Let’s cap a wild weekend right here, right now …
• Gotta start by looking at the wild Patriots–Raiders finish one last time. Making calls Sunday, I explained the play to one coach who hadn’t seen it, and as I described how it unfolded, he immediately pointed out to me how the play Chandler Jones made was actually incredibly solid situational football. And so I talked to Jones last night, and wrote about that for The MMQB, and caught up with Josh McDaniels today to get more details.
As McDaniels sees it, the brilliance of Jones’s catch-and-score was in how he mentally toggled from being in one situation at the snap to being in another one that no one on the field had planned for about halfway through the play.
Jones mentioned to me how Vegas refers to these situations, on defense, as “Desperado.” Specifically, that’s referencing, McDaniels explained, spots where the offense has the ball behind its own 40 (too far to throw a Hail Mary) with seconds left on the clock and a deficit on the scoreboard. The Raiders practice it every Friday. But in this particular situation, that wasn’t the defensive call at the snap.
“We were playing for the Hail Mary,” McDaniels said. “Because there’s three seconds to go, they can’t run two plays, so we were playing for basically the ball to be thrown in the end zone. That’s why Mack Hollins was out there, that’s why we called the call that we called.
“So when they hand the ball off, it was not a lateral, it was not at that moment, a Desperado. It wasn’t. They were just handing the ball off, so basically, [Rhamondre Stevenson] is going to run and if for some reason he breaks into the secondary and he can score, then he’s going to win the game. If he doesn’t, then he gets tackled and we go to overtime.”
Where things changed, of course, is when Stevenson broke down the right side, and pitched the ball off to Jakobi Meyers. “When he lateraled the ball,” McDaniels continued, “it all of a sudden became what amounts to a Desperado for our team.”
Which brings us back to where Chandler Jones was, near Mac Jones. As he explained in The MMQB, he dove at Stevenson near midfield, tried to punch the ball out, and slipped to the ground. As he got up, he saw the lateral and—again, this is the genius of the play that the Raiders DE made—immediately pivoted mentally.
So he backtracked to cover the deepest skill player on the field, Mac Jones, which positioned him to pick off Meyers’s ill-fated backwards pass. Based on the tape, McDaniels believes Mac was only back there because it was a called run and he was out of the play, with the expectation that either Stevenson would break it or, more likely, the game would just head to overtime without incident.
Which only underscores how wild the whole thing was, that Chandler Jones was back there covering a guy who thought he was out of the play, and that he had the mental wherewithal to stay focused on how the play had changed in a matter of a second from where it started.
And so, sure, there was plenty of luck involved in the play.
But if you’re really looking at what Chandler Jones did, there was a lot more to it than that.
• With the dust settled, I figured it’d be good to circle back with Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell on Monday to get his perspective, after a couple days of looking at everything, on the greatest comeback in NFL history. And the first thing I took from him is that he sort of sees it the same way the rest of us did—with a did-that-just-happen sense of disbelief.
At the same time, as he sees it, the key to the whole thing was trying to not focus on the size of the mountain they had to climb, but the steps they needed to take to get to the summit.
“In real time, you’re not thinking about the totality of it. Hey, we’re gonna have to do this thing that has never been done before in the NFL,” O’Connell said. “Like that never crossed my mind. In the moment, it was more truly trying to figure out how to score the first time. And then once we scored, then it was Let’s score the second time and getting our team to kind of harness the energy of a defensive stop or a touchdown or a special teams play, and continue to have that grow so that it wouldn’t be a matter of us not being able to overcome.
“It would just be a matter of there wasn’t enough time left to do it. I wanted that to be the reason we didn’t win the game, not because we didn’t play well enough to come back.”
Incredibly, they did play enough and they did have enough time to score an indescribable 39–36 win after trailing the Colts 33–0 at halftime. Here, then, are a few more things from my conversation with O’Connell …
The halftime conversation that we referenced in The MMQB, where OL coach Chris Kuper and CB Patrick Peterson said “all we need is five touchdowns” was one pretty much everyone heard. So much so, in fact, that O’Connell actually built off it when the team was set to go back out for the second half.
“I heard Pat P say that and kind of co-signed it and said, He’s exactly right, but the only way we can score five times is if we go out and score once. And then twice. And then three times, and four times,” he said. “And then defensively, that was the message of there’s no reason in the world why we can’t go do this together, because you guys are gonna go get stops, we will score. And we just wanted to try to apply pressure in some way, shape or form.”
The mental toughness really did extend past the deficit. Also baked in were two overturned defensive touchdowns, and everything that happened in the first half to make anyone in purple think it just wasn’t their day. That the players didn’t take that sort of better-luck-next-time mentality, as O’Connell sees it, cuts right to who those guys are.
“Especially when you look at that box score and we lost the turnover battle 4–1, but we really didn’t,” O’Connell said, referencing the negated takeaways. “Ultimately, just looking at it, you’re exactly right, to try to do something that hadn’t been done before, you probably need a lot of things—if not everything—to go your way. And that was not the case. We started out the second half with a three-and-out. We had, obviously, a turnover on an interception. We didn’t get the turnovers our way on those two fumbles in the game.
“You start thinking to yourself, we also got a punt blocked for a touchdown—like, you’re not supposed to win those games. But none of that mattered. Just worry about the next play.”
It really was a matter of a lot of guys doing a lot of things right. O’Connell cited the open-field move Dalvin Cook made on his touchdown, when Isaiah Rodgers had an angle on him. And how T.J. Hockenson ran a detailed, physical route to keep himself alive as Kirk Cousins’s third read on the game-tying two-point conversion. And how K.J. Osborn stepped up. And how Justin Jefferson fought through coverage. And then there was the line.
“I would highlight those guys up front,” O’Connell said. “We had to throw the ball a ton. We had 93 plays in the game total, after having 20-something at halftime, whatever it was. There were just a lot of snaps where they had to block a really good front that has caused some problems for some of the better offenses in this league, when you really peel back what we were playing against, which just took a pretty monumental effort by those guys in addition to clearly our quarterback and those skill players.”
This is why he and GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah didn’t do a teardown in February and March. We’ve been over this a few times in this space—the Vikings new regime really, genuinely liked what Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer left behind for them. And it wasn’t just the talent, either, but the makeup of the group. That makeup showed up in a very big way on Saturday, obviously.
“By no stretch of the imagination do I think that we’re a perfect football team,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of things that I can do better as the head coach and there’s a lot of things we can do better as a coaching staff and as players. But I do know one thing, that when things get difficult, that leadership and the culture that they have built here in a really short amount of time with us as coaches, is something that we rely on to try to give ourselves the opportunity to accomplish things like coming back from 33 points down.
“I don’t think you do those things just by playing the good football that you need to play. I think you need both. I think you need the mentality. I think you need to have that feeling of doing it for a greater purpose, and then ultimately, it requires you to then go execute and play good football. But it’s all gotta come together in a way like it has for our team this year, and I do give those guys so much credit.”
Pretty cool, the way it’s all come together there.
• Chandler Jones, after the afternoon he had, was honest—that this particular game, and that particular play, happened against the Patriots meant a little more.
The Raiders defensive end, a four-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro, was drafted by New England, and played his first four seasons and won a Super Bowl for the Patriots. They traded him ahead of his fifth-year option year of 2016 to Arizona (where Jones played six seasons) for a second-round pick.
“Yeah, and Josh [McDaniels] or the coordinators or the general manager, I don’t think they’ll say this, because no one really talks about it, because you kind of just move on from your past, but I’ll speak for myself personally—it definitely, definitely meant a little bit more to me,” Jones told me. “And I never said it, but mentally, you know, internally, I kind of had that in the back of my mind, saying This is a former team of mine. And it definitely gets you that extra oomph and it gets you to push a little harder, definitely.”
At the end of that day, as a certain stiff arm showed, Jones looked like he had plenty of oomph.
• The other end of the Jones play is this—Jakobi Meyers’s decision to do what he did was about as bad a call as a player can make in that situation.
And yes, you do see wild lateral plays like that one. But those happen when the team with the ball is behind, and in a last-gasp spot. Losing the ball doesn’t matter if you’re about to lose the game anyway. This wasn’t that. It was tied. If Stevenson or Meyers go down, the Patriots go to overtime after largely dominating the second half. Fact is, there were much better odds of scoring and winning then than there were on some crazy lateral play.
Whose call was it for things to play out that way? Well, Meyers took the blame and I have no reason not to believe him. Still, that doesn’t take the coaches off the hook. Belichick, and guys from his staffs over the years, have always said on plays like that one, that “you’re either coaching it or you’re allowing it.”
Bottom line, the players have to know the situation, and if they don’t, the coaches share in the blame for it.
• The chance Philly has to go Saturday, on a short week, without Jalen Hurts isn’t ideal. It’s also worth considering if resting his sprained shoulder is the right thing to do. The reality is the Eagles only need one more win, and no other help, to lock down the division title and capture the top seed for the NFC playoffs. They get New Orleans on New Year’s Day and the Giants in Week 18, both at home. And with all due respect to those teams, if everyone’s playing, I’d bet my mortgage that the Eagles win one of those games.
Now, of course, they wouldn’t be able to let anyone know they’re playing these games with the schedule, because, of course, they need their guys locked in for the Cowboys this week.
But it does at least look on the surface here like the Eagles have a little logistical flexibility.
• Regulars here have heard me talk and seen me write ad nauseam about how the greatest strength of this year’s Eagles, now 13–1, mirrors the greatest strength of the 2017 team that won the first Super Bowl in franchise history. And that’s the strength of both rosters along the lines of scrimmage.
All year, we’ve had examples of how Philly’s putting that to work. On Sunday, I came across a stat that might bring the best example of it—the Eagles had six sacks in a third straight game for the first time in the 90-season history of the franchise.
“We say it all the time, man, we’ve got great position coaches and Coach Wash [Jeremiah Washburn] and Coach T Rock [Tracy Rocker], they’ve been a big help from the things that they give to us from an IQ standpoint or drills,” Haason Reddick told me postgame. “We got great timing on that D-line. We got some guys that, when given the opportunity, can really get after it. And like you said, there’s no falloff no matter who comes in there.”
The depth piece, to be sure, is an important part of it. There were nine guys rotating through on the Eagles’ defensive front, no one playing fewer than 11 defensive snaps and no one playing more than 44 (Reddick and Josh Sweat played that much). And because of that, like Reddick said, they keep coming and get harder to handle as the game goes on.
The Eagles will be a handful in January and February (health permitting).
• Fun nugget leftover from the Bengals’ comeback—that fourth and final touchdown pass of Joe Burrow’s afternoon had a little special meaning for those inside that building. Where the first three went to the usual suspects (Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, JaMarr Chase), that last one went to tight end Mitch Wilcox, a special teamer/backup on offense who played a lot more Sunday with Hayden Hurst out. And Wilcox happens to be local to Tampa.
Anyway, I noticed the grin on Zac Taylor’s face on the broadcast, and players celebrating behind him, as Wilcox came back to the sideline after his touchdown. And full disclosure, since a really good buddy of mine was his high school coach, I had to ask why. The answer I got from offensive coordinator Brian Callahan was priceless.
“Mitch was talking all week about what he’d do if he scored—he’s from Tampa,” said Callahan. “And so it’s a big homecoming for him. family there and all that. and he’s all excited, he’s gonna score and he’s gonna do something silly. But then he tripped over the [pylon] in the back of the end zone. And I was laughing at it, I can’t speak for anybody else, but I know Mitch was excited to get something off and do something funny to celebrate and have a good time but he tripped over the [pylon].
“So he just gave it a good spike instead.”
Hopefully he tucked away whatever he was about to do, and pulls it back out the next time he scores.
• It’s worth going back one more time to the illegal formation call that took away Washington’s potential game-tying touchdown (the Commanders still needed the two-pointer to knot the game up at 20) on Sunday night. And I’m gonna go to the piece I missed in the immediate aftermath.
If you watch the play, Commanders receiver Terry McLaurin checks on his positioning with the line judge, who’s a few feet to his right. After the communication, he re-positions himself, then gives a thumbs up to the official as if to say, “I’m good, right?” The ball is then snapped, and immediately the line judge reaches for and throws the flag. McLaurin, a smart, disciplined player, drew the penalty, the ball moved from the one-yard line to the six, and instead of scoring the touchdown, the Commanders wound up turning the ball over on downs.
I asked around about this with a few coaches on Monday. The answers I got were mostly that, if the pre-snap communication happened like it looked it did, they’d be furious over the chain of events. Sometimes, one coach added, a player will get warnings before being flagged for lining up off the line (it’s common with tackles), and almost never would see a player who checked with an official before the snap flagged.
Someone’s got some explaining to do.
• In wrapping up an up-and-down performance from Zach Wilson in his team’s loss to Detroit on Sunday, I thought one thing Jets coach Robert Saleh said about his young quarterback was pretty significant.
“I’m really pumped for him, because, in his past, when he hit a speed bump in a game, he kind of derails,” Saleh said. “But I thought he did a really good job of getting back on the rails and swinging back up in the fourth quarter to lead a touchdown drive.”
That’s important because if Saleh saw it, Wilson’s teammates saw it, and ultimately Saleh needs the locker room to buy back into Wilson before he gives him the job back full-time.
• I don’t know about you, but I’m legit excited to watch Baker Mayfield tonight.