Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
-- One X-factor on each team preparing for Championship Sunday.
-- Will Carolina's gamble on Joe Brady pay off?
But first, a look at the makeup of each conference finalist ...
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Since entering the NFL in 1994 as a member of the Buffalo Bills, I've always been fascinated by the team-building process. At that time, my new squad was fresh off its fourth straight Super Bowl appearance, having compiled a 49-15 (.765) regular-season record during that span. Although this Bills run isn't regarded as a dynasty, due to the inability to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, such sustained excellence left a lasting impression on me, particularly as I started my career as a scout with aspirations of eventually becoming a team-builder.
Looking back at those early-1990s Buffalo teams, it is not a coincidence that the Bill Polian-built squads featured eventual Hall of Fame inductees at quarterback (Jim Kelly), running back (Thurman Thomas), wide receiver (Andre Reed) and defensive end (Bruce Smith). In addition, the roster included a number of blue-chip starters on the offensive line (Kent Hull, Jim Ritcher and Howard Ballard) and a dynamic defense with a host of disruptive playmakers on the second and third levels (Cornelius Bennett, Darryl Talley, Nate Odomes and Henry Jones). The Hall of Fame executive constructed a team that not only flourished over that span, but provided a blueprint for the league to follow.
I believe championship-caliber teams typically need to have 10-12 blue-chip players on the roster, with game-changers at marquee positions (quarterback, left tackle, pass rusher and cornerback) surrounded by a handful of elite players in complementary spots (running back, wide receiver, linebacker and safety).
Recently on the Move the Sticks Podcast, Daniel Jeremiah and I slightly tweaked that blueprint to come up with a formula that stresses the importance of having 12 high-end players on the roster at marquee positions. We believe championship-caliber teams in the 2020s need to have a strong mix of the following:
- Franchise quarterback
- Three offensive playmakers
- Three offensive linemen
- Two pass rushers
- Three defensive playmakers
With that formula in mind and Championship Sunday on tap, I think this is the perfect time to see how that proposed blueprint applies to the four remaining teams. Here's a list of the blue-chip players on each of the conference finalists:
San Francisco 49ers: QB Jimmy Garoppolo, RB Tevin Coleman OR Raheem Mostert OR Matt Breida, FB Kyle Juszczyk, WR Deebo Samuel, TE George Kittle, OT Joe Staley, OT Mike McGlinchey, OG Laken Tomlinson, DT DeForest Buckner, DE Nick Bosa, DE Arik Armstead, DE Dee Ford, LB Fred Warner, LB Kwon Alexander, CB Richard Sherman.
As you can see, each of the teams participating in this Sunday's action check most of the boxes when it comes to the MTS formula, albeit in slightly different ways. For instance, the Packers have the requisite QB and offensive line, but they are lacking offensive firepower on the perimeter. The inconsistent play from Green Bay's wide receivers and tight ends has been a point of contention this season and it could be the Achilles heel that keeps them from advancing to Super Bowl LIV.
The Titans lack the pizzazz and sizzle of their counterparts, but a closer examination of their roster reveals a rock-solid team with few glaring holes. Sparked this season by the NFL's rushing leader, the league's most efficient passer and outstanding line play on both sides of the ball, Tennessee has been able to creep past a murderers' row of playoff opponents to this point. Mike Vrabel affectionately calls his players "street rats," and he has assembled a blue-collar unit with enough playmakers to control the game from the opening kick.
Andy Reid's team is a gamer's dream, with a high-scoring offense that should rate a 99 on Madden. The NFL's most electric QB1 has a stable of thoroughbreds at his disposal and he lets them run unbridled on the perimeter. The individual and collective speed of the unit makes the Chiefs nearly impossible to stop, particularly when the offensive line is holding up against a nasty pass rush. Defensively, the Chiefs have blue-chip players in the critical spots (defensive end, defensive tackle and safety), but their D lacks multiple playmakers on the second and third levels, which is problematic in a pass-centric league.
San Francisco is the most complete team in the tournament. Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have built an impressive roster with elite talent at each of the core positions, particularly the offensive and defensive lines. The 49ers obliterate opponents with their diverse rushing game and explosive complementary aerial attack. The interchangeable pieces in critical roles make the unit almost impossible to stop with Jimmy G distributing the ball like a Black Jack dealer. Defensively, the Niners whip opponents at the line of scrimmage with a front that features premium talent at every position. The ridiculous depth on the D-line has enabled San Francisco to utilize simple games and stunts, enabling the linebackers and defensive backs to run and chase without obstruction.
CHAMPIONSHIP SUNDAY X-FACTORS: Who could swing these two games?
Despite the critical roles that stars play in getting to Championship Sunday, many of these high-profile contests are decided by unsung heroes who step up to make timely plays in a pinch. Considering the anticipated close nature of the games going forward, here are some X-factors to watch this weekend -- and, in two cases, beyond:
San Francisco 49ers: WR Emmanuel Sanders. The veteran pass catcher was acquired to serve as the potential WR1 in an offense that's built the passing game around George Kittle. Sanders is a slick route runner with sneaky speed and acceleration as a vertical threat. Although he is at his best working the intermediate areas between the numbers, No. 17 could play a critical role going forward as the trustworthy pass catcher with significant playoff experience. If opponents can corral the 49ers' running game with eight-man boxes, the team will need Sanders to reprise his role as a lead receiver to reach Super Bowl LIV.
Green Bay Packers: TE Jimmy Graham. The former All-Pro tight end is no longer one of the premier playmakers in the game, but he can still hurt opponents as a big-bodied pass catcher over the middle of the field. Graham has standout post-up skills and his wide catch radius makes him an easy target for Aaron Rodgers in key situations. With Davante Adams and Aaron Jones viewed as the only trustworthy offensive weapons for No. 12 of late, Graham needs to turn back to the clock and re-emerge as a difference-maker in the passing game.
Kansas City Chiefs: LB Anthony Hitchens. If DT Chris Jones is unable to play -- or compromised -- the Chiefs' linebackers will need to be bigger factors against the run. Hitchens, in particular, must be a disruptive force between the tackles as a sideline-to-sideline playmaker on the second level. Considering the formidable running games and ball carriers still in the tournament, K.C. needs No. 53 to fly around like a Tasmanian Devil from his linebacker spot.
Tennessee Titans: WR Corey Davis. Despite passing for fewer than 100 yards in each of the Titans' two playoff wins, Ryan Tannehill has delivered enough explosive plays through the air to keep opposing defenses from jamming extra defenders into the box to neutralize Henry and the team's powerful running game. While A.J. Brown has emerged as the Titans' big-play threat, opposing coaches are sure to key on the rookie. This should leave Davis with plenty of space to operate against single coverage on the outside. If he can handle his business on the perimeter, the Titans' passing game could suddenly take over.
JOE BRADY: Can a first-time play-caller reinvigorate Carolina's offense?
Is Joe Brady ready to be an NFL offensive coordinator?
That's been the million-dollar question floating around league circles since the Carolina Panthers lured the former LSU passing game coordinator/WR coach away from the national champions following a meteoric rise up the coaching ladder.
The 30-year-old swiftly climbed the ranks from linebackers coach at William & Mary (2013-14) to graduate assistant at Penn State (2015-16) to offensive assistant with the New Orleans Saints (2017-18) to passing game coordinator/WR coach in Baton Rouge over the past year. Brady earned high marks for his creativity and ability to blend new-age tactics like RPOs with old-school NFL concepts, fostering a dynamic offense that took the college football world by storm. Fueled by the play QB Joe Burrow and an explosive cast of playmakers on the perimeter, the Tigers finished the season as college football's top-ranked offense, averaging a whopping 568.5 yards and 48.4 points per game. LSU ranked second in passing offense (401.6 passing yards per game) while Burrow, who led the nation with a 76.3 percent completion rate, set a new FBS single-season record with 60 passing touchdowns and, of course, won the Heisman Trophy.
That's ridiculous production for an offense and a QB1 on any level, but it's unfathomable to see that kind of performance against elite competition in the SEC and College Football Playoff. That's why I totally understood the intrigue around Brady throughout the fall, as the Tigers steamrolled opponents. With the NFL becoming more quarterback-friendly, executives and coaches are looking for the next whiz kid with a fancy playbook who will keep defensive coordinators up all night.
That said, I wonder if Brady will be able to replicate his success -- or, to be fair, anything close to it -- in the NFL, as he becomes the primary play-caller for the first time in his career on the biggest and brightest stage in the game.
"He will have to prepare to face defensive coordinators who are good at breaking down your (pass) protections," an NFL assistant coach with coordinator experience in college and the pros told me. "That's the No. 1 priority is protecting the quarterback, so he has to come up with multiple plans for handling the pressures that he will face every week.
"He was able to out-scheme opponents at LSU, but most NFL teams already run the concepts in his playbook. He has a lot of schemes because of his playbook and quarterback, but you have to be able to adapt to who you have on the team in the NFL and put those guys in a position to succeed."
This coach raised another important point about Brady's big step up to the Sunday game: "He also has to be able to manage a bunch of personalities and attitudes. From coaches to players, he has to be able to get everyone on the same page and that can be a challenge without significant experience. ... His demeanor and how he presents information to the offense will be critical. If he doesn't sell his vision and convince the team to believe in the plan, he will get shut out by the veterans.
"I've heard good things about Brady, but it's a big risk, especially with his limited experience."
For Brady, the transition to the pro game will bring additional pressures as he learns how to call plays for the first time. Despite the credit thrown in his direction as a key contributor to LSU's magical season, he was really an assistant to offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger. Brady would suggest plays to the wily play-caller, but it was ultimately up to the veteran assistant to determine which plays were called and when. That's not a dismissal of Brady's work or contributions, but being the decision-maker is a lot different from offering suggestions. How will Brady adjust to calling the game? Can he grow into the role while leaning on some trusted assistants with NFL experience? Are there more plays and protections in his playbook to handle the tactics and adjustments that'll be thrown at him by experienced defensive coordinators?
"Look at (Kliff) Kingsbury," a former NFL head coach with offensive coordinator/play-calling experience told me. "It took him a while to figure it out, and he's been a longtime play-caller at a lower level. He had to expand his knowledge of protections and avoid playing 'five-on-five' too much at the line of scrimmage. He also learned how to add more plays to his play sheet after defensive coordinators snuffed out his tendency to repeat the same plays over and over.
"To be great in this league, you have to have a wealth of knowledge at your disposal. ... You need more stuff in your bag, so you need to have a strong supporting cast, particularly the offensive line coach. If you're not solid with your pass protections, you will get exposed. The quarterback can't hold onto the ball or he will get hit and knocked out. I'm sure he will figure it out, but he will go through some growing pains adjusting to the NFL game."
Brady inherits an offense with some solid players, including Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel and Greg Olsen. Plus, he could have a former MVP at quarterback in Cam Newton or a young gunslinger who's handpicked to direct his offense. The wealth of playmakers at his disposal could make the transition easy for him if he can figure out the best way to feature each guy while building an offensive structure that makes life easy on the quarterback. That's what he did at LSU with Burrow leading the way, and it led to confetti falling out of the sky following a national title win.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Why calls for Pete Carroll's dismissal are misguided
I know emotions run high for fans after their team suffers a deflating playoff loss, but the "Let Russ Cook" crowd needs to pipe down.
While the narrative that defensive-minded head coach Pete Carroll is keeping the perennial MVP candidate from reaching his potential seems to be gaining steam, let's not overlook the fact that Carroll's coaching philosophy has pushed Wilson into gold jacket consideration in just eight seasons.
The six-time Pro Bowl selectee has compiled a resume that will make it nearly impossible for voters to bypass him when his name hits the Hall of Fame ballot five seasons after his retirement. Since entering the league in 2012, Wilson ranks second in QB wins (86) while cracking the top five in passing touchdowns (227, fifth-most) and passer rating (101.2, fourth-highest among QBs with 35-plus starts). Russ has guided the team to double-digit wins in seven of his eight seasons -- and the one exception was the 9-7 mark in 2017.
Think about that.
Yet, there's a group of 12s who believe the 'Hawks would be better served to move on from a head coach who has helped their beloved quarterback play winning football at a high level while also amassing the league's fourth-best record (100-59-1) since he was hired in 2010. Not to mention, the Seahawks have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy once and nearly claimed back-to-back titles with Carroll at the helm.
While I'm aware of the analytics crowd's disdain for the running game and Carroll's old-school philosophy, it is hard to argue with the results. The Seahawks have demonstrated sustained excellence behind a rushing attack that has ranked No. 1 in yards per game (131.0) and rush percentage (47 percent of plays) since 2010. Considering Wilson's efficiency and effectiveness when the Seahawks have leaned on the running game -- with the exception of the 2014 season, Wilson has posted a passer rating of 100.0 or better when the 'Hawks have averaged at least 30 rushing attempts per game and finished with a top-five rushing offense -- Carroll is doing what's best for No. 3 and the team when he opts for a more balanced offensive attack.
Don't believe me? Just look at his efficiency in 2016 and '17, when the Seahawks' running game sputtered and they put more of the offense on his shoulders. Wilson finished with a sub-100.0 passer rating each season and his yards-per-attempt figures were at the lowest levels of his career. In addition, he tossed 11 interceptions each season (the highest figure in his career), and the increased utilization (a then-career high 546 pass attempts in 2016, only to be topped by 553 pass attempts in 2017) didn't result in better performance or production for Wilson or the team.
"It's hard for the offense to sustain a rhythm when they put the ball completely in Wilson's hands," a former Seahawks player told me. "He is more of a sandlot passer than a rhythm thrower and his improvisation disrupts the flow of the offense. Sure, it looks spectacular when he makes magical plays, but it is hard to put together a plan built on impromptu plays and scrambles. It's not sustainable."
That's why Seahawks fans shouldn't fault Carroll for his persistence with the running game, despite the presence of a QB1 with an elite game. The head coach understands the threat of the running game enables Wilson to deliver explosive plays through the air (off play-action passes) while also allowing the Seahawks to control the game and minimize turnovers. Considering the correlation between limiting turnovers and winning outcomes, it's clear to me that Carroll's conservative strategy has helped No. 3 become one of the NFL's ultimate winners.
If the 12s calling for change at the top really care more about wins than fantasy stats, they should put their iPhones down and stop clogging my Twitter timeline with pleas for Carroll's dismissal.