Some fun questions looking ahead to the season (and even next year’s draft) hit the inbox today. Let’s dive in …
From JasonReynoldz (@JasonReynoldz): Are the Commanders tanking and will Ron Rivera get fired if they do?
From Rogelio Gonzalez (@ironman12): Who is your favorite to land the 1st overall pick in next year’s draft?
Jason and Rogelio, I combined your questions because I keep thinking this is a fascinating topic that we’re gonna be tackling again over the last few weeks of the calendar year and into early 2024, and I think the Commanders are the perfect test case for how this will go down.
To be sure, coach Ron Rivera, GM Martin Mayhew and executive vice president of football for player personnel Marty Hurney can’t afford to throw this season overboard. They’ve got a new ownership group coming in. The franchise hasn’t posted a winning record in seven years (and has just three of those over the last 15 years), long before any of those guys were in D.C. This is a critical year, and history shows us that an incumbent brass has to do a lot to convince a new owner not to hit the reset button.
And I think if you look at the teams most likely to be in the mix, you’ll find a lot of cases like this one, where circumstances will prevent any early-season tanking. Just taking the Vegas odds, the 10 longest shots for the Super Bowl (thus most likely to be in the first pick mix) feature four teams with first-year head coaches (tough to tank in Year 1 when you’re trying to establish a program), and at least one other hot-seat situation (Tampa?).
After that, you’ve got the Titans and Rams, who aren’t going to throw the season with Mike Vrabel and Sean McVay in charge; the Falcons, who are in Year 3 and need to take a step forward under Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot; and the Raiders, who are in a similar spot, needing to take a step after Josh McDaniels retooled in his first season in Vegas.
So it’s hard to have a favorite now, or say someone’s tanking. But when we get closer to the trade deadline? That’s something else entirely. With USC’s Caleb Williams and North Carolina’s Drake Maye looming as first-pick-in-most-drafts type of prospects, I certainly think with teams approaching Halloween (I believe the deadline this year will be Nov. 1) at 2–6 or 1–7 or 0–8, we’ll see more fire sales across the league as a form of creative tanking.
And if that happens, buckle up. Because we could see some rather interesting roster management from there forward.
From Corey Bohler (@CoreyBohler): Best guess on Justin Fields 2023 stats?
I’ll go with 63% completions, 3,200 yards, 24 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, and 800 yards rushing—and I do that to put Fields in between campaigns Jalen Hurts posted in 2021 and ‘22. I believe Fields was a better passer coming out than Hurts was, but he doesn’t have the circumstances that Hurts got over the last couple years.
There are similarities between the two. There’s the obvious parallels in athleticism and how both guys are built like tanks. But beyond just that, they needed work in a lot of the same areas coming into the league—seeing the field faster, consistency in accuracy and throwing with anticipation. Those are areas where, traditionally, it’s been tough for young quarterbacks to show much improvement, since those skills are seen as largely innate.
Hurts has. I remember last year talking to a veteran evaluator about him, and what lesson he’d take from missing on Hurts into scouting quarterbacks in the future. His answer was that a team should never underestimate the makeup of a player. As such, Hurts, in so many ways, willed himself to become better in places where, again, guys generally don’t ascend as pros. And knowing what I know about Fields’s makeup, and what he’s done in Chicago the last couple offseasons, makes me think he can make the kind of jumps Hurts did.
The above numbers would reflect such jumps, both in how much more efficient he’d have to be as a thrower to get to them, but also in the Bears becoming less reliant on his legs.
From Ryan Dalton (@iamRMD1): Elevator pitch on how you see the Bengals season playing out?
Ryan, if I had to make my picks today, I’d pick them to win the Super Bowl. We all know how good their receivers and defensive line and, obviously, quarterback are. I think their tackles are going to be much better, in large part because they’ve got three good ones, so they can absorb injuries. I think their young corners will take another step. And if Dax Hill does too at safety, with Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell gone, I don’t see a gaping hole on the roster.
For what it’s worth, I see Joe Burrow winning Super Bowls, plural, over the course of his career. This looks, to me at least, like the year to get started on that.
From Frank A. Kalman (@FaKalman): Why are the Bears leaving Soldier Field?
Frank, for the same reason everything else happens in the NFL—money.
For those too young to remember, the Bears and the city of Chicago basically gutted Soldier Field in 2002, which necessitated the team playing that fall at the University of Illinois a couple hours south in Champaign. Their renovation, which made it look like someone landed a spaceship on the old Soldier Field, was completed in time for the ‘03 season, and the team is going to have gotten at least 25 years out of that renovation (since it won’t get a new place for at least a few more years).
Could it do another renovation? Sure. Could it tear the old place down and rebuild on that property, which sits in a city park? Yeah. But it’d be more complicated and more expensive and, ultimately, less profitable since the Bears wouldn’t control all the money on that site. A cleaner, more profitable solution for the franchise, without question, would be to build, and own, their own stadium in the suburbs as part of a larger real estate project.
And I for one will say that sucks. There are very few settings as cool as the one the Bears have on the banks of Lake Michigan. The league should want more, not fewer, city stadiums. But I’ve learned over the years what drives these things, and that will probably put the Bears out on some intersection of interstates, a few lengthy traffic snarls and a couple dozen miles from one of America’s greatest cities.
From Jae (@jae_davisss): Why are the Jets and Dolphins getting extremely overhyped?
That’s your opinion, not mine, Jae. But I’ll entertain the question.
One, the Dolphins actually made the playoffs last year, and did it amid a messy quarterback situation that led to Tua Tagovailoa being in and out of the lineup, and Teddy Bridgewater and Skylar Thompson drawing two starts apiece. They were also very competitive in a playoff loss in Buffalo, scoring 31 points with Thompson at quarterback.
Two, the Jets were right there before their own quarterback situation went haywire—starting 7–4 with middling play at the position (that got a whole lot worse down the stretch). They have a very solid group of young stars spread throughout the roster, and should get a couple of those guys that couldn’t finish the year, Breece Hall and Ali Vera-Tucker, back from injury. And with so much of the roster ascending, they’re injecting Aaron Rodgers into the mix (which was the equation Tom Brady entered into in Tampa in 2020).
So are the Dolphins and Jets hyped? They are. But I don’t know that it’s “overhype”. To me, both set up as the sorts of teams people get excited about this time of year. Some make it. Others don’t. The excitement, though, to me, is justifiable at this early juncture.
From Jack (@NYGJack): Are the Giants winning the Super Bowl?
No, Jack, I’m sorry, they aren’t. But you should be excited about your football team (I’m assuming it’s your team, based on your handle). You have a really solid combination of coach and GM, and your roster suddenly has a really promising young core—with Daniel Jones, Andrew Thomas, Kayvon Thibodeaux, Evan Neal, Azeez Ojulari and Xavier McKinney in the middle of it (and hopefully guys like Deonte Banks becoming big parts of it). You should be faster at receiver and more balanced as a roster.
But this was always going to take a couple years, to get the roster where Joe Schoen and Brian Daboll really want it. So I’d say another year of fighting tooth-and-nail to get in the playoffs in 2023, with the team ready to make the leap into true contention in ‘24 (with the big variable being how Jones plays on a new contract at quarterback).
From Raymond Nuznoff (@mrstingray93): Fill in the blank: The NFL does away with Preseason games in favor of Joint Practices in the year ____
I’d say never, at least completely. Coaches actually already prefer joint practices—which they can control better when it comes to injuries and situational work. It’s reflected in how they’ll play their starters in joint practices, then not in preseason games. But I’d follow the money here. Owners are still able to force their season-ticket holders to buy tickets for preseason games, and they can still get enough people out to spend at the concession stand and the pro shop, and owners usually don’t walk away from profits.
Now, I could see where they’d go to 18 regular-season games, and two preseason games. But I don’t really envision them giving up their ability to have 10 home dates annually.
(If I were in charge, I would turn joint practices into money-making jamborees to get fans closer to players, and give them a different, and unique, view of what it takes to get a team ready for the season. But teams probably wouldn’t make enough on those to justify walking away from the gate, concession and merchandise sales, and local TV deals that preseason games fuel).
From Cali (@CaliJets): Jets making any pivots after missing out on Odell? (Hopkins, Cook, etc)
No, Cali. I think the Odell Beckham pursuit was driven largely by Aaron Rodgers’s friendship with him—and seen, as such, as pursuit of a luxury purchase, not one driven by necessity. My sense is the Jets are happy with their current group of receivers, stocked with Garrett Wilson coming back to be the No. 1, and Allen Lazard, Corey Davis, Mecole Hardman and Randall Cobb as nice complements to him.
From Footballholics Tik Tok (@Footballholics2): Did signing Floyd kill the Bills in the Hopkins sweepstakes?
Mostly, yes. And honestly, I think after the Odell Beckham signing blew up the negotiations with the Cardinals on a trade for the Bills and Chiefs, both sort of moved on. The Chiefs drafted Rashee Rice and gave the money they could’ve gone to Hopkins to Donovan Smith (who plays a bigger need position for them). Likewise, the Bills drafted Dalton Kincaid as a chain-moving receiving option, and now have spent would-be Hopkins money on Floyd.
If there’s an injury at receiver, or Hopkins is willing to come in at a lot less, then, sure, I think the Chiefs or Bills could reengage. But as it stands right now, I’d say it’s unlikely for either team, and the Floyd signing only reinforced that.
From Mike Smith (@MikeSmith_202): When are the Saudis starting a football league?
Mike, I hit up a couple team president types, and while I think starting a whole league isn’t happening, I don’t think it’s out of line to consider the idea that they could someday bid on an NFL team, and maybe even buy one. The nation’s public investment fund, which owns the LIV Golf tour (which just merged with the PGA Tour) and Newcastle United of the English Premier League, has poured endless money into sports, and few investments in any sport worldwide are as sure as buying an NFL team.
So it’d be a good business move for the Saudis to do it, and would give them the show of power and prestige, without question, they’ve looked for in all these investments—Going into the States and running a prominent pro sports team would be quite the flex.
Now, as of right now, I can’t imagine NFL owners would approve such a purchase. But the Commanders are going for $6.05 billion, and eventually the Seahawks will probably sell for more, with others likely to top wherever that price lands, as heirs inherit teams and face the reality of facing crippling estate taxes if they don’t sell. And as the price point goes up and up and up, the pool of capable buyers will continue to shrink.
Today, the NFL can still say no, because there are buyers willing and capable to pay the freight (Seattle could have Jeff Bezos and Steve Ballmer bidding). But eventually, that well will run dry, and the league will have to change its rules, and probably welcome in parties that it traditionally wouldn’t to keep raising the stakes on what these teams are worth. Which is where the Saudis would eventually have their shot.
From 204Kop (@OnTheKop204): Does Mac Jones finish the season as Pats QB1?
Kop, yes. Bill O’Brien’s impressed a lot of people inside the Patriots organization, and I think he’ll build an offense that’ll highlight Mac Jones’s quick mind and quick trigger. And I think we’ll see him get back on the Kirk Cousins/Andy Dalton/Chad Pennington type of track he was on two years ago, and he’ll show he’s becoming a solid starting quarterback in the league.
Those comps, by the way, aren’t insults. Unless you expected Tom Brady to show up again (which would be a pretty big ask).