Monthly Archives: January 2018

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Todd Gurley and the Rams

Todd Gurley and the Rams

Not only did the Los Angeles Rams finish first in the NFC West with an 11-5 record in 2017, but the team also swept our postseason awards, as chosen by NFL Nation NFC West reporters Alden Gonzalez (Rams), Brady Henderson (Seahawks), Nick Wagoner (49ers) and Josh Weinfuss (Cardinals).

Coach of the Year: Sean McVay, Rams

Considering that McVay is the favorite to be the NFL Coach of the Year, it was a no-brainer that he would earn that honor for the NFC West division. McVay was a unanimous choice here, and why wouldn’t he be? All McVay, who at 30 was the youngest head coach in modern league history at the time of his hire, did in his first season was lead one of the most dramatic turnarounds in recent memory. He took a team that was 4-12 and dreadful offensively a year ago and turned it into a supercharged juggernaut that went 11-5 and won the NFC West. McVay’s influence was most evident in the offense, taking a group that averaged a league-low 14 points per game in 2016 and turning it into a unit (with some key additions at receiver and on the offensive line) that posted 29.9 points per game in 2017. It was the first time in the Super Bowl era an offense went from worst to first in one year.

“It’s just everything he’s done since he got here,” Rams quarterback Jared Goff told reporters of McVay’s impact. “From Day 1, it’s been so impressive. He hasn’t changed a bit. Same demeanor every day and goes about his business the same way, and I think it rubs off on the players and rubs off on me, for sure.”

Along the way, McVay helped Goff erase any premature bust labels and helped running back Todd Gurley emerge as a legitimate MVP candidate. — Wagoner

Offensive Player of the Year: Todd Gurley, RB, Rams

A lot happened when Gurley sprinted 57 yards to the end zone against the Seahawks in Week 15. That score gave Gurley’s Rams a 34-0 lead, putting out of reach a game that gave Los Angeles a viselike grip on the NFC West title. And as Gurley raced past Seattle’s defense for his third of four touchdowns that December afternoon, he also thrust himself into the MVP conversation. Gurley led the NFL with 2,093 scrimmage yards, despite sitting out Week 17 with the division already clinched. He finished second in rushing (1,305) and receiving yards (788) among running backs after being edged out in both categories on the final day. Gurley’s 19 combined rushing and receiving touchdowns were five more than any other player.

“He’s really the centerpiece,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Gurley, whose stats might be good enough for him to become the first non-quarterback to win league MVP since Adrian Peterson did it in 2012 with the Vikings.

“That was the last time a back won the MVP, and this year should be the next time,” Rams center John Sullivan, a teammate of Peterson that season, told ESPN.com. “Who knows how it will play out, but look, Todd is the best back in the league. And that’s what Adrian was at that time.” — Henderson

Defensive Player of the Year: Aaron Donald, DT, Rams

Donald missed the first regular-season game, sat out the last one and spent an entire summer in a contractual holdout. He still led the league in pressures and led defensive tackles in sacks, and he might just win NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said Donald is “obviously the best defensive player in the league,” so of course he was voted the best defensive player in the NFC West this season.

“He’s not superhuman,” Phillips said, “but he’s almost unstoppable.”

Despite facing constant double- and triple-teams, Donald registered a career-high-tying 11 sacks in 14 games. (He would’ve had a 12th in Week 16, but the NFL took it away because Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota picked up his own fumble and ran with it.) Donald’s 91 pressures were more than any other player, according to Pro Football Focus, even though it’s significantly more difficult to pressure the quarterback from between the tackles. In a first-round playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcons, Donald registered a season-high 11 pressures, 10 of which came in the first half.

“We’ve never seen anybody pressure the quarterback as much as he does,” Rams edge rusher Matt Longacre said of his teammate. — Gonzalez

Rookie of the Year: Cooper Kupp, WR, Rams

Hollywood wasn’t too big for Kupp. The small-school wide receiver shined as bright as any movie premiere as a rookie for the Rams, who selected Kupp in the third round out of Eastern Washington. Kupp, who played alongside the likes of Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, led the Rams in receiving with 869 yards. He also led the team with 95 targets and converted a team-high 42 first downs. He was counted on by Goff and McVay from the onset of his rookie season, running 24 routes in his debut in Week 1, which resulted in four catches for 76 yards and a touchdown. He ran 425 routes in 2017, the second most on the Rams.

But Kupp’s impact wasn’t limited. He was second on the team in receptions, yards after catch and receiving yards after contact.

“Regardless of where you come from, I believe in myself coming into this and being able to play at this level, so it’s obviously great being able to help produce. But I think just being a part of this team, having coaches that put you in the right position players alongside you that make this game easy,” he said.

Kupp, who had five touchdown catches, was consistent throughout the season, with at least two catches in every game. His biggest games of the year came down the stretch. He had 116 yards on a career-high eight catches in a Week 12 win over the New Orleans Saints. Two weeks later, in a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, he set a career high with 118 yards, complemented by a touchdown, on five catches. That included a 64-yard reception — the longest of his career. — Weinfuss

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Buffalo Bills

Buffalo Bills

It was Alabama coach Nick Saban’s decision to put true freshman Tua Tagovailoa on the field in the College Football Playoff National Championship last week, but it was offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s play call that led to Tagovailoa’s game-winning touchdown in overtime.

Weighed down by an offense that scored only three touchdowns in seven games against playoff teams this season, the Buffalo Bills are hoping to steal some of the Crimson Tide’s magic. Coach Sean McDermott plucked Daboll away from Alabama on Sunday to become Buffalo’s fifth offensive coordinator in five seasons.

Now the Bills must do what Saban did by signing Tagovailoa, who was ESPN’s top-rated recruit at his position: find a quarterback.

That would be a novel development for Daboll, whose quarterbacks in his three previous stints as an NFL offensive coordinator have been Brady Quinn, Derek Anderson, Colt McCoy, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Matt Moore, Chad Henne and Matt Cassel.
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Over that span, Daboll’s offenses finished 32nd (Cleveland Browns in 2009), 29th (Browns in 2010), 22nd (Miami Dolphins in 2011) and 24th (Kansas City Chiefs in 2012) in total yards.

Daboll has not worked miracles with any of the quarterbacks he has been given in his NFL career, but the Bills should not ask Daboll to try to turn an average starter such as Tyrod Taylor into something greater.

Buffalo is better off investing the resources in finding the next star at quarterback and seeing if Daboll can help steer the ship. That is what Daboll successfully did in a brief glimpse on a national stage when Tagovailoa replaced Jalen Hurts in the second half of the national championship.

The Bills fired Rick Dennison as offensive coordinator last week after one season on the job. Dennison had a background in coaching offensive lines and had been given full playcalling duties for the first time this past season.

Dennison seemed to overthink short-yardage and red-zone situations and struggled to get Taylor to push the ball downfield, frustrating fans by dialing up plays that ultimately resulted in check-down passes to fullback Patrick DiMarco or backup running back Mike Tolbert.

It is only one playcall, but Daboll showed a more aggressive streak when he had Alabama’s receivers run “Seattle” — four vertical routes — on second-and-26 in overtime. Tagovailoa had just taken a first-down sack and Daboll could have played it more conservatively to try to match Georgia’s field goal on the previous possession. But the gamble to go for the end zone paid off, with Daboll collecting the sixth championship ring of his career.

The Bills could benefit from Daboll’s experience at Alabama, as well as his five Super Bowl titles as an assistant coach for the New England Patriots. But in order for Daboll to prove himself as an effective NFL offensive coordinator in his fourth try, he will need a quarterback.

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — In the wake of an ESPN report that detailed friction between coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and owner Robert Kraft, Belichick said Monday that it was “absolutely” his intention to return as coach of the New England Patriots in 2018.

Belichick’s answer in a conference call with reporters came after ESPN’s report said that “those interviewed describe a palpable sense in the building that this might be the last year together for this group.”

The ESPN report said Belichick received a mandate from Kraft to trade quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, and that Belichick was “furious and demoralized, according to friends.”

Asked about the reported mandate, Belichick said Monday, “I haven’t read the article. I’ve already commented at length about that situation. Nothing has happened since then. So I don’t have anything to add to it.”

Belichick also responded to whether the characterization that he was “furious and demoralized” was accurate. “First of all, I don’t really know what you’re talking about; I haven’t read the article,” he said. “I don’t know what that refers to. Look, I know we’ve been through this before. I know you want to report on things that are inaccurate and unattributable. I’m not really interested in responding to all those random, and I would say in a lot of cases, baseless comments.”

The Patriots host the Tennessee Titans on Saturday night in the AFC divisional round of the playoffs.

Later Monday, in his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI, Belichick was asked how he would describe his relationship with Brady and Kraft.

“Great. Great. Eighteen years with Tom, and [19] with Robert. It’s been great,” Belichick said. “I appreciate everything Robert has done for me, the opportunity he’s given me, the support. And I’ve been pretty lucky to have Tom as the quarterback for 18 years, playing for 17 years. He’s a great player to coach, and he’s done a lot for this team, and he’s been a huge help to me personally. I have a great relationship with both Robert and Tom. And I would throw in there, since I was part of the article, I feel like I have a good professional relationship with Alex [Guerrero] too.”

Asked if Kraft has ever told him to make a trade he didn’t want to make, Belichick said: “We’ve never done that. We talk about things organizationally and make organizational decisions.”

Belichick was then asked about a few parts of the ESPN article.

When asked about the line that read, “Belichick, having always subscribed to the philosophy that it’s time to go once an owner gets involved in football decisions, left the impression with some friends that the current dynamic was unsustainable,” Belichick said on WEEI: “Once again, I’m not going to reply to all the individual; none of those statements are attributable to anybody. They’re all just anonymous quotes, and so I’m not even going to give the credibility to those anonymous quotes by replying to them.”

Asked about a different part of the story that noted Belichick “has even become good friends with [Roger] Goodell; the two men had a long and private meeting, which two sources told ESPN occurred during the off week after the regular season, when the commissioner visited Foxborough,” Belichick said on WEEI: “That is absolutely not true. The last time I saw the commissioner was before our game against Oakland in Mexico City. He was on the sideline, I saw him before the game, and we wished each other well. That’s the last time I saw him.”

Asked what his relationship is like with Goodell, Belichick said on WEEI, “Again, he’s the commissioner. Certainly, I’m a coach, he’s a commissioner. I think we know what that kind of relationship is; as far as saying hello to him and talking to him and that kind of thing. But seeing him last week? No.”

As for if he would characterize his relationship with Goodell as “good friends”, Belichick said on WEEI, “I don’t know what that means. I’m not going to reply to each individual anonymous quote. Somebody wants to put their name on something and talk about it? I would consider that. For every anonymous opinion and quote that’s out there, I don’t feel obligated to reply to all those, by any means.”

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Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis

Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis

Some people are mad. Others apathetic. A few supportive. We’ve even reached the burning jerseys in the snow and posting to social media portion of the program.

One aspect we can settle on in the wake of Marvin Lewis’ controversial return on a two-year contract: Everybody has an opinion.

The problem is, these opinions aren’t always based in fact. After 15 years, criticisms shifted both Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis into almost caricatures of themselves. It’s easy to lose sight of what complaints own merit and which are fallacy repeated into relevancy.

So, I asked those of you filling up my mentions to drop your primary gripe with Brown and Lewis on me, so I could find the most stated and dive into whether these are fact or fiction.

This came with the caveat of 0-7 in the playoffs not serving as a viable complaint because it’s the obvious, undeniable failure of the Lewis-Brown partnership.

Over the next five days, I take on the five most mentioned.

Today: Lewis struggles with halftime adjustments?

This showed up the most because it burns vividly into the recent memory of fans. The last two seasons have been filled with prominent games where the Bengals jumped out to leads at the break and were flattened in the second half.

If not for the shocking fourth-and-12 touchdown against Baltimore, the dramatic season finale would have looked like so many disappointments of a double-digit halftime evaporated into a day of what could have been.

Lewis debates the validity of “halftime adjustments.” With 12 minutes to enter the locker room and return to the field, only so many changes in plans can be discussed, to be certain.

“The ‘adjustment,’ that’s more journalism jargon than truth,” he said in a press conference to close the 2016 season.

Whether talking about actual adjustments or evaluating late-game performance, that’s merely semantics.

The truth lies in the numbers, in this case.

Let’s start with the last two seasons before pulling back to the big picture.

In the 14 games where the Bengals led at the half the last two years they went 9-5. The .643 winning percentage ranks 28th in the NFL over that span.

Since the Andy Dalton-A.J. Green Era commenced in 2011, the Bengals led at the half 59 times. They finished 44-14-1 in those games. That .754 record ranks 18th in the NFL over the span.

Now running all the way back to the beginning of the Marvin Lewis Era, the Bengals have gone 88-31-2 in games where they led at halftime. That .736 mark ranks 23rd in the NFL over that time.

Only once in Lewis’ 15 seasons have the Bengals finished in the top 10 of the NFL in protecting halftime leads. On the flip side, seven times they finished in the bottom 10.

No matter the era of which you break down, the Bengals have finished in the bottom half of the league or worse in holding on to a halftime lead.

The New England Patriots, unsurprisingly, lead the NFL in protecting leads over the span with a .913 winning percentage, going 147-14 when leading at the break since 2003.

Perhaps a better comparison would be the Bengals’ direct AFC North rival, Pittsburgh. The Steelers rank third in the NFL over the Lewis Era with a .865 winning percentage.

If the Bengals would have protected halftime leads at the same clip during the Lewis Era, they would have 17 more wins. That equates to more than one win per season and on more than one occasion serve as the difference between winning and losing the division or making the playoffs.

Speaking of the postseason, Cincinnati owned a halftime lead in two of the seven playoff losses. In 2005 against Pittsburgh and 2013 against the Chargers they led at the break by a field goal. They were outscored by a combined 37 points after halftime in those defeats.

Whether all this stems from “adjustments” or that’s truly journalism jargon for teams that don’t make enough plays in defining moments probably doesn’t matter in this case.

Call it what you want, the numbers back up the most common fan complaint.

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New York Jets

New York Jets

If the New York Jets fall in love with a quarterback in the 2018 NFL draft, they would be willing to trade up if they don’t think he’ll last until the sixth pick.

So says general manager Mike Maccagnan.

The question was posed to him Wednesday on the Humpty & Canty Show on ESPN New York 98.7, and he replied “yes” without hesitation.

“The simple answer to that question is yes,” Maccagnan said. “If that was a player we felt strong about, we would have no qualms of potentially trying to go up and get him.”

In three drafts, Maccagnan has yet to trade up in the first round, although he made inquiries in 2016. That’s the year quarterbacks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz were selected one-two.

Maccagnan said he’d be interested in trading up for any position if he felt it was worth it, but we all know it’s apples and oranges when it comes to quarterbacks and other positions. By acknowledging he’s open to going up for a quarterback, Maccagnan is basically saying he’s willing to pay the enormous price it would take to make such a move.

How much are we talking about?

In 2016, the Philadelphia Eagles moved from eighth to second and it cost them their first-round pick in 2017 and their second-rounder in 2018, along with a couple of mid-round picks. They wound up with Wentz, so no one in Philadelphia is complaining.

The Jets probably would have to surrender a similar package to secure the first or second overall pick.

As for the actual players, the quarterback landscape still hasn’t been settled. Of the top prospects, Josh Allen (Wyoming) and Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) are the only ones we know for sure will be in the draft. Sam Darnold (USC) and Josh Rosen (UCLA) have yet to declare their intentions. The deadline is Jan. 15.

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Vance Joseph will return as the Denver Broncos’ head coach for the 2018 season, team president John Elway announced Monday.

Elway tweeted that he and Joseph talked Monday morning and that the Broncos “believe in Vance as our head coach.”

Joseph, 45, guided the Broncos to a 5-11 record and a last-place finish in the AFC West in his first season as an NFL head coach.

“I think it’s great [that Joseph is returning],” quarterback Trevor Siemian said. “He’s got the locker room. He’s got the respect of the guys. Times like this, it’s easy to point fingers. The thing is, nobody in here has done that, and that’s a credit to Coach Joseph and how he steered this thing.”

Joseph is the 16th head coach in Broncos franchise history and the first African-American to be hired for the job. Assistant head coach Eric Studesville was Denver’s interim head coach for four games in 2010 after Josh McDaniels was fired.

Studesville was one of six assistants fired on Monday. Special teams coordinator Brock Olivo, offensive line coach Jeff Davidson, wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert and assistant defensive backs coach Johnnie Lynn also were let go. In addition, outside linebackers coach Fred Pagac will not have his contract renewed.

Joseph replaced Gary Kubiak a year ago when Kubiak stepped away from coaching because of health concerns. At the time of Joseph’s hiring, Broncos president John Elway called him “a very good football coach and teacher who is ready for this opportunity.” Elway also gave Joseph a show of support in mid-November when he publicly said that all involved with the Broncos had gotten “a little bit soft.”

Elway later said he didn’t believe the Broncos were going to make a coaching change during the season, just before Denver snapped an eight-game losing streak on Dec. 10 with a victory over the Jets.

Stability and consistency at quarterback were among the primary reasons for the Broncos’ last-place finish this season, as Siemian, Paxton Lynch and Brock Osweiler all started games under center.

The Broncos’ eight-game losing streak from Oct. 15 to Dec. 3 was their longest since 1967; six of those losses were by double digits and four by at least 20 points.

“I think it’s on us as players,” running back C.J. Anderson said. “We didn’t hold up our end of the bargain to help [Joseph] and all the coaches. I can promise you, sitting right here — you can put it on record — [when] he gets a second chance, our record won’t be 5-11. We won’t have a losing season.”