Lamar Jackson’s future, Chiefs’ guts, Deshaun Watson’s plight and more

NFL

The Baltimore Ravens were throttled by the Buffalo Bills, and thus starts a potentially tumultuous offseason for Lamar Jackson and his team.

Lamar Jackson will get paid this offseason, but should he? The question looms.

After the Baltimore Ravens managed only three points in their AFC Divisional loss to the Buffalo Bills, I picked up the phone and started texting. Reaching out to three NFL sources, a two-part question was posed about Jackson.

1) Do you expect the Ravens will pay Jackson, who is eligible for an extension — $40+ million per year on a new deal this offseason?

2) Should they?

The answers were somewhat varied.

“They’d be foolish (because) the cap will go up significantly in 2022,” said one source. “They should capitalize on a flat or lower 2021 cap. Top players ALWAYS cost most than teams think and are ALWAYS more expensive a year later.”

This is the most popular take around the league. Due to COVID-19 and its ramifications, the NFL is looking at a rare season of lower revenues. With new TV deals in the offing and the 17-game schedule about to take hold, the cap will skyrocket soon.

If the Ravens believe in Jackson as their long-term answer, general manager Eric DeCosta should be working diligently this spring to extend Jackson, as we saw the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans do with Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson last summer, respectively.

However, what the number will be for Jackson could be a source of contention.

Speaking to a long-time agent, the belief was conveyed that Jackson will come in slightly below Mahomes. While Jackson is a year younger and also a former MVP, Mahomes has produced more total touchdowns and won the Super Bowl. Additionally, the Chiefs’ signal-caller is 5-1 in the postseason while Jackson is 1-3.

This year, Jackson started 15 games and threw for 2,757 yards with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also ran for 1,005 yards, becoming the first quarterback ever to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season twice. In his MVP campaign of 2019, Jackson scampered for 1,206 yards while adding 3,127 yards and 36 scores through the air.

Unfortunately, the playoffs have been a disaster. Jackson has a 55.9 percent completion rate with three touchdowns and five interceptions. While he won his first postseason game this year, it’s hard to say he’s moved past the doubts which dogged him all year.

Finally, another source believes the Ravens should decline Jackson’s fifth-year option, letting him play out his contract before Baltimore drafts his replacement. The reasons being the offense masking his inability to win often with his arm, coupled with his underwhelming performance in big moments.

This is an unlikely scenario, but it raises an interesting point. If the Ravens believe Jackson has peaked as a passer, can they pay top-dollar? Furthermore, if Baltimore is willing to pay, does it believe offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s scheme is the right one to move forward with?

Then there’s an option none of the sources broached.

Baltimore could let the contract play out for another year to gain clarity, even though the gamble could be costly later on. In the interim, DeCosta provides Jackson with additional weapons on the outside, upgrading from the current group of Hollywood Brown, Willie Snead and Myles Boykin. If this happens, it’s hard to see Roman’s offense as a good fit.

If Baltimore is going to make Jackson the second-highest paid player in football, at any juncture, the Ravens owe it to both themselves and their quarterback to provide him with the best opportunity to succeed.

Jackson, who does not currently have an agent (he was represented by his mother, Felicia Jones, for his rookie deal), would be well-advised to find one before wading into these waters. Structure matters, especially on guaranteed money and incentives.

A deal this big will require a set of veteran eyes, such as Mahomes had with a pair of high-powered agents in Chris Cabott and Leigh Steinberg for his $503 million pact.

All of these factors are part of a major offseason subplot. The Ravens have a 24-year-old MVP quarterback who is a hard worker, beloved by his teammates. And yet, the questions about his passing ability linger on, bringing up questions of whether he’s worth an enormous investment for the long haul.

The smart money? Jackson gets his deal, and the Ravens both beam and wince a bit with the anxiety of a team unsure of what lies ahead.

Power rankings

Top 10 moments in Championship Sunday history (since AFL-NFL merger)

1. The Catch – 1981 – Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers
2. The Drive – 1986 – Denver Broncos at Cleveland Browns
3. The No Call – 2018 – Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints
4. The Fumble – 1987 – Cleveland Browns at Denver Broncos
5. Gary Anderson misses – 1998 – Atlanta Falcons at Minnesota Vikings
6. Matt Bahr ends the three-peat – 1990 – New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers
7. Peyton Manning’s epic comeback – 2006 – New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts
8. Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes go to OT – New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs
9. Aaron Bailey’s almost Hail Mary – 1995 – Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers
10. Richard Sherman sounds off – 2013 – San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks

Quotable

“I’d say this season that I probably had to fight though more than I ever had in my career. … It was worth every moment of it. Absolutely.”

– Saints quarterback Drew Brees on his 2020 season, after what’s likely his last game

A sad ending (in all likelihood), but aren’t most? Brees ends his career ranking first in passing yards (80,358) and second in passing touchdowns (571). He’s a Super Bowl champion and future first-ballot Hall of Famer with a broadcasting career waiting for him.

Brees’ career ended with a quiet whimper in the Superdome, but the long-standing memories will include lifting up a devastated city with perhaps the most impactful title in NFL history.

Podcast

Random stat

The Green Bay Packers have hosted three NFC Championship or NFL title games in the Super Bowl era. The average temperature at game time has been a balmy -4 degrees.

On Sunday, the forecast is downright humid at 26 degrees (low of 20) with snow showers.

Info learned this week

1. Packers-Bucs slated for rematch between two all-timers

Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. This will be the theme for the NFC Championship Game all week.

In reality, the two won’t be playing against each other. They will face the opposing defenses and the coordinators involved on each side (much more on those specific matchups in Gambler’s game).

However, the historical impact can’t be ignored. If the Packers win, Rodgers goes to his second Super Bowl with a chance to join a hallowed group of men who have quarterbacked their team to a pair of titles. In that group? Bart Starr, Bob Griese, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, Joe Montana, Jim Plunkett, Troy Aikman, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. Nine guys, that’s it.

As for Brady, we’re talking an unfathomable 10th Super Bowl appearance. For him, another ring doesn’t further his legacy in a vacuum, but getting a championship without Bill Belichick at age 43 does. It’s the ultimate answer to the question of who was more important to the Foxborough dynasty.

Yes, the real battle with be Rodgers against Tampa Bay’s blitz and the Bucs’ ability to hit big plays against Green Bay’s coverage, but there’s plenty of history at stake.

2. Chiefs win behind gutsy effort of Chad Henne, Andy Reid

Since the start of 2015, Chad Henne had rushed for -6 yards. On 3rd and 14 coming out of the two-minute warning, the 35-year-old backup quarterback scrambled left and took wing, lunging for 13.75 yards.

On 4th and inches, Kansas City head coach Andy Reid went empty and threw, calling sprint right. Henne hit Tyreek Hill for the first down, and the Chiefs went into victory formation.

Of course, someone reading this without seeing the game is befuddled. Yes, it was Henne, not the concussion-stricken Patrick Mahomes who led the defending champs to their third consecutive AFC Championship Game.

In fact, the Chiefs are the first AFC team to ever host three straight Championship Sundays. The 2002-04 Philadelphia Eagles are the only other NFL to ever accomplish the feat … also coached by Reid.

We’ll see if Mahomes can play next weekend. For now, the Chiefs sound positive while Mahomes was tweeting in the immediate aftermath.

But if Kansas City wins the Super Bowl and No. 15 is engulfed in accolades and confetti, remember Henne’s fortitude, and remember Reid’s guts.

3. Jets hit big with Robert Saleh, and have ample hope for a turnaround

There’s a new man in the big city.

Robert Saleh is taking over perhaps the league’s most-challenging rebuild with the New York Jets on the surface, a year after they appeared destined for an 0-16 campaign. Saleh, 41, has some major building blocks, though.

The Jets have more than $70 million in projected cap space to pair with two first-round picks, including No. 2 overall. New York can land Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields or BYU signal-caller Zach Wilson of they so choose. There’s even an outside shot of getting Trevor Lawrence, should the Jacksonville Jaguars and new coach Urban Meyer decide to pluck Fields, whom he knows from Columbus.

Lastly, Saleh is being paired with general manager Joe Douglas, who is well-respected around the league. Provided ownership stays out of the picture, the Jets have what appears to be their strong GM-HC combo in quite some time.

4. Jags take significant, business-first gamble hiring Urban Meyer

Don’t ever forget the NFL is about dollars and cents, not wins. At least for the owners anyway.

The Jaguars have been desperately trying to build up lagging attendance, something which has both created taped-off sections at TIAA Field and annual home games in England. Owner Shad Khan made a major play to address those problems last week, hiring Urban Meyer.

Meyer, 56, has never coached in the NFL at any level. However, he won two national championships 71 miles away from Jacksonville, doing so with Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators. Florida is a college football hotbed, which makes the potential pairing of Meyer and Trevor Lawrence all there enticing.

In the immediate aftermath of Meyer being announced as head coach, the Jags saw a dramatic spike in season-ticket calls. This is exactly what Khan envisioned, and so far, so good. Now the hard part of turning around a 1-15 football team begins.

Khan hired Meyer for wallet first, wins second. If the latter comes through, the former will get even fatter.

5. Bears’ disastrous press conference only makes situation more tense

On Wednesday, the Chicago Bears held a press conference, announcing both head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace will return in 2021 in their respective roles.

It featured one error after the next, highlighted by chairman George McCaskey stating “I was impressed by both of them this season, particularly during the six-game losing streak.” Yikes.

Other highlights included Pace refusing to say how long he was under contract for, and team president Ted Phillips admitting they haven’t gotten the quarterback position right or won enough games. Other than that, though, things are good.

It was a presser which left both media and fans laughing (and in some cases, surely crying). The Bears are coming off perhaps the most uninspiring, least-impressive 8-8 season of all-time. Now they’re going to go again with the same headliners in place, hoping for a new result.

The definition of insanity …

Gambler’s game

Take the Buccaneers to cover. Green Bay is a deserved four-point favorite, but Tampa Bay and its 43-year-old quarterback won’t be intimidated. The Buccaneers are on a six-game win streak highlighted by a tremendous defensive showing against the Saints.

Yes, the Packers are in another world offensively than Brees and Co., but Green Bay was demolished in their earlier meeting. The Bucs and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles blitzed at will, creating two interceptions (one pick-six) along with 13 QB hits and five sacks. Look for more pressure on Aaron Rodgers in this one.

The main question is whether Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine learned from the first matchup, when he dropped his unit into passive coverage and got gashed 158 rushing yards (4.5 YPC) while Brady hit one short pass after the next.

Green Bay is the better team, but this a tough matchup for the Packers.

Two cents

Three head-coaching vacancy signs remain on around the NFL.

The Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles and Houston Texans are all technically without their staff’s in place, although it seems we’re almost certain on two of them. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Chargers filled their position on Sunday.

In Detroit, the Lions zeroed in on Saints assistant head coach Dan Campbell, who in 2015 went 5-7 as the Miami Dolphins’ interim head coach.

As for the Chargers, Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley is reportedly moving to the other side of SoFi Stadium. Staley, 38, has enjoyed a meteoric rise. He only entered the NFL in 2017 with the Chicago Bears as an outside linebackers coach before moving to the Denver Broncos in 2019 for the same role. This year, he took over for Wade Phillips in Los Angeles and now is a head coach.

Frankly, I’m somewhat dubious on both hires.

Campbell is an off-the-board hire for the Lions. It feels like Detroit needed a somewhat proven coach with a strong background in leadership positions — think coordinator and former head coach — to set a new tone in Motown. Maybe hiring Campbell proves a genius stroke, and that’s certainly possible, but it seems like an enormous risk.

As for Staley, he did a great job with the Rams, but does this help Justin Herbert. Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll would have been an incredible get for Herbert, marrying a pass-first approach to a wunderkind under center. Not to be.

Staley must find an offensive coordinator — hopefully a veteran one — to keep Herbert’s maturation rolling.

Inside the league

We’ll be brief here, considering most of the source work this week was atop the column.

However, poking around on the draft, there’s a general thought this is one of the deeper classes in recent memory. One well-regarded personnel man has 18 first-round grades, and sees the wide receivers as a potential historic group led by SEC standouts Ja’Marr Chase, Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle.

As for sleepers, we have myriad time to get into that conversation, but here’s a name to watch: Jackson Carman.

The Clemson offensive tackle is a true junior and while he’s seen as a Day 2 pick by many right now, one source sees him as a potential late first-rounder with upside.

History lesson

Come Championship Sunday, I always enjoy reminiscing about the craziest one-week turnaround in NFL history.

In 1981, the San Diego Chargers went to the Orange Bowl for a date with the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Divisionals. The humidity was unbearable while temperatures reached 79 degrees in South Florida. Kellen Winslow, the Chargers’ Hall of Fame tight end, posted 13 catches, 166 yards a touchdown and a blocked field goal despite cramping throughout.

San Diego ultimately won 41-38 in an overtime classic.

The following Sunday, the Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals met in the AFC Championship Game, later dubbed the Freezer Bowl. The temperature was -9 degrees with a wind chill of -59 degrees. San Diego lost 27-7.

In one week, the Chargers played in games with a temperature difference — including wind chill — of an astonishing 138 degrees.

Parting shot

Deshaun Watson is making his intentions known.  He’s done with the Houston Texans.

For Houston, losing Watson, regardless of the incoming package of picks and players, represents a mortal blow. The Texans are the only existing franchise without a conference title game appearance. They just went through the disastrous trade of DeAndre Hopkins.

Nobody can afford losing a 25-year-old franchise quarterback, but one with this lack of success makes it feel all the more painful.

It’s too early to begin guessing where he ends up, should the Texans fail to smooth this over. The San Francisco 49ers, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and others will all headline the conversation. To even dream of acquiring Watson, the general manager involved must be willing to give up a cavalcade of top-100 picks over the upcoming years, along with absorbing a massive contract.

Still, for Watson? It’s a no-brainer for at least three-quarters of the NFL.

Texans owner Cal McNair — who has never been known for his hands-on approach — needs to be proactive. He should fire executive Vice President Jack Easterby, who Watson is clearly miffed with. And, for good reason, considering Easterby is running the show despite no football chops, something highlighted by this bizarre Sports Illustrated profile.

McNair should also direct new general manager Nick Caserio to hire Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who Watson requested be interviewed by Houston. McNair should essentially hijack the proceedings and offer Bieniemy a blank check.

It’s not ideal to railroad your front office, but in this case, it’s the only way for McNair to show the Texans aren’t rudderless. It’s the way to show Watson his presence, talents and opinions are immensely valued.

Because without Watson, the Texans are a glorified expansion team with no hope, and no future.

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