How Brandon Staley is Helping the Chargers Move Forward
Brandon Staley flipped on a cutup earlier this spring, with his whole team in the film room, and there was Khalil Mack taking his final snap as a Bear against the Buccaneers on Oct. 24. He had J.C. Jackson and Kyle Van Noy’s final snap in the Patriots’ blowout loss to Buffalo in January. He had Gerald Everett playing out the string for Seattle against Arizona. He had first-round pick Zion Johnson’s last snap at Boston College, against Wake Forest. And he had Sebastian Joseph-Day’s last snap for the Rams in the Super Bowl.
Then, he showed the group how the 2021 Chargers season ended.
“To get the perspective that you can’t just lump them all with us, like they were all here last year, what I wanted them to know is this how half the team feels—Half of us were at this game, and this is what happened. And this is where we are now,” Staley told me Saturday. “The reason we don’t go backward is it doesn’t apply to many of them. It’s about moving forward and the mission that we have now together.”
Still, the sting remains.
Staley’s crew fell behind 29–14, roared back to tie it with two touchdowns in the final five minutes of regulation (with three fourth-down conversions and a touchdown at the buzzer on the final possession), then traded field goals with the Raiders in the extra session before losing in excruciating fashion at the end of the 10-minute overtime.
There was much debated in the days to follow. A pivotal decision by Staley to go for it on fourth down at his own 18 in the third quarter. Whether both teams should have played for a tie, given that would’ve put either in the playoffs. A timeout Staley took on the Raiders’ last drive, when it appeared Vegas was playing for that tie in letting the clock roll..
But because Staley loved the group he was coaching, for him, it all boils down to this—“My only regret is that we didn’t get a chance to compete in the tournament.”
And on that day a few weeks back, and during our conversation over the weekend, he’s made it clear that it’s long since been time for he, and his team, to move forward from such regrets. If his Chargers can do that, Staley thinks, then maybe that fateful night five months ago will prove to be more of a beginning than it was an ending.
“Even though I hate the way it ended, and it’s stayed with me ever since I started walking across the field after that kid made that kick, you can live with it because I know how our team competed, and I know where we’re headed,” he continued. “I think walking across that field, that’s what I was thinking about—where I need to go with my game, where we need to go as a team. And that’s what I’ve been thinking about ever since.”
With any luck, for the Chargers, the next step will be a big one.
It’s summer in the NFL, but that hasn’t stopped us from loading up the column this week. In this late June edition of The MMQB, you’ll find …
• A look at this week’s diversity initiative from the NFL.
• Insight into why the Jets are bullish on Zach Wilson’s progress.
• How the Bengals are working to get their players fresh for ’22.
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• Where Hunter Renfrow’s new deal works for the Raiders.
But we’re starting in Los Angeles, with one of the NFL’s most interesting teams going into camp a few weeks from now.
Staley now says that one of the things he’s learned about being a head coach over the last year is the importance of messaging, and how what he says when he has the team gathered needs to resonate not just with players, but throughout the whole organization. “What I learned,” he says, “is you know what’s at stake, and you definitely know it after a big game.”
Which is to say he knew how he addressed the Chargers after the heartbreaker in Vegas really would matter going forward. He had to choose his words carefully. He looked at how Mike Williams came back in the game with a shoulder injury, how Michael Schofield played all of overtime with a torn bicep, how Derwin James played the game of his life, and how Joey Bosa came up with a crucial strip-sack.
It was clear what had to be said.
“I just went back to what my father and my mom would tell me when I was a little kid, that I was really proud of the way we competed in that game,” Staley said. “I don’t regret the way we competed in that game because we told the NFL something. We were down 29–14 with five minutes left, and I told them I was looking for somebody on the sideline to tell me that it was over, and I couldn’t find that somebody. We believed that we would come back; we knew what we had to do to come back.
“And even when it was, I mean, desperate fourth downs, everyone believed in Justin [Herbert], everyone believed that our defense would get a stop, everyone believed that in overtime we were gonna get it done. Our guys were playing their hearts out.”
What’s really interesting is how the Chargers’ offseason has in so many ways reflected how Staley felt about that game and how his team played it.
On one hand, he felt like the culture he and GM Tom Telesco endeavored to build 12 months prior to that loss shone through that night—and there was a lot intangibly to build on from the season the Chargers had just gone through. On the other hand, they had to be better and more complete, in Staley’s mind, to win games such as that one that they happened to lose.
So the past five months have been spent by the Chargers threading that needle—looking for players good enough to give Staley and his coaches what they need from a talent and skill standpoint while also protecting the ethos that was built up through a rollercoaster year.
That’s why, when you look at who’s come in, and specifically the guys we mentioned from those clips, you have players with pedigrees, coming from winning programs or having been leaders for elite units with traditions of excellence.
“Yes, that  team, I love them. I’m gonna be indebted to that group of guys for believing in me, believing in us, playing that way,” Staley said. “But there were a lot of elements missing from that team that prevented us from going further. And I think when Tom and I got together, we were gonna have to phase this properly.
“What we’ve done now is join up with guys that truly embody everything I’m about, that we’re about as a football team, that make us a complete team, and that was my goal.”’
But they weren’t building from zero.
Herbert isn’t the only incumbent the Chargers are excited about going into ’22. James has spent the offseason getting healthier while participating where he can. Bosa showed up earlier, and for more of the offseason program, than he has before. And position groups that were learning about each other last year, such as the offensive line, have taken another step in coalescing.
But this is the NFL, and Herbert’s the quarterback, and the last we saw of him on a field with all those fourth-down conversations once again illustrated his seemingly limitless potential and what it could mean. for the Chargers for the next decade.
As for the stuff the rest of us can’t see, Staley says it’s even better.
“I’ll start with the intangible, where he fits in with his teammates and his place within our organization—the belief our players and the people of our organization have in him is as good as I’ve ever seen in any sport,” the coach said. “Our belief in him comes through who he is on a daily basis, and seeing him comfortable now. As a young player, it’s so difficult to find your voice, because you’re just trying to do your job well, you’re just trying to make it, you’re just trying to prove yourself. For him now, it’s being able to connect with our team.
“And I see him around his teammates, and those connections he’s made going on his third season—just with new players, brand new players to our team, and being comfortable doing that—and the connections he makes with people around our team who aren’t players. I see him making tremendous progress that way, leading our team. I thought he led fantastically last year, but I see a better Justin that way. “
And that’s carried over onto the field, too.
A few weeks ago, after the Chargers’ first OTA practice, the coaches showed back-to-back clips of Herbert, with the 24-year-old running the same play on two different occasions. The first was after the initial OTA practice of 2021, the first time Herbert was taking play calls from coordinator Joe Lombardi in an 11-on-11 situation. The second was from the practice that had just ended. The difference, to those in the room, was stark.
On the first one, it was evident through body language that Herbert was thinking his way through the call, and just worried about spitting out the verbiage correctly. He wound up missing a receiver on the play. The second clip, conversely, showed the quarterback loose and natural, and making the concept work by smoothly completing his throw to the same receiver in the route.
“It was tempo in and out of the huddle, the fun that he’s having out on the field,” Staley said. “He hits a big pass, and the fun that he’s having with the receivers, him as the quarterback talking a little trash to the defense, and the defense talking a little trash to him because they know him, because he makes a big play, there’s that fun that comes with football. You can’t have fun when you’re just worried about the next play call and spitting it out properly, getting your right reads and your footwork. Now he can really express himself fully.”
Which is happening in large part because, as Staley points out, Herbert will be using the same language over consecutive years for the first time since high school.
The hope is the continuity will unlock a level in Herbert he hasn’t been able to get to yet—where the previous year’s work gives him something to build on the following year.
“I see a more confident player that way, which is dangerous, because we know how good he is,” Staley said. “To me, what makes him so dangerous is how hard he works. He knows where he needs to go with his game. He’s very, very, very, very critical of his performance. And that’s what people love about him here. He doesn’t ever think it’s good enough. I’ve given him game balls where he’s said, Man, you shouldn’t have given me one.”
That, by the way, happened after the team’s season-opening win in Washington.
“I’d say, Yes, I should have, we’re not taking that for granted ever around here,” he continued.
“There’s balls that, Joe’s watched Drew Brees for 15 years, and he’s been around the game a long time, and seen all the greats, and Justin will be like, Nah, I didn’t throw that very well. And we’re sitting there like, Really? You’re kidding right?”
And among the reasons to think a breakthrough could be coming for the Chargers in 2022? That wouldn’t be a small one.
So if players such as Bosa and James and Herbert are improving, and the roster has got better, too, then what else needs to come along with all of that?
This is where Staley looked in the mirror.
Last year was wild for him and his staff. The coach points to two stretches of games that, he’ll admit now, nothing could’ve prepared him. The first was a three-game win streak—which included a win in Kansas City where the Chargers weathered the storm of a Patrick Mahomes comeback—a win delayed by an actual storm (despite SoFi Stadium having a roof), then the shootout win over Cleveland. The second was less pleasant.
That four-game run was capped by the Vegas loss, and included a loss in Houston before which three players (including Mike Williams) were pulled off the bus to the airport the day before with positive COVID-19 tests, and two more tested positive an hour and a half before kickoff; and a Thursday night overtime defeat to the Chiefs during which tight end Donald Parham suffered a scary concussion (Staley saw him seizing afterward).
“Those two stretches I think defined the highest of the high and the lowest of the low,” Staley said. “And I think we did a good job of staying in the middle of it. But I don’t think anything can prepare just how dramatic both things were in both ways.”
And that, he says, is really where he learned to be a head coach, and where he learned how important the aforementioned messaging he gave the team, and the organization, would be.
Months later, he’s been able to focus on it more than he ever could last year, and that’s because he doesn’t have to try to do 10 things at once. He trusts Lombardi, Renaldo Hill (defensive coordinator) and Ryan Ficken (special teams) to do their jobs. He and Telesco are synced up, so there’s less maintenance needed on the personnel side, and that’s spilled over, too, into areas such as sports performance and even public relations.
“I feel like last year I wanted to see everything every day at just this super high level, super detailed, all the time, because you’re doing everything for the first time,” Staley said. “Our organization is in a much better rhythm, where they have a lot more of the expectations and the standard of what it should be like every day, you kind of feel like all that work that you put into it, now it’s starting to work for you a little. It’s that whole thing, once you start pushing that big boulder, you don’t have to push harder, you just have to keep pushing. …
“My rhythm with Renaldo Hill, it’s such a different rhythm. We were together in Denver, and he’s my right-hand man. But now, we know that perfect delegation, those perfect roles and responsibilities within our staff, where he can be his best self for our defense and for me, where we don’t have to talk about it as much anymore. We can go operate together. Same thing with Joe, when we’re scripting the week.”
And, Staley continues, because people know what to expect, and what’s expected of them, they can focus on being the best they can be at their jobs.
“I sense that freedom that comes with continuity,” he said. “That’s a really good feeling.”
Which is why now, as we talked while Staley was on vacation in Hawaii, there was an ease in his voice about what might be coming.
That, to be clear, didn’t seem to be cockiness. Staley knows that just as easily as the Chargers could’ve made the playoffs and maybe done some damage there—they barely lost to a Raiders team that barely lost to the Bengals in the playoffs, and the Bengals barely lost to the Rams in the Super Bowl—the wild events of 2022 could’ve swung worse than they did, too. “We could’ve been a six- or a seven-win team,” Staley said. “We were in the middle.”
Therein lies perhaps the second silver lining, to all the fight the Chargers showed all the way to that gut-wrenching loss at the end of Week 18. Had the Chargers made it to the playoffs, the way they’d be looked at and talked about now would be much different. As it is, no one in the organization is in much position to think too highly of themselves.
Which is where, even as he saw a more complete team out there in the spring, capable of hitting the benchmarks he and his staff have looked to instill (toughness, physicality and discipline), actually having to go back and watch that game has kept him grounded.
“Since that last game, we’ve done a lot to prove that we’re going to be a different football team,” he said. “I think that’s what got me past it, just the progress, whether it’s trading for Khalil, free agency, the draft, and being able to go through spring practice with this group and see this team on the field together, that’s starting to get you past it. But make no mistake, I’m definitely not over it.”
Staley then added, “Believe me, I watched it, because I need to improve, I need to make sure of that with all the games. I’ve gone back and watched it more times than I can count.”
And he’s watching it with a purpose—and a hope that what he, and his team takes from it, will help make their next step a big one.
NFL’S DUE DILIGENCE ON DIVERSITY
This week at the NFL’s West Coast headquarters by SoFi Stadium, the league, in conjunction with the Black College Football Hall of Fame, will host the second annual Ozzie Newsome General Manager Forum and the fifth annual Quarterback Coaching Summit.
The past couple years, because of the pandemic, these events were held virtually. This year, it’ll be a hybrid—with attendees having the option to join into the festivities remotely or in person in Inglewood, Calif. And this one, for the first time, will come on the heels of another event aimed at diversifying the league’s GM and head coaching ranks, with the NFL’s Coach and Front Office Accelerator having taken place less than a month ago in Atlanta.
But the events themselves, to be sure, have different goals, with the GM forum set for Tuesday and early Wednesday, and the QB coaching summit to follow later on Wednesday and into Thursday.
“They’re different models,” NFL EVP of football operations Troy Vincent said Friday. “[The Accelerator] is focused on the people who are right there, because you have ones that’ve done it. And then [the QB coaching summit] is a sharing of, Where’s the game going? How are you teaching this position? What are we learning? How are defenses starting to defend what you want to call this new evolution of the game? So it’s completely different. … This one is how you keep your job. You don’t get a job interview if you don’t do this right.”
The list of invitees, and presenters, reflect the focus of the events.
Among the presenters on the coaching side will be Kansas City’s Eric Bieniemy, Indy’s Marcus Brady and Scottie Montgomery, the Rams’ Thomas Brown, Philadelphia’s Brian Johnson, Arizona’s Vance Joseph, Atlanta’s Charles London and San Francisco’s DeMeco Ryans. On the front office side, Buffalo’s Malik Boyd, Chicago’s Ian Cunningham, the Giants’ Brandon Brown, Tampa’s Jackie Davidson, Minnesota’s Demetrius Washington and Carolina’s Samir Suleiman will present. None of those people are GMs or head coaches.
And in a few cases (Bieniemy, Brady, Brown, London, Joseph, Johnson, Cunningham, Brown, Suleiman), these presenters were actually attendees at the accelerator.
“This is your pipeline,” Vincent said. “What we did, we made some amendments to a couple different policies, where you’re now requiring, as part of the Rooney Rule, that you gotta interview a QB coach that’s of color, a woman or of color. So that person … Where are you coming from? Where did they gain experience, who are they?”
As such, there are a number of young NFL assistants on the list of attendees, with Steelers assistant quarterbacks coach David Corley and receivers coach Frisman Jackson, Vikings assistant quarterbacks coach Jerrod Johnson, Texans quarterbacks coach Ted White and Jags quality control coach Henry Burris among them.
But there are also a bunch of college names such as Malcolm Agnew (Sacramento State), Marquel Blackwell (Ole Miss), Zohn Burden (Duke), Ken Merchant (Long Island University), and Johnathan Williams (Prairie View A&M), with hopes that a few will be plucked to keep the pipeline that Vincent is referencing rich with prospects as the aforementioned NFL attendees work their way up.
And, really, in putting all this together, the league is trying to create a full-scale farm system for teams (since so many other efforts to change the game have failed), and working with the Black College Football Hall of Fame, and guys such as ex-NFL GM James “Shack” Harris, former star quarterback Doug Williams, ex-NFL exec Jimmy Raye and ex-NFL head coach Jim Caldwell to do it.
Will it work? We’ll see over the next few Januarys. But clearly the effort is there with incremental gains (especially on the front office side) starting to come.
I’m really interested to see where 2022 takes Zach Wilson. Nationally, there hasn’t been much talk about where the Jets quarterback is headed after a tumultuous rookie year. But having asked about Wilson, if I were a fan, I’d feel pretty good about the spot he’s in, mostly because of how far he’s come after, in midseason of last year, incurring what might best be described as a case of the yips. It’s why the team brought in his personal throwing coach, John Beck. The fact was Wilson had too much going through his head, and that was apparent almost right away. Coming out of Week 1, I’m told, he actually had a conversation with Aaron Rodgers that illustrated it. That Friday night of Week 2, he and Rodgers were catching up over the phone, and Rodgers asked what he was doing. Wilson responded that he was at the facility looking at tape. Rodgers’s response? Roughly, Dude, what are you doing? Wilson’s work was admirable of course, but trying to do too much too fast wound up becoming a problem. And so coming out of last year, the Jets offensive staff worked to make things easier on him. Here’s how it happened …
• Right after the season, coordinator Mike LaFleur and QBs coach Rob Calabrese went through the scheme and play calling from 2021, and found too much volume, and a bunch of plays that statistically weren’t producing. So they resolved to clean up the offense.
• The system that they’d run, mostly under Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, really had not been operated by a player that young before (unless you count Robert Griffin III, who was running something very different, a hybrid of his college offense, in 2012). Which told the staff that making it work for Wilson meant “cleaning up the offense” had to equate reducing volume.
• And part of that would mean really showing Wilson how simple the system could be, and how, if there were 60 concepts, really, those concepts probably fit into six buckets, with 10 calls in each being very similar to the next (with variations in formations, personnel grouping, etc. to throw the defense off).
• From there, the coaches made it so, if in a single practice, Wilson ran, say, 12 plays, the 12 included two from each of the six buckets, to reinforce that he’s really running a total of six plays, with the next practice including two different plays from each of the six buckets.
So far? So good. On the second day of OTAs, Wilson had a good practice, then a shaky walkthrough, which made the staff a little nervous. Turns out, he was sick, and had to miss the team’s third OTA as a result. He came back for the fourth OTA, and by the fifth session, he was ascending again, and kept taking steps forward from there through the team’s minicamp. It’s also worth mentioning that backup Joe Flacco has helped him, telling him to be more focused on what he’s doing, and less on the defense, to further simplify the process. The Shanahan system, the coaches have emphasized to Wilson, has answers for him that don’t require him to worry as much about the other team, and Flacco has reminded him that very few quarterbacks (e.g. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady) have full command of everything happening out there. And none of those quarterbacks, Flacco’s advice goes, had it in their second year. Which, really, cuts to the heart of all of this for the Jets—all they’re trying to do now is have him be the best 22-year-old quarterback he can be. “Last year, he worked his ass off,” one staffer said. “But he tried to learn so much so fast, and that’s probably where we failed him.”
And, regardless of where this takes Wilson in 2022, that won’t happen again.
The Bengals’ approach to the offseason has been different. Zac Taylor took the unusual measure earlier in the spring to start his team’s offseason program on May 2, two weeks after Cincinnati was first allowed to have its players back to work. And on the back end of the program, he canceled the team’s mandatory minicamp. All of this sounds a little antithetical to how NFL clubs operate. But there was real logic to the first element of it: We told you a while ago, Taylor’s idea was to give his players more time after they’d finished the longest season in NFL history—21 games running into mid-February—just as there was the second element. As the coaches looked at the layout of their offseason, the plan was to have six practices. They could’ve split it up, and had three OTA practices and three minicamp practices. Instead, Taylor made the call to just have six OTA practices, which meant sacrificing three longer work days (players can be in the building for 10 hours on minicamp days) to be consistent with their work throughout the program and, again, get their players’ minds and bodies fresh ahead of training camp. And while I don’t think it was done with the, to steal Mike Tomlin’s line, “We want volunteers, not hostages” psychology, my feeling is getting players there by choice is meaningful, too. They did, by the way, go by choice—85 of 87 players on the roster, with franchise-tagged safety Jessie Bates and veteran pass rusher Trey Hendrickson the exceptions, took part in most if not all of the program. So, sure, the Bengals put in a little less time than others. But it sure sounds like the work they got in was high quality, and we’ll see where all this goes in about a month.
I love how the Bears’ new regime is completely embracing the team’s history. It was very evident on Thursday, too, in how the team honored the memory of the late, great Brian Piccolo on the 52nd anniversary of his passing, with every player on the roster wearing his No. 41 out to practice. The idea actually was owner George McCaskey’s idea—the Bears wanted to do it on the 50th anniversary, but COVID delayed the gesture a couple years. But new coach Matt Eberflus and GM Ryan Pace took the idea and ran with it. Eberflus took the end of his last team meeting of the spring to tell the story of Piccolo and Gayle Sayers, and what a great example they were of teammates, how Piccolo’s circumstance became an inspiration for the 1969 Bears, also how his death led to his family becoming passionate about raising money for cancer research. The Bears also had Piccolo’s widow, Joy, and three daughters out for the Thursday practice, bringing them up to a suite overlooking the practice field, before pulling back the blinds in the room to reveal some 90 players wearing Brian’s number. And all of this is just part of the effort Eberflus and Poles have undertaken to fold the team’s illustrious history in with the current group. The coach spent time reaching out to more than 30 alumni after being hired to try to involve them, and that work is already bringing results. Legends of the ’85 Bears, Richard Dent and Gary Fencik, spoke with the team in the spring, 2000s icon Peanut Tillman addressed the rookies at their first meeting in the facility, and the idea here is that all of it will have more than just sentimental value. “Those guys, they laid the foundation for how to play, how the Bears should play,” Eberflus told me Friday. “And we’re embracing that.” And they’re doing it, as Thursday showed, in some really cool ways.
The Hunter Renfrow contract is a good example of how hitting on late draft picks can really pay off. Vegas’s deal with its sultan of the slot was billed as a two-year, $32 million deal, and rightfully so. Over the next three years, including the final year of his rookie deal and presuming Renfrow (2019 fifth-round pick) keeps playing at the level he has, he’ll get $32 million, or close to that, he didn’t previously have coming to him. But from the perspective of Vegas’ new leaders? Here’s what the deal looks like …
• Renfrow gets a $9.18 million signing bonus (spread out over five years for cap purposes, with two void years on the deal), $1 million base, and $629,000 in per-game roster bonuses this year, adding to $10.809 million for 2022.
• Next March, the Raiders have a $4.32 million roster bonus for Renfrow due in March. The same day, the third day of the league year, his $6.5 million base for 2023 becomes fully guaranteed. Add in a $100,000 workout bonus, and $629,000 in the per-game roster bonuses, and Renfrow’s 2023 cash adds to $11.549 million.
• In 2024, he has an $11.153 million base, along with the same workout and per-game roster bonuses, getting him to $11.882 million in cash. That puts Renfrow, should he see the deal through, at a base value of $34.24 million, and a per-year value of $11.41 million.
• Then there are $100,000 Pro Bowl bonuses each year, which puts the max value at $34.54 million, an even $32 million over the $2.54 million he was due to make this year, the final year of his rookie deal.
So add this up, and you can see where the Raiders were able to take a cheap number for 2022, a result of hitting on the pick and being able to fold a guy’s rookie deal into his second contract, and turn it into a manageable longer-term deal. Also, because of where Renfrow was drafted, and because he hasn’t made a ton of money yet, he’d have had a tougher time drawing a hard line and playing out his rookie deal—it’d be much easier for a first-round pick to walk away from what the Raiders were offering here. That, to me, is one reason why, after the breakneck offseason we’ve had, building up the guts of your team through the draft is still the best way to do it (and by the way, the Rams have homegrown vet bargains like this, in guys such as Tyler Higbee and Rob Havenstein on their roster, too).
While we’re there, I found it interesting, in the basketball world, to see well-regarded Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson walk away from the Hornets job. The ex-Nets coach (he was fired in 2020 amid the Kyrie Irving–Kevin Durant circus) had really reestablished himself the past couple years working under Steve Kerr, and became, amid Golden State’s revival this year, a hot commodity on the coaching market. That led to him accepting the Charlotte job during the Finals. Then, Kerr, Atkinson and the Warriors won the NBA title on Thursday night, and Atkinson had more time to reflect on his decision, before deciding to remain where he’s at with a team that should continue to contend for championships, working for a coach that’s among the most respected in the history of the sport. Sound familiar? To me, it mirrors what Josh McDaniels did in ’18 in so many ways. And, honestly, seeing what’s happened with McDaniels, and how he’s got things set up in Vegas four years later, it makes me happy for Atkinson, in that he felt at liberty to make the right decision for himself. He’ll get booed when the Warriors go to Charlotte next year, of course. But if the situation’s not right, it’s not right. Better for everyone to realize it sooner than later (Indy, in the McDaniels’s situation, wound up finding a really strong fit for their job, in Frank Reich, so everyone actually did win). And good for Atkinson for realizing it before it was too late.
How the NFLPA could defend Deshaun Watson if there’s league-imposed punishment. We saw the NFLPA’s logic in the defense of Watson (comparing his case to the ones of prominent owners), via Pro Football Talk; and then we saw the NFL wanting to get its desire for a heavy punishment of Watson out there, via the Washington Post. Where does that leave us? As we’ve said for a few weeks, the deadline for pretrial discovery is on June 30, and I think getting past that deadline will, to a degree, free up former U.S. District Court judge Sue Robinson to make her ruling sometime between July 1 (that’s the Friday before the Fourth, which is basically the day for news dumps) and the start of training camp. The union, of course, understands the optics here in taking on its duty and defending Watson. The league is aware of how what could be perceived as a light punishment will reflect on Park Avenue (remember, that was one reason why the Ray Rice case became as big as it did). And so the next few weeks should be interesting. Robinson, for her part, has taken her time on this, and the last 10 days or so show why—because making a decision before you have to, in a case like this, isn’t advisable, given how these cases can change and evolve over time.
I think I’ll keep an eye on Ejiro Evero in Denver. Yes, to a degree, his landing in Denver is a result of relationships, or one in particular—he’s a college teammate and very, very close with new Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett. That said, the 41-year-old’s ascent is something I’ve anticipated for a while. Evero, who isn’t much of a self-promoter (one reason why you probably haven’t heard as much on him), was pointed out to me a few years ago by Rams people as a young coach to watch. Last year’s promotion from safeties coach to secondary coach and pass-game coordinator, when Sean McVay imported Raheem Morris to Los Angeles to be defensive coordinator, shows what people there thought of him, and his work developing a parade of non-first-round safeties (John Johnson, Jordan Fuller, Taylor Rapp, Nick Scott). And now what I’m hearing out of Denver is how a number of young defensive guys—DE Bradley Chubb, LB Jonas Griffith and CB O.J. Ojemudia—whom Evero inherited—have really flashed in the spring with how Evero’s deploying them. Chubb’s fully healthy for an offseason for the first time in a while. Ojemudia is too, and has taken advantage of the chance to get first-team reps as Ronald Darby rehabs. And Griffith is showing potential to be more than just a special teams player. All of which shows how Evero’s fitting his system to highlight guys he didn’t pick out on his own, and all of which show why Evero’s tracking toward running his own team in the next few years.
I think the Seahawks quarterback position continues to bear watching. Here’s how Pete Carroll broke things down for the Seattle media at the end of the offseason program: “Geno [Smith] is still ahead—you can tell that—but it’s not going to be too much for Drew [Lock] to be caught up. By the time we get through camp, he’ll be there. He’s really bright. It makes sense to him. He’s really sharp in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage and all of that, so it’s just time that he needs. … We’re in good shape at the position and we just have to see what happens.” And from there, let’s point out a couple things …
• Carroll is the coach who started giving Russell Wilson first-team reps after a rookie minicamp. He’s never been afraid to throw the doors open for a newcomer to steal a job.
• Smith is now 31 years old, has 34 NFL starts under his belt, and has been in Seattle for four years now. It’s fair to assume they know what, and who, he is as a player.
• Lock has background in OC Shane Waldron’s system (he played in one like it as a rookie), is in his fourth year, and now has nine weeks in-house under his belt.
• Lock was a key part of the Russell Wilson trade. GM John Schneider really liked Lock coming out in 2019, and his rookie tape showed him to be a fit for the Seattle offense.
Put that together now, and it seems like if Lock was a revelation, then we’d know it by now. And I’d be surprised if Smith is much more than what we’ve already seen. So if I’m Carolina or San Francisco, looking to off-load a veteran QB, I’d stay on top of this one.
I love how Mark Ingram articulated the transition from Sean Payton to Dennis Allen in New Orleans, with players now having a full offseason to have given it a look. “D.A. is different from Sean,” he said. “But D.A. has done a great job of just trying to keep it as normal as possible and adding his own kind of flavor to it. I think the defense is more used to it, because they spent so much time with him in defensive meetings. We only saw him sometimes when he had to fill in. But I like him a lot. I think he’s doing a great job with the team, he’s doing a great job in the team meetings, he’s doing a great job with us out there telling us, Let’s get our work done, let’s be efficient, let’s be effective, let’s improve, let’s work, let’s have a sense of urgency. He’s going to take care of us and get us off the field. I think he’s done a great job. Just having the same DNA, the same culture of the team, I think that’s going to be good for everyone in the locker room.”
Here’s the thing: As much as some have looked at the Saints as being in need of a rebuild post-Drew Brees, that’s really not where they’re at from a roster standpoint. New Orleans is still very much a win-now team with a loaded core of players in their primes, or back ends, of their careers. So it always made sense to not flip the apple cart upside down after Payton retired. And Allen’s not only equipped for what’s in front of him now, for all the reasons Ingram raised, he’s also an illustration of how the Saints have kept an eye on sustaining their program past the guys who built the Super Bowl champion 13 years ago. More proof of it? Whenever Mickey Loomis wants to pull back from his responsibilities as GM, or retire, the Saints have Jeff Ireland warming up to take over for him. And if you’re asking whether or not Ireland and Allen would match up, consider this—Allen would’ve been Ireland’s pick as coach, had Ireland landed the Chicago GM job last winter. Which gives the Saints stability in key decision-making spots, ahead of whenever an actual rebuild is necessary in New Orleans.
Want our quick-hitter takeaways from the last week of the offseason program? I thought you’d never ask …
• Carolina now has a better picture of where it is at quarterback after nine weeks of the offseason, and the Panthers do like the edge and fight they saw from nice-guy veteran Sam Darnold. That doesn’t mean he wins the job, but there are things new OC Ben McAdoo liked in Darnold to begin with, so the Panthers at least feel like they have something to work with.
• As we said in the mailbag earlier in the week, if the Panthers do bring in Baker Mayfield, it’d be because it’s a really good deal for them (which means the money has to be attractive too). What Carolina likes about the idea of Mayfield—he could at least provide them with average play at the position, which you could easily argue would raise the floor for them.
• Trey Lance has, for what it’s worth, shown steady improvement in the spring in San Francisco. And it’ll be interesting to see what Shanahan throws at him in camp. The summer of 2019 is a good reference point in that regard. During that year’s training camp, the coaches resolved to throw a lot at Jimmy Garoppolo on the practice field, as he came back from an ACL tear. Garoppolo really struggled with it. The Niners wound up in the Super Bowl five months later.
¨• Speaking of Garoppolo, we’re right around when he should be throwing again.
• Khari Willis’ retirement from the Colts isn’t great news for Indy, but it is good to see a guy leave the game on his own terms, even if it stinks to have one less good player in the league.
• Jeffery Simmons showed plenty of trust in the Titans in not taking on his contract this spring. And based on how the guy has played, my guess is Tennessee will eventually reward that trust in a very big way.
• Mecole Hardman had a lot of growing up to do coming into the NFL, and even through his first couple years. To that end, the Chiefs have seen a more mature version of their fourth-year receiver this spring, which makes sense, given all that’s on the line for him personally (he’s in a contract year) and the opportunity that’s in front of him (with Tyreek Hill gone).
• I took note of what Falcons coach Arthur Smith said this week on Desmond Ridder being “light years ahead” of where most rookie quarterbacks are mentally. And I know he was being forthright there—Ridder has been really good in the classroom. That should give him a shot to compete for playing time this summer. But my understanding is Ridder still has a ways to go physically as he tries to catch up to Marcus Mariota on the depth chart.
• Tom Brady is dancing around retirement publicly way more than I’ve seen before. And I’m not sure what to make of it.
• For those who missed the point I made on Minkah Fitzpatrick in Friday’s GamePlan, here’s the truncated version: The top pick the Steelers gave up for him in 2019 wound up becoming Dolphins OT Austin Jackson. So when people talk about the market inefficiency the Rams capitalized on, with first-round picks being overvalued … there it is for you. Fitzpatrick’s now the NFL’s highest paid safety. Jackson is fighting for a starting job.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
- Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there. I spent six hours of mine at my 7-year-old’s soccer tournament. It cost me the chance to go to, or even watch much of, the U.S. Open’s final round. And I couldn’t have been happier to do it. I remember people telling me, before I had kids, there’s nothing more fun than watching your kids compete. They were right.
- Happy Father’s Day to my dad, who gave me my love of football, in teaching me how to play and watch the game when I was a kid. And thanks to my old man, too, for always believing I was capable of more, and being first to bring up the idea that I could report on football for a living (I had bad grades in high school, and he thought I needed more extracurriculars).
- It’s very strange that there’ll be a World Cup in the U.S., and somehow Washington and Chicago aren’t getting games. Both are among our best cities, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be showcasing them on that stage four years from now.
- The Avs are a blast to watch.
- I … can’t really argue with Marcus Freeman saying you don’t always have to show up to class at Ohio State.
- I really respect the way the Manning family is handling young Arch Manning’s recruitment, and love Cooper Manning’s commitment to making sure his son gets to live life as a high school kid (as much as is possible for the nation’s top prep quarterback) while he still is one. I’d bet Arch will be grateful for it down the line.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Crushing to hear this. Moon was the nicest guy, and always had something good to say about your work when you visited Chicago. He’ll be missed.
The looks on the faces of Ryan Clark and Channing Crowder as Garrett Wilson says, “That’s gonna be cool,” are priceless.
This qualifies as an NFL tweet because Jay Feely tweeted it, which is a good enough excuse for me to post it here. Need more athletes to talk like Klay does here. Love it.
Well put. Steph is in the exclusive club of athletes that changed his sport.
Great seeing the interaction between Mike Tomlin and Ed Reed here.
Take Josh Allen’s MVP odds up another notch.
Great visual of the Piccolo tribute.
So this is like when the Eastern Conference champions in the NHL won’t touch the Prince of Wales trophy?
This is classic, and Taylor Lewan’s story 100% checks out.
They sure did. (When was the last time those Pizza! Pizza! ads ran? Are they still running somewhere? I feel like the last time I saw one was in the ’90s.)
Because I love fight videos.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
One more MMQB column, and I’m out for the summer. But we’re working on a fun list of guest columnists for July 4, 11 and 18, and I’m excited to roll those out.
Happy Monday, everyone, and we’ll see you in a few with the MAQB.
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The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.