Anyone who enjoyed The Office has to appreciate the character arc of Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury. He may look like Ryan Gosling (known for portraying one of the worst football players in cinematic history), but don’t let that handsome mug fool you—Kingsbury is Jim Halpert through and through. Halpert spent the better part of three seasons pursuing Pam, his unrequited office crush, before their exhausting courtship finally materialized (without Pam’s iconic Beach Day monologue, we could all be living in an alternate universe where Jim moves to New York and marries Karen). Surviving three seasons of sexual tension is no small feat but imagine waiting SEVEN YEARS to be rescued by Prince Charming. That’s how long it took for Kingsbury to finally join forces with Kyler Murray, the quarterback he had pined for since his early days at Texas Tech.
In the end, Kingsbury’s Tibetan-Monk patience paid off. Borrowing an old trick from Babe Ruth (“a fat old man with little-girl legs,” as George Steinbrenner once described him), the hunk head coach called his shot, endorsing Murray as the draft’s top pick long before the Cardinals tapped him as Steve Wilks’ replacement. It seemed like a pipe dream at the time—Kingsbury was still employed by Texas Tech while Murray, a first-round pick of the Oakland A’s, had his sights set on a career in the big leagues. But like Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in any number of 90s rom-coms, fate brought them together. Kingsbury could have played it safe with what he had—despite a difficult rookie year, Josh Rosen still has the potential to grow into a franchise quarterback. But after failing to woo Murray out of high school and again when he transferred from Texas A&M to Oklahoma, Kingsbury wasn’t leaving anything to chance.
The unlikely chain of events that united Kingsbury with the object of his infatuation was a miraculous stroke of luck and a much-needed triumph for the Cardinals coming off the disappointment of last year’s agonizing 3-13 finish. Sports miracles have been all the rage lately. Just in the last few weeks we’ve seen Murray (who stands 5’10” on a good day) go first overall in the NFL Draft, a 65-1 longshot win the Kentucky Derby (asterisk needed), Liverpool overcome a massive deficit to upset Barcelona in the Champions League, Damian Lillard claim Paul George’s soul with his ungodly dagger from 37 feet and Kawhi Leonard sink the Sixers with the bounce heard ‘round the world. After securing a $35 million contract from Arizona, it’s clear Murray made the right call by punting on baseball. Now all Murray needs is the right pair of cleats, or maybe a trip to Walgreens to invest in some Dr. Scholl’s. While the reigning Heisman winner concerns himself with footwear, let’s dive into the week’s top stories.
Love for Montez
Hayden Winks, our resident stat nerd who can work a spreadsheet like nobody’s business, put out a great read last week when he unveiled his analytics-based draft grades. In his estimation, the Redskins made two of the draft’s headiest picks with both coming in the first round. Dwayne Haskins, a Maryland native who ripped the Big Ten to shreds in his one year atop Ohio State’s quarterback depth chart, is obviously the headliner but Montez Sweat, who fell to Washington at 26th overall, has a chance to be the steal of the draft. Sweat obliterated the Combine with a 4.41 forty, a truly jaw-dropping time for an athlete of his immense size (6’6”/260), but fell off many teams’ radar after a medical evaluation revealed a rare heart condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The All-American never showed any ill effects during his two-year run at Mississippi State (he transferred from Michigan State) and subsequent reports have suggested he may have been misdiagnosed. Regardless, lingering concerns over Sweat’s heart caused his draft stock to plummet as the 22-year-old went from being a likely top-10 pick to nearly falling out of the first round. Hayden, who I trust because he majored in economics at USC (though let the record show that I achieved a respectable B+ grade in ECON 203 my sophomore year at Syracuse), gave the Redskins an A+ grade for landing Sweat while labeling him an “optimal pick” based on draft position.
Between Nick Bosa, Quinnen Williams, Josh Allen, Ed Oliver, Clelin Ferrell and Brian Burns, this year’s draft was unusually flush with pass-rushers. But Sweat’s elite size/speed package gives him a chance to be arguably the most dominant member of that fraternity. Given his inexperience and medical red flags, you might think the Redskins would treat Sweat with kid gloves, easing him in as opposed to having him go full throttle out of the gate. But speaking at last week’s rookie minicamp, head coach Jay Gruden assured us that won’t be the case.
“I have no doubt he’s going to play a lot,” said the younger of the NFL’s two Gruden siblings. “You see his length and then you watch him run after practice and he’s faster than anybody we probably have right now.” Unlike the usual boilerplate drivel offered by tight-lipped coaches across the league, these comments from Gruden convey a genuine sense of excitement. You’d be amped too if a pass-rushing prodigy fell in your lap. If Sweat’s Combine scare proves to be a red herring and Haskins parlays the dominance he showed at Ohio State into a successful pro career, Washington’s 2019 class could go down as one of the great draft heists.
McCoy on the Move (Duke Too?)?
Drafted third overall in 2010, Gerald McCoy has been everything the Bucs hoped for and more, earning six Pro Bowl nods across his eight NFL seasons. But in the cut-throat world of professional football, sometimes that’s not enough. Despite being one of the most decorated D linemen of his era, the 31-year-old is on the outs in Tampa. He still has three years remaining on an expensive deal—McCoy is due a hefty $13 million salary in 2019—and the new coaching staff, presided over by Kangol-wearing maverick Bruce Arians, has no attachment to the Oklahoma alum. McCoy has so far been absent from team activities, keeping his distance from his soon-to-be ex-employer.
McCoy has had better seasons than the one he authored in 2018, but even at less than his best, he remained plenty productive, garnering PFF’s No. 21 grade out of 112 qualifiers at defensive tackle. That would seem to make him a hot trade commodity, though his age and the lofty salary he’s owed have conspired against him. McCoy does have at least one very interested suitor, however. Finally bearing the fruit of their lengthy rebuild, the Browns could go for the jugular by adding McCoy to a defense already inhabited by havoc-wreaker Myles Garrett and lockdown corner Denzel Ward. McCoy’s exorbitant salary has reportedly been a sticking point for the Browns, though with over $33 million in available cap space, fourth-most in the NFL, Cleveland is one of the few teams equipped to handle a windfall of that magnitude.
The Browns could be looking to unload disgruntled running back Duke Johnson, which would fill a major need for the Buccaneers. Their current backfield is comprised of undrafted plodder Peyton Barber, underachiever Ronald Jones, special teamer Shaun Wilson and last-gasp veteran Andre Ellington. Johnson, an accomplished pass-catcher and one of the most durable running backs in football (he’s yet to miss a game since entering the league in 2015), would represent an immediate upgrade at that position. The Miami alum was used sparingly last year, but with Kareem Hunt set to serve an eight-game suspension for violating the league’s code of conduct, Cleveland may opt to stash Johnson as a depth option/passing-down complement to Nick Chubb.
Maybe the Browns will bow out and another team will take their place at the head of the table but whatever fate awaits McCoy, it will likely come before June 4, a date that corresponds with the start of mandatory minicamp. If McCoy is still on the roster and doesn’t show, it will cost him a pretty penny.
Harris in Limbo
It’s hardball season in the NFL, that special time of year when teams low-ball their best players and attempt to call their bluff. This dynamic is taking place in Denver as we speak. Chris Harris, a four-time Pro Bowler and arguably the league’s best slot corner, sees dollar signs. Due a modest $7.8 million in the final year of his current contract, the stud 29-year-old is seeking an extension that would make him one of the league’s top-paid cornerbacks. Beat writer Mike Klis of 9 News Denver hears the University of Kansas product is angling for a deal in excess of $15 million annually, an asking price the Broncos are unlikely to meet. Harris surely took note of the recent deal signed by Dolphins standout Xavien Howard, who reset the cornerback market by lending his signature to a landmark five-year, $76.5 million contract extension.
Breaking the bank for an aging slot corner probably isn’t high on John Elway’s to-do list, though the Denver GM has reportedly balked at trading him. If the Broncos see Harris as a goner after 2019, it would make sense to see what they could get for him on the trade market and behind closed doors, it’s possible they’ve attempted exactly that. Beyond wielding a vague holdout threat or trade demand—both staples of contract disputes—as leverage, Harris is entirely at Denver’s whim until his deal expires. Whether the dialogue remains civil or gets heated is up to him.
Aside from the power struggle between Harris and Denver’s tight-fisted higher-ups, the Broncos also have a budding quarterback controversy to contend with. Despite overzealous assertions from Elway that declining veteran Joe Flacco is still in his prime (he doth protest too much), Average Joe was never going to be Denver’s long-term solution at quarterback. Forty-second-overall-pick Drew Lock, on the other hand, has a chance to be, if not a star, a capable starter the team can build around for years to come. Flacco, who was run out of Baltimore under similar circumstances—he was on borrowed time as soon as the Ravens drafted Heisman winner Lamar Jackson—sees the writing on the wall and he doesn’t care for it. “I’m not worried about developing guys or any of that,” said the 34-year-old when asked about mentoring Lock. “I don’t look at that as my job. My job is to go win football games for this football team.”
This isn’t the first or last time we’ll see an established star refuse to extend the olive branch to his understudy. Ben Roethlisberger was similarly standoffish when Mason Rudolph arrived on the scene last season and we all know the hell Brett Favre put Aaron Rodgers through in Green Bay. Despite his squeaky-clean image, Tom Brady was no peach either, sabotaging Jimmy Garoppolo by locking him out of his own TB12 facility. Leadership, it would seem, is an elusive quality. That competitive spirit, even amongst teammates, is surely one of the reasons Brady and Roethlisberger are still around while other less tenacious players have fallen by the wayside.
It’s a shame this outdated practice of aging vets boxing out admiring rookies still exists. And it’s especially rich coming from Flacco, who, aside from an inexplicably dominant postseason run in 2012, hasn’t had the most compelling career. Andy Dalton, the poster boy for average, has been to three Pro Bowls. Flacco’s never received an invite.
Flacco could learn a lesson in humility from Josh McCown and Alex Smith, who not only treated their eventual successors with respect, but went out of their way to mentor them. Ever heard of the Golden Rule, Joe? No? Well, you’ll have plenty of time to Google it after your inevitable midseason benching.
Aaron Rodgers Cameos on GOT
I’m probably the wrong guy to present this—I have yet to see an episode of Game of Thrones (I hear you groaning through your computer). But if you’re a Bears or Vikings fan, or if you’ve been wronged by Aaron Rodgers at any point in your football fandom, you probably got great satisfaction in seeing the Packers quarterback literally go up in flames during his GOT cameo this past weekend. It’s common knowledge that George R.R. Martin is a diehard Giants fan, so maybe this was payback for Rodgers stomping his beloved G-Men in the playoffs two years ago (that was in the wake of Odell Beckham’s infamous Boatgate controversy). Here’s the link if you want to see Rodgers burnt to a crisp. Between his on-screen death and a fan buying drinks for girlfriend Danica Patrick RIGHT IN FRONT OF HIM at a Bucks game, it’s been an eventful week for Mr. Discount Double-Check.