have gotten better.
Derek Carr used a word this month when characterizing his comfort in Raiders coach Jon Gruden’s offense, specifically his ability to turn the finest details of Gruden’s playbook, practice-field and film-room sessions into seamless game-day application.
It is a word, the quarterback knows, for which there can be little patience.
“The more time that we can have together, it’s going to make it easier to do,” Carr said. “At first, it was a process, and no one likes that word, especially in sports. But it was, and it is. Hopefully, we can just continue to grow that relationship because it’s a lot of fun.”
Here’s another word pertaining to their first year together — progress.
Carr and Gruden have made clear strides in 2018. A critical point was a conversation that occurred sometime midseason. During it, Gruden expressed a desire to place less on his want-to-do-everything-right quarterback’s plate, catalyzing a growth that continues into Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
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Gruden is comfortable with who is behind center.
“I don’t know what else to say,” Gruden said. “You’re entitled to write what you want about us looking for another quarterback. Derek Carr is a great quarterback. … It doesn’t matter who the running back is, who the guards are, who the receivers are. The guy is a heck of a player. When you got a quarterback in this league, you have a chance, I always say.”
Carr threw an NFL-high eight interceptions during the season’s first five weeks.
Since then, he has set a franchise record with eight consecutive games without an interception. His last pick occurred more than 33 quarters ago when Carr pressed on a first-and-goal pass intended for tight end Derek Carrier against the Los Angeles Chargers. It was undercut for a turnover.
Carr said he couldn’t recall the exact moment for his conversation with Gruden.
“It was around the early, middle of the season where he just kind of sat me down and said, ‘Let’s not take your right arm out of things; let’s just take it back to the simple things,’ ” Carr said. “We didn’t cut anything out, I just think that the way he was starting to word things was different.
“Instead of every little detail — because if you give me 100 details I’m going to try to do 100 all correct — now he said, ‘Well, let me give you 50 details, and let’s just let your talent take over the rest.’ We’ve been doing that and correcting as we go and adding here and here. It just helped me play freer for our team and for him. It’s been nice.”
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
The Chargers have a huge game Saturday with Baltimore – and it looks like they are getting reinforcements says Adam Schefter via a tweet:
Chargers believe there’s a legitimate chance that three key injured players – WR Keenan Allen (hip), RBs Melvin Gordon (knee) and Austin Ekeler (neck) – all will be ready for Saturday night’s game vs. Ravens, per source.
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Peter King on Anthony Lynn’s bold decision:
His team converted PATs 82 percent of the time this year, a poor 32 of 39 when kicking for one point.
His team had made five of seven two-point conversions this year.
He had a veteran quarterback who had a history with him of clutch plays in big situations.
The Chiefs were an explosive team, and if Kansas City won the coin flip to start overtime and scored a touchdown, the game would be over without the Chargers touching the ball again.
Even if the Chiefs won the toss and managed only a field goal but took seven or eight minutes off the clock in the process, it would dent the Chargers’ chances to score a touchdown.
He knew his team overwhelmingly favored the two-point option.
I asked Lynn about his thought process, and, interestingly, he credited Doug Pederson’s approach during the Eagles’ Super Bowl season. “When the NFL moved the extra point back to the 33, it made more sense to go for two,’’ Lynn said. He meant that the extra point, with the line of scrimmage now the 15-yard line, becomes the equivalent of a 33-yard field goal. “When I studied the Eagles, they went for it a lot on fourth down—fourth-and-two, fourth-and-short—at places on the field that we hadn’t been used to seeing teams go for it. So I thought it was smart. We started it in training camp. We did it a lot more practicing of the play. During the season, we have Competition Thursday, offense against defense. We always practice a two-point play. Somebody’s gonna win, somebody’s gonna lose. I want my players’ mindset to be, Been there, done that. I want them to expect success on the play.
“One of the things I’ve learned about being a coach is this: You just get what you emphasize.”
Lynn is one of those Sinatra coaches. That’s how I think of guys who think, This is my shot, maybe my one shot, and I’m going to do it my way.
“Ain’t no doubt about that,’’ he said. “If the play doesn’t work, I’ll get killed for it. Why didn’t you kick the point and win in overtime! And that’s part of the deal. I want to ride away one day, just like Sinatra, and think I did it my way.”
The rest of the story you know: The Chiefs screwed up the coverage, Williams was wide open in the end zone, Rivers hit him easily, and the Chargers won, 29-28.
This also from King:
The coach is not the same old Chargers coach either. How Lynn ranks with the best coaching records in the NFL over the past 21 games, including regular-season and playoff games:
Anthony Lynn, Chargers: 17-4
Sean McVay, Rams: 15-5
Andy Reid, Kansas City: 15-6
Sean Payton, New Orleans: 15-6
Bill Belichick, New England: 14-6
This is a totally arbitrary number, 21 games. But the record is a mark of how good the Chargers have been over the last 13 months, and what a good job Lynn has done.
And this from King on PHILIP RIVERS:
Have you seen Philip Rivers after a game, or at a press conference, wearing a hat or shirt with these two Latin words: Nunc Coepi? If you watched post-game Thursday night, you saw him with a hat with those two words. And maybe you’ve wondered what they mean.
Pronounced “Noonk Cheppi,” it’s a Latin phrase meaning, “Now I begin.” That is Rivers’ ethos for football and for life. Every day is a fresh start; make it a great one. Every game is a fresh start; make it a great one. Your past mistakes, your past successes, they’re things that prepare you for the next day.
This tweet from Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:
Lamar Jackson is averaging 17.2 rushing attempts per start in his five games as the Ravens’ starter. Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger no QB has ever averaged more than 10.1 rushing attempts per start.
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Word over the weekend was that the Ravens will allow QB JOE FLACCO to move on next year. Will Brinson of CBSSports.com:
Ever since the moment Lamar Jackson was drafted by the Ravens, Joe Flacco’s time in Baltimore was done. CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora said as much on our draft show that very night. Flacco’s contract isn’t ideal for a starting quarterback, it’s completely untenable for a backup.
The only question left for Flacco isn’t whether he will be gone, but it’s the method with which he will be gone. The Ravens could certainly cut him, giving a nice little golden parachute (not that he needs one) and the opportunity to sign with whatever team he wants on the open market.
However, Baltimore clearly would prefer to trade Flacco. That would give the Ravens salary cap relief for the rest of Flacco’s deal and allow them to get something in return for the quarterback. Those things can get awkward, with the Ravens potentially taking the best deal and shipping Flacco to a place he might not be thrilled to land.
On the other hand, the Ravens might prefer cutting Flacco and designating him a post-June 1 cut, so they can spread the cap hit across multiple years.
But the team also wants to, according to a report from Ian Rapoport of NFL Media, “treat Joe Flacco with class” and would consider helping him land in a spot that he prefers.
So what might that spot look like? Again, Flacco’s a tough case because he has $26.5 million cap hit next year.
The Washington Redskins could make sense, because they’re dealing with an injury to Alex Smith that could very well keep him out for next year. That broken leg issue is really TBD, but the bigger problem might be taking on multiple huge cap hits for elderly quarterbacks.
Maybe the Jacksonville Jaguars could make sense? They are moving on from Blake Bortles but they are also going to be very short on cap space heading into the offseason (if they have any at all). They could be a player if they’re able to move Bortles in a salary dump, although one could argue that Flacco isn’t that big of an upgrade if they can’t fix the offensive line. They might need to go young at quarterback moving forward.
The New York Giants would be an obvious landing spot if they weren’t committed to Eli Manning. That’s the Giants problem — not sure Flacco would be substantially better behind that offensive line, although he would certainly have the best cast of offensive skill players around him he’s ever had.
How about the Oakland Raiders, a team that is hurtling toward a top draft pick and may or may not be happy with Derek Carr. If Gruden decides he needs to change things up, it’s entirely possible he makes a move and gets a different veteran quarterback while picking someone up in the draft.
Maybe the Miami Dolphins make sense. They have Ryan Tannehill, but if Adam Gase is run out of town after this season, Tannehill might not be back. Flacco could make sense if the Dolphins are able to procure the services of John Harbaugh in the coaching market. (Or maybe not, depending on how Flacco feels about Harbaugh?)
Good luck finding many more teams who fit for Flacco, assuming he wants to be a starter. The Ravens cutting him seems like a far more likely scenario.
Landing sports for Flacco? Look to Florida. Miami, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and the Giants all should have interest—particularly if the Bucs let Jameis Winston walk.
Once again, Peter King is writing about a team that is still under .500.
There is a reason, if you live in Ohio, to thank the heavens that Cleveland GM John Dorsey fell in love with Baker Mayfield last fall. There is also a reason to be thankful that Freddie Kitchens was handed the reins of the Browns offense seven weeks ago.
On Oct. 29, Gregg Williams took over as coach for the fired Hue Jackson, and Kitchens took over as offensive coordinator for the fired Todd Haley. The Browns are 4-2 since. Four wins. Four Mayfield fist-pumping, howling-at-the-moon wins. Previous 164 weeks: four wins.
Mayfield/Kitchens. Rarely does an NFL shotgun marriage work, never-mind flourish. “Why has it worked so well?” I asked Kitchens on Friday.
“Because Baker is starved for knowledge,” Kitchens said in his Alabama twang, the accent Mayfield imitates almost daily. “He loves learning. I’ve told him, ‘Your work in progress is never gonna be complete, ever. There’s always gonna be things you can work on, new things.’ Why limit what he can become? He loves that. You see that every week, how much he loves it.”
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The Browns are factors in December. Baker is starved for knowledge.
Those two things are related.
The impact of the 44-year-old Kitchens on this NFL season is so cool. He’s been touched by some strong and historic and innovative coaches. The Alabama kid played quarterback for three years under Gene Stallings in the 90s … Worked as a grad assistant on Nick Saban’s LSU staff in 2000 … Coached the tight ends (including Jason Witten) in 2006 on Bill Parcells’ last Dallas staff. “Incredibly important year,” Kitchens said. “I learned how to manage a team. I wish I had more time to learn from him. Jason Witten taught me, just by seeing him work on the field and in the film room and the meeting room, how to be an NFL coach.” … Then Kitchens went to Arizona, staying for 11 years under Ken Whisenhunt and Bruce Arians. He was quarterback coach for Carson Palmer’s four Arizona seasons.
Take that quarter-century of football experience, and you can see the results in Kitchens today. He’s no-nonsense and tough, like Stallings and Saban and Parcells. He’s quiet off the field. He’s the furthest thing from a self-promoter, which could have hurt him climbing the NFL ladder. He’s imaginative, the way Saban is on defense and Arians is on offense. He’s got a way of reaching players, even if it’s in a gravelly way, like Parcells.
“When he first took over the offense here,” said Stanton, who was Palmer’s backup in Arizona, “he was absolutely sick about Todd Haley getting fired. That’s who brought him here. But that’s Freddie. In his first meeting with the offense, he said, ‘We’re gonna be as good as everyone in this room is.’ He wanted ideas. He asked the offensive linemen, ‘What runs do you guys like?’ I’d never seen that before.”
The offense was in the bottom quartile in most categories when Kitchens took over. But in these six games, Kitchens has installed the kind of stuff Sean Payton experiments with weekly in New Orleans. Against the Panthers eight days ago, the Browns ran one of the weirdest misdirection plays of the year. Before the snap, Breshad Perriman came in motion from right to left in front of Mayfield, who was in shotgun. At the snap, Perriman turned back where he came from and got a fake handoff from Mayfield. Then Mayfield began to run left … but Jarvis Landry, also cutting from left to right, sped by Mayfield and Mayfield handed him the ball almost imperceptibly while Mayfield continued to run left with the rest of the offense, like he was going to run a keep to his left. Luke Kuechly and the Panther defense stretched with Mayfield … and Landry had an easy touchdown. Just weird. Kuechly’s never confused. But he was on this play. Clearly it was a surprise to the most instinctive linebacker in football.
“Why?” Stanton said. “Because Luke Kuechly is one of the smartest players in the league. You don’t fool him. You’ve got to show him stuff to make him think.”
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“I know this: You have to have creativity to create confusion, and maybe hesitation, for the defense in this game today,” Kitchens told me. “So the team we’re gonna play next week is gonna have to work on a lotta stuff we won’t even have in the game plan.”
Kitchens sounds exactly like the kind of coach teams in a coaching search should investigate. Everyone’s looking for the next Payton, the next Sean McVay. Could it be the barrel-chested Alabamian who, despite never having been a coordinator before, has turned the Cleveland offense into must-see TV in his seven weeks on the job?
As for those aspirations, it seems ridiculously quick. And Kitchens is having none of it. “I don’t think about it,” he said. “I truly don’t. I am here to do a job at this present time. It is no different than any other job I have had. Carson had four of the best years of his life with me, and the single best year of his life with me. But I don’t clamor for attention. I never advertised for a job, never sent out propaganda for a job. I never will.”
After the touchdown strike in the fourth quarter in Denver, Mayfield went to the sideline and hugged Kitchens for four or five seconds. After the game, on NFL Network, Mayfield did a bad Kitchens-with-Alabama-accent impression. It’s clear from what they say and how they interact that no matter what caused this shotgun wedding, it’s working out well. The pictures say it, and the numbers scream it. Mayfield was 2-4 with Hue Jackson running the offense; he’s 4-2 under Kitchens. The relevant numbers, with six games started under each play-caller:
With Jackson: 58.3 percent completions, 6.59 yards per pass, 20 sacks, 78.9 rating.
With Kitchens: 71.8 percent complestions, 8.66 yards per pass, 5 sacks, 111.1 rating.
So GM John Dorsey’s got a tough decision on his hands after the season. Does he:
• Blow up the whole coaching staff and start over with a hot candidate like Josh McDaniels or Lincoln Riley, giving Mayfield his third offensive boss in nine months—and perhaps risking alienating the franchise quarterback, who has grown to like and respect Kitchens?
• Keep Gregg Williams as head coach and try to keep Kitchens as offensive coordinator, and build a staff around them?
• Keep Kitchens as offensive coordinator and find a head coach who would allow Kitchens offensive autonomy?
• Keep Williams as head coach, hope Kitchens chooses to stay, but if he doesn’t, allow Williams to hire his own offensive coordinator?
Compared to the alternatives, those are relatively nice problems to have. But they won’t be easy to solve. For now, it’s best to let this incredible year play out. The Browns, for the first time since the outlier 10-6 season, are playing for something the week before Christmas, and this fun offense is a big reason why.
Pittsburgh’s hero du jour, RB JAYLEN SAMUELS tells Peter King that he’s never had a 100-yard rushing game and never had as many as 19 carries in a game – prior to Sunday against New England.
The architect of the Indianapolis shutout had a lot of insight into the Cowboys offense as Peter King reminds us:
Matt Eberflus, defensive coordinator, Indianapolis. For seven years, Eberflus served on Jason Garrett’s coaching staff, and he longed to be a defensive coordinator. He thought he was going to have that chance with Josh McDaniels in Indianapolis, but McDaniels withdrew from the job after the Super Bowl, and Eberflus was left hanging … but the Colts honored the job offer and paired him with Frank Reich. They’re glad they did. The reward for Eberflus: a 23-0 shutout of the Cowboys in Indianapolis on Sunday. That had to feel pretty good.
RB FRANK GORE did not finish the game Sunday in Minneapolis on Sunday and it may be game, set, match for the venerable running back. He his just a few hundred yards south of hitting 15,000 for his career.
Miami Dolphins running back Frank Gore is not expected to play again this season, a league source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter, perhaps ending the potential Hall of Famer’s NFL career.
Gore, who has not missed a game since the 2010 season, had tests on his sprained foot Monday after leaving the Dolphins’ 41-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings with the injury on Sunday.
Gore, 35, who is a five-time Pro Bowl selection, is in his first season with the Dolphins after signing a one-year contract to play in the city where he starred for the University of Miami in college football.
He is No. 1 among active players with 14,748 career rushing yards and No. 4 on the all-time list, trailing only Barry Sanders, Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith, who are all in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In 14 games this season, he has 722 rushing yards and 12 receptions for 124 yards and a touchdown.
Rookie running back Kalen Ballage is expected to pick up a heavy portion of Gore’s workload. He gained 123 yards on 12 carries in Sunday’s loss and scored on a 75-yard touchdown run.
Charles Woodson is among those seeing QB TOM BRADY in decline:
Charles Woodson and Tom Brady go back a long way. They were teammates at Michigan, and the famous “tuck rule” play joins them forever in NFL history. And now, more than two decades after they became college teammates, Woodson wonders if we’re not finally seeing the beginning of the end of Brady.
Woodson said today on ESPN that he saw Brady appear in Pittsburgh on Sunday like the hits are taking a toll on his 41-year-old body, and he’s avoiding contact even at the expense of missing throws he used to make.
“I just think the NFL is catching up to Tom Brady,” Woodson said. “I think he’s actually starting to feel all the hits, all the sacks of the NFL. It happens to every player. It happened to myself as a player . . . at some point in time it just catches up with you.”
Woodson pointed to two plays, an interception that Brady tried to throw out of bounds and an incompletion on his last pass of the game, as plays that he thinks Brady would have made in the past.
“I think Tom Brady, he made that throw — awful interception that he threw,” Woodson said. “I felt like the last play he threw, I thought he had a chance to hit Cordarrelle Patterson in the back of the end zone if he just stepped into the pocket, but like I said, I think the hits are getting to him, and you see him trying to get the ball get out of his hand to avoid taking those hits.”
Although Brady has not played quite as well this year as he did last year, he remains one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Woodson may be right that Brady has slipped a bit, but he is still better at age 41 than all but a handful of NFL starting quarterbacks.
Kraft flew to Pittsburgh ahead of the team Saturday morning, according to NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala, and went to pay his respects at the Tree of Life synagogue, where 11 worshipers were massacred in October. Kinkhabwala reported Kraft was invited to speak at the service, did so, and spoke partly in Hebrew. The service was held at a temporary meeting place because Tree of Life is unavailable, presumably due to the investigation and repairs that must be made there. Kraft has been so moved by the tragedy that he and Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich agreed to play a May exhibition in Foxboro, with both contributing $1 million from the proceeds to fight antisemitism. On Saturday, Kraft attended services with son Josh Kraft.
In case you wondered from King’s wording, Chelsea will not be playing Kraft by himself or the NFL Patriots. Their opponents will be the New England Revolution of the MLS. The Revolution are coming off a 10-13-6 MLS season that did not net them a playoff berth.
THIS AND THAT
CURRENT HALL OF FAME RUNNING BACK LOCKS
The headline says there are five “current” NFL running backs who are Hall of Fame “locks.”
Before we look and see who they might be – ADRIAN PETERSON has to be one.
FRANK GORE, through the sheer enduring nature of his career, has to be another although he never shone at any point like you would think a Hall of Fame back would.
Is Le’VEON BELL still a “lock” after his shenanigans this year? We would think he is not a lock until he gets his career back under way?
Are EZEKIEL ELLIOTT, TODD GURLEY, SEQUON BARKLEY “locks” yet? Is MARSHAWN LYNCH still “current”?
Okay, let’s find out in this analysis from former NFL back Maurice Jones-Drew at NFL.com:
The NFL is full of flashy young running backs, but let’s not forget about 35-year-old Frank Gore. He proved Sunday that he’s still got it.
Gore racked up 116 scrimmage yards in Miami’s miraculous win over New England on Sunday. That performance moved Gore into fifth on the NFL’s all-time scrimmage yards list (18,350), surpassing my NFL Network colleague LaDainian Tomlinson (18,456). Notably, everyone in the top 10 besides Gore is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Gore came into the league in 2005 and has since made a Hall of Fame-worthy career on his physical running style, his success running between the tackles and his cutting ability. He’s never been the flashiest guy on the field, but he always seems to have 100-plus yards at the end of the game.
There’s no question that Gore will have a bust in Canton, Ohio, and to me, he should be a first-ballot guy. Gore currently ranks fourth all-time in rushing yards (14,734), behind Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders. The five-time Pro Bowler has been available throughout his 15-year career, with the exception of a game here or there.
Gore isn’t the only Hall of Fame-worthy running back in the league right now, though. Here’s a breakdown of guys who could — and should — get gold jackets.
Veterans who are Hall of Fame locks
There’s a group of vets who have gotten lost in the shuffle this season. Having played for at least 10 seasons, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch and LeSean McCoy have put together exceptional careers. Peterson and Lynch both came into the league in 2007 and found success with running styles that were the polar opposites of each other. With exceptional cutting ability and speed, Peterson has constructed a career plum full of big-time plays — he’s still exploding for 90-yard runs at age 33, easily outpacing his far younger Washington teammates in yards from scrimmage (1,052). Peterson has been the league’s rushing leader three times, is one of seven backs to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season and sits ninth in all-time rushing yards (13,148). The four-time first-team All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler should not only make it to Canton, but should be a first-ballot selection.
The 32-year-old Lynch, who was placed on IR by the Raiders in October with a core muscle injury, has flattened defenders for years — even after his short retirement — with his punishing running style. He was an essential piece of the Seahawks’ Super Bowl teams (always hand the ball to Marshawn on the 1) and has one of the most Herculean runs of all time (See: Beast Quake) on his resume. Statistically, the five-time Pro Bowler has six 1,000-yard rushing seasons, amassed 10,379 career rushing yards and led the league in rushing TDs twice. Lynch’s status as an icon and the fact that he let his play do all the talking certainly helps him. It’s time to sit back and wait for his short — but epic — speech.
Playing for the Bills in his 10th NFL season, McCoy, 30, was one of the best running backs in the league for several years. His elusiveness and catching ability make him a nightmare to tackle, and he’s often been his team’s offensive centerpiece. Along with making the postseason three times with the Eagles, the six-time Pro Bowler was a major reason Buffalo ended its 17-year playoff drought in 2017. Shady also has the numbers to earn football immortality, with more than 10,000 rushing yards.
The curious case of Le’Veon Bell
The absence of Le’Veon Bell has been all the rage in Pittsburgh this season, and I’m anxiously waiting to see what happens this offseason, with his chance to hit free agency presumably at hand. He’ll see plenty more success in his return, but I think he’s already done enough in his five pro seasons thus far to earn a gold jacket. Bell has the production, yes (his career per-game rushing mark of 86.1 yards ranks ninth all time), but the greatest selling point is this: He is the reason the running back position has changed drastically in the last several years. As a running back who could line up almost anywhere on offense, Bell demonstrated just how much of an advantage a dual-threat back could provide. (From 2013 to ’17, Bell racked up 312 catches, easily the most among running backs in that span, and 7,996 scrimmage yards, second in the NFL, for a Steelers team that went 53-26 and reached the playoffs four times.) In today’s NFL, the most successful offensive units all possess varying versions of Bell.
Young bucks on Hall of Fame pace
When talking about the four best running backs in 2018, four players immediately come to mind — Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey. Elliott and Gurley have been at the top of the league since they were rookies. Zeke has brought the Cowboys back to relevance since coming into the league in 2016, and he could easily follow Cowboys great Emmitt Smith into Canton if he continues his current pace — consider that among qualified players, Elliott’s career per-game mark of 102.0 rushing yards per game is second all time, behind only Jim Brown (104.3).
Gurley has essentially mimicked what Bell did in Pittsburgh but has somehow been an even faster, more explosive version, which is hard to imagine. As a featured player in Sean McVay’s Rams scheme, Gurley is on pace to do some crazy things, statistically. Consider that he’s averaged 1,576.5 scrimmage yards and 13.5 touchdowns per season in his career (including 13 games in 2018). If he keeps that average up going forward, he’ll have 14,188.5 career scrimmage yards and 121.5 career touchdowns by the end of the four-year contract extension he signed in the offseason, which would be 12th and fifth all-time in a player’s first nine NFL seasons.
There’s no denying that Barkley and McCaffrey have been phenomenal in 2018. The Giants rookie, who’s on pace for more than 2,100 scrimmage yards, is having one of the best rookie seasons in NFL history, breaking records by the week. McCaffrey has elevated his game to the next level — maybe two or three levels up — in Year 2 with the Panthers, taking a lot of pressure off Cam Newton.
The one concern for these four guys is health. Are they going to stay healthy enough to continue playing at a high level? You know what they say: A player’s No. 1 ability is availability. They have to stay on the field, just as my aforementioned Hall of Fame locks have.
Okay, so he’s got Gore, Peterson, Lynch, McCoy and Bell.
The DB thinks the first two are indeed locks, and Lynch is probably close with his mercurial personality the only caveat. But we’re not prepared to “lock” up McCoy or Bell, just yet.
Cardinals coach Steve Wilks may be one and done (see ARIZONA), but ESPN says they are going to give their much-criticized Monday night booth at least one more year. Charean Williams of ProFootballTalk.com:
Despite the criticism its unorthodox broadcast booth has received this season, ESPN has made a long-term commitment to Joe Tessitore, Jason Witten and Booger McFarland, Lindsay Jones of The Athletic reports. That means Monday Night Football likely remains the same in 2019.
“I think it’s a long-term plan,” Witten told Jones. “I think a lot of people always assumed that I would get into coaching or management and all that kind of stuff at some point, and I don’t know that’s the case. I think that the biggest thing for me is you can’t allow noise to get in the way of what your goals are and what you want to do. I understand what the narrative is, and I’m committed to the long-game approach of being [an analyst]. If I could say anything, not in a sensitive or bitter way, it would just be, ‘Hey, look, if you really just studied it and looked at it and watched it, it has evolved.’”
Tessitore has received outside criticism for his exuberance, and Witten for, well, just about anything he says or does. The Booger Mobile hasn’t proved a hit with viewers, either from fans at home or fans in the stands whose view sometimes is obscured.
ESPN expected growing pains this season, Jones reports, especially since Witten had no broadcast experience. Dynamics among the three continue to evolve.
“What makes a three-man booth challenging is everybody’s got to give up a little something, right?” McFarland said. “Because normally you’d have one guy being the analyst, and he’s got the ability to go at his own pace and do everything and break down everything, but when you’ve got two people somebody’s got to give up a little something.”
Monday Night Football has two games remaining with tonight’s game between the Saints and Panthers and next week’s between the Broncos and Raiders.