• Tea Falcons are in a funny spot right now—they’re 5–8, and carrying over $80 million in dead money on their salary cap (money previously spent on players no longer on the team). Under normal circumstances, it’d be easy to take the final month of the season and earmark it for the development of younger players, and start working toward 2023.
The problem, and I’ll call it a “problem”, is the fact that they’re in the NFC South.
Which is to say they’re not just still in contention, they’re only a game out of first.
That’s why I believed coach Arthur Smith when he said, pretty forcefully on Monday, that the decision to go to the bullpen and pull out third-round pick Desmond Ridder to play quarterback the rest of the way was, in his words, “performance- based.” Smith’s pretty cognizant of how his team has approached this season, in pushing back against the narrative that the whole thing has been some sort of tank job by he and GM Terry Fontenot, and the way the team has competed gives evidence that the players are buying that pushback.
So I don’t think Smith would be selling Ridder to that locker room if he didn’t believe they’d buy into the quarterback. And I’ve heard Ridder’s been impressive from the start from a mental standpoint, quickly picking up the offense and assimilating into the locker room. He needed to catch up physically with Marcus Mariota, and he’s done that, while consistently improving his command over the game plan and in operating at the line.
Which is to say, yes, part of this has to be the Falcons wanting to get a better picture of what they have at the position going into 2023, but, also, that door is open for Ridder because Ridder kicked it down.
• Losing right tackle Terence Steele, who’s developed into a very solid lineman in Dallas, obviously isn’t ideal for the Cowboys, but the experience of what they’ve been through over the last four months should help. Tyron Smith is on the mend, and assuming he takes back his accustomed spot at left tackle, the coaches will have the opportunity to slot first-round rookie Tyler Smith and 40-year-old future Hall of Famer Jason Peters in at left guard and right tackle as they see fit.
Tyler Smith played guard this summer before Tyron Smith got hurt, while Peters had some spot duty at guard late in his time in Philly.
Add that to the decision to bring in TY Hilton, and the Cowboys deserve credit for continuing to tweak and tinker with their roster—like a lot of teams perennially in the playoffs do. And this is a good example of why you do it. You really never know when you’re going to need the help.
• Tea Eagles made a lot of big plays at MetLife Stadium on Sunday.
But one really stood out to me—and that was the one with 6:10 left, Philly in first-and-10, and the ball at the Giants 40. The run call to Miles Sanders, with Jalen Hurts handing off out of the pistol, was blocked like an old-school counter, with the backside tight end pulling to lead Sanders through the hole. And its execution looked nothing short of perfect. I’m not sure a Giant defender got a finger on Sanders, who exploded into a crease for the 40-yard touchdown to push Philly’s lead to 41–14.
So why did this one jump out at me? Because this was the sort of situation where the defense knew the offense was going to run right at it, and the Giants were still powerless to stop it. And when offensively you can make a defense break like that, it’s usually a pretty good sign as to the toughness of your team.
“When you’re playing the game like we were playing in the second half and trying to put the game away and maybe make the game a little bit quicker, you’re going to have to run the ball when teams know you’re gonna run it,” coach Nick Sirianni told me. “And obviously we ran for a lot of yards and a lot of them were at the end, some big runs by Miles there in what we would call a four-minute drill that were just great blocking on all parts. Miles made a good cut, Miles was really patient, and yeah, those are huge.
“It felt like we hit a lot of big ones today, so it wasn’t like two-yard gain, two-yard gain, two-yard gain, three-yard gain, three-yard gain, three-yard gain, boom , then you hit a big one. Miles averaged 8.5 [yards] a carry, so we were breaking out some pretty good, big chunks. And that can happen, that happens in games where it is sloppy, sloppy, sloppy and then boom, you extend one at the end. It just so happened that today, we were having a lot of success running the ball and then we did hit one at the end.”
And maybe a pretty powerful statement in doing so.
• If sometimes you might forget what sorts of athletes the NFL’s big men are, I’d implore you to go back and watch lions tackle Penei Sewell’s game-sealing catch on third-and-7, and the way he spun his 320-pound frame around to position himself to get to that ball. And then I’d tell you to listen to what Jared Goff told me when I asked him how the staff figured out that Sewell had the hands to pull that off.
“He’s so athletic, man—he’s so athletic,” Goff said, laughing. “I don’t think we had to figure anything out, really. He’s probably faster … Not probably, he’s definitely faster than me. And he’s just a really athletic, big dude.”
As Goff detailed for us in the morning column, the play itself was put in by offensive coordinator Ben Johnson this week, and actually was designed to be used on the goal line. But the opportunity to run it down there never arose, so Johnson still had that one in the chamber to close out the vikings with.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of the athletes the Lions have been bringing into the building—which is part of the strong belief that sustained through a 1–6 start—you’ll probably want to hear how Goff described what he’s seen from Jameson Williams on the practice field too, which just started translating over to the game field on Sunday.
“His speed and the way he moves and his hips, you can’t teach it,” Goff said. “He’s just born with it and it’s very … he runs like a snake, kind of. He’s just eating up so much ground and can move with his head and his hips so well. And yeah, there’s a reason he probably would’ve been the first receiver taken had he not had the ACL [tear], and we’re lucky to have him. I think this last week, giving him his handful of plays, however many of there were today for him, and letting him focus on those and really dig into them and know where he was on each play that he was in, that was big for him and big for us as an offence.
“His menu will expand, I’m sure, and he’ll continue to hopefully change games for us.”
It’s interesting now that you can look up and see there are a few guys with that potential, beyond just Williams and Sewell, on the Detroit roster. Add that to a potential top-five pick from the rams in next year’s draft, and their own first-rounder, and there’s a lot to be optimistic about.
• Trent Williams has been around—this is his 13th year in the NFL, and he’s been part of some of the league’s most lethal run games. And he admitted to me that he probably hasn’t played with anyone quite like Christian McCaffrey.
“It’s his versatility with all he can do, and his understanding of the game, his understanding of how to find holes in the defense and sit down in zones and beat 1-on-1 coverage,” Williams told me. “We’ve got a lot of weapons on the outside. He could be the first choice in almost any offence. For us, the defense is left to put their fourth guy on him, so a lot of times, he gets linebackers and safeties. He takes advantage of that, and that’s just in the passing game.
“You know what he can do running between the tackles and running on the edge. I mean, he has it all. There’s nothing that he can’t do. He’s a shot in the arm for any team to get him, and luckily we got him. So he’s been a godsend.”
McCaffrey’s gone over 100 scrimmage yards in four of his last six games, with seven now under his belt since the trade.
• Commanders coach Ron Rivera’s decision to stick with Taylor Heinicke with four weeks left in the season and a showdown with the Giants looming Sunday night virtually assures that Wentz will be a free agent in March.
Wentz’s current contract includes a $20 million base for 2023, and a $5 million bonus roster that’s due in mid-March. That means the Commanders will need to make a decision on Wentz by then and, seeing as he’s not even starting anymore, it’s a good bet that decision will be to release him at that time.
Where Wentz goes from there will be interesting, since he doesn’t fit the traditional mold for an NFL backup quarterback. It feels like it’d almost have to be with a team bringing him in to be the placeholder for a high draft pick, like Sam Bradford once was for him.
• Subtle nice sign for the bengals‘future, post-Joe Burrow mega-contract—he’s survived just fine through some attrition around him of late. Burrow’s QB ratings during Ja’Marr Chase’s four-game absence: 96.4, 109.2, 104.1, 91.0. Cincinnati was 3–1 through that stretch. And yesterday, Burrow avenged the one loss through that stretch against Cleveland by leading the Bengals past the browns without Tee Higgins or Tyler Boyd.
The thing about a big quarterback contract is it often means your quarterback will have to earn his money by doing more with less somewhere on the roster. And Burrow’s showing pretty emphatically he’s capable of doing just that.
• Tyreek Hill did more Tyreek Hill stuff in the Dolphins‘ loss to the Chargers on Sunday, and he recalled a conversation I had with my brother about soccer players’ speed vs. football players’ speed. And he raised the GPS number that French superstar Kylian Mbappe posted—I looked it up and Mbappe’s top speed at the World Cup to this point was about 22 miles per hour.
Hill ran 23.24 miles per hour in a game in pads.
So if you’re wondering why it looks like Hill’s constantly making other pro football players look like they’re trying to gain traction in quicksand, that right there is why. Put him in a game, put him in pads, and he loses almost nothing off what he might run in a track suit.
• While we’re there, it’s worth appreciating what Hill’s ex-teammate Travis Kelce has accomplished in Kansas City. On Sunday, he became the fourth tight end in NFL history to top 10,000 receiving yards. He also did it fast—he’s got 10,045 yards in 140 career games. Three guys above him on the list, Tony Gonzalez (270 career games), Jason Witten (270) and Antonio Gates (236) all played deep into their thirties, and lag well behind the 71.8 yards per game that Kelce has averaged over the course of his 10-year career.
In fact, in that last category, every tight end in NFL history (minimum 100 games played) is chasing Kelce. Rob Gronkowski is second, at 64.9, Kellen Winslow is third, at 61.8, and Gonzalez is right after that, at 56.
And I’ll be honest, I knew Kelce was great and all, but I didn’t realize the numbers looked quite like this. Now, he’s not nearly the force in the run game that Gronk was, and I think that’s what separates Gronk and makes him perhaps the greatest ever at the position. But Kelce is pretty damn good in his own right and, looking at these numbers, has a pretty good shot at spending a certain summer weekend in his native northeast Ohio a few years from now.
• One thing to watch tonight—the demeanor of the Patriots‘ offensive players if things don’t go well early on. I can’t remember a time when there was more open criticism of coaches in Foxboro than there was in the Buffalo postgame. They’ve had 11 days to get that taste out of their mouths and get everyone back on board. Tonight, it’ll either get better or it’ll get worse.