We did it! Five days until the playoffs …
• April combination, anyone? The NFL recently launched at least a portion of the hotel blocks it had established for Indianapolis in late February, which is shaping up to be a potential precursor to the event being postponed. To further complicate matters, the NCAA is hosting its men’s basketball tournament in and around Indianapolis, removing most of March from the table as an option. If the NFL moves the combine back to April, there has been some discussion (although the league, I was told, has resisted as of now) of moving the draft back to accommodate the pre-draft period. Canceling the combine altogether would be the end of the world option, of course, but my feeling is that the league, NFS (which runs the combine) and the city are going to do their best to find a way to organize the event, including if it needs to be stripped a bit. Most important to the teams is the medical information they get from the pool, which would be quite difficult to replicate otherwise.
• We got our Black Monday surprise on Monday afternoon. The Broncos announced that John Elway will take an over-the-top role, hiring someone for the general manager / chief of staff role he’s held for nearly a decade, and hand over full decision-making power to that new general manager. This is interesting because Elway has a year left on his contract, a lot of money will come next year, and there was an expectation that the Broncos were going to wait for the changes until after the 2021 season, and many within the organization were hoping that Brittany Bowlen would by then be named the controlling owner, allowing her to reshape the organization as she sees fit. This, in essence, anticipates that, but it did not come out of nowhere. Elway has been talking about it with team president Joe Ellis for about a month, intending to take a step back.
• So who could land in Denver? I have four executives who worked for Elway as Broncos who have been pondered lately as GM candidates: 49ers vice president of player personnel Adam Peters; Buccaneers director of player personnel John Spytek; Bears deputy director of player personnel Champ Kelly; and Patriots deputy director of player personnel Dave Ziegler. Peters will interview for the Panthers general manager position this week; in fact, he had Matt Rhule as position coach in his playing days at UCLA. Kelly’s name has been kicked off by the Falcons’ work. And Ziegler would have been Josh McDaniels’ general manager in Cleveland last year if McDaniels had gotten the Browns job. Peyton Manning is a fun name to consider too – he still lives in Denver – and I wouldn’t be surprised if Elway took a great swing before hiring him.
• Eight days ago, I defended Miami’s Brian Flores as Coach of the Year, and I still think he has done a very good job. But the Dolphins didn’t make the playoffs and that opens the award. The easy choice when looking for a coach who turned a team’s fortunes would be Cleveland’s Kevin Stefanski. But what about the guy who beat Flores by 30 on Sunday? Sean McDermott of Buffalo, who is in his fourth year, has yet to win the award, and if you look at how the program is built at Orchard Park, there are many things to be impressed with. And this particular year’s team took what McDermott did by reaching the playoffs in 2017 and, after a scam in 2018 and 2019, built on it. In its last six games, Buffalo has beaten its opponents by a cumulative score of 229-110, and won its last three games with a total score of 142–54. All six wins were by double digits and followed Hail Mess in Arizona. The Bills equaled a franchise record for regular-season wins this year. The whole operation is buzzing and McDermott’s fingerprints are everywhere. He deserves it and should be considered for the award.
• I found it interesting, as noted in the MMQB column this morning, that OT Joel Bitonio saw Baker Mayfield’s arrival in Cleveland as a watershed moment that helped lead to this year’s success. I asked him to dig a little deeper into what he meant by that. “He has this quiet confidence in him, where it’s not like he has a personality where he’s this guy and he’s kind of adored,” Bitonio said. “With the boys, he’s confident in his abilities and the way he behaves as a player. And you can play. He came to camp and he was doing some of these pitches, and he’s like, ‘Okay, this guy can play in this league. And when you have that recipe, there is something in him where his personality can connect with anyone. O-linemen are very different than DBs on a team, but like Baker, he finds a way to bridge that gap and stay connected to everyone. And he makes it so important, and he’s someone you want to play with. “And then, Bitonio said, there is the natural challenge of a two-time ex-walker.” Yes, and from the beginning, since he was here, he’s always been like , ‘We respect the Cleveland Browns past but we are not us. That is not who we are as a team. We are moving from that,’ “he continued.” Obviously, that is in our past and that is our history, but as a team this year, and every year until now, we are a new team. We are the new Cleveland Browns, and he brought it to us. “
• Saints general assistants Jeff Ireland and Terry Fontenot have become the best candidates early in the hiring process this year, and both have several interviews scheduled for this week. Fontenot will meet with the Lions on Tuesday and the Falcons on Wednesday, while Ireland will meet with the Panthers on Tuesday and the Lions on Friday. There is a possibility that if Urban Meyer decides to take the job in Jacksonville, Ireland he could be his general manager there. It is also not difficult to see why this is happening. Take a look at the Saints roster and you will see why their list builders are in demand.
• When it’s time to hire coordinators, here’s something to file: The new rules that prevent teams from stopping guys from taking coordinator positions have a twist. The language says that if you have someone on the same side of the ball as the potential coordinator with the title of assistant head coach, then the team of the potential coordinator may block it. Do you want an example? The Eagles have an assistant head coach, Duce Staley, on the offensive end. So that would mean, let’s say, the Bears could block their quarterback coach John DeFilippo or the Chiefs could block their passing game coordinator Mike Kafka from taking the OC Eagles’ job. And as a point of reference, 20 of the 32 teams entered this season with someone who wore the assistant head coach title, so it’s easy to see where he could come into play.
• We know that the Falcons (Dan Mullen) and the Jaguars (Meyer) have entered the college ranks. I understand that at least two other teams have submitted requests to speak to guys who currently have college jobs. It might lead nowhere, but at least it’s interesting, and it indicates the continually blurry lines between the two levels.
• Titans OC Arthur Smith looms as an important figure in this hiring cycle. Literally every team with a vacancy has shown interest in him, and all but Atlanta have already submitted a formal request to interview him. No one is allowed to speak to him until after Tennessee’s playoff game, which is scheduled for Sunday at 1 p.m. ET. If the Titans advance, it is unlikely that you will have time to talk to everyone, which means you will have to choose where to go. It’s a pretty fascinating dynamic, and I don’t recall there being a candidate in the mix for every opening.
• With the national title game established, here’s a fun stat: In the past five drafts, Alabama (16) and Ohio State (15) have combined for 31 first-round picks. That’s about 20% of all first rounds, and six per year, from two programs. And based on how the two schools recruit, I wouldn’t count on that slowing down anytime soon.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.