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, how a first-year head coach absolutely nailed his debut ...
The best piece of coaching advice I've received came from one of my former position coaches while I was picking his brain on how to build a game plan and call plays. Gil Haskell, a longtime NFL assistant who had stints as offensive coordinator for the Panthers (1998-99) and Seahawks (2000-08), told me to focus on making it about the players instead of the plays.
I watched Haskell and coach Mike Holmgren build game plans around their best players with the Packers and Seahawks, and the results were impressive when they had all-star performers at their disposal.
From Brett Favre, Antonio Freeman, Robert Brooks and Mark Chmura in Green Bay to Matt Hasselbeck, Shaun Alexander, Ricky Watters, Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram in Seattle, the coaches found a way to make the quarterback and primary playmakers comfortable between the lines.
Fast-forward to 2021, and it appears first-year Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni subscribes to the same philosophy. Instead of installing a system that requires his players to adapt to the scheme, he has created an offensive melting pot that takes bits and pieces of his players' favorite plays to maximize their individual and collective talents.
While it has long been common for coaches to study college tape to determine how young players succeeded prior to entering the league, the decision to add concepts from the college level to the pro playbook has been a more recent phenomenon embraced by creative play-callers.
From the Chiefs' Andy Reid implementing several college wrinkles to help Patrick Mahomes reach great heights to the Ravens' John Harbaugh and Greg Roman utilizing a variety of read-option and designed QB runs that were a part of Lamar Jackson's playbook at Louisville, the best coaches are not afraid to re-create their QB1's collegiate offense to help him thrive in the NFL.
Studying Jalen Hurts' impressive Week 1 showing in Sirianni's debut, it looks like the Eagles' new head man has been swiping pages from the Alabama and Oklahoma playbooks to help the former Tide and Sooners star. In a 32-6 shellacking of Atlanta, the Eagles attacked the Falcons with a variety of bubble screens, swings and slow screens that were staples of Hurts' college offenses. In addition, Philly mixed in some quick-rhythm throws with simple reads baked into the concepts, making it easy for Hurts to get the ball out of his hands without having to read the full field. The play calls helped the second-year pro string together six consecutive completions to open the game.
It was a clever approach from the head coach/play-caller, and it suggests that he had conducted plenty of background research on his young quarterback while crafting the game plan. Sirianni also mixed in enough read-option plays and designed quarterback runs to keep the defense on its heels. The combination of RPOs and QB runs adds a different dimension to the offense and forces opponents to defend the entire field from sideline to sideline. It gave Atlanta fits, as Hurts became the first player to post at least 250 passing yards, three or more TD passes, zero interceptions and 60-plus rushing yards since he accomplished the same feat in Week 15 last season.
While there was a lot to like about the Eagles' performance, they will need to target the left side of the field more often than they did in Week 1. As a right-handed passer, Hurts will more naturally throw to his strong side, but defensive coordinators will quickly adjust and force him to make throws to the back side. Hurts will need to be aware of his tendencies and adjust accordingly.
That said, the Eagles should not make major adjustments and tweaks to their offense until the rest of the league catches up to their tactics. The collegiate-style offense is working well for Hurts thus far, and his comfort should be the team's top priority.
Sirianni has made it a point to build the Eagles' schemes around the talents of his best players, and I wholeheartedly applaud him. I know we're only one game into the season, but after receiving his share of criticism in the offseason, Sirianni deserves props from the broader football world for helping his young QB1 get off to a strong start.
RAMS: The star power to win it all
I don't know if general manager Les Snead and head coach Sean McVay are NBA fans, but it certainly appears that the Rams' brain trust has built a title contender utilizing a pro-basketball-like blueprint.
In the NBA, championship teams are often built around a few stars who handle the bulk of the heavy lifting on the floor. While role players are counted on to make contributions, the stars determine the outcome of games. With that in mind, we have seen more NBA teams mortgage the farm to acquire a few elite players to comprise a Big Three, from Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen teaming up with Paul Pierce in Boston to win a title in 2008 to LeBron James and Chris Bosh creating a super team with Dwyane Wade in South Florida a decade ago. Most recently, we witnessed the Brooklyn Nets take it to another level with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden joining forces to take aim at a championship, although they came up a bit short in their first season together.
After watching the Rams add Matthew Stafford to a roster that already featured Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, I thought Snead and McVay's version of the Big Three had the potential to make a run. But after seeing the trio in action against the Bears in Week 1, now I know these Rams are Super Bowl contenders.
With top talents at the marquee positions in a passing league (quarterback, pass rusher and cornerback), the Rams are like playing with a cheat code in Madden NFL 22. Think about it: How many NFL teams feature a more impressive Big Three? Better yet, which teams are capable of going toe-to-toe with Team Hollywood when it's at full strength? It's a short list.
That's why the Rams should be considered one of the league's elite teams at this stage of the season. Few opponents can match their star power and that might be enough to get them to the Super Bowl. While an injury to Stafford, Donald or Ramsey would certainly do significant damage to their title chances, there just aren't many teams deep enough to overcome the loss of a superstar in the first place.
When you add it all up, I believe the concerns about the Rams' top-heavy roster are overblown. Snead and McVay have surrounded their all-stars with a rock-solid supporting cast that includes Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, Van Jefferson, DeSean Jackson, Leonard Floyd and Taylor Rapp, among others. Those guys all have the capacity to make timely contributions as role players.
Team-builders searching for the perfect roster will point out some question marks in certain areas of the depth chart, and those concerns could be valid. However, in a game where teams need their best players to play their best when it counts, I will take my chances with the Rams' stars over the field.
NFL's top five route runners
The evolution of the NFL into a passing league has made wide receiver one of the most high-profile positions on the field. Offensive coordinators are increasingly building their schemes around the talents of their top pass catchers to enable their best players to make the biggest impact on the game.
While many team-builders favor speed and explosiveness when evaluating wide receivers, the pass catchers with staying power are skilled route runners with the capacity to get open against any defender or tactic. These artists are able to mesh their creativity with textbook footwork and fundamentals to consistently win on the perimeter.
Considering the value of get-open specialists to quarterbacks and play-callers, it's a perfect time for me to rank my top five route runners. Here is my list:
Watching Diggs operate on the perimeter is like watching an artist paint a masterpiece on a canvas. The All-Pro receiver flashes an extraordinary combination of balance, body control and stop-start quickness when blowing past defenders in space. Diggs' methods can be unorthodox; sometimes he reminds me of watching James Harden twist defenders into knots on the way to the hoop. With the Bills' star wideout capable of getting buckets against any defender in the league in a one-on-one matchup, it is easy to see why he has posted three straight 1,000-yard seasons while functioning as a chain mover and big-play threat on the perimeter.
The patient wideout from Fresno State has become the No. 1 receiver in football due to his spectacular route-running and playmaking skills. Adams displays stop-on-a-dime body control and explosive stop-start quickness when separating from defenders at the top of routes. He utilizes every trick in the book to create separation from coverage while maintaining his timing and synchronization with Aaron Rodgers in the passing game. With 58 touchdowns in his last 71 starts, Adams has emerged as a force on the perimeter who routinely befuddles defensive coordinators around the league.
If you are an old AND1 Mixtape fan, you likely have a greater appreciation for Allen's street-ball-like game. The four-time Pro Bowler utilizes a variety of hesitations and head/shoulder fakes at the line of scrimmage to put defenders on their heels. Allen's creativity, balance and body control overwhelm defenders unable to shadow his movements in tight spaces. Considering he has topped the 100-catch mark in three of the last four seasons despite consistently facing double-teams and coverages tilted in his direction, the ninth-year pro deserves a spot near the top of this list.
It is not a coincidence that an elite route runner supplanted Julio Jones as the Falcons' WR1. The fourth-year pro posted the first 1,000-yard season of his career in 2020 after ascending to the No. 1 role with Jones sidelined due to injury. Ridley did not buckle under the pressure of facing double-teams and bracket coverage on critical downs. Moreover, Ridley outmaneuvered every defender assigned to him and emerged as one of the most consistent playmakers in the game.
It's rare to find a talented technician with a fundamentally sound game and a little pizzazz. That's why Kupp should be celebrated as an elite route runner who torches defender after defender utilizing simplistic maneuvers with flair. The fifth-year pro has amassed 295 catches, 3,678 yards and 25 touchdowns as a slot receiver-plus with a bag of tricks that makes him a tough matchup in space. With the arrival of Matthew Stafford prompting Sean McVay to open up the playbook, the football world will soon gain a greater appreciation for Kupp's workmanlike game.
JOE MIXON: Deserves spot in RB1 conversation
If you ask casual fans to name the best running back in football, you will hear the usual suspects mentioned. Depending on playing-style preference, the list will likely include Derrick Henry, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook, in no particular order.
While I love watching each of those players showcase their talents as the focal point of their respective offenses, it is time to include Joe Mixon in any conversation regarding the best running back in the game.
If you are not familiar with the Cincinnati Bengals' starting back, you are missing out on the prototype playmaker every team is searching for at the position. Measuring 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, Mixon is a big back with a versatile game that mixes physicality with finesse. He can run between the tackles like a raging bull or dance around defenders in space.
In the passing game, Mixon is the total package as a polished route runner with soft hands. He has the capacity to run routes from the slot or out wide, but he's at his best operating in the screen game. Mixon's timing and explosive open-field running skills make him a threat to score whenever the Bengals call for a swing pass or slow screen.
Mixon's unique ability with the rock in his hands reminds me of Bengals legend and four-time Pro Bowler Corey Dillon in his prime. Dillon amassed more than 8,000 rushing yards over seven seasons playing for a rebuilding team out of the national spotlight, before logging 3,000 more in three seasons with the Patriots. Despite racking up seven 1,000-yard seasons, Dillon never fully received the accolades he deserved as an elite runner with A+ skills.
Mixon also flies a bit under the radar in spite of a résumé that includes a pair of 1,000-yard seasons. He has yet to earn all-star recognition, but that should change if observers start paying more attention to his game. Against the Vikings in Week 1, Mixon amassed 150 scrimmage yards on 33 touches and he was featured on 48.5 percent of Cincinnati's offensive plays. The workload reflects the Bengals' willingness to lean heavily on Mixon despite the presence of their young franchise quarterback.
Considering Bengals head coach Zac Taylor watched the Los Angeles Rams utilize a similar approach with Todd Gurley and Jared Goff while serving as an assistant on the team that reached Super Bowl LIII, it is sensible for the Bengals to build the offense around one of the premier RB1s in the league as Joe Burrow gains more experience.
"For me, it always starts up front and with me and how physical I am coming at it in the game," Mixon said during training camp, via the team's website. "I'm going to set the tone. I always set the tone for the team. And they feed off of me. There are a lot of plays and a lot of yards out there."
The Bengals are not ready to contend for a title, but riding their workhorse runner might bring them back to respectability and help Mixon enter the conversation as one of the league's best at his position.