Thirteen days remain in the longest regular season ever (it’s actually tied with 1993, when the NFL went experimented with two bye weeks per team) …
Quinn Harris/USA TODAY Sports (Zimmer); Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports (Diggs); Steve Roberts/USA TODAY Sports (Garoppolo)
• This is a weird year in that the Bears may be the only coaching job that’s not open yet that’s widely expected to be. Add that to the Raiders and Jaguars, and that puts you at just three. And from there, we’d have a ways to go before hitting what would qualify as a normal number for the last decade or so.
So which others could come open? If the Vikings miss the playoffs, that would be one to watch. Mike Zimmer’s been in Minnesota eight seasons now, and missing this year would mean he’d be out of the postseason in back-to-back seasons for the first time. The Broncos are another, with first-year GM George Paton’s having inherited Vic Fangio and a big offseason ahead (with the potential for a massive swing at a quarterback on the table). That gets you to five. Word is that Pete Carroll wants to return in 2022, but is Seahawks chair Jody Allen getting restless with the state of the team? Will Nick Caserio pull the plug on David Culley after one year, in pursuit of more organizational alignment for the Texans? And could there be teams pursuing a coach trade (Sean Payton? Mike Tomlin?) or two to shake the carousel up? Maybe, maybe, maybe. But for now, it looks like the number will be lower than the mean this year, like it was in ’20. The reason for that, as I see it, is twofold. One, you don’t have any big-fish candidates teams are chasing after this year, and the pipeline’s been a bit depleted in general. And two, there is a lot of mediocrity across the NFL this year, and that means fewer elite teams, but also fewer complete dumpster fires, which means fewer spots where there are trigger-happy owners.
• Trevon Diggs’s truly remarkable campaign—he’s the first player in 40 years to have 11 interceptions in a season—does beg a bigger question. How is it that a guy who’s got an All-Pro brother, and played at Alabama, could slide through to the 51st pick? Diggs was the eighth corner taken in 2020, going behind Jeff Okudah (third), C.J. Henderson (ninth), A.J. Terrell (16th), Damon Arnette (19th), Noah Igbinoghene (30th), Jeff Gladney (31st) and Jaylon Johnson (50th). Of that group, Terrell’s probably the only who’s been at Diggs’s level, and three of the others aren’t even with the teams that drafted them anymore (Henderson, Arnette, Gladney).
“The funny thing is there were good grades on him,” said one NFC exec on Monday. “Some of it was just what was coming out of the school. It wasn’t that he was a bad kid, it was just that he was a little different. And then you’d look at his tape, and there were some lulls in his play, and questions on effort and urgency. It sort of matched the idea that he’s just got this low-burn personality. If you see interviews with him, you’ll see that. But that’s just him. It was more the personality than anything else.” Add to that the fact that, really, he only started playing corner full-time as a college sophomore, and the picture’s a little clearer on how Diggs fell into the Cowboys’ lap 20 months ago. And this year, with the right scheme, a couple more years of development, and a good pass rush in front of him, we’re obviously all seeing what he was capable of all along.
• Ohio State’s Rose Bowl opt-outs—receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson are likely first-rounders, while left tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere and defensive tackle Haskell Garrett will probably go inside the top 100 picks—are as good an example as any of the changing landscape in college football, and its relationship with the NFL. Last year, Georgia had a host of opt-outs for the Peach Bowl (OG Ben Cleveland, TE Tre’ McKitty, C Trey Hill, CBs Eric Stokes and DJ Daniel, LB Monty Rice), and Florida had a bunch of guys skip the Cotton Bowl (TE Kyle Pitts, WRs Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes), and there’s a reason this keeps happening with the powerhouse programs. Three reasons, in fact.
1) For the elite, the playoff is now the goal, and the CFP has, more or less, rendered the other bowls exhibitions. Bottom line, if you’re an Ohio State or a Georgia, your players don’t look at even the most historic bowls the same way, say, a player at even a Wisconsin or an Oregon might.
2) Because of that, bowl games have become a way to get the next year’s players up and ready to roll—through the extra weeks of practice they get, and then in the game itself. That means coaches probably aren’t selling their players quite as hard on the idea of playing in the games as they used to.
3) Players have more information now. And besides just the injury risk, and cautionary tales that players like Jaylon Smith and Jake Butt can relay, there’s also the fact that guys can start taking money a month early, and start their draft prep a month early.
Now, I’m still excited to watch the big programs that didn’t make the playoff in bowl games this week. It’s just for different reasons now—these games give us a nice glimpse into the future for these programs. And maybe even an early peek at down-the-line draft prospects.
• It’s worth mentioning that the CDC guidance shortening the isolation period for those who test positive for COVID-19, from 10 days to five days, could have a significant impact on the NFL. The 10-day waiting period has been the standard in the NFL, and has, in some cases, caused vaccinated, asymptomatic, COVID-19-positive players to miss multiple games. And the great majority of players, symptomatic or not, who tested positive this year were unable to test up, and wound up having to sit the full 10-day waiting period as a result. The league already relaxed its re-entry standard a bit last week. Applying the new CDC standard would be another way to do the same. (For what it’s worth, I’m told the NFL is already discussing how it’ll do it, so the league isn’t wasting any time).
• During my talk on Sunday with Eagles coach Nick Sirianni, we hit on his team’s start to the season—Philly was 2–5 after seven games, and 3–6 after nine. He mentioned talking to rookies DeVonta Smith and Landon Dickerson around then about it. Those two were coming from an environment, at Alabama, where a single loss is a sky-is-falling-level event, and so the idea of enduring losses in bunches might’ve seemed foreign to them. And Sirianni could speak genuinely on it, because he was once in there spot, having gone 66–2 in his five years as a college player at Div. III Mount Union.
“Green Bay has the best record right now, and they've lost three games,” Sirianni said. “So the best teams lose games, and they lose more games than you would ever think about in college. It's the same thing I had to learn when I first got in the league. Playing at Mount Union, we didn't lose a lot of games either. And I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, we just lost seven games. This would be tragedy there.' And so it's just the guys that we have on this team, and being able to handle the adversity that happens in the season and being prepared for it. I'm grateful for our guys that they know how to work through tough times.”
Doing it all year, in turn, really prepared the Eagles for the last week, during which they had a game moved to Tuesday, then had to turn around and play again five days later, and do it with Sirianni’s spending the gap between the two games on the COVID-19 list. “No one feels sorry for us,” he said. “You just handle adversity, and try to go through every day and get better every day to put yourself in position to win the games. And I think the guys really know that and really believe that, and they work at that. That doesn't happen unless you've got good guys in the building.” And the Eagles have come out of all this at 8–7, and in position to win a wild-card spot over the next couple of weeks.
• The Niners are still in the thick of that playoff race, so the idea that Jimmy Garoppolo’s getting nicked up would be a positive is taking things too far. But … that San Francisco has the Texans this week, and that the Niners could have the opportunity to gather more information on where Trey Lance stands in a real game environment is a real-world benefit to a tough situation for the starter, who’s battling a right thumb injury. They need as much of it as they can get before turning the page to 2022, and Lance’s tape from his one start thus far wasn’t very good. Along those lines, it’s notable that Kyle Shanahan said Lance is coming off his best four consecutive weeks of practice since he became a Niner. If Garoppolo can’t go, the Niners will get to see how that translates. And they should beat the Texans regardless, which makes this a sort of ideal shot at that.
• My guess is the Steelers are letting line coach Adrian Klemm go to Oregon now because they were going to let him go after the season—assistant line coach Chris Morgan will take over Klemm’s duties for the rest of the year. But in the short term, that’s a blow for a Steelers team that’s still in the playoff race, and is very young up front. Rookies are starting at left tackle (Dan Moore) and center (Kendrick Green), and Klemm’s had to plug guys in at other spots too (the team’s current starter at left guard, John Leglue, hadn’t so much as dressed for an NFL game before this month). So it’ll be interesting to see where the unit goes developmentally from here, and not just for the rest of 2021, but into ’22.
• Watching Sean Payton make it work at quarterback with less to work with has always been fascinating to me—so I’m actually kind of excited to see what the instinctive, tough rookie Ian Book looks like Monday night against the Dolphins.
• Remember, the Jaguars and Raiders can put in requests to interview other teams’ assistants starting at 8 a.m. ET on Tuesday. One difference with this, from how it works after the regular season ends, is that teams can say no. It’ll be interesting to see if that happens at all. And one interesting twist, from a timing standpoint, is that the Jaguars travel to New England this weekend and the Raiders are in Indianapolis. So Jacksonville will get a nice look at Josh McDaniels and Jerod Mayo, and Vegas will get a look at Matt Eberflus and Bubba Ventrone. Which could motivate those teams to interview any one of those guys beforehand, so they have a better idea on them before playing against them.
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