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:
-- In the wake of Philip Rivers' retirement, what is the Colts' plan at quarterback?
-- Will Dwayne Haskins make the most of his new opportunity in Pittsburgh?
-- How the Packers proved everyone wrong.
But first, a look at an emerging soap opera in Tinseltown ...
What's up with Sean McVay and Jared Goff?
That's the million-dollar question floating around Hollywood after McVay -- long a hyper-positive ally of the Los Angeles Rams' QB1 -- seemingly changed his tune on Goff over the past few months.
The Rams coach raised some eyebrows with comments in late November following Los Angeles' 23-20 loss to the rival 49ers.
"It's taking care of the football," McVay said in the postgame, in reference to the Rams' four turnovers, three of which came via Goff. "Our quarterback has to take better care of the football."
Now, in a vacuum, such remarks by a coach immediately following a loss wouldn't be galling. But those words marked a notable departure from McVay's prior approach with the former No. 1 overall pick.
Goff was sidelined for Week 17 following thumb surgery, and McVay decided to roll with John Wolford as the starter in the Rams' playoff opener. Wolford was injured in the first quarter of the game, though, allowing Goff to retake the reins. And after Los Angeles' 30-20 win in that wild-card game at Seattle, Goff expressed his displeasure over not starting to my colleague, Michael Silver.
But the coach significantly ramped up palace intrigue immediately following the team's ensuing Divisional Round loss to the Packers, in which Goff completed 21 of 27 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown. Asked if Goff remains the Rams quarterback, McVay provided a striking qualifier:
"Yeah, he's the quarterback, right now."
One day later, McVay was asked if there was a scenario in which Goff wouldn't be on the roster next season. He refused to provide a direct answer:
"We're in a situation that we're in evaluation mode. All those things are things that we're moving forward, we're looking forward and I can't answer any of those questions until I take a step back and you evaluate everything that's in the best interest of the Rams."
While I understand the need or desire to promote competition within the locker room, it is rare for the head coach to include the quarterback position in the conversation, particularly when it is a veteran with a strong résumé that includes a Super Bowl appearance. Keep in mind, this is the same signal-caller the Rams signed to a four-year, $134 million extension with a then-record $110 million in guarantees back in September of 2019. McVay almost certainly had to sign off on that deal, as the architect and primary play-designer of an offense that once took the league by storm under Goff's direction. This is also the same head coach who helped the fifth-year pro shake the "bust" label affixed to his name after a rocky rookie season and elevated the young quarterback into a two-time Pro Bowler.
Given his personal investment in Goff's development, I would expect McVay to exhibit more patience and consideration with his starting quarterback. Sure, he can express his disappointment in his QB1's play based on the turnovers (17) and inconsistency throughout a campaign in which Goff passed for 3,962 yards with 20 touchdowns and a 90.0 passer rating. But McVay should also acknowledge his role in the offense's sputtering, with defensive coordinators catching up with his scheme and the Rams' B-level pass catchers and offensive line unable to consistently win against top defenses.
I'm surprised McVay has decided to play the silent blame game and seemingly pin all of the offensive woes on his quarterback. Honestly, the Rams coach should take a long, hard look in the mirror to determine whether the person with the joystick also deserves some criticism. Goff possesses a whopping dead-cap hit of $65.5 million if he's jettisoned this coming offseason, so the Rams need to find a way to get their head coach and quarterback on the same page.
Earlier this week, NFL Network's Steve Wyche reported McVay and Goff have some serious work to do this offseason.
"The people I've spoken to said basically, at this moment, the relationship with Goff and McVay: not great," Wyche said on NFL Network. "They need marriage counseling, is what one person said to me. I think this is something that they're going to be able to work through, but there's got to be some healing and that's not just with Jared Goff's injured thumb."
The Rams must figure this out because divorce isn't a viable option at this time.
DINK AND DUNK
Quarterback-needy Colts already on the clock. The Indianapolis Colts and general manager Chris Ballard have been living on borrowed time since Andrew Luck's unexpected retirement in August of 2019. The surprise departure led to a quarterback carousel in Indy, with Jacoby Brissett and Philip Rivers filling the QB1 void over the past two seasons. With Rivers hanging up the cleats this week and Brissett an impending free agent, the Colts are on the clock to find their next franchise quarterback with a team seemingly in "win now" mode.
While the urgency of the situation would suggest Indianapolis should grab a plug-and-play veteran to fill the role, a quick look at the playoff field reveals the benefits of drafting a young franchise quarterback to build around. Of the 14 teams at the start of this postseason tournament, nine were playing with homegrown starters, with six of those quarterbacks playing on their original rookie contracts (Jared Goff and Patrick Mahomes' extensions haven't kicked in yet). With that in mind, the Colts have to seriously ponder trying to secure their next franchise quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft.
"I promise you, we get the importance of the quarterback position," Ballard said last week, "but the difference in [drafting] one and taking the right one is the key, in our minds. We will explore it. We will examine it. We will go A-to-Z on it, I promise you. That position never leaves my mind and it's something we have to get fixed, but there's got to be a little bit of timing and luck that come into play."
This year's draft is pretty loaded with quarterback talent -- at least four prospects are viewed as likely first-rounders -- but they currently hold the 21st overall pick and it's uncertain whether any of the top singal-callers will be available at that point. Moreover, it is not a guarantee that any QB prospect will evolve into a franchise player at any stage of his career.
"It is not an exact science," Ballard said. "Everybody thinks you just take one and you are going fix the problem. Look, taking one will get y'all off my ass for a little bit, but the second that guy doesn't play well, I'm going to be the first one run out of the building."
That's why Ballard must explore every avenue to secure the quarterback of the future this offseason. Whether it's acquiring a proven veteran as a free agent, trading for a young signal-caller or identifying and moving up to snag a blue-chip talent in the draft, the pressure is on the Colts' general manager to solidify the most important position on the roster by any means necessary.
Despite the series of missteps that prompted the Washington Football Team to cut the former first-round pick during the regular season, the ex-Ohio State star gives the Steelers a "freebie" in their quarterback room. If Haskins flashes first-round talent, the team has signed a valuable player to a bargain-basement deal that doesn't dent the salary cap. In addition, the acquisition of a 23-year-old on a one-year deal gives the Steelers an opportunity to evaluate and develop him on the practice field to see if he has the potential to become a possible successor to Ben Roethlisberger.
That said, the onus is on Haskins to rewrite the narrative surrounding his name and game. He has to prove to his coaches and teammates that football is a top priority after questions about his preparedness and professionalism dominated the conversation following his release. From the sideline selfie incident to the violation of COVID protocols to his questionable study habits, Haskins has a lot of work to do to reverse the perception that has led some observers to dismiss his chances of becoming a successful player in the league.
On the field, Haskins must improve his practice habits to become a more consistent passer and decision-maker. He needs to master the art of reading coverage and exercise more discipline dropping the ball off to his secondary options when the primary target is covered. In addition, Haskins has to develop the leadership skills to prompt a group of players to follow his instruction. Although he has talked the talk in the past, he must learn how to walk the walk by becoming an A+ worker in all aspects.
After a spectacular flameout in Washington, Haskins gets a second chance to resurrect his career under the watchful eye of a demanding coach in Mike Tomlin. If the former No. 15 overall pick embraces the standard established in Pittsburgh, he has a chance to realize the potential that made him one of the blue-chip prospects in the 2019 draft class.
Trust the Packers' process. Perhaps Brian Gutekunst and the Green Bay Packers' front office knew what they were doing when they bypassed several opportunities to invest a top pick in a receiver during the 2020 NFL Draft. Despite every draft analyst and casual fan urging the team to give Aaron Rodgers more firepower on the perimeter, Green Bay opted to trust its developmental process. That decision has paid huge dividends for an offense that finished the regular season as the league's highest-scoring unit.
Guys like Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Robert Tonyan have emerged as dependable playmakers in the passing game, with the trio combining for 118 receptions, 1,727 yards and 20 touchdowns during the regular season. These contributions have enabled Rodgers to effectively counter tactics designed to neutralize superstar WR Davante Adams on the outside. Moreover, the emergence of these lesser-known pass catchers as credible threats within Matt LaFleur's system is a testament to the Packers' draft-and-develop approach.
"We've always had young players in the stable with the potential to contribute," a Packers executive told me. "This staff is giving them chances to play and trusting them to make plays.
"That's been the biggest difference: They're trusting the young guys and it is paying off."
The football world owes the front office an apology for all the harsh criticism this past offseason. One more win over the Buccaneers on Sunday, and Rodgers will finally be making the second Super Bowl appearance of his career.
How substantial combine changes impact the pre-draft process. The league's decision to significantly alter the format of this year's NFL Scouting Combine adds yet another challenge for scouts and evaluators as they attempt to assess the talent and potential of this draft class in the middle of a global pandemic. Scouts and coaches will not only miss out on the opportunity to sit down with top prospects for in-person interviews, but they will be unable to watch speed and agility drills and positional workouts conducted live at a neutral location.
Although teams will have a chance to conduct virtual interviews throughout the pre-draft process, the lack of true face-to-face time will make it harder for team decision-makers to get a feel for whether a prospect is the right fit for the locker room culture. This will force scouts to spend more time on the phone with their school contacts to complete background checks on each prospect's moral and football character. In addition, general managers will need to choreograph pro day visits to ensure scouts are able to get the proper measurements (height, weight, arm length, hand size, etc.) and body-type assessments.
The lack of an organized workout with the top prospects of the class sorted by position groups will prevent scouts from drawing in-person comparisons on similarly graded players. And with a number of prospects having opted out of the 2020 season, the lack of on-field workouts will make it harder to sort out the players lumped together in grade clusters. Evaluators will have to trust the opinions formed off tape evaluations more than ever and that could make a huge difference in how prospects are stacked on the board this year compared to previous years.