Freddie Kitchens gathered his team in the ballroom of a Baltimore hotel on Saturday night, after their week of practice back in Ohio, and reinforced a message as his reeling Browns were set to face a supremely confident, defending AFC North champion Ravens team:
This game tomorrow is why you’re in pads every [bleeping] opportunity I can put you in pads.
Simple, to the point: Buckle your chin strap, and go.
“This game, our division games, are the reasons we’re in pads in training camp—because we play football in Cleveland,” Kitchens said, recounting the moment as he drove home from the airport on Sunday night. “We don’t draw up plays to beat the other team. We play football. That’s what we want to be. I can’t get more clear than that. I think you know that about me. We want to be a football team. We don’t want to be the designer of plays.
“In training camp, we practiced to be a football team. These games demonstrate that.”
About 18 hours later, with 9:47 left in the game, Kitchens’ vision came to life. The Ravens had just closed to within six points, at 24-18. The Browns opened the next possession with a false start, backing them up to first-and-15 from their own 12. And the call sent in from the head coach was, essentially, for Cleveland to be a football team.
Toss right. Center and right guard pulling. Good luck to the Ravens.
Baker Mayfield flipped the ball to Nick Chubb, who slashed inside the pullers—J.C. Tretter and Eric Kush—and saw nothing but daylight all the way to the end zone paint. The second-year tailback puts his foot in the ground, accelerated, and covered the remaining 88 yards without a Raven laying a finger on him.
And if that didn’t send a strong enough message, for good measure, later in the fourth quarter, Cleveland put the game away by handing the ball to Dontrell Hilliard five times for 22 yards on a game-clinching, six-play, 39-yard scoring drive that put Cleveland up 40-18.
“If you look at that series,” Kitchens said, “You’ll know what I’m talking about.”
What he’s talking about is a Browns team that seemed to find itself, amid a lot of noise over the past week, with the constant reminder of last Sunday night’s ugly home loss to the Rams hanging over everything. What he’s talking about was the team he expected to see when everyone was sweating out camp in August.
But more important than that, his biggest takeaway was the one thing he’d been waiting to see since he took the job in August. And now he can move forward more assured of where his program is, eight months after his hire.
Fourteen games down and one to go in Week 4, and we’ve learned plenty about the NFL at the quarter pole. (I actually don’t think that’s right term for where we’re at, but you know what I’m saying.) And we’ve got plenty to highlight coming out of this beautiful and entertaining Sunday of football. We’ll:
• Take you inside the Jaguars’ crazy renaissance, behind a magical backup quarterback and a rejuvenated running back.
• Explain how Ron Rivera’s defense has picked up the slack in Cam Newton’s absence.
• Show you an emotional scene as the Buccaneers stunned the Rams.
• Look forward to the season’s second quarter, which will kick off with the league reaching a very significant landmark in its effort to football-colonize the UK.
And with the first quarter just about in the books, there are plenty of storylines to follow into that second quarter. After tonight, we’ll have twice as many winless teams (Jets, Dolphins, Steelers or Bengals, Broncos, Redskins, Cardinals) as we do unbeatens (Chiefs, Patriots, 49ers). We have a reigning league MVP leading the league in passing yards. We have a dynasty playing at a historic clip on defense. We have holdouts, and trade demands, too, and just about everything in between.
In there, too, is an offseason darling who might just be rounding into shape as we flip the calendar to October.
On the first day of training camp, Kitchens put his right hand out for his players and had it represent the team—asking them, when things got difficult, if they’d splinter in different directions, or ball together like a fist. That, he told them, would define their season. And he explained to me that day that he was looking forward to finding out what the group was made of, even if everyone, to some degree, dreads hitting those bumps.
“I definitely wouldn’t say I was looking forward to adversity,” Kitchens said, laughing, on Sunday. “But I would say this—We were going to find out who we are when adversity hit. And I’m always excited to find out who we are, because then you know how you attack it. It can be one of those things where adversity hits very, very early. I didn’t think it was going to hit this early. For us, it hit the first week.”
The Browns were dreadful in the opener—18 penalties and three turnovers led to a 30-point loss at home to the Titans—and things got worse from there. Defensive end Chris Smith’s girlfriend died in a car accident that Wednesday, just weeks after giving birth to their daughter. And all this gave Kitchens a window into who his team would become.
“[I saw that] these guys care about each other,” Kitchens said. “And if they care about each other, we’ve got a chance.”
A sleepy Monday night win over the hapless Jets was followed by the Rams loss, a game in which anointed franchise face Baker Mayfield laid an egg, and a fourth-down draw call put Kitchens in the crosshairs. Suddenly, Mayfield’s personality wasn’t cute anymore, and Kitchens wasn’t the folksy fit he’d been. It looked like, maybe, the same old Browns.
Kitchens saw something different—his team quietly chipping away and treating each week as its own entity—which is why he had faith that eventually they’d break through and everyone would see what he did.
And the hope most certainly is that the Browns just turned that corner.
The Ravens came into Sunday at 2-1, with the loss being a tough one on the road to an unbeaten Chiefs crew, and there wasn’t a lot fluky to how they left it. Cleveland rolled up 530 yards of offense, 193 on the ground, compiled at a clip of 6.7-yards per carry. Mayfield was efficient, even without a ton from Odell Beckham. And the defense mostly held Lamar Jackson in check until late in the game.
Bottom line, with the volume turning up on all the old, familiar noise all around the team, Kitchens’ group came together.
“We found out that we can look adversity in the eyes and go into a home stadium and win a division game. So how much more do you want to know about yourself?”
There was more, too, when you drill down the specifics.
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks has built trust with players on his side of the ball, which is one reason why they played so fast on Sunday—they’re confident in the calls and how they’re being deployed. That, in turn, led to discipline and sound tackling against an opponent that demands exactly that.
And Kitchens, for his part, ramped up the creativity on offense, emphasizing the sort of misdirection that was the trademark of his scheme last year.
One such example came at the end of the third quarter, when the coach called a modified version of the counter play he ran to Jarvis Landry last year for a touchdown against Carolina. On that occasion, Landry got the ball on an inside handoff. This time it was on a shovel pass. Creatively, the concept was similar, adjusted a bit to keep the defense off-balance. This time it was good for 29 yards, and set up a Chubb score on the next play.
The key, on both sides of the ball, was the players’ belief in what was being called—which was an emphasis for the coaches this week. As it turns out, the offensive players appreciated the creativity, and the defensive players the simplicity.
“It didn’t matter what we called,” Kitchens said. “All we gotta do is be confident in what we’re calling and what we’re doing and what we’re saying. That all goes back to trust. It’s so simple from that standpoint. If the coaches tell you something, and you believe it, you’re more likely to succeed with it. If you don’t believe it, you’re skeptical and you’re hesitant, and then it affects how you play.”
And then, when it was time to make it simple, the Browns could do that too, behind Chubb and Hilliard and the much-maligned offensive line.
Now, all this gets the Browns is a chance to move forward with their season. The unbeaten Niners are next, and then Cleveland gets the Seahawks and Patriots in back-to-back weeks, and so everything could be back to square one in a hurry.
But at the very least, Kitchens thinks he has an idea of who he’s taking into the prizefights to come, and the only way he could figure that out was to see the group take a few punches first. They have, and they’re still standing, and the coach knows more about what he’s going to get the next time things might look impossible to those of us on the outside.
“I’m gonna get a bunch of guys that are resilient,” he said. “I think they try to do what I preach, play each play like it’s a new play, play each play like that’s the only play. I think we’re gonna get a team that doesn’t care about the outside noise. That doesn’t worry about what people are saying about them, good, bad or indifferent. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. And then we find out how good we are at the end.”
So the first four weeks showed us that the Browns won’t go down easy. The next four should be significantly more informative.
THE EMOTION BEHIND THE BUCS’ STUNNER IN L.A.
“Guys, I got Jason on the phone, this is a game ball for him!”
That was Bruce Arians last night, in a cramped visitors locker room—after his Bucs handled the conference-champion Rams, 55-40—in tribute to his GM, Jason Licht, who lost his father, Ron, unexpectedly on Saturday. Licht left L.A. after hearing the news, to be with family in Nebraska. After the win on Sunday, the team dialed him up on FaceTime so he could witness the jubilant scene two time zones away.
“It was a tough situation,” said Bucs linebacker Lavonte David, himself a Nebraska alum. “We came to a team meeting last night, Coach Arians broke the news to us before he started everything. For me, personally, it was heartbreaking because I know Jason’s dad. He’s a big Nebraska fan. When they first got down here, I was able to meet them. He was a real good guy, man. It was a very sad situation. Their family is in our prayers.”
Getting Licht the game ball, David continued, “was a really big moment.” And they made that moment count for Licht.
The Bucs defense wasn’t perfect—coordinator Todd Bowles has captained a pretty serious turnaround on that side through four games—but proved opportunistic in picking Jared Goff off three times, hitting him nine times, sacking him twice and holding the Rams to 28 rushing yards on 11 carries (13 of which came on a single Todd Gurley scoring run). And that, per the guys playing in the defense, is thanks to the coordinator’s basic but aggressive philosophy.
“[Bowles] knows what kind of players we got,” David said. “He knows he’s got a whole bunch of playmakers across the board. He’s just trying to free guys up and make plays. Build everybody’s confidence and let everybody play relaxed and with confidence. That’s his main thing. That’s the first thing he said—‘Nothing is gonna be too complex. Everything is gonna be simple. It’s gonna be all about us, it’s executing.’”
The offense, on the other hand, didn’t need many qualifiers. Winston finished with 385 yards and four touchdowns on 28-of-41 passing, good for a 120.5 passer rating. Chris Godwin had 172 receiving yards, and Mike Evans 89, and Ronald Jones (19 carries, 70 yards) ran aggressively, if not super productively.
Tampa, of course, is still looking up at New Orleans in the NFC South. But given the injuries to Drew Brees and Cam Newton, crazier things have happened than an underdog football team capitalizing on circumstances. At the very least, the Bucs have a coach who believes they can do it.
“Different kind of swag, man,” David said of Arians. “Just going out there, challenging us, as players, as professionals, kind of letting us know—‘This is our team, this is how it will go as you let it go.’ We try to uphold that part and just basically get better week by week. By the end of the year and the playoff race, being able to get in, the big, bad, B.A. just came in and let us know right now— ‘It’s not a coach’s team. It’s a player’s team.’ You gotta take over.”
On Sunday, they did.
MINSHEW AND FOURNETTE MAKE THE JAGS FUN
Going into Week 4, the Jaguars were …
And as you’d have guessed, that sixth-round pick bailed them out again.
Gardner Minshew brought the Jags back from a 17-3 deficit, then made a couple big-time throws—one for 32 yards to Dede Westbrook, another for 17 yards to Chris Conley—to pilot Jacksonville’s game-winning drive. That eight-play, 60-yard march led to a 33-yard field goal from Josh Lambo as time expired to give the Jags a 26-24 win, lift them to 2-2, and send the spiraling Broncos to 0-4.
“He played a hell of a game,” tailback Leonard Fournette said of Minshew as the team waited through a flight delay on its way home Sunday evening. “He’s doing great things. I couldn’t be more proud of him. He’s a rookie doing vet things. I love playing with him. Our guys are taking the time to help him and protect him. We gotta keep doing what we’re doing.”
The coaches have done their part, in working to create faster reads for Minshew to operate with, and moving the pocket to highlight his athleticism. The defense’s suffocating second-half effort was a huge piece against the Broncos, too.
But no one was more important on this day than Fournette, the former fourth overall pick who’s regaining his place as the team’s bell cow. He finished with 225 yards on 29 carries—he’s just the second Jaguar, joining Fred Taylor, to rush for more than 200 yards in a single game—and his 81-yard run at the end of the third quarter set up the go-ahead score.
“I don’t know, man, I’m trying to get my legs back under me,” Fournette said when I asked about that run. “A lot of reps in the last couple games. I’m just working my way to get my legs back under me.”
There was more to it than that. Unhappy with his injury-plagued 2018 season, and perhaps with the Jags’ decision to void his guarantees last fall, Fournette decided to cut weight this offseason. After playing at around 240 last year, he’s down to around 226, and the effect could be seen both in the explosion on the aforementioned big run and in his stamina in the fourth quarter.
On the strength of his career-best day, he’s now third in the league in rushing and averaging 5.6 yards per carry. That’s given the Jags’ offense its identity back, which has made things easier on Minshew. And Jacksonville, as a result, is tied for first in the AFC South with Houston.
As for the All-Pro corner’s situation? We’ll have more on Jalen Ramsey in a minute.
CAROLINA’S D CARRIES THE CAM-LESS PANTHERS
If you’re looking for a Cam Newton update, you won’t find much concrete here, because the Panthers, at this point., don’t have much concrete themselves on his mid-foot sprain. What do we know? Carolina will be careful, and cautious, and make sure Newton’s not just cleared but also in the right frame of mind whenever he comes back.
“It’s open-ended,” coach Ron Rivera told me late Sunday night. “It’s all about his health. Until we know he’s healthy, we’re going to wait and see what happens.”
So now, the good news: The Panthers have rolled without him, winning in Arizona and Houston the last two weeks. And while second-year pro Kyle Allen has had a hand in the success, and has performed admirably in Newton’s place, everyone in the Panthers’ facility knows that a reborn defense had made it that much easier on him.
After going through three defensive coordinators in as many years, Rivera has taken the reins of the once-proud unit this year, and the group has responded with 14 sacks and four takeaways over the last two weeks. On Sunday the disruption showed up in other places too—in particular with a couple deep misses by Deshaun Watson on which the Panthers coaches thought they’d affected how the Texans QB slung the ball downfield.
“I don’t think he had a proper chance to really set and throw the ball on target,” Rivera said. “That helps because he was running, he’s moving or chasing, under duress, he’s going to miss some opportunities. That’s kind of what happened. Kudos to our guys.”
Rivera as play-caller isn’t the only change we’ve seen on the defensive side. The Panthers retrofitted their old 4-3 front into a hybrid 3-4, mostly because the coach saw it as better equipped to fit the kind of talent that’s coming out of college, and that’s helped Carolina get the most of its young guys.
Marquis Haynes, a 2018 fourth-round pick, is one example of a player whose athleticism and versatility is better suited for a stand-up position on the edge, rather than a traditional defensive end spot. Same goes for 2019 first-rounder Brian Burns, as well as veteran Mario Addison.
“The biggest thing is just trying to find the body types nowadays,” Rivera said. “Coming out of college you don’t see a lot of true defensive ends like they used to have, like the Charles Johnson- and, of course, the Julius Peppers-type guys. These guys coming out are sleek and fast. They’re guys who are converted linebackers to outside rushers, and they’re safeties [converted] to linebackers.”
This week, the reshaping of the defense worked to the tune of six sacks of Watson and an effort that didn’t allow the Houston offense, playing at home, to cross midfield once after halftime (the Texans’ one touchdown was scored on a possession that started at the Carolina 18 following a Panthers turnover).
Add that to the presence of the NFL’s leading rusher, Christian McCaffrey, and you can see why Carolina would be careful waiting, which certainly seems to be what Newton wants, based on the YouTube video he released over the weekend.
“As far as I’m concerned, the video speaks for itself,” Rivera said. “I have no comment on it. Like I said, we’re just going to go as he goes. And as he rehabs, we’re going to play football and worry about the guys that are on the field, because it’s one of those things.”
And, of course, because Carolina still is in the thick of the NFC South race.
THE LATEST ON LONDON
You may not know it, but in six days, the NFL’s effort to go global—an effort that’s driven by some of the league’s most powerful owners—will hit a very significant milestone. And all you need to do to understand how is check out this image:
That’s the £1 billion stadium built for Tottenham Hotspur of the Premier League, and for American football. After some construction delays (the NFL was actually supposed to play there last year), it opened in April, and it retrofits to look and feel like the home of an NFL team. On Sunday, it’ll house two. The Bears and Raiders are set to kick off there at 6 p.m. local time.
“It’s a great moment in our international growth,” NFL EVP and Chief Strategy and Growth Officer Chris Halpin told me on Friday. “It’s also what we’d view as a sign of the establishment of the NFL in the UK, that our great partners at Tottenham recognized the momentum and the excitement and the size of the fan base for the NFL, and said, ‘We want to build this stadium in partnership with the National Football League.’
“That’s an in-market, leading international soccer team saying, ‘Wow, there’s really exciting things happening with the NFL. And we can benefit here and globally by partnering around it.’ I think also seeing that sort of investment and establishment in an international market is a major step that I don’t think any other sports league has done. And it represents the scale of the commitment of our owners and our teams to international, and their belief in the momentum and opportunity we have in that market.”
There are metrics to back up that belief. Research shows the NFL has four million avid fans in the U.K., and that more than 24 million unique viewers took in games last fall. Streaming NFL programming over the BBC increased 150 percent last year over 2017, and Sky Sports’ NFL ratings have doubled over the last decade. Even better, the league’s research shows in London, and elsewhere internationally, football is a young man’s game.
“We are the attacker sport in a lot of these markets,” Halpin said. “All of our fan research highlights that it is seen, especially by young fans, as cool, fun, high-speed, dynamic. That opportunity and that brand positioning, especially with social media, presenting our players and teams, is great, and it makes us want to drive it harder and harder.”
Halpin just took over international from long-time league exec Mark Waller, who’s now working for McLaren. Over our half-hour discussion, Halpin and I caught up on the latest news reagarding the NFL’s global efforts. Here are a few headlines:
It’ll be status quo in 2020. The NFL is playing four games in London this year, two at Tottenham and two at Wembley, and it will be the same next year. And while the league hasn’t yet hammered out a deal for 2020 for Mexico City, with a new government in place there, it’s a pretty safe assumption that there will be a single game there, as is the case this year.
“To us, four-per-season feels like a really good number,” Halpin said regarding the U.K. “That continues to be the plan, and then as we go farther out, we’ll continue to evaluate and look at our inventory of games to play internationally, and also new markets.”
A permanent London team may be a ways off. Waller long set the goal of having a team in London 15 years after the first regular-season game was played there, in 2007. Each year he’d tell me the NFL remained on track for that. Halpin was more cautious on Friday.
“That was Mark’s prior plan, and obviously he had tremendous success towards that,” Halpin said. “We believe that London could definitely support a team, and could do so from the level of fandom, ticket sales, media engagement, sponsorship. So [given] what’s been built, it could definitely support a team. The challenge is in figuring out how the football dynamics would work. That’s a continuing analysis.”
Halpin affirmed that travel logistics and how they affect competitive balance remain the big issue. A regular-season schedule, with the U.K. team having a U.S. base (the NFL buying the Falcons’ Flowery Branch, Ga. facility for that, with the Falcons moving closer to downtown Atlanta was one concept discussed), might be doable. One-off playoff situations, especially involving West Coast teams, would be significantly more difficult.
Germany’s on deck. And Halpin didn’t make any bones about that when I asked who’s next.
“The markets we’re looking at are Germany and then Canada,” Halpin said. “The key questions are—both of them, we have great fan bases—what stadium would we play in, and how would we execute it? You’ve got to get strong local support, given the demands of NFL games, the size of our teams, what you need to get two football teams into two practice facilities, and into the stadium on buses. It’s a heavy lift.”
I asked if it’s possible Germany could get a game in 2020, and Halpin simply said, “It’s too soon,” citing the need for lead time. But given the popularity of the game in Germany, it sounds as if the NFL will be going there soon, I’d guess to Munich or Hamburg.
A 17-game season could create opportunity. Part of the argument for 17 games has been the opportunity to create more neutral site games, which would flow naturally into the International Series.
“We’ve seen the press on that,” Halpin said. “There’s a variety of different paths we could pursue to create even more inventory for international games. And a number of teams want to play internationally. But it’s hard to speculate on one potential season structure change or the like that have been rumored, how that would impact international.”
At the very least, a 17th game for each team would create more inventory for that effort.
Lessons from Mexico City. Last year’s Chiefs-Rams game scheduled for Mexico City was intended to be a great showcase for the league in a market with huge potential. Instead, it was an embarrassing episode for everyone involved, as the field at Estadio Azteca was deemed unplayable after heavy rains and a string of concerts, and the game moved to L.A. six days before kickoff. And therein, some lessons, on both sides of the table, were learned, with the relationship surviving the whole fiasco.
“It’s the understanding that you never know what’s going to happen,” Halpin said. “And as with any partner, we have these dynamics. Even with the first Tottenham game, we’re preparing, and our team does an amazing job, when you’re doing an NFL game, there’s a different level of scale and complexity, so we’ll have learning coming out of our first two Tottenham games. Azteca definitely got the picture and has been a great partner.
“We wouldn’t take any risk on a field surface going forward—no concerts or any of those activities on any field we’re going to be playing on.”
Of all the numbers Halpin gave me, I thought this was pretty interesting: With the Panthers and Texans going to the U.K. this year, 31 of 32 teams will have played games in London since the International Series launched in 2007. The Packers are the only team left, and Halpin said, laughing, “We’ll get them there.”
To me, that really shows how deep the leaguewide commitment is. And why what you see next Sunday is only going to keep growing from here.
THE REFS GET A NEW DEAL
Over the weekend, the NFL Referees Association struck a new seven-year deal that will run through April 30, 2026. Which, to you, the fan, basically means you aren’t going to have to deal with another mess like the disastrous 2012 lockout—which had the iconic Fail Mary moment with replacement refs in Seattle, and dozens of other humiliating episodes.
So when I talked to NFLRA executive director Scott Green on Saturday, the first thing I wanted to know was why it was different this time around, with a year-and-a-half of talks leading into a summer of serious negotiations that resulted in an agreement.
“They wanted a deal and we wanted a deal—it’s that simple,” said Green. “I don’t think that was the case in ’12. In ‘12, there’d be months that’d go by with no feedback.”
Officials then suspected that given how the labor negotiations had gone the year before, the league and teams wanted to show everyone who was boss in the referee talks. Whether that was the case or not, it got ugly. This situation didn’t. And maybe that’s because a lot of pieces of this deal made sense. Here are some of those.
A revamped training program. After the 2012 deal, the NFL scaled back on how it trained officials, and in some cases those responsible for training the officials were also responsible for grading them—which made for an awkward dynamic. That won’t be the case this time around. A new VP for training and development will be hired, and the NFL will give that exec a staff of trainers to work with the individual officials, starting in 2020. This, of course, is the result of both sides agreeing that getting the best officials in place was important.
A new pipeline. That VP, as his title would indicate, will also be charged with identifying and readying young officials for the league, an initiative that was emphasized by NFL EVP for football operations Troy Vincent. Bringing along new officials has gotten more difficult without the training ground that NFL Europe once provided, and the hope is that this effort will address that issue.
Better compensation. Green wouldn’t get into specific numbers on the raises, but the officials voted through the compensation and benefits package offered by a count of 102-3. The officials get an aggregate from the league, which they divvy up, and it’s safe to say that’s significantly more than it was.
Full-time officials weren’t on the front-burner. The league has the ability to reinstitute a full-time officials’ program—they can hire 17 such officials at a rate commensurate to what those in other sports make—under the new CBA. Whether they will or not is an open question. The rules now are less restrictive regarding those officials having outside employment.
Gambling was a topic. Obviously, integrity is an important issue with everyone in pro sports, but particularly with those responsible for upholding the rules, and so the NFL updated some policies here for two reasons—one, there’ll be a team in Las Vegas next year; and two, legalized gambling is on the rise nationwide. One notable change is a loosening of rules on officials staying hotels in casinos, which is a pretty logical adjustment since it’s hard to find places to stay in Vegas that don’t have such facilities.
So this deal gets put to bed now, which is good news for all of us.
A quick note on each NFL team.
Despite everything, the Bears are right there at 3-1. And you have to wonder whether, if they play well behind Chase Daniel in London on Sunday (assuming Mitch Trubisky’s shoulder is nicked enough to keep him out), there might be some thought about what to do coming out of the bye. Matt Nagy’s been committed to Trubisky. But the defense is proving that last year was no fluke, and there’s talent on the offense, and this championship window won’t be open forever for what’s now a very good Chicago team.
Somehow, the Bengals have made it work on the offensive line without Jonah Williams or Cordy Glenn, their top two left tackles. Or at least they have to a degree. Next up? Pittsburgh’s fearsome front featuring Stephon Tuitt, Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt. Which might not be great for Andy Dalton’s health.
It won’t mean anything in the standings, but shoutout to the Bills defense for a ridiculous showing on Sunday afternoon—holding Tom Brady and the Patriots offense to a single touchdown. New England’s only second-half points were scored after Brady drove his unit 38 yards following a Josh Allen pick, to set up a 23-yard field goal. And this isn’t just Sean McDermott. There’s real young talent there, starting with three first-round picks (Tre’Davious White, Tremaine Edmunds, Ed Oliver) from the last three drafts.
The Broncos are now 8-24 in their last 32 games. That’s .250 over the equivalent of two full seasons. Not good.
That Odell Beckham was limited to two catches and 20 yards in the Browns’ win is no reason for concern for me. In fact, that he had a little dustup with Baltimore’s Marlon Humphrey and it wasn’t related to his numbers (it was over an earring), in a way, encouraging.
The Buccaneers’ find of Shaq Barrett is up there in free-agent signings of recent vintage. He’s got nine sacks through four games, and is costing Tampa just $4 million for 2019.
Four games down, and the Cardinals’ rookie coach, Kliff Kingsbury doesn’t have a win. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t made an impression—other teams have taken note of how he incorporates backs in to the passing game, how he runs screens out of the spread, and how he has created easy completions for Kyler Murray early on. Will he make it? I don’t know. And I don’t think we’ll really know until he has a better cast around him.
Smart by the Chargers to be conservative with Melvin Gordon in his first week back with the team. Even if he’s more Devonta Freeman than Zeke Elliott, he’s a valuable piece. And if this is it for him in L.A., which is likely, the focus should be on having him ready to be the workhorse as the season progresses.
There’s really nothing left to say about Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. And how frustrating must it have been for Detroit to get him in fourth-and-8, with a chance to end the game in the fourth quarter, and watch Mahomes scoot for a 15-yard gain with his feet.
Tough to win if you can’t rush the quarterback. The Colts couldn’t on Sunday. So they didn’t build on the momentum of the resounding Atlanta win in Week 3.
The lack of a Cowboys run game (Ezekiel Elliott averaged 1.9 yards per carry) on Sunday night in New Orleans was a problem. Left tackle Tyron Smith’s high-ankle sprain is, potentially a bigger one going forward. Dallas was proud of its offensive line depth over the summer, and now we’ll get to see it.
You have to like the Dolphins’ fight the last couple weeks. And Josh Rosen didn’t look half bad against the Chargers. It’s hard not to look at teams like the Titans and Bears and wonder if they might not be better off with the UCLA product.
I apologize (for the time being) for raising questions on the Eagles’ offensive line. Their old guys can still play, and proved it in Green Bay with a positively dominant outing, and on a road-trip Thursday night, no less.
Obviously, something’s not right with the Falcons. I don’t think what we saw against the Eagles in Week 2 was a fluke. That, I believe, is where their potential is. There’s talent on the roster. They have a quarterback. I wish I could explain what’s happened. We’ll see if Dan Quinn and his staff can find the fix.
One piece of evidence that the 49ers’ roster is getting better—team speed. Going into Week 4, I was told San Francisco had 15 players hit a game speed of 20 mph (per the NFL’s tracking), which was tops in the league. Add that to a fast-growing defensive line group stocked with five former first-rounders, and an offensive line that’s gotten center Weston Richburg back, and there’s plenty to be excited about.
You hear a lot about the poise of Giants rookie Daniel Jones, and how the beating he took at Duke hardened him for what was coming in the NFL. Now he has an example of that in the NFL. Jones was picked by the Redskins on consecutive second-quarter possessions in his first home start. How did he respond? By leading a 10-play, 63-yard drive in the half’s final 2:14 to get the Giants a field goal and push his team’s edge to 17-3.
Second-year Jaguars WR D.J. Chark only had four catches for 44 yards, but he continues to flash big-time ability and looks like he could have a future as some team’s No. 1. He entered the league as a size/speed freak out of LSU in 2018, and had a really strong first offseason as a pro. So his breakout through four games isn’t a shocker to the Jacksonville brass.
The Jets’ next three games: Philly, Dallas, New England. You have to wonder, if they wind up 0-6, whether GM Joe Douglas starts to look at the possibility of selling off pieces (Leonard Williams maybe?) for draft capital, especially given that the team traded picks this summer for an offensive lineman (Alex Lewis) and corner (Nate Hairston).
Maybe I’m alone here, but I think the Lions’ loss to the Chiefs might be just as encouraging regarding where Matt Patricia’s program is as last week’s win over the Eagles was. They fought through a mess of turnovers, they made things hard on Patrick Mahomes, they ran the ball (186 yards on 35 carries), and they got a very efficient game out of Matthew Stafford. The Lions are going to be a pain for other teams to deal with.
I tried to tell you about Packers WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling. And the best is yet to come.
What did the Panthers really like about Kyle Allen’s game on Sunday? How it wasn’t perfect for him, but he got what he needed anyway. “Undrafted free agent who’s going into his second year who’s really only played two-and-a-half games, and I think the biggest thing I like about him is his poise,” Ron Rivera told me. “I think he handles the situation and circumstances very well. It’s crazy because when something happens, he knows right away and jumps to the sidelines before our coaches get a chance to exchange things with him, and he goes, ‘Ah, I missed this,’ and, ‘I should’ve done that.’ The guy knows the game.”
I probably should have had more on the Patriots in the column this week, because of how the defense has played. Josh Allen’s third-quarter touchdown was the first that the New England D allowed in 19 quarters, going all the way back to the AFC title game in Kansas City last January. That’s more than remarkable. That’s crazy.
Game-by-game passer ratings for Raiders QB Derek Carr, going back to last Sept. 30 (one year ago today): 92.4, 94.0, 83.0 136.6, 99.5, 83.4, 100.5, 74.9, 123.2, 122.4, 85.7, 89.7, 60.8, 121.0, 61.1, 103.7, 105.4. That’s really not bad at all.
There’s some concern within the Ravens, after Sunday, over the state of the middle class on defense, and in particular the degree to which the team has replaced stars C.J. Mosley, Za’Darius Smith, Eric Weddle and Terrell Suggs. Specifically, it was alarming to those on hand how the Browns out-toughed the Baltimore defense in the game.
No points for trying, but man, do Sean McVay’s Rams keep fighting. And Todd Gurley looked spry on his 13-yard touchdown run. Unfortunately for L.A., the score getting out of hand really prevented any effort to get Gurley going on a larger scale.
Next week could be a tough scene for the Redskins at FedEx Field. They’re 0-4, and the Patriots are coming to town, which will likely mean Boston transplants in the D.C. area turning that one into a quasi-home game.
The big takeaway from the Saints going 2-0 without Drew Brees absolutely has to be the job that GM Mickey Loomis and assistant GM Jeff Ireland have done with the roster. This team is good enough to win with plenty of quarterbacks. And seeing them play down the stretch with a rested Brees should be fun.
The Seahawks effectively used the game against the Cardinals as a tune up for Thursday’s date with the Rams, and were able to clean up problems they had with special teams and fumbles last week against the Saints. Seattle is 1-3 against L.A. since Sean McVay arrived there in 2017.
The Steelers receiver I’d be watching tonight: Rookie Diontae Johnson. Pittsburgh had him as the top receiver in the 2018 draft class, because of how natural he looks playing the position. That quality has put him in position to contribute quicker than most Steelers receivers do, and he saw an uptick in his snaps last week, getting 42 after being in for just 24 and 26 the first two weeks of the season, respectively. He’ll get every opportunity to earn more work.
Give Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson credit—he’s not shifting blame for Sunday’s loss whatsoever. He missed a shot to Will Fuller in the first half, and one to DeAndre Hopkins in the second half, and either might have made the difference in what became a 16-10 loss to Carolina. “You have to put that on myself,” said Watson. “I’m the one that’s throwing the ball and directing it, and next time, I’ll make sure I hit it.”
The Titans got the run game going again, and they get Taylor Lewan back this week, which should be pretty significant.
I’m a Kirk Cousins guy. But it’s getting tougher to figure what’s wrong with the Vikings quarterback, especially since he’s in a system in which he had so much success under Kyle Shanahan.
News and newsmakers from around the NFL.
1. What a great story this Eagles corner, Craig James, is. James pulled a hamstring at his 2018 pro day at Southern Illinois and ran a 4.5 40-yard dash as a result. So he fell off the radar and went undrafted, and his agent, Bek Talipov, lined up a contract with the CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks. Talipov had already made the rounds with NFL folks but decided to make one last appeal to Vikings GM Rick Spielman, himself a Southern Illinois alum. It worked. Spielman invited James to rookie minicamp. He won a contract, bounced back and forth between the team’s practice squad and active roster, then got whacked during final cuts at the end of August. James then cleared waivers. The Eagles, I’m told, had noticed him while doing a cross-check on another player. So they made a call, as did the Texans, Colts and Jets. And because Talipov had a relationship with, and trust in, Eagles chief negotiator Jake Rosenberg, the agent recommended James go to Philly. He did, spent Week 1 on the 53-man roster, got knocked back down to the practice squad for Week 2, then got called back up last week when Ronald Darby got nicked up. And then, on Thursday night, he registered a game-saving pass breakup, tipping a potential game-winning touchdown throw from Aaron Rodgers into the hands of Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham to salt away the win. It’s not far-fetched to think that play could be the difference between, say, the Eagles having a bye or having to play on wild-card weekend. Which makes all this even more incredible. Good for James.
2. Having seen the guarantee language in Antonio Brown’s deals with the Patriots and Raiders, I’d say it’s highly unlikely that he recovers the base-salary money he’s pursuing in either case, and there’s no chance he gets the $20 million option he had attached to his New England contract. But my guess is he should have a very, very real shot at forcing the Patriots to pay out the $9 million signing bonus they’d pledged him. Though the Patriots haven’t paid him yet, that’s considered by the union to be “money earned.” And the avenues that teams have to recover signing bonus money are much narrower than those taken to void guarantees. I’d think the Patriots’ only shot here would be to claim non-disclosure—that Brown didn’t tell them about the lawsuit against him that was announced the day after he officially signed, and that would have changed their decision-making on him. The problem? Five days after the lawsuit was filed, the Patriots played him in a regular-season game. For that reason, and whether you believe or not that the Brown camp told Bill Belichick about the lawsuit, I’d think Brown would get to collect that money.
3. I think it’s worth paying attention to Tom Brady’s outward frustration over the Brown situation—illustrated in how he’s distanced himself on a couple occasions from the Patriots’ decision to release Brown, while showing his affection for the superstar receiver. I thought Brown was a luxury item when they signed him—like a hood ornament for a Rolls Royce. But it sure seems as if Brady was a little too concerned about it for that to be the case. And Sunday’s performance by the Patriots offense against the Bills might explain that sentiment. Of course, Brady and that unit will be fine with time. I’d just keep an eye on this for now.
4. If this is it for Jay Gruden, I hope the record shows that he actually guided a more functional time in Redskins history, despite a lot going on around him, than some of his predecessors. Consider that he was paired with GM Scot McCloughan for a couple years, cycled through other personnel folks, lost quality assistants for the right reasons (i.e. career advancement), and worked the franchise from the Robert Griffin III era to Kirk Cousins, then Alex Smith, and now the bridge to Dwayne Haskins. I think if he’s done in D.C., it would be worth other teams kicking the tires on him.
5. Congrats to Frank Gore on hitting 15,000 rushing yards and Larry Fitzgerald on passing Tony Gonzalez for second on the all-time receptions list. You can usually tell what kind of guy (and yes, there are exceptions) a player is by what the players and coaches around him say about him. Both these guys are A-plus in that regard, which makes it easy to feel good about them reaching those benchmarks. Even that either is still playing is pretty incredible.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
The college football weekend, from the perspective of the pros.
1. Going back to 2017, Alabama’s young crew of receivers has been referenced collectively by scouts —the Bama receivers. Jerry Jeudy’s a potential top-10 pick. Henry Ruggs can run in the 4.2s. And on Saturday, the other member of the recruiting class at the position, Devonta Smith, went off. He finished with 11 catches, 274 yards and five touchdowns against Ole Miss. Is he the kind of prospect the other two are? Probably not quite. “Not very strong and REALLY skinny, but he’s a good athlete with good speed,” said one AFC scouting director. “Will drop the football too, that’s been a problem. He’s a solid mid-round player, but you worry when he’s not surrounded by all that talent, if his deficiencies show up a lot more.” In other words, it’ll take more than one big day.
2. While we’re on Alabama, here’s a pretty amazing fact: Tua Tagovailoa has 23 touchdown passes without an interception, and this is the second straight year he’s pulled that off. Last year, he threw 24 touchdowns before his first pick (which came in November against LSU). Pretty staggering.
3. Had an interesting exchange with a scout on Sunday that led me to this developing opinion: Brian Kelly, underrated. He’s in his 10th year at Notre Dame now. He’s a good bet to post his fifth 10-win season, and third straight. In the 16 years before his arrival, the Irish had just two 10-win campaigns. At the very least, he’s the best coach in South Bend since Lou Holtz. And I wonder if NFL teams kick tires on him again—despite the fact that some think he’s too much of a drill sergeant for the league.
4. Speaking of coaches, good to see Baylor’s Matt Rhule and Iowa State’s Matt Campbell go head-to-head. Rhule eked this one out. Both are firmly on the NFL’s radar. In fact, if Rhule was willing to let the Jets pick staff (he wanted to hire then-Texans assistant Sean Ryan as his OC, the Jets wanted him hiring Todd Monken), he’d probably be there now. And the Jets had eyes for Campbell before he turned down an interview with them. Both guys, it should be noted, run an innovative 3-3-5 defense, fit to stop the more modern college-fangled offenses.
5. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence may have competition from Ohio State’s Justin Fields, based on how Fields is playing, to be the first pick in 2021. I’d still saw Lawrence is a heavy favorite, but that this is even a discussion is a huge complement to Fields.
6. Rutgers’ firing of Chris Ash should serve as another reminder of the outstanding job Greg Schiano did at the school from 2001-12. And that should serve as a reminder as to why Rutgers would want him.
BEST OF THE FOOTBALL INTERNET
Todd Gurley, on preparing for the Seahawks on a short week: "You know how I feel about Thursday night games – I feel like they are the dumbest thing ever."— Lindsey Thiry (@LindseyThiry) September 30, 2019
I always feel like we’re getting cheated when a big game like Rams-Seahawks is on a Thursday, even if that means it gets our undivided attention.
Love it. This is the kind of thing that makes a guy like Watson … a guy like Watson.
Best to the Licht family.
Belichick let Jamie Collins play 3+ seasons of good football on a rookie deal, got a third round pick for him, let Cleveland pay him a total of $27 million for subpar football, then got him back for $250,000 guaranteed and he's back to good football. Reason 5,712 the Patriots win— Kevin Clark (@bykevinclark) September 29, 2019
Jamie Collins is a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate, too. He has three picks, four passes defended, 3.5 sacks and 23 tackles through four games.
Best part is definitely the Zubaz altar. #BillsMafia
This is the guy Dave Gettleman was crazy for taking sixth overall?
Vontaze Burfict should get a nice long break from playing football, courtesy of the league. Maybe a forever break.
My Dads birthday today-I miss him but will always have great memories and I am doing what he loved so much-coaching football.— Wade Phillips (@sonofbum) September 29, 2019
Last time I saw Bum Phillips, he was at one of Wade’s practices in Houston—Wade was Texans DC at the time—and he was wearing blue jeans, cowboy boots, a long-sleeve shirt and a 10-gallon hat. The heat index was about 110, and I was dying wearing a t-shirt and shorts. Bum was an American original, no doubt about it.
MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
Each week, we’ll hit a player set to climb atop the Monday Night Football stage to get answers to a few questions. This week, Bengals QB Andy Dalton.
MMQB: What’s gone right as far as your fit in the offense and your relationship with Zac Taylor?
DALTON: What I like about it, it’s getting the ball out of my hands quick, it’s something I’ve done my whole career. Making quick decisions, getting it to our guys when they get space, that’s one thing I’ve really liked about it. And I think we’ve been in—obviously, we’re 0-3 right now—these games at the end, we’ve had two chances on the road. And we just haven’t been able to finish them. But there are some things we’ve done that have definitely been good.
MMQB: Is there a good example of the ball getting out of your hands, and a big play resulting, where it’s like, that’s what it’s supposed to look like?
DALTON: I wouldn’t say there’s necessarily one play. Shoot, you look at the first game, against Seattle, we threw the ball a ton. It’s also just the creativity of this offense. You look at that play where we ran the flea-flicker for the touchdown, that’s what this offense can do. It’s creative. It’s not just running simple plays. Zac has these fun ideas that can result in big plays.
MMQB: Has it been hard without A.J. Green?
DALTON: When you’ve got one of the best receivers in the league on your team but not ready to go, that’s definitely tough. So for us it’s finding the right group out there, finding the consistency of the guys that are going to be in there playing, and it’s building that chemistry with them. I think John Ross has done some good things—he’s shown flashes at times. Tyler Boyd we know, we’ve got him, he’s consistent. And last week we had Auden Tate playing a bigger role. There’s just different guys that have been in there, because A.J. is out.
MMQB: Could you be better for this in the long run, in that going through it makes the group around him a little bit better?
DALTON: I think the best learning tool is experience, just being out there and playing in these games and getting the reps. Yeah, if you’re looking at the long run and the big picture of it, we’re getting these guys experience where they probably wouldn’t have the opportunity. Long run, you can look at it that way. But we obviously want A.J. back as quick as we can.
MMQB: What has the offense done for John Ross? Why has he taken such a leap statistically?
DALTON: Yeah, I think John probably understands this offense a little better. This offense fits his skill set a little better than maybe it had in the past. All that, then you throw some confidence in there—he proves what he can do in Week 1, and that just gives you confidence going forward. Once you make one big play, it gives him that ability to have the confidence he’s going to do it again. He even came out and said it—he’s lacked confidence in the past. I think that’s why we’re seeing what we’re seeing from him. He knows what he’s doing, he’s excited to do it and he’s playing with confidence.
MMQB: What’s been the biggest problem through three weeks?
DALTON: The biggest thing is consistency. We haven’t put together a full game. We’ve shown at times what we can do. We’ve had drives, we’ve had quarters that we played well. But we haven’t put a full game together. That’s what’s hurt us. We’ve had opportunities. If you look at the first and third games, against Seattle and Buffalo—San Fran got away from us—we’ve had opportunities in those two games where it’s like, if we could’ve made one more play, one bit of momentum could’ve changed the whole thing. The reason we’re sitting here not 2-1 right now, and we’re 0-3, is we just haven’t been consistent with what we’re doing.
MMQB: You’ve played a lot of games against the Steelers. How similar are they to the defense you studied your rookie year?
DALTON: Obviously the guys are a lot different. It’s similar styles. Dick LeBeau was calling it at that point, and so obviously he’s not there anymore. If you look what they were doing then to what they’re doing now, there are similarities. They’re still a zone-blitz team, they’re still putting guys all over the place, a big 3-4, big up front, all that stuff is still the same. The philosophy is probably a little different—when they’re calling certain things. But schematically, the base of this defense is still that Dick LeBeau defense.
MMQB: Is it still nasty? For a lot of years, there seemed to be real hatred there, is still an edgy game?
DALTON: You hope it doesn’t go over the top. That’s one thing, some of these in years past, there’s been all the big hits and stuff that doesn’t need to be in there. We’re hoping that’s behind us. But yeah, there for a while, these were some really physical, nasty games.
MMQB: Both teams are 0-3, both teams have guys who’ve been to the playoffs and probably aren’t happy. Will that give this one a different feel?
DALTON: I think both teams will understand the importance of this game—nobody wants to start off 0-4, and set yourself back like that. This game’s important to both teams. That’s what it comes down to. Is it going to change the game? I would say it’s necessarily going to change it. But at least on our end, we know how important this game is.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Only one team has ever started 0-4 and made the playoffs—the 1992 Chargers. And that San Diego team did more than just that. Those Bolts won 11 of 12 after dropping their first four games, and beat the Chiefs 17-0 in the wild-card round.
Among those on the roster: Stan Humphries, Eric Bieniemy, Marion Butts, Shawn Jefferson, Gary Plummer and a young Junior Seau. Bobby Ross was the head coach, and among those on the staff were secondary coach John Fox, defensive line coach George O’Leary, and run-game coordinator Ralph Friedgen.
My point here? It’s been a long time. So the Steelers and Bengals probably want to go ahead and treat tonight’s game like a must-win.
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