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:
— Does Tom Brady have a point about new regulations for jersey numbers?
— The truth about one contender’s much-maligned receiving corps.
— Is Nick Sirianni doing the right thing by refusing to name Jalen Hurts as Philly’s starter?
But first, a look at a current head coach who’s already earned a spot among the all-time greats …
It might be hard for some irascible Pittsburgh Steelers fans to come to grips with, but Mike Tomlin isn’t just one of the best head coaches in the NFL today — he is an all-time great on a path that leads straight to Canton.
This is why the Steelers felt compelled this week to give their longtime leader a three-year contract extension that keeps him with the franchise through the 2024 season. The commitment is certainly warranted. During Tomlin’s 14 years on the job, Pittsburgh has made nine playoff appearances, won seven AFC North titles and appeared in two Super Bowls, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the 2008 campaign. Tomlin has compiled a 145-78-1 record, boasting a résumé devoid of even a single losing season. To reiterate, he’s well on his way to joining his predecessors, Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, in the Hall of Fame.
“Mike is one of the most successful head coaches in the National Football League,” Steelers president Art Rooney II said in a statement. “We are confident in his leadership to continue to lead our team as we work to win another championship.”
Rooney’s speaking facts there. Tomlin, who doesn’t even turn 50 until next offseason, is a gem. His sparkling .650 winning percentage is the highest mark in the history of this storied franchise, above those of Cowher (.623) and Noll (.566). Despite Tomlin’s overwhelming success with the Steelers, though, he has been viewed in some circles as a bit of an underachiever at times, due to his 3-6 postseason record since the 2011 season — a span during which he’s advanced past the Divisional Round just once, losing to the New England Patriots in the 2016 AFC Championship Game.
Admittedly, the team’s postseason shortcomings over the past decade are a bit of a surprise for a roster that has featured an assortment of five-star playmakers on each side of the ball. With Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown dazzling as elite offensive weapons, and T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree and Cameron Heyward crushing opponents as disruptive defenders, the Steelers have trotted out a collection of talent that rivals the elite teams in the league. New England made five Super Bowls (winning three) during this stretch, but you can make the argument that Pittsburgh has featured the more talented team. Still, Tomlin’s squad has been unable to put it together and claim the franchise’s seventh Lombardi Trophy.
This somewhat-unspectacular decade — by Steelers’ standards — has led to questions about Tomlin’s perceived “player’s coach” demeanor and attention to detail. While I find those critiques laughable, based on the Steelers’ consistency and presence as an annual contender, it does feel like something’s currently missing from a franchise that is built on toughness and physicality. Perhaps Pittsburgh’s decision to throw the ball all over the yard at Big Ben’s behest has taken away from the Steelers’ mystique as the bullies on the block. Or maybe the team’s underachieving offensive line and running backs failed to play up to the smashmouth standard.
While Tomlin’s defense has finished top six in each of the past four seasons, uneven performances from the offense — particularly on the ground — have prevented Pittsburgh from playing the kind of complementary football that results in playoff wins. Looking ahead to the 2021 NFL Draft, the Steelers must address the running game by upgrading the pieces on the offensive line and/or plugging an all-star runner into the mix. The team could attack both personnel areas with top picks and hope the youngsters are able to provide an immediate impact for an offense that needs to reclaim its rugged identity.
Tomlin also needs to craft a plan for life after Roethlisberger. Although the two-time Super Bowl winner will return to quarterback the team for another season in 2021, he clearly wasn’t firing on all cylinders last season following elbow surgery. And he’ll turn 40 next offseason. Thus, the organization must determine how it will proceed at the quarterback position while undergoing a minor rebuild. Perhaps an answer’s already in the building, with Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins and Joshua Dobbs vying for the QB2 job — and heir-apparent positioning. The team could also make a surprise QB selection in the draft. Either way, the Steelers need to find a bridge to the future at the position. Even if Pittsburgh hasn’t been able to finish the job in the postseason of late, Tomlin has consistently put a solid product on the field throughout the Big Ben era. I’m confident he’ll continue to flourish after No. 7 hangs ’em up, but I’m curious about how he’ll go about doing so.
Don Shula shifted styles and approaches to accommodate his talent in Baltimore and Miami. The all-time leader in wins made the hard decision to shift from physical to finesse when he needed to do so in order to give his team the best chance to win. With Tomlin nearing a similar crossroads in the Steel City, we might gain a greater appreciation for the future Hall of Famer as he remakes the Steelers into a title contender following an extended Super Bowl drought.
JERSEY NUMBERS: Is TB12 right to blast new rules?
What’s up with Tom Brady?
That’s the question buzzing around the Twitterverse after the seven-time Super Bowl champion expressed his strong displeasure with the NFL’s decision to relax positional regulations for jersey numbers. While the majority of players around the league seemed to approve of the rule changes, TB12 voiced his disdain for the rule on social media.
“Good luck trying to block the right people now!!!!,” Brady wrote on Instagram. “Going to make for a lot of bad football.”
At first blush, the reaction seems a little over the top, based on how many players functioned in a similar jersey-number environment in high school and college. Observers have grown accustomed to seeing skilled players and big men running around in single digits at the lower levels. The allure of wearing a cool number has been all the rage since I was a youngster. I can only imagine the excitement buzzing around locker rooms over the possibility of wearing No. 1 or another single digit on Sundays.
In Brady’s defense, though, the relaxed rules regarding jersey numbers do create new issues for quarterbacks around the league. With defensive backs allowed to wear numbers ranging from 1 to 49 and linebackers getting 1-59, the identification process at the line of scrimmage becomes more challenging. Instead of looking for a linebacker donning a number in the 40s or 50s, quarterbacks must sort through a bunch of different numbers to determine which defender should be identified as the “Mike” (middle linebacker), which is how you set up blocking assignments. With the play clock ticking down and a collection of hybrid defenders moving around bluffing blitzes, the tweaked jersey rules could force quarterbacks to pay closer attention to scouting reports and updated rosters.
“We would play games with quarterbacks by putting six and seven defensive backs on the field with a safety designated as the ‘Mike’ linebacker in our sub-packages,” a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. “The constant movement with a bunch of guys in 20s or 30s jerseys would make it hard on the quarterback to set the protection. If you have enough hybrids to pull it off, the blitzes and simulated pressures from Dime packages can create problems.”
With that in mind, it is understandable why Brady is not happy with the changes. The NFL has given creative defensive coordinators a chance to come up with some exotic combinations featuring a mix of “bigs” (outside linebackers) and “littles” (defensive backs) on the field in similar jersey numbers to confuse field generals attempting to deal from the pocket. Brady’s outrage might come across like the old man yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off his lawn, but it is really a veteran quarterback acknowledging the trouble that lies ahead for quarterbacks unable to properly identify the Boogeymen on the other side.
That said, given how much the modern game is catered to offense, it’s probably time the league threw defenses a bone.
RAVENS: Does Baltimore have a receiver problem?
Perhaps Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta knows something that we don’t about the talent in the team’s WR room. That is the only way to explain his aggressive backing of Baltimore’s pass catchers in a recent press conference. The well-respected evaluator and team builder came to the defense of the team’s much-maligned receiving corps after hearing countless critiques of the Ravens’ pass catchers amid suggestions that the team needs to upgrade the personnel on the perimeter.
“I’m aware that there’s some fan discontent with our wide receivers and our drafting and all that,” DeCosta said. “We’ve got some really good young receivers. It’s insulting to these guys when they hear that we don’t have any receivers. It’s quite insulting. I’m insulted by it, too, to be honest. I think we’ve got some guys that want to show everybody what they can do.”
While I understand DeCosta going to bat for his guys, it is hard to ignore the pedestrian production from the position in Baltimore. This past season, Ravens wide receivers ranked last in total receptions (137) and receiving yards per game (108.1), as well as 26th in yards after the catch (701). Sure, those numbers are impacted by Baltimore’s unwavering commitment to the NFL’s most dynamic and explosive running game, but the dearth of production on the perimeter suggests the team lacks a true No. 1 receiver. An A+ playmaker on the outside would feast on the single coverage that accompanies the loaded-box fronts opponents utilize in their attempts to contain Lamar Jackson and Co. on the ground.
While Draft Twitter’s screaming for the Ravens to select a top pass catcher in a draft loaded with receiver talent, the team’s draft history suggests isn’t too encouraging at the position. Since the franchise’s inception in 1996, Baltimore has drafted 31 wide receivers and only one (Torrey Smith) has posted over 950 receiving yards in a single season. Moreover, the Ravens have had just one wide receiver acquired through the draft (Mark Clayton) who’s caught more than 65 balls in a single season. Pretty wild, considering 21 different wideouts finished with 950-plus receiving yards and 33 different receivers totaled at least 65 receptions in 2021 alone. But the Ravens clearly feel comfortable casting their lot to veterans.
Enter Sammy Watkins. The oft-injured veteran pass catcher was signed to a one-year, $6 million deal after the team failed to reach agreements with free agents JuJu Smith-Schuster and T.Y. Hilton. Despite missing 26 career games to calf, ankle, foot and hamstring injuries, the eighth-year pro is an upgrade over each of the wide receivers on the 2020 roster, including Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. Watkins is a more consistent pass catcher with a well-rounded game that features precise route-running. Although he has not reached 60 catches or 700 receiving yards in any of his last five seasons, the veteran enjoyed his best season in the NFL as a member of the Bills in 2015, racking up 60 catches for 1,047 yards and nine touchdowns. Who was calling the plays that year in Buffalo? Greg Roman, the Ravens’ incumbent offensive coordinator.
In Baltimore, Watkins slides into a similar role, with the team looking for a consistent playmaker on the outside. If he can handle the No. 1 gig, the Ravens’ offense will improve, with Brown and others placed in more suitable roles. Most importantly, Jackson will play at an elite level and squash the questions surrounding his game.
“It takes guys getting open to be great and look great and be the Patrick Mahomes of the world and be Tom Brady,” Watkins recently told reporters. “You’ve got to have that No. 1 receiver or that No. 2 or that No. 3 nowadays to go out there and be successful and literally throw the ball with your eyes closed and be unconscious. If I can go out there and be healthy and the other wideouts can make plays … we can be a balanced offense. [If] we get open when we need to get open, I think Lamar can throw for those 4,000 yards or those 4,500 yards (or) 5,000 (yards) — whatever these guys are putting up. I think he can be that quarterback and be elite in this game.”
The Ravens don’t need Watkins to be a top-five receiver to win games. But if the veteran can give them steady performance and production as a WR1, his presence could stabilize a passing game that needs some work.
EAGLES: Should Philly name Jalen Hurts as starter?
If you are wondering why new Eagles coach Nick Sirianni is reluctant to name Jalen Hurts as the team’s QB1, it is all about creating a competitive culture in the locker room.
“To name any starters at this particular time — we’ve been working with these guys for two days, right?” Sirianni commented to reporters earlier this week. “My biggest thing is competition. Again, we’ve talked a little bit about my core values. It’s my second core value. It’s this team’s second core value. Competition is a huge thing. We’re going to have competition at every position.”
Coming from a coach who plays “rock, paper, scissors” with top prospects, the decision to refrain from handing Hurts the QB1 title is all about creating a theme of competition throughout the roster — even at the most important position on the field. The second-year pro has just four career starts under his belt, and simply anointing him the starter without a training camp battle would erode Sirianni’s credibility with his team before his tenure really even begins. The first-time head coach cannot stand in front of his locker room preaching competition without first establishing an environment in which even the most high-profile players have to earn their keep.
While outsiders might view Hurts as a lock to be the team’s Week 1 starter — Carson Wentz is gone, with 36-year-old Joe Flacco the only other QB currently on the roster — the 22-year-old pro still has plenty to prove with his coaches and teammates. After all, he’s played a grand total of 292 career NFL snaps, about half the amount of fellow 2020 draft classmate Tua Tagovailoa (577). Hurts needs to show he’s ready for the responsibility of being the team’s QB1 by handling the pressure of a camp battle and earning the gig outright. If he’s frazzled by the prospect of needing to beat out an over-the-hill veteran, Hurts is not the man for the job anyway and the team needs to look elsewhere to find a starter.
But if he takes his game up a notch, making it clear to everyone within the organization that he’s up for the challenge, it will demonstrate his toughness, competitiveness and leadership skills to both the locker room and front office.
For Sirianni’s competition-at-every-level tenet to succeed, he needs a quarterback who embraces that mindset and earns his stripes through his play on the field. Given how Hurts’ predecessor appeared to crumble in a competitive environment, the sophomore signal-caller can make the Eagles his team by displaying grit and resolve when challenged by his coaches.
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