Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
But first, a look at the recent struggles from one of the game's highest-paid players ...
The Dallas Cowboys (9-4) are in the middle of a tightly contested race for the No. 1 seed in the NFC, recently riding a surging defense sparked by a young superstar who might win Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.
Micah Parsons' jaw-dropping play has been the talk of the football world. Shoot, the No. 12 overall pick is already drawing comparisons to Lawrence Taylor! But despite the emergence of a game-changing defender and a dynamic defense in Big D, Cowboys fans and observers continue to dwell on one question:
What's wrong with Dak Prescott?
The Cowboys quarterback actually started off this season with a bang. After signing a four-year, $160 million extension in the wake of his injury-abbreviated 2020 campaign, Prescott played at an MVP level during his first six games of 2021. Dak averaged 302.2 passing yards per game, posting a 16:4 TD-to-INT ratio as well as impressive marks in completion rate (73.1) and passer rating (115.0). This had Dallas at 5-1, with the Cowboys leading the NFL in points (34.2) and yards (460.8) per game.
Then Prescott suffered a calf injury, causing him to miss a game.
In the six games since his return to the lineup, Dak has averaged just 261.3 passing yards per outing, with an 8:6 TD-to-INT ratio and underwhelming figures in completion percentage (63.2) and passer rating (82.8). Meanwhile, the Cowboys rank 11th in points (25.8) and yards (355.7) per game during this span, looking nothing like the unit that was torching opponents in the season's opening month and a half.
The drastic decline, which has coincided with Dallas posting a 3-3 record over the past six weeks, has led to concerns about No. 4 being mired in a slump.
"I don't want to say (it's a) slump, but that's probably fair," owner Jerry Jones said this week, via The Athletic. "It's such a multifaceted evaluation. I would say that our offense is definitely away from where we were 5-6 weeks ago. ... Yes, he is (healthy). He'll figure it out."
Head coach Mike McCarthy was careful with his words earlier this week, but essentially acknowledged something is off with Prescott's game.
"It's different in football. A lot of things go into it. I don't think Dak is in a slump," McCarthy said, via the team's official website. "I think everything has not gone the way we would like; these are things that we can improve. That's the goal for this week."
Studying the tape, it is apparent that Prescott has not been in rhythm since returning from his calf injury. He has missed a series of routine throws that were layups at the start of the season. Part of Prescott's struggles could be attributed to the lack of chemistry and continuity due to various injury-related absences of Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup. Each of the Cowboys' top three receivers has missed time, and the vaunted trio has not logged many snaps together as a unit. Despite his experience, Prescott needs practice time and game reps with his top targets to develop the kind of telepathic connection that produces big plays on improvisation and instincts. With the passing game lacking rhythm, Dallas' offense has bogged down, seriously lacking the explosive plays that fueled the attack earlier this season. Perhaps those plays will reappear now that the pass-catching trio is regaining chemistry and trust.
The Cowboys could also help Prescott get back on track by supporting the QB with a more consistent running game. Although he has shown the capacity to carry the offense as a thrower, Dak is more efficient and effective when Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard are pitching in as productive runners. Defenses are forced to play more single-high safety coverage, which leads to easier throws on the outside with receivers facing one-on-one coverage. In addition, the removal of two-high-safety looks creates more big plays with the seams and boundaries open for business. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore needs to display more patience and discipline as a play-caller when runs are not producing big plays. The ground attack has long-term benefits over the course of a game, inherently making life easier for the quarterback. Of course, part of the problem is that Elliott and Pollard have been dealing with health issues of their own.
Still, Dallas might be better served taking a more conservative approach heading down the stretch. With the defense playing at an elite level, the Cowboys do not need to push the envelope on offense to win games. Parsons and Co. have shown the ability to keep the score down while generating turnovers and creating scoring chances. This defensive dominance should encourage McCarthy to opt for a complementary-football approach that places a premium on ball security and limits costly mistakes.
While Prescott's critics would undoubtedly take him to task for morphing into a "game manager" after signing a blockbuster deal that pays him at an elite level, the NFL is a bottom-line business in which wins trump everything else. If the Cowboys are about winning more than style points, they might want to scale back on risk-taking and instruct their veteran quarterback to play it safe until the game dictates a change in strategy.
That said, if Prescott is able to find his groove again, the sky is the limit for this Dallas squad. The Cowboys are already on the verge of clinching the division title, and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs is still attainable. If Dak can return to his September form, "America's Team" could make a serious run at its first Super Bowl in 26 years.
Life after Urban: 3 candidates for Jags job
In the wake of Urban Meyer's firing after just 13 games as Jacksonville's head coach, Jaguars supporters feel as though they were bamboozled by a purported leader of men.
Well, count me among the hoodwinked.
The three-time national champion appeared to be a fine choice to lead a rebuild in Jacksonville, based on his spectacular accomplishments as a program builder at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State. From a scouting standpoint, I was impressed by his ability to take the teams he inherited to the next level, drawing success from what seemed like the implementation of a championship culture. With Meyer having shared his tactics on multiple "Move The Sticks" podcasts in the past, I was all in on the ultra-confident coach resurrecting the Jags.
My belief in his program did not waver when the longtime college coach experienced a series of early missteps that led to some questioning his judgment and leadership style. From the Chris Doyle debacle to the Tim Tebow circus to the aggressive offseason practices that resulted in fines and penalties due to CBA violations, I figured Meyer was just experiencing growing pains that would eventually subside with more time and experience in the NFL.
As the Jaguars' preseason TV analyst, I dismissed some of the tactical errors and strategic flaws because, well, it was the preseason. Every team struggles with execution while breaking in a bunch of new players. Substitution blunders and blown assignments are a part of August football, so I did not have major concerns about the on-field product during a three-game ramp-up to the real kickoff.
But as the game-management errors and personnel mistakes persisted without correction in the regular season, my outlook on the coach began to change. The repeated pre-snap penalties, turnovers and mental lapses made Jacksonville look like a poorly coached team, and you can only ignore these kinds of mounting issues for so long. Moreover, the sulking from Meyer after losses raised serious questions about his ability to stomach a lengthy turnaround. What kind of leader mopes around in front of a team full of impressionable young players looking to him for guidance?
In addition, the lack of accountability did not mesh with the teachings Meyer espoused at the college level. Good luck convincing players that the "Own It" signs plastered all around your building have any meaning when you routinely refuse to take ownership of your own mistakes.
With several other gaffes and communication issues arising during his brief tenure -- I haven't even mentioned the infamous bar incident that drew a public rebuke from owner Shad Khan -- Meyer wore out his welcome in Jacksonville in record time. The Jaguars stumbled to a 2-11 record, with the past two defeats coming by a combined score of 57-7. Not to mention, No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence appeared to be regressing as the season transpired. The writing was on the wall. Khan had to pull the plug.
So, what's next?
It's back aboard the coaching carousel for Jacksonville, and the Jaguars must get it right this time around to improve the culture and empower a young franchise quarterback to take over the team.
If Khan asked me how to proceed after this disastrous marriage, I would encourage him to hire an experienced leader with an NFL background and an even-keeled demeanor.
The next Jaguars head coach must be able to build synergy throughout the organization -- from the locker room to the sideline to the front office -- to ensure everyone is on the same page. In addition, Jacksonville's next head man has to have the right temperament to stay in the shadows at times behind a player-led squad with Lawrence positioned as the face of the franchise. The rookie quarterback has shown impressive maturity and leadership skills amid a series of crises, suggesting he is ready for such a role. It would behoove the Jags to bring in someone capable of nurturing Lawrence's game and leadership skills while putting together a championship program built on player development and fundamental play.
In my mind, I would start with three former NFL head coaches, based on their experience, character and philosophies: Jim Caldwell, Dan Quinn and Doug Pederson. Each has led a team to the Super Bowl and each has experience developing a franchise quarterback. These three are all culture builders with a knack for building chemistry within their squads while emphasizing commitment, accountability and trust with every member of the organization.
The Jaguars need a leader with tactical expertise and a history of fostering camaraderie. Chemistry and connectivity are absolutely critical at the NFL level, and those bonds need to be repaired for Jacksonville to bounce back from a wacky year.
The Jags have a short window to construct a contending team while Lawrence is still playing on his rookie deal. The franchise needs to hire a leader who can build the kind of culture Meyer grossly failed to deliver.
Tua's time! Dolphins QB showing growth
In the NFL, perception can become reality when assessing the games of young players. That's why general managers and scouts must be skeptical of outside noise when it comes to evaluating individuals, particularly quarterbacks.
Tua Tagovailoa certainly hasn't received the most favorable coverage in his brief career with the Miami Dolphins. In fact, some folks were throwing around the B-word -- BUST -- just one season into his professional career. But a closer look at his game -- particularly his performance this season -- suggests second-year starter is on track to emerge as a franchise quarterback in time.
Tua ranks second in completion percentage among qualified quarterbacks (70.9) and he's posted a triple-digit passer rating in each of the last four games. In related news, the Dolphins are currently riding a five-game winning streak, with complementary football putting them right back in the thick of the wild-card race.
Tagovailoa has picked apart opponents in an RPO-centric offense that enables him to play cat and mouse with second-level defenders. Watching No. 1 throw the ball around the yard reminds me of a blackjack dealer at the casino slinging cards to players at the table. The second-year pro looks confident and decisive with the ball in his hands, routinely feeding rookie WR Jaylen Waddle and fourth-year TE Mike Gesicki as his primary playmakers on the perimeter.
Most importantly, Tua is developing into the Drew Brees-like passer many envisioned when studying his game at Alabama. Tagovailoa carved up SEC foes and national powerhouses with an efficient dink-and-dunk approach that essentially left defenders standing in a pool of blood, suffering death by a thousand cuts.
Although Miami could benefit from Tagovailoa pushing the ball down the field more often, the efficient passing game has enabled the offense to stay on schedule and avoid the long-yardage situations that expose a vulnerable offensive line. With head coach Brian Flores intent on eliminating the "DBOs" (don't beat ourselves) that cost teams games, the Dolphins' increased reliance on a quick-rhythm passing game makes sense for a team climbing back into contention.
While some skeptics remain unimpressed with Tagovailoa's improvement in his second season, I think it is important to provide some context to his numbers. His production (70.9 completion percentage, 216.1 passing YPG, 12:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 96.1 passer rating) is on par with Patriots rookie Mac Jones' output (70.3 completion percentage, 220.7 pass YPG, 16:8 TD-to-INT ratio, 97.0 passer rating), yet one is viewed as underwhelming while the other has been lauded as a future all-star.
Considering Tagovailoa still has only 17 career starts under his belt, he essentially just finished his rookie season with a 10-7 record, 23:11 TD-to-INT ratio and 91.5 passer rating. That is not only respectable production, but it is superior to the numbers we will see from Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Justin Fields at the end of 2021. Sure, it is not an apples-to-apples comparison, but it is a reminder that we need to exhibit a little more patience with Miami's 23-year-old quarterback.
If the Dolphins are wise, they will stick with this emerging youngster who is finding a groove while directing an offense that suits his skill set as a quick-rhythm passer. Tagovailoa is starting to play consistent football while guiding his team to wins. Tua's not as flashy as some of his colleagues at the position, but if wins are the most important thing in a bottom-line business, Miami should let No. 1 continue to grow despite the skeptics' howls.
Penei Sewell is who we thought he was
It might have taken Penei Sewell a little time to knock off the rust, but the Detroit Lions' top draft pick has been as good as advertised as a rookie starter at offensive tackle. The No. 7 overall pick has flourished on the edges despite switching sides, and his rapid development gives Detroit a cornerstone to build around for the future.
That's exactly what the Lions were hoping for when they selected the 6-foot-5, 331-pound tackle out of Oregon instead of a potential franchise quarterback or five-star pass catcher in the 2021 NFL Draft. Many decision-makers include offensive tackle as one of the marquee positions in the team-building process. Consequently, Detroit's decision to opt for the big-bodied bookend could pay major dividends down the road, as general manger Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell continue to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Remember, Campbell spent five seasons with the Saints as an assistant head coach (2016-2020), watching Sean Payton's squad emerge as an offensive juggernaut behind a stellar offensive line that controlled the line of scrimmage. The Saints repeatedly invested top picks on offensive linemen. In fact, each of their five opening-day O-line starters this season (Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Erik McCoy, Cesar Ruiz and Ryan Ramczyk) were selected with a first- or second-round pick. Campbell certainly witnessed that success and encouraged his general manager to build the Lions' offense in a similar fashion. Perhaps that is why the Lions took a natural left tackle with plans to play him on the right side as a rookie. Sewell initially struggled at right tackle following a lengthy layoff (COVID-19 opt-out) and then began the regular season on the left side due to Taylor Decker's injury. But since Decker's return to action last month, Sewell has flourished back at RT. And the long-term benefits could help the Lions eventually field one of the top offensive lines in the league.
With Decker capable of holding his own on the blind side and Sewell blossoming into a stellar right tackle, the Lions are better equipped to deal with the clever ways defensive coordinators are constructing their defensive lines. NFL defenses are not only featuring elite pass rushers at right defensive end/outside linebacker opposite the left tackle, but they are increasingly putting dynamic edge players at left DE/OLB to take advantage of lumbering right tackles (SEE: defensive stars like Myles Garrett, T.J. Watt, Cam Jordan and Nick Bosa, among others).
Back in the day, there was a stark difference between left and right tackles, with the RT position reserved for superior run blockers. The transformation of the NFL to an air show, however, has made it imperative to feature a pair of edge blockers with A+ pass-blocking skills.
Sewell fits the bill as a polished pass protector with light feet and a powerful punch. The rookie has shaken off the rust that led to some early-season struggles, and his quick acclimation to the pro game suggests that he has the potential to be an All-Pro at the position.
Just look at his recent work against Aaron Donald and others. It is easy to envision Sewell becoming a top-five offensive tackle (right or left) because his balance, body control and quick hands enable him to stymie pass rushers with a variety of quick-set and kick-step maneuvers. In addition, the 21-year-old shows a nastiness and grit that changes the way the rest of the offensive line does business.
Given Sewell's dominance as a rookie offensive tackle acclimating to the pro game, the Lions have a franchise player in place to build the offense around.