Why Jon Gruden still loves the Khalil Mack trade

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Raiders coach Jon Gruden did notice his franchise won the award for best sports transaction at the prestigious MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, for the (previously) reviled deal of all-pro linebacker Khalil Mack to the Bears. The winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Economics, Richard Thaler, loved the deal because he doesn’t love mega-bucks non-quarterbacks, and like to maximize high draft choices. (The deal: Mack and a second-round pick to Chicago for two first-round picks and third- and fifth-round picks.) “I do know we got that,” Gruden said last week. “I think it was the only award we got last year.”

Interesting reaction, further, from Gruden. He’s never backed down from claims that the Raiders couldn’t afford to build a deep roster by paying two players gigantic money. In this case, that would have been, combined, paying Derek Carr and Mack, on average, about $47-million a year. So instead of keeping Mack and paying him, Gruden opted for the cost-controls of five first-round picks over the next two drafts, with the bigger money going to Antonio Brown ($19 million a year, average), Trent Brown ($17 million), Tyrell Williams ($11 million) and Lamarcus Joyner ($10.5 million).

Follow my math here. The 10 key Raiders right now—Carr, the four big free agents this year, and the five first-rounders over the next two drafts, averaging about a $3.5 million per player per year—will be a weight of about $99 million a year over the next three to four seasons. If the Raiders had kept Carr, Mack and wideout Amari Cooper and signed all the market contracts, that would be three players for about $65 million per year, on average.

“If we did come up with the money to make the [Mack] contract happen last year, we wouldn’t have any of these men we’re talking about now,” Gruden said. “We would not have Trent Brown. We would not have Antonio Brown. We wouldn’t have Lamarcus Joyner. We wouldn’t have [linebacker] Vontaze Burfict and we wouldn’t have Tyrell Williams. And we wouldn’t have the three first-rounders that we’re talking about.

“So, you have to consider all of it like the Nobel Prize winner did and digest it for yourself. I’m not gonna sit here and say that I didn’t cry for three days. I wanted to coach Mack and Mack knows it. But that trade allowed these acquisitions that we’re talking about today to even happen.”

It’ll be a fascinating experiment in roster management by Gruden and his new GM, Mike Mayock. But it’s damn hard to find Khalil Macks, even high in drafts.

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NFL Week 13 awards: Nick Bosa, defenses steal show

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Offensive Players of the Week

Joe Burrow, quarterback, Cincinnati. What a show of cool-under-pressure excellence by Burrow. He was unshakeable, hitting 25 of 31 for 286 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. His most impressive moment came with less than two minutes left, as the Bengals had third-and-11 at the Kansas City 28 with a three-point lead, hoping to hang onto the ball and run out the clock rather than kick a field goal and give Mahomes an entire minute to drive for six points. Burrow was in the pocket for about two seconds when Chiefs DE Mike Danna broke through the line on the strong side. When Danna hesitated for a half-second (appearing to make sure Burrow still had the ball), Burrow took advantage to thread a perfect ball to a closely-covered Tee Higgins, hitting him in stride for a first down to ice the game. Burrow moves to 3-0 against Mahomes – all in this calendar year. Honorable mentions to Jonah Williams, Cordell Volson, Ted Karras, Alex Cappa, and La’el Collins on the offensive line who, less than a year after Burrow endured 20 sacks in the postseason, have held two of his tormenters (Tennessee and Kansas City) to one sack each in consecutive weeks.

A.J. Brown, wide receiver, Philadelphia. This was the game Brown had circled on his mental calendar—the Titans coming to Philadelphia seven months after the Titans traded Brown to Philadelphia—and the drama did not disappoint. Brown’s 40-yard TD pass from good friend Jalen Hurts in the second quarter put the Eagles ahead for good, 14-7, and Brown’s well-covered 29-yard TD catch in third quarter gave the Eagles all the insurance they’d need. For the game, Brown caught eight balls for 119 yards and those two scores as the Eagles routed the AFC South leaders.

 

Defensive Players of the Week

Bobby Wagner, linebacker, L.A. Rams. Ahead of this game Wagner, who spent the first 10 seasons of his career with Seattle, downplayed the significance of facing his former team for the first time, calling it “just another game,” in classic unruffled veteran speak. But Wagner’s performance Sunday was fit for a revenge game, including two sacks, two QB hits, three tackles for loss and a gritty, momentum-shifting interception in the third quarter when he muscled the ball out of the grip of Seattle’s Tony Jones. The Seahawks came away with the win, but Wagner was everywhere Sunday, reminding his former team of the impact player he can be.

Nick Bosa, edge, San Francisco. The definition of a valuable player is one who’s at his best when moments are the biggest. Bosa sacked Tua Tagovailoa twice when the game was in the balance, and when times were desperate at the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter, Bosa strip-sacked Tagovailoa, and the fumble was returned for a rub-it-in late TD. When Bosa is in form, the Niners can win games with their D. They did Sunday.

Chandler Jones, defensive end, Las Vegas. It was a breakout night for Jones, one that will go at least part of the way to quieting critics of the mismatch between his $51 million contract signed this offseason and his impact on the field so far in 2022. Jones entered the day with just a half-sack on the season but brought down Justin Herbert three times, part of relentless pressure that also yielded him five QB hits and a pass defended in the Raiders’ 27-20 win over the Chargers.

Jalen Pitre, strong safety, Houston. The second-round rookie from Baylor, who has been a bright spot in a terrible season for the Texans, saved his best for the Deshaun Watson return to Houston Sunday. Pitre had an NFL-best 16 tackles in Week 13, and he added an interception that, at the time, was crucial—he picked off Watson three yards deep in the end zone on a bad decision by the quarterback. The Texans have a lot of holes to fill for 2023, but strong safety isn’t one of them.

 

Special teams players of the week

Donovan Peoples-Jones, receiver/returner, Cleveland. While Deshaun Watson struggled mightily in his first game back, Peoples-Jones saved the Browns from eternal first-half damnation. Down 5-0 with four minutes left in the second quarter, Peoples-Jones took a punt at the Cleveland 24-yard line, got hit by three Texans, weaved to the right sideline and won a footrace for a 76-yard TD. Boy, did the Browns need that.

Greg Zuerlein, kicker, N.Y. Jets. Scored 12 straight points between late in the second quarter and midway through the fourth, almost enough to lift the Jets to an upset of the Vikings in Minnesota. His five field goals—from 48, 60, 36, 30 and 26 yards—in five tries made this day reminiscent of some of the biggest Greg the Leg games.

 

Coach of the Week

Lou Anarumo, defensive coordinator, Cincinnati. This was a huge win for the Bengals, their fourth straight, against a powerhouse Chiefs squad. Today, the “Big Play Bengals” moniker was a perfect fit for Anarumo’s defense, including two key plays in the final quarter. It’s rare we see Travis Kelce lose the ball – in fact, Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt was responsible for Kelce’s first lost fumble of the season, halting the Chiefs’ first drive of the quarter and keeping the game within reach. Then, with Cincy up 27-24 in the final five minutes, Joseph Ossai sacked Patrick Mahomes on third and three to force a 55-yard Harrison Butker field goal attempt that sailed wide right, and just like that, the Bengals are 8-4. Anarumo interviewed for the Giants vacancy last season, and he’s rumored to be a head-coach candidate again this year. Neutralizing Kelce and helping the Bengals keep pace with the Ravens in the North can’t hurt his chances for a big job.

 

Goat of the week

Matt Patricia, assistant coach, Patriots. Not because Mac Jones yelled either at him or out of frustration Thursday night in the 24-10 loss to the Bills, or because offensive players subtly questioned Patricia’s play-calling after the game. But because the Patriots have developed zero downfield passing game, with nobody remotely threatening the secondary. Against the Bills, just seven of Mac Jones’ 36 passes went 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage or farther. You could argue that Jones—who completed just one of those seven throws—didn’t play well enough to deserve the trust of Patricia to throw to intermediate and deep areas. What I would say is Jones, the previous week against Minnesota, had completions of 26, 34, 16, 14, 37 and 40 yards on throws 10 yards or more past the line of scrimmage. The Buffalo game was a regression of major proportions. Patricia needed to build on the Minnesota game and did not.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

Joe Burrow giving Cincinnati Bengals edge in AFC

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I’m fascinated by the pennant race in the AFC North. Baltimore and Cincinnati are tied for the top spot at 8-4. The Ravens have the tiebreaker with a win over the Bengals in Week Five; they have a rematch at Cincinnati Week 18. Their comparative schedules give the Ravens a slight edge, mostly because Cincinnati has a dangerous Monday night game against Buffalo at home in Week 17.

Baltimore: at Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, at Cincinnati.

Cincinnati: Cleveland, at Tampa Bay, at New England, Buffalo, Baltimore.

But the quarterback gives the Bengals a big edge:

Baltimore: Lamar Jackson suffered a knee injury that will sideline him for an undetermined amount of time. Tyler Huntley, a nice backup, will hold the fort.

Cincinnati: Joe Burrow’s last seven weeks: 6-1, NFL-best 118.1 rating, 74.7 percent accuracy.

In the last two weeks, Burrow has beaten Tennessee and Kansas City in one-score games, playing his best when the best was required. The throw that blew me away watching the highlights of this game was a throw that was next-to-impossible to execute, at a time when the stakes of the game were high.

The situation: Cincinnati led 27-24 with 1:59 left in the game and had third-and-11 at the KC 28-. Kansas City had no timeouts left. If the Bengals converted here, they could run out the clock with two or three kneeldowns. If they were stopped here, Evan McPherson would be called on to try a field goal to stretch the lead to six points. So this third-down snap was everything.

Per NFL Next Gen Stats, here are the odds Burrow faced:

Next Gen had that Chris Jones, Mike Danna and Frank Clark all crossed the line of scrimmage faster than what’s considered the league’s above-average get-off time of .75 seconds. Danna, who came across in six-tenths of a second, was bearing down on Burrow as he readied to throw in a hurry.

The receiver, Tee Higgins, running a post route, never had more than two yards of separation from Kansas City cornerback Joshua Williams. Watching the replay, Williams looked like he was velcroed to Higgins.

Burrow threw the ball a split-second before getting hit by Danna. At the time of the throw, Williams was 18 inches from Higgins. In his shirt, in other words. When the ball gets to Higgins, he is contacted immediately (and maybe a tick before the ball gets there) by Williams. Burrow got hit. Higgins caught the ball. Gain of 14. Game over.

“You know the quarterback they have over there,” Burrow said. “We can’t settle for a field goal there or else [Patrick Mahomes] goes down the field and wins the game. We had to find a way to get that conversion, and Tee Higgins made a big play, just like he did in the AFC Championship.”

A few things come to mind about this Cincinnati team:

The offensive line is better. Shredded last year in the playoffs and early this year while the group was getting experience together, the five men up front are giving Burrow championship protection. In the last four games, Burrow has been sacked five times—including one each by Tennessee and KC in the last two games. Those two teams bedeviled Burrow in the playoffs last year. The leadership of free-agent center Ted Karras has been important.

They’re superb when games are tight. I attribute much of this to Burrow, who has a cool gene, the way great ones in the clutch have had. Each of their three playoff wins last January was a one-score game; Cincinnati’s last three wins have come by 7, 4 and 3 over the Steelers, Titans and Chiefs. His throw to Higgins and his clinical explanation for it illustrate why he and Mahomes might be the two quarterbacks with the best clutch play late in games right now.

The defense is not just along for the ride. In the last four weeks, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s unit has allowed an average of 318 yards with opposing passers completing just 60.1 percent. Mahomes was good Sunday (223 yards, one TD) but not dominant. Anarumo’s going to be a popular head-coach interview come the post-season for teams trying to figure how to beat Kansas City; he’s 3-0 against KC since January.

Even if the Bengals have to play road games through the playoffs, I doubt it’d bother them after winning in Nashville and Kansas City last year. That Week 18 game against the Ravens could determine everything, which is why I think it has the best chance of being game 272—the Sunday night game of the last weekend. It could have the most at stake of any final game. My money’s on Burrow if that happens.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column