We have reached the point in the season where some teams are already looking forward to their offseason moves – clubs with vacant coaching positions can start interviewing candidates today – while an unusually high number of teams are still in the playoff mix and trying to secure bid. This week’s column spans that span, from the candidates, both real and potential, to those who will get them next year to … Giants and Jags.
The QB market is popping up. Rookie QB Ian Books start Monday night came amid a COVID-19 outburst that put 22 Saints players on the sidelines, including Taysom Hill and Trevor Siemian. But nonetheless, it was clear that the Saints will be among a long line of teams looking for a primary opportunity at QB this offseason. That, combined with the cadre of veteran QBs who may be on the move and a weaker draft class on the post than last year, means we’re only a few weeks away from what could be a very active veteran QB carousel. Last year, the Rams reached an agreement on a deal with Lions for Matthew Stafford in late January. It did not kick-start the game with musical chairs, as many expected last offseason, in part because many teams sought to fill their needs in the draft (five QBs were taken in the top 15 picks). This year, however, it could actually turn into something, with Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Baker Mayfield among the names facing an uncertain future with their current team. And the Texans are still eager to relocate Deshaun Watson, who has sat out this season and is still facing 22 civil lawsuits and an active criminal investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct or sexual assault under massage contracts.
2. The CDC’s new guidelines may affect the NFL-NFLPA’s common COVID-19 protocols. On Monday, the CDC shortened its recommended isolation period from ten to five days for asymptomatic people with COVID-19, followed by five days of masking around others. The NFL and the Players’ Association recently adjusted the protocols to allow asymptomatic, vaccinated people to test out of quarantine as soon as the day after their positive test. Unvaccinated players still need to isolate themselves for 10 days after a positive test. It is possible that the CDC’s new guidelines could lead to yet another change in the protocols, especially with the league’s intention to complete the 2021 season on schedule despite the Omicron increase. Keep in mind, however, that these new guidelines apply to people who are infected but asymptomatic, and the new test cadence in the NFL means fewer tests for, and thus less detection of, infected asymptomatically vaccinated people. It is also unclear how the CDC’s recommended five-day period of wearing a mask around others after the shortened isolation period would fit with football activities and games.
The AFC is still everyone’s conference. One of the special features of this season has been how many teams are still in contention, now 16 weeks later. This is especially true in the AFC. Although we now know five of the seven NFC playoff teams, only one team has won a spot after the season in the AFC, Chiefs. Only two games separate the top of the AFC North (9-6 Bengals) from the bottom (7-8 Browns). The Dolphins started the year 1-7, but after their seventh straight win on Monday night over the Saints, they currently sit as No. 7 seed and control their own playoff fate (though they have two challenging games ahead, against the Titans and the Patriots) . And while the Titans have continued to hold the top spot in the AFC South, the Colts have stepped back from their 0-3 start to become one of the best teams in the conference. We have focused on this at many different times in the season, but it is wild that with two games left in the regular season, the third ranked team in the AFC (9-6 Bengals) is only two games ahead in the league standings. 13. (of 7-8 Broncos).
4. The new head coach interview rule has so far not spurred an early Black Monday. Today is the first day that teams with a vacant head coach can start interviewing candidates, which only applies to two clubs at the moment: the Jaguars and the Raiders. (Consent is required from the team where the candidate is currently employed.) There will no doubt be other vacant head coaches heading into 2022, with Matt Nagy and Vic Fangio among those with the hottest spots. But despite speculation otherwise, this two-week bonus interview period has not yet spurred teams expected to make a change to make these moves early to get a jump on the process.
5. Joe Burrow should at least be in the MVP conversation. Gary Gramling mentioned on The MMQB Podcast his surprise that the Cincinnati QB is not listed among the MVP favorites you can bet on (to be clear, no one here is betting). That has since changed, after Burrow’s 525-yard, four-TD performance on Sunday, driven in part by Raven’s defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s comment that he was not ready to give Burrow a gold jacket yet. But Burrow has flown strangely under the radar for much of this season. He’s had a handful of off games – losses to the Bears and Browns, plus the game against the Chargers, where he got his pinkie dislocated. But he has also elevated his team to a challenger despite shaky play on the offensive line and only a year away from a season-ending ACL tear with other knee injuries. The fact that he’s in play for Comeback Player of the Year and should be an MVP finalist, talking about how impressive his season has been. He gets a chance to boost his resume in this week’s AFC showdown between Chiefs and Bengals, a match in week 17 that we would not have put a circle around in our calendars in August, but which we can now not wait to see.
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6. We may get a new look at Trey Lance before the end of the season. This year’s rookie QB class has pretty much had an uneven ride. Mac Jones has had by far the best season in the group, while Trevor Lawrence has navigated the chaos of Jacksonville, and Zach Wilson and Justin Fields have endured tough seasons. Meanwhile, Lance has not seen the field much, and he got off to a flying start in October when Jimmy Garoppolo was out with an injury – a shaky outing – and he has not thrown a pass in a match since. But Garoppolo’s right thumb injury has the potential to put him on the sidelines this week against the Texans, meaning we and the 49ers may have a chance to see Lance play this season. Kyle Shanahan said Lance is coming off his best training month since the 49ers drafted him as No. 3 overall, and while a Week 17 match for a team still queuing up to secure a playoff bid is not the best time to test water with a young quarterback, the 49ers can get a chance to see if Lance can translate that training success into a game. And given the season’s transition period, they need him to do so.
7. The Giants and Jags make it harder to fill their vacancies. The Giants are reportedly planning to bring Joe Judge back in 2022, with GM Dave Gettleman largely expected to move on. And the Jaguars, who already fired Urban Meyer, will reportedly keep GM Trent Baalke. Getting a top executive coach or GM candidate can often depend on having a situation that the top candidates want to go into, and it can often be a deterrent to keeping the established ones in prominent roles. If Gettleman actually retires, the Giants will either be limited to internal GM candidates and those who have a connection with Judge, or else the new GM will get into the job with Judge already with notice. None of these situations are ideal. As for the Jaguars, the Meyer experiment was such a disaster that it’s hard to understand why the organization does not want to start on a fresh across the board. The team’s priority should be to create the best possible environment for Trevor Lawrence, from the coach developing him to the GM building the team around him. The team has failed to do so over the past year, and keeping a GM in place who played a role in the mess looks like it would only hamper Jacksonville’s ability to move forward and complicate their coaching search.
More NFL coverage:
• The Bengals are built for success after the season
• How the Patriots have pushed the bills to get better
• How many NFL coaching jobs will be opened before the season ends?
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