In September, 49ers GM John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan, knowing they had a massive rebuild ahead of them, did what they could to keep their young team positive, so they made an effort to applaud the little victories along the way. Less than four months later, after San Francisco’s 25–23 win over Tennessee in Week 15, it was the quarterback who wasn’t there for that, Jimmy Garoppolo, illustrating just how far the team had come—not to mention where he might be capable of taking them.
This was the Niners’ third straight victory after a 1–10 start, and yet Garoppolo was resigned to leave Lynch with this after beating the Titans: “We can be so much better.”
“He’s got that New England in him, and that’s what I noticed when I was in New England for a short time,” says Lynch, polishing off a Bud Light after the Niners took out another contender in the Jaguars on Sunday. “It’s not that they don’t celebrate and appreciate the wins, but they always look at what they could’ve done better. He really has that down. And that’s contagious in my mind, particularly when you play that position.
“It’s made a really young football team, with a bunch of rookies playing, take that perspective. Kyle [Shanahan] does a great job with that anyway, but you get special in this league, when not only your coaches are doing it, but it’s coming from the players Jimmy really has a great grasp of that. I’m sure tomorrow—Christmas—he’ll be looking at things we could’ve done better against Jacksonville. That’s something you might’ve expected but to see its influence on a team has been special and cool.”
It’s important to remember and emphasize here—the Niners are still 5–10, after a 44–33 win against the Jaguars on Christmas Eve, and with their season ending next week, Lynch and Shanahan still have plenty of work to do when it comes to building the roster up to the level of a potential contender.
But as we wrap up the second-to-last Sunday of the regular season … Man, it’s tough not to get swept away in what the future might hold in San Francisco. The 2017 season has seen quite a bit of change, which we’ll see on display in the playoffs in a couple of weeks. The Rams won their division and have the inside track for the NFC’s No. 3 seed. The Saints are leaning on their defense, to ridiculous results. The Jaguars are winners of the AFC South.
Yet, there are few things out there more intriguing than Tom Brady’s understudy, his 38-year-old head coach and their non-traditional GM somehow, and very suddenly, turning the NFL on its ear in Week 16. Remember, Garoppolo sat for four weeks before becoming the starter. Since then? The Niners are 4–0, and Garoppolo’s passer rating is hovering near 100.
“The verbiage, all of that, it took some time,” Lynch says. “But the poise, the way the guys respond to him, it became obvious. I think the best compliment you can make to a player and to a leader—do you make people around you better? And it was very obvious from Day 1, he makes everybody better. I mean, he makes our crowd better. This place has been juiced ever since he got here. It’s sure fun right now.”
The Saints were having a different kind of fun than they’ve been used on Sunday. Sean Payton’s Ferrari-turned-bulldozer of a team choke out their archrivals from Atlanta in a scenario that four months ago would’ve seemed even less likely than Garoppolo leading a Niner revival.
Yes, you read that right. The long-sorry Saints defense suffocated Atlanta’s decorated offense to maintain control of the NFC South race, holding Matt Ryan and Co. out of the end zone for the first 57 minutes of a 23–13 win that came in a way that those defensive guys say they could see coming ever since their 2017 loss to the Falcons on Dec. 7.
“I knew we had an advantage in our d-line against their offensive line, we had to take advantage of that at every stop,” Saints defensive lineman Cam Jordan says over the phone early Sunday night. “We saw a mismatch. We saw exactly what we needed to do, and the film made us that much more confident. We knew exactly what we had to do going into the game. We did exactly that.”
Never moreso than on the game’s biggest play: Fourth-and-goal, Falcons down 20–3 and with a chance to get back into the game from the Saints one-yard line. As Jordan saw it, the key was nose tackle Tyeler Davison controlling Alex Mack at the snap, and he did more than that, keying the chaos that muddied the waters for Atlanta Pro Bowler Devonta Freeman, and freed Will linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha to corral the tailback.
Game over. And game on for a Saints team that may well be the most balanced Drew Brees has ever had around him.
“At this point, we’ve got a lot of confidence and we’re playing at such a high level on defense,” Jordan told me. “We want the game to ride on us. This is as talented a defense as I’ve ever played on.”
Maybe even less likely is what’s happened in Los Angeles behind the youngest coach in NFL history—31-year-old Sean McVay—and his suddenly swaggering Rams.
Fresh off a beatdown of the Seahawks, McVay’s group went nose-to-nose with a truckload of letdown potential. They were traveling cross-country. They were facing an unfamiliar opponent. It was Christmas Eve. But none of it mattered.
On the bus ride to the Nashville airport after a division-clinching 27–23 win, team COO Kevin Demoff texted, “Sean and Todd Gurley—two special human beings.”
Overshadowed for much of the season by the rise of second-year quarterback Jared Goff, Gurley exploded, again, for 118 yards on 22 carries and 158 yards on 10 catches, including a spectacular 80-yard touchdown that amounted to his vision turning a screen pass into a track meet. Gurley’s now leading the league with 2,093 yards from scrimmage. And he might be the league MVP, if not for Tom Brady.
And the crazy thing is, Gurley and the Rams might be upstaged next week in facing a team that’s six games behind them in the NFC West.
Both the Niners and Rams (a combined 6–26 last year) boast a 4–1 record since Thanksgiving, and the idea that Garoppolo’s crew could mess with Los Angeles’ seeding and send their rivals into the playoffs on a sour note isn’t exactly far-fetched. That’s mainly because there are these things that keep happening with the Niners that make you forget what a mess they’ve been the last few years.
One of those was Garoppolo’s last touchdown pass Sunday—a five-yarder he flicked sidearm around oncoming Jaguar corner Aaron Colvin, and against his body while rolling left, into the belly of waiting receiver Trent Taylor—to put the game away.
“He’s made a lot of those,” Lynch says. “Even that first game against Seattle, he went to his left and, at first, you’re going, ‘My gosh, is that a smart throw?’ But he’s extremely confident, and he gets it in small windows because he can. It gets it out so quick, and he’s highly accurate even when he’s rolling both to the right and the left. And he’s a really good foot athlete, so he can escape.”
In a larger sense, he’s quite literally breathing life into a Niner franchise that was progressing under Lynch and Shanahan but could use the jolt.
“This place is coming to life again, man,” Lynch continued. “It’s really fun. A couple weeks ago, I’m not a big Twitter guy, but I was tweeting like I never have, because I just want this young team to feel like this is what happens when you play well.”
They’ll all get one more week of it before the reality of the offseason hits next Monday. All this fun will be on hold for another eight months, and the team will need to figure out how it’ll use all its draft picks and the $100 million in cap space burning a hole in its 2018 pockets.
But comparatively? This is pretty good. The last three offseasons kicked off with coaching searches in Santa Clara. This one will kick off with a contract negotiation with the quarterback that’s taken a month to win over a region.
“Great problem to have,” Lynch says. “Everyone’s looking for that guy, and we feel like we’ve got him in the building. We’re gonna do everything we can, and we have great respect for his representation in Don [Yee], and we’re gonna get to work. He has great perspective, he’s been through this before. We’ll get together and try to make it happen.
“We’ll probably have to have some patience, because these things don’t happen right away, but we’re gonna make every effort to get this done and secure him and make him a Niner for a long time to come.”
And remember how Lynch expects Garoppolo to spend his Christmas? It’s a pretty good indicator that all that money will be well-spent.
Five takeaways from Saturday’s and Sunday’s games…
1. The Ravens are in win-and-in territory—they’ve now won five of their last six games after starting 4–5, and how they got there is a tribute to their organizational strength and depth. Joe Flacco didn’t practice in training camp or play in the preseason while dealing with a back injury. Star guard Marshal Yanda was lost for the year with an ankle injury in September, to be replaced by Matt Skura, a player once cut by the Ravens. Starting left guard Alex Lewis was lost for the year with a shoulder injury, so Baltimore shifted James Hurst and called on Austin Howard—who was cut by the Raiders on Aug. 28—to fill Hurst’s spot. And their center competition was short-circuited when John Urschel retired in July, leaving the spot to Ryan Jensen. And somehow, here they are. John Harbaugh and his staff deserve credit for this, as do Ozzie Newsome, Eric DeCosta, and pro and college directors Vince Newsome and Joe Hortiz. The defense has been stout, the special teams are still good and somehow that offense—despite a number of injuries—figured it out.
2. The Chiefs figure to enter the playoffs as a dangerous fourth seed, thanks in large part to the revival of a run game that fueled their 5–0 start. However the team is locked into that position, opening an opportunity for a possible tire-kicking of rookie QB Patrick Mahomes, who wowed the staff during the summer, next week in Denver. Kansas City head coach Andy Reid pushed the decision down the road, saying on Sunday—while dressed up as Santa Claus—“We’ll get through Christmas and then we’ll get on that.”
We’ll learn plenty about the Chiefs’ comfort level with Mahomes—who needed time to develop coming into the league—based on whether or not they decide to put the rookie into real game action. Barring a Super Bowl run, a real decision looms for February and March, and it will likely be dictated not by Alex Smith’s play, but where Mahomes is in his development. If they feel like he’s ready for next year, Smith would have trade value, with the final year of his deal ticketing him for a very affordable $17 million for 2018.
3. Speaking of big looming offseasons, Earl Thomas’s actions after a big win in Dallas on Sunday seemed to affirm that one lies ahead in Seattle. He was caught by reporters saying to Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, “if y’all have the chance, come get me.” He later clarified his comments. “I still want to be here,” he said. “But when Seattle kicks me to the curb, please, Cowboys, come get me.”
Thomas and Richard Sherman are headed in contract years in 2018, Michael Bennett will turn 33 next November, and Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril will have decisions to make on their futures after suffering serious neck injuries. I talked to Pete Carroll about this a few weeks back, and he explained how he felt great about the job the older guys were doing passing down the principles of the program to the younger players, which showed up yesterday. But that doesn’t mean any of them will get to see it through, and it seems like Thomas knows that.
4. Give Ron Rivera credit for his handling of the last 10 days, in which his Panthers were rocked with as strange a set of circumstances as you could dream up (starting with allegations of workplace misconduct against owner Jerry Richardson). Cam Newton was nails on the game-winning drive, and you won’t see many other young quarterbacks with the presence of mind or athleticism to pick up an errant snap like Newton did and immediately, with zero hesitation, turn it into a game-winning touchdowns.
Earlier in the year, while Newton was struggling on the field and dealing with his press-conference controversies, Rivera told me, “I’d like to think if we can weather those types of storms, handle those kinds of situations, we’re gonna be OK. That’s what I’d like to believe. I like our guys’ mentality, I like the locker room.” Looks like he was right.
5. I think after tough losses on Sunday, Titans coach Mike Mularkey and Lions coach Jim Caldwell are on increasingly thin ice, particularly since each was inherited by a fairly new general manager. And both GMs, Tennessee’s Jon Robinson and Detroit’s Bob Quinn happen to be New England connected, which is why many believe that Josh McDaniels would be a strong contender for the Titans jobs, and Matt Patricia would be under serious consideration for the Lions job. Detroit was eliminated from the NFC picture Sunday, and the Titans still control their fate, if they can avoid a fourth straight loss next week at home against the division champion Jaguars.
Five quick-hitters …
1. It’s hard to see what the Giants are doing in sticking with Eli Manning at 2–12, other than trying to placate irrational fans. But this should serve as confirmation that rookie Davis Webb’s presence on the roster won’t stop them from pulling the trigger on any other quarterback.
2. We wrote about the Tom Brady/Alex Guerrero/Bill Belichick situation last week, and it remains a big story going forward, but those guys’ ability to compartmentalize should surprise no one. We saw it again in how they wore out, then knocked out the Bills on Sunday.
3. Speaking of that one, I have no idea what SVP of officiating Al Riveron or his officials were looking at on the controversial Kelvin Benjamin non touchdown. Remember, this is a criminal standard, not a civil one, and that means an overturn demands evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. This didn’t have that; not even close.
4. Changes to the defensive staff in Dallas were almost certainly coming anyway, but that unit’s struggles to get off the field in crucial situations may have sealed it. Jerry Jones said Jason Garrett would be back in 2018, but made no such assurances for anyone on the staff.
5. This is going to be an interesting week in Denver.
On Monday night’s games...
We’ll get a great look at the mental state of two teams on Christmas night. The Steelers are coming off an emotional gut-punch of a loss, and the Raiders are dealing with internal strife in their coaching staff that many expect to be remade in January. So give me Pittsburgh to overcome it for a week in Houston, and the Raiders to struggle with it in Philadelphia, which mean I’ll take a Pennsylvania sweep.