AROUND THE NFL
One year ago at this time, Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com was convinced (along with the DB) that the NFL’s new rules on tackling too hard with the head would be an unholy mess. And it was in preseason, but ultimately things got straightened out (by not calling very many of the new penalties.
Now, Florio thinks that the new eligibility of pass interference penalties to be reviewed will also be horrific:
The recent effort by NFL senior V.P. of officiating Al Riveron to explain the new pass interference replay review to members of NFL Media continues to generate new reasons to be concerned that the league’s effort to avoid another Rams-Saints debacle will lead to more, not less, controversy.
Last week, Mike Giardi of NFL Media disclosed that Riveron (who usually conducts these sessions with networks on an off-the-record basis) explained that a Week 15 defensive pass interference call against Chiefs cornerback Kendall Fuller would have become offsetting interference fouls on replay review, given that Chargers receiver Mike Williams used his arm to get separation. This sparked several PFT articles regarding the potential impact of this approach on replay review of pass interference, with the overriding question being whether 17 replay officials will consistently apply the same standard when determining whether to activate a full-blown replay review based on whether offensive or defensive pass interference did or didn’t happen.
Expanding on the information disclosed by Giardi, Rich Eisen of NFL Media explains in a guest appearance at Football Morning in America that Riveron also pointed to a controversial non-call from Super Bowl LIII, which resulted in Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore not being flagged for pass interference on Rams receiver Brandin Cooks. Eisen writes that Riveron explained to the NFL Media employees that the new procedure would have resulted in a flag being thrown on Gilmore for defensive pass interference.
Because it happened with more than two minutes left in the game, Rams coach Sean McVay would have been required to throw a red challenge flag to initiate replay review. Implicit in Riveron’s belief that replay review would have triggered a penalty flag on Gilmore is the reality that, if Riveron believes that clear and obvious evidence of an error existed to justify overturning the ruling on the field, clear and obvious evidence would have existed to initiate an automatic review under the heightened standard for replay-review gatekeeping when pass interference is at issue.
Watch the play. here Is it clear and obvious that Gilmore significantly hindered Cooks? Gilmore definitely makes contact with Cooks, but Cooks still is able to nearly catch the ball. Yes, Gilmore hooks Cooks’ left arm, but Cooks still pulls his arm up and puts it in position for the reception, with only a legal blow delivered by Patriots safety Duron Harmon (and/or the impending blow from Harmon) causing Cooks to lose control of the ball.
So is it clear and obvious that Gilmore significantly hindered Cooks? I don’t think it is.
Flip it around. If pass interference had been called, would if have been clear and obvious that Gilmore didn’t significantly hinder Cooks? No. Which means that, regardless of the call, the ruling on the field arguably should stand.
Riveron obviously thinks otherwise. Unless the NFL plans to replace Riveron before the start of the season, he’ll be the ultimate internal authority on matters of this nature for 2019. Based on his mishandling of multiple catch/no-catch rulings in 2017, concern lingers in league circles regarding Riveron’s ability to apply relevant standards consistently and accurately in real time. The explanations provided by Riveron in connection with the Super Bowl LIII and Chargers-Chiefs plays potentially amplifies the concern that the effort to prevent another Rams-Saints outcome will result in other situations involving far less clear and/or obvious interference calls and non-calls being overturned, when they just shouldn’t be.
So, yes, this will continue to be a major potential problem as the NFL’s 100th season approaches. And if the procedure is applied the way that Riveron seems to believe it should be applied, the league’s first three-digit campaign could be remembered for the regular torrent of four-letter words that it provokes.
And here is Rich Eisen, writing at NBCSports.com, on what Riveron had to say:
It was an overcast 30-degree night at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, a classic setting for an exhilarating finish to the Week 15 Thursday game. Despite entering the contest having won nine of their previous 10 games, the Chargers still needed a victory to have a chance at the AFC West title that the Chiefs, thanks to their wunderkind eventual MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes, would eventually win.
Just not on that night.
Coming back from a 14-point first-quarter deficit, Philip Rivers somehow, some way, had his team stationed on the Kansas City 10-yard line down seven points with 13 seconds to go. Rivers flipped one in the end zone to Mike Williams and Chiefs defensive back Kendall Fuller got flagged for interference. It was a huge penalty, turning a Chargers’ 3rd-and-goal from the 10 into a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
On the next two snaps, Rivers connected with Williams, one for his second touchdown of the night and then on a remarkable two-point conversion dice roll by Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn. Los Angeles won and celebrated in the Kansas City cold, providing Friday morning coast-to-coast water-cooler material that’s the envy of every other major American sports league.
Cut to last week—six months later, almost to the day—to a hotel conference room in June gloomy Santa Monica. Video of the defensive pass interference call on Fuller was now up on a screen and the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron had a video game remote controller in his hands, toggling the play back and forth. I was in the audience as part of the NFL Media Group’s annual talent symposium, hanging onto every word coming out of Riveron’s mouth during his presentation to the group.
Our jaws were about to drop.
You see, between that Thursday Night Week 15 monster finish and our annual symposium to prepare us for the 2019 regular season, a seismic event took place at the Superdome that’s still reverberating across the football landscape. Yes, the ending of the NFC Championship Game between the Saints and the Rams. The mother of all blown calls, leading to the mother of all course corrections: the NFL allowing pass interference to be a reviewable penalty under the auspices of instant replay in a one-year experiment.
That non-call in the NFC Championship Game in New Orleans was the worst non-call I’ve ever seen. It was a terrible day for the NFL and Al Riveron, and all the NFL executives making the rounds to present at all the summer symposiums for CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN and NFL Network know it.
So when Riveron stepped to the mic at the NFL Network gathering last week and finally matriculated his way to the pass interference replay portion of his two-hour presentation to the group, it was like a large piece of filet mignon steak being plated for the whole room to consume. It not only offered a remarkable glimpse of the difficult task his officials will undertake in 2019, but also how unintended consequences of the new replay wrinkle might cause occasional confusion and frequently stoke fan anger anew.
As Riveron laid out the rules—two days before the Competition Committee voted unanimously to install them—here is how adjudicating offensive pass interference (OPI) and defensive pass interference (DPI) calls and non-calls via instant replay will happen in the one-year experiment.
Coaches still get two replay challenges per game with a third challenge awarded for getting the first two challenges correct. Coaches still can’t initiate a review in the final two minutes of a half or overtime. The replay official at the stadium will handle whether a play should be reviewed during those time periods. If the game is a nationally televised game like Thursday Night, Sunday Night or Monday Night Football, Riveron might chime in.
When an OPI/DPI penalty or non-call occurs, there will be two standards as to what constitutes upholding or overturning an OPI/DPI penalty or what merits installing a penalty for OPI/DPI should one not get called, as happened in the NFC Championship Game. The two standards are:
“Clear and obvious visual evidence” a foul occurred (in the case of a non-call) or didn’t occur (in the case of challenging the correctness of a flag). If a flag was thrown on a play or a team is looking to get a flag installed through replay and no “clear and obvious visual evidence” is provided by the network TV shots or can’t be discerned, then a flag (or non-flag) will stand as called.
The contact clearly and obviously seen must “significantly hinder” the player being fouled.
On Hail Mary plays, replay officials will not buzz down to the field and place the play under review unless they witness something that goes beyond what officials normally see on the field on such plays. In other words, the way officials will officiate a Hail Mary will not change and it might require an actual Hail Mary prayer to earn a buzz from the booth on a football Hail Mary in 2019.
The tough part will be actually making it work week in and week out, with as few bumps in the road as possible. And doing it all in front of a viewing audience that really only wants these decisions to come into the fray when something egregious like NFC Championship Game crops up.
From what I witnessed at the symposium, it is not going to be easy for anyone. And Riveron made sure we all understood that. For about 20 minutes, Riveron screened a half-dozen plays for OPI and DPI and asked us to decide what to do in real-time just as his officials will have to do. There wasn’t consensus in the room once. Not once.
For instance, Riveron would show a sequence involving a possible offensive pass interference, pause the play and ask the room if we would throw a flag for OPI. Half of the room would say “yes” and the other half “no.” Then, he would ask us if there was no penalty called, would we, as the replay official, put a flag down on the field for OPI. Half the room said “yes” and the other half of the room said “no.” Riveron’s well-taken point: not everything in this endeavor is going to be so glaring and easy to correct as the NFC Championship Game non-call. In fact, that’s going to be the outlier with the norm being iffy, hair-line penalties to uphold, overturn or, in the case of correcting non-calls, actually create out of whole figurative yellow cloth.
But wait, there’s more.
Before flashing back to that Thursday in Kansas City, remember the moment in Super Bowl 53 when Rams quarterback Jared Goff threw deep into Patriots territory to Brandin Cooks and New England corner Stephon Gilmore broke up the play? It happened with Rams down seven and 4:24 left in the game; Goff threw a soul-crushing interception on the very next play. At the March owners meeting at which replay was initially okayed to include pass interference, the Competition Committee admitted Gilmore’s contact should have drawn a flag. But had the new replay protocol for interference been in place then, would the league want replay officials to throw a flag on a humongous play in the biggest game of the year? You bet it would. Riveron confirmed it; this play was the penultimate piece of video shown in his presentation. So if this experiment does last only one season, it sure could go out with a bang in the next Super Bowl.
Let’s return to that Mike Williams-Kendall Fuller play that ended Week 15 and started this column. It was the last play presented by Riveron.
And it was a doozy.
Don’t worry, Chiefs fans. Riveron didn’t reveal that the DPI call on Fuller was incorrect and your team got hosed that Thursday. It’s much more complicated than that. And Chiefs fans might be the only ones NOT upset by what I’m about to reveal.
Remember, the Fuller contact with Mike Williams occurred with mere seconds to play in regulation and had featured the naked-eye triple-play for a replay official to buzz down to the field: thrown flag, visable clear and obvious contact and a significant hindrance appearing to take place. Indeed, Riveron said a play like this will cause a replay official to buzz down to the field and stop play from continuing in 2019. And that’s where things got wild.
If that play went under review that night under the rules we are going to see in place this year, Riveron said the Fuller DPI penalty would have stood as called because there wasn’t any clear and obvious visual evidence in replay to overturn it or even uphold it. However, because replay rules require everything that’s eligible for review to be reviewed once the replay process begins, they would have called OFFENSIVE pass interference on Williams.
At NFL Media Summit, #NFL SVP of Officiating Al Riveron is showing us the new OPI/DPI review rules. Week 15 between #Chiefs/#Chargers. DPI is called. Automatic review under 2 minutes. This play would be offset. Mike Williams guilty of OPI, negating Fuller’s DPI. Down replayed. pic.twitter.com/LxNb2g07JI — Michael Giardi (@MikeGiardi) June 18, 2019
Riveron pointed out that the Chargers receiver could be seen to have made a clear and obvious push off on Fuller, who was significantly hindered on the play. So, thanks to the new replay rules including OPI as reviewable and the existing replay rules mandating everything that’s possible for review to be reviewed once the process begins, there would have been offsetting penalties installed via instant replay. The Chargers would have had to replay the down of 3rd-and-goal from the 10 but with only eight seconds to go this time.
Yes, you read all that correctly.
The Santa Monica hotel conference room went wild.
If every review for DPI opens up the play for review for OPI, how many of these calls will wind up with offsetting penalties? No one knows. If the methods for opening a DPI or OPI to review require on terms like “clear and obvious” and “significant hindrance,” won’t replay officials in different stadiums perhaps have different interpretations of the clauses? Hopefully not.
The new rule that allows pass interference to be reviewed by replay was birthed by one of the worst non-calls in sports history and was created in the spirit of closing a loophole to make sure egregious miscarriages of sports justice would never happen again. The new rule was not passed to create unintended consequences and cause yet more stoppage of a brilliant live-action sport to parse crucial late-game plays frame-by-frame like Zapruder had filmed it.
The DB said at the time – the rule should read that only incidents of PI or OPI at the point of the reception should be reviewable. Going back up the route to review things back to the line of scrimmage will be a mess, especially since OPI can be committed there, either by the receiver or a picker. On the other hand, the defensive penalties committed early in the route are defensive holding or illegal contact and are not reviewable. Don’t get this wrong, early route OPI can still be called if seen during the actual play – but don’t review it. It will slow things up enormously.
More from Eisen:
To their credit, every single NFL executive in the room admitted they understand this change might make irate fans even more so; especially those who thought nothing should have been done in the wake of the NFC Championship Game. The amount of discussion (read: handwringing) this topic has received from coaches and executives and owners and front office officials has been intense. But the mistake the whole country witnessed and the city of New Orleans still laments left such a mark, the league felt something had to be done. I agree. “We missed the call,” Riveron told the gathering. We all noticed his use of the word “we” to share in the responsibility of the game officials who despite being in perfect position to make the call somehow did not.
Perhaps this will go off without a hitch. The Canadian Football League has allowed these calls to be reviewed the last five years and last I checked that league is still standing. Perhaps more tweaks will be needed to make it all work in the National Football League. Perhaps it will be one-and-done after a long NFL100 season. Either way, we are in a brave new officiating world and every football man, woman and child is entering this brave, new football world together.
DE ROBERT QUINN is an under-the-radar acquisition by the Cowboys. Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News:
Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch are usually the first three players mentioned in a discussion of the outstanding Tampa Bay Buccaneers defenses of the early 2000s.
But if not for the addition of defensive end Simeon Rice in 2001, it’s unlikely the Bucs would’ve won a Super Bowl two years later.
Rice is the first former player mentioned when Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli gives a scouting report on Robert Quinn.
Dallas traded a sixth-round pick for Quinn in late March.
Marinelli, Tampa Bay’s defensive line coach from 1996 to 2005, now has what he calls “racing lizards” chasing opposing quarterbacks from both defensive end spots — DeMarcus Lawrence on the left and Quinn on the right, both two-time Pro Bowlers.
“I’ve just really been impressed with his work habits here,” Marinelli said of Quinn. “He’s a real pro. He comes to work every day. Effort. Details. He doesn’t say much. And I’m telling you, he’s really going to be a good run defender, just like D-Law.
“We’ve got racing lizards over there that can play the run.”
Quinn was the first-team right defensive end throughout organized team activities and minicamp. With right DE Randy Gregory suspended indefinitely for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, Quinn will be given every opportunity to be among the team’s sack leaders this season.
The 14th overall pick in the 2011 draft had 61/2 sacks and 15 QB hits in 16 starts last season for the Dolphins. He had three consecutive double-digit sack seasons for the Rams from 2012 to 2014, with a career-high 19 coming in 2013.
The one thing holding the Cowboys defense back from becoming elite has been their need to force more turnovers. Although they did not significantly upgrade the back end of the defense, Marinelli believes the addition of Quinn can help in that category.
According to the long-time D-line coach, 65% of turnovers start in the pocket when defenses pressure quarterbacks into bad throws or knock the ball loose.
Quinn has forced 22 fumbles over the last seven seasons. He forced two last year, which would have tied him with Lawrence, Gregory and Jaylon Smith for the team lead in Dallas. Quinn forced seven in 2013.
“He’s got some juice now,” Marinelli said. “He’s got that quick first step. He’s an established pass rusher in this league. He’s going to bring some good stuff for us.”
The Dolphins went into this offseason looking to trade Quinn. He was one of the team’s highest-paid players, entering the final year of a contract scheduled to pay him almost $12 million in base salary. With Miami rebuilding and transitioning to more 3-4 defensive looks under new head coach Brian Flores, it made sense to part with the 29-year-old, 4-3 defensive end.
Quinn was given the opportunity to visit potential trade candidates. His decision came down to the Cowboys and Saints
He said the choice came down to a gut feeling.
“Sometimes your gut leads you in the right direction,” Quinn said. “I had people chirping in my ear both ways, but I just kind of relied on my gut, and so far it’s been a great transition for me.”
Marinelli shows all of his defensive linemen film cut-ups of former star players at their position. Rice is one of the players he’s been showing Quinn. The four-time All-Pro had some of his most productive seasons later in his career. He had 12 or more sacks every season between the ages of 29 and 31.
The Cowboys, who signed Quinn to a one-year deal worth $8 million, with incentives that could pay him around $9 million, would be thrilled to get a double-digit sack season from their new right end.
Quinn said he was most attracted to what he saw on film last season, a defensive line that was “always in the backfield.”
“Specifically, I guess it was the way they allow the D-line to play, fly around, have fun,” Quinn said. “Then the linebackers and the secondary and what they have, you combine that with, not a freestyle D-line, but we get to attack and get in the backfield I think more than we can in other places.
“I think it was kind of one of those where I get to have fun, pin my ears back and just disrupt the backfield, which is what they want us to do.”
The saga of QB CAM NEWTON and the tiny seat. CNN.com:
Most of us have to deal with limited leg room when we fly. But Cam Newton was willing to pay big money to make sure he was comfortable during his flight.
According to a video posted by Eli Edwards, the Carolina Panthers quarterback offered another passenger $1,500 to take his seat, which appeared to offer more leg room. But unlike what most of us would have done in that situation (the money and an autograph, please), the passenger rejected the offer, Edwards said on social media.
The video shows Newton pointing at a seat that’s already been taken — a seat that seems to be in a row without seats in front of it. A seated passenger appears to shake his head at the athlete. Newton then walks to another seat, a few rows back, to settle in for the 10-hour flight.
Edwards, who lives in Alaska, told CNN he was flying back to the US from Paris on the same flight as Newton and had run into him a little earlier at the airport. (It was a big trip for Edwards, who proposed to his girlfriend during the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France.)
“I said hi to him, shook his hand,” he said. When they boarded the plane, he began recording and saw the athlete again as the plane was getting ready to leave.
As Newton tried to make a case for the seat, Edwards said he heard the seated passenger ask Newton his height before rejecting the offer.
The video was posted to Twitter Friday. Last week and over the weekend, Newton posted multiple shots of himself in Paris, France, to his Instagram account.
This from Andy Slater explains how Newton found himself assigned the dreaded bulkhead seat in coach.
SLATER SCOOP: Wondering why a quarterback making $20M a year was flying coach?
Cam Newton paid for a business class seat from Paris to Charlotte, but missed his flight. His only option to fly home that day was through Dallas in regular economy class with no extra legroom
Former Bengals coach Marvin Lewis thinks he is done as an NFL coach. Dave Clark of the Cincinnati Enquirer:
Former Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said he doesn’t expect to return to the National Football League.
The Bengals’ head coach for 16 seasons from 2003 to 2018 was asked whether he thought he’d coach again in the NFL during an interview with CBS Sports Radio.
“I don’t think so. I’m fine,” Lewis replied.
Does Lewis miss the NFL? “I do not,” he added.
Last month, the 60-year-old Lewis joined head coach Herm Edwards and the Arizona State Sun Devils as a special advisor.
Lewis also addressed his 0-7 playoff record as the Bengals’ head coach. “The other team ended up with more points,” Lewis explained.
“You become an NFL coach for one thing, and that’s to win the championship – and we were unable to do that,” Lewis said. “That’s the unfortunate part. But that locker room is full of great young players. I’m wishing them the best of luck this coming season.”
Lewis added that he likely won’t watch the NFL as much as he did before he and the Bengals parted ways at the end of 2018.
“I watched games because it had an affect on things I was doing and so forth and strategically and so forth if I had an opportunity to watch another game, but I’d probably spend more time watching golf on TV than football. … With my responsibilities here at ASU, I’ll probably be a little busy on Sundays,” Lewis said.
CB JALEN RAMSEY and DE YANNICK NGAKOUE aren’t the only Jags with a contract negotiation looming. This from John Reid of the Florida Times-Union on LB MYLES JACK.
Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack has no plans to follow the recent tactics of teammates/fellow 2016 draft picks Yannick Ngakoue and Jalen Ramsey in pursuit of a long-term contract.
Instead of skipping the team’s mandatory minicamp like Ngakoue or recording an Instagram live video to say no discounts will be offered in future negotiations like Ramsey, Jack plans to let his play alone prove his worth.
Jack, a second-round pick out of UCLA, is in the final season of a four-year, $6.3 million rookie contract that will pay him $1.3 million in 2019.
“Obviously in my position, Telvin (Smith) is gone, so that’s 120 tackles unaccounted for, and I want at least 50 of those so I can get 150 tackles to create some leverage for myself,” Jack said. “My job is to play Mike (linebacker). I have to know way too much to miss this. I’ve got to run the defense.
“When my time comes up, that’s when it’s going to come up. But right now, I’m just focused on going out there winning games, getting numbers and then by the end of the season that all will take care of itself.”
In his first season as the Jaguars’ starting middle linebacker in 2018, Jack played all of the team’s 1,024 defensive snaps and was second on the team (behind Smith) with 107 tackles. Without Smith, Jack will be an even bigger piece of the defense — possibly playing between rookie weak-side linebacker Quincy Williams and second-year strong-side linebacker Leon Jacobs on base downs.
That’s a critical role, but it probably won’t result in a new deal for Jack anytime soon. With about $8.8 million in salary cap space, the Jaguars do not currently have enough money available to sign Ramsey, Ngakoue and Jack to lucrative extensions.
Ramsey said he has already been informed that he won’t be receiving a contract extension this year, not a surprise considering the Jaguars have picked up his fifth-year option for the 2020 season. It’s likely the Jaguars will try to extend Ngakoue’s contract before training camp opens in late July.
The Jaguars will be in better financial shape in 2020 to possibly offer contracts to Ramsey and Jack when about $24 million in dead money comes off the books from contracts of former players Malik Jackson, Tashaun Gipson, Blake Bortles and Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
The Jaguars could create another $35 million by moving on from defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and defensive end Calais Campbell.
– – –
Jack, too, has set himself up for a big-money second contract. In three seasons, he has produced 221 tackles, five sacks, six passes defensed and one interception, which he returned for a touchdown in the 2018 season opener at the New York Giants.
More importantly for someone who entered the NFL draft with long-term knee concerns, Jack has never missed a game.
A tip from Rich Eisen:
I think, that said, Sony Michel is going to have a monster season for the Patriots. As in threaten-the-single-season-team rushing-record monster season. Lost amongst another historic performance by Tom Brady, Michel’s playoff numbers were through the roof—336 rushing yards and seven total touchdowns in three games. With Gronk swearing he’s not coming back, I’m thinking New England will lean on Michel, who had 931 rushing yards in 13 games (but just eight starts) last year. The Patriots team record for most rushing yards in a season isn’t held by Curtis Martin, by the way. It’s Corey Dillon who ran for 1,645 yards on 345 carries in New England’s Super Bowl season of 2004. Keep this in mind. Just sayin’.
THIS AND THAT
MARIOTA and WINSTON
There really isn’t a winner in the 2015 choice of JAMEIS WINSTON or MARCUS MARIOTA – and there might be two losers. Albert Breer of TheMMQB.com:
Winston and Marcus Mariota came into the league in 2015 as a strong 1-2 atop the NFL draft. Neither was seen as a reach, both had been in the spotlight in major college football for well over a year, and each brought to the table outsized college production (Winston won a national title in 2013, Mariota made it to the title game in 2014) and high-ceiling potential.
Four years later, the two go into the 2019 season in a situation that’s unprecedented for first-round quarterbacks under the 2011 CBA: playing out a fifth-year option. Of the 12 QBs to go in the first round from 2011 to ’14, four (Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, Blake Bortles) were extended before Year 5. The other eight had their options declined, and were off the teams that drafted them by then.
We can argue the reasons why we’re here with Mariota and Winston. One could be the financial explosion at the top of the quarterback market (the average-per-year figure jumped 25 percent from spring 2018 to spring 2019). Another might be the buyer-beware lesson that Bortles provided—the Jags extended him rather than just exercising his option, and are carrying $15.5 million in dead money this year to show for it; Bortles was released in March and is now backing up Jared Goff on the Rams.
And then, of course, there’s the play of Winston and Marioa themselves. Which is what we’re going to get to right now.
THE STATE OF MARCUS MARIOTA
Really, two problems have worked against Mariota to this point in his career—and one hasn’t been much within his control.
Ken Whisenhunt was whacked as head coach halfway through Mariota’s rookie year, and GM Ruston Webster was fired two months after that. Mike Mularkey was hired to succeed Whisenhunt, and Terry Robiskie came in as offensive coordinator—and both were fired two years later. Last year Mike Vrabel arrived as coach, and he hired Matt LaFleur to run his offense. In January, LaFleur left for Green Bay to coach the Packers.
That’s a lot of turnover for any offensive player to endure, but it can hit a young quarterback particularly hard. Which is why new Titans OC Arthur Smith, who was there through all of it (and has been with the team since 2011), made the decision to stick with LaFleur’s system and terminology when Vrabel promoted him in January.
“We don’t want these guys to start over, because I’ve been in a ton of systems now where it didn’t matter to me what we called a 3-by-1 formation, the players already knew it,” Smith said. “Same thing with line calls, what you’re calling protections, all that terminology. And stuff has naturally evolved in the spring as we’ve put things in. These guys didn’t come in here and get a completely new system.”
Smith knows, because working with the tight ends, he’s lived it—in both the run game and and passing game. Going from Dowell Loggains’s offense in 2013 to Whisenhunt’s in ’14, for Smith, was “a complete overhaul.” Going from Whisenhunt to Mularkey as interim coach, “it was kind of mushed together,” and then “the playbook changed” when Mularkey got the job full-time. Going from Mularkey to LaFleur marked another plug-pulling.
And if it was tough on the coaches, you can imagine how that could affect a player, and especially a quarterback.
“It’s proven over time, when there’s a consistent player/coach relationship, it definitely helps that position,” Smith said. “And it happens in a lot of sports. Look at San Antonio with [Gregg] Popovich and [Tim] Duncan. Unfortunately, a lot of quarterbacks have had to deal with that. It’s not for me to say it’s stunted his growth, I don’t want to use that as a term for him. But I think in any sport, when you’re talking about positions like that, you’d like to have some consistency.”
That manifested itself in the spring, with the group able to hit the ground running, and Mariota getting to the point where he can now teach the offense back to his teammates, and worry about the defense, rather than the offense, when he’s breaking the huddle. Which, of course, is where you want a quarterback to be.
The second problem of Mariota’s is more complicated—his durability. He’s only missed eight games over his career, and just four over the last three years, and he’s been plenty tough, but he always seems to be playing through something. Last year it was a nerve issue that would be disconcerting for any football player, and cost him three starts and kept him out of two games all together.
He and the organization are walking a tightrope that’s been well-worn in the NFL over the last couple decades, trying to maximize a superior athlete at the most important position on the field without compromising his availability or career longevity.
Vrabel, Smith, GM Jon Robinson and the rest of the Titans brass want a multiple offense that can threaten a defense in every way. So figuring out where to pull the trigger and where to pull back with Mariota—who ran a 4.4 40 at the 2015 combine—as a runner is one challenge. Mariota learning when to use his wheels and when not to in broken-play situations is another.
“The thing I’ve stressed to him, and I know our coaches have stressed to him is, Let’s live to play another play,” Robinson said. “Don’t take that hit. If you feel the pocket coming down on you and you take off running, and the ‘backer is coming off of coverage and he’s coming screaming at you, throw the ball away. It’s OK to punt, we’ll get another crack at it. That’s the main thing, it’s stressing to him—to try as best as possible, like all quarterbacks do, to avoid getting hit.”
Even as Robinson said that, he acknowledged, amid the speed of an NFL game, that a quarterback’s tendency to yank the rip cord on a run is “a hard habit to break.” But the reality is that Mariota’s future in Nashville may ride on doing just that.
In discussing where the Titans had seen progress, the GM glowed over Mariota’s flashes of last year as he grew under LaFleur. He loved Mariota’s decisiveness as a passer against New England, and his playmaking down the stretch against the Eagles, and his resolve after a couple early turnovers against Dallas. (All of those games were wins against playoff teams; Tennessee missed the postseason at 9-7.) “You saw the grit and the competitiveness he has,” Robinson said.
Now, Robinson says, “we just have to keep him out there.” And so that challenge is clear. If Mariota and the Titans can surmount it, the GM says he sees where he might have his quarterback for the next decade on the roster right now.
“That’s certainly our hope,” Robinson said. “Everybody in this city, they love him. His teammates, I know they love him. We love him. And I’m proud of him, I’m proud of him for what he was able to do in the two or three months he was off. He came back, he was bulked up, and watching him on the practice field, he’s having fun with his teammates, he’s fist-pumping when there’s a big play, he’s kicking the dirt when he has a bad play. He wants to be great.”
We’ll see if he can be, more consistently.
THE STATE OF JAMEIS WINSTON
Lest you think Christensen’s homework stopped at Pro Football Reference’s URL, Winston’s new position coach—who worked with Manning, then Luck from 2012-15 in Indianapolis—actually went through all Winston’s throws as a pro, and a bunch of his tape from Florida State. Then he got on the phone and called everyone he could, “from the kitchen to the equipment room,” to find out just who his new student was.
What came back was surprising, especially given how Winston’s rep preceded him.
“The thing that stuck out to me is everyone said exactly the same thing—great worker, humble, has a humility about him that makes him attractive, has a pleasant disposition, and wants to win desperately,” Christensen said. “I was shocked that everyone said the same thing. I think that was probably one of the things. And as best I could I investigated all the incidents, or alleged incidents or whatever they are, and tried to figure those things out.”
Christensen acknowledged that some of the problems were very real, while noting that the incident that led to Winston’s three-game suspension last year—an Uber driver in Arizona accused him of groping her in March 2016—occurred three years ago. (Winston was not charged; he reportedly settled a lawsuit with the driver last November.)
“Everybody had a perception that this kid had been really struggling off the field for the last three years, and that wasn’t the case,” Christensen said. “The case was generally he’d been doing everything right for two-and-a-half years, and that suspension came as a delayed punishment that gave you a perception that wasn’t correct.”
Helping Winston with everything else will be simpler for Christensen. Part of the reason is that Winston has all the tools. Working around Manning and Luck, both sons of quarterbacks who grew into prodigies, has informed Christensen’s teaching in that regard, and Winston’s getting the benefit of it now.
On a macro level, it’s meant learning to turn hard work into smarter work, and to set up his off-field schedule in a way that’s conducive to what he’s trying to accomplish on it.
“You want to be a pro with a lot of things,” Christensen said. “You want to be a pro at resting—you have to rest well, you have to schedule well. You have to pick when you do appearances well. You have know when you’re going to fly to the West Coast and when you’re not. You have to pick your spots and decide when you’re going to be anchored into Tampa and just rest on those off days.
“He’s got so many things going on. And I always admired Peyton and Andrew, that they were just extremely disciplined with that. Once you set a schedule, they just stayed with it.”
In other words, when the schedule says it’s a rest day, don’t play soccer under the Florida sun on a turf field or fly somewhere for an appearance. When you’re on vacation, don’t do a three-and-a-half-hour workout. When camp is approaching, stay near Tampa to acclimate. “It’s comprehensive,” said Christensen. “It’s not just taking a five-step drop and throwing a football.”
And come August, cutting down on interceptions will, indeed, be a focus—“that’s a fact, we have to eliminate them.” Breaking down the tape, Christensen was able to categorize Winston’s mistakes. Most involved his aggressive nature. Some were a result of being down a couple scores late. Others were forced balls downfield. And others still came down to judgment.
“Andrew Luck was the same thing. It’s hard—those guys, they just don’t give up on a play,” Christensen said. “It’s hard for [Winston] to give up on a play, and that’s the hardest thing to teach.
“Now here’s what I’ll tell you—Brady and Payton are excellent. A, they have a great grasp of how long they have to get a ball out. B, they know they’re probably not running for 15 yards on a third-and-15.
“[Like Jameis], Andrew kind of thinks it’s a no-play’s-ever-dead type of deal. So that’s a hard teach and it’s just over time, doing it over and over and over.”
A fourth category is one where Christensen and Winston have already done a lot of work —with wayward throws that simply wind up getting picked off. As the coach sees it, a lot of inaccuracy is caused by bad or sloppy technique, and so the Bucs really drilled down on the fundamentals over the spring.
“We emphasized with him that a completion isn’t just a completion, there’s different levels,” Christensen said. “If I throw a ball two yards behind the guy and he makes a catch, you gain 10 yards. But if I’d thrown it out in front of him, the play gains 16 yards. It’s just trying to establish the correct mentality on accuracy, timing and anticipation. We worked really hard with him on just getting ourselves aligned correctly.”
Now, you want the good news here? Christensen still sees everything that made Winston the first pick in the draft four years ago. And at the same time, he remembers arriving in Tampa a generation ago with Tony Dungy, and how Trent Dilfer’s career went sideways because so many things went wrong around him.
That’s given Christensen perspective on what it’ll take to get the most out of Winston—and how it’s the new staff’s job to create the right environment for their quarterback, which starts with a system they think fits him to a T.
“Bruce Arians is going to throw the ball upfield, you’re going to get hit after you throw the ball some, you’re going to have to be big enough to take a hit,” Christensen said. “Yeah, so I do think [Winston] is perfect for his system. This guy’s going to sit in the pocket, no one would accuse him of being afraid, and you better have an ability to hold it a half a count and let it rip and be aggressive with the thing. It is kind of a perfect system for him.”
Time will tell if results show up accordingly.
Now, what’s super interesting about all this to me is how it might affect next spring in the NFL. It’s two teams that might or might not be looking for a quarterback in 2020, at a time when the position is as healthy as it’s been in decades. As such, it could affect how high guys like Oregon’s Justin Herbert or Alabama’s Tua Tagovialoa are drafted. It could impact where someone like Eli Manning plays in 2020.
And on another level, will Winston’s or Mariota’s ultimate fate serve as a test case for teams, since both guys had issues coming out of college that have impacted their careers as pros? Or maybe the way the Bucs and Titans have managed these guys affects the way teams approach the final years of a first-round quarterback’s rookie contract?
All of that is on the table. We should have some answers by Christmas. And quite honestly, I don’t have a great handle on which way either of these quarterbacks goes—which should make it all the more fun to watch.
This from Rich Eisen:
I think you’re going to love the NFL100 show I taped a couple of months ago at NFL Films. The NFL100 campaign celebrating the 100th season of professional football kicked off with the remarkable Pete Berg directed Super Bowl commercial featuring dozens of NFL stars and Hall of Famers. Next up, a series of NFL Network TV shows airing this fall, including the show I hosted. Everyone who was on the set over the two-day shoot was sworn to secrecy, but here’s what I can tell you—it’s among the most satisfying projects in which I’ve ever been fortunate to take part. And that includes launching NFL Network, my own daily TV/radio simulcast and the aforementioned ESPN SportsCenter gig. You’ll hear more in about two weeks, including one thing people are going to lose their minds over. Wait til you hear who one of the analysts on the six-week-long show will be. Wish I could tell you more now. But you’re going to love it.