Joe Flacco
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Joe Flacco was as good as Joe Montana (for one postseason)

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Whatever you end up thinking about Joe Flacco’s tenure in Baltimore, I would urge you to remember what he did six years ago, in the postseason of his fifth NFL year.

He beat Andrew Luck by 15 in a wild-card game. He made the throw of his life to help beat Peyton Manning, in 2-degree wind chill in Denver, by three in a divisional game. He beat Tom Brady by 15 in the AFC Championship Game in Foxboro. He beat the broiling-hot Colin Kaepernick by three in the Super Bowl.

Flacco, easily, had one of the best postseasons by a quarterback in history. Who beats two of the top five quarterbacks ever, in the span of eight days, both in hostile road environments?

I covered that divisional game in Denver on a Saturday afternoon that became Saturday night, a 4-hour, 11-minute slugfest. The game was tied at 7, at 14, at 21, at 28, and … well, I’ll tell you how it got tied at 35 in case you don’t recall.

With 40 seconds left in the fourth quarter and Denver up 35-28, Baltimore offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell called into Flacco’s helmet in the deafening roar of a crowd anticipating a trip to the AFC title game: “Scat right 99 … “ with some other signaling words behind it. Flacco loved it. Four receivers, two left and two right, all running go routes.

As I stood in the end zone (in Denver, in the last couple of minutes, media can stand on the field, out of the way, to see the end of the game), I saw Denver pass-rushers Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers both pressure Flacco, who stepped up and flung it high and far into the Denver night. Man, it was a high ball. And when it came down, it nestled into the arms of Jacoby Jones for a 70-yard touchdown.

The stadium got church-sermon quiet in the matter of about three seconds. Seventy yards away from the Baltimore sideline, I could hear the shrieks of the Ravens players. Jones found Flacco and screamed: “SMOKIN’ JOE!”

In the sixth quarter—or second overtime—Justin Tucker, with the wind chill dipping below zero, drilled a 47-yard field goal to win it 38-35.

I will always remember Flacco after that game. Smiling, fairly happy, but with him, you could never tell just how happy. His backup, Tyrod Taylor, seemed more thrilled, honestly.

Then the win in Foxboro. Coach John Harbaugh afterward called him “Brady-like … When we scouted him, so many times you look at a player and you say, ‘Is this going to be too big for him? Is the stage going to be too big?’ Never. It never has been.’’

Then the win in the Super Bowl, in New Orleans. Flacco told me after that game, at a family party in Huck Finn’s restaurant in the French Quarter, that his idol growing up was Joe Montana. (How many kid quarterbacks have said that? Only all of them.) That caused me to go back to my hotel room in the wee hours of Monday morning to see how Flacco’s postseason compared to Montana’s finest one.

Not far off, as it turned out.

So … I get that Flacco has been a mediocre quarterback since then, in part due to injury. He’s 43-42, with one playoff win (albeit in Pittsburgh) since that night in Huck Finn’s. But I guess I’m a glass-half-full guy. Elite or not, Flacco deserves to be remembered as the man who delivered a Super Bowl title to Baltimore. And when the Ravens picked him 18th out of Delaware in 2008, I guarantee if you’d told owner Steve Bisciotti he’d win one Super Bowl with Flacco in 11 seasons, he’d have signed for it right then.

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3 reasons why Colin Kaepernick case was settled

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There is far more we don’t know about the Colin Kaepernick/NFL/collusion settlement than we know, because the terms of the deal announced Friday are confidential and have not leaked. So it’s wrong to knock Kaepernick for caving, because we don’t know what his options were; if he and his counsel felt they faced a certain loss in the case to be heard by arbitrator Stephen Burbank, why just take the loss without dinging the NFL? It’s wrong to assume the NFL felt it was going to lose the case and thus settled; if that were the case, why would Kaepernick have taken a deal?

I know three things that influence my opinion of the case:

• One: When the depositions given by NFL people in the case were complete, those inside the league felt confident that nothing was said by a league executive or employee that could be deemed damaging enough to prove the case that two or more teams colluded to limit Kaepernick’s NFL employment. Very confident. Maybe that’s right; maybe it isn’t. Now, in the time between the end of the depositions and now, could some attorney have told Roger Goodell or his top legal lieutenant, Jeff Pash, that they might have liability with something in one or more of the depositions? I don’t know that. But the big reason why so many who covered this story were surprised was because they didn’t see it coming—that’s how confident the NFL was in its case.

• Two: The NFL is coming off a strong season, with no mega-controversies (till the woefully handled missed pass-interference call in the NFC title game, with the league office’s clumsy attempt to bury it by ignoring it for 10 days) and an uptick in TV ratings and an influx of new stars like surprising young MVP Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield and Saquon Barkley. The Bears and Rams and Chargers lifted dormant or down markets. Concussions were down a significant 23 percent year over year, giving hope that the game can be made safer. Roger Goodell mostly stayed out of sight during 2018, which turned out to be a pretty good strategy—fans didn’t have the commissioner on whom to focus their anger. With all that giving the NFL momentum this offseason, it’s probably a smart investment for the league to make the Kaepernick problem go away.

• Three: This comes from an excellent summation of the legality of the settlement from the University of New Hampshire’s associate dean of the School of Law, Michael McCann, writing for Sports Illustrated: “The loser of Burbank’s award could have challenged it in federal court, thereby creating public records with detailed information about the grievance. The NFL has long tried to avoid the discovery process and disclosure of any discovery.” Smart. So even if the NFL were to win the arbitration, Kaepernick could have appealed, and attorney Michael Geragos could have filed to force an appeals court to open up the NFL’s depositions.

In the end, if you’re talking a just way for this to end and you believe (as I do) that Kaepernick is likely to never play in the NFL again, he deserves a multi-million-dollar settlement, if that’s what he got. He did exacerbate what was a dicey situation already with his own actions, once wearing socks with pigs dressed as police officers. There were times when critics saw him as more interested in being a victim than a football player. Regardless, he didn’t deserve to be shunned by 32 teams.

I’ll always think Kaepernick hasn’t found NFL employment in 25 months because of business reasons, not football ones. I believe some teams have had interest in signing Kaepernick as a backup quarterback who may have been able to work his way into the starting job—on some teams—when the noise died down. But interested coaches and GMs with some franchises would have had to battle the business side of the organization and possibly the owner to get the deal done. That wouldn’t have to happen in a place like New England. If Bill Belichick wanted Kaepernick, I’ve got to think owner Robert Kraft would agree to let him make that move. (Maybe that’s why that rumor got some legs over the weekend, though I couldn’t find any confirmation of any interest by New England in Kaepernick.)

In the end, this became about more than whether Kaepernick’s free-wheeling style of play would fit a particular offense. It became about business, and whether Kaepernick would have indelibly affected the bottom line over the football product.

In my opinion, those issues are more specious than real, but I’m not the one running a team. It’s an unfulfilling end to the Kaepernick/NFL saga, if this is it. But we don’t get to choose the end that seems most satisfying or fair.

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Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray aren’t vastly different, explains Oklahoma coach

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Now we turn our attention to what could be the most interesting draft story in a generation: Who falls in love with 5-foot-9 7/8 (in his stocking feet) quarterback Kyler Murray, who now seems likely to be the first athlete ever drafted in the top 10 in two sports?

To begin to answer the question, start at ground zero. Dispel what you think you know about Murray—unless, of course, you’ve scouted him thoroughly or saw every game Oklahoma played last season. Because a sub-5-10 quarterback who runs the 40-yard dash in less than 4.4 seconds, ran the ball 140 times last fall and has quickness in Tyreek Hill’s league would naturally be a scrambling, throw-on-the-run type of player, right?

“What percentage of the time,” I asked Oklahoma coach and Murray mentor Lincoln Riley the other day, “would you guess Kyler threw from the pocket this year?”

Riley thought for a few seconds.

“Eighty-five percent?” Riley said. “Ninety, maybe.”

Think of how amazing that is—a short quarterback who runs like a greyhound, and Riley called a similar percentage of designed passes from the pocket as many NFL teams with classic dropback passers would. Think of how the game has changed from a decade ago, when a fleet and smallish quarterback would basically be an option quarterback playing the game on the edges. Not Riley. Not with Murray. His runs? Mostly designed runs to takes advantage of a player with Vick-type tools.

Riley’s guess on Murray’s pocket throwing is pretty damn close to reality. Pro Football Focus charted the number of Murray’s pass plays in 2018 that came from the pocket. The number: 89 percent. So 336 of his 377 throws for Oklahoma last year came with Murray planted where he could survey the defense and pick his target.

No wonder so many GMs and scouts and friends in the pro coaching business swear by Riley. He had Michael Vick on his hands and coached him like he was Carson Wentz. Riley got Murray ready for the next level, but that’s not why he coached Murray, and called plays for him, the way he did. Riley never got tempted to turn Murray into Lamar Jackson despite Murray’s 4.39-second time in the 40,  and Riley never had to call plays differently for Murray’s sightlines with a monstrous offensive line in front of him (6-5, 6-4, 6-5, 6-5 and 6-4 from left to right). Duke’s Daniel Jones, a fellow first-round prospect, is 6-5 and had 12 passes batted down last season. Missouri’s Drew Lock, 6-4, had eight. Murray had five.

So for the past two seasons, Riley has coached short quarterbacks into Heisman winners who became premier NFL prospects. (Baker Mayfield, at 6-foot 5/8, is 2 3/4 inches taller than Murray.) Riley said he called the same game for both players.

Phoning from Oklahoma the other day, Riley said: “Throughout all the years with both Baker and Kyler, I can’t ever remember there being a time where we said, We want to run this play, or use this scheme, or protect this way but we can’t do it because these guys are 5-10 or 6-foot instead of 6-4. It never really entered into the equation. I don’t think their pro coaches are going to think about it either.”

Riley watched the draft process last year culminate in Mayfield going number one. He watched the success Mayfield had as the dominant presence in helping the Browns from 0-16 to 7-8-1. He thinks Murray will have the same impact on his NFL team.

“I will be shocked,” Riley said, “if five players get their name called on draft day before Kyler.”

Now teams are going to have to decide whether an unfathomable idea a generation ago—drafting a sub-5-foot-10 quarterback high in the first round—is a cutting-edge idea today. Murray is not only a short quarterback. He’s slight. He’s got almost a Mookie Betts build. Russell Wilson’s less than an inch taller, but Wilson is built with a suit of armor. Murray’s built like an outfielder.

So what GM has the guts to pick Murray for his play, and his pedigree, and be confident size won’t wreck his career?

If you’re right, your team’s in the playoffs in 2020. If you’re wrong, you’re probably a road scout in 2022.

Either way, the fact that Murray is in the discussion to be a top-10 pick a year after a 6-foot quarterback went first overall and played well means the football world is changing. A lot.

“We wouldn’t be having this conversation 10 years ago,” Riley told me.

“I’m happy. Kudos to pro people, to talent evaluators and coaches. I think the NFL’s evolved. I think they’re getting out of this cookie-cutter mold and opening their eyes to guys who can play. Think about how many great talents potentially were out there that never got seen because they didn’t fit the cookie-cutter mold? Just watch Kyler play. He’s played quarterback most of his life, and he’s always been one of the shorter ones, so to him, it’s just football. Size doesn’t matter.”

Mayfield started for three seasons in Norman, Murray one. Riley was Mayfield’s offensive coordinator for two years and head coach for one, then the head coach and play-caller for Murray last year. I asked Riley to compare them. The confidence, the feel for the game, the competitive gene—pretty much the same in both.

“Baker’s a lot more outwardly emotional and exuberant and more outspoken,” Riley said. “Kyler’s got a little bit more of a quiet intensity. The effect is similar. When they’re in the huddle, the other guys believe they’re going to win.”

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