The coach has a mess of his own creation on his hands. Plus, answering your questions on trade deadline possibilities, Chris Ballard, Nathaniel Hackett, Wildcat plays and more.
Another full mailbag this week. Thanks, as always, for the questions …
From Mike (@GeneralGrant12): Who’s the patriots quarterback going forward. And how the hell do you handle this situation?
From SportsAboveTheBox (@Urban_Shocker_): On a scale from 1–10, how much more football do you know than Belichick?
From Mike Durand (@MikeyD_31): Does Bill Belichick and his crew of flunkies (Patricia, Judge, his sons) deserve to be employed after the absolutely incredible coaching job in the bears game?
Sports, I’d say a 10—I 100% know way more than Bill Belichick about football. Obviously.
Thing is, if we applied that logic to everything, no one would ever question any NFL coach or NFL player because, of course, they all know more about football than we do. If you wanna just wait for the games, and not consume any of the shoulder content, all good. I can respect that. And if you’re still reading, well, I think Belichick’s got a mess of his own creation on his hands. Seeing which escape hatch he takes here will be fascinating.
Central to the discussion is how Belichick handles quarterbacks in general. He mentioned Tuesday how the coaches rotate at other positions, and that, again, showed what’s long seemed to be his belief that he can handle the most important position on the field like he does any other position, a thought that’s validated by 20 years of historic success working with the greatest quarterback ever.
In fact, in a lot of ways, Belichick’s ability to treat Tom Brady as Employee No. 12 enabled so many other parts of the Patriots’ program over those two decades. Belichick could tell other players to take less, because Brady would. He could coach other guys hard, because he did Brady. He could cuss out stars, because he’d regularly get after Brady in front of his teammates. The overriding message, always: If Tom takes it, you have to, too.
And Belichick’s history of developing quarterbacks in New England is pretty damn solid outside of just that, too. He drafted Matt Cassel in the seventh round as a guy who never started a college game and turned him into an NFL starter. He landed Brian Hoyer as an undrafted free agent, and Hoyer has had a 14-year career. He took Jimmy Garoppolo at the end of the second round, and Garoppolo led another team to a Super Bowl. He got Jacoby Brissett in the third round, and Brissett will likely end up having a 10-15-year career.
So that’s all established. But it’s also not like Belichick hasn’t stepped on banana peels with quarterbacks before. In 1993, while he was right to think Vinny Testaverde would be a better option than Bernie Kosar, his process in getting there was a mess. He cut Kosar, a popular figure in the locker room and local hero, while Testaverde was hurt, and after a loss that dropped Cleveland to 5–3. He turned to Todd Philcox. The Browns went 0–3 with Philcox in and finished 7–9. They’d bounce back and go 11–5 in ’94. But damage was done.
Eight years later, he made a similarly bold decision—but that one was to go to someone (Brady), rather than away from someone (Kosar). And Brady’s ascension only rubber-stamped the idea that handling quarterbacks this way was the right thing to do.
Putting aside the question of whether it is, in this situation, the optics were terrible. Your first-round quarterback from last year was uneven at the end of his rookie year and shaky early this year, then suffered a high-ankle sprain. He missed three games and started his first game back with two three-and-outs and a pick. He got yanked. It was positioned as part of a plan to rotate him and Bailey Zappe—because that’s how you might bring a guy back at another position. And Belichick said he didn’t go back to Jones because of the score.
But if you take how Belichick explained it away, you’re left with a looks-like-a-duck, quacks-like-a-duck, is-a-duck situation. It had all the hallmarks of a benching, from Belichick’s refusal to say Jones would get his job back when fully healthy over the last few weeks, to the backup’s strong play, to Jones’s early-game face-plant, to the juncture at which Jones was pulled—right after a pick. Then, a day later, given the chance, again, to declare Jones his starter, Belichick passed one more time.
Now, you have a quarterback who is 2–7 in his last nine starts, without a single one-possession game among the seven losses (six came by double digits) and a 10:12 TD:INT ratio over the nine-game stretch. Players, very clearly, weren’t sure who their quarterback was at midnight Monday. Jones hasn’t played well this year, and his coaching staff has, very clearly, displayed shaky confidence in him. A rookie is nipping at his heels.
This is why the quarterback position is usually handled differently than others. It’s important for a team to know who its guy is, and confidence is vitally important to those who play the position. If you don’t have it, you don’t have a shot. Also, there’s a key difference in this case from the others Belichick touched. In those cases, he was going all in on someone, eventually Testaverde in Cleveland and instantly Brady in New England. In this one, we’re left wondering if he’s out on the most important person in the equation.
And maybe in a few weeks, Belichick will make this criticism look dumb, like he has a lot of other criticism over the last 23 seasons. Or maybe Zappe is the Testaverde or Brady here.
Otherwise, there are absolutely fair questions to ask. So to the first Mike, I don’t know 100% who the quarterback is going to be—I believed firmly it’d be Jones before Sunday, and now, based on Belichick’s actions, I’m not sure that’s set in stone. To the second Mike, there are things, good and bad, you can attach to Joe Judge and Matt Patricia, but this isn’t one of them. This one’s Bill’s call.
It used to be that would be enough for everyone. I’m not so sure it should be anymore.
From Cincyfan (@Darktraveler1): Bengals going to be active in trade market? D-line help maybe?
Cincy, the Bengals traditionally have not been the most active team on the veteran market. But in recent years, and with signings of players like Vonn Bell, Chidobe Awuzie, Trey Hendrickson, Alex Cappa, La’el Collins and a bunch of others, they’ve broken from their history to swing big on veteran free agents. And given that aggression, it definitely stands to reason they’d be more open than they used to be to go all in midseason.
Here’s the other thing—Joe Burrow will be on a rookie contract for another two years, tops, and I’d guess Cincinnati would like to make it just this year before locking him up long-term. They’ll also have other young vets, like Tee Higgins, Jonah Williams, Logan Wilson and, a little further down the line, Ja’Marr Chase, to take care of. So the financial flexibility they’d have to get aggressive won’t last forever.
Adding that up, if I had to guess, I’d say Cincinnati personnel chief Duke Tobin will investigate everything, while showing restraint with his actions. And maybe, as you said, that’d mean sniffing around veteran interior defensive linemen like Houston’s Maliek Collins or Carolina’s Matt Ioannidis.
From Tomer (@Shimshon89): Where could Kareem Hunt be traded?
Tomer, this is a good question, because I do think Hunt is someone who has some trade value, and the Browns have depth behind him (D’Ernest Johnson would be a viable backup for Nick Chubb). On top of that, Hunt’s base salary for the year, $1.35 million, is very manageable, even with the $135,294 per-game roster bonuses on top of that factored in.
The Rams would be one obvious suitor, given where things have gone with Cam Akers, and the need for L.A. to have a viable run game, with its line struggling mightily to keep Matthew Stafford clean. Buffalo—the Bills were closely monitoring the Christian McCaffrey situation last week—would be another team that could throw its hat in the ring. The Eagles investigate everything. The Seahawks could use the depth. And one team that would be a lot of fun, if you consider the creativity in their run game, would be the Falcons.
If I’m Cleveland, I’m not giving him away. The Browns are too reliant on their run game right now to do that. But I would have my ear to the ground in case the right deal surfaced.
From ryuryu2949 (@ryuryu2949): The Jets’ trade for James Robinson was nice, but isn’t trading for a guard in light of the Vera-Tucker injury a greater need?
Ryu, fascinating question—I love Breece Hall, but Ali Vera-Tucker was absolutely the bigger loss. And the reason is obvious when you consider how difficult it is to replace a guy at one position versus the next. Evidence to support that point came the day after both guys went down for the year, when the Jets traded a bag of pylons to get a starting-caliber back, in James Robinson, from the Jaguars.
Suffice it to say, no one is trading you a starting guard for a conditional sixth-round pick. You might be able to get some linemen for that price, but not one with the experience or level of accomplishment Robinson has, who has anything left. That’s why the best solution is probably to roll with Nate Herbig, an October waiver claim whom GM Joe Douglas helped ID and sign in Philly three years ago, and who has a fair number of game reps under his belt.
Maybe that will work. Maybe it won’t. But even in the best-case scenario, it’s a good bet that the drop-off there will be far more significant than it is going from Hall and Michael Carter, to Carter and Robinson.
From Paul Diaz (@DiazWilmafred): Curious what do you think of your new article format and feedback that you’ve had?
Hey, Paul. Thanks for the question. It’s been an adjustment for sure. But I get why we’re doing it. And what I really care about is making sure that the loyal readers I’ve had for years, and those I inherited from Peter King, are getting the product they always have. I know it’s an adjustment for everyone to navigate it and absolutely hear everyone who doesn’t like it (and those who do).
I also want to make sure, without getting sappy about it, that all of you know I one million percent appreciate the time, and money, you guys invest in my content.
From Andrew Gifford (@GiffAndrew): Bert, are you hearing anything about the Packers getting a WR at the deadline? God, do they need one.
This is an interesting question and I believe one that will remain an open one even past the trade deadline. Clearly, Green Bay’s problems are on offense at this point.
The Packers don’t motion as much because Aaron Rodgers likes to have time to look at, and diagnose, the defense (Peyton Manning was that way, too). Without Davante Adams taking attention away from the pack, the receivers are having trouble uncovering. The line, with David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins coming back from injuries, and Jenkins at tackle, rather than guard, has struggled to find its footing. Which really leaves Rodgers and the tailbacks, Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon, as what the group can hang its hat on.
Having a receiver to draw coverage would help, for sure. And that the team came close to landing Odell Beckham Jr. in 2021 tells me that another run could be in the offing. Another thing that would help is Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson turning the corner. Those two are talented, and the team has invested a lot of game reps on them, so that could happen, too. Either way, it’s pretty clear that the status quo isn’t good enough.
From EHLINGER ERA (@cultofcolt): Does Chris Ballard deserve to keep his job in 2023?
Ehlinger, I think so. The Colts have a core group of in-prime players that’s solid as a rock: Jonathan Taylor, Quenton Nelson, Braden Smith, Ryan Kelly, Michael Pittman Jr., DeForest Buckner and Shaq Leonard lead that group. And in that crew, all but Buckner are homegrown, and every one of them, save for Taylor, is locked up long-term.
So what’s the issue? The issue is if you look at those players, what you also see is holes at premium positions—quarterback, left tackle, edge rusher and corner. And at every one of those spots, Indy has relied of late on later-career guys, like Matt Ryan at quarterback, Eric Fisher at left tackle, Yannick Ngakoue at defensive end and Stephon Gilmore at corner. And that’s a tough place to be.
I think that’s where Jim Irsay will be asking questions of Ballard and Frank Reich at the end of the year. He wants, first and foremost, a long-term answer at quarterback, and I think going to Sam Ehlinger is part of that (you wind up with either a revelation or a high pick, in all likelihood, on that one). But there’s also the question of where the resources have been allocated.
I do think Reich and Ballard deserve benefit of the doubt, given all they’ve accomplished in building the roster, and how they handled the Andrew Luck retirement. But I can’t say for certain that Irsay will have the patience for that, and wouldn’t characterize them as safe at this point (and, to be clear, that’s not saying anyone is on the hot seat yet).
From TFB (@TheSportzNutt): Do you think Carolina trades anyone else before the deadline?
TFB, we went through the ages of Carolina’s most attractive pieces in the Monday column. It’s a good exercise to inform people with on this. To review, D.J. Moore is 25; Brian Burns, Jeremy Chinn and Derrick Brown are 24; Jaycee Horn is 22, and Ickey Ekwonu is 21. Those guys are or have a change to be long-term, top-shelf players at their positions, and dealing them away for anything but a king’s ransom wouldn’t make sense, if you really think about the chances of nailing a draft pick the way the Panthers did on those guys.
The other thing is, with the Christian McCaffrey trade, the Panthers have replenished their haul of draft picks to the point where there’s a whole lot less pressure to replace what they lost in deals for Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, Stephon Gilmore, and C.J. Henderson.
So you really have to look at the older players on the Panthers’ roster to find names. Shaq Thompson, at 28, could make sense for teams with a need for a versatile, off-ball linebacker. Safety Xavier Woods and center Bradley Bozeman are two more who could elicit some interest. But the Panthers really do, in general, feel like if they can find a quarterback to drop in to the lineup (easier said than done, obviously), then they can get competitive in a hurry in 2023.
Which would make their situation an attractive one.
From Fingers Crossed (@iTylen): Will any big-time QBs be on the market this year like we’ve seen the past few?
Next year’s names, right now: Daniel Jones, Jimmy Garoppolo, Geno Smith, Jameis Winston, Mayfield and Darnold. Which isn’t a bad list to start with. Oh, and Tom Brady, if he wants to play at 46, which is really hard to rule out completely.
From I’m a Bengals Fan Now! (@DonRidenour): New owners going to can Nathaniel Hackett after the bye?
Don! I don’t think so. But it’s hard to rule anything out. They have deep pockets, and if they had a goal to land, say, Sean Payton, and were willing to pay him $25 million per year to do so, then eating four years of an entry-level head coaching contract might not seem like the end of the world. And I think this logic could go for teams elsewhere, too, that might not be quite as wealthy as the Waltons, particularly with the windfall of the new broadcast deals.
The bottom line is, we’re in a new world when it comes to this stuff, and the free agency of a guy like Payton will only further prove it.
In Denver, specifically, I think this will come down to how Russell Wilson handles his early-season struggles. Is he willing to shoulder blame for them? Is he open to adjustments to the offense that’ll lead to more of the stuff he did in Seattle (designed runs, moving the pocket, etc.)? Is there real reflection on how the last eight weeks have played out and what needs to be done to fix things?
The reality is the Broncos can detach from coaches far more easily than they can Wilson, whom they’ve tied themselves to for the foreseeable future with the five-year, $245 million extension they did in September. They’ve hired Wilson-specific staff. They’ve even given Wilson an office in the practice facility. This is his show. And considering how things ended in Seattle, and why they ended the way they did, his next move will be interesting.
From JLK7299 (@JLK7299): What would have been considered riskier at the time: 49ers drafting Mahomes with the second or third pick or the Chiefs trading from 26 to 10 to draft him?
Great question, JLK! I think, at the time, the Niners’ going all in on Mahomes on the front end of a rebuild, with how raw he was seen to be at the time, would’ve been the bigger risk. The Chiefs, when they made the move they did, were in Year 5 of the Andy Reid–John Dorsey regime and, as such, had a roster and scheme built over years to support a young quarterback’s development and a veteran quarterback to facilitate a redshirt year. It was perfect for a player like Mahomes. San Francisco wouldn’t have been.
So because of the circumstances, more so than the draft pick investment, I’d say it’d have been a much bigger risk for the Niners to do it where they were picking than it was for the Chiefs to do what they did.
From I’m a Bengals Fan Now! (@DonRidenour): Why do teams leave a QB in on Wildcat plays? Seems like they would get more out of another blocker or receiver on those plays and that would be better than just having the QB stand out there and do nothing.
Don, it’s simple math.
Let’s start with a conventional setup. If an athletic quarterback lines up in the shotgun with three receivers, the defense has to treat that for what it is, which is 11-personnel (one tight end, one back). That influences which personnel the defense puts on the field (probably nickel, in this case), and the call (probably geared to defend the pass). Meanwhile, the offense can operate as if it’s in 12-personnel, because the quarterback can be a runner.
That essentially creates an extra gap in the defense, which is why the zone read was such a problem for pretty much everyone in its early years.
Conversely, if you just have a tailback taking the snap, you get a more skilled runner in the play, but the threat that the defense sees in the passing game goes away. Which is to say it doesn’t matter if they put three receivers out there, with the tailback playing quarterback, you simply don’t have to do as much, from a personnel-package or play-call standpoint, to account for what the offense can do in the passing game in that spot.
Merge those two circumstances together, and keeping the quarterback on the field in such a situation is a way of middling it, because once the offense breaks the huddle, the defense really is stuck with the personnel it has on the field. So if you’re in 11-personnel, and the defense puts a nickel look out there in response, and you have the tailback at quarterback, it puts the defense in a bind, because now they’re running 12-personnel into a light box, with the quarterback split out and a corner taken out of the play accounting for him.
(And hopefully I did a decent job explaining that, for a non-coach.)
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