1. There’s a changing of the guard at quarterback.
Jimmy Garoppolo, Teddy Bridgewater, Kyle Allen and Devlin Hodges (the duck-caller) are 14-0. Brady’s still winning and Brees will be back, but the signs are there for the new. The 2004 class is fading away, with Eli Manning benched, Ben Roethlisberger out for the year and Philip Rivers 2-4. Exactly half of the league’s 32 teams are starting passers in their third year of starting experience or less. When ex-MVP Cam Newton, 30, can go from starry starter to hurt to wondering if he’ll get his job back when he’s healthy, you realize that NFL, as Jerry Glanville once made famous on NFL Films, stands for Not For Long.
“Perfect,” Darnold said after stunning the Cowboys in New Jersey, about the fact the 6-0 Patriots are on deck for him and his 1-4 team.
“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” he said. “I want to play the best. It’s great.”
When I asked Hodges about all the young quarterbacks playing early and playing well, he was naively honest, which I appreciated.
“To be honest,” he said, “that’s a good question, and I wish I had an answer. I don’t know. I just know, for me, this is something I’ve believed I could do since I was 5 years old. Nothing about this scares me. In college, we were throwing it 50, 60 times a game, and I got a lot of good experience. I just believe I can play.”
2. The 49ers are a revelation.
Maybe it was when bull-strong pass-rusher Nick Bosa walked Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth back into Jared Goff early in the Niners-Rams game. Or maybe it happened late in the second quarter, when the Niners stoned the Rams’ Malcolm Brown twice on plunges from the 1-yard line. More likely, it came in the fourth quarter, this realization that the San Francisco defense, at least in the NFC, is as good as it gets.
Niners up 20-7, Rams have the ball fourth-and-one at the L.A. 44-yard line, 10:26 to play. Sean McVay decided to go for it. Rookie back Darrell Henderson, steamed straight ahead, and safety Jimmie Ward sprinted through a crease on the offensive right side, evading a Robert Woods block, dove and hugged Henderson by both shins, and he fell two feet short of the first down. Three minutes later, now on third-and-two at the Niners’ 28, Ward rocked tight end Gerald Everett, breaking up a pass that would have been a first down if caught. Now another fourth down.
There’s a route in the NFL called a “Jerk Route.” The offense attempts to isolate a wideout on a linebacker or safety on a very short curl—or a short curl and quick cross, to create space. Cooper Kupp of the Rams, from the slot, is very good at it. And now the Rams wanted to run it to try to save the game. “I see it in practice every day,” Ward told me from L.A. after the game. “Our guys do it. They work on those shifty routes every day. I’m used to it. I see how their offense tries to set it up, so I knew they were gonna try to run it on this fourth down. Kupp, with no Rams receivers in his area code, posted up near the middle of the field, then darted to Goff’s right to get free of Ward. When the pass was right on Kupp, Ward enveloped him and hog-tied him to the ground. Incomplete.
Twice in three minutes, on fourth down with San Francisco protecting a two-score lead, Ward stopped two drives by himself.
“I’d wear Jimmie Ward’s jersey on the sideline if they’d let me,” said Niners coach Kyle Shanahan.
The Niners have held two offenses with good weapons, the Browns and Rams, to 10 points in the last eight quarters. They’re 5-0, and it’s the defense that’s the key right now—a hammering front with a team of physical cover players mindful of the Legion of Boom. Ironic that Richard Sherman is having a revived year at corner. “This game was fun,” said Ward, a sixth-year Niner playing for something for the first time in his career. “This is my first year playing in games like that. We’ve got 11 guys swarming to the ball. Not about one guy. It’s about all 11 getting to the ball.”
3. The Rams and Chargers aren’t L.A.’s darlings anymore.
In 2018, the Rams lost three regular-season games. The Chargers lost four.
In 2019, through six weeks, the Rams have lost three regular-season games. The Chargers have lost four.
Rams quarterback Jared Goff (7.0 yards per attempt, seven TDs, seven picks) has been inconsistent and didn’t have time or a pocket Sunday to do much. But I wouldn’t give up on the Rams; they scored 69 points in the two games prior to Sunday, only to be let down by the defense and a shanked kick by Greg Zuerlein. The Chargers are another story. They’ve scored 20 or less four times in six games, losing all four. They miss Derwin James. Philip Rivers is getting hounded out of the pocket too much. With four formidable pass-rushes on the schedule in the next month (Tennessee, Chicago, Green Bay, Oakland), it’ll be a challenge for the Chargers to get back in the pennant race.
4. Evidently, Lamar Jackson’s going to run.
When I went to Ravens camp this summer, the vibe was that Jackson’s penchant for running—he averaged 17 rushes per game in his seven regular-season starts in 2018—wouldn’t be duplicated in 2019. He even told Ben Shpigel of the New York Times in September, in a story published Sunday, “I hate running … I like throwing touchdowns instead of running them.” He’s gone back to his old ways the last couple of weeks, running 33 times for 222 yards, including 19 times for a gaudy 152 yards in the win over Cincinnati and its porous run defense Sunday. It was an odd game, though. The Ravens put up 23 points, and it felt like it should been 40.
“We’re just going to do what the defense gives us,” Jackson told me post-game. “The game’s so fast. I’ve got a sharp mind. I really don’t care if I’m running or passing. Just win games.”
“So what percent of your runs today were designed runs, and what percent did you take off because of pressure?” I asked.
“Ninety percent were designed,” he said. “Ten percent I took off on my own.”
Likely that has something to do with Cincinnati allowing 5.3 yards per rush. But Jackson’s apace to carry it 184 times, and we’ll see if the Ravens want him to be exposed that much. From the pocket or using his mobility, Jackson’s a fascinating watch, and he plenty’s accurate (.651) in case he decides eventually to pass first and second, and maybe third. He’ll be tested when Baltimore plays Seattle and New England in the next two games.
5. The Cowboys look like a 3-3 team.
Of all the team fan bases I pissed off with my preseason predictions, picking the Cowboys to not make the playoff seemed to enrage the most people. I take no joy in Dallas losing three straight, including Sunday’s all-day-struggle of a 24-22 loss to the previously 0-4 Jets. But this is a team with problems entering the NFC East showdown with similarly disappointing Philadelphia, also 3-3, next Sunday night in Texas. The Cowboys can’t be great with their offensive injuries; they’re just too thin to survive the loss of both tackles (Tyron Smith and La’el Collins) and two prime receivers (Amari Cooper and Randall Cobb). The problem with Dallas is they feasted on three down teams early (Giants, Washington, Miami) and now don’t have many breathers the rest of the way—maybe against the Giants and Washington.
I was bothered by one thing that had to do with coaching Sunday. In particular, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. On the two-point conversion attempt after Dallas rallied within two points in the closing seconds, you had to figure defensive coordinator Gregg Williams of the Jets would send an extra rusher or rushers at Dak Prescott. He sent his best: safety Jamal Adams, who came up the middle, blocked by no one. Tell me: How does one of the best blitzing safeties come straight at the quarterback, straight up the middle, without being accounted for? That’s a question I’d be asking in a the offensive staff meeting today if I were Jerry Jones and I couldn’t sleep when I got back to Dallas just thinking about that scheme disaster.
6. Teddy Bridgewater is a perfect man for this time.
When Drew Brees got hurt in Los Angeles in Week 2, the Rams routed the Saints. At 1-1 and with Brees set to miss four to six weeks, it was a restless time inside Saintsland. The Saints stayed out west that week, and when they got to Seattle for their Week 3 game, Bridgewater decided to invite his offensive mates to dinner one night. The entire offense came. Michael Thomas spoke. Terron Armstead spoke. And then Bridgewater, who is quite reserved, stood. He told his teammates, ‘I’m not Drew Brees. I’m Teddy Bridgewater. And it’s not about me, at all. It’s about the team.” He told them he was going to do everything he could to make the men in that room believe in him.
He’s done a good job accomplishing that, to be sure. Seattle was 2-0, and Bridgewater led the Saints to victory. Dallas came to New Orleans 3-0 the next week, and the Saints won again. Then they rolled over Tampa Bay and played close to the vest in Jacksonville, winning 13-6 on Sunday.
This is not the Brees Saints. New Orleans, uncharacteristically, is plus-six in scoring margin. (Same as the mediocre Titans.) Brees should take the job back when he’s healthy, of course. But if Bridgewater does nothing else this season, his calm demeanor, competent play and strong presence, as well as his hold-the-fort 4-0 record, has been more than anyone expected in New Orleans. And his play verifies the faith GM Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton had in him to pay a backup quarterback $7.25 million for the year.
Five truths, in staccato fashion
• Sam Darnold’s the genuine item. “The worst part about being out was I was healthy for the last three weeks, but my spleen was enlarged,” Darnold said after the win over Dallas, speaking about sitting with mono. “I had great energy. I really felt fine. But the tests that came back just showed I couldn’t play because of the spleen.” He’ll play better, and he’ll play four quarters better. But there were glimpses of what Adam Gase saw when he started working with Darnold in April. His 92-yard deep-strike TD to Robby Anderson, with the ball thrown 47 yards in the air, on target, was worthy of the wait for Darnold over the past month. “We needed it so bad,” he said. “Being 0-4 is just so awful.”
• The end looks close for at least one of the class of 2015. Classy Marcus Mariota got yanked after another wholly ineffective performance for much of the 16-0 Tennessee loss to Denver. Looks like GM Jon Robinson will lead a search for another quarterback in the 2020 draft. Mariota’s a perfect person, but he’s played to the level of a backup quarterback after being the second overall pick in 2015. The first pick that year, Jameis Winston, looked like he’d earned a second contract from Tampa Bay with his above-average play in weeks two through five. But his six-turnover game against Carolina on Sunday has to give GM Jason Licht pause. Licht badly wants to keep Winston and sign him, but he’s got to be smart too. The Bucs come out of the bye in 13 days with four road games in six weeks. Which, for Winston right now, might be the best thing.
• Yes, I do think the Chiefs face some trouble. Two home losses the last two Sundays are more than just a warning across the bow. These numbers are troubling: 37:15, 39:48. Those are the times of possession for the Colts and Texans in their wins over Kansas City. You know why those are so high? Because both teams wisely played keepaway from Patrick Mahomes, which you can do by running the ball a lot. And why wouldn’t you run on the Chiefs? They’re allowing 5.2 yards per rush. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo needs to tighten up that front, or it’ll be yet another year that the Chiefs Kingdom spends a bitter February wondering what might have been.
• The MVP is a horse race. As of this morning, my pick would be Seattle QB Russell Wilson. Patrick Mahomes would be second, Deshaun Watson third, Tom Brady fourth and probably Christian McCaffrey fifth. Would love to pick a Niner somewhere. Of course, it’s all fruitless to list several guys, because in the official MVP voting, conducted by the Associated Press, 50 voters pick one candidate, and one only.
• The Steelers found a keeper caretaker, and maybe more. When Chris Simms and I visited Steelers camp in August, we heard about this quarterback I’d never come across before: Devlin Hodges of Samford, in Alabama. Word was the rookie was afraid of nothing, came in and out of huddles like he’d been there. “My goal was to make the final 53, and if not, then the practice squad,” Hodges said last night. But he didn’t make the team out of camp. He went home to Alabama, waiting for the phone to ring. Then his agent, Bus Cook, told him the Jets were interested in working him out, and to hustle to Birmingham to fly to New Jersey. Hold on. Driving to the airport, Hodges heard from Cook again. Turns out the Steelers wanted to sign him to the practice squad. Hodges never went to Jersey. He went back home and packed to live in Pittsburgh for a while. He joined the practice squad Sept. 10, then was put on the active roster a week later. And when Mason Rudolph was concussed last week, the job was Hodges’. “The game’s the same, but the players are faster,” he said of the difference between Samford and the Steelers. He completed 15 of 20 for 132 yards, and he threw a 26-yard catch-and-run TD pass to James Connor to give Pittsburgh a 21-0 lead in the second quarter. How did it all feel, I wondered, to be in the NFL and win a game. “Well, I won an NFL game, and they can never take that away from me,” Hodges said, walking onto the plane for the return to Pittsburgh. “But right now, I am so hungry. And I want to look at my phone; I’m sure everyone from home’s been leaving me messages.” Who knows how long the dream will last? With the Steelers on their bye this week, Mason Rudolph will have a week to come out of the concussion protocol. Whatever, the Steelers know they’ve got a good insurance policy in Hodges now.