/How the Chiefs’ Defense Turned the Tide in Super Bowl LIV in Three Plays – Sports Illustrated

How the Chiefs’ Defense Turned the Tide in Super Bowl LIV in Three Plays – Sports Illustrated

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IPS/Shutterstock(Suggs),Jason Pohuski/CSM/Shutterstock(Weddle), Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports(Newton)

It was Thursday morning, and just about all of the Chiefs’ defensive work ahead of Super Bowl LIV was done. But for one reason or another, defensive line coach Brendan Daly—the former Patriots assistant set to coach on the biggest stage for the fourth time in six years—still felt the need to reinforce the emphasis he and the staff had given his guys.

So on the 11th day of game prep, Daly held the defensive linemen in the meeting room a while longer than the team schedule prescribed, and spent a solid 15 minutes showing the guys 49ers screen pass after 49ers screen pass. His obsession was going to get driven home.

“He made us watch all the screens,” said 17-year vet Terrell Suggs on Sunday afternoon, a week after the Chiefs’ 31–20 Super Bowl win. “He just knew it.”

Suggs wound up being he beneficiary of that particular point of emphasis. We’ll get to that one.

But if you really want to know where a defense that would’ve struggled to make a stop in the Big 12 in 2018 became one that made handful of big ones in the Super Bowl, you can start with the overarching idea in that meeting room. It’s in there that you’d find how defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and a bunch of imported players and position coaches pulled it off.

Spagnuolo calls it My Job Plus. The idea? You take care of your job first. Then, you can do a little extra.

“I know Bill [Belichick’s] big thing is do your job and all that,” Spagnuolo said late last week. “We believe in doing our job. And then if you can do a little bit more, that’s the plus part of it. And throughout the [Super Bowl], guys did that.”

Patrick Mahomes will, rightfully, forever be the hero of Super Bowl LIV. His performance in the game’s final seven minutes would’ve been impressive no matter what led up to it. But given how he’d played over the first 53, the stakes and his age, what the 24-year-old made happen will be remembered as historic.

That said, without a maligned defense doing My Job Plus last Sunday night, there’s a pretty good chance things would’ve gotten out of hand well before Mahomes ever had the chance to stage his Houdini act of a fourth-quarter show. And that it happened just a year after the KC defense couldn’t buy a stop in the AFC title game, as Mahomes went blow-for-blow with Belichick’s defense, makes it even more remarkable.

***

The offseason is here! And we’re going nowhere. There’s a lot to get to this week, even with the season over and the combine still two weeks away. Among those things, we’ll discuss …

• Eric Weddle’s retirement, and the impact he made.

• Potential cap casualties across the NFL.

• Some college coaches who were pursued by NFL teams.

• The trouble with XFL’s structure.

• The London Jaguars?

• A key time in the CBA negotiations.

But we’re starting with one last look back at the Chiefs, their championship and the less-discussed reason why the Lombardi Trophy is back in KC after a half-century.

***

A few days after the Chiefs’ win, Kansas City’s offensive line coach, Andy Heck, happened by Spagnuolo’s office. He’d just buzzed through the defensive tape and was about to deliver the highest compliment he could give Spagnuolo.

“Steve,” Heck said, “those guys were flying around.”

That was more than a confirmation of the effort Spagnuolo saw on Super Bowl Sunday. It was one more nugget of affirmation that all the work he and his coaches had done over 12 months had achieved its purpose.

“That was a huge compliment, because when I’m watching the tape, I’m dissecting everybody’s job—what they did, what they didn’t do, where were the mistakes—because I’ve still got the coach in me and I’m going to use it for next year,” he said. “But to hear him say that, I was very proud of that. Now, you would expect that in the Super Bowl, that everybody would fly around. But Andy’s point was, guys made so many plays just on effort.

“And I think that’s a true statement. And even in a big game like the Super Bowl, on defense, it still comes back to relentless effort. And there’s a lot of examples of that from our guys that made it possible for us to limit [the Niners] to 20. And I’m glad they did.”

In other words, the game, against an intricate Niners offense helmed by one of the sport’s best play-callers, became the definition of My Job Plus.

I asked Spagnuolo to pick three plays from the game that best encapsulated the win on defense, and he produced three that fell right along those lines. The first one, you could argue, may have ended with extra effort on the play, but it started with that extra 30 minutes on Thursday.

Play 1

Line of scrimmage: Chiefs’ 25.

Down-and-distance: 1st-and-10.

Time: 9:38 left in the first quarter.

Score: 49ers 0, Chiefs 0.

Had it gone as it was drawn up, this play should’ve been the game’s first touchdown. Spagnuolo called a zero blitz—sending the house and leaving his back-end guys on islands. Kyle Shanahan called a middle screen and, at first, the middle of field looked like the seas parting, with Raheem Mostert eyeing a clear path to end zone. (He may have had to beat safety Dan Sorensen, but there was no one else in front of Mostert with a shot at him.)

But at the snap, Suggs remembered what Daly told him and then noticed how left tackle Joe Staley “was inviting me upfield and inside. It was very unusual.” So Suggs backed off a step. Garoppolo dumped the ball to Mostert as he was getting hit and, as he let the ball go, Suggs went into a back pedal. Now, instead of Mostert being behind him, he was right in front of him. And fellow defensive lineman Mike Pennel, who’d struggled to get past his blocker, was right there with Suggs to get Mostert to the ground.

“He did his job by being a contain rusher,” Spagnuolo said, explaining that Suggs’s job initially was to rush, but to do it in a way in which Garoppolo couldn’t get outside of him. “But then he did more than that. He felt the tackle, he just felt the whole O-line, that it wasn’t a true pass play, that it was a screen. He came off, and made a play on the screen.”

Bottom line: If Suggs and Pennel just do their jobs on that play, Mostert probably scores. The plus part wound up saving the Chiefs four points. The Niners ended up kicking a field goal three plays later.

Play 2

Line of scrimmage: Chiefs 27.

Down-and-distance: 3rd-and-5.

Time: 10:28 left in the third quarter.

Score: 49ers 10, Chiefs 10.

San Francisco came out in a trips-right formation, with Tevin Coleman outside and Emmanuel Sanders and George Kittle side-by-side in the slot. And what was coming was something the Chiefs had drilled all week to their guys: In spots like this, the Niners would run what’s called a “China” route, a short in-cut, off a pick. The corners, as such, were told to play tight to the receiver to minimize the chance that they’d get cut off.

At the snap, Bashaud Breeland was way up on Coleman and played him with hard inside leverage. As Coleman cut in, Sanders went to the flag, and shook his shoulders to try to get in Breeland’s way. But Breeland was too close to Coleman for Sanders to do anything about it without running into his teammate. Garoppolo put the ball to right of Coleman, but because Breeland followed his coaching he was right there with him.

Now, the plus? Linebacker Damien Wilson was in the middle of the field to clean the play up, but he had slipped on the turf. So Breeland had to make the tackle himself—and he did, dragging Coleman down two yards short of the sticks when there was room to dive for the first down. That forced another field goal, preventing seven the first possession of the second half.

There was also a secondary focus that was adhered to.

“This team we were dealing with was huge on yards after catch,” Spagnuolo said. “We preached all week long that if they were going to complete them, we had to tackle where the completion was made. And he did that on that play. It was well executed by Breeland.”

So with the first two plays, the Chiefs kept it 20–10 early in the fourth quarter when it probably should’ve been 28–10. And that set up the third play.

Play 3

Line of scrimmage: 49ers’ 34.

Down-and-distance: 3rd-and-14.

Time: 9:47 left in the fourth quarter.

Score: 49ers 20, Chiefs 10.

The magnitude of the situation was intense. On the previous possession, Mahomes was picked off. The deficit was 10. Realistically, the Niners were probably a touchdown, or maybe even a few first downs, away from putting KC away.

So losing on this third-and-long would be a back-breaker.

Before the snap, safety Tyrann Mathieu creeps up to the line and, because he’s a proficient blitzer, the Niners have to treat the threat as real. He and linebacker Ben Niemann crowd over the A-gaps at the snap, then both fall off into coverage. Defensive end Frank Clark is getting around San Fran tackle Joe Staley. But just as he’s closing, Garoppolo sees Mathieu right in front of his target, Kendrick Bourne, notices that Suggs has lost contain on his right, and bails from the pocket.

From there, Clark keeps coming, Suggs recovers, and both, with that second effort, get Garoppolo out of bounds. The Niners have to punt. The Chiefs would score on their next three possessions. San Francisco wouldn’t be able to muster another first down until seven more minutes had come off the game clock. And all because Mathieu did a little extra to get Garoppolo mentally—and because Clark’s effort was enough to make up for Suggs’s false steps.

“The point is, we took away his first read, Frank flushed him out, and then the rest of the guys plastered their coverage. That’s what we do when they scramble,” Spagnuolo said. “And then [Rashad Fenton], our nickel, was there to take him out of bounds.”

***

There were other little things that helped too.

One was a cutup of Niners play-action plays, shot from the end zone with the offense coming at the camera. By watching that, the coaches figured, they’d get a better look at any noticeable tells the defense could use to figure out if the play was ultimately a run or a pass—and they found one. They noticed the San Francisco linemen had “high hats” early on play-action pass plays, meaning their helmets were popping up.

That revelation almost led to a pass breakup on Garoppolo’s first throw of the game, with linebacker Anthony Hitchens quickly identifying the boot off a run action.

Another was the presence of defensive assistant Connor Embree, whose father, Jon, and brother Taylor are offensive coaches for the Niners. Embree, as a result, wound up being a valuable resource during the week.

And another yet was what each individual coach brought to the table. Linebackers coach Matt House, a college coordinator at Kentucky the last five years, stood in front of the group at halftime and gave them an adjustment to defend RPOs the Niners were throwing at them, which related back to his experience in the SEC. The Super Bowl experience of Daly and secondary coaches Dave Merritt and Sam Madison didn’t hurt, either.

After the Cardinals waived him in December, Suggs initially had trepidation about going to Kansas City, and he told head coach Andy Reid as much. Suggs’ personality is big, and he “learned the hard way” in Arizona that he wouldn’t be a fit just anywhere. He didn’t want to go through an experience like that again. Reid assured him, If you’ll fit anywhere, it’s here.

It was sort of a funny thing to say, Suggs thought, given all the turnover they’d had. Eight defensive players played at lest 80 percent of the snaps for the Chiefs in last year’s AFC title game. Five of them were gone. Mathieu was new. Clark was new. Spagnuolo was new, That, to Suggs, seemed like a lot of moving parts. But he trusted Reid, and he showed up at 6 a.m. the next day.

After cramming that morning, he walked to the locker room and bumped into a bunch of the guys playing three-on-three basketball. “It was like I was back on the South Side of Chicago,” Suggs joked. And soon, he saw that feeling was real.

“The group is different, it was the chemistry,” Suggs said. “They hadn’t played with each other, and usually, it takes time to jell, it can take two or three years to become really good. They had a brief amount of time to make it work. And they did it. You bring up the Baltimore defense I played on, those were guys who played their whole careers together. The chemistry was built. It was there.

“Here, we’d only been playing with each other for a short time. For me, it was the last month of the season and into the playoffs.… To reach football immortality that way, it’s special.”

And as the guys there saw it, it was the little extra in an era when everything is won on the margins. It’s Daly keeping the guys a little longer, it’s Breeland following through on his responsibility, then making the tackle, it’s Suggs acting on what he’d been drilled on and applying it to make a play, it’s noticing the high hats, and it’s House’s halftime message.

That’s where, as Spagnuolo saw it, the Chiefs set the table for Mahomes to do his magic, and where they put everything that happened in 2018 behind them, once and for all.

“It’s contagious,” Spagnuolo said. “And where it begins is in practice, because if your leaders are doing it, and both 32 and 55 do it, then the other guys have no other choice but to join the crowd and start running all over the place. And when a guy like Terrell Suggs, 17 years in the league, is practicing like that during the weeks of the playoffs, you can’t help but look at him as another teammate and player, and say, ‘I better pick my stuff up, too.’…

“That showed up. They were gritty right down to the end, they kept fighting. It was like a damn heavyweight bout where you kind of get staggered a little bit, but just keep on swinging and eventually turn the tide and end up knocking the guy out.”

That, over the rest of it, was the real plus in Spagnuolo’s championship equation eight days ago. And the result? Well, the result was that his group wound up being a lot more than along for the ride.

***

ERIC WEDDLE FINDS THE RIGHT TIME TO LEAVE

Eric Weddle isn’t hanging ’em up now because, after 13 seasons, the 35-year-old can’t play anymore. The Rams safety is doing it because it’s always been his goal to never let it get to that point. And last year, he got a little taste of what it might feel like to be there.

In his first game with the team, at Carolina in September, Weddle broke off cartilage in his knee—after going a dozen NFL seasons without a significant lower leg injury. He thought it might get better; it didn’t. By the end of the year, four pieces of cartilage the size of dimes were floating around in his knee. His meniscus, he says, was fine, which kept the problem from being worse. But it was hard to walk, and there was swelling. So he started thinking.

“It was a long season last year,” Weddle said from his home in San Diego last Friday. “To have the mental fortitude to get through every week, and be at my best, it took a lot out of me. There were times after wins, after losses, where I was by myself at my apartment, and it was tough.”

And that had Weddle thinking about his kids—he has a sixth-grader, a fourth-grader, a second-grader and a kindergartner—and his wife, Chanel. He’d moved them back to San Diego after the 2018 season, having made the decision that wherever he went, he’d go on his own so they could get re-established back where he’d spent most of his career. When the Rams came calling, it seemed perfect, about a two-and-a-half hour drive away (without traffic, at least).

But after the injury, all of it started to wear on him. If the Rams played at home on a Sunday afternoon, he’d go home Sunday night and return, via Uber or car service, on Tuesday night. Other weeks, when the Rams played at night or on the road, he’d be in the studio he rented five minutes from facility, with all the time in the world to think about all of his—and his knee adding an element to it he didn’t expect.

“I thought, ‘What’s one more year?’” Weddle said. “I know I can still play, and play at a high level, even with the knee. But thinking about going through a whole season, going through the pain, honestly, it made me sick to my stomach. And I realized if my heart’s not in it, my mind’s not in it, then it’s time to go. I always follow my gut and that’s what I’m feeling right now.”

So in a roundabout way, this is amazing news: Weddle gets to accomplish one of his most important goals, one that few NFL players reach, and leave the game on his own terms.

And he leaves quite a legacy behind. A late-bloomer picked in the second round, Weddle didn’t make his first Pro Bowl or All-Pro team until his fifth NFL season. But from there, came loads of accolades. He retires a six-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro, and he served as a team captain for three different franchises.

That last one is central to his reputation going out, according to those who’ve coached him. Redskins coach Ron Rivera, who was with Weddle during his first four NFL seasons with the Chargers, has stories of his star safety playing mind games with Peyton Manning on Sunday Night Football (and winning them), and apologizing on the field for even the smallest slip-ups. But his most representative story came from the Pro Bowl.

By then, Rivera was Carolina and was coaching the game. During the week, all seven Panthers in the game accompanied Rivera to Salute to Service event, as did Weddle, who was still a Bolt.

“He made such an impression on our guys, they all kept saying to me—We should trade for that guy, or, If he’s a free agent, we should sign him,” Rivera said Saturday. “Every one of them, I mean, Greg Olsen, (Matt) Kalil, (Luke) Kuechly, Thomas Davis, all those guys kept saying, ‘Man, if that guy’s available, Coach, we gotta get that guy.’ That’s how much of an impression he made on our guys. And remember, it was 2013. We’d just won the division.”

A couple years after that, the Ravens saw the same thing those Panthers players did, signed Weddle. After one year with him, John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Wink Martindale agreed to overhaul their system around the veteran safety, Suggs and CJ Mosley. The idea was to put the power to adjust in the players’ hands with concepts they called AFCs (automatic front and coverage) and BTFs (blitz the formation), in an effort to play defense like other teams play offense.

It was different, and daring, and hinged largely on the knowhow of Weddle and the other two. “He knew it like a coach back there,” Martindale says now.

“He came from the AFC West like I did, and I always liked the way he played,” said Martindale. “And I knew through his career he’d been like a point guard back there. But for our defense, he was like Magic Johnson. He set up everyone up for success. There were times in two-minute, hurry-up, where I’d just let him call it. His experience was invaluable to everyone.”

And it was, again, in his final stop. As a guy who’s always looked to make others around him better (“The thing he’d have frustration with was guys who didn’t have the passion he did,” Martindale said), and was always working to bring young guys along, one of his final acts as a pro football player was fitting.

Weddle went over to Sean McVay’s house for the college football championship game on Jan. 13. McVay wanted to use his 35-year-old captain as a sounding board that night, and for hours the two went over ways the Rams could improve their program and McVay and his staff could improve as coaches. Weddle wasn’t 100 percent sure he was done then, but he knew he had something to give, and McVay had the humility to take the help from a player.

Three weeks later that Weddle called McVay to give him the news that he was retiring.

His plan, for now, is to take at least a year off and spend as much time as he can going to his kids’ games and driving them to school and doing all the things he hasn’t been able to. After that, he’ll consider getting into coaching (maybe, but not necessarily at the pro level) or media or team management. Maybe he’ll dive into something, maybe he won’t.

Figuring that part out, he thinks, will come naturally with some time. When we talked, he sounded pretty content and ready for whatever comes next.

“You try to do something as good as you can, and leave an imprint,” Weddle said. “I tell guys, try and stand for what you want your last name to stand for. For me, that was being accountable, a guy everyone could count on, who loved the game, respected the game, and would do anything for those around him.… I’m excited for what’s next, and I feel like I left the game better than I found it. You do that, and you can leave the game proud and happy.”

***

Dalton is 1,244 yards behind Ken Anderson on the Bengals’ all-time passing leaderboard.

Dalton is 1,244 yards behind Ken Anderson on the Bengals’ all-time passing leaderboard.

Bryan Woolston/AP/Shutterstock

THE CHOPPING BLOCK

The next phase of the NFL offseason is one that can get a little ugly: It’s time for teams to look at the bottom line and decide which players aren’t worth the freight anymore.

Some cuts could come as early as this week. More will land during the combine, and some won’t happen until free agency starts. But they’re coming and, to prepare, teams are compiling watch lists of guys that could be on the chopping block. And I went to some of those teams to collect names. So here, then, is our own Watch List.

Bengals QB Andy Dalton (cap savings if cut: $17.7 million): Zac Taylor’s plan is to be upfront and honest with Dalton, and the truth is that the team has to weigh the idea of having the outgoing franchise quarterback as the bridge to the next one. The Giants made it work last year, so the idea of it isn’t exactly unprecedented.

Broncos QB Joe Flacco (cap savings: $12.25 million): The expectation, as of right now, is that Drew Lock will enter the spring as the team’s starter, making Flacco, due $20.25 million in cash in 2020, way too expensive to keep around as a backup.

Panthers QB Cam Newton (cap savings: $17.1 million): Carolina has been steadfast in saying that any decision on Newton will have to wait until there’s a clearer picture of his health. And the Panthers probably won’t have that until he’s recovered from his January surgery—probably sometime in March.

Falcons RB Devonta Freeman (cap savings: $3.5 million): Freeman’s issues since signing his deal in 2017 (he hasn’t posted a 1,000-yard season since and averaged 3.6 yards per carry in 2019) are another cautionary tale on paying backs. Atlanta will have to carry $6 million in dead money. But given their cap situation, every dollar counts.

Titans RB Dion Lewis (cap savings: $4.04 million): The emergence of Derrick Henry marginalized Lewis’ role and made his 2020 cap charge of $5.16 million a non-starter. Lewis turns 30 in September and might have his best chance to latch on with another Patriot-connected coach (Detroit? Giants?).

49ers RB Jerrick McKinnon (cap savings: $4.8 million): Thanks to a 2018 ACL injury and resulting complications, McKinnon still has yet to make his Niners debut, and the team has paid him more than $15 million over those two years. It’s not hard to see the writing on the wall here.

Cardinals RB David Johnson (cap savings: n/a): And I say not available based on the fact that Johnson’s $10.2 million base salary for 2020 has already vested. That makes it pretty unlikely the team would cut him, even though he’s disappointed since signing his deal. If they could trade him? That’s a different story, and I’d guess they would consider that.

Chiefs WR Sammy Watkins (cap savings: $14 million): This feels like a cost-of-doing-business thing for the Chiefs. They overpaid on Watkins because he was a good fit for their young quarterback in 2018, and that young QB was on a rookie deal. Now, Mahomes is about to get paid, they need room—and they have Watkins’ younger, cheaper replacement (Mecole Hardman) on hand.

Dolphins WR Albert Wilson (cap savings: $9.5 million): Wilson had 351 yards and a single touchdown last year, so this is a relatively simple decision. Could Wilson go back to KC and take Watkins’s roster spot?

Jaguars WR Marqise Lee (cap savings: $5.25 million): Lee finished the season with three catches and on IR, and he has been a massive disappointment since signing a four-year, $34 million deal prior to the 2018 season.

Buccaneers TE Cameron Brate (cap savings: $6 million): The Bucs have worked hard to develop OJ Howard, and Bruce Arians’s offense just isn’t that tight end–friendly. That makes paying Brate starters’ money a little difficult, even if he remains a good player.

Bears TE Trey Burton (cap savings: $5.05 million): Chicago has a tight cap situation, and Burton’s coming off a rough year that ended on IR. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bears conduct a complete overhaul at his position.

Packers TE Jimmy Graham (cap savings: $8 million): It’s not like Graham can’t play anymore; his production just no longer matches his financials. As a sidebar: It’d be fun to see him back in New Orleans.

Bengals OL Cordy Glenn (cap savings: $6.3 million): This one’s fairly easy. Glenn doesn’t want to be there. Jonah Williams is coming back. Glenn is gone.

Broncos G Ron Leary (cap savings: $8.5 million): Leary has missed 19 games in three years as a Bronco. That, and his big number, exposes him—though he should be able to find work quickly in a lineman-needy NFL.

Browns DE Olivier Vernon (cap savings: $11.5 million): Sacks aren’t everything, but it’s tough to carry a pass-rusher about to turn 30 at over $15 million coming off a season in which he had just 3.5 of them.

Jaguars DL Marcell Dareus (cap savings: $13.2 million): The former third overall pick finished the season on IR, turns 30 in March, and plays for a team working through cap issues. Dareus can still play. He just probably won’t be doing it for the Jags.

Panthers DL Dontari Poe (cap savings: $10 million): This is pretty straightforward. Barring a pay cut, it’s hard to see Poe back for Matt Rhule’s first year in charge.

Vikings DE Everson Griffen (cap savings: $13.8 million): Griffen’s been a great Viking, but he has endured a tough couple years and is 32 years old. He has gas left in the tank—he had eight sacks last year—but Minnesota’s troublesome cap situation would make it tough to bring him back even with a pay cut.

Giants LB Alec Ogletree (cap savings: $10.4 million): It may be tough for a new coach to walk away from a team captain, but Ogletree is paid like a top-five off-ball linebacker despite not playing like one. OT Nate Solder is another name that came up when I asked around, but my sense is that he’ll make it to 2020 on roster, based on the logistics of his contract, the team’s depth at his position and his background with new coach Joe Judge.

Browns LB Christian Kirksey (cap savings: $7.45 million): Kirksey played in nine games the last two years. So that should be that.

Steelers LB Vince Williams (cap savings: $969K): Yeah, it’s not much savings. But Pittsburgh is not paying $4 million in cash for some they just turned into a part-timer.

Bears LB Leonard Floyd: The Bears thought a breakout season was coming from Floyd in 2019. Instead, he finished with three sacks. I’m sure GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy would like to give the former top-10 pick another year. The trouble, for the cap-strapped Bears, is that his $13.2 million lump-sum option for 2020 would be an easy place to yield a significant amount of financial breathing room.

Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes (cap savings: $8.1 million): Maybe Rhodes can turn it around in his 30s. But he’s been trending downward for a couple years now, and he was the subject of trade discussions last spring. He’s due $10.5 million in 2020. He won’t be making that much in Minnesota, no matter how shaky their corner situation is.

Jets CB Trumaine Johnson (cap savings: $3 million): His contract was perhaps the biggest misstep of the Mike Maccagnan era in New York. How big? Cutting him means taking on $12 million in dead money. And it remains a no-brainer.

Redskins CB Josh Norman (cap savings: $12.5 million): Norman had his best years playing for Rivera, and the two have a good relationship. Whether they can work out a deal for him to stay at a lower number remains to be seen.

Saints CB Janoris Jenkins (cap saving: $11.25 million): With a lot of moving pieces at corner, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Saints make a play to keep Jenkins. But I can’t imagine it will be at $11.25 million. In fact, when New Orleans claimed him in December it was under the premise that it was, at most, a two-month rental, because of his big 2020 number.

Dolphins S Reshad Jones (cap savings: $7.495 million): Injuries limited Jones to four games last year. It’s not the first time he’s been banged up, making his number (nearly $16 million) just too high.

***

ALL-32

The 49ers’ toughest decisions will come on the defensive side. In particular, it’s with two guys they developed and were very patient with: defensive lineman Arik Armstead and safety Jimmie Ward. Both are former first-round picks, there had been questions about whether either would be around in 2019, and both responded with career years for a top-of-the-league defense. Now, each is position to cash in, and the Niners, with limited cap space for 2020, will have a hard time keeping both.

One thing I haven’t heard many people mention: The Bears will have to make their feelings clear on Mitch Trubisky in the spring, one way or the other, with their decision on his fifth-year option coming. Trubisky’s option number for 2021 projects to about $25 million, and it won’t be fully guaranteed until March of next year. But it will be guaranteed for injury, and that puts Chicago in a similar spot to where the Redskins were with Robert Griffin in 2015. Washington would up picking up the option on Griffin, then Griffin got beat out in camp, leaving the team forced to make him a gameday inactive on a weekly basis so as not to risk triggering the injury guarantee.

With a lot of questions swirling around the Bengals and Joe Burrow—and we’ll get to that (again)—it’s worth mentioning that the team is really happy with how left tackle-to-be Jonah Williams spent his first NFL season after a torn labrum kept him off the field for the year. He was in meetings and at practices, and he did everything he was physically able to so he’d be able to hit the ground running in 2020. Cincinnati was smitten with Williams through last year’s pre-draft run-up, when the Bengals got him with the 11th pick. So as they see it, they’ll be injecting two top 10–level picks into the team at OTAs.

The Bills know they need to get more explosive on offense this offseason—and their tire-kicking on Antonio Brown was evidence they knew it last year. The bottom line is that Buffalo’s got a lot of nice complementary pieces but could use a focal point, and that makes me wonder whether this cap-rich team should make a real run at AJ Green, who stylistically would be perfect for Josh Allen.

It should come as no surprise that Broncos coach Vic Fangio would say he wants the offense to be more “aggressive” under new coordinator Pat Shurmur. I’m told Fangio repeatedly went to since-departed OC Rich Scangarello last year asking that the offense take more shots to generate chunk plays. It’s not like Scangarello ignored him, but he felt like he had to balance the desire for big plays with protecting rookie Drew Lock as he adjusted to life as a starter. In the end, that was a big part of the friction that led to Scangarello getting fired.

The arrival of Joe Woods as Browns defensive coordinator should be good news for Myles Garrett—assuming he finds himself eligible to play. Woods is steeped in the Monte Kiffin/Pete Carroll system, which is very pass-rusher friendly. He spent a couple years coaching for Wade Phillips too, and we know what Phillips has done for edge guys over the years. Woods was with Von Miller from 2015–18, and Nick Bosa last year.

The Buccaneers have a lot to take care of as far as their veteran quarterback situation goes. But it’s hard not to look at Oregon’s Justin Herbert and see a Bruce Arians quarterback. He has the size to stand tall and take hits in that downfield passing game and the arm to put the ball wherever he wants it. The question is whether Tampa’s picking high enough (14th overall) to get him.

The Chiefs’ title is a good example of what can be done when you’re in the spot the Cardinals are now. The Eagles and Rams are two more teams that, over the last couple years, have reinforced the point that having a quarterback you believe in on a rookie contract is a very big deal. So it’ll be interesting to see what Arizona does with its cap space (more than $50 million at this point) over the next two months.

For what it’s worth, Chargers QB Philip Rivers and now-full-time OC Shane Steichen are very close. When I talked to Rivers in November about Steichen being promoted to interim OC, he told me that, because Steichen had grown up as a coach around him, the 34-year-old felt like an extension of him as a playcaller. “I felt that way with Norv [Turner], too, over the years,” he said. So Steichen signing his deal to stay on in LA would be a plus for Rivers—whose future is very up in the air.

One thing that’ll be interesting: The Chiefs really had to manage the interior of their offensive line this year, particularly after losing center Mitch Morse in free agency last year. So that would be one area to watch, where perhaps you’ll see some draft capital spent. KC has three picks in the first two rounds in April.

Credit to Colts coach Frank Reich for being creative with his staff adjustments. He had to find a home for Mike Groh, an assistant he likes and respects from his Philly days. Reich put Groh where he is best, coaching receivers. He then took receivers coach Kevin Patullo and gave him a promotion, to pass-game specialist. That’s a good way of generating solutions to put the best group around you.

Lots of conjecture around what Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott should seek in a new contract. Know this: Players in his situation rarely take discounts, and for good reason. If a player gets a new deal with a year or two left on his remaining contract, the team is basically buying back those years, and taking the injury risk on for the player. That, of course, positions a team to ask the player to take a little less. But if a player makes it to the end of his contract, then he’s assumed all of the risk already, which is why that’s usually not the time for a team to try and get a player to be magnanimous about his money.

I understand why there’s hysteria over the Dolphins’ year-long study of Tua Tagovailoa and speculation over how they can make sure they get him. I can also tell you that until the team’s doctors get to Indy at the end of the month, even the team’s brass can’t be sure of its position on the Alabama quarterback.

USC OC Graham Harrell was one college coach the Eagles looked at hiring in January. Here’s another: Ohio State receivers coach Brian Hartline. Philly pursued the ex-NFL receiver to help with the team’s passing game and coach its wideouts, which is another sign of how the Eagles looked at trying to add some outside-the-NFL influence to their mix. Hartline wound up deciding to remain in Columbus in 2020, but Philly wasn’t the only team to show interest in this rising coaching star, and this isn’t the first year it’s happened. The Colts, for one, looked hard at Hartline a couple years ago, too.

I saw free-agent Dante Fowler’s name connected to the Falcons this week, and that makes sense. That defensive scheme always needs pass-rushers, Fowler’s from the Southeast, and Dan Quinn helped recruit Fowler to Florida in 2012 (and was his defensive coordinator for a year in Gainesville). I just don’t know how Atlanta would make it work cap-wise.

One thing I love about Joe Judge’s staff with the Giants: There are four former head coaches on the list— Jason Garrett, Freddie Kitchens, Bret Bielema and Derek Dooley (five if you count QBs coach Jerry Schuplinski’s time as a high school coach). Those guys should be valuable sounding boards for Judge as he adjusts to being in charge. And those moves show a certain level of self-awareness from Judge, not unlike what Sean McVay showed in hiring Wade Phillips when he got to L.A.

The Jaguars’ moves over the last month have very much laid the blame at the feet of Tom Coughlin. It hardly seems to be a mistake that the next two highest-ranking guys to go, OC John DeFilippo and director of player personnel Chris Polian, have family ties to Coughlin. One interesting tell here will be how the team handles Yannick Ngaukoe going forward. Coughlin’s tactics ruffled feathers with Ngaukoe’s camp last July, so the Jags’ reorganized brass making an aggressive play to lock him up, should it happen, could certainly be read as another way of curing the alleged ills of Coughlin’s tenure.

One way the Jets could work on their offensive line issue is to take advantage of a quirk in the franchise tag system. Because there’s one tag number for all O-linemen, the figure (expected to exceed $16 million) is based on what tackles get paid, making it tough for teams to use it on interior linemen. That means top-shelf guards like Washington’s Brandon Scherff and New England’s Joe Thuney will probably make it to market. And thus, Joe Douglas could have a roadmap to fixing the Jets’ long-maligned front, getting his left tackle in the draft rich with those and a stalwart on the veteran market.

The Lions could really be operating from a position of strength in the draft. The presumption has been that Joe Burrow will go first and Chase Young second. And if Herbert and Tagovailoa get hot, that would make the Lions’ position at three the spot for QB-hungry teams to look at. Either that, or the Redskins trade to a team that picks a QB and the Lions get Young. Either way, there are good scenarios here if the non-Burrow signal-callers do their jobs in the pre-draft process.

If the Packers are looking for receiver help, like most expect they will be, sitting there with the 30th pick is a pretty good place to be. They won’t have to overdraft someone there, but will be in front of teams that might be waiting until Day 2 to get one, given the outrageous depth of the position group in this year’s class.

Since this is a quiet time in the calendar, it’s a good chance to point things like this out: Great job by the Panthers, with the decision to help a place in need. North Central High, in Camden, S.C., was destroyed by a tornado in January. David Tepper and Co. will charter students from an hour-and-a-half away and host their prom at the team’s indoor practice facility, donate weight room equipment and practice jerseys to the school and give a $5,000 funding grant to fix the scoreboard at the town’s football stadium.

Ex-Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski messed with fans this week by commenting on a Tom Brady Instagram post, hinting again at a potential return to the field. Three things here. One, those around Gronkowski have maintained he’s very happy in retirement. Two, his last two seasons were, physically and mentally, very, very tough on him. Three, Gronk knows that keeping the light on for a return is good for Gronk Inc. He remains in the news cycle and is more relevant the more people speculate on it.

I don’t know if the Raiders will be able to even make Tom Brady consider Vegas. That said, the idea of it sheds light on the the team’s quarterback situation—one that, to me, is pretty enviable. Derek Carr’s a good-but-not-great player at the position, as it stands now. You can win with him. But he’s not carrying a team. The key? He doesn’t have another dollar guaranteed coming to him, and the Raiders have him under contract for another three years. Cutting him now would mean just $5 million in dead money hitting the cap. Next year, that number would drop to $2.5 million. So that allows the team to tread water with a pretty good player for now, while maintaining their flexibility for the future.

The Rams hope to have Andrew Whitworth back at left tackle. But he’s weighing testing his value on the market—he gave up just one sack last year, despite the fact that L.A. had the third-most pass attempts per game in the NFL and a stagnant run game. Yes, Whitworth is 38. But he remains a top-shelf left tackle and could be an ideal bridge for someone looking to rework that position.

The removal of Joe Flacco from the books, and addition of a quarterback starting (and starring) while on a rookie deal, has given the Ravens their healthiest cap situation going into an offseason in a long, long time. And that means that they have a good amount of wiggle room to re-sign someone (Matt Judon?) or pursue an outside free agent (AJ Green?) in March.

I like where the Redskins are organizationally—able to give Kyle Smith at shot at running the scouting operation, giving Ron Rivera a major voice in personnel and reserving the right to shuffle things around in May. Also, I’m not sure why it didn’t dawn on me until now, but Rivera worked with Smith’s dad, former Chargers GM AJ Smith, for four years in San Diego. So there’s some background there.

The Saints’ love for Taysom Hill probably leaves Teddy Bridgewater’s fate tied to Drew Brees’s decision. If Brees isn’t back, Bridgewater returning to New Orleans for another run might make sense, given that the bet on Hill all along has been based on his potential. If Brees is back? Then, if you’re Bridgewater, the call comes down to opportunity—and not just opportunity to start, but opportunity to get reps in practice and continue developing.

The Seahawks made a smart short-term move in trading for safety Quandre Diggs during the season. Diggs would’ve qualified as a distressed asset, given how his broken relationships in Detroit made him available for a discount. And the long-term benefit should be good for the team too. The Seahawks have him for $10.75 million over the next two years. If they hadn’t landed him, they’d have gone into this offseason with a need at the position. My guess is that Minnesota’s Anthony Harris and Denver’s Justin Simmons get way more than $5 million per in free agency. And at the top of the safety market (Mathieu, Kevin Byard, Landon Collins, Earl Thomas), by the way, prices out at nearly triple where Diggs is.

Again, how did Steelers coach Mike Tomlin keep Antonio Brown in line for as long as he did? If you don’t see Tomlin’s value in Pittsburgh now, you never will.

This year’s tackle class is good, and I’m still not sure there’s a prospect that projects to be what Laremy Tunsil is now at 25 years old. And even if there was, it would’ve cost the Texans a lot to move up from the 26th pick to go get him (I think two or three go in the Top 10). Which colors why Houston gave up what it did in August, which seemed crazy at the time.

The Titans did work to upgrade their staff when defensive coordinator Dean Pees retired. The inside linebackers job vacated by Tyrone McKenzie was actually offered to, and almost accepted by, Univeristy of Cincinnati DC Marcus Freeman. Ultimately, Freeman decided to stay at UC, which may have to do with the chance he’ll have take over for Luke Fickell there if Fickell decides to go to Michigan State. Regardless of that, it’s another example of Mike Vrabel thinking outside the box with his assistants—even if the guy he wound up hiring for the inside linebackers job, ex-Saints coach Jim Haslett, was decidedly inside the box. The other thing Vrabel did was leave the defensive coordinator spot open. I wouldn’t be surprised if outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen eventually earns the title.

A lot of folks should benefit from the Vikings installing Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator. If you want an early fantasy-football guy to watch for 2020, Dalvin Cook is most certainly one of them. Among those who’ve had career years with Kubiak calling plays in recent years: CJ Anderson, Ronnie Hillman, Justin Forsett and Ben Tate. And the last time he had a real franchise back, that player, Arian Foster, won a rushing title and ran for 4,264 yards and 41 touchdowns in a three-year stretch. Add to it that 2020 is a contract year for Cook, and if I were the 24-year-old, I’d be over the moon with Kubiak becoming OC.

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TOP FIVE

1. Key date coming in the CBA negotiations. It’s not a hard deadline, but the NFLPA’s election in mid-March is being treated as an important checkpoint in the ongoing CBA negotiations. President Eric Winston isn’t eligible for re-election because he didn’t play this year, so his six-year term will come to an end. The union has good candidates—Chargers OT Russell Okung and 49ers CB Richard Sherman are two guys on the executive committee who would certainly qualify, and Cardinals player rep Corey Peters is another who’s considered an intriguing name. If things were to take a wrong turn in the coming weeks, Winston’s departure could further complicate things, since the trust he’s established with those negotiating on the league side has been an important part of getting negotiations to this point. While nothing’s done, a deal does seem to be on the horizon. The players have some leverage here—the owners’ really want to get this done so they can start work on the impending media deals and gambling.

The Jags have played at Wembley in each of the last seven seasons.

The Jags have played at Wembley in each of the last seven seasons.

Jed Leicester/BPI/Shutterstock

2. Jacksonville’s home slate down to six gamesMaybe the Jaguars’ announcement that they’re going to play two home games at Wembley Stadium doesn’t make it panic time in North Florida. But there’s certainly reason for concern, because, at the very least, what the Jacksonville brass is telling its fanbase is that the market simply can’t be profitable enough to satisfy ownership. My understanding is that the idea of moving another home game to London—they’ve had single games there the last seven years running—has been talked about inside the building in Jacksonville for a couple years now, so few people working there are at all surprised that it came to this. And the less naïve fan in Jacksonville probably isn’t shocked by it either. The city simply hasn’t grown the way it hoped it would (like Charlotte or Nashville have) when it was granted a franchise in 1995.

So where does this go next? Well, there are a few things I can say definitively here. One, the league officials running the International Series (Mark Waller before, Chris Halpin now) have long felt like they have the fan support in London that would be needed to put a team there. Two, when the series was launched in 2007, owners set a rough goal of putting a franchise there full-time within 15 years—that’d be 2022—and it was important enough an initiative that some power brokers saw the idea of being the first stateside league to put a team there as a legacy piece. Three, other owners see Jaguars owner Shad Khan as an ideal figure to lead a franchise over there. And four, enormous logistical issues remain. My guess would be that, for now, the league’s hope is that fans in the UK will take to the Jaguars more than they have in the past, and then everyone will work from there. We’ll see.

3. Brady rumors won’t stop. My buddy Tom Curran over at NBC Sports Boston has pointed this out repeatedly, and he’s right: A lot of what happens in the Tom Brady Sweepstakes will boil down to timing. If Brady is resolute in testing the market, the Patriots’ handling of that will be interesting, because we’ve seen it both ways in the recent past. In 2013, Wes Welker went to the market and it didn’t develop as quickly as he would’ve liked. And by the time he had good offers on the table from the Titans and Broncos, the Patriots had already signed Danny Amendola to replace him. Conversely, last year, the Patriots pursued free-agent tight end Jared Cook, but there was a limit to how far they’d go with Rob Gronkowski’s future still uncertain. Cook signed in New Orleans, Gronk retired a couple weeks later, and the team was up a creek. So let’s say Brady wants to go on a tour, a la Peyton Manning in 2012. If he does that, with so many moving parts at quarterback this offseason (Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Ryan Tannehill, Jameis Winston, etc.), can the Patriots afford to wait? For that matter, can other teams? The cautionary tale there would be what happened to the Cardinals post-Manning pursuit in 2012. They were left with Ryan Lindley and John Skelton, were picking too low to get even Ryan Tannehill, and a lot of people got fired in the aftermath. So all of that plays into what’ll be a tricky dance for everyone if Brady does make it to the market.

4. The good and bad of the XFL. First, the positives. The broadcasts looked professional, the teams appeared to be well-coached, the games were relatively fast-paced and entertaining, and the access given to the networks differentiated the product from the NFL or anything else we generally see in the sport. Also, the modified kickoff rules are brilliant, and I think provide the NFL with a blueprint for making an inherently dangerous play safer without eliminating the spirit of it all together.

Now, there will be some things to watch going forward—beyond the inevitable viewership drop after the Week 1 novelty wears off. The first one involves player salaries. Non-quarterbacks are making a base of $27,040 for the season, or $2,704 per game. In addition, they get a $1,685 bonus for being active on game day (46 of 52 players on every roster will be) and a $2,222 bonus for each win, a bonus you have to be active to collect. That means if your team wins but you’re inactive for the game, you’re out $3,907, which is significantly more than your base. In a league full of guys on the fringes of pro football, you think that might cause some locker-room issues for coaches to work through? AAF coaches had a difficult enough time last year keeping their teams together, and they weren’t dealing with this.

Another issue will be protecting quarterbacks. The AAF instituted no-blitzing rules last year, which was a tacit acknowledgement that there’s an offensive-line shortage across the sport. Without that, it’ll be interesting to see if the XFL, which is paying its quarterbacks more (journeyman Josh Johnson got a $200,000 signing bonus), runs into a problem with the beating those guys take. The one thing we can all agree on is that the NFL could use a developmental league. But without the backing of the Shield, it’s just as easy to conclude that the odds are against the XFL making it.

5. Zac Taylor’s edge with Joe Burrow.It’s certainly fair to wonder where things will go next with Burrow and the Bengals. And there’s a key relationship that Cincinnati would be smart to cultivate here, given some of the talk out there on Burrow weighing his options. Back in Mobile at the Senior Bowl, Cincy coach Zac Taylor mentioned to me that he and Jimmy Burrow, Joe’s dad, became familiar with each other when they were both on the recruiting trail—the elder Burrow as Ohio University’s defensive coordinator and Taylor as the University of Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator. They had a natural connection too, that ran through Nebraska. Jimmy Burrow played there, coached there and had two sons who played there. Taylor, meanwhile, was the quarterback in Lincoln a couple years after Burrow left. So if I’m Taylor, I work that relationship, especially if he likes Burrow as much as I think he does. “He’s a winner,” Taylor said of Burrow during our talk. “You can tell that he leads the guys around him, you can tell the effect he’s had on the whole state. Those are intangibles that you can’t coach. He set all the accuracy records, all the great things he did in the SEC this year—this didn’t happen by accident. He’s always in great body position to throw the ball, and he can extend plays when necessary. There are certainly a lot of traits that translate well to the NFL.”

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SIX FROM THE SIDELINES

1. The Michigan State opening touched the NFL this week. San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh received overtures from a school he’s very connected to (he grew up in Detroit, coached at MSU and has an uncle who played there). Ultimately, he chose to pull his name out of the search, and he’s not the only one—Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi and Iowa State coach Matt Campbell did as well. And my understanding is part of the reason for this, outside of the prospect of sanctions, is a belief that the Spartans already have a candidate in mind and could pull the trigger quickly. I don’t think anybody would be stunned if that candidate was Luke Fickell.

2. I thought this was a fascinating post-Signing Day note: 47 of the Top 100 high school recruits in the country, as ranked in the 247 Sports composite ranking, are going to a total of five schools. Those five schools (Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, LSU and Ohio State) also landed nine of the top 10 in America. Unsurprisingly, those five schools have 54 of the 337 players invited to the combine this year.

3. If it’s true that the Red Sox considered backing out of the deal that sent Mookie Betts to LA because ownership was influenced by media backlash, which is what  Ken Rosenthal reported, then that’s worse than dealing a top-five player at 27 years old in the first place. I didn’t like the premise of dealing Betts from the start. But if you’re gonna do something like that, you should act with just a little more conviction.

4. The Warriors move to deal off D’Angelo Russell for Andrew Wiggins (Golden State’s also getting a protected first-rounder in the deal) is fascinating. They’re one of the best franchises in pro sports, they should have a top-five pick in June, and they will get Steph Curry and Klay Thompson back in 2020–21. I can’t wait to see what the endgame is here.

5. Great finish to Duke-North CarolinaBut those were horrific uniforms, and I don’t care what the reason for wearing them is. In college rivalry games, schools should go with their classic look, without exception. It was hard not to look at the TV and think, “Is this a practice in September?”

6. I don’t want to go too deep into politics in this space (mostly because I’m not that qualified to do it). But it sure looks like the election is going to get very, very ugly.

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BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

This question from the Super Bowl LIV MVP pretty much sums up the Chiefs parade. But we won’t just leave it at that.

Great answer from Mahomes.

And here’s an action shot that set up that question.

My guess is Travis Kelce probably had a few, too. And the shot at Dee Ford there was pretty vicious. So much so, that the first thing I did was check to see if the Chiefs and Niners play again next year. (They don’t, unfortunately.)

This man, apparently, brought his own horse for the festivities, then decided to surf on said horse.

There was not a happy ending to his story.

The Chiefs parade truly had it all. (One unfortunate twist: The video of the guy falling out of a tree with his pants down appears to have been deleted from the internet. Gone now, but not forgotten.)

This is phenomenal and really did the job in detailing a lot of cool aspects of the third-and-15 play we highlighted in last week’s MMQB. So if you haven’t yet, click on that link and read up on the play, then watch the NFL Films explanation, and you’ll have pretty good perspective in how much goes into a single snap in pro football.

Really nice tribute by Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt to his dad Lamar.

Here’s an illustration of the XFL kickoff rules we referenced, and reaction from one of the leaders in concussion research in football.

I definitely tried to be judicious with my XFL tweets, given how some AAF tweets probably wound up looking when that production turned into Fyre Fest.

Good start to the offseason for me.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

The XFL’s Dallas Renegades have advertising on their helmets—on the back, a small and subtle Bud Light Seltzer ad is there for everyone to see. (Pro Football Talk was the place I saw this one reported.)

So why does it matter to you? Because the NFL will be studying everything the XFL experiments with, and uniform advertising has been kicked around by owners in the past. And this could be another XFL idea they consider adopting.

The league, always overly protective of their on-field look (see: rules governing socks and sleeves) has been reluctant to join the NBA and international soccer leagues in selling space on game jerseys. But we have seen it on practice jerseys, which is proof of the amount of thought they put into introducing it. The helmet idea, at least on paper, would seem to be a little less intrusive on the team and league brands plastered all over unis.

And honestly, if the NFL allowed what the XFL did with the Renegades, I’m not sure anyone would really care anyway. So stay tuned.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.