Each week, The Washington Post’s Mark Maske provides in-depth NFL analysis with “First and 10,” a dissection of the league’s most important developments.
First and 10: June 12
1. Jets’ tanking? | 2. Kaepernick blackballed?
3. What’s next? | 4. Vick and the Falcons | 5. RGIII done?
6. Redskins’ GM | 7. Cold-weather Super Bowl(s)
8. Bryant and Revis | 9. Raiders stuff | 10. July 15 is coming
When NFL training camps open next month, there will be a clear Super Bowl favorite in the AFC. The New England Patriots are coming off yet another championship and seem to have made themselves even better this offseason.
Things will not be as clear-cut in the NFC.
The Dallas Cowboys, the top seed in last season’s playoffs before losing a dramatic conference semifinal at home to the Green Bay Packers, have quarterback Dak Prescott and tailback Ezekiel Elliott back to see what they can accomplish for an encore. That alone, along with the presence of a still-powerful offensive line, probably is enough to make the Cowboys the NFC front-runner.
“I think this is just the beginning for the Cowboys,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said immediately after the game. “There’s going to be more battles like this over the years. They should be really proud of what they accomplished.”
Indeed, Prescott and Elliott were two of the league’s most indispensable players as rookies. The Cowboys became the league’s marquee team, leading the NFL’s post-election rebound in television viewership after it sagged dramatically early last season.
“I know now that this team was capable of playing all the way through this thing,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said after the defeat to Green Bay. “Even with rookies in key spots, I know now that we were ready to win. We didn’t. That’s very real. [The Packers] deserve all the credit. It’s no consolation here because this is a team that’s coached and has the leadership and character to give us a chance to win the game. It hurts. It really hurts.”
If the Cowboys can use that feeling of emptiness as fuel for the upcoming season, they certainly can take the next step. It would be foolish to think otherwise.
But there are issues. There will be expectations on Prescott, which he did not face last season. There are potential vulnerabilities on defense, particularly in the secondary. The NFC East could be challenging, a rarity over the last decade or so. The New York Giants are coming off a playoff season led by their rebuilt defense, and continue to look toward quarterback Eli Manning and wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to make the offense better. The Philadelphia Eagles seek improvement in Year 2 for quarterback Carson Wentz. The Washington Redskins hope to be better on defense and will try to make things work in what could be quarterback Kirk Cousins’s final season in D.C., barring a long-term resolution to his contract dilemma.
If the Cowboys falter, a handful of teams should be right on their heels in the NFC.
The Atlanta Falcons are the defending conference champs and have the reigning MVP in quarterback Matt Ryan, but must make things work on offense without departed coordinator Kyle Shanahan. The Seattle Seahawks must rise above reports of internal dissension. The Packers still have Rodgers. The Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals try to return to prominence. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers seek a breakthrough in Year 3 for quarterback Jameis Winston.
Still, all eyes will be on the Cowboys. But that doesn’t necessarily make things any easier.
… AND TEN
The Jets went 5-11 last season with a roster filled with older players. A rebuild was in order. That overhaul probably could have begun a year earlier, but last offseason, the Jets were coming off a 10-6 season and a playoff near miss. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had been productive. Beginning to remake the roster at that point would have been a tough sell.
So it’s happening now. A 5-11 team with a core of older players probably wasn’t going to get any better. The Jets weren’t staring at a 12-4 season if they’d kept their team intact. So they have performed a housecleaning. It says here that was the right thing to do.
Yes, the Jets seem poised to be terrible. And yes, that could put them in position to select a prized quarterback in next year’s NFL draft. Does that constitute tanking? It really depends on your definition. They will be young and really terrible instead of old and run-of-the-mill bad. If that is tanking, so be it.
That claim was first made very early in the offseason, and it seemed premature then. There is a timing and a rhythm to the NFL offseason, and Kaepernick is a quarterback with a history of being a starter who probably was not going to be able to land a starting job. That was a football-considerations-only reality, and it had nothing to do with the political statement that he made by refusing to stand for the national anthem. For football reasons alone, his situation was going to take a little time to sort out.
But now it has been quite a bit of time. Most, if not all, teams have their rosters — and their quarterback situations — pretty much set heading into training camp. Kaepernick remains without a job. He made a visit to the Seahawks without being signed as a backup to Russell Wilson. Seattle added Austin Davis instead.
It would be naive at this point to think it’s still all, or even primarily, about football. His political statement matters. It was always clear that would be the case. But now it has also become clear that it matters quite a bit, potentially quite a bit more than just football considerations. He is coming off a 16-touchdown, four-interception season for the San Francisco 49ers. That should be plenty good enough for him to find employment. No one is saying he necessarily should have been handed a starting job. But he deserves work.
So does that constitute Kaepernick being blackballed? Again, it depends on your definition. If being blackballed means that teams got together and decided to keep Kaepernick out of the league, there’s no evidence of that. Whenever NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has been asked about it, he has answered that teams make individual decisions about what they think makes them better from a competitive standpoint. The league’s stance seems to be, then, that no one is colluding to keep Kaepernick out of football.
But at the very least, it now seems clear that 32 teams have made individual decisions that politics, public relations and avoiding offending a segment of their fan bases matter more than football when it comes to Kaepernick. Right or wrong, that’s where things now stand.
If it were only about football, the assumption would be that a change to some team’s quarterback circumstances — an injury or worse-than-expected play — would prompt a signing in training camp or early in the season. But the normal rules don’t seem to apply here.
Some wonder if the league office quietly will nudge some team to sign Kaepernick to put the blackball talk to rest. Other than that, it will take an owner willing to absorb any PR fallout, or it will take the passage of enough time that the notion of a team adding Kaepernick no longer is so inflammatory to some fans.
4. Vick and the Falcons … From the time heals department: The Falcons will honor quarterback Michael Vick at a retirement ceremony Monday.
It would have been virtually unthinkable at the time of Vick’s imprisonment on dogfighting-relating charges that he one day would be honored by the Falcons. But while Vick’s conduct indeed was horrific and inhumane, time has passed and passions have cooled. Vick served his punishment and returned to the NFL, never regaining his stardom but managing to continue his career. He has been, by all known accounts, a solid citizen off the field since then.
He will be honored Monday, alongside retiring wide receiver Roddy White, at the office of Falcons owner Arthur Blank. The team’s announcement of the event says: “The ceremony will recognize the contributions and impact both men have made to the Falcons organization, the franchise and the city of Atlanta …”
Griffin, the former NFL offensive rookie of the year for the Redskins, got his second chance in the league last season with Cleveland, but failed to make it work. He got hurt and wasn’t all that impressive during the brief time that he was on the field.
Griffin’s problem at this point is that he has not demonstrated he can succeed in a conventional NFL offense. His rookie-year exploits with the Redskins came in a system designed specifically for him and made to utilize his skills as a runner as well as those as a passer.
That means he is not an ideal candidate to be signed and plugged into any offense when a quarterback somewhere is injured. There is no team at this point that is going to design an offense around Griffin. There is no time at this point for a team, with offseason activities winding down around the league, to bring Griffin in and see what he can do.
Griffin probably deserves another NFL chance. He is only 27. He once was a dominant player in this league. How many out-of-work players can say that at his age?
But deserving one more chance and actually getting it are two different things.
6. Redskins’ GM … Remember when team president Bruce Allen said the Redskins were close to resolving their front office situation?
Yeah, maybe not so much.
When the owners awarded the 2014 game to New York, those in other cold-weather cities thought that might give them a chance to be hosts at some point.
And while no one ever can say for certain what the owners will do, that was always a vote more about New York than a cold-weather Super Bowl. It was about playing the game on the grand New York stage, and it was about honoring the city after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The idea doesn’t apply to other cities. It never did. It still doesn’t. Those cities can vie to host a future draft given that the league now is enamored with moving that event around. But Super Bowls are out of the question, at least for the foreseeable future.
Just a prediction, based on nothing in particular.
8. Bryant and Revis … Wide receiver Dez Bryant took to Twitter to attempt to recruit free agent cornerback Darrelle Revis to the Cowboys. The initial reaction is to question Bryant’s GM skills given that Revis’s most recent level of play has been widely derided and he was part of the roster purge of the lowly Jets.
But, really, Dallas is among the few teams that might make sense for Revis. They are a Super Bowl-quality team needing help in the secondary. Maybe Revis still can play. Perhaps a move to safety would extend his career. The Cowboys are the type of team that might want to find out with a modest contract and a training camp look.
9. Raiders stuff … The Oakland Raiders reportedly could end up giving quarterback Derek Carr a contract worth $25 million per season.
Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch had the league’s best-selling jersey in May.
Man, that franchise is really thriving there, isn’t it?
10. July 15 is coming … It’s now less than five weeks until the July 15 deadline for NFL teams to sign their franchise-tagged players to multiyear contracts. After that, those players can sign only a one-year contract, and deals cannot be extended until after the season.
It is a particularly meaningful deadline in the Cousins situation, making it a huge date for the Redskins. And it is a huge date for the 49ers, given the belief by many within the league that Cousins could land in San Francisco next offseason to rejoin Shanahan, his former offensive coordinator in Washington and now the Niners’ first-year head coach.
The fortunes of two franchises potentially hang in the balance.