AROUND THE NFL

ProFootballZebras.com has the referee assignments for this week’s games:

 

Saturday, Jan. 4

 

Bills at Texans, 4:35 p.m. ESPN ABC — Tony Corrente

Titans at Patriots, 8:15 p.m. CBS — John Hussey

 

Sunday, Jan. 5

Vikings at Saints, 1:05 p.m. FOX — Carl Cheffers

Seahawks at Eagles, 4:40 p.m. NBC — Shawn Smith

 

Shawn Smith gets a playoff game in his second year as a referee.

 

NFC NORTH

 

CHICAGO

Coach Matt Nagy has jettisoned his closest offensive aides. Adam Hoge of WGN Radio breaks the story:

 

@AdamHoge

Some breaking #Bears coaching news: The team is moving on from OC Mark Helfrich, OL coach Harry Hiestand, TE coach Kevin Gilbride and assistant special teams coach Brock Olivo, a source told @WGNRadio.

 

 

DETROIT

Mike Birkett of the Detroit Free Press on the future of DL MIKE DANIELS:

 

At 30 years old and coming off two straight injury-riddled seasons, Mike Daniels said he has a lot more football left in him. He hopes at least some of that is with the Detroit Lions.

 

Daniels said earlier this week that he plans to return for a ninth NFL season in 2020 and “absolutely” wants it to be in Detroit.

 

“Just get back to the lab,” Daniels said. “This isn’t the first time I’ve missed time and didn’t go to the playoffs, so get back to work. Things’ll turn around and that’ll be about it.”

 

Cut by the Green Bay Packers after a foot injury cost him the final six games of the 2018 season, Daniels signed a one-year deal with the Lions in July that paid him about $8 million.

 

He missed five games early this season with a sprained foot, returned to play six straight games in November and December, then finished the year on injured reserve after hurting his arm in a Week 15 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

 

Daniels, who had 10 tackles in nine games this season, said he’s healthy enough now that he’d be able to play in a game if the Lions had one this weekend.

 

“I’m good,” he said. “I think it was one of those precautionary things like, ‘Oh, the season’s over.'”

 

The Lions spent big on their defensive line in 2019, signing Daniels and Trey Flowers to large free-agent deals and extending the contract of Damon Harrison, and they’ll likely have to rebuild the unit again this offseason.

 

Harrison said he’s considering retirement after an injury-filled season, A’Shawn Robinson is a free agent who seems destined to explore his options elsewhere, Da’Shawn Hand finished his second straight season on injured reserve, and Daniels’ future in Detroit is unclear.

 

Daniels played well in limited snaps this season – he was the Lions’ fifth-highest rated defensive player, according to Pro Football Focus – but his recent injury history is a concern and the Lions have enough cap space to pursue a top-tier free agent at the position should they choose.

 

Changes on the Detroit staff:

 

Two days after their disappointing season ended with a last-second loss to the Green Bay Packers, the Detroit Lions have found their scapegoats.

 

The Lions fired strength coach Harold Nash, special-teams coordinator John Bonamego and four other assistants Tuesday as they start what could be a significant offseason makeover.

 

Along with Nash and Bonamego, defensive backs coach Brian Stewart, linebackers coach Al Golden, tight ends coach Chris White and assistant strength coach Rodney Hill were let go Tuesday.

 

Defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni remains on staff.

 

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

Patrik Walker of CBSSports.com on why Jason Garrett hasn’t hit the highway yet:

 

Tick, tock. Tick, tock. That is indeed the sound of the clock as the NFL village on the whole awaits a tolling of the bell regarding the future of Jason Garrett with the Dallas Cowboys, but apparently a crow has flown into the timing gears.

 

Now three days removed from the unceremonious end to their once promising 2019 season, owner Jerry Jones has still not publicly made known his decision on Garrett. The longtime head coach has now met with team brass on two separate occasions, Monday and again on Tuesday, but still no announcement comes. Sources with knowledge of the situation tells CBS Sports a third and seemingly final meeting will occur at some point in the very near future — date and time to be determined —  to seemingly nail down the verdict, along with what will come after.

 

So, just what is the hold up?

 

Is this all simply a long, drawn-out way for the Cowboys to announce Garrett will return as head coach?

 

Put nothing past Jones, admittedly, but the expectation remains the same, in that Garrett will not receive a new contract to remain head coach of the Cowboys — barring a miracle rivaling the one that occurred on 34th Street.

 

The more likely scenario is that Jones is having a hard time doing what will ultimately be done anyway, and for understandable reasons, regardless of who agrees. The Hall of Fame owner has a mountain of time, money and energy invested in the growth of Garrett as an NFL mind, and it goes back much further than when the latter was brought to Dallas as offensive coordinator in 2007. Even when Garrett served as backup for Troy Aikman during the Jimmy Johnson era, he was allowed to sit in on coaches’ meetings to get a better understanding of what it took to truly lead an NFL club.

 

Adding in the 9.5 years spent in the head coaching position for the Cowboys — 2010 interim included — along with 3.5 years as a coordinator and assistant head coach for the club, that’s 26 years of history between the two. Add in the close relationship Jones had with Garrett’s late father, who served as a longtime scout for the Cowboys from 1987 (two years prior to Jones taking ownership) all the way to 2004, and you’ll quickly begin to understand why Jones’ handling of Garrett’s future is so apropos.

 

If it sounded like he was losing a best friend when discussing Garrett following the meaningless victory over the Washington Redskins, it’s because that’s exactly how he views it. Jones noted he has no timetable to make a decision on Garrett, and he wasn’t bluffing, but also because the logistics of it all doesn’t call for the Cowboys to put a boot to Garrett’s bottom.

 

Instead, they feel they have the time they need to send him off with a hug, of sorts, considering his contract is set to expire in the next few days anyway. This includes allowing him to finish out his coaching duties that includes exit interviews with players, and while those were scheduled to be wrapped up on Monday, some ran long and forced players to return on Tuesday to complete the task.

 

For those concerned the team is losing out on possible top candidates to succeed him, well, they aren’t, or at least not in the eyes of the Joneses.

 

Granted, Ron Rivera is now head coach of the Redskins, but there’s still a slew of candidates the Cowboys can and do have their eye on. They’ve already had a preliminary discussion with Urban Meyer and have potent interest in Lincoln Riley and Matt Rhule. I’m told they’ll put a feeler out for former University of Washington head coach Chris Petersen and then there’s Dan Mullen, who has a standing relationship with Dak Prescott from their time together at Mississippi State — Mullen having been the hand that molded Prescott into an NFL caliber quarterback in the first place.

 

At the NFL level, there’s Mike McCarthy and a handful of talented coordinators on both sides of the ball who will make it to their final list of candidates, which is still being fleshed out and likely includes some who are in the NFL playoffs. With no pressure to act right this moment, or the moment before, or the moment before that moment, Jones has opted to let things simply time themselves out with Garrett — versus firing him with only days remaining on his deal.

 

That said, remember the part about not putting anything past Jones? Keep that in mind, because there’s also a possible curveball he could throw to keep his longtime friend (read: family) around going forward.

 

A separate source confirmed to me prior to the conclusion of the season that Jones could find a role for Garrett in the front office, which would open the door for a needed successor at head coach while not allowing another NFL team to benefit from the aforementioned investment he’s put into Garrett. There’s obvious interest between Garrett and a team like the New York Giants, as one example, and owner John Mara and general manager Dave Gettleman have already begun lining up interviews for their vacancy at head coach.

 

It’d be disingenuous to pretend Jones is oblivious to that possible marriage, because he isn’t, at all. It’s a scenario he’d prefer to not see materialize, yes, but this isn’t to say he’s holding up the train in a way that harms Garrett’s chances of finding gainful employment. It simply furthers the point that the Cowboys could simply be working to carve out a seat for him in Dallas that doesn’t involve Garrett being on the sideline anymore.

 

That could be maneuvered in a myriad of ways, so while Garrett (nor anyone in Jones’ lifetime) will likely be not named general manager, granting him a chair as a consultant/advisor with power to help shape football operations is not out of the question. Furthermore, the topic has likely been broached between the two sides, although a clean cut is still the expectation.

 

Garrett has said his goodbyes to many within the building in Frisco, and jotted down the numbers of some to remain in touch going forward. A large chunk of his coaching staff is no longer under contract either, and even passing game coordinator Kris Richard — the most notable free agent — is slated to interview with the Giants. All things considered, it’s never been more clear that this is the time for the Cowboys to move on from Garrett as head coach, and there’s nothing right now that indicates they won’t, unforeseen miracles aside.

 

What happens after that, in one way or the other, is what they’re still talking about.

 

 

WASHINGTON

Interim coach Bill Callahan will not linger into the Ron Rivera Regime.  This from Grey Papke:

 

Ron Rivera will have plenty of freedom to construct his own staff, judging by who’s being retained after his hiring the Washington.

 

According to JP Finlay of NBC Sports Washington, most of Washington’s defensive assistants have been fired after Rivera’s hiring as head coach. Also out is offensive line coach Bill Callahan, who served as the team’s interim head coach for the team’s final 11 games.

 

@JPFinlayNBCS

Bill Callahan and most of Redskins defensive staff is out, per sources. Some offensive assistants and staff will interview with Ron Rivera, including Kevin O’Connell, but right now, no holdovers definitively have a job on the new staff.

 

Essentially, Washington is clearing the way for Rivera to make major changes. That’s great news for a team with a toxic culture, and if owner Dan Snyder is really going to get out of the way and let Rivera do his job, it’s exceptionally encouraging.

 

Rivera already has a new defensive coordinator in place. The team is also going to be hiring a new GM after Bruce Allen was let go.

 

And here is that new defensive coordinator – Jack of the River.  This from Les Carpenter and Kareem Copeland of the Washington Post:

 

Within hours of becoming head coach of the Washington Redskins, Ron Rivera made his first big hire, adding former Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio as defensive coordinator.

 

The combination of Rivera and Del Rio puts two of the league’s best defensive minds at the top of the team’s coaching staff, showing the Redskins are likely committed to building around a defense filled with promising players in their mid-20s or younger.

 

“These are two old school linebackers that can speak the same language with each other,” Fox NFL analyst Charles Davis said. “Ron will not have to worry about coordinating the defense as the head coach, which he had to do, really, for the last year and a half in Carolina.”

 

In confirming his hire Wednesday morning, Del Rio said he will run a 4-3 defense — a dramatic change from the 3-4 scheme Washington had been using. The new scheme should emphasize one of Washington’s biggest strengths — a group of gifted defensive linemen that includes recent first-round picks Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, as well as rising star Matt Ioannidis and Tim Settle, who played well last season. Pass rusher Montez Sweat, a first-round pick last spring, could also benefit from the new defense as might Ryan Kerrigan, whose statistics declined last season.

 

While a 4-3 should decrease the times pass rushers like Sweat and Kerrigan are dropped into coverage, the specifics of the sub-packages will have a heavy influence. Davis noted teams are out of their base defense much of the time.

 

Del Rio’s hire was the first of what may be many big moves made by Rivera and team owner Daniel Snyder. Multiple reports have said Rivera is interested in keeping current offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell. While O’Connell only called plays for the first time after former head coach Jay Gruden was let go in early October, he is well regarded around the league and might have other opportunities. He did seem to build a strong relationship with rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins, something Rivera might want to maintain.

 

NFC WEST

 

LOS ANGELES RAMS

Entering December, TE TYLER HIGBEE had 86 career catches in 58 games – an average of 1.5 catches per game (for about 15 yards per game).

 

Then, he and QB JARED GOFF went crazy with Higbee catching 43 passes for 522 yards in the 5 games of December, including a record-tying (for a tight end) 4 consecutive 100-yard receiving games.  That’s an average of 8.6 catches for 104.4 yards.

 

It was arguably the greatest month ever for a tight end.

 

MOST CATCHES, TIGHT END, MONTH:

 

TYLER HIGBEE, December, 2019                     43

Jason Witten, October, 2012                               43  

Tony Gonzalez, November, 2008                        40 

 

MOST RECEIVING YARDS, TIGHT END, MONTH:

 

George Kittle, December, 2018                            554

Pete Retzlaff, November, 1965                             539          

TYLER HIGBEE, December, 2019                      522

 

They are the only three TEs to have a 500-yard month.

 

 

SEATTLE

Pete Carroll on who you get your apology from when the guy in charge of the officiating makes the decision that costs you the top seed.  Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has tried to carefully balance a desire to get his message out regarding a non-call of defensive pass interference late in Sunday’s critical regular-season finale against the 49ers with the league’s desire that coaches neither criticize officiating nor disclose admissions made privately to teams about officiating errors.

 

On Monday, Carroll explained that he’d like the league to have more camera angles immediately available for replay review, implying that he believes other angles not immediately available from NBC cameras made it more clear that 49ers linebacker Fred Warner had significantly hindered Seahawks tight end Jacob Hollister‘s effort to catch the football. (The NBC angles seemed to be more than sufficient.) Three days later, Carroll told reporters that he believes that the league would have liked to have seen the officials call DPI.

 

“Here’s what I would tell you,” Carroll said when asked about his communications with 345 Park Avenue regarding the non-call that swung a division title, that kept the Packers from being the No. 1 seed, and that knocked the Saints out of a bye. “They wish that they would’ve called a pass interference. They can look and see, and they would’ve called pass interference, I think. That would probably be the feeling I got because you easily could’ve called it, and nobody would’ve complained about the call other than the guy that grabbed him. That would’ve made everything a whole lot cleaner and all that. It’s difficult for those guys to put a flag down on the field [via replay review]. It’s got to be so egregious that there’s a standard to it. Had it been called on the field, they never would’ve overturned that from what I understand.”

 

He’s right about that; it’s much harder to overturn a ruling of pass interference than it is to overturn a ruling that there wasn’t pass interference. However, the standard has shifted and changed throughout the year, from a strict and literal search for clear and obvious evidence of significant hindrance to egregious proof of interference back to the literal standard and as the playoffs approach, who knows what the standard is?

 

Based on Carroll’s comments, the bar apparently is high again. And it will stay high until it isn’t. Then it will stay there until it is, again. Which is no way to operate a billion-dollar business that now sees millions of dollars legally wagered on the decisions made by officials and by those responsible for taking a second look at those decisions.

 

And so with 11 postseason games starting Saturday, the league would be wise to select a standard, to stick with it, and to communicate clearly and unequivocally to all teams, all media, and all fans precisely what the standard is.

 

AFC NORTH

 

CLEVELAND

The Browns part ways with GM John Dorsey.

 

General manager John Dorsey and the Cleveland Browns have “mutually agreed to part ways,” according to a team statement.

 

Dorsey met Tuesday with Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.

 

The Browns improved to 7-8-1 last season but regressed to 6-10 this year, costing first-year coach Freddie Kitchens his job. The Browns missed the playoffs for the 17th straight season — the NFL’s longest current drought.

 

The Browns will prioritize hiring a head coach before a general manager because they want the coach to have strong input and a connection with the new GM, a source told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler.

 

Dorsey, 59, was the Kansas City Chiefs’ general manager from 2013 to 2016. He became the Browns’ general manager in December 2017 as the team was finishing an 0-16 season.

 

Dorsey had overseen the past two drafts and free agency in 2018 and 2019.

 

He selected Baker Mayfield No. 1 overall in the 2018 draft and picked star running back Nick Chubb with the team’s second-round pick that year. Dorsey also made trades for starting wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, and he signed troubled running back Kareem Hunt as a free agent.

 

“While John helped greatly improve our team’s talent and we are excited about the core players on our roster, we fully recognized that our team did not meet its potential on or off the field and additional changes in leadership give us the best opportunity for success in the future,” Haslam said in the statement. “As the role of the general manager continues to evolve in this league, we felt there were areas that needed to be reassessed. Over the last 48 hours, we’ve had discussion with John about his role but could not come to an agreement on a position that would enable him to remain with the organization.”

 

Dorsey said in the team statement: “When I took this job, the history of this storied franchise and the passion of our fans was an integral part of my decision. It is that same understanding and desire to see these fans enjoy the success they are so deserving of that helped me conclude, along with Jimmy and Dee [Haslam], that it was best to part ways as they embark on the search for a new head coach. I know how critical the relationship is between a general manager and head coach and I also know how critical it is that the Browns have a strong leader in their next coach.”

 

This means that someone with history and clout like Mike McCarthy could help select a personnel team he is comfortable with.  We wondered about Browns execs Alonzo Highsmith and Elliott Wolf who have Green Bay in their past, then read this from Jason LaCanfora.

 

@JasonLaCanfora on @923TheFan on Mike McCarthy’s relationship with Dorsey/Highsmith/Wolf: “It’s not super cozy…I would probably say amicable, friendly enough, but it’s not kumbaya.” Says he’s heard that was some friction with Eliot Wolf from past#Browns

 

Candidates for the coaching job per Tom Withers of the AP:

 

The Browns will interview former Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy for their vacancy on Thursday, a person familiar with the team’s plans told the Associated Press.

 

McCarthy’s interview will be the first in Cleveland’s search, said the person who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

 

McCarthy was believed to be the front-runner for the Browns’ job last year but surprisingly didn’t interview. The team has also requested permission to interview Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, said the person. Bieniemy joins a list of Browns candidates that includes assistants Josh McDaniels, Greg Roman, Robert Saleh, Kevin Stefanski and Brian Daboll.

– – –

OC Todd Monken is trying to distance himself from Kitchens.  Zac Jackson in The Athletic:

 

(Former OC Todd) Haley made it about nine months with the Browns. When the Browns beat the Bills in November, Haley was watching from an establishment in Florida. He was openly rooting for the Bills and telling anyone who would listen that he pushed for the Browns to draft Josh Allen, and not Baker Mayfield, at No. 1 in 2018.

 

Speaking of disgruntled offensive coordinators, Todd Monken’s one season with the Browns was a disaster. Monken had the offensive coordinator title but Kitchens called the plays, and it was clear that Kitchens and Monken were never on the same page. Multiple sources told The Athletic that late in the season, Monken would spend time on the field before games telling opposing coaches how bad things were with the Browns, calling the team a “total mess” and saying that Kitchens’ Sunday play calling generally steered away from most things that had been in the game plan from Wednesday-Saturday.

– – –

Terez Paylor of YahooSports.com gives the Haslems some advice:

 

The Cleveland Browns’ decision to fire Freddie Kitchens on Sunday was met with head nods and chuckles.

 

Of course, it was time for Kitchens to go. Of course, he was in over his head.

 

But when word leaked Tuesday that general manager John Dorsey was in trouble and later got the ax too, well, those chuckles turned to deep sighs in Ohio.

 

Browns fans have seen this act before from team owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam, who clearly want to win but have no idea how as they continue to put this fan base through a cruel and twisted football version of “Groundhog Day.”

 

Step One: The team underachieves.

 

Step Two: Haslam gets frustrated and impatient, someone (or some) get fired.

 

Step Three: A new hope gets hired, and expectations rise.

 

Step Four: Start back at Step One again.

 

And so on, and so on it goes, which explains how, in an era of football when parity is a driving force of the league, the Haslams have accumulated a horrific record since they bought the Browns in October 2012.

 

Since 2013, the first full season the Haslams owned the team, Cleveland is 28-83-1. That’s a 25 percent winning percentage, about 16 percent behind what William Clay Ford Sr., the deceased patriarch of the Detroit Lions, posted as team owner from 1964-2013. That should explain how pathetic the Haslams’ winning percentage is, right?

 

But here we are again, with the Haslams holding everyone — the coaches, the players, the general manager, the executives, the waterboy — accountable except themselves.

 

And it’s a shame. The Browns are one of the NFL’s most historic franchises, a place where legends like Paul Brown, Jim Brown and Otto Graham thrived, and more importantly, won championships.

 

Of course, those championships came in the 1950s and ’60s. Since then, the Browns have not only failed to reach a Super Bowl — joining the Lions as the only non-expansion team to do so — they also employed the greatest coach of all time (Bill Belichick) and never reaped any of the benefits, went 0-16 in 2016 and implemented the single-worst uniform design in the NFL in 2015.

 

It’s time for this to stop.

 

Here are some ways the Haslams can resurrect this franchise, based on football truths I’ve culled from people I respect in the league during my time covering the NFL.

 

Qualities needed for GM, head coach

The key to being a good NFL team owner is to hire competent people and give them time and space to do their jobs. Doing both will not be easy, particularly for Jimmy Haslam, an impatient meddler with a tendency to seek opinions from far too many internal voices (which only encourages more culture-crushing power grabs from subordinates). But hiring smart people and empowering them fully so everyone can chart the course forward is the only way to change the culture of losing and back-stabbing in Cleveland.

 

It’s not impossible to do. After all this trial and error, the Haslams may be on the verge of finding a winning path. But doing so will require a new four-step process from the Haslams, one that would theoretically replace their patented, time-tested “How to lose NFL games at a clip faster than the Detroit Lions” strategy.

 

Step One: Hire a general manager who will vibe with chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, who has earned responsibility from within the organization and is reportedly running the head coaching search. My vote is for Eagles vice president of football operations Andrew Berry, who is bright and highly regarded and is believed to be in the running for the position. If Berry doesn’t work out, the key here is to hire someone smart that DePodesta can be tied to at the hip.

 

Step Two: Hire a head coach who shares the same team-building philosophy of DePodesta and the new general manager, and can maximize the talents of quarterback Baker Mayfield, who is about to be coached by his fourth head coach in three years.

 

This is the type of dysfunction that causes first-round quarterbacks to bust. We’re approaching a danger zone with Mayfield, who will have no more godfathers — someone personally involved in his selection — in the building. If the Browns want to ensure he makes it, and they should because they can win with him, the next coach needs to believe in him and build an offense around his talents.

 

To do that, they should turn to Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, whose zone run-heavy offensive scheme is en vogue in the NFL. He has also coaxed a career season out of Kirk Cousins. Stefanski’s scheme would fit Mayfield’s strengths (athleticism, arm) while minimizing his weaknesses (his lack of height).

 

Step Three: Spend lots of money in free agency on the best zone-blocking offensive linemen available. This will improve the run game, which will negate a 2019 weakness — pass protection.

 

Step Four: The Haslams need to stay the hell away from all football decisions for at least three years. Conversations should be limited to the triumvirate (DePodesta, GM, coach), a group that should be reminded regularly that it will get three years together, but if one of them eventually goes, all of them will go. This will prevent the in-fighting that has caused past Browns regimes to lose course.

 

Do all four steps, and there is the possibility for a quick turnaround in Cleveland, maybe even a winning record and/or playoff berth in 2020. The Browns’ skill position players are strong. Sure, they underachieved this year, particularly at receiver, but with a better offensive line and a scheme more fitting of Mayfield’s talents, Cleveland could score a lot of points very quickly next season.

 

The wake of another failed regime, where the principles involved (Dorsey and Kitchens) couldn’t change the culture, served as a reminder that the Browns’ ultimate fate hinges on the Haslams changing their ways of doing things.

 

And given their embarrassing winning percentage, it’s hard for Browns fans to expect that, or even remain optimistic. Considering the savage punishment they’ve been subjected to for over half a century, one can only hope it comes to fruition.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

HOUSTON

The Texans have active DE J.J. WATT.  Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle:

 

Texans defensive end J.J. Watt was officially activated from injured reserve-designated to return Tuesday, clearing him to play in Saturday’s home playoff game against the Bills.

 

In a corresponding move, the Texans placed veteran safety Tashaun Gipson on injured reserve. Gipson hasn’t been on the injury report lately, but has dealt with a broken wrist and a transverse process fracture in his back this season.

 

Watt tore his pectoral muscle Oct. 27 against the Raiders. The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year rejoined his teammates on the practice field last week and is wearing a protective harness to lower the risk of re-injury.

 

And this from Wilson on how the Texans are getting motivated for the Bills:

 

Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson delivered a motivational message to his teammates before practice.

 

The Pro Bowl selection sent a text message to the entire offense with a succinct theme heading into a Saturday afternoon AFC wild-card playoff game against the Buffalo Bills.

 

“Deshaun sent a mass text out to the offense, that was something different, just telling guys, ‘Let’s be great,’ before practice,” running back Carlos Hyde said. “That was something that was different.”

 

 

Texans defensive end J.J. Watt also gave a speech stressing the importance of the moment and making the most out of this postseason opportunity.

 

“I wasn’t here for J.J.’s speech after practice,” Hyde said. “That’s good that guys are preaching about being focused. We need that during the playoffs, for sure.”

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW ENGLAND

The NFL can’t prove the Patriots cheated this time (and they may not have), but some will say they still need to be punished.  Mark Maske of the Washington Post:

 

The NFL has found no evidence linking Coach Bill Belichick or anyone else on the New England Patriots’ football staff to the video shot on behalf of the team showing footage of the Cincinnati Bengals’ sideline during a game last month in Cleveland, according to people familiar with the matter.

 

The league’s investigation of the latest video incident involving the Patriots is winding down and could be completed as soon as this week, according to those people. They said it remains likely, barring the last-minute uncovering of damaging evidence, that the NFL will impose penalties consistent with those handed out in recent years for game-day infractions.

 

That could mean fines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and the loss or reduction in value of a draft pick.

 

It is not clear, however, when the NFL will announce a decision. Once NFL security officials complete their investigation and submit their findings, Commissioner Roger Goodell and other league leaders must review those findings, decide whether to conduct additional interviews, deliberate over penalties and determine when to announce the ruling.

 

But there is no indication that Belichick or the Patriots’ football staff has been tied to the video or that the investigation has uncovered evidence of a sustained, organized effort to gain a competitive on-field advantage, according to those people with knowledge of the case.

 

Belichick repeatedly has said that neither he nor the Patriots’ football staff was involved in the video.

 

Belichick and the Patriots were fined a total of $750,000 by the NFL and the team was stripped of a first-round draft selection in 2007 in the Spygate case. The Patriots were found to be improperly taping opponents’ coaching signals.

 

In this case, the Patriots admitted violating NFL video policy during the Bengals-Browns game Dec. 8 in Cleveland. A video crew working for the Patriots and stationed in the press box, after being credentialed by the Browns, shot footage of the Bengals’ sideline during their loss in Cleveland. The Patriots beat the Bengals one week later in Cincinnati.

 

But the Patriots said their violation was committed unwittingly while the crew filmed an online feature about a scout who works for the team and was in attendance at the Bengals-Browns game. Bengals officials confronted a member of the Patriots’ film crew in the press box during the game. The videographer offered to delete the footage of the Bengals’ sideline and said he hadn’t known that he was doing anything improper.

 

Fox Sports later obtained and aired footage of the incident. It showed a video monitor aimed at the Bengals’ sideline and contained audio of dialogue between a Patriots videographer and a Bengals security staffer.

 

The NFL originally hoped to move quickly through its probe and decide on penalties. The process slowed when the investigation was turned over to NFL security officials to conduct interviews and sort through evidence, apparently including text messages and emails. But the league all along has appeared to consider the Patriots’ violation a typical game-day violation worthy of typical game-day disciplinary measures, and that does not seem to have changed.

 

Precedents being considered by the NFL for the upcoming Patriots penalties include measures imposed in recent years on the Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland Browns, New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens, as well as on the Patriots in the Deflategate case.

 

In that case, the Patriots were fined $1 million and stripped of first- and fourth-round draft choices for, the NFL concluded, scheming to use underinflated footballs. Quarterback Tom Brady was suspended for four games. But those penalties were more substantial than those imposed on the four other teams in the cases being considered.

 

The other teams were fined amounts ranging from $150,000 to $350,000.

 

Former Giants coach Ben McAdoo was fined $50,000 and his team had a fourth-round draft choice dropped to the end of that round after New York used a walkie-talkie on the sideline to replace a malfunctioning communications system.

 

Former Browns general manager Ray Farmer was suspended for four games for sending texts to the team’s coaches during games. Falcons President Rich McKay was suspended from the NFL competition committee and his team lost a fifth-round draft pick for three months after Atlanta pumped fake crowd noise into the stadium during games.

 

The Ravens were fined for having two players on the field simultaneously during the preseason with the coach-to-player headsets in their helmets.

 

The Patriots, winners of six Super Bowls with Belichick and Brady, went 12-4 this season. They won their 11th straight AFC East title but squandered a first-round playoff bye by losing their regular season finale Sunday at home to the Miami Dolphins. They host the Tennessee Titans in a first-round AFC playoff game Saturday night in Foxborough, Mass.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

PLAYOFF QBs

Seth Walder of ESPN.com ranks the 12 playoff QBs 1 to 12.  Keep scrolling down, past KIRK COUSINS, to find TOM BRADY and AARON RODGERS:

 

It’s the most important position at the most important time of the year. We’re talking quarterbacks in the 2019 NFL playoffs, and we’re ranking them from 1-12.

 

Things look a little different than when we did this last year, with quarterbacks (and teams) rising and falling. And in the 2019 rankings, the positions of two superstar names might surprise you.

 

This ranking is based only on all 12 quarterbacks’ level of play in the 2019 regular season, and how each is playing right now. It is heavily informed by two sets of metrics:

 

Total QBR and expected points added per play, which is the underlying foundation for how QBR is calculated.

 

And completion percentage over expectation and completed air yards over expectation, which both utilize NFL Next Gen Stats’ expected completion probability.

 

Those metrics, as well as information from ESPN video tracking, helped inform not only these rankings but the strengths and weaknesses identified for each quarterback. We also had help from our NFL Nation reporters, who wrote about what’s at stake for all 12 signal-callers. Let’s start with the MVP front-runner:

 

1. Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens

Season at a glance: Jackson’s incredible improvement is the story of the season. The Ravens built their roster and scheme around his strengths — and the plan worked to perfection. A heavy passing attack is almost always superior to a ground-focused offense, but Baltimore is the exception to that rule thanks in large part to Jackson. The result is a league-best Total QBR of 81.7 and a likely and deserved MVP award.

 

Strength: Can we say almost everything? Even if we looked only at passes and sacks, Jackson ranks second in QBR. A year ago he showed vulnerability against the blitz and against dime coverage, but he now excels in both categories.

 

Weakness: Jackson’s accuracy is not elite — that tepid criticism is the worst we can find on him. Jackson’s off-target rate is around league average, as is his completion percentage over expectation. Keep in mind, those two stats are recorded only on plays where he throws the ball, which is a fraction of his total action plays.

 

Jamison Hensley on what’s at stake for Jackson: How the start of Jackson’s playoff legacy is viewed. The worst game of his young career came in last season’s wild-card loss to the Chargers. He completed 3 of 9 passes for 25 yards in the first three quarters. That disappointing game fueled Jackson throughout the offseason. Now, as the MVP front-runner, Jackson can prove that woeful postseason debut was an aberration.

 

2. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

Season at a glance: The story of the Seahawks’ season is Wilson’s ability to lead his team to success despite a coaching staff that tries to limit its best player’s impact. The Seahawks run far too often on early downs. It’s a hilariously misguided approach for a team that has a great quarterback and isn’t even good at running the ball. Coach Pete Carroll is trying to play throwback football with an elite quarterback — and yet Wilson has delivered anyway. And he has done so with a bottom-five pass-blocking offensive line.

 

Strength: The deep ball. It’s not just pretty; it gets results. An average quarterback would have been expected to complete 29.9% of the 20-plus air yard passes he has attempted, per NFL Next Gen Stats. But Wilson has actually completed 42.7% of those passes, and his plus-12.8 point differential on those passes is third-best in the league. Though it’s fair to be critical of Seattle’s desire to run the ball, at least Wilson attempts 20-plus air yard passes at a high rate.

 

Weakness: Creating pressure for himself and taking too many sacks. This play against the Vikings in Week 13, animation courtesy of NFL Next Gen Stats, is indicative of what can sometimes be a problem: Wilson bails out completely when he really isn’t under pressure and a step to the right would do. As a result, he misses an opportunity to hit Tyler Lockett here and ends up taking a 13-yard sack.

 

Ultimately, this is a weakness, but it’s really OK. It’s the cost of doing business with Wilson, who excels when improvising and moving his feet before throwing. The good on those plays well outpaces the bad.

 

Brady Henderson on what’s at stake for Wilson: Wilson already has one Super Bowl title and a new contract that made him the game’s highest-paid player. Another Super Bowl would pad his Hall of Fame résumé and heal the wound that remains from the Seahawks coming up a yard short of repeating as champions five seasons ago. And with Seattle down to its Plans C and D at running back, Wilson could answer any doubts that remain about his ability to carry an offense on his shoulders.

 

3. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

Season at a glance: In a season in which his contemporaries’ production plunged, Brees is still as productive as ever. He has the best wide receiver in the league at his disposal, but Michael Thomas is really his only weapon.

 

Strength: Short and midrange accuracy. He connected on 97% of his passes to receivers running quick outs, well above the league average of 73%. And on midrange passes between 10 and 20 air yards, his completion percentage over expectation was plus-10%, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

 

Weakness: The deep ball. He just doesn’t throw the ball downfield often. In fact, Brees threw 20-plus yards downfield just 7% of the time, the second-lowest rate in the league. And he ranks 13th in QBR on those throws, which is subpar relative to everything else Brees does well.

 

Mike Triplett on what’s at stake for Brees: He shouldn’t have anything left to prove. He is the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards and passing TDs. And he just posted the best passer rating of his career at age 40, despite having thumb surgery in September. But that enormous chip on his shoulder has never faded — especially not after he was just snubbed from the NFL’s list of the 100 greatest players. It has now been 10 years since Brees won his only Super Bowl.

 

4. Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs

Season at a glance: Maybe it was the midseason injury, or maybe it was the Lamar Jackson breakout, but Mahomes almost slid into the background in 2019 despite maintaining his high level of performance.

 

Strength: Third-down efficiency. Mahomes recorded the highest QBR in the league on third down, and an outsized portion of that third-down production actually came with his legs. He added the second-most expected points added on third-down runs of any quarterback (behind only Jackson), converting 89% of such runs.

 

Weakness: Accuracy, at least relative to his other attributes. Mahomes ranked 13th in completed air yards over expectation per attempt and 20th in off-target rate. He’s just mediocre in that area relative to his peers, particularly on short and midrange passes.

 

There are also signs that Mahomes benefits quite a bit from scheme, which matches Andy Reid’s reputation. Mahomes’ targets averaged 3.8 yards of separation from the nearest defender, which is highest in the league per NFL Next Gen Stats. Shorter targets tend to yield higher separation numbers, but that isn’t the driver of the Chiefs’ receiver separation, as Mahomes averages a slightly above-average depth of target.

 

Adam Teicher on what’s at stake for Mahomes: Mahomes has accomplished a lot in his two seasons as a starter, but he hasn’t led the Chiefs to a Super Bowl. He can add a significant piece to an already burgeoning legacy by taking the Chiefs somewhere they haven’t been for 50 years.

 

5. Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans

Season at a glance: One of the most improbable developments of the season was that Tannehill — a seemingly bland quarterback destined to vacillate between mediocre starter and strong backup — exploded onto the scene midseason, surprisingly taking Tennessee to the postseason. I recently broke down Tannehill and what the future might hold for him here, and there’s no question that he has been electric this season.

 

Strength: Play-action performance. Tannehill and offensive coordinator Arthur Smith appear to be a good match. Smith dialed up play-action 31% of the time this season for the fourth-most such plays in the league. And Tannehill thrived in those opportunities, recording the highest QBR on play-action in the league.

 

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention his statistical wizardry in another category here: completion percentage over expectation (via NFL Next Gen Stats), in which he also led the league. He’s completing passes that simply are unlikely to be made, including the most unlikely completion of the season — a Week 17 pass to A.J. Brown

 

Weakness: Sacks. This is a problem that Tannehill has carried over from his time in Miami. He has taken sacks at the highest rate in the league this season (after recording the second-highest rate last season). The Titans, by the way, have one of the best pass-blocking offensive lines in the NFL.

 

Turron Davenport on what’s at stake for Tannehill: Despite showcasing the best 10-game stretch of his career, Tannehill, who is a free agent in 2020, still will face questions about being a long-term franchise quarterback. Taking out the Patriots in the wild-card round would do wonders for his contract possibilities. Teams are always willing to heavily invest in a quarterback who has come through in the clutch.

 

6. Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans

Season at a glance: There were moments during which Watson flirted with the MVP conversation earlier in the season, but by the end, Watson settled into what was solidly a top-10 quarterback season.

 

Strength: Beating man coverage. Watson’s QBR against man is just under 80, second-best in the league. His scrambles were more effective against man coverage and were the difference, as his non-scramble QBR was equally strong against both man and zone. In terms of passing ability, Watson most excels on downfield throws.

 

Weaknesses: Inviting pressure on himself. The Texans have the eighth-best pass block win rate — an ESPN Stats & Information statistic powered by NFL Next Gen Stats — in the league, and yet Watson is pressured at the seventh-highest rate.

 

Sarah Barshop on what’s at stake for Watson: Watson can continue a winning legacy that he started in college. When the Texans drafted him in 2017, coach Bill O’Brien said one of the reasons they wanted him as their quarterback was because he is a winner. Watson led Clemson to a national championship title in 2016 and finished his college career with a 32-3 record as a starting quarterback. He has won several big games this season, against the Chiefs, Colts and Patriots, and he has a chance to take another step forward this postseason.

 

7. Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings

Season at a glance: The forever-underrated Cousins put together a strong 2019 campaign even if his regular season ended ugly against Green Bay. As with Watson, there was a moment midseason in which he looked as though he was on the cusp of the MVP debate. Though he faded from that spot, Vikings fans should still be happy with the season they got out of their quarterback, who is signed through the 2020 season.

 

Strength: Accuracy. Cousins put up above-average completion percentage over expectation numbers across every depth, ranked third in completed air yards over expectation per attempt and had the fifth-lowest off-target percentage in the league. A second strength is his ability to throw on the run. Cousins’ completion percentage over expectation was best in the league on those throws.

 

Weakness: Cousins can’t handle the heat: His QBR is just 6 when under pressure. That’s 26th-best in the league overall.

 

Courtney Cronin on what’s at stake for Cousins: Pressure? You want to talk about pressure? What’s at stake for Cousins in the playoffs is more than just his outlook with the Vikings. If things go right and he achieves the one thing he has yet to do in his career — win a playoff game — the quarterback could be looking at contract extension talks in the near future. If things go poorly, Minnesota might opt to let Cousins play out the third and final year of his fully guaranteed contract while drafting a quarterback in April. But it’s not just Cousins’ future that is affected by what he does in the postseason. The direction of this franchise — the coaching staff, the front office, roster decisions — could change drastically depending on what happens in January.

 

8. Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles

Season at a glance: Wentz turned in a solid season considering the disadvantage he faced at receiver because of several injuries. Who knows what his production would have looked like with a healthy Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson for the entire season, though he did have tight end Zach Ertz at his disposal for most of the season.

 

Strength: Throwing from outside the pocket. When Wentz moved around he was highly effective, with the third-best QBR from outside the pocket, including zero interceptions. On a related note, he also excelled against pressure. Another nugget: Wentz racked up more yards throwing to wheel routes (217 over 13 targets) than any other quarterback in the league.

 

Weakness: The deep ball. Wentz’s production dipped relative to the rest of the league on passes 20-plus yards downfield, ranking 22nd in QBR on those throws. Wentz’s numbers were highly dependent on having Jeffery on the field: He recorded a QBR of 72 with Jeffery on the field, and a 57 without. That might not be a Wentz weakness, but it does signify how important Jeffery was to his production. One other weakness? He fumbles too much. Wentz’s 16 fumbles were second only to Daniel Jones’ 18 this season.

 

Tim McManus on what’s at stake for Wentz: This is Wentz’s chance to start carving out his own playoff legacy in Philadelphia. Injured each of the past two seasons, he had to watch Nick Foles guide this team to a Super Bowl title in the 2017 postseason and a wild-card win last season. Sunday will be Wentz’s first playoff game, and it comes against a Seahawks team that he has never beaten (0-3).

 

9. Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers

Season at a glance: After playing poorly over a few games in 2018 and having an ugly preseason, Garoppolo settled in as an acceptable quarterback option for a contender with an elite defense.

 

Strength: Garoppolo is a strange case because he has a couple of strengths that are rarely utilized. He has the second-best QBR when outside the pocket and the best on passes more than 20 yards downfield, which is backed up by a strong completion percentage over expectation on those passes, too. But he also is outside the pocket at a below-average rate and throws 20-plus yards at the lowest rate in the league.

 

Weakness: Garoppolo’s production numbers are much worse against zone. And that spans various zone coverages, too — Cover 2, Tampa 2, Cover 3, Cover 4 — he was below average against all of them.

 

Nick Wagoner on what’s at stake for Garoppolo: He can answer any remaining questions about his place as a franchise quarterback in the NFL. Despite checking off boxes all season, Garoppolo still has his skeptics. But if he can perform on the game’s biggest stage and guide the 49ers deep into the postseason, it will be hard for even his most cynical critics to find legitimate fodder to doubt him.

 

10. Tom Brady, New England Patriots

Season at a glance: Tenth out of 12? Let me explain why. The long-awaited steep Brady drop-off finally happened at age 42. You might not have noticed because the Patriots still went 12-4 and he was supported by one of the best defenses of the past decade.

 

Strength: Limiting pressures, sacks and turnovers. Brady played behind an excellent offensive line in 2018, but the unit in front of him this season was merely average in pass protection. And yet, he had a low pressure and sack rate — a credit to his read on plays — and also limited interceptions and turnovers. He even had an above-average QBR on plays in which there was a pass-block loss.

 

Weakness: Quick passing game. Brady struggled mightily when firing off passes in under 2.5 seconds this season, ranking 29th in QBR on those throws. Perhaps on a related note, he ranked 28th on snaps when both outside receivers received press coverage.

 

Mike Reiss on what’s at stake for Brady: Because Brady is a free agent after the season for the first time in his career, there is a possibility that this could be his final chapter in New England. Nothing that happens in the playoffs will alter his legacy — with six Super Bowl championships he’s among the greatest to ever play the game — but it could play a part in his decision-making process after the season.

 

11. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

Season at a glance: Though Rodgers threw just six interceptions over the past two seasons, his decline was evident in other areas. And despite playing behind the best pass-protecting offensive line in the league, his production was simply mediocre this season. Though he was once great, the 36-year-old Rodgers is no longer one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks.

 

Strength: Turnover avoidance. Rodgers really took that State Farm commercial about cautious driving to heart. He has the lowest interception rate in the league and fumbled just four times.

 

Weakness: Production. Limiting interceptions does not make a quarterback successful on its own, and the rest of his game just isn’t there. He ranks 20th in QBR, his off-target percentage is the fourth highest, and he led the Packers to just a league-average success rate on passing plays. All with the best pass protection a quarterback could have.

 

Rob Demovsky on what’s at stake for Rodgers: Brett Favre or Rodgers? It’s a legacy debate that hasn’t been decided yet. Each has one Super Bowl title. Rodgers played in one. Favre played in two. A second Super Bowl title might finally give Rodgers the edge over Favre in the eyes of Packers fans who are still debating it.

 

12. Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills

Season at a glance: The Bills’ 2019 success has come despite Allen, not because of him. While the narrative around the second-year quarterback has shifted positively this season, it has been the impact of many others, most notably the Buffalo defense, that led to the Bills’ success. Allen remains a below-average starter, ranking 24th in Total QBR and second-to-last in completed air yards over expectation.

 

Strength: Running the ball. Allen’s strength has remained consistent during his time in the NFL, as he ranks fourth in expected points added as a rusher among quarterbacks this season.

 

Weakness: There are quite a few. An interesting one that jumped out to me: Although Allen is a proficient runner, he’s effective only when he keeps the ball. When throwing on the run, Allen had the second-worst completion percentage over expectation in the league, ranking behind only Gardner Minshew. Beyond that, Allen ranks 30th in off-target percentage and has a high pressure and sack rate despite playing behind a solid pass-blocking line.

 

Marcel Louis-Jacques on what’s at stake for Allen: The narrative surrounding Allen’s legitimacy has returned to relevancy, thanks to the Bills’ three nationally televised games in their final five contests of the season. He has risen to the occasion in several big moments this season, and if he can do so again on the biggest stages of his career, the rest of the football world won’t be able to deny his place in this league. If he struggles, there will be more questions to answer as he enters his pivotal third season.

 

 

BROADCAST NEWS

This from Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The NFL and its TV partners had a good year in 2019.

 

Austin Karp of Sports Business Journal reports that viewership was up 5 percent for the 2019 season compared to the 2018 season. The average game in 2019 got 16.498 million viewers, compared to 15.759 million viewers for the 2018 season.

 

All four of the NFL’s TV partners — NBC, CBS, FOX and ESPN — had averaged more viewers in 2019 than in 2018. However, NFL Network saw its slate of games (which included three Week 16 Saturday games, two early-season Thursday night games and two Sunday morning games from London) decline in viewership in 2019.

 

The league’s strong television ratings are coming at a time when much of the programming on broadcast networks and cable channels is declining, thanks to streaming options leading to cord cutting and fractured viewership. The NFL is the one safe bet in the TV business.

 

 

 

2020 DRAFT

Alabama QB TUA TAGOVAILOA tells us via Twitter that he will make/announce his decision as to whether or not he will apply for the NFL Draft on Monday.  Charean Williams of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa walked onto the Citrus Bowl field with one crutch during pregame warmups Wednesday.

 

Standing only a few yards from Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and CEO Tom Garfinkel, both Michigan alumni, as well as Dolphins General Manager Chris Grier, Tagovailoa’s future became an intriguing sidebar.

 

Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said after his team’s victory over the Wolverines that Tagovailoa has not made a decision whether to enter the NFL Draft.

 

“That’s a decision that I think his family needs to make, and I’m sure when they make that decision, they’ll let everybody know,” Saban said, via Mike Rodak of al.com. “I think it’s our responsibility, our job, to make sure that we give them all the information from an NFL standpoint, from a medical standpoint, from a rehab standpoint — and if there is any way that he can possibly be devalued because of his injury, and what are the consequences of that and how does that affect his decision and what he does in the future.

 

“He’s been a great leader for us. He’s a great player on the team. He was elected captain of the team by his teammates. We just want what’s best for him. I think that’s my job with all the players: is to make sure they get the right information from the right people about what their status is, so that they can make a business decision about what they do for their future. That’s what we’re going to continue to do and we’re going to continue with that for Tua.”

 

Saban said this week that Tagovailoa is Alabama’s only potential 2020 draft prospect given a grade within the first 15 picks. Tagovailoa’s hip injury, though, could affect his draft status, which makes his decision harder.

 

Should he stay or should he go?

 

Tagovailoa, who has not spoken to reporters since Dec. 5, has until Jan. 20 to enter the NFL Draft if he decides to forgo his final season of eligibility.

 

This from Clay Travis:

 

@ClayTravis

Interesting that Greg McElroy just said he thinks Tua is coming back on Bama-Michigan broadcast.

 

@ClayTravis

He’s clearly very plugged in with Bama’s program. So it’s a pretty informed opinion. Also seems to be growing consensus of late. Really fascinating decision.