Topics of note as the sun sets on the NFL’s 104th regular season:
1. Jordan Love arrives.
What would you think if I told you that Jordan Love in 2023 was a 10-percent improvement over Aaron Rodgers in 2022? If you love the Packers, would you have signed up for that Labor Day weekend? Of course you would. Let’s examine Rodgers last year versus his successor this year:
I remember going to training camp last summer. David Bakhtiari, a great friend of Rodgers, told me I was going to love Love. “Just watch,” he said. I did watch, and Love was largely mediocre through the first half of the season. Love, however, led Green Bay to the playoffs with a 6-2 finish to the season. And with these amazing numbers: 18 touchdown passes, one interception. He did it with a new crew of receivers and tight ends: Jayden Reed, Romeo Doubs, Christian Watson, Bo Melton, Dontayvion Wicks at receiver, and Luke Musgrave and Tucker Kraft at tight end. All seven have come to the Packers in the past 20 months.
There aren’t many franchises in football who would draft a quarterback when they have an MVP-caliber one on the roster with a good three or four years left. Green Bay GM Brian Gutekunst did. That’s because the Pack is a continuum. And when Love got comfortable in this job and with these players, he began to flourish. That’s why the 9-8 Packers will be going to Dallas with a puncher’s chance to beat the mighty Cowboys Sunday afternoon.
“I’m so happy for these guys,” coach Matt LaFleur said from Green Bay Sunday night. “In this world of social media these days, it’s hard to block out all the negatives. And there were a lot of negatives early in the season. But the growth in these players from the start of the season has been incredible. Even when it was tough, these guys loved coming to work every day. It’s great when you’re young—all you want to do is attack the next game. Their ability to weather the storm has been great.
“And Jordan—so poised. It’s not something you can coach. It’s how he was raised. It’s so fun to come to work with a positive person like him every day. As the season went on, the trust between us really increased. I trust that when I call a bad play, he’s going to get us out of it. That’s a huge thing for a quarterback.”
We all thought after three decades of quarterback greatness with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, there’d be a drop-off with Love. It’s only one year, yes. But Love’s poise and ability, particularly getting to know this new group of sub-25 receivers, has been remarkable to watch. The Cowboys might have a game on their hands this weekend.
2. Draft notes
Now that we know the draft order, a few opening salvos:
The Bears, at 1, should be able to get a 2022-like ransom for the pick with so many good quarterbacks in the pool. I expect GM Ryan Poles to trade the pick, but it’s too early to say that with certainty.
Washington, at 2, will get a potential franchise quarterback if it stays, and something slightly less lucrative if the new Commanders brain trust trades down.
New England, at 3, should probably be happy with a slight trade-down and a Michael Penix type. That all depends, of course, on who’s making that call for New England in this (we think) next era of Patriots football.
As for teams anxious to deal up for a quarterback, let’s see if Minnesota, at 11, moves aggressively to sign Kirk Cousins (I doubt it). Then it’s Denver at 12, Vegas at 13, Seattle at 16 (I bet Seattle tries to move up) in the derby for young quarterbacks.
3. Derrick Henry epitomizes greatness.
After rushing for 153 yards in Tennessee’s upset of the Jaguars Sunday—likely his last game as a Titan in Nashville—Derrick Henry did something rarely seen in the NFL. He took a microphone and told the fans what they’ve meant to him. “I hope I was an inspiration to all the young kids. Thank you for the greatest eight years of my life,” Henry said.
That’s who Derrick Henry is. He’s the kind of superstar who doesn’t realize he’s a superstar, who acts like he’s the 43rd player in the roster in ethos, attitude and work ethic. And judging by this game—if we assume he’s done in Tennessee, which probably won’t want to pay a 30-year-old running back real money in free agency—I would strongly urge teams in the league to watch the tape of this game. Watch his 69-yard run. Henry recorded the seventh-fastest time by a ball-carrier this season, per Next Gen Stats. Think of that. The man weighs 247 and runs like a scatback.
We spoke postgame, and Henry dripped gratitude. “I remember getting drafted here and talking to Eddie George,” Henry said from Nashville. “He told me you get to the league, then before you know it, you’re in year four, then you get to year eight and you wonder where the time goes. It’s really all come full circle for me here.”
The other part of Sunday, other than Henry saying a dripping goodbye (if indeed he’s not re-signed, and it’s headed that way), was the significance of where the day left him on the all-time rushing list. Henry began the day in 38th place on the list, 58 yards behind Earl Campbell. You might have to be a fan of a certain age to understand this, but 40 years ago, Earl Campbell was the Derrick Henry of the NFL, a 232-pound fearless defense-wrecker. The fact that Henry blew past Campbell with his 153 yards and exits this season with 9,502 yards to Campbell’s 9,407 left Henry nearly in awe of what he’d achieved. “That one means the world to me,” Henry said. “When I started getting into football, I’d watch video of Earl and I thought he was the best in the world. I remember one play when he bowled two guys over and he almost got his shirt ripped off and he just kept going. That’s a running back. Nothing stopped him.”
Whatever the future holds for Henry, there’s a kid—and there may be legions of them—who will watch Henry in his prime and think, That’s a running back. Nothing stopped him.
4. Re: the 2024 schedule
Six interesting matchups of 2024, at first glance:
- Kansas City at San Francisco. Marquee game—if KC can add a receiver or three this offseason.
- Dallas at San Francisco. If the Cowboys and Niners meet in the playoffs this year, this will mean the Cowboys will make four trips to Santa Clara in 23 months to play their NFC tormentors.
- Houston at Kansas City. First of what we can only hope are many Stroud-Mahomes matchups.
- Dolphins at Packers. Tua at Lambeau is cool. The Packers, with rising-star Jordan Love, could be to 2024 what the Lions were to 2023, so I wanted to get them in here.
- Baltimore at Kansas City. Lamar Jackson is 1-3 against Patrick Mahomes.
- San Francisco at Buffalo. First Niners trip to western New York in the Shanahan era, and of course the first Brock Purdy-Josh Allen duel.
- Houston at Dallas. Texans and Cowboys should play annually, not once every four years. Dak-Stroud will be fun.
5. Gen Next, offensive coordinators
While the world will focus on the next crop of head coaches, and rightfully so, I’ve spent some time on the phone asking people: Who are the next coordinators who could turn around struggling offenses? When I asked the question, I got a wide variety of opinions, but I’ve culled those opinions down to the nine I think might get looks as a few teams—Pittsburgh, Washington, New England, Chicago, New Orleans, Las Vegas, Atlanta, the Chargers—could change coordinators (and head coaches in some spots) over the next six weeks. Not surprisingly, there are Shanahan/McVay/LaFleur fingerprints over many of these guys. In alpha order:
Brian Fleury, 43, tight ends coach, San Francisco. Unknown outside the Niners, valued highly inside the building as the run-game authority trusted by Kyle Shanahan. You get points with Shanahan for knowing the complete game, and Fleury has been a linebackers coach, director of football research, quality control coach and assistant position coach in his NFL years. Shanahan will not want to lose him.
Jerrod Johnson, 35, QB coach, Houston. There can’t be a coach who has packed as much football education into a young life as Johnson has. He was in 10 pro camps in six seasons after going undrafted as a QB out of Texas A&M, and worked for three NFL teams before DeMeco Ryans made him the mentor to C.J. Stroud this year. Diligent and prepared. Might be a year too early, but he’ll be very impressive if interviewed, I’m told.
Klint Kubiak, 36, pass-game specialist, San Francisco. The Shanahan/Kubiak tree has many branches, but this is the first year Klint, son of longtime coach Gary Kubiak, has coached for a Shanahan, and he’s part of why Brock Purdy has had such a good year. He’s had a diverse run in the league for such a young coach, including play-calling last year down the stretch in Denver, after Nathaniel Hackett was fired. Cerebral, like his dad.
Charles London, 48, QB coach/pass-game coordinator, Tennessee. A student of the run game who now has coached quarterbacks in Atlanta and Tennessee. Probably unfair to judge Tennessee’s passing game this year in a season of immense transition, but London’s work with Will Levis to get him to play well early is a credit to him. Well-respected as a teacher and idea person.
Tee Martin, 45, quarterbacks coach, Baltimore. Has all the experience you’d want—fifth-round pick of the Steelers in 2000, journeyman pro QB for six years, coached at four colleges (USC offensive coordinator in 2016-’18), QB coach of Lamar Jackson under Todd Monken this year. Jackson loves him, and Ravens credit Martin as well as Monken for Jackson’s rise this year. Great credibility with players, and knows a lot of offenses.
Justin Outten, 40, running backs coach/run-game coordinator, Tennessee. Interesting career path after being a center for Syracuse two decades ago. Entered the league in 2016 as a coaching intern under Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta, then worked for Matt LaFleur, also off the Shanahan/McVay tree, in Green Bay for three years before Nathaniel Hackett hired him as OC in Denver last year. Now rebuilding his rep under Mike Vrabel. Bright and experienced.
Jake Peetz, 39, pass-game specialist, L.A. Rams. “He’ll win every interview,” one peer told me. Former QB coach of the Raiders and Panthers, former offensive analyst for Nick Saban at Alabama, former OC at LSU. Well-respected by Sean McVay in his two years with the Rams. What impressed me is Puka Nacua telling me in October that he learned the Rams’ offense in long early-morning sessions with Peetz in May and June. Imaginative guy.
Dan Pitcher, 36, QB coach, Cincinnati. Former small-college quarterback who worked his way up the ladder the hard way. Bengals credit Pitcher’s detail-oriented teaching for getting Jake Browning ready to be such a solid contributor late this season after the injury to Joe Burrow. Also has served as the Bengals’ game-management specialist, so he knows more than X’s and O’s. Being in only one system may impact his chances, but I’ve heard excellent things about Pitcher.
Zac Robinson, 37, QB coach/pass-game coordinator, L.A. Rams. Might follow in the footsteps of Houston offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik, who spent three seasons working for analytics firm PFF before beginning his six-year run with San Francisco. Robinson worked for PFF as a senior analyst before coming to the Rams in 2019. Four years soaking up Sean McVay’s knowledge and daily work with Matthew Stafford make him an interesting candidate.
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