As the 2018 NFL season rolls on into Week 15, NFL.com's network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:
NFL: New helmet rule still being ironed out. The NFL admitted at the Winter League Meeting in Dallas this week that enforcement of the new helmet rule this season has been more challenging than expected when the rule was approved last spring, and that there is still a significant ramp-up needed before the foul is being called the way the league envisions it. Rich McKay, the chairman of the Competition Committee, said the rule will not be changed during the upcoming offseason, but there will be an extensive effort made with players, coaches and officials to educate them about what the league believes is a foul and how they want officials to call it during games.
According to McKay, the penalty for lowering the helmet to initiate contact has been called just 15 times in the regular season. The scant number of penalties is especially noteworthy after the NFL was heavily criticized during the preseason, when the violation was called repeatedly -- 51 times in the first 33 preseason games. After a conference call of committee members, game officials were instructed to not flag incidental or inadvertent contact. The penalty virtually disappeared after that.
McKay said that more than 100 warning letters have been sent to players after games, an indication of the disconnect between what league officials believe is a violation and what is actually being called during games.
Rooney Rule adjusted. Nearly a year after the Oakland Raiderssparked a controversy when they hired coach Jon Gruden without interviewing any minority coaches who appeared to be serious candidates, the NFL announced tweaks to its Rooney Rule, which governs hiring practices. The team was cleared because the NFL said that the Raiders complied with the Rooney Rule before hiring Gruden because they interviewed USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin and Bobby Johnson, who was the Raiders' tight ends coach under Jack Del Rio, although neither was considered a serious candidate.
The NFL's Workplace Diversity Committee said the rule now mandates that teams must interview at least one diverse candidate who does not already work for the team, or it must interview a diverse candidate from the league's Career Development Advisory Panel list, which is a list of candidates that a panel of former NFL coaches and executives has evaluated and deemed ready for head coaching jobs. The committee also said that in order to assure equal interview opportunities, if the team's final decision maker is involved in interviews in the beginning of the process, he or she must be involved through the conclusion of the hiring process. That is to avoid a team owner interviewing the preferred candidate while other candidates -- including diverse candidates who may be interviewed to comply with the Rooney Rule -- are interviewed by a lower-level executive.
The changes come as the hiring cycle is about to begin again amid concerns from Cyrus Mehri, one of the attorneys involved with the Rooney Rule from the beginning, that the pipeline of coaches is not adequately filled with minority candidates.
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Back on his old stomping grounds.
"I'm actually going back to school," Rosen said on the "RapSheet and Friends" podcast this week. "I'm excited to go back and finish my degree. I need six classes, and UCLA is on the quarters system, so I got to go back for two years."
Rosen, who was picked 10th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft following his junior year at UCLA, won't exactly be moving into the dorms. He'll get an apartment near campus and attend classes and hang with his friends -- who are all still in school, given that he's just 21 years old.
"I'm excited to go back and see my guys," Rosen said. "I absolutely always intended to finish school."
The topic came up because Rosen, who was a top-50 national tennis prospect as a 12-year-old, was asked if he still plays the sport. He acknowledged he does, when he has time, which isn't often. And even with school this spring and summer, he'll make sure he has a window.
"I play for fun every now and then," Rosen said. "But college sport takes up a good chunk of your time. We have the first real offseason in a very long time, and I'll definitely be sitting on my butt for a good chunk of it. I might get on the court and play a little."
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Chicago can clinch its first NFC North title since 2010, marking seven consecutive seasons without a division title -- which by the way, is the third-longest active drought among NFC teams, behind only the Lions and Bucs. It's truly a remarkable worst-to-first turnaround, given the team's 5-11 finish a season ago.
Enter in, Matt Nagy.
He's got defensive players playing on offense, and scoring touchdowns. He's got offensive linemen eligible to score touchdowns, and they are. He's got the team's post-game winning celebratory hangout, Club Dub, rockin'. Of course, the "Dub" is only reserved for Chicago players and staff members after a win in the locker room. It's a raucous scene, full of game-ball distributions, laughter and loud music that plays on well after the final whistle. In the middle of Club Dub? None other than Nagy.
"He's our identity. Whatever he says is our identity," said seventh-year linebacker Danny Trevathan about his coach. "When he says it, it's like 'Dang, he really feels the way that we feel.' He's really on our side. That's our coach -- whatever he says is facts -- you need that, especially with a young team.
"He's a different type of coach. It's his first year, but it doesn't look like it. We feel like he's been here with us. ... The team is just playing towards his attitude."
The Bears are riddled with talent on both sides of the ball, but Nagy and his staff have them believing in one another, supporting one another, and playing for one another. I asked Trevathan how this Bears' locker room stacks up to his Super Bowl 50-winning Broncos locker room alongside the likes of Peyton Manning, Von Miller, and company.
"I think we stack up pretty well. We have guys who have been to the Super Bowl (CB Prince Amukamara, DL Akiem Hicks). I think we stack up good in our confidence level and family vibe. I think that's gonna be our key right there," Trevathan said. "We have something that a lot of teams don't have. We have that family atmosphere. We learn about each other's backgrounds, talking about families, so when you learn about somebody, you wanna play more for them. You know what they're doing it for. They know what you're doing it for. So you go out there and knock heads together."
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio likes to say, "We play 11 as 1." But if you talk to the guys on the offensive side of the ball, they'll tell you the same thing. Uniquely, with all of the talent across the board on the 53-man roster, there is a palpable humility about this team in which egos are at bay, and winning as one unit is the most important focus. To that point, I asked Nagy how he's been able to achieve such humility with his guys this season:
"I truly believe it comes down to who the human is, and who the people are," he said. "I could tell you that whether we were winning or losing. We have people of high character on this team. They're not guys that when they win, get a big head, or when the lose, start pointing fingers. We don't do that. We respect everybody."
This weekend, they'll respect the visiting Green Bay Packers, who have defeated the Bears in each of their last five meetings. How fitting then, that Chicago has the opportunity to clinch the NFC North in football's oldest rivalry, looking to avenge the losing trend, the last of which took place Week 1 at Lambeau Field to kickoff their worst-to-first season.
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INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Luck's brain is bigger than mine. It's safe to say Andrew Luck is back. We're seeing it in his play (3,759 passing yards with a 34:13 touchdown-to-interception ratio) following a 2017 season lost to a shoulder injury, and we're also getting the chance to remember how fun it is to see him operate under center. For instance, when he sealed the Colts' win against the Texansin Week 14 without even snapping the ball.
On third-and-1 from Indianapolis' 49-yard line, with the Colts up 24-21 following the 2-minute warning, Luck came to the line and used a hard count twice. Then he operated a few hand signals at the line, used a few dummy calls and went back to the hard count one more time. That's when he got TexansPro Bowl pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney to jump offsides, giving the Colts a first down on the neutral-zone infraction and -- since Houston was without a timeout -- effectively ending the game.
"We knew that they were an antsy defense, they love to get to the quarterback and they love to make plays," tight end Eric Ebron told me. "And Andrew just orchestrated that better than anyone could. Got Clowney to jump, and we walk out of the building with a W."
I was told by more than one player that that was the plan heading onto the field after the 2-minute warning: to get Clowney specifically to jump offsides. He's been called for four defensive offsides and three neutral-zone infractions on the season.
"The best thing about Andrew are the little details," Walker told me after the game. "He's a great quarterback. He can make every throw, he can move around in the pocket, all that stuff is great. But I think the hard count was one of the best things. I asked him about that this week. He does a good rhythm with it. To see it pay off, we take that for granted. We take the little things ... just how he can change his voice, and that was just a huge play. It was probably the biggest play of the game, [and] we didn't even run a play."
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Why? While motions and shifts often help determine coverages and alignment of players in the back two levels of the defense, Bradley said this week the Chiefs' action is even more detailed.
"They try to get people in positions that they're not accustomed to," Bradley said Tuesday. "At some point, they could get a guy in the B-gap (because of the shifts), who is not used to playing in the B-gap."
By getting opponents to break their tendencies, the Chiefs exploit what might seem to be minor nuances. That's why they're able to hit explosive plays in the running and passing games, Bradley said. Limiting explosive plays is key to slowing the Chiefs and was a point of emphasis for the Chargers leading into Thursday night's comeback win for Los Angeles. (Kansas City finished the night with just three offensive plays of 20-plus yards.)
In an interesting take on preparation, coach Anthony Lynn said his players have gotten to the point of mastering some of the key nuances -- such as knowing pass protections -- without having to go through much more than film study and walk-through practices.
The issue arose because the Chargers were not likely to have running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler for Thursday night's game with the Chiefs; both were ultimately ruled out with injuries, leaving rookies Justin Jackson and Detrez Newsome to fill in. Since it was a short week, the Chargers -- as is the case with most teams playing on Thursdays -- would only stage walk-through practices.
Would that be enough real-time work for two running backs with little game experience, especially Newsome, to recognize the Chiefs' pressures?
"We work at a slower tempo, and you can get just as good of a practice in without the collisions," Lynn said. "It's a skill, an art, to practicing without pads and walking through."
In other words, players should know what to do. Executing the game plan with physicality is what they're being paid to do.
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NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Gordon getting along great. Did Bill Belichick do it again? Did the Patriots coach take a shot on a talented but troubled wide receiver and give him the opportunity to flourish in the team's very structured system? It appears that way, with Josh Gordon thriving since being acquired from the Cleveland Browns back in September.
Gordon sat out in Week 3 versus the Lions but was inserted into the lineup the Dolphins in Week 4 -- and all Gordon has done since is lead the NFL in yards per catch in that span (among players with 30-plus receptions). The physically gifted Gordon is averaging 18 yards per reception and already has over 700 yards receiving for the Patriots. He's actually got a shot at a 1,000-yard season, which is pretty remarkable for someone who has only been with the team for three-and-a-half months.
"He's been a big piece for us," said receiver Julian Edelman. "He works hard. He asks the right questions. He's a great teammate."
"He's a willing student," said receiver Philip Dorsett, whose playing time has been adversely affected by Gordon's arrival. "He pays attention, and if he's got a question, he asks, whether it's me or Julian and (receiver Chris Hogan)."
The trust Gordon has developed with Tom Brady is very uncommon for a quarterback and an offense very set in its ways. It speaks, in part, to Brady realizing his team needs Gordon to be successful. But it also speaks to what other players acknowledge: that the 27-year-old pass catcher has done everything he can to integrate himself into this system and this culture, something Gordon himself expressed back in late October.
"It's a breeding ground for excellence, so you can't do anything but get involved and help become a part of it, really," he said.
A big part, with a role that might need to grow, with the postseason looming.
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OAKLAND RAIDERS: Looking for a temporary home. The Raiders learned that they will host the NFL draft just months before they begin playing in Las Vegas in 2020. But they have no idea where they will play in 2019. They have been negotiating for months with the city of Oakland to continue playing there for one more season. But on Tuesday, the city sued the team over its decision to relocate. That cast their immediate future into doubt. Commissioner Roger Goodell said the team has until the end of January or early February to find a home for next season, although he said that owner Mark Davis would prefer to remain in Oakland.
Davis was not quite that clear. He declined to eliminate any possibility when reporters laid them out: playing in the 49ers' stadium in Santa Clara, playing in San Antonio (although Davis said he is not a fan of the turf there), playing in San Diego, or perhaps coming to a truce with Oakland.
"As I said, emotionally, you know, I don't want to pay for my own lawsuit, but for the fans, it's something that I have to think about," Davis said.
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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Ready for Round 2 with 'Hawks. The 49ers and the Seahawks will face off for the second time in three weeks this Sunday. Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan said seeing a team two times in such a short time span presents a welcome dynamic, saying it's both easier and harder to prepare.
"Just especially the two teams and the style that we play with, there's no secrets" said Shanahan. "We both know each other's scheme. We played each other I think 10 days ago. (The Niners lost to the Seahawks, 43-16, in Seattle in Week 13.) We both have watched the Monday night game (Seattle's Week 14 win over the Vikings) that happened to see what's different. Nothing's different. Both teams do the same thing, and they're going to, so I think both teams know what to expect. I think that makes it a little bit more fun."
Now that the emotion of facing his former team for the first time has been addressed, 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman -- who was a leading member of the Seahawks' secondary from 2011 to '17 -- says he's ready to defend Levi's Stadium, his new home. After the Seahawks' Monday night victory, Seattle's defensive end Frank Clark said the Sherman era was over. Sherman said comments like that don't faze him.
"It's like, kids say the darnedest things. It didn't bother me at all. Seems like a guy who's probably tired of hearing the same questions. Like, I wasn't even part of that game, and they're still asking him questions after the game about me. I'd probably be pretty annoyed, too."
Sherman noted that it's obvious his era is over, since he's in San Francisco now.