It was less than a half hour after he said it, and I wasn’t sure if Ravens’ coach John Harbaugh had gotten a look yet at what everyone watched him do on national TV. So I told him that he’d basically turned the rest of us at home into amateur lip readers, and reading his wasn’t tough for anyone.
Because he was demonstrative. Because he was direct. Because his message was clear.
“Lamar! Lamar! You wanna go for this? Alright, let’s go.”
The question, really, was the kind a coach only asks if he already knows the answer. And in this case, it turns out, both guys knew what had to be done. A banged-up, 0–1 Ravens team was staring at fourth-and-1 at its own 43 with a little over a minute left, up 36–35 on the two-time defending conference champion Chiefs. Picking up the first down would end the game. Failing to probably would, too, putting Kansas City on the fringe of field-goal range.
“I already knew we were going for it but it was just kinda … I just wanted to make sure,” Harbaugh told me, from the victorious locker room. “I really didn’t have an answer [if he didn’t say yes], but I think more than anything I just wanted to make sure he knew we were going for it because he was kinda moving back toward the sideline, and he was talking to somebody. Just wanted to make sure he was back in the huddle ready to go.
“And maybe he already knew we were going for it.”
So sure, maybe the decision seemed obvious to Harbaugh in the moment. To the rest of us, it wasn’t so academic. Weeks ago, the Ravens lost their top two tailbacks, J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards. On this night, they were also without their franchise left tackle, Ronnie Stanley. And punting in that spot could’ve meant pinning Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense inside their own 20, and maybe 10, without any timeouts.
But to Harbaugh, that’s not what the situation called for, and, truth be told, he knew the play before, as the Ravens lined up for third-and-7 from their own 37, that he’d go for it if they could muster five or six yards to get within a yard or two. “You want it to be close enough, and get a realistic shot. … And like I told Lamar when we first went out there, I just said, ‘Get the first down. We gotta get the first down.’ We couldn’t give it back to Mahomes.”
On third down, Jackson deftly hit Sammy Watkins underneath for the six yards needed to green-light the fourth-down try. And on fourth down, rather than trying to fool anyone, the Ravens rolled their sleeves up to throw the knockout block—lining Jackson up alone in the shotgun, with only fullback Patrick Ricard in the backfield with him, and Ricard offset as a lead blocker. The call was a basic quarterback power run, and Jackson picked it up easily.
And so ended a wild second Sunday of NFL football, with a bruised, but proud old champion going toe-to-toe with the league’s best team of the last couple of years, and taking that team down. We’ve got a lot to cover this week, from beginning to that very dramatic end.
Two weeks down, and it still feels like we’ve got a whole lot to learn and not much figured out yet. But here in the wee hours of Monday morning, we’ll try to give you some coherent thoughts on …
• Taylor Heinicke’s place in Washington going forward.
• The NFC team you might not know much about, that deserves your attention.
• The Bills’ big bounce back.
• The Raiders, the rookie quarterbacks and a whole lot more!
And sure, after a Sunday like this one, it can be hard to know where to start. So for this week’s MMQB column, we’re going to begin with a little bit on a bunch of different things.
Yes, we’ll get back to Baltimore shortly, and Harbaugh’s daring decision to end the clash with the Chiefs the way he did. But by the time we got to that point in the night, it felt like all of us were playing with house money—because what happened just four hours earlier was equally bananas.
Here’s the timeline, as I jotted it down.
• 7:18 p.m. ET: Cowboys kicker Greg Zuerlein hits a 56-yard field goal as time expires to give Dallas a 20–17 win over the host Chargers at SoFi Stadium.
• 7:19 p.m. ET: Vikings kicker Greg Joseph misses a 37-yard field goal as times expires to preserve a 34–33 Cardinals win at State Farm Stadium.
• 7:26 p.m. ET: Titans running back Derrick Henry walks in standing up from a yard out to tie Tennessee’s game in Seattle at 30, and eventually force overtime.
• 7:52 p.m. ET: Randy Bullock drills a 36-yard game-winner for the Titans after missing a 44-yarder earlier that had set the Cardinals up to stretch their lead to 14 points.
And then, of course, came the finale in Baltimore. So let’s touch ‘em all.
Normally, in a situation like Zuerlein was in on Sunday, there’s communication between the kicker and his coaches on how far out, and from where, the kicker would be good from, something that can be based, in part, on the stadium, the weather or even the fans.
So it caught my attention, as Zuerlein and I talked postgame, after the Cowboys wound up outlasting the Chargers, that neither he and head coach Mike McCarthy, nor he and special teams coach John Fassel had set any sort of parameters on what Zuerlein might be capable of on this particular day, in these particular conditions, in that particular stadium.
“I think Bones [Fassel] always knows where I can make it from, so there’s never really a conversation about it,” Zuerlein said. “It’s just, Go out there and do your job. It really doesn’t matter where it’s from. I have the ability to make it. They’re not gonna put me out there for an unmakeable kick, so it’s just my job to go out there and be my best and our whole field goal unit as well.”
Whether it’s normal for them or not, it left the kicker in an interesting spot.
On a first-and-10 with 33 seconds left and the ball on the Chargers’ 41, Dak Prescott handed off to Tony Pollard, and Pollard broke around right end for three yards to get Dallas down to the 38—from where it’d take a 56-yard kick to win the game. The Cowboys did have time to get another offensive snap off, with a timeout left in their back pocket.
Instead, McCarthy let the clock go. Twenty-five seconds. Twenty. Fifteen. Ten. And at four seconds, he called the Cowboys last timeout, and Zuerlein didn’t need to be told what time it was.
That he hadn’t told the coaches, one way or another, what his range was for the day was irrelevant. What mattered was the kick and the kick alone.
“I couldn’t give you a yard line to be honest with you,” he told me. “Just from wherever. I mean, I don’t care where I kick it from. You’re gonna kick long ones, that’s how it is. Fortunately, we have coaches that know what that’s all about and that’s what we did today.”
And sure enough, Zuerlein delivered on their confidence in him, splitting the uprights and stealing a win for the Cowboys over a Chargers team that seemed cursed (again) with untimely, and questionable, penalties and nagging injuries during the game.
“Having coaches like them is awesome, knowing that they’re in your corner,” Zuerlein said. “They got your back, and then that they have the confidence in you to go out there and do your job. It means the world to me, to our team really, that they have that type of confidence.”
In the process, the Cowboys got back to .500 on what was a really solid afternoon for Prescott and a resurgent Dallas run game. If only the Vikings could cash in the same way …
Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury didn’t see anything too unusual about Joseph’s missed chip shot at the end of Arizona’s wild 34–33 win. And he conceded to me afterward that Arizona didn’t do much to force the miss either—“I’d have to watch the film. But it looked like it just got pushed.”
What came before all that, though, was a different story. Because what Kingsbury got to see from his quarterback was a long time coming.
Kyler Murray’s stats are what they are—really good. He finished Sunday 29-of-36 for 400 yards, three touchdowns, two picks, a 117.6 passer rating, and 31 yards and another score on five carries. But neither those, nor last week’s stats really illustrate properly what we’ve all been watching the last couple of weeks, which is basically a quarterback whose professional maturation is starting to catch up with his athletic potential.
“I really think he’s taken ownership of the entire organization,” Kingsbury said, over the phone from Glendale. “He knows we’re gonna go as far as he takes us. We had some big names around here previously that were legends in that building, and they’re not here anymore and I think he now knows, ‘Hey, this is your party and your show. It’s time to take over and do everything you can do to help lead this organization where you want to take it.’
“I’ve seen a different work ethic, different leadership style, different approach on a daily basis. So we just gotta keep that going.”
It’s true that the generally quiet Murray’s become more vocal, and has done things with teammates this year—like organizing offseason passing camps in Texas and Arizona—that make clear his increasing comfort in being the guy for an NFL franchise. And we’ll get to that in just a second.
But that wouldn’t work if he wasn’t able to back it up on the field, and through the first two weeks of the season, he’s backed it all up.
He is, of course, still making splash plays left and right—and even catches his coach, who’s watched him play since his sophomore year at Allen High in suburban Dallas, off-guard every now and again. Kingsbury, in fact, got one of those wow moments from Murray on Sunday, on the QB’s twisting, turning Houdini act that turned into a crossbody throw to Rondale Moore for 77 yards and a score.
“I mean, that one was pretty unbelievable,” Kingsbury said. “To get out of that and find that guy, rolling to his left and still being able to get enough on it when the guy’s chasing him down, in that situation, the two-minute situation, I thought that was incredible. So yeah, he’s as talented as any person I’ve ever been around. He’s a top-10 pick in baseball and football. I don’t know if we’ve seen one who has more natural athletic ability.
“And now I think the game’s staring to slow down for him.”
And that, as much as anything else, has allowed him not just to make the spectacular plays, but the clutch, have-to-have-it, game-winning plays too.
Against the Vikings, that one came on a fourth-and-5 with 6:12 left, Arizona trailing 34–33 and the ball at the Minnesota 41. The call was pretty standard. Murray’s execution of it was not. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer sent seven rushers. Murray wound up retreating about 13 yards behind the line and, falling away, somehow delivered a dime to Christian Kirk, to get the Cards down to the Vikings’ 6 and set up the eventual game-winning field goal.
“I mean that’s like coaching Patrick [Mahomes],” said Kingsbury, who had Mahomes at Texas Tech. “You give him the green light, when you got a cat like that, that can do those type of things. There’s a fine line you want to walk. You don’t want to pull the reigns too much, and he made some unbelievable plays. That’s one of his favorite play calls that we had in, and he and Christian Kirk just got on the same page and extended it and took it high, and unbelievable throw.
“He made a very similar throw off his back foot last week against Tennessee to Christian, so they just, they’ve known each other for a long time and have a real chemistry.”
Four plays later, Matt Prater banged a 27-yarder through to get the Cardinals the lead for good and, from there, a little good luck on Joseph’s try (or bad luck, depending on your vantage point) got Arizona in the winner’s circle again.
And the exciting part for everyone there is, as they see it, this is just the tip of the iceberg for the 24-year-old quarterback.
A month ago, at camp, Murray told me how sick of losing he was—he barely ever lost a start in high school or college, and he’d already done a lot of it with his NFL team. He vowed then he’d do all he could to change it. There’s no question that the guys he’s around are seeing that now, and have been seeing it for a while.
“You’d see him at training camp and he wasn’t letting little things slide anymore,” Kingsbury said. “I mean, he was asking for redoes of plays before I could even say it, whether it was a walkthrough or practice. And just holding everybody to a higher standard. It’s worked out.”
So far, it sure looks that way.
Derrick Henry’s first seven quarters this season: 39 carries, 133 yards, TD.
Derrick Henry’s fourth quarter and overtime on Sunday: 13 carries, 107 yards, 2 TDs.
Now, I’d love to tell you that there was some wild, or even just interesting, adjustment that led to the reigning Offensive Player of the Year’s busting loose on Sunday in Seattle, to set the stage for Bullock’s game-winner (to atone for the bad miss earlier).
But the truth, according to Ryan Tannehill, is that there really wasn’t any sort of ingenious play by the players or coaches to spring the bell cow late on Sunday. More so, it was just trusting that, if the Titans kept at it, the identity that they’ve so clearly built in Mike Vrabel’s three years in Nashville would show up again.
“I think it’s being able to stick to our plan and just keep pounding,” Tannehill said. “I think it’s been pretty consistent over the past two-plus years now, is that we’re gonna wear on teams the deeper we get into games if we’re able to keep pounding. All it takes is one misfit and we’re able to get a crease and obviously he has the physicality and speed to make it a big one. So I think that’s been probably pretty standard over the past two-plus years.”
The big one Tannehill’s referencing came when the Titans needed it most—down 30–16 at raucous Lumen Field. On the team’s first possession of the fourth quarter, Henry smoothly popped off a 60-yard touchdown to cut the Seahawks’ lead in half. And later in the quarter, on a far more-deliberate possession, Henry got seven touches (four rushes, three catches) as the Titans went 68 yards in 12 plays to tie the game.
And then, in overtime, in setting up the game-winner, Henry got the ball on four straight snaps to get Bullock a properly set-up chip shot.
The amazing thing, really, is even as the Titans fell behind by two scores, and even with time limited, they didn’t stray from the aforementioned formula, when conventional wisdom would tell any team in that spot, at the end of the game, to start throwing it all over the yard. In a way, in fact, sticking to the plan is what kept the Titans calm in the first place.
“It’s a mindset that we try to stick to,” Tannehill said. “It’s something I try to embody, is we’re not gonna panic no matter what situation we’re in. We’re gonna reset and find a way to go out there and make plays. Total confidence in the guys around me and our ability to fight through adversity and find a way to win football games. You can kinda feel that synergy as we take the field and that confidence in each other I think builds the deeper you’re into games, and you start making plays and you feel it building and building.
“We stepped on the field with whatever it was—three-and-change, a little over four minutes—that last drive, and it was total confidence that we’re about to go down and score to tie up the game.”
And they did. And then they won it to close out the late-afternoon window and take us to SNF’s marquee matchup.
A half hour after the dust had settled on his steel-stomach decision in the 11 p.m. hour, and a couple of minutes before he’d crack open a beer and level himself off a little, Harbaugh explained the decision to go for it on a deeper level. To him, making this call was about two things.
The first is the players. Even without Stanley, Dobbins and Edwards, Harbaugh told me he believes in the depth of the roster, and the will of the people on it, and all of that played into why the right call was to go for it on fourth down. And of course there’s the matter of having Jackson himself, and the idea that all he had to do was put the ball in the hands of his best player and let his best player win the game.
Then, there’s the fact that, quite simply, it’s what all those guys wanted.
“The guys, if you’ve been here for 14 years, you’ve got a sense of how these guys think,” Harbaugh said. “I mean, I look back [on the sideline] sometimes and kinda look at people and they’re looking at me like, ‘Go for it.’ I looked back at Nick Boyle one time, he’s like, ‘Go for it.’ It was on the two two-point conversions and on the fourth down. Every time I looked around back at somebody, everybody was looking at me saying, ‘Go for it.’ Everybody. So it’s just the way our guys think, you know? I love it.”
Which brings us to the second, more analytical part of it, and how that played in.
On the aforementioned two-pointers, Harbaugh confirmed that, yes, he was playing the numbers. Conversely, on the fourth-down, he really wasn’t as much. That one, he says, was way more on what his gut was telling him than what a chart might have said.
“My gut basically said that we need to get the first down or they’re gonna be able to get back down the field,” Harbaugh continued. “They had a minute left. I just felt like we had a better chance to get the fourth down [than stop the Chiefs] and I think the analytics might agree—I don’t know if they’d line up or not. I can’t say for sure if they would. But that was really me on that one.”
And it’s fair to say that the broadcast would reflect that, too, in giving us a pretty dramatic conclusion to our first hyper-dramatic Sunday of NFL action.
TAYLOR HEINICKE’S JOURNEY TO NFL STARTER
I talked to Taylor Heinicke in the minutes following Washington’s high-wire win on Thursday night—one facilitated by, well, a close offsides call on Giants defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence that negated a missed field that would’ve clinched a New York win and set up WFT kicker Dustin Hopkins for a mulligan (and 43-yard game-winner). And my biggest takeaway from our talk? Heinicke still couldn’t believe it.
But it wasn’t so much the win, as the spot the former undrafted free agent found himself in.
“Right now, I don’t know what to think,” he said from the locker room. “This was a great moment. Like you said, last year I was out of football, and now I’m here, and I’m excited just to be on the team. And then just getting the opportunity to start, get my first win, it means a lot to me.”
The really amazing thing to me, given a few days to digest what Heinicke did, is that the head coach (Ron Rivera) and offensive coordinator (Scott Turner) in question here aren’t hiding Heinicke in the least. In the win over New York, he threw the ball 46 times. And that only backed up what we saw in the playoffs, when Heinicke threw it 44 times in dueling with Tom Brady and putting a scare into the eventual champion Buccaneers.
Bottom line, two guys who had the 28-year-old in Carolina seem to trust him implicitly in their new home, which is as amazing when you consider how he got there.
Heinicke wasn’t on an NFL roster in 2019, after getting cut out of camp by the Panthers. He caught on with the XFL’s St. Louis BattleHawks that November. He didn’t even start there—serving as a backup to Jordan Ta’amu—before the league wound up shutting down in the throes of the pandemic. That led him back to Old Dominion to finish up his engineering degree, which is where he was when Washington called in December.
It’s also where he assumes he’d still be if Rivera hadn’t made that call.
“Yeah, I’d probably finishing up school, taking my last two classes and figuring out what I’d be doing with the next chapter of my life,” he said.
Nearly a year later, Heinicke has certainly paid off the bet Rivera made on him handsomely, and justified trust along the way. To me, that stuck out in three key spots—two that went Washington’s way and another that didn’t. Heinicke took me through his throws in those spots.
• With 4:50 left in the fourth quarter, Washington got the ball, down 26–20 at its own 25. Turner and Rivera let it fly. Heinicke hit J.D. McKissic on a wheel route for 56 yards on the possession’s first play, then went for the throat on the second snap. And that led to Heinicke’s finding Ricky Seals-Jones for a 19-yard score.
“He ran a double move on the outside,” Heinicke said. “We had a seam to Logan [Thomas], and they ran Cover 2. I really wanted to hit Logan right off his break in front of that safety, but they collapsed on it pretty well. And then I kind of felt like I was stuck back there in the pocket, and I saw Ricky Jones one-on-one with the corner. He’s a bigger body than the corner, so I said, Hey, I’m gonna give this guy a chance, and it’s gonna be incomplete or a touchdown. … He made an unbelievable catch, and got both feet in.”
• Now leading 27–26, with the ball back and 2:22 to go, Turner stayed aggressive on a second-and-7 on his own 22 and put the ball in Heinicke’s hands. That call wound up going the other way—with another former Panther, James Bradberry, getting in the way.
“We called a little quick pass, it’s essentially a run play,” said Heinicke, of the intention of the play, to get easy yardage. “And it was against Bradberry. Thing about Bradberry is I was with him in Carolina. Scott was there in Carolina, he’s seen that play before. He made a great play, he jumped it. It was big for our defense to come out after that, get a huge stop, hold them to three and give us a chance to win. Kudos to the defense. They did a great job.”
• After the defense did that job—holding the Giants to a field goal—Heinicke drove the hosts down and set Washington up with a first-and-10 at the Giants’ 36, close enough for a long Hopkins try. With no timeouts left and 24 seconds showing, Turner and Rivera let Heinicke ride again.
“Terry [McLaurin], I feel like he’s a top-10 receiver in this league,” Heinicke said. “And tonight, you could see why. He gets open, and when the ball’s in his hands, he makes things happen. Really wanted to bang that slant on him quick, and he did a great job getting open, catching the ball and getting those extra five, six yards, making it an easier field goal for Hop.”
As it turned out, Hopkins would need the extra yardage. The six-yard gain (followed by Heinicke’s getting the offense to the line and coolly spiking it with five seconds left), plus the penalty yardage, got Hopkins those yards and Washington an important win—and Heinicke more validation that he was made to finish up that engineering degree too soon.
Afterward, Heinicke told the NFL Network crew that he believed he should be the starter the rest of the way (Ryan Fitzpatrick is expected to be out two months). He softened that a little when I asked about it: “That’s nothing against Fitz. Obviously Fitz has been in this league a long time for good reason. He’s a great player, a great quarterback. Unfortunately, he went down with a weird injury. But I feel like every quarterback in this league, if you’re on the roster, even if you’re on a practice squad, you gotta believe you’re starter-capable.”
That said, clearly, this is a guy playing with a lot of confidence. And even he’ll concede, this confidence is relatively newfound. Because, well, why wouldn’t it be?
“I never knew if I could, because I never had that opportunity until last year,” he said. “So when that Tampa game happened, we had a great game, and unfortunately fell a little short, that gave me a lot of confidence. They go on to win the Super Bowl, and we gave them a good shot. So coming into this offseason, really dove in hard, the training, the eating, diet, nutrition.
“These guys, they trust me.”
That much is for sure.
You need to pay attention to the Panthers. Two weeks, two wins, and each had a very identifiable look. They were fueled by a menacing defensive front that none of us thought enough about coming into the year and complemented by an improving, efficient offense that Sam Darnold’s steadily getting better at running. What’s more than just that, it sure looks like the program in Charlotte’s taking on the edgy, physical look that Matt Rhule’s been working on cultivating. As such, D-linemen Brian Burns, Derrick Brown and Haason Reddick set the tone in holding the Saints to 2.8 yards per carry and sacking Jameis Winston four times. And the offense maintained balance with a 33-to-40 run-to-pass ratio, that kept a diverse New Orleans defense from getting too aggressive. Which is sort of how Rhule drew this all up. “I think the way that we practiced during training camp, we had two joint practice weeks early on against Indy and Baltimore, and I feel like that helped us a ton, to be able to practice against those teams, really veteran teams, teams that know how to practice,” Darnold told me over the phone, after the 26–7 win over the Saints. “I think that really helped us, and we had a hard training camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina. I think that kind of gave us our edge a little bit. Again, Albert, it’s early in the season, I don’t want to speak too soon. But we’re in really good shape right now. We just got to continue to stay healthy and keep getting better every single week.” And the interesting thing to me, from my talk with Darnold, was that I figured this one would be significant for everyone there because it wa the Saints, who’ve won the division four years in a row and were gangbusters against Green Bay in Week 1. But it didn’t really feel like that was ever part of the coaches’ or the players’ messaging. Maybe it’s because the Panthers have to play again Thursday (against the Texans). Maybe Darnold was just being guarded, after all he’s gone through in three years as a pro. Either way, the quarterback was hesitant to assign meaning to a Week 2 win, impressive as it might’ve been, and even if it reinforced the progress that was visible in Week 1. “Again, it’s Week 2,” Darnold said, laughing. “It is a good win, don’t get me wrong. We’re really happy about that win and the way that we played. But we gotta execute a lot better—in that second half, I feel like we left some points on the board, and just didn’t really end things the way that we wanted to. But a win’s a win, and it’s a good division win and we’re happy about that.” And now, they’re a few days away from, potentially, going into a Week 4 showdown in Dallas on extra rest and with a 3–0 record.
The Bills haven’t gone anywhere, despite what Week 1 might’ve indicated. In fact, I think after talking to Buffalo coach Sean McDermott on Sunday—and he didn’t say this directly to me—that the staff there saw a real silver lining in how the team’s first game went. In that one, the Bills were way too reliant on Josh Allen (he dropped back 54 times), and made critical mistakes in all three phases to lose to the Steelers. And with all of that came a gut check for a young group of players who are dealing with high expectations, and all that comes along with those, for the first time. “I think that’s one of the hardest things, Albert, on teams, or just as an individual, is how you handle success,” McDermott told me postgame. “And it happens to many a team, and many an individual, out there. And so I think we learn from experiences all the time, and that’s probably a better question for my team, but overall, I feel like their focus was there today and that’s what I’m looking for every week. That’s the humble and hungry approach that the Buffalo Bills take.” That humble and hungry approach churned out a pretty impressive 35–0 win over the Dolphins in Miami on Sunday. And the best part, to McDermott, was how the team managed to get the most out of every unit. The Bills’ defense registered two sacks on the game’s first three plays, then Isaiah McKenzie took the ensuing punt back 20 yards into Miami territory. Two plays later, Devin Singletary ripped off a 46-yard touchdown run. So it was 7–0 less than three minutes in, and Buffalo didn’t have to lean on Allen for any of it, while getting contributions from two of last year’s trouble areas (the pass rush and the running backs). “We talked about that during the week, and the guys really did a great job with that, I thought, especially in the first half,” McDermott continued. “Like the first quarter, we got out 14–0 there, then we stalled a little bit and again, that’s where I thought that the offense did a really good job making some adjustments and coming back in the second half, really found a rhythm there.” With the defense’s giving them the chance to do it, of course. And, as McDermott sees it, part of everyone’s being able to chip in is simply who the Bills have become the last five years—with a healthy percentage of the roster out front in spending the last week making sure Week 1 didn’t repeat itself. “We’ve got captains, and we also have a leadership group of probably, honestly, 15 to 20 guys that have been around our building for multiple years now,” McDermott said. “It’s guys that have influence in our locker room, connect my message to the locker room, and I just thought they did a great job leading by example, more than anything [last week].” Which means now the Bills can move forward with a better feel for what it’s like to carry a target on their back as one of the conference’s big dogs.
Derek Carr’s not the only reason for the Raiders’ quick start. The coaches and front office people there would tell you this group is mentally tougher than Jon Gruden’s last three Raider teams, each of which missed the playoffs. The defense’s play—Vegas held the Steelers to 17 points on Sunday and turned it on down the stretch against Baltimore in the opener, too—under new coordinator Gus Bradley has been the most obvious tangible difference. But if we’re being honest about this one, Carr, at 30, sure looks like he’s taken another step. And it looks, for the criticism he’s taken, like Gruden can still coach an offense, and he can still coach quarterbacks. Coming off a 435-yard effort in the opener, Carr shredded a Steeler defense that had its way with Josh Allen last week for 263 yards and two scores on 16-of-21 passing in the second half alone (for the season, he’s 34-of-45 for 470 yards, three touchdowns and a 130.8 passer rating in the second half). And yes, T.J. Watt went down. But the aggression and killer instinct behind Carr was something, frankly, I’m not sure we’ve seen before from Gruden’s Raiders. And nowhere did it show up more than with the dagger Carr threw in the fourth quarter, after Pittsburgh drove 80 yards in five plays to draw to within two points, at 16–14. Five plays into the next possession, faced with third-and-10 with 9:44 left, Gruden went for the jugular, and Carr delivered an absolute dime to Henry Ruggs for a 61-yard touchdown on a post, giving the Raiders the separation they needed. “Not many guys can run that fast and track the ball,” Gruden said of Ruggs. “It was certainly a big play. The protection, the revolving door we had up front in the critical moment and the throw … there was a lot of good stuff to go around.” And none of it better than seeing Gruden really put things in Carr’s hands, even after Carr had been banged up, to go and win the game for him. Of course, this alone doesn’t mean what we’re breaking down here won’t be another case of the Raiders’ being an early-season tease (they were the last two years running). But it should give them a better chance to avoid being that.
For right now, Mac Jones is playing the role of facilitator—and playing it really well. And honestly, as I see it, Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is putting on a clinic in how to manage a rookie quarterback. The numbers really do show it, too. To me, the best way to handle a starter in Jones’s situation (on the field months after being drafted in the first round) is to keep down-and-distance reasonable consistently and keep from needing the kid to dig the team out of big deficits. Along those lines, check this out ….
• Through two games, the Patriots have been in third down on 28 occasions. The yardage to gain in those situations only exceeded 10 yards four times. Jones has converted nine of those 28 opportunities through the air, and on eight of those he needed seven yards or fewer to move the chains. The Patriots also converted five of those third downs on the ground.
• Through two games, the furthest the Patriots have been behind is seven points—in the first quarter of the opener and again in the third quarter that afternoon.
And the reason why this matters? If you’re in third-and-long, or down big, those are obvious passing situations, and that means the defense can throw the kitchen sink at the quarterback. Conversely, the way the Patriots have played has allowed Jones to learn at a steady pace, and take on more and more of the offense. You can already see that McDaniels trusts him in no huddle and in empty, areas where a coach naturally puts more mentally on the quarterback’s shoulders, and Jones has passed those tests. The staff also loved his command of the offense on Sunday—he’s running the Patriots’ offense, a scheme built to lean on the quarterback to adjust both pre- and post-snap, as it’s meant to be run—and how efficient he was in his first road game. Of course, they really didn’t need him to do too much to beat down an outgunned Jets team, 25–6. But, again, that’s sort of the idea here, with the hope being that the growth the team can afford him now will show up when they really need it to.
The Bears may have an interesting decision to make at quarterback. Two weeks ago, Matt Nagy spoke in this space—and said that Justin Fields had earned the backup job in Chicago, and I explained, in my own words, why I thought it was significant. And its significance came to light Sunday. Bottom line, when a coach picks a rookie quarterback to be his No. 2, he has to be ready to play him. If he’s not, said coach has the option to make him No. 3 and not dress him on game day (which is what actually redshirting someone is, and what, for example, Green Bay did with Jordan Love last year). Having Nick Foles on the roster gave Nagy even more leeway to do that with Fields. And Nagy chose not to, which meant when Andy Dalton went down against the Bengals in the early window, Fields had to come in. The result? The Bears won, and won because of their defense, and not so much because of Fields, who was very up and down (6-of-13, 60 yards, INT; 10 carries, 31 yards), which, on paper shouldn’t be enough to move the needle on Nagy’s best laid plan to have Fields learn and play sparingly behind Dalton. So why, then, did Nagy say, when asked if the door’s open for Fields to take the job, “I don’t want to get into that”? To be fair, Nagy was in a tough spot. The Bears legitimately didn’t know how serious Dalton’s injury was postgame, and if he’s out, it behooves the coaches to show the confidence in Fields they did in making him the backup in the first place. Also, if Dalton were to miss a month, history tells us there’s a good chance Fields will seize the job and won’t give it back. All of which was good reason for Nagy to ease off his Dalton-is-the-guy stance, and not paint himself into a corner.
The rash of injuries on Sunday really needs to be analyzed beyond just the surface level. Dalton was one of four starting quarterbacks unable to finish games on Sunday—joining Tua Tagovailoa, Tyrod Taylor and Carson Wentz. The Eagles lost Brandon Graham and Brandon Brooks; the Browns lost Jarvis Landry; the Broncos lost Bradley Chubb; the Steelers lost T.J. Watt; and the Titans lost Taylor Lewan before their win over the Seahawks and Rodger Saffold during it. We’ll see how serious each injury is, but here’s what I know: Coaches were worried about this over the summer. One said to me in mid-August that he was still working guys into football shape, something that would usually be done early in camp. Another told me he believes it takes 12 weeks of football activity to get a player there, and the loss of spring workouts made it impossible to get his guys there. So different coaches handled the summer in different ways. Some doubled down on the work to try and accelerate the process. Others dialed back intensity in an effort to ramp guys up in a way that was similar to last year, when the pandemic flipped the schedule on its head. And already, it feels like the loss of time on task is impacting the season. Anyway, I’m hoping to dig into the topic with coaches over the next couple of weeks. But it’s definitely one to follow going forward.
The Broncos shouldn’t be an afterthought anymore. I get it. Their wins were over the Giants and Jaguars, two teams that haven’t exactly looked like world beaters in general to this point. And I know that for as many people as there are who focus largely on the coach and quarterback with any team (and I get that, too), maybe Vic Fangio and Teddy Bridgewater aren’t the most awe-inspiring tandem. But look closer at who’s making plays for Denver. It’s young guys like Courtland Sutton (nine catches, 159 yards), Noah Fant (four catches, 33 yards, TD) and Javonte Williams (13 carries, 64 yards). On defense, it’s guys young (Patrick Surtain had a pick) and old (Kareem Jackson picked Trevor Lawrence, and Von Miller had a sack). And all of this was with Jerry Jeudy out, Chubb’s going down in-game, and on the road. I’ve said this for a while, but I don’t think Denver’s far off from having the kind of roster that once attracted Peyton Manning to the Rockies—and new GM George Paton is in good position to build on it. Also, Bridgewater was once a first-round pick, Fangio’s defense is being cribbed left and right across the league, and both of those guys are acquitting themselves well in 2021. Now, this isn’t a championship team. I don’t think it’s even really a playoff team. But there are good things happening in Denver, and good reason to think the future’s bright, and Jacksonville got a good view of that on Sunday.
I’ve run out of stuff to say on Tom Brady. What he’s doing is obscene. But equally bonkers is how Rob Gronkowski looks. After scoring twice in the Bucs’ 48–25 win over Atlanta, the 32-year-old already has four touchdowns on the year. With nine more, he’d have the second most of his Hall of Fame career. And beyond the numbers, the guy suddenly looks reborn. Postgame Sunday, here’s what Brady had to say on No. 87: “He’s got great hands, great instincts, awareness. I think what people don’t realize, he’s an elite blocker, and what he does in terms of red area, third down, locking in the run game—you can run behind him. Every run is available because you can run behind him. He catches the ball down the field, catches the ball short, run after catch, incredible hands. He has one of those maroon jackets for one of the 100 best in the history of the game, and it’s just a real privilege to play with him.” I’ll never forget being with Gronkowski in an empty locker room in Atlanta after Super Bowl LIII, his last game as a Patriot, and how finished he looked. Given how beat up and, well, miserable he looked, it was no surprise to me that retired that spring. And along those lines, it’s mind-blowing that he’s back now in the state he’s in. And it’s really, genuinely great to see a guy who loves the game like Gronkowski does enjoying it like he used to.
It’s at least interesting that Trey Lance didn’t play a snap in Philly on Sunday. I think Jimmy Garoppolo’s efficient stat line—22-of-30, 189 yards, TD, 100.6 rating—has something to do with it. It’d also make sense if part of the reason was because the game was close, and the Eagles’ defensive line was giving the Niners’ offense all it could handle. But I think the bottom line here really, in a game the Niners won, was that the staff just trusts Garoppolo more at this point. And that’s no affront to Lance. Everyone knew he needed time. He played just a single game last fall. It was his 17th college start, and in only eight of those did he throw the ball more than 20 times, and that was largely because his North Dakota State team was so dominant it didn’t need him to throw it. A product of that dominance, too, is that he was rarely in long yardage, and it was even rarer that he’d play from behind. Add it up, and he had a lot to learn coming into the NFL. Because he’s got a great head on his shoulders, he’ll learn fast enough to make the Niners think about playing him more, and that’s a credit to him. But the best case scenario was always the one that’s playing out now—Garoppolo’s playing really well, the Niners are winning and Lance gets to learn, and get his feet wet in spots.
One more time—that Sunday was a blast. So here are 10 more quick-hitting thoughts coming out of Week 2.
• Two throws leapt out at me on the day. The first was Brady’s fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Chris Godwin, put in a spot only Godwin could get to it, and really completely indefensible. The second was Justin Herbert’s laser to Austin Ekeler on a wheel route, a throw that’s only done justice through video evidence …
•. The Seahawks’ downfield passing game appears to be blowing up with Shane Waldron pushing the buttons—Russell Wilson now has three touchdown passes of 60 yards on the season, with two more (one to Tyler Lockett, the other to Freddie Swain) coming Sunday.
• If there was a game Sunday where I thought both teams could walk away feeling O.K., it was definitely Browns vs. Texans. Cleveland took care of business its way (156 yards rushing). Houston kept fighting through a quarterback injury—and showed again that David Culley’s got his guys playing hard.
• I think there’s an easy explanation for Zach Wilson’s disastrous afternoon. Against Carolina last week, he got hit early and often. As such, in the first half of the game, he played conservatively and took what the defense gave him. Later in the game, as he got his footing, he made a couple of nice off-schedule plays. And it looked to me like, on Sunday, he tried to build off of that. He took some unnecessary and dumb risks as a result. He’ll grow from it.
• Cooper Kupp’s a monster. And so is Jalen Ramsey. And that was a really good win for the Rams, fending off a relatively desperate Colts team. You have to be able to win when it’s not pretty, or the way you drew it up, and the Rams did on Sunday.
• While we’re there, Carson Wentz was actually starting to hit his stride before he got hurt.
• Danielle Hunter delivered in a big way for the Vikings on Sunday, in the biggest spots, and it’s sort of a shame he didn’t get rewarded with a win for it.
• Nice fight from Arthur Smith’s Falcons in Tampa. And I won’t soon forget the zone-read that a 36-year-old Matt Ryan ran late in the third quarter to pick up a two-point conversion, and draw his team to within three of the champs. It was, in a word, graceful.
• Jalen Hurts looks like he’s got a chance. Whether he’ll make it probably depends on how the Eagles build around him, and if they really remain committed to him or not. But he looks a lot better than I thought he would. Honestly, I sort of get the Dak Prescott comp now, based on how Prescott was underestimated coming out of college.
• The Jaguars have to run the ball more to support Trevor Lawrence. They had 16 carries against 34 dropbacks on Sunday. Which, to be fair, is better than the 16-to-54 ratio they ran out there in Week 1.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
1) The USC job, to me, is better than a good percentage of NFL jobs—and is right behind only a couple of SEC schools, Ohio State and Texas among college jobs. So guys from the pros, naturally, are going to have interest. I think Alabama offensive coordinator and ex-Texans coach Bill O’Brien makes all the sense in the world for the Trojans. I do believe O’Brien wants to be a head coach again soon, and he’s amenable to having that happen at the college level. He also has some of the elements Pete Carroll brought to the job back in 2001 (you’ll remember that actually wasn’t a very popular hire).
2) While we’re on USC, they still have a 2021 season to finish, and there’s a very interesting prospect to monitor there as the Trojans do that— 6′ 5″, 210-pound junior receiver Drake London. The two-sport athlete (he plays basketball for the school too) had 13 catches for 170 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday against Washington State, with a true freshman at QB after Kedon Slovis got hurt. “The best skill player on the field,” one AFC exec said of London against Washington State. “Big, long, physical. I think he’s a first-round talent, but receivers can be seen as scheme-specific.” At any rate, it seems like he’ll go somewhere in the top 60 picks in April.
3) Through three games, Georgia’s allowed 23 points, which is eye-popping given the way college football has gone, and that there really was just one punching bag in that run (UAB). As you’d expect, a lot of that’s a result of Kirby Smart’s recruiting blue-chippers, and the amazing thing is that this is happening after the team had four defensive players drafted in the top 100 last year, including two corners in the top 35. What’s left, in the words of one veteran evaluator, is an “NFL front seven.” Edge linebacker Adam Anderson is likely a future first-rounder, and nose tackle Jordan Davis might sneak in there too. But the strength of the unit is its balance and depth—our evaluator said the group is loaded with Day 2 (Round 2 or 3) types.
4) Something that came up this week that I found interesting—the Pac-12’s revival is due, in part, to the number of fifth- and sixth-year players who took up the NCAA on its offer of a free year of eligibility for playing through COVID-19. A couple of scouts have brought this up to me, and the reason why the Pac-12 is benefiting most is because its 2020 season was the biggest mess of all (teams’ slates last year were just five games), leading to lots of guys’ feeling the need to return.
5) Want to know how good Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields were in college? Look at some of the ups and downs that Clemson and Ohio State have had on offense without them. Both teams have former five-star recruits out there (both out of the 2020 class), and both have a lot of work to do to get the passing game where it was before.
6) Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell might be a dark horse name worth watching for NFL jobs. He’s the one who brought Mike Vrabel into coaching—the two were teammates at Ohio State and have remained very close since—and has shown impressive program-building acumen in five years with the Bearcats. UC’s won the AAC East two years in a row, won the AAC title last year and went toe-to-toe with Georgia in the Peach Bowl. The eighth-ranked Bearcats just beat Indiana, and next go to Notre Dame on Oct. 2, where they could start to make a compelling playoff case. And if he gets there? It’d only bolster his case as the proverbial more-with-less college coach archetype that’s intrigued NFL teams in the past.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
One of the coolest player/coach relationships in the sport.
… And there’s the video.
Baltimore night games are fantastic, every time.
I want to be clear here: I do not want this flagged. But I don’t understand how flashing a peace sign back to the field as you score is taunting and somersaulting into the end zone isn’t. Makes zero sense.
… And this is really what I’m getting at.
Worst part is it really feels like it’s getting rubbed in our faces too.
Man, these guys were perfect for Cardinals-Vikings. I’ve come to love Gus calling Big Ten football, and Aqib’s an incredible personality. Put these guys together more, Fox!
Well-deserved for a guy that young folks probably ID as Lane’s dad. Monte was the godfather of the Tampa 2, coordinator of an all-time defense and now is the holder of a legacy that connects to all the “Seattle”-style defense in the NFL.
Tatum’s nickname—Assassin—is still the coolest in NFL history. (He’s a Buckeye, too.)
Kid’s pops had quite a pick on Sunday, too.
The fans are back …
Need a handshake mixed into this, Hawk.
In my buddy Jeff’s defense, it didn’t work for the University of Miami on Saturday either.
Mitch is right.
Carson wound up playing well, but this was still another hit from the Tweet King.
It’s only a shame it took Heinicke this long to find the spotlight.
MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
Every week, we’ll talk to a prominent player about to step on the MNF stage. This week, ahead of Lions-Packers, we talked to two-time Super Bowl champion and Lions LB Jamie Collins.
MMQB: What’s the biggest difference with the new coaches, and how does the program fit you so far?
Jamie Collins: It’s cool to be in a different situation, in a different system, test my ability, test my brain, see how I process new work. Those guys, they’re all former players; they have real-life understanding when it comes to ball. As far as the defense, being me, it’s cool. I got a little range in the defense, playing all over the place, doing a lot of things. And that’s what I like: being able to showcase my talents in every aspect. It’s just good, man.
MMQB: What’s it like playing for a staff with so many ex-players on it?
JC: You can pick their brain; that’s the best part. It’s definitely a cheat code when you’ve got a former player that’s seen it through the same lens as us, once upon a time. You can pick their brain on anything, how they coach it, how they used to see it, and you can distinguish between the two to fit you.
MMQB: Do you think there’s a misperception of Dan Campbell at all?
JC: Sometimes people judge folks and not really understand or get guys. Guys like Dan, they take care of you, so you take care of them—it’s a scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours type of deal. Dan’s one of those kinds of guys, man. He played the game, so he understands a lot. It’s definitely cool playing for a guy like Dan Campbell, man. … What he put out there, people take what they get and run with it. But we see him every day. We hear him every day.
MMQB: You guys give him any crap over the kneecaps thing?
JC: Every now and then [laughing], but that’s part of the game.
MMQB: I know you’d have liked to see last week play out differently …
MMQB: But what do you think it said about the team, getting back in the game like that, from 28 down, having a shot to win at the end?
JC: Yeah, man, it was definitely a tough loss, but we never quit. We never quit, we never gave up, after everything that happened, we still gave ourselves a chance. That’s all we can ask for in this game, a chance to win. It’s the NFL. There’s a lot of great teams, great coaches, so that’s what you want, is a chance to win. And we had a chance. … We got something to work off of, to build off of, in going to work every day.
MMQB: You’re in your ninth year now. What can you bring to the table for a team that’s playing so many rookies and young guys?
JC: First and foremost, you gotta give them knowledge. You gotta give them the game, you gotta let them know that everybody is a professional at this level. It’s the NFL; you got guys in their 30s, even 40s, and it’s not always about speed or talent. A lot of it’s mental. Guys can use whatever your ability is against you. It’s a mind game, it’s all membrane in the National Football League. … You can’t come out here like a baby snake and just let all your venom out. Sometimes you’ve gotta save that venom when you’re go up against the old heads. Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, they’ll use it against you. You gotta be smart.
MMQB: Do you like the role of mentor?
JC: It’s cool, man. I look at it as a blessing. This game, it doesn’t last long for a lot of people, that’s just the history of it. It’s a blessing. I’m in my 30s, year nine, lot of guys don’t make it that far. It’s definitely a blessing, I wouldn’t shy away from it, I don’t shy away from it, and I’m always here to help younger guys.
MMQB: Since you guys play the same defense the Saints do, what can you take away from what they did to the Packers last week?
JC: Definitely the physicality. They came out strong, they came out fighting, they threw the first punch and that’s what we gotta do—everybody’s got a plan until they get hit in the mouth. We definitely gotta come out swinging, no toe-testing. Certain teams, certain offenses, you gotta step on them before they step on you, to get what you gotta get going, instead of letting those guys get going, and especially a guy like Aaron Rodgers. We gotta get on them early, can’t let a guy like that start on fire, because you know he’s always coming. He’s not gonna lay down. He’s been doing this a long time. … Didn’t stop fighting against San Fran last week, that’s what we need this week. We just have to start faster.
MMQB: Having played against Aaron, is there anything you think it’ll be important ti do on D?
JC: Definitely keep it moving, not sitting in one look. A guy like him, you’re sitting in one spot, he knows what you’re doing. You gotta give him the opposite of what you’re doing, or something to throw him off. Sitting in one thing is not gonna get it with him—he’s reading coverages, he’s reading blitzes, he’s reading everything. That’s what makes him so great, his ability to do all that. We just gotta be on our P’s and Q’s, and give him something he hasn’t seen, and not be still.
MMQB: You have money and rings, so what keeps you going at 31?
JC: First and foremost, it’s the competitive nature that’s in me, the drive to help young guys be great and to know that I got my kids watching me now. It’s kind of crazy, when you have your son saying, Daddy, why’d you do this? Daddy, why’d you do that? Daddy, you got run over! Kids, they don’t hold back. They see everything, and they’re gonna bring everything to the light. It’s crazy, because now you know your son’s gonna ask you what happened. But it’s not about the money. It’s fun. It completes my competitive nature, and it’s the ability young guys come into this league with. Even though I’m nine years in, I still need help—so that’s the ultimate thing, helping them.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
It’s Week 2. So let’s chill on the definitive statements on the rookie quarterbacks.
(Yeah, I know, probably not. … See all of you for the MAQB this afternoon.)
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