From the outside, this was the most unorthodox offseason of Bruce Arians’ coaching career, of any coach’s career, really.
In the span of 40 days, Tom Brady announced his retirement on February 1, 2022, only to return to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a move that coincided with Arians handing the head coaching reigns to Todd Bowles, and elevating him into a personnel position in the Bucs’ front office.
Arians’ promotion into a position alongside general manager Jason Licht didn’t stop speculation that Brady somehow “pushed” Arians out of the role he loved.
“We have an absolutely great relationship,” Arians told Heavy, as part of his partnership with LEQVIO and his Coaching Cholesterol campaign.
Arians suggested the rumors of a feud behind the scenes or a fractured relationship with Brady were the byproduct of people on the outside “having different ideas.” He insists there has been no fracture in the relationship, and while he’s no longer the head coach, he’s working closer than ever with Brady.
“I stand behind the quarterbacks every day in practice now every single day,” Arians said. “And we talk all the time. There was nothing to any of that stuff.”
Rather than a catalyst for any sort of messy divorce, Brady’s return was instrumental in Arians finally executing his plan to set Bowles, his long-time protegè, up for immediate and sustained success in his second go-round as an NFL head coach.
“I don’t like the hiring process,” Arians explained. “Once Tom came back, it was very easy for me to turn the whole thing over to Todd [Bowles]. Succession was very important to me. Being able to keep my hand in the pile, and let someone else coach the team.”
With Brady behind center, Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, and Julio Jones at wide receiver, and a defense that’s stacked with playmakers at all three levels, the Buccaneers, Bowles’ Buccaneers, are rightfully considered a Super Bowl favorite in the NFC.
For Arians, giving Bowles a legitimate opportunity to put a woeful 26-41 record as New York Jets head coach, amid a tumultuous front office situation behind him, was important.
Bowles also, in Arians’ mind, was the easy choice.
“He’s a brilliant teacher,” Arians said of Bowles. “He has all of the respect of everybody in the building, the players, coaches, management, everyone respects him.
“He’s a heck of a coach. He should have been a head coach during the last two hiring cycles. There’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that he’s going to do a heck of a job.”
The ties that bind Arians and Bowles go back decades.
Arians recruited Bowles to Temple in 1984, hired him as the Arizona Cardinals’ defensive coordinator in 2013, and again in the same role with the Buccaneers in 2019.
But, the moment Arians knew it was time to hand Bowles the clipboard was solidified on February 7, 2021.
That evening, inside Raymond James Stadium, Bowles’ defense relentlessly harassed Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, bringing pressure from all angles, sacking him three times, and intercepting him twice, en route to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy following a 31-9 victory on the game’s grandest stage.
“Todd’s game plan in the Super Bowl was historic,” Arians said. “I wanted to see if we could win two in a row, and we got really, really close.”
Now, the Buccaneers have the roster in place to make a run at two Super Bowls in three years, after their 2021 campaign stalled out in the NFC Divisional Round. Brady will be instrumental to Tampa’s chances of winning a third Super Bowl in franchise history in February 2023. Just as he was in shaping the makeup of the franchise.
Unlike public perception to the contrary, he helped Arians make the decision he long pondered and finally got the chance to make.
“Tom’s decision was big in the process,” Arians explained. “Once he decided to come back, it was like, ‘let’s get this done now,’ and ownership has been fantastic in allowing all this to take place. I work with Jason now in personnel, still go to practice, throw some coaching tidbits out there from time to time, and am having a blast.”
4 Jets Standouts Heading Into Week 1
Having already seen the Giants earlier this summer, and after spending the past four seasons on that beat, I wanted to focus on the Jets to get a feel for the team Robert Saleh is fielding in his second season at the helm.
The absence of starting quarterback Zach Wilson, still recovering from a torn meniscus suffered in the exhibition opener against the Eagles, was profound on an offense that was overmatched in a lot of ways by the “exotic” — Saleh’s word — pressures brought by Giants defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale.
But, it is easy to see that there is a lot of young talent on this roster, and if the Jets can somehow hang on through the first four weeks against the Ravens, at the Browns, against the Bengals, and at the Steelers, until Wilson gets back on the field, this could be a team capable of surprising.
Here’s a quick list of players who stood out during the practice:
OG Nate Herbig
Much of the attention along the Jets’ offensive line has been on the tackle position, especially following the arrival of veteran Duane Brown. However, Nate Herbig looks like an interior stalwart for this group. On back-to-back reps, Herbig absolutely stonewalled Giants defensive lineman Ryder Andersen. Herbig allowed just one sack in 481 offensive snaps, en-route to a 68.1 overall grade from Pro Football Focus, and from the looks of this practice could even improve from there.
CB Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner
As advertised. The Jets’ first-round selection and the No. 4 overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft looks the part of an immediate lockdown cornerback. Daniel Jones didn’t even look in the rookie’s direction during a full-team red zone period late in practice. Gardner, at 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, has all the length defensive coordinators covet from an outside cornerback and make him a tough draw for opposing wide receivers.
The Jets will face Amari Cooper, Ja’Marr Chase, Diontae Johnson and George Pickens in the first four games, so we’re about to see if the profile matches the skills, for Gardner, in a big way.
RB Ty Johnson
Ty Johnson just might have punched his ticket onto the 53-man roster, when the Jets waived veteran Tevin Coleman on Tuesday, August 30, and plays like the one he made against the Giants in practice certainly helped his cause.
Early in the workout, Johnson took a screen pass down the far sideline and showed a nice stutter-step to juke Giants cornerback Adoree’ Jackson before turning back into the field of play. Johnson has some explosiveness, and really good vision, which could serve him well in a rotational role in the Jets’ backfield, and as a receiving option out of it.
EDGE Jermaine Johnson
Johnson plays like he’s shot out of a cannon. The explosiveness Johnson played with at Florida State certainly translates. During a one-on-one drill against fellow rookie and Giants No. 7 overall pick, Evan Neal, Johnson held his own and pushed Neal back into what would have been the pocket. Johnson’s day was marred by a minor injury, but he looks like the kind of defensive playmaker the Jets can build around.
Predicting the AFC West
1) Los Angeles Chargers (13-4)
If any gap remained between the Chargers and Chiefs, after Los Angeles split with Kansas City last season, it feels like this offseason could serve as a launching pad for Justin Herbert and company.
Five of the Chargers’ eight losses in 2021 came by one score, and Los Angeles responded by adding the top cornerback available, J.C. Jackson, and veteran edge rusher Khalil Mack, to build out a defense as a worthy complement to Herbert and the NFL’s fourth-rated offense last season.
This should be the most balanced team the Chargers have fielded yet, and they’re led by the only quarterback to surpass 5,000 passing yards last season who is not named Tom Brady. The AFC West is going to be the most star-studded division in football, and the Chargers have the pieces to emerge atop the standings when the dust settles.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (12-5)
This is going to be a much different Kansas City Chiefs team.
Losing Tyreek Hill, traded to the Dolphins in an offseason blockbuster, could force Patrick Mahomes and the offense to operate a little differently without a home run hitter on the opposite side. Some inside the league suggest this might be the most balanced offense Mahomes has led, as one AFC scout suggests Kansas City will now be “forced” into relying on its running game far more than in the past, which should give them a boost down the stretch.
There seemed to be some cracks in the armor, based on Mahomes’ uncharacteristically lackluster second half in the Chiefs’ AFC Championship Game loss to the Bengals. But, resist the urge to write off Kansas City completely.
“Kansas City still has Patrick Mahomes, and Andy Reid, now?!,” an AFC South scout told Heavy. “I like the Chargers’ talent, but until someone else actually steps up and does it, I still think the Chiefs are the team to beat.”
3. Las Vegas Raiders (11-6)
There’s a very real possibility the AFC West sends three teams to the postseason, and the Las Vegas Raiders just may be the most improved team in the division.
Many inside the league believe Davante Adams is the game’s premier wide receiver, and his impact on Derek Carr in a supporting cast that already includes All-Pro tight end Darren Waller and fellow receiver Hunter Renfrow has the potential to be significant.
Meanwhile, dropping Chandler Jones — fresh off 10.5 sacks last season — opposite Max Crosby, forms what has the chance to be one of the game’s most disruptive pass-rush duos.
There’s a ton of optimism emanating from the Raiders’ headquarters, and for good reason. This is a roster capable of exceeding expectations this season, with an even brighter future.
4. Denver Broncos (9-8)
There is no doubt Russell Wilson makes the Denver Broncos better.
However, after passing for 25 touchdowns — his second fewest since 2016 and the fewest passing yards since 2014, it is fair to wonder if Wilson is the same quarterback and just how significant his impact will be.
Wide receivers Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, and K.J. Hamler are all really nice pieces at wide receiver and this will be a dramatically better offensive line than Wilson had in front of him the past two seasons in Seattle, but the Broncos don’t exactly have any game-altering weapons that keep defensive coordinators awake at night.
The Broncos will be improved, but it might be a big ask to expect this team to make a push for the playoffs in an absolutely loaded AFC.
Quote of the Week
Baker Mayfield really is the best.
Named the Panthers’ Week 1 starting quarterback, in advance of Carolina’s preseason finale, Mayfield has the Cleveland Browns — who cast him aside to pursue Deshaun Watson, in his crosshairs.
What tremendous theater it is going to be, watching Mayfield, who officially has regained his swagger, lead a suddenly loaded supporting cast that includes not only Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore, but recently acquired deep-threat Laviska Shenault against his former team.
The NFL schedule makers fell into an absolute treat of an opener. It’s just unfortunate the game isn’t on the banks of Lake Erie, in Mayfield’s former home, FirstEnergy Stadium.
The NFL preseason is officially in the books. If there were any justice in the world, it would be the last charade, I mean, exhibition season we see.
Obviously, preseason games aren’t going anywhere. Teams get to sell at least one home game’s worth of ticket inventory at full price to season ticket holders, which amounts to approximately $198.4 million in revenue league wide. Likewise, the Hall of Fame Game between the Las Vegas Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars drew 5.7 million viewers, despite being delayed 40 minutes by a weather delay.
Put simply, preseason football is still a major economic driver for the NFL and its 32 franchises.
But, in a lot of ways, the preseason, which was trimmed to three games for the first time in 2021, has outlived its usefulness. Especially when it comes to evaluating players and their chance of making the final roster.
This new generation of head coaches has embraced holding joint practices, and seems to see significant value in them, both from a preparation and roster evaluation standpoint. During this training camp alone, there were 16 different joint practices held, involving 21 teams.
“I told the team before our joint practices with the Falcons,” Jets head coach Robert Saleh said, following a joint workout with the Giants on August 25. “I think there are some guys in this building who just made the Falcons’ roster, and the same goes for today [with the Giants].”
Saleh’s Jets practiced with the Falcons and Giants, over the course of four days.
When teams practice against one another, the coaching staff and the entire front office get an up-close and personal look at the opponent’s roster for an extended period. Especially as the teams’ offenses and defenses are split between two fields, so there are hundreds of snaps each practice to evaluate.
Saleh is right.
There will probably be at least a couple handful of players who were waived who sign with teams they spend days practicing against.
Anyone who has been on the sideline for these joint practices, or tuned into any of the recent seasons of Hard Knocks, can easily see just how much more competitive and spirited these practices are than the preseason games themselves, between the same opponents. Just look at how many practice fight videos have been tweeted by beat reporters and fans over the past month.
But, there’s also another hidden benefit to joint practices.
The “game” film isn’t circulated among the other 30 teams in the NFL, as it is from the three exhibition contests.
So, while teams might not game-plan for the opponent in practice, you are far more likely to see things like Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale emptying the playbook to throw every blitz package imaginable at an opponent during practice, than you are during a game.
While, unfortunately for fans, and those inside the league, the preseason will likely return for at least one season, its fixture as an August rite of passage may someday soon come to an end.
There has been some thought that the NFL is eyeing an 18-game regular season, perhaps as early as 2025. When that happens, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see the NFL and NFLPA collectively bargain preseason games out of existence, especially if a case can be made that joint practices give bottom-of-the-roster players as strong or stronger a chance of making teams.
If that’s the case, owners would recoup any lost revenue from preseason games staged in half-full stadiums, fans would be saved the drudgery of finding reasons to watch mismatches often staged between one team’s starters and an opponent’s backups, and maybe most importantly, coaches and front offices would have a stronger sense of evaluating their roster before the September kickoff.