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:
But first, a look at the resurgence of a juggernaut ...
That was my initial thought when the Kansas City Chiefs reclaimed the AFC's No. 1 seed last week. The back-to-back AFC champions have overcome their early-season struggles to re-emerge as a true title contender -- and they might be better positioned to win the Super Bowl this time than ever before.
Given how impressive the Chiefs have been during the Patrick Mahomes era, I know that's a hot take. But this version of Kansas City is a better overall team than recent editions. It is important to emphasize that word -- TEAM -- due to the 2021 Chiefs' ability to play complementary football after relying heavily on a one-dimensional approach that put everything on No. 15's right arm.
The Chiefs' aerial circus in past seasons certainly spoiled us, with Mahomes tossing rainbows to what felt like an Olympic relay team on the perimeter. The spectacularly gifted passer not only made the game look easy, but he did it with flair, as his no-look passes and improvisational plays left us in awe of his unique talents. Mahomes seemingly had no weaknesses as an efficient gunslinger with an exceptional feel for the game. Andy Reid nurtured the QB by assembling an all-star collection of pass catchers with the capacity to run down Mahomes' bombs or turn his checkdowns into big plays. Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, in particular, flourished in the fast-break offense directed by a fearless flinger with exceptional tools.
The Chiefs' offense looked like an unstoppable force ... until the Buccaneers stymied the unit in Super Bowl LV. Beating up Kansas City in that 31-9 affair, Tampa Bay provided a blueprint that continues to pose problems to an offense that lives off big plays like oxygen. With opponents copying Tampa's two-deep coverage tactics that eliminate the deep ball and force Mahomes to take a more deliberate approach from the pocket, Kansas City lacked patience and discipline in the first couple months of this season, resulting in an alarming number of turnovers. Despite exhibiting better ball security in recent weeks, the Chiefs still have the second-most turnovers in the NFL with 25. Only the 3-11 Jets (26) have more. These giveaways have directly impacted the bottom line, with the Chiefs owning a 1-3 record in games with three-plus turnovers.
To combat the turnover problem that played a major role in the Chiefs starting out this season at 3-4, Reid has been more conservative as a play-caller, with Mahomes also dialing back some of the risky throws that were a big part of his game. Kansas City's QB1 has started to embrace the checkdown against umbrella coverage, while also utilizing his athleticism to punish opponents for sitting back in soft zones on key downs. The new workmanlike approach from the former MVP lacks pizzazz, but the offense is still putting up numbers (397.2 total yards per game, third-most in the NFL) and points (27.5 points per game, sixth). As the NFL's top-ranked offense on third-down conversions (52.7 percent), the Chiefs are winning the critical moments while embracing a style that will enable them to win in the postseason.
Kansas City's half-court offense is a radical change for a team that became accustomed to pushing the pace, but the transformation works due to the emergence of a defense that has played A+ football in the second half of the season, helping fuel the current seven-game winning streak. During the 3-4 start, the defense gave up a whopping 29.0 points and 404.6 yards per game, while also surrendering a 48.7 percent conversion rate on third down. During the win streak, those figures have shrunk to 13.3 ppg, 328.3 ypg and a 30.2 percent conversion rate. Steve Spagnuolo's defense has also been quite opportunistic of late. Since Week 9, the Chiefs have the most takeaways (17) in the league, giving them the best turnover differential (+11).
Part of the defense's improvement can be attributed to the unit returning some key players from injury and reshuffling the deck on the front line. After dabbling as an edge rusher early in the season, Chris Jones has returned to the interior and absolutely wrecked shop. And his move back inside was triggered by a savvy midseason move for a veteran edge.
The November trade for Melvin Ingram has been well worth the sixth-round pick Kansas City sent to Pittsburgh. The energetic veteran is a non-stop pursuer with a combination of strength, power and burst that creates problems for edge blockers lacking outstanding kick-step quickness and body control. Ingram has a feel for knocking blockers back onto their heels with power maneuvers before getting to the quarterback by utilizing his quickness. The three-time Pro Bowler has charged up the Chiefs' front line and given Spagnuolo a chance to diversify his blitz packages with different rushers blowing up the pocket from various depths.
The Chiefs' secondary has also improved dramatically with Juan Thornhill stepping back into the starting lineup in Week 6. The third-year pro's return led to a lineup reshuffle that put Kansas City's defensive backs in roles better suited to their talents. Despite being removed from the starting lineup in favor of Thornhill, Daniel Sorensen has benefitted from the change. The veteran is playing closer to the line of scrimmage in sub-packages, and the pseudo-linebacker role frees him from covering tight ends and slot receivers in space, which is not his strong suit.
It took Kansas City a while to find its stride in 2021, but the Chiefs are rolling with a complementary-football approach that will make them more formidable for opponents in the playoffs. And if the quick-strike offense fully reappears? Well, good luck to the rest of the NFL.
Three non-QBs who deserve MVP talk
Here's a bold prediction for "NFL Honors" in February:
The Most Valuable Player award will go to ... a quarterback.
Yeah, OK, I'm not exactly going out on a limb there. A QB has received MVP honors in each of the last eight seasons and 13 of the past 14, with RB Adrian Peterson (2012) being the lone outlier.
While I certainly understand and appreciate the importance of field generals in a quarterback-driven league, plenty of non-QBs are making significant impacts on playoff contenders. So, with gift-giving season upon us, I'd like to give some love to a few guys at other positions who deserve a place in the MVP discussion.
At a time when running backs are treated as second-class citizens in the NFL, Taylor is making his case to be considered the game's Most Valuable Player with some historic production. With 1,518 yards through 15 weeks of play, Taylor leads the NFL in rushing by more than 400 yards. The second-year pro also leads the league with 17 rushing touchdowns, 11 rushes of 20-plus yards and four rushes of 40-plus yards. Only three rushers in NFL history have eclipsed 1,800 yards and 20 touchdowns in a season -- Terrell Davis (1998), Shaun Alexander (2005) and LaDainian Tomlinson (2006) -- and all three took home that year's MVP honors. Taylor is currently on pace to run for 1,843 yards and 21 TDs. Most importantly, after an 0-3 start for Indy this season, he has carried the Colts back into postseason contention as a one-man show in an offense that is hiding its quarterback (Carson Wentz) at key moments down the stretch.
Going back to 1957, only 19 non-quarterbacks have won the Associated Press MVP award -- and none of them played wide receiver. Kupp, the NFL leader in receptions (122), receiving yards (1,625) and receiving touchdowns (14), is trying to change that. The former third-round pick's 136-yard effort against the Seahawks on Tuesday night gave him 10 straight games with at least 90 yards receiving, breaking a record previously shared with Michael Irvin and Odell Beckham Jr. He also scored two touchdowns in that win, giving him four games this year with at least 100 yards and two scores; only Hall of Famers Randy Moss and Terrell Owens have logged more in a single season. In Year 5, Kupp is on pace for 1,973 receiving yards, which would break Calvin Johnson's single-season record (1,964). Did I mention that the Rams are 10-4, tied for first place in the NFC West?
Watt might be the current leader in the Defensive Player of the Year race, but the NFL sack leader (17, despite missing two games to injury) deserves to be in this conversation due to his consistent dominance and disruption off the edge. Watt has registered sacks in nine of his 12 starts, including five games with at least two sacks. The steady production from a defender viewed as Public Enemy No. 1 by opponents is more than enough to warrant consideration for the league's top individual honor. The Steelers remain in the playoff race at 7-6-1; no chance that's the case if you remove Watt from the equation.
Is the blueprint out on the Buccaneers?
The NFL is a copycat league, with coaches willing to replicate the game plans of opposing teams if it will help them get a win. Given the thrift-shop nature of the business, it's a safe bet that defensive quality control coaches around the league are spending time breaking down the Buccaneers' 9-0 loss to the Saints in Week 15 to see if there is a blueprint out on how to slow down the defending champs.
While some might chalk up the shutout as an aberration for Tampa Bay, New Orleans' 4-0 regular-season record against the team since Tom Brady's arrival should raise eyebrows around the league. Yes, the Bucs did beat the Saints in the playoffs last season, but last Sunday marked the first time Brady has ever lost four consecutive regular-season games to one squad. New Orleans has had the three-time MVP's number, as evidenced by his 61.1 percent completion rate and 6:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the four regular-season meetings. He has a 67.2 percent completion rate and 70:15 TD-to-INT ratio versus all other opponents since 2020.
Overall, Brady has played like Superman since coming to Tampa Bay, but the Saints appear to be his kryptonite. Whether it is the Cameron Jordan-led pass rush or the sticky coverage provided by Marshon Lattimore and Co., defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has a formula that works against the G.O.A.T. New Orleans has repeatedly demonstrated how to neutralize the Bucs' primary playmakers while destroying the rhythm of the passing game.
While studying the All-22 Coaches Film from the divisional battles, I noticed the Saints are utilizing elements that appeared in coach-turned-analyst Rex Ryan's old game plans from his time facing No. 12 when he was with the Ravens, Jets and Bills. The Saints play a variety of man coverages with man-match principles behind traditional and exotic (simulated pressure) four-man rushes. The tight coverage with multiple underneath defenders able to help when switching on crossing routes stymied the Bucs' passing game.
In addition, last Sunday, the Saints bluffed blitzes with edge defenders executing peel coverage to blanket running backs leaking into the flats. With seven defenders covering five eligible receivers, Brady did not have anywhere to go with the football for much of the game. Give credit to Allen for adding some spice to the gumbo by diversifying the Saints' pass-rush plan while utilizing only four rushers on most downs. He showed blitz pressure prior to the snap, but alternated the assignment between defenders. With Brady unable to identify which players were coming or going, the veteran appeared uncertain about where to go with the ball, which is a rare occurrence.
The Saints' pass-rush plan also created opportunities for Jordan to take advantage of the Bucs' interior blockers on stunts or clever alignments, enabling him to attack on the move. The design of the simulated pressures forced the Bucs into one-on-one matchups with the seven-time Pro Bowler and he feasted on those chances. Jordan posted two sacks and forced a fumble that was recovered by Lattimore late in the third quarter, ending a Bucs drive as the team approached the red zone.
It takes the right personnel to execute the strategy that was so successful for New Orleans last Sunday, but for certain teams with that ability, the Saints have provided a plan that could be used to knock out the reigning champs down the road.
The Daniel Jones dilemma in New York
It takes about three years to determine whether a quarterback can play at the NFL level. At least that's what old scouts will tell you when it comes to evaluating the most important position in football.
With that timeline in mind, general managers and coaches should know whether to pick up the fifth-year option or sign a young quarterback to a lucrative extension heading into Year 4 of his rookie deal as a first-round pick. The New York Giants are about to face this decision with Daniel Jones eligible for both this offseason. The team just shut down Jones for the remainder of the season due to a neck injury that has sidelined him over the last month. So, where does second-year head coach Joe Judge stand on the 24-year-old signal-caller?
"He worked really hard in the offseason, made a lot of gains. Saw a lot of progress throughout different parts of the season with him. You want to get Daniel on the field. It's a quarterback-driven league and obviously Daniel's our quarterback," Judge told reporters earlier this week. "I've seen enough growth from Daniel to tell us that he's a guy we want to go ahead and play with. In terms of the business aspect of it and different things, I'll let different departments of this organization handle that stuff."
That is quite an endorsement for a quarterback with 49 turnovers in three seasons (37 starts) and a 12-25 career record. While Jones has cut down his miscues each year (from 23 as a rookie to 16 in 2020 to 10 this season), the numbers "Danny Dimes" has put up as a three-year starter are not enough to rubber-stamp him as a franchise guy.
In fact, I would have a tough time making the case for Jones to remain the unquestioned starter in 2022, given that he has a career passer rating of 84.3 with just three game-winning drives on his résumé. How can the Giants justify handing Jones a lucrative pay day without any notable accomplishments?
That's a legitimate question New York's coaches and scouts must answer before making a decision that could potentially fracture the locker room. Players might not voice their concerns publicly, but big money for Jones would certainly elicit some quizzical looks. If Judge has stood in front of the team and promoted a meritocracy, he could lose his credibility if Jones' compensation does not match his production.
I understand quarterbacks are overpaid based on the marketplace, but that does not mean the Giants should make it rain for a quarterback who ranks near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories. A long-term extension should be completely out of the question right now. Despite Jones' impressive intangibles and solid leadership skills, Big Blue cannot invest serious cash in an unproven quarterback without any pelts on the wall.
If the Giants still feel the need to continue with Jones in the fold, the team should pick up the fifth-year option with the intention of making the third-year pro prove himself while playing on a series of one-year deals (fifth-year option and franchise tags). Although the leverage could eventually flip to Jones in this scenario, I would gladly pay a premium to a quarterback who emerges as an all-star-caliber player in an "earn everything" environment.
Jones has shown flashes of all-star potential, but not enough to earn the QB1 role for the next decade. If I had Judge's ear, I would encourage him to play the wait-and-see game before handing Jones the keys to the franchise this offseason.