AROUND THE NFL

Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com looks at the NBA’s China mess from an NFL perspective.

 

China fascinates American sports leagues, and for good reason. China has 1.4 billion people to whom American sports can be marketed, and from whom a lot of money can be made.

 

That’s why the NBA has embraced China, and that’s why the NFL has tried for more than a decade to figure out how to do the same.

 

The Patriots and Seahawks were supposed to play a game there in 2007, and then in 2009. It never happened, to the chagrin of Tom Brady. In recent years, reports have bubbled up about playing a game in China, but logistics (and concerns about air pollution) have gotten in the way.

 

Even now, the NFL has its eye on China, doing deals to distribute NFL content and striving to find a way to play one or more games there. In 2016, an indoor football league backed by Ron Jaworski and Dick Vermeil launched in China. And that’s when we posed for the first time a question that rarely has been asked: Why China?

 

China continues to be a communist regime, and its human-rights record remains atrocious. But the sheer concentration of human beings who can eventually be placed under the sports spell makes it very fertile ground for the NFL.

 

But given the wildfire that started with a simple tweet from the G.M. of one NBA team, the NFL probably is feeling somewhat relieved that it’s currently not embroiled in an international incident that threatens to choke off the golden goose the NBA has been nurturing there.

 

From a business standpoint, it’s far better to have never exploited a market than to be there and lose it. As money flows from that new market, budgets, expectations, and high-level executive incomes adjust accordingly. When that market goes away, as it may for the NBA, that’s a major problem.

 

So maybe it’s better for the NFL to never build up something that could be so easily squandered. Once that market exists, the NFL won’t want to lose it, which could mean engaging in the kind of self-censorship that undermines the overall integrity of the operation.

 

It makes much more sense to focus on expanding to countries with governments that properly respect the rights of its people. But the NFL has 1.4 billion reasons to continue to be tempted to find a way to cultivate more and more fans in China, even if the transaction includes eventually forfeiting a slice of its soul.

 

NFC NORTH

 

GREEN BAY

Everyone is constantly taking the temperature of QB AARON RODGERS on his relationship with Matt LaFleur.  Today it is good.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The current Packers quarterback got together with his predecessor on Tuesday to talk about life in the team’s new offense.

 

Aaron Rogers was a guest on Brett Favre’s weekly SiriusXM NFL Radio show and the topic that’s dominated discussion of the Packers since Matt LaFleur was hired continued to take center stage. Rodgers has referred to the offense as a work in progress and answered a question about how long he expects that to be the case.

 

Rodgers said he thought it took a while for everything to fall in place with Mike McCarthy, but “hopefully it’s a little quicker” with LaFleur. Rodgers also said that “we’re still trying to figure out how we can best use the guys that we have in this system” while adding that he’s enjoying where things are going.

 

“But I like the way we’re going and I’m not going to put a time table on when everybody is going to feel totally comfortable. I’m just going to say that I’ve seen progress since Week One where we struggled and Week Two we came out and played a little better. Three and then four, you know, we got the passing game going and a couple days ago we got the run game really rolling. I like the way we’re going, I really enjoy our team. I think it’s a bunch of really good guys. I enjoy the staff and I’m not going to put any time tables, expectations on it, I’m just going to say that I’m really having a lot of fun right now and I think the guys are too and it’s kind of contagious and we’re going to embrace that feeling.”

 

LaFleur said after last Sunday’s win in Dallas that he thought everyone was more comfortable in the offense and things have certainly moved in the right direction since the opener. Continued growth after a 4-1 start would likely put the Packers in good position to contend for a playoff spot down the stretch this season.

 

NFC EAST

 

WASHINGTON

Bill Callahan has a QB for Sunday in Miami.  Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Washington has a new starting quarterback, same as the old starting quarterback.

 

New interim head coach Bill Callahan is planning to go back to Case Keeum, as long as Keenum is able to play on his injured foot, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network.

 

Keenum opened the season as the starter but was out with his foot injury last week. Colt McCoy started in his place, and head coach Jay Gruden was fired after another ugly loss. Some thought the departure of Gruden would pave the way for first-round rookie Dwayne Haskins, but Callahan made clear at his introductory press conference that he doesn’t think Haskins is ready to start.

 

So Keenum will lead the way against the Dolphins, in a game that will make the loser the favorite to earn the first overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft.

 

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A lot of good coaches have been on the Redskins staff – and now they are head coaches elsewhere.  So OC Kevin O’Connell is the first name on this list of prospective Washington head coaches compiled by Ethan Cadeaux of NBCSports.com:

 

Things are changing in Redskins Park. 

 

Washington relieved head coach Jay Gruden of his coaching duties early Monday, stating that “the team has clearly not performed up to expectations.” Offensive line coach Bill Callahan will assume head coaching duties in the interim.

 

While Callahan will be the interim head coach for likely the rest of the season, the Redskins will make a full-time hire during the offseason. So who will the Burgundy and Gold be targeting?

 

Here is a way too early look at the potential head coaches for the Redskins in 2020.

 

The first name that comes to mind is Kevin O’Connell, the current Redskins offensive coordinator. At just 34 years old, many around the league consider O’Connell to be one of the bright, young football minds in the game. Washington has had multiple young coaches on their staff in the recent past that have gone on to be successful head coaches elsewhere: Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, and Matt LaFleur to name a few.

 

O’Connell could be the next to follow down that path if the Redskins choose to go a different direction.

 

Another name that will be considered is Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. He’s in his seventh year with the Chiefs and his second as the offensive coordinator. In his first year as the offensive coordinator, Bieniemy’s group ranked first in the NFL in points and yards per game. Of course, that helps when Patrick Mahomes is playing quarterback, but Bieniemy still deserves a lot of credit. The Redskins likely won’t be the only team seeking his services in the offseason.

 

Former Jaguars quarterback and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich is another name that will be considered. Leftwich is only 39 years old but has plenty of experience as both a player and coach in the NFL. Under Leftwich and head coach Bruce Arians, the Buccaneers offense has thrived averaging 29.4 points-per-game, the fifth-best in the NFL.

 

If the Redskins value head coaching experience when deciding on their next man in charge, Mike McCarthy could be in the mix. McCarthy spent 13 seasons as the Green Bay Packers head coach before he was fired in the late portion of the 2018 season. McCarthy will likely have more NFL experience than any other candidate the Redskins consider and has a Super Bowl victory under his belt as well.

 

Another experienced head coach Washington may consider is Ken Whisenhunt. Between the Cardinals and Titans, Whisenhunt has eight years on NFL head coaching experience. He is also familiar with the Redskins organization as he played for the Burgundy and Gold for two seasons. He currently is the Chargers offensive coordinator, leading the charge for one of the league’s most balanced and dynamic offenses.

 

The son of former Redskins head coach Marty Schottenheimer, Brian, is also a potential candidate for the job.

 

The younger Schottenheimer is only 45 years old and has close to two decades of NFL coaching experience as an assistant and coordinator. He’s currently the Seahawks offensive coordinator, where their QB Russell Wilson is off to the best start in his NFL career. He was the Redskins QB coach in 2001 when his father was the head coach, but moved on to the Chargers once the Redskins fired his father after one season.

 

Any time there is a head coaching opening, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is thrown into the conversation. But McDaniels has had several opportunities over the past few years to leave New England for another head coaching job, but he’s stayed put in the Northeast. He famously accepted the Colts head coaching job in 2018 before reneging.

 

The Redskins have never shied away from the flashy hire, and hiring the University of Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley would be just that. In his first two seasons as the Sooners head coach, Riley lead Oklahoma to two College Football Playoff berths. The past two No. 1 overall picks — quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray — both won the Heisman Trophy with Riley at the helm. If developing Redskins quarterback Dwayne Haskins is priority No. 1 when hiring a new coach, expect Washington to inquire about Riley.

 

Riley isn’t the only coach from the college football world that the Redskins might consider. Enter Jim Harbaugh, current Michigan and former 49ers head coach. Harbaugh made the transition from college to the NFL in 2011, and then went on to lead the 49ers to three NFC championship appearances and one Super Bowl appearance in four years at the team’s head coach. He’s been the head coach at Michigan, his alma mater, since 2014, but has not done the two things the Wolverines brought him in to do: beat Ohio State and win the Big Ten.

 

Another experienced head coach the Redskins could inquire about is Mike Tomlin, should the Steelers move on from him this offseason. Tomlin has been Pittsburgh’s head coach since 2007, leading them to a Super Bowl in 2009. He is under contract through 2021, so the Steelers would face a two-year buyout if they choose to make a change following the season. According to one report, he’s on Dan Snyder’s radar.

 

Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is another name worth keeping an eye on. He was the Jets head coach from 2015 through 2018, but failed to win more than five games in each of his final three seasons in New York. He’s one of the smarter defensive minds in the game, so if Washington wants to hire a defensive-minded head coach, Bowles should be in consideration.

 

Young or old, college or pro, there are several different directions the Redskins can head when hiring their next head coach. All possibilities are on the table. Now, it’s time to just wait and see which way they go.

 

Now, all the Grudens have been fired.  Jeremy Bergman of NFL.com:

 

Through thick and thin, the Brothers Gruden stick together. But not too together.

 

One day after his brother, Jay Gruden, was fired as head coach of the Washington Redskins, Jon Gruden told reporters he would not speculate about Jay joining his staff in Oakland when asked about the possibility. But he made sure to offer his condolences.

 

“I’m obviously very disappointed for my brother,” Gruden said Tuesday ahead of Oakland’s bye week. “It was a long night, last couple of nights. He worked hard. Got a lot of respect for my brother. Obviously, I’m disappointed for him getting fired.

 

“But my dad’s been fired. I’ve been fired. Jay’s been fired and welcome to the club, bro.”

 

The last time Jon Gruden was axed as head coach of an NFL franchise, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers relieved him of his duties following the 2008 season, his seventh with the organization. He quickly found employment, joining ESPN as a color analyst for “Monday Night Football” until Oakland poached him from the broadcasting booth in 2018 and signed him to a 10-year contract. Safe to say, Jon won’t be fired for quite some time.

 

But this is Jay’s first rodeo at this high of a level.

 

Whether little brother will join big brother in Oakland for the remainder of the season remains to be seen, but is unlikely. For one, Oakland already has a veteran offensive staff in place. Plus, The Washington Post’s Les Carpenter reported Monday that Jay Gruden “didn’t plan on working again this season.”

 

The Brothers Gruden were last on the same staff in 2008, when Jay was an offensive assistant on Jon’s Bucs staff, all the while coaching the AFL’s Orlando Predators.

 

Jay also has connections to multiple head coaches at other organizations if he wants to explore other avenues. Sean McVay of the Los Angeles Rams was Gruden’s offensive coordinator in D.C from three seasons. Mike Zimmer of the Minnesota Vikings was Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator while Jay was Cincy’s OC from 2011 to 2013.

 

Gruden has friends — and family — in high places around the league. Whether a job comes calling this year or next, the 52-year-old coach won’t be unemployed for long.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

TAMPA BAY

The Buccaneers have cut hybrid S/LB DEONE BUCANNON.  A former first rounder of the Arizona Cardinals, he never found a niche with the Bucs.  Kevin Patra of NFL.com:

 

The 27-year-old has been active for all five guys this season, but played just six total defensive snaps, per Next Gen Stats. Bucannon was mostly used on special teams with Tampa.

 

Even in a Bucs defense that saw first-round pick Devin White get hurt early this season, Bucannon didn’t see the field on D — Kevin Minter filled in.

 

Since compiling 80-plus tackles each year — including 112 in 2015 — in a three-year span from 2015-2017, Bucannon has been a subpar linebacker the past two years. Still, there is a chance a team looking for some help in the middle of their defense could kick the tires on the once-versatile defender.

 

NFC WEST

 

SAN FRANCISCO

It’s not exactly an apology, but CB RICHARD SHERMAN says QB BAKER MAYFIELD “deserves” one.

 

The next move in #HandshakeGate has happened.

 

49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, appearing Wednesday on The Pat McAfee Show, has expressed regret for the erroneous claim that Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield snubbed Sherman prior to the coin toss on Monday night. But the regret comes with a caveat.

 

“It’s definitely my bad,” Sherman told McAfee. “I never want anybody to deal with some sh-t that — I mean some some stuff — that they didn’t do. And so, you know, the questions that he’s gonna get and the annoying, nonsense questions about some stuff that happened in a game that’s already been done, you know, sure he’ll get an apology for that. I’ll probably reach out to him via text or social media to actually get ahold of him and talk to him in person, I mean on the phone. But, yeah, because that sucks. . . . But yeah, yeah. He definitely deserves an apology, and my bad on that.”

 

McAfee asked Sherman whether he would have worded things differently if he had a chance to redo the discussion with Mike Silver of NFL Media.

 

“I may have phrased it differently, but I meant what I said,” Sherman said. “I did feel the disrespect. . . . I felt disrepect and at the end of the day that’s all the story was, really. Like, people can say, ‘Oh my God, he shook your hand’ or ‘Oh my God you were wrong.’ You can say whatever you want. I don’t give a damn.”

 

But the truth continues to be that Sherman claimed Mayfield refused to shake Sherman’s hand, that Sherman doubled and tripled down on that contention after the initial videos that didn’t prove him wrong first emerged, and that Sherman only admitted that the handshake happened (and began deleting tweets to the contrary) once it was clear that the handshake did indeed occur.

 

And as it relates to actual or perceived disrespect, it’s just as easy to say that Sherman disrespected Mayfield. As Simms pointed out on PFT Live, Sherman didn’t seem to be all that enthused about interacting with Mayfield, either.

 

Regardless, Sherman apologized, as he should have. Whether NFL Media apologizes for posting those false claims without properly vetting them or seeking comment from Mayfield or the Browns and then failing to revise the story for roughly three hours after the truth emerged remains to be seen.

 

It also remains to be seen how Mayfield addresses the issue with reporters. He’s due to meet with reporters today.

 

And then there’s Sherman’s next media availability. He won’t want to be grilled on the subject, and if he gets asked a bunch of “annoying, nonsense questions” on a topic that he surely won’t want to discuss, he could get angry.

 

Maybe angry enough to threaten to ruin a reporter’s career.

 

AFC NORTH

 

CLEVELAND

Naturally, Coach Freddie Kitchens thinks he is the right man for the job.  Scott Patsko in the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

 

Freddie Kitchens held a conference call with media on Tuesday, a day after the Browns fell to 2-3 with a blowout loss to the 49ers.

 

Here are some quick hits from Tuesday’s conference call:

 

– Kitchens opened the call by calling for more consistency: “We don’t want to be an up and down, rollercoaster football team if we want to get to where we want to get to. We need to find consistency in how we prepare, how approach the game, how we approach the play.”

 

– Kitchens said the Browns came out of the game without any significant injuries.

 

– On being disappointed with a lack of consistency: “You’ve got to have the first one before you can start being consistent. We had the first one (against the Ravens). We know what it looks like. We had our opportunities last night and didn’t make the best of it.”

 

– On concerns over losing the battle on the line of scrimmage: “I want the strength of our team to be on both sides of the line of scrimmage. I don’t think that was (last night). Ultimately it’s about the result and we didn’t get it done.”

 

– On what was wrong with Baker Mayfield: “There’s a lot that goes into that. Some of it had to do with a lack of protection. Some had to do with a couple bad throws, a couple bad decisions, had some drops. We can’t do those things and play quarterback position at an elite level. If you just want an honest answer, you need to have consistency around you and you have to be consistent yourself.”

 

– On Antonio Callaway playing an unfamiliar position: “We move our receivers around a good bit. We felt he was probably ready to play so we played him.”

 

– On whether or not Kitchens is in over his head as a head coach: “No. I wouldn’t say that at all. Of course that could be the narrative, that’s the easy thing to say. Look at the tape.”

 

– On the offense struggling to get passes to Odell Beckham Jr., who had just two catches: “Everybody has to do their job. If everybody does their job, me included, we’ll be successful. it’s as simple as that. I know you guys are looking for some state of the art answer, it’s as simple as just doing your job.”

 

– On potentially bringing in another offensive lineman: “The guys that we have need to play better. We need to coach them better.”

 

– Kitchen said he has no regrets about putting Beckham on the field for a punt return late in the game. “He wanted to be out there fielding that punt because he thought he could do something and provide a spark.”

 

– On whether or not his team played hard until the end: “I don’t think we had anybody give up or anything like that. We were still fighting. Contrary to popular belief, we had our chances and we didn’t do it.”

 

AFC SOUTH

 

JACKSONVILLE

Sam Borden, ESPN.com’s “global sports correspondent” finds himself in Jacksonville for a long piece on QB GARDNER MINSHEW II.  Excerpts below:

 

SUNRISE ISN’T FOR at least another hour. The air reeks of that sweet, sweet Florida sulfur. The only light comes from the glint of a rusted streetlamp off the community trash compactor, yet still — still — Gardner Minshew is smiling as he pulls out of his apartment complex in Jacksonville on a dank morning last week.

 

He is talking about escapes.

 

“I’ve been learning to play the guitar,” he says, gesturing toward the radio that’s playing the Allman Brothers. His grin is wider than his (considerable) mustache. “It’s been going … slowly. But I kind of love it.”

 

As we cross the bridge into downtown, Minshew asks if I have heard of something called Yousician (I haven’t). He explains that it is an app, created in Finland, that features instrument tutorials and — critically, he says — a virtual instructor that listens and corrects you as you try to play. Each night, after he’s done with football practice and football study and football preparation, Minshew puts in his earphones and slips away from all that is bubbling around him, zoning out with his automated music teacher as he tries to master the chords and frets.

 

Minshew took up the guitar about a month ago, he says, which makes sense because that is also when the speed of his life suddenly went from a syrup drip to a freight train. There was the injury to Jaguars starting quarterback Nick Foles and coach Doug Marrone calling Minshew’s name. Then came the string of completed passes that first day — 13 in a row to start his career in a 22-for-25 performance — followed by the closer-than-close rally in the second game. Then came Thursday night bedlam against Tennessee. And the fourth-quarter miracle a week later in Denver.

 

Now there are T-shirts with Minshew’s face on them and beer cans with Minshew’s face on them. There are awards and endorsements. The Jags are selling Minshew-branded ticket plans, and there is a litany of stories about Minshew’s glorious facial hair and his rakish headband and his tattered jean shorts and his (occasional) preference for stretching while wearing nothing but a jockstrap.

 

In a season that has seen backup quarterbacks dominate the headlines — seven took the field for an injured starter in the first four weeks alone — the fascination with Minshew is its own universe, where interviews and candy deals and so, so, so many memes mesh together with the endless speculation on the radio and the TV and just about every dive bar east of Tallahassee: Can Minshew, who was expected to be little more than a serviceable backup, actually keep this up? Is he for real? And, if he is, what will the Jags do in another month when Foles is healthy and they have to choose between their $50 million franchise player and a guy who looks like Florida Man crossed with Peyton Manning?

 

All of it would be a lot for anyone to take, let alone a sixth-round draft pick who wasn’t sure he’d even make the team this season. Given the hysteria of his newfound circumstances, then, Minshew knew he needed to find an outlet, which is where the guitar comes in.

 

His initial goal, he tells me from the same well-worn sedan he drove at Brandon High School in Mississippi eight years ago, is simple: Get good enough to play “Wagon Wheel,” the Southern classic about a man hitchhiking his way toward a woman in North Carolina. He has a venue in mind too: Every summer, Minshew’s family takes over Cabin 1, right by the entrance at the Neshoba County Fair, known more colloquially as Mississippi’s Largest House Party. Minshew loves the fair and giggles like a little boy when I ask what it would be like for him to sit outside of Cabin 1 and strum “Wagon Wheel” while everybody he knows and loves in the world sings along.

 

His eyes go wide. “Man,” he says as he parks his car and heads into work as a starting quarterback in the NFL. “You know what? Honestly, if I could do that it would really be the pinnacle.”

 

THERE ARE, OBVIOUSLY, some considerable physical skills that helped Minshew — who is barely 6 feet tall and who attended four colleges in search of consistent playing time — find success. To offset his (relative) undersize, he is so strong he can lift weights with the linebackers, and his intensity during practice runs so hot that one of his old quarterbacks coaches, Alex Williams, remembers Minshew literally hitting himself in the face if he missed an easy throw during a training drill. (“Not hard or anything, but still,” Williams says.)

 

Nearly everyone who comes into contact with Minshew, however, ends up with the same conclusion: His biggest weapon is his brain. Mike Leach, who coached Minshew at Washington State in his last (and best) college season, tells me, “He has genius tendencies,” and those smarts were a big part of what led the Jags to take a flier on Minshew in the sixth round of April’s draft. Tom Coughlin, the Jags’ head of player personnel, immediately highlighted Minshew’s ability to be “quick” in carrying what he learned in the film room to the field. “He’s very smart; he’s very sharp,” Coughlin said then. “He will suck up all that information, and then, based on what we have seen, he will go onto the practice field and carry it with him.”

 

Turns out, Coughlin was right — only it wasn’t on the practice field. When Minshew thrived so quickly after taking over in Week 1, Marrone was legitimately surprised, he says, because the playbook had been designed for Foles, not Minshew.

 

“The game plan is written for a different quarterback and he just goes in there and executes it?” Marrone tells me after the team’s workout one day. “A lot of players don’t have the head to do that.”

 

Minshew has always had the head to do that, even before it was quite this on-display. After two unremarkable seasons at East Carolina, Minshew had actually agreed to take a job with Nick Saban at Alabama as a graduate assistant, thinking he’d probably get into coaching once his college eligibility was done. Before he made it official, though, Leach recruited him to Washington State, asking Minshew just one question — “How would you like to lead the nation in passing?” — that led Minshew to play one more season (in which he finished the year second in passing) and sent him on his course to the NFL.

 

Minshew doesn’t have a good explanation for his mental acuity; football plays, and football players, just unspool in his mind. It happens in fantasy sports too: Tre Polk, who is one of Minshew’s closest friends from Brandon, says Minshew stunned their dynasty league this past summer when he opted to redraft nearly his entire team (which is named Trust the Process) and start from scratch.

 

“It was ridiculous,” Polk says. “He must have known something about Melvin Gordon, and he worked out with Josh Jacobs and liked what he saw so he took him, and he took the Patriots defense, and he grabbed Austin Ekeler …” Polk goes on for a few minutes like this before putting on the bow. “Bottom line: He redrafted, like, his whole team, and he’s tied for first place. He just sees the game in a different way.”

 

I ask the obvious follow-up: Who is Minshew’s quarterback?

 

“That’s the thing,” Polk says. “I keep waiting for him to pick himself up, but no one took him. Gardner Minshew is available in Gardner Minshew’s fantasy league.”

 

Polk laughs. “Gardner actually took Kyler Murray.”

 

IT SHOULD BE said: Minshew has some experience with sudden celebrity. He became the starter at Brandon during his sophomore year, when Polk, who had been playing in front of him, broke his arm. (Stop me if you’ve heard this before.) Minshew entered, cinched a hammerlock on the starting job and promptly led the team to the state title game twice in three years. “They’ve been putting microphones in his face since before his voice broke,” says his dad, Flint. “He threw for 11,000 yards and 105 touchdowns — he’s used to people knowing his name. But this is on a different level.”

 

The ingredients, though, remain the same. Sports — particularly high school sports — all but demand conformity, but Minshew’s devotion to being himself is both fierce and endearing. In high school, his closest group of friends included football players, sure, but also John Wilson and Connor Aultman, two “uncool nerds” — Wilson’s words — whom Minshew sat with in an advanced English class. Since Minshew often had to skip lunch for football work, the trio persuaded their teacher to let them grill paninis on Wilson’s George Foreman Grill in the few minutes before the lesson began.

– – –

Outside the team, Jacksonville’s fascination with Minshew runs deep. Part of it, naturally, is what he does on the field: Minshew has thrown nine touchdown passes against only one interception, has won the Rookie of the Week award three times in five weeks, and is the first player in NFL history to pass for at least 200 yards and have a rating of at least 95.0 in each of his first five career games.

 

That is only a piece of it, though. Dan Hicken, a longtime sports anchor and radio host in Jacksonville, says the love for Minshew is also about what he represents. In a city that has forever been insecure when it comes to the NFL — Is the team going to get moved? Will the Jags ever get any national respect? — the discovery of a seeming gem like Minshew is made even more enthralling because of the litany of nightmares that came before.

 

“This is a team that took Blaine Gabbert and passed on J.J. Watt,” Hicken says. “We haven’t seen too many quarterbacks who can take the team down the field in the fourth quarter. We haven’t seen too many guys that get the national TV shows talking about us. We like that the mustaches are everywhere; we like that people are noticing Jacksonville. Fans here care about that stuff.”

 

They care too about that Southern mix of bravado and humility. They like that Minshew was a star in high school but then struggled to find his way. They like that he went to Troy and then a junior college and then East Carolina and then to Washington State, “just searching for an opportunity,” as Minshew puts it. When the story emerged about how Minshew, in hopes of getting a medical redshirt so he wouldn’t lose a year of eligibility after things went sour at East Carolina, actually attempted to break his own hand with a hammer, Jags fans “went nuts,” Hicken says, because it showed that “he just wanted what everyone wants: to never stop playing.”

 

(That scheme, by the way, wasn’t impulsive; Minshew’s best friend, Houston Smith, tells me that he actually conspired at some length with Minshew on the phone before Minshew attempted it, discussing other ways Minshew might try to hurt himself. “Slamming a car door on his hand was the other top choice,” Smith says, somewhat ruefully. “I wouldn’t say I endorsed the decision, but I also knew I wasn’t going to be able to stop him.”)

 

Ultimately, all of it melds together to make Jags fans feel like Minshew is one of them. Minshew doesn’t hide his pleasure about playing in the South either — “These are my type of people,” he says — and the fascination with Minshew, Hicken says, might well rival the love Jacksonville had for Tim Tebow.

 

“He’s even got the look,” Hicken tells me. “Look at him: He’s basically the guy that like 95% of Jacksonville wants to go drink a beer with.”

– – –

Watching from afar, Leach, Minshew’s former coach, says the one thing he isn’t worried about is Minshew regressing because he gets caught up in the blossoming frenzy surrounding him. Minshew had a similar appeal during his time in Pullman, and Leach says that for all of Minshew’s quirks and idiosyncrasies, he always saw Minshew’s love for football over fame as the ultimate trump.

 

“In varying degrees, everyone in this business and in this world has some phoniness to him, and Gardner’s got far less than most,” Leach says. “All the attention in the world is not more important to him than playing well, and I get the feeling that it has always been that way.”

 

Minshew says as much during our car ride, even admitting that there are moments when his sudden notoriety is more tiresome than exhilarating. “I’m glad people are excited,” he says, “but I could take it or leave it.” He adds, “I’m a little sick of mustache questions, to be honest. I just want to focus on the stuff that’s real.”

 

At this point, that isn’t a short list. Real is working on making quicker decisions in the pocket and not dancing around quite as much. Real is the fact that, with O’Shaughnessy out, one of his favorite passing options is suddenly unavailable. And real is the 4-1 Saints, who arrive in Jacksonville this Sunday.

 

“I have a sense of urgency all the time,” Minshew tells me, “because I’ve never had a reason not to.” And so he grinds and pushes and presses, uncertain and unconcerned about what comes next. It can be stifling sometimes, but when he wants a break, he says, there is always Yousician. Truth is, “Wagon Wheel” still needs work.

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW ENGLAND

WR ANTONIO BROWN signals that he would go back to New England and be a good Patriot, if the team and its owner can see its way past his sexual assault charges.  Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Free-agent receiver Antonio Brown definitely isn’t done with the NFL, even if the NFL is temporarily done with him.

 

In a live video that streamed this morning on Instagram, Brown made it clear that he still wants to play, and that the “best receiver” remains at home in Miami. And he still seems to be willing to go back to Boston.

 

He encouraged any of his Instagram followers who follow the Patriots to have the team call him.

 

“They still gotta pay me,” Brown said in reference to grievances filed last week against the Patriots for unpaid signing bonus and guaranteed salary. “They might as well let me earn it.”

 

Quarterback Tom Brady reportedly wanted to keep Brown, but owner Robert Kraft reportedly made the decision to end the relationship after allegations of harassment and intimidation by Brown against one of his accusers emerged. No other team has signed Brown given the possibility that he will be placed on paid leave.

 

The league has declined to say whether Brown would end up on paid leave. Teams are waiting as the league continues to investigate an allegation of sexual assault and rape that emerged last month in a civil lawsuit.

 

Isn’t it funny how some things continue to occupy the attention of the media mob for weeks at a time, while others like the charges of gymnast Britnee Taylor go away.