Mac Jones isn’t the GOAT, but the franchise is set up for a positive result. Plus, Tom Brady’s new target, the Bengals' offensive line struggles, Frank Reich’s future and more.
Two weeks down. And a lot to get to—you all really filled the mailbag up this week.
From Ryan (@malloyrj21): If the season goes bad will Belichick get rid of Mac Jones to save his own job by blaming Jones for everything?
Ryan, this is a little cynical, even for me. Do I have some reservations about Mac Jones? I do think he’s, to a degree, limited physically. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think he can be a really good player. And I think the comp I was given before the 2021 draft is a very apt one—Jones looks to me, through 20 NFL starts, like Chad Pennington.
Some took that as a shot when I brought it up in the spring of his draft year. I promise you, it’s not. I really liked Pennington as a player, and his résumé can lead you where you need to go with this.
• No. 18 pick in the 2000 NFL draft.
• MAC MVP and Offensive Player of the Year in 1999.
• Started more than 10 games in four seasons and made the playoffs all four of those years.
• Completed 66% of his passes for 17,823 yards, 102 TDs, 64 INTs, 90.1 passer rating.
• Finished tied for second for the 2008 AP NFL MVP behind Peyton Manning.
• Was a two-time NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
Pennington did all that despite a litany of injuries to his throwing shoulder. He was released in 2008 prompted by the Jets’ pursuit of Brett Favre, and the fact that the coach (Al Groh) and personnel exec (Bill Parcells) who drafted him left the Jets after his rookie year. He made the playoffs under three different coaches (Herm Edwards, Eric Mangini, Tony Sparano).
The problem for Patriots fans, I understand, is that you’re coming off 20 years of Tom Brady, and you wanna believe that this can be Brady again. I don’t see that. But I do think the franchise is set up for a positive result here—having a Pennington-level quarterback to directly succeed a legend, if you look at the history of these things at that position, would qualify as a huge win for New England.
And to answer your question, I think Bill knows that.
From Cam Nottage (@itsCam_N): Are the Lions legit?
Cam, I think they can stay in it and compete for a wild-card spot in the NFC all the way to the end, and that's because you’re starting to see a team that's playing through the lines of scrimmage. The Lions rushed for 181 yards on Philly and 191 yards on Washington, and both the Eagles and Commanders are talented and deeply invested in their fronts. And on the other side, Aidan Hutchinson sacked Carson Wentz three times Sunday, and a young D-line tightened up against the run after a shaky effort in Week 1.
These things are great signs, because generally teams that play well consistently on the lines, areas Detroit has spent money and draft capital to stock, you’re going to be in every game. So that’s where I think the Lions are—maybe a couple of skill guys on offense, and back-seven players on defense—from truly contending. But they’re getting closer and are capable of stealing a playoff spot.
And then, there’s the change in mentality that, as you could see during Hard Knocks, that Dan Campbell and his staff have worked really hard on. I asked Jared Goff—who was part of the type of turnaround Detroit’s seeking in Los Angeles—about that Sunday.
“It’s expectations and beliefs,” Goff told me. “When things are going bad or you’re losing, you don't expect to win and you don't believe in something the coach is telling you. It’s a 180 this year. We walk on the field and we do expect to win. We expect to win by a lot, if we can. And furthermore, the game starts slipping away [like it did against Philly], and [we] still believe in each other, believe in O.K., all we got to do is get one play and then we're going to have our counterpunch. Truly, that belief and that faith can flip a game and today it did.”
So, yeah, the Lions aren’t there yet, but they’re on their way.
From Henry Matthews (@henrymHuss26H): Can the Jaguars actually win the AFC South?
Henry, I had this feeling before the year that the Jags could rise up and steal the AFC South with nine or 10 wins, and I just didn’t have the stomach to pick them. I just think they’ve got more good players (and this sounds simplistic) than people think, and I still believe in what you should be getting from Trevor Lawrence, with the right coaching, scheme and team around him, in Year 2.
Regardless of how it ended, Doug Pederson got a ton out of Carson Wentz early in his career in Philly, then made his offense work on the fly for Nick Foles and won a Super Bowl. And if you look at where Wentz has been since, it’s fair to say that Pederson’s still the coach that’s gotten the most out of him. The other thing is that the formula in Philly, which had Pederson hiring quarterback infrastructure (Frank Reich, John DeFilippo, etc.), exists in Jacksonville now with Press Taylor, Mike McCoy and Jim Bob Cooter on the staff.
From there, for that team, I think it’ll come down to the development of young players such as Travis Etienne, Luke Fortner, Travon Walker, Devin Lloyd and Andre Cisco. If those guys take a collective step forward, this will become a pretty formidable team.
From Phil (@SauceCoach): Which 0-2 team needs to panic and which 0-2 team is OK?
I’ll start with the team that’s O.K.—that's the Bengals. They lost their first game because their long snapper tore his biceps and they turned the ball over five times. They lost their second game because they got off to a slow start and couldn’t protect Joe Burrow. We’ll have more on them in a bit, but I think those problems are fixable, and I think Cincinnati will be in the playoffs in January.
As for where it’s panic time—and it’s too early for anyone to panic—I’m a little concerned with the Panthers. I believe the Buccaneers are winning the NFC South, meaning the other three teams will be vying for a wild card. And the next five weeks, the Panthers have the Saints, Cardinals, 49ers, Rams and Buccaneers. So even getting to 3–4 is a big ask, and being 2–5 or worse at the end of October would be tough to come back from.
From Corey (@jetsfrek86): What are the chances that @ZachWilson plays Week 3 even though Flacco played well?
Corey, I think that’s going to be purely based on where he is physically. Joe Flacco was great on Sunday in Cleveland, don’t get me wrong. And if things really went the wrong way, sure, he’s a nice option, and certainly Wilson’s got a lot to come back from after a really messed-up rookie year. Still, I don’t think the Jets yet know nearly enough about the second pick in the 2021 draft to do something rash like that. So they need to invest in finding out.
They’ve already done a bunch of things to get there. Flacco’s been helpful to Wilson in telling him to stop worrying about commanding everything the offense and defense are doing out there, something that’s over every second-year quarterback’s head, and start focusing on his own job. Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur pared the offense down so they could focus on what Wilson does well. In fact, he reduced the offense to fewer “families” of plays to help Wilson master those and become proficient at running the individual plays off them.
Because of Wilson’s injury, the Jets still haven’t seen that yet. They need to, just like Wilson needs the game reps to continue his development. So the Jets are going to give him those, just as soon as he’s ready to take them. Which should be soon, regardless of how solid Flacco may have looked Sunday.
From Jon Ball (@jonb2042): How much does Cole Beasley have left? Seems like a perfect fit for Brady’s short passing game if he can still separate.
This is interesting, Jon, because I really didn’t have a great answer for you. The numbers would indicate he was still pretty good in Buffalo last year—he had a career-high 82 catches, which matched his total for 2020. His yardage and yards per catch did fall off to lows in his three years in Buffalo, but he was still someone Josh Allen could count on (a trait that Beasley’s new quarterback definitely values).
So why was he on the street? Part of it was by choice, with the 33-year-old waiting for the right situation to materialize. And just checking in with people in Buffalo, they think there’s still plenty left there (letting him go was as much about moving younger guys such as Gabe Davis and Isaiah McKenzie up as anything), and that the Buccaneers should have the right role for him operating out of a position, the slot, that Tom Brady’s always leaned on.
Would I pick him up in fantasy? Maybe, maybe not. But I do think he found the right landing spot and will contribute.
From Jon Ball (@jonb2042): What’s the issue with the Bengals offense so far? Is it just a matter of scheme and pressure on Burrow?
Jon, I suppose I’ll give you two questions this week (mostly because I didn’t notice I chose two of yours when I was grabbing them on Tuesday).
And I think the issue is the obvious. The offensive line has a lot of moving parts, and it’s going to take some time for the group to come together. The Chiefs went through the same thing last year in integrating Orlando Brown, Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith, and a group that was a liability at times early became a strength late in the year. I’m not saying the Bengals will get to the level the Chiefs line did, but I think things will look a lot better once La’El Collins, Alex Cappa and Ted Karras get more work with their new team.
I also think it’s fair to ask if losing the time in camp has had a (temporary) effect on Joe Burrow, in having lost the time on task with all those new guys? So, yeah, I still have a lot of faith in the Bengals’ ability to come around.
From Bobby Bacala III (@curtisbaccala55): The Bengals invested $74 million in La’el Collins, Alex Cappa, and Ted Karras this off-season. What’s going on with the offensive line???
Hopefully, I got you with that last one, Bobby. Give it some more time.
From Pie (@imjustapie2): Will the Raiders make the playoffs after their slow start?
Pie, I’ll stick to my guns on this and say yes. But it won’t be easy. In the next three weeks, they get an 0–2 Titans team that’ll have something to prove, the Broncos and the Chiefs. Win two of three, I think you’re in great shape. We’ll see if they can pull that off.
But mostly, I think despite last Sunday’s collapse, the Raiders were in both of their games to the very end and just couldn’t finish. I think Derek Carr will play better. I think the line will improve (it very much has to). And I think the players and coaches there are too good for this team to not be, at least, in the .500 range at the end of the year. Surviving the next few weeks is a big key to that.
From Mr. Schwab (@schwab_mr): Do the Colts fire Reich or do they trade pieces away to ensure they get a top pick? Seems as if they need to rebuild. Ryan is a good QB, but they need a long-term face of the franchise.
Schwab! No, I don’t think they need to fire the coach or rebuild. That’s ridiculous. I think the foundation there remains solid. I’m with them in the belief that Matt Ryan can perform at a relatively high level for them for the next three or four years. I also think Frank Reich’s been really good in getting the Colts through all the quarterback transition, in having five opening-day starters in five years at the position.
That said, you’re right to think, and say, that finding a long-term answer at the position once and for all has to be at the top of the list of priorities for the Colts. So they have to be open to doing it in 2023, as I see it, and preparing to do it regardless. That means hoarding draft picks as best you can, to be ready for the opportunity to move up, and it could mean dealing picks from ’23 into ’24 and ’25 to buoy that effort.
And it can be instructive here, too, to look at where GM Chris Ballard came from. He got to Kansas City as then Chiefs GM John Dorsey’s top lieutenant in 2013. In tandem with Andy Reid, they spent four offseasons building the roster up, and being relatively conservative with draft picks after spending two second-rounders to land their first quarterback, Alex Smith, upon their arrival. They made the playoffs in three of their first four years but never got past the divisional round, as they waited for the right young quarterback to come along.
Then, they found their guy—a raw prospect from Texas Tech that the NFL was split on. As Ballard was leaving for Indy, a plan was being hatched to go all in on Patrick Mahomes, the player who’d change the franchise’s trajectory, and on draft day they dealt their third-rounder and the next year’s first to move up 17 spots and get him. So if Ballard sees that sort of young quarterback out there, would he get similarly aggressive? I think he would.
From Zach Fogelman (@FogelmanZach): Will the Rams be active in the trade market? Could O-line be an area for improvement?
Is the Pope Catholic?
Yeah, Zach, I’d say the Rams will turn over every rock. And given their situation along the offensive line, with starting center Brian Allen battling through a knee injury and the loss of guard Tremayne Anchrum stressing depth, it’s fair to say they’ll be turning over rocks at those particular positions. The problem is, given the league’s offensive-line crisis, which we’ve raised the past few months, I’m not sure there’ll be much under those rocks.
More realistic might be the idea of finding a way to make up for what the team lost when Von Miller bolted in the offseason. Danielle Hunter’s name is one I brought up as a potential target, given the relationship the team has with Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell. I just don’t think Minnesota’s necessarily going to be a seller. So here’s another—ex-Ram Robert Quinn. GM Les Snead was in St. Louis with Quinn, and Quinn now has experience and has had success (last year), playing in the sort of Vic Fangio-centric scheme the team runs.
The Bears, I’m sure, wouldn’t mind getting something back for a player who may or may not even play in 2023, and Quinn probably would be amenable to chasing a ring.
From Joel Braunold (@braunold): How often do QBs speed up and get better at pocket awareness, is it something that is grown or just have it or not?
Joel, I love the question—this is where what Jalen Hurts has done is so impressive. He’s improved his pocket presence, as well as his anticipation and accuracy, and those are areas where you generally don’t see a lot of improvement. I explained it in my Sept. 5 MMQB, so go there (you’ll have to scroll down a little for it) and check it out.
From Chris (@Chris_PR_13): Can Jaren Hall climb draft boards as the season progresses much as Kyler and Baker did in years past?
Chris, the answer is yes, of course. And especially because, outside of Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, the other presumed front-runners to go in the first round next year at quarterback (Bryce Young, Tyler Van Dyke, Will Levis, Anthony Richardson, etc.) haven’t really shown any sort of big step forward yet. Even in the case of Stroud, there’s some couching needed—he looked like the first pick in the draft last weekend, but … it was against Toledo.
I haven’t asked around much on Hall yet, but I’m excited to see how he builds on a nice three-game start.
From Tom Marshall (@aredzonauk): Should Lamar Jackson take note of the Trey Lance injury?
Tom, yes and no. No, in that Jackson has an uncanny ability to avoid big hits that, at least at this early point in his career, Lance hasn’t shown yet. Yes, in that he needs to continue to protect himself out there—having lost significant on-field time last year due to injury for the first time in his career.
This stuff’s always a balancing act. You don’t want a guy to lose the magic that makes him what he is. But for all football players, in a sport where the injury rate is 100%, the long term is never promised.
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