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The best teams, like the Colts, attack their playoff moment (So, where will J.J. Watt go?)
Don't underestimate this time of year. If you have Super Bowl dreams, you've got to be bold. That's why Frank Reich traded for Carson Wentz and that's why someone will pay up for J.J Watt.
You all have that painful, lasting image. Every fan of every team that doesn’t win the Super Bowl can pinpoint one moment and say, essentially, “If we make that play everything would’ve been different!”
The playoffs are chock-full of those moments, too. An errant throw. A penalty. A botched assignment. Something. And the crazy thing? NFL general managers and coaches live with the same agony. They’ll never publicly say so but, undoubtedly, agonize privately because the line between winning the Super Bowl and being unemployed is much thinner than anyone realizes.
One play can be the difference.
So, the best GMs and the best coaches do something about it. They don’t let that moment simmer and stew and drive themselves nuts for seven months. Nor, do they stick their head in the sand and pretend everything is fine.
Which brings us to the big news of the week: Carson Wentz is headed to the Indianapolis Colts.
Indy’s Frank Reich didn’t do anything but shower Philip Rivers with the utmost praise and respect and adulation when the 39-year-old announced his retirement shortly after their season ended but… I don’t know. I have to think a small part of Reich was secretly thrilled that the future Hall-of-Famer made this all easy for him. Rivers was only going to take this franchise so far and that fact was made abundantly clear in one specific moment that would’ve been on Reich’s mind all offseason:
Wild Card Round. At Buffalo. End of the first half.
Fourth and goal from the 4.
A golden opportunity to take a 17-7 lead in the postseason.
It was 100 percent the right decision for Reich to roll the dice and go for the touchdown. He dialed up the perfect play, too. As you may recall, Michael Pittman Jr. ran a crosser from the right side of the field to the left and — through the muck — the rookie was able to get a good 1 ½ steps on safety Jordan Poyer. The design was gorgeous. Bill Walsh himself must’ve smiled with how Reich was able to send all sorts of chaotic action left to right to carve out that open acreage for Pittman in the corner.
And you know the rest. Rivers’ pass sailed a hair long, the Bills took over, the Bills went on a furious 10-play, 96-yard TD drive in 1:32 and the Colts were eventually eliminated. Rivers shuffled backwards to let this play develop, faced a smidge of pressure that was exasperated by his immobility, and juuust missed the throw. It wasn’t a blatant misfire but the sort of misfire you cannot afford in today’s NFL.
Complete this pass and this could’ve been a completely different game.
Rivers was good last year but not good enough. In the end, he held the Colts back.
So, the Colts were bold. One of the best GMs in football (Chris Ballard) robbed one of the worst (Howie Roseman) to ensure Indianapolis is right there with Buffalo and Cleveland as a team that can realistically challenge the Chiefs in the AFC.
This is how we should view what could be a Wild West of an NFL offseason: Which teams are attacking the moment? Which teams know precisely why their season ended in 2020 and did something bold about it? Because those are the teams that have a shot at making a run in 2021. The Colts operated with aggressive conviction.
Oh, things were terrible in Philadelphia. More than we even imagined. Apparently Wentz and Eagles coach Doug Pederson didn’t even talk for 8 to 10 weeks which is typically not how humans interact when they’re around each other nearly every day of the week. Don’t worry. We’ll get around to that Eagles dysfunction at Go Long. Remember when the NFL was all pissed off that “Playmakers” didn’t accurately portray pro football? Every year since, we’re reminded that the hit show that lasted all of one season only scratched the surface.
The NFL is far, far crazier.
Still, when the going was good for Wentz in Philly, it was good.
Carson Wentz was the unquestioned MVP front-runner in 2017. Much like Josh Allen in 2020, there was an element of magic to his game. No play was ever dead. No throw was ever impossible. No lead was ever insurmountable because Wentz combined athleticism with a rocket arm. All in all, he is proven. There’s no guesswork here — we’ve all seen how special Wentz is. Now, reunited with Reich, Wentz can be special again.
This is the perfect environment for the 28-year-old to revitalize his career.
The dude who went 11-2 with 3,296 yards and 33 touchdowns is in there somewhere. The MVP-caliber Wentz can certainly resurface with an imaginative playcaller in Reich, the best offensive line in football, one of the NFL’s best running backs in Jonathan Taylor and a loaded defense spearheaded by a top 3 linebacker in Darius Leonard.
Here’s thinking Wentz’s 2020 regression was about everything else — Roseman completely miscalculating how the Jalen Hurts pick would affect Wentz’s psyche, the toxic relationship with Pederson, the dearth of talent at literally every other position and, sure, maybe even a case of the yips. Something was off. But it wasn’t physical.
Wentz can do it all. We’ve seen him do it all.
Buy stock in the Colts right now. Rather than get stuck with a C+ veteran or a complete mystery of a rookie quarterback, they added a proven commodity. And you bet Reich will go for it again on fourth and goal next postseason.
As for all of the other playoff teams? Start in Green Bay. I love Matt LaFleur’s accountability.
Arguably Mike McCarthy’s No. 1 flaw as the Packers’ head coach from 2006 to 2018 — there were many — was a total failure to hold players and coaches accountable. He brought the tough-guy rhetoric to the microphone, the “Pittsburgh macho” as Ted Thompson called it, but McCarthy rarely ever backed up the talk with action. Some members of that Packers front office never quite understood why the head coach wouldn’t cut bait on certain players. You’d be hard-pressed to find a friendlier player in a locker room than Brandon Bostick but there’s no reason the third-string tight end should’ve been close to the field on that fateful NFC Championship onside kick in Seattle.
Too many players hung around longer than they should’ve.
Too many coaches, too.
McCarthy should not have stood by Dom Capers for nine years as his defensive coordinator. Not as Capers’ defense melted January… after January… after January. The day after Colin Kaepernick’s 444-yard, four-touchdown obliteration in 2012, McCarthy should have completely cleaned house. He did not. He stood pat. Coaches returned. Most all starters returned. The beat went on for the Packers and they never turned the corner defensively. McCarthy’s resistance to attack his playoff moment was the chief reason why.
LaFleur, on the other hand, wasted no time when his DC (Mike Pettine) blew it in the NFC Championship.
With 13 seconds left in the first half, on fourth and 4, Tom Brady hit Scotty Miller for a 45-yard touchdown. The defensive call was unforgivable, so Pettine is gone.
And that, ladies ‘n gents, is how a high-pressure business like the NFL should operate.
It remains to be seen how Joe Barry fares but change was needed.
This decision alone should give Packers fans hope.
As for the other legit Super Bowl contenders? It’s go time. In the AFC, it’s all about finding a way to get after Patrick Mahomes. We broke down what the Bills need to do in detail here. No doubt about it, a scary specimen of a pass rusher capable of making Mahomes frantically run around for three hours should be at the very, very top of their to-do list. Mahomes treated that AFC Championship like it was a pick-up game in the backyard. Two-hand touch. Everything came way too easy for him.
Buffalo must pay up for a proven pass rusher.
The Cleveland Browns are in the same boat, too. True, they already have one such threat in 2017 No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett. But, much like the Bills, they’ll be hunting for an edge rusher this spring because they know how important that is in Mahomes’ AFC.
Who do you target? That’s all in the eye of the beholder. The decision here isn’t as clear as Carson Wentz vs. Jameis Winston.
Right about now, you may be screaming, “Sign J.J. Watt!” and, hey, you may be right.
But which J.J. Watt would Buffalo or Cleveland or Green Bay or someone else chasing the Lombardi Trophy be getting? I spoke with one front-office executive for a team in the running for Watt and he made it clear the price has to be right for his team. The longtime Houston Texans end has not played in more than eight games in three of his last five seasons — injuries are a major concern. Thus, this exec estimates that you’re getting “maybe” two solid seasons out of Watt before he sharply declines.
Watt will also turn 32 years old next month.
“I’m a little bit cautious,” this exec says, “because you know how people chase names. But he is good. He is not quite J.J. Watt.
“We’re not going to break the bank for a 32-year-old. He’s not the average 32-year-old but he’s still a 32-year-old.”
Anyone hoping for a Reggie White-like impact out of Watt is dreaming.
White was 32 when he signed his epic free agent contract with the Packers but White was also unbelievably durable the previous eight seasons in Philly. He turned the NFL’s Siberia into a legit destination, won a Super Bowl, won defensive player of the year and racked up 68.5 sacks in six Packers seasons. But the best-case scenario for Watt? The more reasonable goal? Probably a Julius Peppers-like impact. At age 34, 35 and 36, Peppers was a playmaking force in Green Bay with 45 QB hits (24.5 sacks), eight forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, two interceptions, 14 passes defensed and two touchdowns.
That should be the goal in Watt.
You’re hoping to inject your defensive line with a playmaker.
This exec does not believe Watt is the same dominating threat who had 69 sacks in a four-year span (2012-’15) but he says that he would actually take Watt over any of the other edge rushers hitting the market this spring. Bring up names like Yannick Ngakoue and Melvin Ingram and Bud Dupree and he, ehh, is not that impressed.
“I’d say all those dudes — real talk — they’re younger but I would not classify them as ‘better,’” he says. “Ingram is more of a sub rusher. He’s not an every-down player. Dupree’s coming off an ACL. He’s a different case. I do think Shaq Barrett’s better, but he’ll be worth like $20 million (per year). Matt Judon, eh. I don’t think he’s better. Leonard Floyd, I feel like he’s more of a sub rusher. Yannick is definitely a passing-situations only guy. So they’re more specialists, as opposed to adding a real bookend.”
He adds that Watt may be a “vet specialist” himself at this point but that he is a true bookend.
The other players, to him, are third rushers you bring in on passing downs.
That’s why he believes that if Ngakoue is seeking a deal that pays $20 million per year, again, that Ngakoue will be disappointed this spring. While the ex-Jaguar, ex-Viking, ex-Raven has been drilling quarterbacks with regularity his entire career, he views him as a liability vs. the run. (Ngakoue had only 13 tackles last season.)
“Good luck to him,” this exec says.
He’s probably right. That’s a lot of coin for a specialist.
But if you’re an AFC team that’s been victimized by Mahomes, you may need to pay a little over market price for an Ngakoue, a Dupree, an Ingram because you desperately need that disruption just as badly as Reich needed a quarterback capable of completing that fourth-and-goal pass.
Which brings us back to Watt. The injuries are worrisome but he is proven. He does rise up in big moments. One year ago, he completely shifted the momentum against Buffalo in the wild card round. Expect a team out there to pay up. This exec sees teams using the contract Calais Campbell signed with Baltimore a year ago as a barometer: two years, $25 million. Campbell’s been much more durable, playing 212 career games over the course of a 13-year career but this is a realistic ballpark.
Expect Watt to sign a deal loaded with incentives, one that’ll reach a high number if he does complete the season. Because if he does stay healthy and he does wreck offenses, a team like the Bills or the Browns or the Packers will gladly pay him premium dollar. Count on Watt signing with a real contender, too. After so much losing and dysfunction in Houston, Watt will want a realistic shot at a ring.
Right now? Watt’s reps are declaring their price, potential suitors are declaring what they’ll pay and it’s a simple matter of who blinks and when.
One way or another, all contenders must attack their playoff moment like the Colts did. The worst thing you can do is sit back and wait. Sit back now and Mahomes will torch you in September.
Now is not the time to get caught snoozing.
But if you do sign the right player, you’ve got a much better shot at having a happy lasting image.