Why Chargers drastically changed defenses for Ravens

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Philip Rivers, the only passer in the Class of 2004 left standing, jogged off the field in his grass-green Charger uniform late Sunday afternoon …

Whoa. Chargers wore white against Baltimore. “Grass-green?”

Grass-stained, from shoulder pads to nameplate to numbers, front and back. Equipment guys aren’t getting that baby pristine unless they wash it six times.

“YES! YES!” Rivers yelled, the fire still in his 37-year-old eyes, stopping to hug GM Tom Telesco and owner Dean Spanos outside the locker room after the 23-17 wild-card win over the Ravens.

Lots to unpack after this game. It starts with that defensive plan. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley threw the changeup of the NFL season at Baltimore, making a dominant run game feeble with a seven-defensive-back alignment from the first snap of the game to the last. When Bradley first discussed it with coach Anthony Lynn early in the week, Lynn said, “Are we insane, or what?” Nope. It worked. The Chargers (13-4) flummoxed Baltimore with 58 snaps (out of 59) of seven-DB defense.

The Chargers did this for health reasons—they’re beat-up at linebacker—but also for strategic ones. Instead of playing 240 pounds-250-251 across as their three ‘backers, Bradley wanted to go 195 (Jahleel Addae), 210 (Adrian Phillips), with rookie all-pro safety Derwin James (215) coming into the box at times—like the first defensive snap of the game. Lamar Jackson, the biggest running threat in the league at quarterback right now, broke for the right end on the first play from scrimmage in front of a jacked-up crowd.

Loss of one. James stoned him.

“The momentum of the defense rose from there,” James told me afterward. “When that play happened, we just got so jacked.”

Midway through the first quarter, an NFL GM acquaintance of mine texted me: “Chargers playing with 7 DBs. What’s this all about?” Speed. Quickness. Playing Lamar Jackson. That’s what it was about. “I wasn’t sure how this was gonna hold up,” Lynn said afterward. “They were running for 300 yards lots of games with Lamar playing. Gus felt like getting speed on the field could help contain Lamar. It could help in the passing game, dropping back and taking over routes that our linebackers usually cover. It worked. Our guys, they embraced it. It was risky, but it paid off. We’re talking about going up against a rushing attack that no one can stop right now. And we’re gonna do it with two 200-pound guys?

“What was cool,” said James, “is our DB room, we got seven or eight guys in there everyday. And today, every one of them started and played the whole way, basically.”

It’s infectious being around James, who will compete with Indianapolis linebacker and NFL tackles leader Darius Leonard for Defensive Rookie of the Year. You can tell he loves his space in life. He talked to every media member for as long as he could Sunday, punctuating it with talking on FaceTime to a slew of friends, at one point introducing one to Melvin Ingram. It’s cool to see someone who loves the game and wants to be great acting out his dreams.

“So you guys haven’t lost all year outside L.A.,” I told James. “Why are you so good away from home?”

“It’s fun being around guys who love being into football 24/7,” he said. “We love football. We love it, we love it, we love it. When we get on the road, we get to spend more time together talking football, being together.”

James, Desmond King, Ingram, Michael Davis … The Chargers have picked a bunch of players recently who love football the way Philip Rivers does. That showed up play after play Sunday. Did you notice Rivers acting out Sunday? He got whacked hard by Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon twice in the second half—and Rivers thought both hits came a little late, after he’d released the ball on a pass. So Rivers got fired up at Judon, and they jawed, and Judon at one point looked hurt and struggled to get up. “That’s what you get!” Rivers hollered at him.

And so on the Chargers’ last scoring drive of the game, early in the fourth quarter, Rivers, a plodder, escaped trouble and lumbered nine yards for a first down on third-and-eight. When he got up, Rivers looked like Steve Smith. He thrust his chest out for the 45 Ravens and 70,432 fans to see.

By his locker afterward, no longer grass-stained but still filthy (and deliriously happy), Rivers did his best to dissect how it happened. He did a terrific job of dumping off passes milliseconds before a cover-zero rush would get to him. “They brought cover-zero again on us some, and we took advantage when we got an opportunity for big plays. I told [friend and Baltimore safety Eric] Weddle and [defensive coordinator] Wink Martindale after the game they did a heckuva job. What did we have? A little over 200 yards of offense.”

Now the Rivers will head back to the East Coast late Friday after a full week of prep for the Patriots. And Rivers knows this could be his last shot at the elusive Super Bowl. One of the most annoying NFL storylines, to Rivers, is that his 2004 draft-mates Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning have a total of four Super Bowl wins. He has zero.

So, I asked him, will the trip to Foxboro be especially important, with the sands of time running out of the hourglass?

“I think … definitely, probably, maybe I’ll be even more excited. I think probably even a little bit more emotional. You know? So you’re going to Foxboro … That gets me a little bit. Last time we were there in the postseason was 2007, or January ’08, but 2007 season. That’s 11 years ago, you know. Now we’re going back in there … I went in there at 26 and go back in at 37. You know. With a totally different team.

“But because you’re going against a Bill Belichick defense, a Bill Belichick team, and Tom Brady-led team … you’re talking about arguably the greatest of all time. I’m not playing Tom. But it’s always special. Peyton Manning was always a favorite to play. It was special to look over and say, ‘Peyton Manning’s leading that team over there!’ That was special to me. Tom Brady’s gonna be the guy leading that team over there this week. That’s special. I’m not going against Tom, but it’s special.

“I think this team is just … I think we’re a little more weathered. You know? We just been through a lot. We’ve been all over the place. We’ve been to London. We’ve been everywhere on the road and won. We’ve won with defense. We’ve won with offense. We’ve won with kick returns. We’ve won with field goals. There’s no other way we can win. I don’t know that we can be put in a situation and go, ‘Oh gosh, how are our guys gonna respond?’ That doesn’t mean you always win. But I don’t know anything that can come our way that can make us go, ‘Help!’ “

Good vibe out of the Chargers’ cramped locker room Sunday. They’re one-third of the way down the Super Bowl road. That second trip, though. It’s a doozy.

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Why NFL free agency is often Fool’s Gold

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So we’ve just had a week of all NFL, all the time, of two mega-New York stories (Odell Beckham Jr., being traded by the Giants and Le’Veon Bell signing with the Jets) breaking within five hours, and the New York media machine going as wild as it can. Fans of the Detroit Patriots are fired up. The Raiders are going to the playoffs. J-E-T-S! Jets Jets Jets!

I am here to dump cold water on this.

Five very bad team stories of spending big in free agency:

• 1996: The Jets, 3-13 in 1995, signed Super Bowl QB Neil O’Donnell (to the third-highest quarterback contract ever) and tackles Jumbo Elliott and David Williams. O’Donnell started 0-6 and got yanked. New York finished 1-15 and fired the coaching staff.

• 2000: Washington, 8-8 in 1999, went wild in free agency, signing Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders and Jeff George to deals totaling $99 million on paper. Sanders lasted one sub-par year and retired, coach Norv Turner was canned in December, and Washington went 8-8, 8-8, 7-9 and 5-11 in the four years after the gold rush.

• 2009: Washington, which likes to win March, replayed its free-agent follies of a decade earlier, making the worst signing in free-agency history (Albert Haynesworth, seven years, $100 million, and he lasted two disastrous years) and a few others. Washington crashed to 4-12. Coach and GM: fired.

• 2011: Philadelphia, NFC East champs in 2010, worked the free market like no team in the 26-year history of free agency, led by president Joe Banner and GM Howie Roseman. ”They came out of the gate like wild men,” coach Andy Reid said. “Dream Team,” quarterback Vince Young christened the newbies—Nnamdi Asomugha, Ronnie Brown, Cullen Jenkins, Young, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and others. “Dream Team” went 8-8 and 4-12. Reid got fired.

• 2016: Jacksonville spent $199 million on good but not great players (Malik Jackson, Tashaun Gipson, Chris Ivory, Kelvin Beachum). The reward: The Jags regressed from 5-11 in 2015 to 3-13 in 2016, and coach Gus Bradley got whacked in December.

I sense a trend.

“There are lots of mistakes made in free agency,” Cleveland GM John Dorsey said Saturday. “And lots of mistakes made early in free agency—when there are 32 teams competing for the best players, and you’re going to pay probably 20 percent more than makes sense.”

Sometimes high-priced imports work, and they improve a team mightily. Reggie White had great defensive impact as the first big free agent in 1993, and made it cool for free agents to work in Green Bay. Drew Brees (2006, San Diego to New Orleans) became one of the best quarterbacks ever. Andrew Whitworth (2017, Cincinnati to the Rams) has been one of the best left tackles of football for a growing and starry team. The Giants got a one-year pop out of Janoris Jenkins, Damon Harrison and Olivier Vernon in 2016, and made the playoffs that year … but it was like a 5-Hour Energy jolt. The Giants crashed. And there are a lot more Haynesworths and Asomughas and ’96 Jets than there are even one-year success stories.

Just Look At 2018

While getting excited about the new class of free agents, remember these Pro Football Focus ratings of some of the richest players who changed teams in the 2018 free-agency class.

Kirk Cousins ($28 million per year) was PFF’s 11th-rated quarterback.
Case Keenum ($18 million per) was the 28th-rated quarterback.
Sammy Watkins ($16 million per) was the 38th-rated wide receiver.
Nate Solder ($15.5 million per) was the 38th-rated tackle.
Trumaine Johnson ($14.5 million per) was the 43rd-rated cornerback.
Allen Robinson ($14 million per) was the 35th-rated wide receiver.
Andrew Norwell ($13.3 million per) was the 13th-rated guard.
Malcolm Butler ($12.2 million per) was the 73rd-rated cornerback.
Ryan Jensen ($10.5 million per) was the 36th-rated center.

Seriously: How many GMs who signed those players, 12 months later, wish they hadn’t? Keenum in Denver, Watkins in Kansas City, Johnson in New York and Butler in Tennessee … Those would be the top on my list.

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10 hours that changed the NFL: Inside the Odell Beckham Jr. trade

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The reality is it was probably smart to trade him. That doesn’t, however, make the decision to sign him for $18 million a year less than seven months ago very smart.

So … last week. I believe GM Dave Gettleman thought it was a sign of desperation to reach out and try to scare up offers—that he learned under Ernie Accorsi, who played that kind of game with the Chargers in last-second Eli Manning trade during the 2004 draft. So Gettleman reached out first to only one team before dealing Beckham: Buffalo. When the Antonio Brown deal fell through, Gettleman called Bills GM Brandon Beane wondering if he was so interested in Antonio Brown, how about Beckham? Beane didn’t bite.

Hearing the persistent rumors, Cleveland GM John Dorsey reached out Tuesday morning. No harm, no foul, he figured. That began a back-and-forth over the next 10 hours, approximately, that featured about 12 ideas/offers/counter-offers. The Giants wanted two first-round picks for Beckham, but I believe Gettleman knew that bounty might be tough to get because Beckham had proven himself a difficult player to handle. The Browns discussed some other players. But Gettleman, smarting from the prospect of losing safety Landon Collins in free agency to Washington (still hard to fathom why the Giants didn’t franchise their unquestioned defensive leader, Collins, at $11 million for 2019), had studied one Cleveland player he wanted: the 25th pick in the 2017 draft, versatile if slightly disappointing safety Jabrill Peppers. And at some point during the day, my understanding is Gettleman made it clear that the trade would not get done without Peppers being in it.

That was okay with Cleveland. My read of Peppers—and when I asked a couple AFC people about him in recent days, the view was shared—is that he was a good and aggressive run-defender and okay but not very instinctive or disruptive against the pass. He allowed, per Pro Football Focus metrics, passer ratings of 128.4 and 116.5 in coverage in his first two NFL seasons. If that doesn’t get better, Peppers won’t be a long-term Giant. But in the Giants’ eyes, Peppers could replace Collins, and he’d be the second first-round pick Gettleman wanted. And the Giants had made an iffy pick in the 2018 Supplemental Draft last summer, using their 2019 third-rounder on Western Michigan cornerback Sam Beal. Cleveland’s mid-first-round pick (17th overall), and the former first-rounder in Peppers, and the low third-rounder (95th overall) this year replacing the third-round pick they’d lost … all of that was compensation enough for Gettleman.

So when the deal got to the one and the three and Peppers, Gettleman and Dorsey agreed. By my measure, the Giants got about 80 percent value for Beckham; I’m not as high on Peppers as Gettleman obviously is—or as Gettleman has to be. Gettleman had to decide whether he wanted to leverage the Cleveland offer with other teams. Because Beckham’s stock had been tarnished, it’s doubtful, for example, that he could have fetched better than 17-95-Peppers from the 49ers for picks and/or a player in the next two drafts. The Niners have been sniffing around Beckham for months. But they’re just not a good match right now. The Giants need high picks and/or productive players. The Niners wouldn’t have wanted to trade a high pick this year or next plus rising star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner … and the Giants might not have wanted to settle, say, for next year’s first-rounder and this year’s second-rounder (36th overall) plus a lesser player than Buckner (say safety Jaquiski Tartt). The Giants need help now. So Gettleman took the bird in the hand. He lanced the boil.

In the coming days, or at the NFL meetings in Phoenix, Gettleman will be pressed on why he said, “You don’t give up on talent,” and then he gave up on it. He’ll probably say he didn’t give up on talent—he used Beckham to get more talent, including Peppers and two picks in the first three rounds in a draft stocked on defense, where the Giants are woebegone. Gettleman’s history in Carolina was to build from the inside out, to build his lines first. The Giants now have picks 6, 17, 27, 95 and 108, and even if they pick a quarterback first, New York should pound the defensive side of the ball with at least three or four of those choices.

So now the Giants can approach 2019 and beyond without the distraction of Beckham—but also without his greatness. I do not buy that it’s a great move; I do not buy it’s a bad move. And I can tell you the Giants, absent a strong pitch by Cleveland, would still have Beckham on the team today.

One last Giants-related thing: the Aug. 28, 2018 signing of Beckham to the five-year, $90-million deal. Think back to last August. Beckham had a quiet offseason, mostly, and part of the allure of the Giants job for rookie coach Pat Shurmur was to coach him. If Gettleman did not sign him before the season, the Beckham contract would have been the Sword of Damocles over the Giants’ season. And so the deal got done. Six weeks later, Beckham appeared in the ill-fated ESPN interview alongside Lil Wayne (Non Sequitur of the NFL Season) and questioned Eli Manning’s ability. Josina Anderson asked Beckham, who signed the biggest contract for a receiver ever, and was playing in the media capital of the world, if he was happy. “That’s a tough question,” he said. Strange thing to say, and, inside the Giants and around New York, the answer went over like a fart in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Shurmur disciplined Beckham. But it didn’t get much better from there—and missing the last month of the season with a quad injury left some in the organization wondering how hurt he was.

Part of me says, “Good luck, Cleveland.” And maybe history will repeat itself and Beckham eventually will be a problem. Maybe he won’t. His best football friend and one of the only people who can tell him when he’s being an idiot, Jarvis Landry, is the leader in the receivers room. His LSU receivers coach (and two-year position coach with the Giants),
Adam Henry, coaches the wideouts in Cleveland. And there’s Freddie Kitchens, the head coach who appears to have some blunt-force trauma to his communications.

Kitchens is the big X factor. Some boom-or-bust players seem like tech stocks at the start of their careers. Patrick Mahomes and Saquon Barkley turned into Apple, John Ross and Reuben Fosterinto AOL. Kitchens, who took over offensive play-calling after Hue Jackson was fired last fall, helped the Browns to a stunning 5-2 finish, making Baker Mayfield look like a fledgling Favre. Kitchens had enough of the Midas Touch to land Cleveland’s head-coaching job. Amazing story. But can he handle being a first-year head coach, and the pressure that comes with coaching an ascending Cinderella, and the play-calling, and handling the incendiary Beckham?

“From a planning standpoint,” Dorsey told me Saturday, “you want to surround a first-year head coach with quality coaches at all levels. I think we’ve done that. Surround him with a strong coaching staff [veteran offensive coordinator Todd Monken, ex-head coach Steve Wilks as defensive coordinator]. And remember: This head coach is very direct, very honest. He’s going to tell it like it is, and he’ll tell Odell like it is. He will hold players accountable. He’ll let players express themselves, as he should do.

“We really like Odell. He’s passionate. He’s competitive. He wants to be great. You can’t have enough of those guys. He’s on time. Everything you hear is he’s a great teammate. We’re thrilled to have him.”

Dorsey has had one heck of a run these last 11 months. He drafted the franchise quarterback (Baker Mayfield) and a long-term very good running back in Nick Chubb; traded for two Pro Bowl receivers (Landry, Beckham); signed the tarnished 2017 NFL rushing champ (Kareem Hunt). Now Dorsey has to be sure his offensive line is good enough, and I’d watch for some fortifications there.

He was in full we-haven’t-done-anything-yet mode when we spoke Saturday, but he knows the expectations, locally and nationally, are through the roof. The Browns are already the Vegas favorites to win the AFC North. Last time they won the division: 30 years ago, in 1989, when Dorsey was a Packers linebacker and Bud Carson coached the Browns.

“You’re never happy till you get to the ultimate goal,” Dorsey said. “Right now we’re a third-place team, 7-8-1, building a team that can compete. That’s all.”

He’s right, technically. But for the first time in 1.5 generations, there’s the weight of expectations on the Browns. Odell Beckham has put them there.

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