Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today's installment covers:
But first, a look at one young player who continues to extraordinarily exceed all expectations ...
Brock Purdy entered the NFL as Mr. Irrelevant, but the second-year pro is proving quite consequential to the San Francisco 49ers. In fact, he's quickly making a case to be considered among the top quarterbacks in the game today.
Although naysayers will attribute his success to San Francisco's scheme and stellar supporting cast, it is hard to ignore a quarterback with an unblemished record (10-0) as a regular-season starter and sparkling individual statistics in 2023: 72.1 percent completion rate, 9:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 9.3 yards per attempt and a league-best 123.1 passer rating.
With Purdy coming off a sensational showing (17-of-24 for 252 yards and four touchdowns, producing a career-high 144.4 passer rating) in a 42-10 blowout of a Dallas Cowboys team that entered the game with the No. 1 scoring defense and No. 2 total defense, it is time to give the Iowa State product his props as a legit franchise quarterback.
While the former scout in me struggles with Purdy's lack of prototypical size (6-foot-1), athleticism (4.84-second 40-yard dash, 27-inch vertical leap, 7.21-second three-cone drill time) and arm talent, the 49ers' QB1 possesses the swagger, intelligence and instincts offensive coordinators covet in a field general. Still just 23, Purdy plays the position with the confidence and composure of a 10-year veteran boasting a Super Bowl-winning pedigree.
Now, given Purdy's impressive college résumé (30 wins, 12,170 passing yards, 81 touchdown passes), perhaps we all should have been more open to the idea of a refined player hitting the ground running on Sundays. Frankly, though, Purdy was not overly impressive at the 2022 East-West Shrine Bowl that I covered as part of NFL Network's broadcast team. Though he managed the offense effectively and flashed some leadership skills, he did not dazzle with "wow" throws that suggested he would shred NFL opponents routinely as a passer from the pocket. Over that entire pre-draft process, he graded out to me as a backup/developmental prospect, based on his size and long-term potential. Apparently, the league agreed with that evaluation, as Purdy famously lasted until the final pick of the 2022 NFL Draft, No. 262 overall.
Studying Purdy's tape at Iowa State, his instincts, anticipation and overall awareness felt like his biggest strengths. He was a quick-rhythm passer with a nice feel for an air game built on short-to-intermediate throws. 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan clearly saw something in the youngster, though, considering San Francisco drafted Purdy just 12 months after taking Trey Lance with the No. 3 overall pick of the 2021 draft.
While teams don't expect late-round picks to develop into franchise players -- or even starters, for the most part -- the traits Purdy exhibited must have captured the imagination of a crafty play caller who has put up shiny passing numbers in San Francisco with a wide variety of quarterbacks, ranging from Jimmy Garoppolo to guys like C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens. Shanahan has a knack for getting the most out anyone who can execute his scheme without trying to play hero ball. And considering Shanahan also previously turned an average quarterback into a Pro Bowler (SEE: Matt Schaub in Houston) and a Pro Bowler into a league MVP (Matt Ryan in Atlanta), the spectacular production and performance of Purdy as San Francisco's starter has spawned debates about whether this QB is a system player. Shanahan, for his part, scoffs at that notion.
"That's pretty ridiculous," the 49ers coach told reporters earlier this month. "You've just got to watch the tape. He plays at a high level every time he's been out there. And he's done it in a lot of different situations versus a lot of different defenses, on the road, at home, playoff games, when injured. You can't do all that stuff [if you're a system quarterback]. He's been out there too long. It's on tape."
The head coach's strong words there suggest Purdy is more than just a joystick at the position. And when you remember that he's only seven months removed from elbow surgery, the spectacular start to this season is even more remarkable.
Purdy can execute on or off script, and his consistent performance on a weekly basis validates Shanahan's belief in his game. As the first quarterback to start his career with a 10-0 regular-season mark since Ben Roethlisberger back in 2004, Purdy's no fluke, boasting a game that could push him into the elite conversation as the wins continue to pile up in San Francisco.
With two years remaining on a cheap rookie contract that has enabled the Niners to surround Purdy with top earners on both sides of the ball (SEE: OT Trent Williams, RB Christian McCaffrey, TE George Kittle, WR Deebo Samuel, DE Nick Bosa, DL Arik Armstead, DT Javon Hargrave and LB Fred Warner), the team will now need to determine whether Purdy is a truly special quarterback worth $50 million-plus annually or very good player enhanced by the system and weapons around him. Five games into Year 2, though, the man is making quite a case for being the real deal. This week's trip to Cleveland brings another fascinating test, as the Browns currently boast the top-ranked defense in the league. I can't wait to see how Purdy does on Sunday against Myles Garrett and Co.
Belichick, Patriots heading for divorce?
All good things come to an end, and from the outside looking in, it sure seems like the end is near for the Bill Belichick era in New England. Despite winning six Super Bowls and 17 division titles during one of the greatest runs in NFL history, the second-winningest head coach ever could be headed to the unemployment line at the end of the 2023 season.
It's a possibility that I pondered in this space back in July, just a few months after some eyebrow-raising comments from Robert Kraft. At the Annual League Meeting in March, the Patriots owner was asked whether Belichick's job could be in jeopardy with another losing season -- or if the coach would comfortably remain in New England to break Don Shula's all-time record of 347 Ws, no matter what. Kraft's response was telling.
"Look, I'd like him to break Don Shula's record, but I'm not looking for any of our players to get great stats," Kraft said. "We're about winning, and doing whatever we can to win. And that's what our focus is now. And I -- it's very important to me that we make the playoffs, and that's what I hope happens next year."
If those particular words did not put the grizzled head coach on notice, how about these ones from the same media scrum?
"Look, I think Bill is exceptional at what he does. And I've given him the freedom to make the choices and do the things that need to be done," Kraft said. "His football intellect and knowledge is unparalleled, from what I've seen, and when you talk to him, the small things analytically that he looks at. But in the end, this is a business. You either execute and win, or you don't. That's where we're at."
It does not get much clearer than that when it comes to setting expectations. Back in March, Kraft absolutely expected his team to return to the postseason. But here we are in Week 6, and New England sits in dead last in the AFC East at 1-4, averaging a league-worst 11 points per game. Like Kraft said, the NFL is a business. And since the departure of Tom Brady, Patriots business has not been booming, with New England logging a 26-29 record while making just one playoff appearance. Given the "What have you done for me lately?" nature of the NFL and the extremely high standard in New England, Kraft could be hard pressed continuing into 2024 with the future gold-jacket recipient installed as the football czar of his franchise. That's what Belichick is as the head coach and de facto general manager in New England: the football czar. Consequently, the current Patriots' striking lack of talent and lackluster execution both fall on his shoulders.
Not only have the Pats fallen behind the AFC heavyweights in 2023, but they've dropped below the middleweights, too. New England's roster cannot compare to the star-studded concoctions put together by teams like the Dolphins and Chargers. And the Patriots' lack of home-grown blue-chip players makes it impossible for them to compete with the draft-and-develop programs utilized by the Chiefs, Ravens, Bengals and Bills. With the Jaguars also emerging as a team that utilizes a hybrid developmental approach, New England's alarming regression suggests Belichick has failed in the talent acquisition, development and utilization phases. Moreover, the gap between New England's top players and the elites on other squads puts the head coach squarely in the crosshairs for his personnel miscues. The team has not drafted well or utilized free agency effectively enough to keep pace with competitors, and the coach has been unable to scheme his way around the Patriots' deficiencies.
Bill O'Brien's re-hiring as offensive coordinator has not masked the lack of speed or explosiveness on the perimeter or the inconsistent play of an offensive line that has failed to generate any push at the line of scrimmage. Throw in quarterback Mac Jones' backslide over the past couple seasons, and the Patriots look like a team in need of a complete rebuild before they can even contemplate a return to the playoffs.
Now Kraft's left to determine if Belichick can put Humpty Dumpty back together again. But based on a four-year sample size since Brady's departure, it is hard to imagine the head coach reversing the franchise's fortunes without somehow acquiring another generational talent at quarterback. In fact, Belichick's struggles remind me of Andy Reid's woes in Philadelphia following Donovan McNabb's departure in 2010. Though he led the 2010 Eagles to a playoff appearance behind a resurgent Michael Vick, Reid was ultimately fired after the 2012 campaign.
Could Belichick be heading toward a pink slip of his own? It sure seems that way, as losses mount and Kraft's playoff mandate becomes more of a laughable pipe dream.
Jags benefited from London residency
After registering back-to-back wins on foreign soil, the Jacksonville Jaguars might have uncovered an unconventional advantage that could help them emerge as perennial contenders.
After a 1-2 start to the season, Jacksonville took off for London, set to become the first team ever to play consecutive games across the pond. Ten days later, the Jaguars had jumped back over .500 with wins over the Falcons and Bills. Basically an in-season training camp, this extended London venture enabled Doug Pederson's team to develop the chemistry and camaraderie that is essential to playing championship-caliber football in an ultra-competitive league.
As the Jaguars' field analyst on radio broadcasts, I had a front-row seat to the team's early-season struggles. The communication issues, coverage busts and inconsistent gap integrity that plagued the defense over the first three weeks disappeared in London. Offensively, the improved chemistry between the offensive line, as well as the quarterback and pass catchers, resulted in a more efficient performance from a unit that was expected to light up scoreboards around the league entering the season. With the special teams also operating like a well-oiled machine, the countless hours spent together overseas appeared to produce a more connected team that played like a family instead of a collection of individuals.
While some will scoff at the notion of a professional team truly forming a brotherhood that embraces the values of commitment, accountability and trust, Pederson absolutely believes the time spent together has helped the Jaguars' improve their on-field performance.
"The fact that we got to spend time in the hotel together, players went to dinner together, they just hung around and played some golf together," Pederson said. "When you're in the heat of the battle out there and of course in the game, you lean on each other that way, and we were able to do that for those 10 days. I think the guys really embraced that, and now it's a matter of coming back here, continuing that same sort of mindset as we prepare for this week and for the first half of our season."
After posting back-to-back wins against a pair of playoff contenders in impressive fashion, several players cited the improved chemistry and connection from the 10-day retreat as a contributing factor. The dinners, golf outings and video gaming with teammates led to stronger relationships and enabled players to establish trust with each other. With the getaway also removing some of the day-to-day distractions that can disrupt the team-building process, the London trip allowed Pederson to re-create the old-school training camp environment from yesteryear.
And if the positive results continue -- beginning Sunday against the Colts -- don't be surprised if the Jaguars look to experience a foreign fortnight in future seasons.