Gridiron Digest Super Bowl LIV Preview: Unstoppable Force Meets Immovable Object

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 20, 2020

Gridiron Digest Super Bowl LIV Preview: Unstoppable Force Meets Immovable Object

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Chiefs versus 49ers. The NFL's most explosive offense versus its most devastating defense. The league's most versatile running game against one of its most porous run defenses. A quarterback who has proved almost everything in three seasons versus one who remains an enigma after six. A coach who has spent two-plus decades falling just short of a championship versus the son of a legend who is enjoying his first winning season as a head coach. A franchise that dominated a rival league in the 1960s against the one that defined football in the 1980s.

    Super Bowl LIV has storylines galore, and this edition of Gridiron Digest can only scratch the surface, introducing you to some of the personalities, trends and history you will be hearing a lot (probably too much) about over the next two weeks.

    Also in this week's Digest:

    • The Packers and Titans face some difficult decisions about big-name players in the offseason

    • The Centennial Hall of Fame class features some heroes of yesteryear. Yester, yester, yesteryear, in some cases

    • Draft season kicks off with a quarterback-heavy preview of Senior Bowl week some coaching news from around the league, a little Odell Beckham Jr. butt-slapping and much, much more!


Kansas City Chiefs vs. San Francisco 49ers: First Look

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    How the 49ers got here

    The 49ers did to the Packers what a bulldozer does to an old barn; what a whole gym full of boxers does to a speed bag; what a bouncer does to the drunk who reaches over the bar to pour himself a free beer.

    Sure, Aaron Rodgers made things look close with some miraculous throws in the second half. But the NFC Championship Game was over by the time the 49ers took a 27-0 halftime lead. The 49ers dominated both lines of scrimmage. They ran for 285 yards—185 of them before halftime—with Raheem Mostert carving out yardage in 10- to 15-yard chunks. They held the Packers without a third-down conversion until midway through the third quarter. It was a triumph of the 2019 49ers' preferred style of play: a withering pass rush, a complex and physical running game, and an almost homeopathic dose of Jimmy Garoppolo.


    How the Chiefs got here

    No team digs itself out of the deep hole it dug itself into quite like the Kansas City Chiefs. One week after spotting the Texans a 24-0 lead on a deluxe sampler platter of unforced errors before storming back for a 51-31 win, the Chiefs allowed the Titans to take 10-0 and 17-7 leads with the help of defensive penalties and porous pass coverage.

    Then Patrick Mahomes took over the game. His Steve Young-like 27-yard touchdown scramble helped give the Chiefs a 21-17 halftime lead. A pair of scrambles against a defense that was playing back on its heels set up a Damien Williams touchdown in the fourth quarter, and a 60-yard bomb gave the Chiefs a commanding lead, erased Derrick Henry from the Titans' game plan and allowed the Kansas City defense to do what it does best: ignore the running game and chase down quarterbacks.


    What it means

    This is the Super Bowl we deserve: new faces, young superstars, fresh storylines, fresh ideas. With all due respect to Lamar Jackson, Mahomes is the NFL's brightest young star, and the 49ers provide the perfect counterpoint to Mahomes' playground style with a brutal, disciplined, no-nonsense approach on both offense and defense.

    The Chiefs open as one-point favorites, per Caesars. But there will be plenty of time for that in the weeks to come. This is a matchup to savor—a clash of franchises, styles and personalities that makes the perfect capstone to 100 years of NFL history.

Super Bowl Quarterback Spotlight: Patrick Mahomes vs. Jimmy Garoppolo

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    One already has an MVP award under his belt. The other remains a man of mystery. Before we take a deeper look at the Chiefs and 49ers, let's take a deeper look at what's at stake for their quarterbacks.


    Patrick Mahomes

    There have been three quantum leaps forward in NFL offense that were ignited by the talents of young quarterbacks in the last 50 years:

    • In 1984, Dan Marino's 48-touchdown sophomore season made 1970s-style offenses look like horse-drawn buggies, ushering in the era in which every down was a passing down.

    • In 1995, Brett Favre turbocharged Mike Holmgren's West Coast offense with his first MVP season at age 26, adding improvisation and let-'er-rip tactics to a system known for three-step drops and five-yard slants. A young Packers assistant named Andy Reid took note.

    • In 2018, Mahomes threw 50 touchdown passes in a Reid offense that demonstrated what's possible when a hyper-talented quarterback is given a system and firepower designed to accentuate all of his skills: passing and running, defense-dissecting and freelancing.

    Mahomes has drawn Favre comparisons since before he even reached the NFL. And just as Favre couldn't quite lead the Packers to the Super Bowl until the Jimmy Johnson Cowboys faded from the spotlight, Mahomes' opportunity is now, in the Patriots' twilight.

    Mahomes appears destined to become an era-defining player and personality like Marino and Favre no matter what happens in two weeks. A Super Bowl victory at age 24, after two playoff games in which he threw eight touchdown passes, ran for a ninth and sparked a pair of comebacks, would set Mahomes on the path toward becoming one of the greatest players of all time.


    Jimmy Garoppolo

    When Garoppolo threw five straight interceptions in a training camp practice, it nearly broke the internet. It also cemented his status as the Most Controversial Quarterback Ever to Rarely Play the Game.

    Garoppolo portrayed the ambitious young aristocrat held down by a jealous monarchy in Seth Wickersham's Decline and Fall of Czarist Russia-like expose of the New England Patriots. He was a bit player in the Deflategate saga. He was pricey vaporware who signed a jaw-dropping contract and then tore his ACL after three unimpressive starts. He was the sleeper who rose from Eastern Illinois University to the second round of the draft and the most prestigious franchise in the NFL before most fans had ever seen him throw a football. And now he has even been overshadowed during the 49ers' Super Bowl run, throwing for just 208 combined yards in two games as the defense and running game carried the load in a pair of lopsided victories.

    Garoppolo has proved he is not the Brock Osweiler/Rob Johnson cautionary tale he appeared to be on the verge of becoming when he followed last year's injury with those five-packs of training camp interceptions. But that is all he's proved.

    After six years of waiting behind the curtain and a pair of playoff games in which his teammates did most of the heavy lifting, Garoppolo now finds himself at the center of the biggest stage in professional sports. Where he came from, who he learned from and what he did in training camp no longer matters. He could be another Troy Aikman or Bob Griese, ready to make the big throws when he has to. But he could also be a game manager with little hope of keeping pace with the likes of Mahomes.

    Good enough to win won't cut it in Super Bowl LIV. It's time for Garoppolo to be great.

Conference Champions Franchise Spotlight

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    San Francisco 49ers

    The 49ers were the team of the 1980s, and not just because they won four Super Bowls in the decade. They were the team to root for while listening to Rush and programming your Commodore 64. Dad may have worshipped at the rugged altar of the Steel Curtain Steelers or ogled the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, but the Pepsi generation was all about the scientific precision and unfettered imagination of Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig and the then-new West Coast offense.

    The 49ers have tried a little too hard to recapture that '80s cultural cachet in the decades since. The early-2000s reboot with Terrell Owens in the Rice role was too edgy and combustible. The early-2010s Jim Harbaugh-Colin Kaepernick version was torn apart too soon by forces beyond the franchise's control.

    The 2019 49ers were cobbled together from pieces that don't quite fit: a general manager plucked from the broadcast booth, a coach famous for a Super Bowl faceplant, a quarterback rescued from a career as an understudy, an opinionated and allegedly over-the-hill cornerback and lots and lots of running backs, tight ends and wide receivers you wouldn't recognize if you walked past them at the airport. They turned their apparent weaknesses into strengths, finding motivation in redemption and depth and diversity in anonymity.

    We live in a culture defined by the computers- and comic books-obsessed 1980s, yet we also enter a new decade hungry for new faces, voices and ideas. After 20 years of false starts, the 49ers could be the team that blends the old and the new in a way that charts a course for the next decade and beyond.

    But to do so, they must get past an opponent with its own blend of rich history and forward-thinking ideas.


    Kansas City Chiefs

    The last time the Chiefs reached the Super Bowl was so long ago that the only surviving television footage is in black and white. Their quarterback, Len Dawson, was the same guy who enjoyed an on-field cigarette at halftime of Super Bowl I. A new home in the United States cost about $23,500 back then. A gallon of gasoline about 36 cents. The moon landing occurred not even six months earlier; the Beatles would formally break up three months later.

    In the half-century since beating the Vikings 23-7 in Super Bowl IV, the Chiefs have established a pattern of spectacular regular seasons capped by heartbreaking playoff losses. They've made the playoffs 16 times since 1990 but have won just seven postseason games, two of them in the last eight days. They've hired superstar coaches, assembled offensive lines loaded with Hall of Famers and even lured Joe Montana away from San Francisco, but no force in the NFL could propel them into the Super Bowl.

    Then Andy Reid met Patrick Mahomes, and both the fortunes of the Chiefs and the balance of power in the AFC began to shift.

    The 2019 Chiefs, like their 1969 forebears, have proved willing to shatter pro football paradigms. The 1969 Chiefs not only built their roster out of superstars from historically black colleges, like Buck Buchanan and Willie Lanier, when many football franchises of the era ignored those programs, but they also introduced tactical innovations (new formations and shifts; the Cover 2 defense) that would quickly redefine the game. The 2019 Chiefs were built by boldly trading up in 2017 to draft Mahomes when they already had a safe, established quarterback in Alex Smith, and they have built an unstoppable attack out of the best components of both the old West Coast offense and the wildest wide-open college attacks. Reid and Mahomes have paved the way for a new era of experimentation, innovation and acceptance of new types of quarterbacks (Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray) and methods of building a contender.

    The pair is now going to Miami to cement its legacy, close the book on 50 years of frustration and finally reward the most passionate fanbase in professional sports. Reid and Mahomes have also given Buchanan, Lanier, Dawson, Hank Stram and the stars of a half-century ago one more chance to take the field in our flickering black-and-white memories to celebrate the NFL's 100th season.

    With all of their postseason demons exorcised by a pair of thrilling playoff comebacks, the Chiefs are just 60 minutes away from a victory that will point the way toward the NFL's future as it heads into its second century.

Player Spotlight: San Francisco 49ers

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    It's Super Bowl week, so let's play the greatest hits instead of the deep cuts. Here are five players whose contributions are big reasons the 49ers are heading to Miami:

    Tight end George Kittle: Kittle had just one catch for 19 yards Sunday. Bad game, right? Well, maybe for your fantasy playoffs. Kittle spent most of Sunday's game rooting Packers linebackers out of holes and blocking on the edge to keep the 49ers running game churning. From his WWE-themed celebrations to the signed Garoppolo (shirtless) T-shirt he wore to his postgame press conference, Kittle defines the personality of this 49ers team: It's brutal, but in a playful way.

    Cornerback Richard Sherman: Davante Adams was targeted for just one short pass in the first half of Sunday's game as Sherman left his usual spot on the (offensive) right side of the formation to shadow Adams in coverage early in the game. Adams later trapped Sherman in a revolving door to get open for a 65-yard catch, but by then the damage was done, and a Sherman interception late in the fourth quarter iced the game. This is Sherman's third Super Bowl appearance, a chance to update and improve his Hall of Fame resume and an opportunity for one more last laugh at the expense of those who assumed his career was over in 2017. And if you think for a second that none of that matters to him, check out this emotional moment from after the game. Sherman is the leader the youthful 49ers need as they navigate the pressure and hype of the next two weeks.

    Running back Raheem Mostert: The Eagles, Dolphins, Ravens, Browns, Jets and Bears all employed Mostert at some point in 2015 and 2016, granting him exactly one regular-season carry between the six of them. Mostert rushed for 160 yards and three touchdowns before halftime Sunday, finishing with 220 yards and four touchdowns, the second-highest total in playoff history. The 49ers tend to rotate their running backs almost interchangeably, but Mostert's combination of patience, vision and breakaway speed elevated him to first among equals toward the end of the season. And after Tevin Coleman's shoulder injury Sunday, Mostert should get the bulk of the carries in the Super Bowl against a run defense that allowed 128.2 rushing yards per game in the regular season. 

    Wide receiver Deebo Samuel: 49ers wide receivers, like their running backs, are usually thought of as a collective instead of individuals. But Samuel's ability to make plays as a ball-carrier and contribute as a blocker keeps him involved when the 49ers downshift into ground-'n'-pound mode. The versatile rookie ran two times for 43 yards while catching two passes for 46 yards Sunday—his end-arounds punishing the Packers when they loaded up the box to stop Mostert. Samuel is the perfect counterpunch in an offense that wears opponents down with jab after jab.

    Defensive end Nick Bosa: You'll hear a lot about Bosa over the next two weeks, from his wild-man persona to his famous brother, Joey, to his politics. Bosa may not be the best player on the 49ers front four—Arik Armstead recorded more sacks this year, and DeForest Buckner has a greater impact on the running game—but the rookie helped a good defensive line reach critical mass and become the best in the league, and he was tenacious in his pursuit of both Kirk Cousins and Aaron Rodgers in the postseason. Depending on both your rooting interest and political leanings, Bosa is either Super Bowl LIV's brightest young defensive superstar or the game's wrestling heel. One thing is certain: Bosa, Armstead, Buckner and Dee Ford make watching the trenches as interesting as watching the quarterback. Even when that quarterback is Mahomes.

Player Spotlight: Kansas City Chiefs

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    It's Super Bowl week, so let's play the greatest hits instead of the deep cuts. Here are five players whose contributions are big reasons the Chiefs are heading to Miami:

    Tight end Travis Kelce: Kelce was quiet Sunday—at least until his televised postgame F-bomb. But whether he's catching 10 passes for 134 yards and three touchdowns like he did against the Texans in the divisional round or just three passes for 30 yards like he did Sunday, Kelce's receiving and blocking remain the fulcrum of the Chiefs offense. The 49ers will have the choice of designing their defensive game plan to stop Kelce or daring him to beat them. Talk about your no-win situations.

    Safety Tyrann Mathieu: The Honey Badger appeared to be the next stage in the evolution of the NFL defender when he earned All-Pro notice for the Cardinals at age 23 in 2015. By age 26, he was practically written off as a damaged-goods has-been and left to sign a one-year contract to prove himself with the Texans. Now the best player in the Chiefs secondary, Mathieu still hits like a linebacker and covers like a cornerback, and as Adam Teicher wrote for ESPN two weeks ago, he has drawn comparisons from Andy Reid to Eric Berry and Brian Dawkins as both a leader and tone-setter. The Super Bowl will be a great chance for the NFL world to reconnect with a unique player we were a little too quick to cast aside.

    Wide receiver Sammy Watkins: He's the Mathieu of the Chiefs offense: a budding superstar with the Bills in 2015 who was injury-plagued and baggage-laden when he was exiled to the Rams in 2017 and has been recast as the secret weapon in an explosive offense by Reid. The Titans learned Sunday what happens when the defense focuses all its attention on Tyreek Hill and Kelce: Watkins caught seven passes for 114 yards and a 60-yard fourth-quarter touchdown that left his defender tugging at his jersey before tumbling to the ground.

    Defensive tackle Chris Jones: Jones played through a calf injury Sunday, and while he recorded just one solo tackle and no sacks, his constant pressure kept Ryan Tannehill on the run and led to big plays for teammates Frank Clark and Tanoh Kpassagnon. When the Chiefs have the lead and opponents are forced to throw, Jones becomes an unblockable force in the middle of the defense. And the Chiefs often have the lead.

    Wide receiver Tyreek Hill: Child-abuse allegations and seemingly incriminating audio recordings loomed over Hill at the start of the offseason. Then prosecutors ceased the investigations, the NFL issued no punishment of its own and Hill signed a $54 million contract extension. He was breathtaking in the regular season and scored two touchdowns Sunday, but every Hill highlight leaves a queasy aftertaste and a feeling that we were all too quick to forget something important in our hurry to celebrate. Whether you feel guilty for gawking at Hill's touchdowns or have the urge to make others feel guilty for doing so, remember that child abuse and domestic violence are everyone's problems, not some individual's issues or Chiefs or NFL issues. Remember that they are best addressed by being a dutiful voter, neighbor, citizen and ally to potential victims, not by being a strident social network poster. And remember that, yes, the presumption of innocence is still a thing. Gridiron Digest is looking forward to watching Hill in the Super Bowl. You are free to choose whether to do the same.

Last Looks at the Titans and Packers

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Let's bid farewell to the Titans and Packers by breaking down their offseason needs and priorities.


    Tennessee Titans

    Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry are both free agents, so the Titans run a considerable risk of paying Times Square-at-New-Years prices for A) a journeyman quarterback who followed six seasons of mediocrity with a 7-3 hot streak and a pair of playoff upsets, and B) the type of well-worn battering ram who's generally found on the cover of Don't Give Running Backs Huge Second Contracts magazine.

    In other words, as fun as this season was, the Titans are just the 9-7 version of the Minnesota Vikings. If they pay Tannehill $88 million over four years (Nick Foles money) and Henry about $52 million over four years (Le'Veon Bell money), they'll probably be paying to continue going 9-7 until the next presidential election cycle. But doing just about anything else would be tantamount to starting over from scratch.


    Green Bay Packers

    The Packers have $32 million in on-paper cap space, per Over The Cap, and a manageable slate of in-house priorities: tackle Bryan Bulaga and kicker Mason Crosby are likely to get extensions, with the organization then playing should-he-stay-or-should-he-go with lower-tier receivers Allen Lazard (stay) and Geronimo Allison (go).

    Aaron Jones is entering the fourth year of his rookie contract and is slated to earn $735,000 next season to be a critical vertex of their offensive triangle. It's in the team's best interest to keep him at that pay grade. If Gridiron Digest were handling Jones' finances, we'd advise him not to go within 20 miles of Packers headquarters until they offered him something in the neighborhood of Todd Gurley II money ($14.4 million per year).

    Assuming they find a solution for Jones, the Packers should be able to keep the nucleus of a team that went 13-3 together. The problem is that the Packers are really a 10-6-caliber team that won some close games against weak opponents, which means they are closer to becoming the 2015-18 Packers than they are to reaching the Super Bowl. 


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    Julian Edelman arrested for allegedly jumping onto the hood of a car in Beverly Hills during a reported night out on the town with former teammate Danny Amendola and Celtics great Paul Pierce.

    Point: What a lovable scamp! Paintin' the town with his buddies, causing a little property damage. Let's make some good-natured hangover jokes at the expense of this plucky fan favorite who also fakes head injuries to draw penalties!

    Counterpoint: You all already know where this gag is going, don't you?


    Warrant issued (and later dropped) for Odell Beckham Jr.'s arrest for slapping a Superdome security officer on the butt in the locker room after Beckham's alma mater, LSU, won the national championship.

    Point (veins popping on forehead): Why, of all the reprehensible, disgusting acts of malfeasance in human history. How dare Beckham disrespect the authority of an officer courageously patrolling the winning locker room after a football game. Take him away in cuffs and lock him in solitary!

    Counterpoint: Yeah, what Beckham did was dumb. But there's something about the optics of Joe Burrow enjoying his stogie like J.P. Moneybags on the official LSU Twitter feed while his (mostly African American) teammates were getting the third degree in their own locker room for having their own cigars that makes me feel a little civilly disobedient, too.


    The NFL-NFLPA Pain Management Committee issues official statements critical of CBD products as pain relievers, while confirming the efficacy of drugs like Toradol and recommending acupuncture and such exercise as swimming and walking to relieve pain.

    Point: Good. CBD products are a gateway drug to filthy hippie stuff like multivitamins and acai bowls.

    Counterpoint: We're still waiting on the NFL's rulings on bleeding with leeches, a shaman blowing tobacco smoke over the injury (so long as it doesn't happen in the winning locker room after a college championship game) and just rubbing some dirt on it and getting back out there like a real man.


    Napoleon Dynamite producer Jeremy Coon launches a Kickstarter campaign to purchase (and battle for the right to air) the only complete footage in existence of Super Bowl I.

    Point: Vote for Jim Ringo!

    Counterpoint: If Coon manages to defeat the NFL's mighty legal juggernaut, he can then earn some extra cash selling Baby Yoda dolls on Etsy.


    NFL fines Chiefs tackle Eric Fisher $14,037 for his celebratory beer shower after last week's Texans win and also nominates the shower as a beer-sponsored "Celly of the Week."

    Point: I think the appropriate punishment for getting showered with beer is getting showered with beer.

    Counterpoint: Folks, how about we just let athletes celebrate their accomplishments for a few minutes without sending in the SWAT teams and legal departments, shall we? 

Senior Bowl Preview Digest

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    Welcome to Senior Bowl week, the unofficial start of draft season for the 30 NFL teams not preparing for the Super Bowl—and for their fans. The Gridiron Digest team has packed our sunglasses and (checks Mobile, Alabama, weather forecast) windbreakers for three intense days of practices, interviews and country-meets-Cajun cooking. Here are some of the players on our watch list; as usual, it's mostly about the quarterbacks.

    Justin Herbert, quarterback, Oregon: If you don't like what you see on Herbert's game tape, wait a quarter. He'll look like a top-10 pick on one series and like a blindfolded Christian Hackenberg on the next. Sometimes he's a sharpshooter, sometimes he looks like he's aiming with a lawn sprinkler, and sometimes (why not?) he briefly turns into a dual-threat option quarterback. Few quarterback prospects of the last decade could benefit more from a strong Senior Bowl week.

    Jalen Hurts, quarterback, Oklahoma: Poor Jalen Hurts. We're going to hound him all week with Lamar Jackson comparisons. At some point, Hurts will respond with: "I can't control what people say about me. I'm not trying to be the next Lamar Jackson. I'm just trying to be the best possible Jalen Hurts." And we will all put that quote in our articles and pretend that his agent didn't coach him (and 200 other clients over the last 20 years) to use that exact phrasing. At least Hurts won't have to dodge questions about whether a "running" quarterback can handle an NFL offense, unlike 200 other quarterbacks like him over the last 20 years.

    Jordan Love, quarterback, Utah State: Love might have a Josh Allen-like week in Mobile. My, what a lovely deep ball! Shall we send someone to the parking lot to fetch it? Love has an NFL arm, quick feet and a smooth delivery, but his team was overmatched against the LSUs of the world. If he demonstrates the leadership skills and consistency to match his traits this week, he'll intrigue teams (Chargers, Lions, Patriots) that may be looking for a quarterback to stash on the bench for a year.

    Steven Montez, quarterback, Colorado: Every time Gridiron Digest catches Montez on TV on a Saturday evening, the Buffs are getting pushed around by Oregon or Utah, and Montez spends half the game getting dragged down by defenders. But we've heard great things about his preparation and leadership skills, and he knows how to find open receivers and deliver the ball when he has them. He could impress scouts this week, both on the field and in interviews.

    Brandon Aiyuk, wide receiver, Arizona State: With so many top underclassmen entering the draft, the Senior Bowl receivers may all be competing for the chance to be drafted in the second or third round. Well, Michael Thomas was drafted in the second round, and Aiyuk displays some of Thomas' traits when stutter-stepping and head-faking away from baffled defenders. If Aiyuk spends Senior Bowl week proving that he can consistently make tough catches, he may work his way into the first-round conversation.

    Adam Trautman, tight end, Dayton: The Flyers' all-time leading receiver and one of the top FCS prospects in this draft class, the 6'6" Trautman runs like a wide receiver, can out-jump defenders for the ball and is an active blocker on outside runs and screens. If he can do all that against Senior Bowl competition, he'll appeal to teams hoping to do some of the things the Ravens did with their tight ends.

    Ben Bartch, offensive tackle, St. John's: Bartch is a converted tight end who bulked up in a single offseason to switch to left tackle for a D-III powerhouse. The tape shows a big, technically raw athlete pushing around future accountants and physical therapists at the small-college level. This week is a chance for him to prove he has both the tools and tenacity to compete with top competition.

Around the League

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    Luke Kuechly retires after eight NFL seasons: Kuechly was a great player and respected individual—and new head coach Matt Rhule would certainly have liked to have him around for the next few seasons. But also, there's something to be said for the new regime starting with as clean a slate as possible. Kuechly's retirement won't be a major factor in the team's quarterback decision, but it does have to make the prospect of a full-scale rebuilding project easier to come to terms with. (And of course it's also a good thing that NFL players of his caliber have the financial security to make the best choices for their own health and happiness.)

    Panthers hire 30-year-old LSU assistant Joe Brady as Rhule's offensive coordinator; longtime Rhule assistant Phil Snow is likely to be the defensive coordinator: There's a razor-thin line between hiring young innovators with fresh ideas and hiring coaches too inexperienced to be a threat to your authority. Rhule should consider hiring at least one lieutenant who is an NFL lifer (Ben McAdoo and Mike McCoy have interviewed as quarterback coaches, for example); there are lots of NFL logistics and details that college coaches can trip over if they don't have some experienced assistants on hand.

    Giants hire Jason Garrett as offensive coordinator: Can't wait to see what the Cowboys offense of the last few seasons looks like with one of the league's best offensive lines replaced by one of the league's worst! Jokes aside, Garrett will be a perfectly adequate coordinator. And what more could a team ask for?

    Broncos hire Pat Shurmur as offensive coordinator: Speaking of perfect adequacy! Shurmur has recently acquired the "bad head coach/good coordinator" label. Gridiron Digest is still trying to figure out just where he got it from. 

    Texans dismiss Chris Olsen, one of the executives who served as Bill O'Brien's deputy general managers: It's hard to find someone to blame when you have seized control of all decision-making. But the great ones like O'Brien always find a way.

    Jaguars "part ways" with offensive coordinator John DeFilippo: Gardner Minshew II's emergence and development were about the only things that really went right for the Jaguars in 2019. So the offensive coordinator is the only coach axed. Makes total sense.

    Bears hire DeFilippo as quarterback coach, promote Dave Ragone to passing game coordinator and hire Bill Lazor as offensive coordinator: How many quarterback gurus does it take to screw in a Trubisky?

    Larry Fitzgerald announces that he will return for a 17th NFL season: Every time a player like Kuechly retires a little early, Fitzgerald tacks those unplayed seasons onto the tail end of his career.

Secrets of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Centennial Class

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    Clem Murray/Associated Press

    The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced last week the enshrinement of a one-time-only 15-person Centennial class of players, coaches and contributors of the last 100 years, and it left fans with a lot of questions. Like, who are these guys? And why were they selected over the many, many eligible players who fans under the age of 60 can remember?

    Gridiron Digest is here with profiles, explanations, quibbles and complaints about the latest crop of Hall of Famers.


    Harold Carmichael (wide receiver, 1971-1984)

    A favorite here at Gridiron Digest headquarters, which are located just across the river from the site of old Veterans Stadium. The 6'8" Carmichael's best seasons came in the mid-1970s, which were the Dark Ages for NFL offenses, so his stats don't match his impact. That said, if forced to cast the deciding vote, we would have given this receiver slot to Cliff Branch or Drew Pearson.


    Jimbo Covert (offensive tackle, 1983-1990) and Winston Hill (offensive tackle, 1963-1977)

    Covert was a great left tackle for the legendary 1985 Bears with a truncated career. Hill was Joe Namath's left tackle for the Super Bowl III Jets, and his long career spanned both the NFL and AFL. Both are fine inductees, but Covert is basically Tony Boselli with a ring, while Hill is only a better candidate than Alan Faneca and Steve Hutchinson if you give lots of bonus points for famous teammates and for playing left tackle (which didn't have the importance or cachet then that it has now). Boselli, Faneca and Hutchinson have all been stuck in Hall of Fame finalist purgatory for years and are hoping to get in on next week's vote by the standard committee.


    Bill Cowher (head coach, 1992-2006) and Jimmy Johnson (head coach, 1989-1993, 1996-1999)

    Here are the head coaching records of Cowher and Johnson, stacked up against longtime Raiders coach Tom Flores, who did not get in:

    • Cowher: 149-90-1 (.623) regular season, 12-9 postseason, one Super Bowl win

    • Johnson: 80-64 (.556) regular season, 9-4 postseason, two Super Bowl wins

    • Flores: 97-87 (.527, .610 with the Raiders), 8-3 postseason, two Super Bowl wins

    All three took over directly for Hall of Fame coaches. Johnson created the template for the modern rebuilding program with the Cowboys of the late 1980s. Flores was the first minority head coach to win a Super Bowl; his career record is marred by a few miserable late seasons with the mismanaged Seahawks of the early 1990s. Cowher coached forever and eventually got over the hump in the playoffs. All three remained active in the media—Cowher and Johnson on national pregame shows and Flores as the Raiders' radio color commentator.

    It's hard to comprehend why two of these coaches were enshrined and the third was not.


    Bobby Dillon (safety, 1952-1959) and Ed Sprinkle (defensive end, 1944-1955)

    Dillon was an All-Pro interception machine for the 1950s Packers who died in August. Sprinkle was a tough-guy defensive end (among other positions) for the Bears in the post-World War II era who also starred at the Naval Academy.

    There are about as many Hall of Famers representing the 13-team NFL of the 1950s as there are representing the recognizably modern 26- to 28-team NFL of the 1970s and early 1980s. Depending on how you look at it, this is either an appropriate way to honor forgotten pioneers or a bias in favor of guys who exist mostly as press clippings and glowing memories of the mentors of current coaches and against players who played recently enough to be remembered as real human beings, not folk heroes.


    Cliff Harris (safety, 1970-1979) and Donnie Shell (safety, 1974-1987)

    Harris and Shell were All-Pros from the 1970s Cowboys and Steelers, respectively: two teams that have plenty of Hall of Fame representation already. It's odd that Hall of Fame committees think that so many defensive backs from the era—where they could bring medieval weapons onto the field (or from the 1950s era of playground passing games)—are worthy of enshrinement, while modern safeties like Steve Atwater and John Lynch, who had to play chess with Peyton Manning or Dan Marino while covering Marvin Harrison or the Marks Brothers without using their hands, get trapped on the finalist treadmill forever.

    Harris' enshrinement also probably closes the door on Cowboys wide receiver Drew Pearson; the committee certainly did not want to induct two players from the same team and era. Pearson made no secret of his frustration.


    Alex Karras (defensive tackle, 1958-1970)

    A one-year gambling suspension and a reputation for butting heads with coaches kept Karras out of the Hall of Fame for decades, even though the details of those scandals were long forgotten by the time he appeared in Mel Brooks movies or as the gruff-but-lovable foster father of TV's Webster. He's a worthy Hall of Famer if you can look past his admission that he bet on NFL games, which remains an awfully large thing to look past when honoring someone for their contribution to pro football, especially when there were many other worthy candidates on the docket.


    Steve Sabol (former president of NFL Films)

    Sabol's contribution to the NFL as a filmmaker cannot be overstated. In the pre-cable and pre-internet era, NFL Films programs defined the iconography of pro football and made the NFL look more important and prestigious than other sports to those of us lying on the carpet in front of the rabbit-eared television on Sunday mornings. It's not an overstatement to say that he is a big reason that the NFL is more of a cultural obsession than just a pastime.


    Duke Slater (tackle, 1922-1931)

    An African American pioneer of pro football's early days, a teammate of everyone from Fritz Pollard to Jim Thorpe to Paul Robeson, and later a lawyer and municipal judge in Chicago. He may be obscure to modern fans, but he passes one all-important test: You cannot tell the story of professional football in America without him.


    Mac Speedie (receiver, 1946-1952)

    Speedie was Otto Graham's top target for the great Browns teams of the AAFC and, later, the NFL. His best seasons came in a league where he faced teams named the Chicago Hornets and Los Angeles Dons. His numbers are as spectacular as Julian Edelman's would be if he played a full schedule against the AFC East with some XFL teams sprinkled in during his prime seasons.

    Speedie left the Browns when the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders offered him more money in the early 1950s, and influential Browns czar Paul Brown is said to have held a long grudge, refusing to give Speedie an endorsement. Powerful, venerable coaches hold tremendous sway with Hall of Fame committees, even when they don't sit directly on them. Many of the Hall's least popular recent decisions can be traced back to them. At any rate, Speedie's CFL stats look similar to his AAFC stats, underscoring the fact that he played exactly three seasons against true NFL competition 70 years ago.

    Branch and/or Pearson would have been better selections.


    George Young (executive)

    Young's career as a team and league executive spanned the Johnny Unitas Colts, Don Shula Dolphins, Bill Parcells Giants and NFL headquarters through the relative peace and prosperity of the late 1990s and 2000s.


    Paul Tagliabue (former commissioner)

    Powerful individuals take care of their own and overlook what they choose to overlook.