Each week, The Washington Post’s Mark Maske provides in-depth Monday morning NFL analysis with “First and 10,” a dissection of the league’s most important developments from a weekend of action.
First and 10: Jan. 23
1. Big Ben praises Steelers | 2. Quick thoughts from the playoffs
3. Jim Irsay’s mistake(s) | 4. Niners betting on Kyle Shanahan
5. Ranking this season’s head coaching hires | 6. The free agent market for Kirk Cousins
7. Redskins’ D-coordinator job not exactly coveted | 8. Your Super Bowl Ref is …
9. Raiders’ vote | 10. What’s next for the Cowboys?
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — As the Super Bowl LI matchup was falling into place Sunday night — a compelling pairing that pits the New England Patriots against the Atlanta Falcons — the fans in Gillette Stadium were making clear what the NFL’s main subplot would be over the coming two weeks.
“Ro-ger! Ro-ger!” they chanted in the third quarter before switching to, “Where is Roger?” in the fourth.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who was suspended by Commissioner Roger Goodell for the first four games of this regular season, will take what many have branded as his Deflategate Revenge Tour to the season’s final game Feb. 5 in Houston.
But late Sunday night, Brady was not playing along.
“I didn’t hear that chant,” Brady said following the Patriots’ 36-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC championship game to forget. “I did hear them singing to Bon Jovi, though. That was pretty cool.”
A season that began with Brady serving his Deflategate suspension could conclude with Goodell handing the Patriots the trophy for what would be their fifth Super Bowl triumph engineered by Brady and Coach Bill Belichick. But Brady was not acknowledging Sunday that there was any unusual sense of personal accomplishment accompanying this latest trip to the sport’s biggest stage, the Patriots’ seventh Super Bowl appearance with Brady and Belichick.
“Well, I think that’s because of the hard work of a lot of people, you know, from my coaches to my teammates to our families who support us,” Brady said. “It takes a lot of people and a lot of effort, a lot of hard work over the course of many months. This didn’t start at 6:40 tonight. This thing started in April. It really started before that. In free agency we were picking up guys like [Chris] Hogan and drafting guys like Malcolm Mitchell . . . It’s a lot of hard work. It’s only two teams left standing and I’m happy we’re one of them. That’s what our goal is. And it’s nice to be able to achieve that.”
Belichick wasn’t going there, either.
“Every year has its own challenges,” he said. “Whatever they are, they are. Every team faces them. Every team has to deal with them. We dealt with them. Other teams have dealt with them . . . It’s a special year because it’s a special team. It’s a special group and they’ve all worked together. But there are always challenges that we have to overcome.”
The challenge now for the Patriots will be dealing with quarterback Matt Ryan and the revved-up Atlanta offense. The Falcons were every bit as dominant earlier Sunday in beating the Green Bay Packers, 44-21, in the NFC title game.
“We ran into a buzz saw,” Packers Coach Mike McCarthy said. “Those guys performed great and we didn’t have enough to keep up with them.”
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense could not keep pace with the Falcons, who led the NFL in scoring offense during the regular season. Ryan was the league’s top-rated passer and is regarded by many observers as the top candidate for the NFL’s MVP award. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is in line to be named the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, although he cannot officially be hired until the Falcons’ season is done.
Shanahan’s father Mike was the coach of the Denver Broncos the last time the Falcons reached the Super Bowl. The Shanahan-led Broncos beat the Falcons at the conclusion of the 1998 season in John Elway’s final game as Denver’s quarterback. Dan Reeves was the Falcons’ coach then. Chris Chandler was their quarterback and Jamal Anderson was their “Dirty Bird”-dancing running back.
Those Falcons were undone by a legendary quarterback, in Elway, and a Super Bowl-tested team, as the Broncos won their second straight championship. These Falcons face a similarly daunting task against Brady and the Patriots. The Atlanta defense is not overpowering, but it has the ability to rush the passer, especially with a lead, and generate turnovers, as it did Sunday against the Packers.
And the offense is special. It perhaps has carved out a place as one of the league’s better offenses in recent memory alongside such units of the St. Louis Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” with Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk, the Brady-led Patriots in their unbeaten season of 2007 and some of the offenses orchestrated in Indianapolis and Denver by Peyton Manning.
New England’s defense should present more obstacles than the Packers for Ryan and the Atlanta offense. The Patriots led the league in scoring defense during the regular season. It is a defense that improved steadily throughout the season after once being regarded as a potential postseason liability.
“I think there’s a lot of noise, always,” Brady said. “Sometimes you don’t always have it figured out four games into the year. And there’s a lot of moving parts. The second half of the year . . . I practiced against those guys every day and it’s hard to complete passes against them. I know if I can complete them against our defense, then we should be fine on Sunday because our guys do a great job in the passing game . . . We’ve got a good defense.”
Patriots cornerback and former Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler was not quite ready to switch gears in the postgame locker room and begin thinking about defending the Falcons’ standout wide receiver, Julio Jones, in the Super Bowl.
“You’re going too far,” Butler said. “I’m enjoying the moment, man.”
Even so, Butler acknowledged that this victory will not be that satisfying ultimately if the Patriots do not finish the task in Houston.
“It don’t mean anything unless you win,” he said. “We’re just enjoying it, man. We’re glad to have the opportunity to go. Hard work pays off.”
… AND TEN
1. Roethlisberger proud: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger fell short in his bid for a third career Super bowl triumph with the Steelers. But he said he remained proud of a season in which the Steelers reached the AFC title game after their record dipped at one point to 4-5.
“Only one team is going to end the season the way they want to,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s not us this year. But I told the guys afterward I was proud of them. We went from 4-5 to the championship game. If there’s going to be any silver lining, it’s that. But we’ll just have to evaluate this and the offseason and what we have coming back. I’m just really proud of the guys. There’s just a lot of love…. It’s disappointing that we couldn’t get this one for Mr. [owner Dan] Rooney. I really wanted to do it for him. But we’ll evaluate.”
2. Bad playoffs: Home teams went 2-0 Sunday and had a record of 8-2 during the playoffs. The only two road wins came on the same day during the conference semifinals, by the Packers at Dallas and by the Steelers at Kansas City. Those were also the only two competitive games during the playoffs.
Other quick thoughts from Sunday’s games…
• The Patriots almost always defer when winning the pregame coin toss. But when they won the toss Sunday, they opted for possession of the football.
“That surprised me, too,” Brady said. “I was thinking, ‘We won the toss. Great.’ And I was gonna sit down. And he goes, ‘We got the ball.’ I said, ‘What? I thought we won the toss.’ I wasn’t sure how it all worked.”
• Goodell wasn’t in Foxborough on Sunday, having attended the game in Atlanta earlier in the day instead. But Johnny Manziel was there, according to a Snapchat post, wearing a Brady jersey. Manziel’s ticket was supplied by Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett.
• So much for the notion that wide receiver Michael Floyd, added by the Patriots after he was released by the Arizona Cardinals, would end up being a significant contributor. He was on the inactive list Sunday.
• Falcons Coach Dan Quinn will be coaching in the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons, although for the first time as a head coach. He got there twice as defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks.
3. Irsay’s mistake(s): It was apparent to many people within the league after the 2015 season that Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay had to move on from Ryan Grigson as his general manager or Chuck Pagano as his coach, or both. The strained working relationship between Grigson and Pagano was well known and well documented publicly. The team was on its way to wasting some of the prime years of quarterback Andrew Luck’s career. So there was widespread surprise when Irsay stuck with Grigson and Pagano.
Fast-forward to now. It is a year later and the Colts have wasted another year of Luck’s career with another disappointing season. Irsay fired Grigson on Friday and stuck with Pagano. Peyton Manning is not coming to the rescue, according to Irsay, to rejoin the Colts as the chief roster architect in their front office.
“There were never any serious negotiations or anything like that for him coming in to be general manager,” Irsay, speaking at a news conference Friday, said of Manning. “I would welcome the opportunity for him and I to talk about that possibility some day that he would play some role in our organization. I think you have to remember that it hasn’t even been a year since the confetti fell from his Denver Super Bowl victory. He is enjoying retirement, enjoying the chance to not be downed in a schedule and that sort of thing. Right now it’s something where he is not in the mix in this process for interviewing general managers.”
It is difficult to conclude anything other than Irsay made a mistake a year ago when he kept Grigson and Pagano in place. Stability and continuity are important things in the NFL. The success this season of the stay-the-course Steelers, Patriots and Packers underscored that. But the first step is to have the right people in place. After that, you stand by them and stick with them. Those people must be able to coexist professionally and interact productively. They don’t necessarily need to be friendly. Professional friction is fine. But if that exists, it must yield positive results. That wasn’t the case with Grigson and Pagano.
It also is difficult to conclude anything other than Irsay is risking another mistake by keeping his coach and bringing in a new GM. He is, in effect, forcing his coach on his new GM. That’s probably not a recipe for success, either.
“It was a gut, intuitive instinct from looking at where we were and where we are as a franchise,” Irsay said Friday. “I think that we needed to make a change. Intuitively you get the feeling when the timing is right, where a change will help. Whereas continuity is something that I really want and long to have as much as we can have it–but in this case I really felt that the time was right to make a change, that we needed some new direction in the vision of our football program. That is from talking to a lot of people and giving it a lot of thought.”
Most of the most coveted assistants already have landed on coaching staffs league-wide. NFL coaches, scouts and front office executives will be in Mobile, Ala., this week to evaluate draft-eligible college players at the Senior Bowl practices. Preparations for free agency are under way. The business of the offseason is taking place around the league, and there certainly is much work to be done to rebuild the 49ers.
But the 49ers have done the right thing.
They no longer can afford to take a short-term approach after firing their last two head coaches, Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly, after one season each. Shanahan will be a first-time head coach. He cannot and should not be judged off his results in Year 1 or even Year 2. He undoubtedly will make mistakes. But he has demonstrated that he is more than worthy of a head coaching chance. He oversaw the league’s highest-scoring offense this season in Atlanta and he has done good work for other teams, even if some choose to remember his fractious final year in D.C. with his father and Robert Griffin III and his season in Cleveland with Manziel.
The Niners are yet to choose a GM. There is no franchise quarterback in sight at this point. This certainly does not appear to be setting up for a quick fix.
But that’s not what the 49ers should be after. They should be viewing this as a long, gradual, sensible reconstruction project. The Falcons were rewarded when they waited until after the Super Bowl to hire their second-year head coach, Quinn, from the Seahawks’ staff. The 49ers likewise should be rewarded for waiting for Shanahan if they remain patient.
1. Kyle Shanahan, 49ers
No one did more this season to earn a head coaching opportunity.
2. Anthony Lynn, Chargers
Few seem enamored right now with the Chargers and their move to L.A. So Lynn goes into a situation with modest expectations, which always helps. He has Philip Rivers at quarterback. Playing at the cozy StubHub Center actually could work in the team’s favor. Lynn had a rapid ascent in Buffalo this season from running backs coach to offensive coordinator to interim head coach. He and his team could surprise some people.
3. Sean McDermott, Bills
The Bills actually are close to being a decent team if they stay the course with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback rather than starting over at the position. McDermott’s relatively low-key approach, compared to predecessor Rex Ryan’s bluster, could be what they need.
4. Vance Joseph, Broncos
He inherits a Super Bowl-ready team, perhaps. But he also inherits Super Bowl expectations. He has an unsettled quarterback situation and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is gone. That’s a lot for a first-time head coach to handle.
5. Sean McVay, Rams
He is a rising star in coaching. There is no disputing that. But is he ready? That is debatable. The arrival of Phillips to run the defense will help. But is that enough? Or will this resemble Lane Kiffin and the Raiders?
6. Doug Marrone, Jaguars
Nothing against Marrone, exactly. He deserved another chance after exercising the exit clause in his contract to leave the Bills two years ago. But this whole thing feels kind of thrown together, with Tom Coughlin coming in to be a key front office decision-maker, and kind of forced, with the apparent approach of sticking with Blake Bortles at quarterback despite this season’s regression.
6. Suitors for Kirk Cousins?: Two of quarterback Kirk Cousins’s former offensive coordinators with the Washington Redskins, Shanahan and McVay, will be NFL head coaches next season. That could create some additional offseason possibilities for Cousins, who is eligible for free agency after playing this season on a one-year franchise-player deal, and the Redskins.
The Redskins still control the situation. They can use their franchise tag to retain Cousins, again, if they’re unable to re-sign him to a long-term deal. That could mean the exclusive franchise tag, which would take Cousins off the free agent market entirely. Or it could mean the non-exclusive franchise tag, which would entitle the Redskins to two first-round draft picks if another team signs Cousins to an offer sheet and Washington chooses not to match it.
But the Redskins could, if they want, agree to take something other than two first-rounders to allow Cousins to leave. What if Shanahan wants Cousins in San Francisco? The 49ers have the No. 2 overall selection in this year’s NFL draft to offer as part of a package, if they want. What if McVay wants Cousins in Los Angeles? That seems unlikely, given that the Rams have Jared Goff. But impossible?
The most likely outcome, by far, is that Cousins remains in Washington. But there is added intrigue with Shanahan and McVay being elevated to head coaching jobs.
But now Phillips is with the Rams. Bradley, the former Jacksonville head coach, is with the Chargers. And the Redskins promoted Greg Manusky from outside linebackers coach to defensive coordinator Sunday.
Manusky has nine years of coordinator experience in San Francisco, San Diego and Indianapolis. He never has had a top-10 defense, coming the closest when the Colts ranked 11th in the NFL in total defense in 2014. (He did have two defenses that ranked in the league’s top 10 in scoring defense, with the 49ers in 2009 and the Colts in 2013.)
This clearly was not a highly regarded job. Few seem to regard the talent level on the Redskins’ defense as being anything but suspect. Some wonder about the job security of Coach Jay Gruden if the Redskins have another non-playoff season.
It all leads to the question: Would the Redskins have fired Barry if they’d known they would end up with Manusky as his replacement?
He is the referee who called the holding penalty on Kansas City left tackle Eric Fisher that nullified the Chiefs’ tying two-point conversion in their second-round playoff loss to the Steelers.
Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce was fined for sharp postgame criticism of Cheffers and that call, saying that Cheffers was not qualified even to work at Foot Locker. Chiefs Coach Andy Reid also suggested that he disagreed with the call.
The “controversy” undoubtedly will be mentioned during Super Bowl week. But any suggestion that the call was controversial is simply off target. Fisher clearly held the Steelers’ James Harrison on the play, dragging Harrison to the ground to keep him away from quarterback Alex Smith. It was about as blatant as it gets.
The NFL has had plenty of issues with its officiating. But this was not among them, no matter what Kelce and Reid think and say.
And, barring any unexpected developments between now and then, expect the relocation to be ratified.
The Raiders officially filed last week for the relocation, but that was merely a procedural move. The league and owners have known for some time that was coming. Owner Mark Davis never hid his intentions, after all.
Some owners once had concerns about the size of the Vegas market and the potential involvement of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson in the deal. But those concerns seemingly have melted away, particularly in the absence of what the league and owners regard as a viable stadium proposal on Oakland. The Raiders have been working on contingencies to do the Vegas deal with or without Adelson’s involvement.
The move must be approved by at least 24 of 32 owners. The outcome has not reached foregone-conclusion status yet. But it’s getting closer to that.
10. Cowboys’ future: The Redskins won the NFC East title in the 2012 season with a rookie quarterback, Griffin, and a rookie tailback, Alfred Morris. They suffered a playoff loss to the Seahawks but there was every reason to believe the future was bright.
The Dallas Cowboys won this season’s NFC East title with a rookie quarterback, Dak Prescott, and a rookie tailback, Ezekiel Elliott. They lost to the Packers in an NFC semifinal and there is every reason to believe the future is bright.
Could these Cowboys come undone the way those Redskins did?
Griffin suffered a devastating knee injury in that playoff defeat to Seattle to end his rookie season, and his rush to be back in the lineup by opening day of his second season seemed to do him no favors. Those Redskins also won with a gimmick-y, college-style offense designed for Griffin as a rookie. It was not sustainable. Griffin’s career in Washington came unraveled because of his injuries and his inability to develop as a pocket passer.
There were no gimmicks on offense for these Cowboys. Prescott appears to have come out of his rookie year injury-free. The Cowboys certainly have issues to address on defense. They will face a first-place schedule next season. But as long as they have Prescott and Elliott in place, playing behind the Cowobys’ powerful offensive line, this team should remain a contender.