Topics this week include the future of a certain Redskins quarterback, why the Seahawks might get hammered, some angry owners, and why Antonio Brown could really use a big game.
Will Belichick bring in Chip?
When Chip Kelly was dumped by the San Francisco 49ers after one season as head coach, word was that he indeed preferred to stay in the NFL rather than return to the college game.
If that is true -- and it does appear to be right now -- there is a logical landing spot: the New England Patriots. That's because the friendship between Kelly and Patriots coach Bill Belichick is no secret. They have exchanged football concepts since Kelly's fast-tempo offense became the rage at Oregon.
The Jaguars were serious in their courtship of Kelly as the offensive coordinator for Doug Marrone, who was named the head coach last week. Marrone was urged by Tom Coughlin, the Jaguars' new executive vice president of football operations, to explore adding Kelly to the staff as an offensive coordinator or in another capacity.
As Giants coach, Coughlin was 1-5 against Kelly's Eagles from 2013 to 2015. If you eliminate the one Eagles loss to New York (15-7 in 2013), Kelly's offense averaged 33 points in the five wins.
And Coughlin's longtime offensive line coach, Pat Flaherty, worked with Kelly in San Francisco this past season before being hired by Marrone with the Jaguars.
But for Marrone, pairing with Kelly as offensive coordinator did not feel like a good philosophical fit. Marrone kept Nathaniel Hackett as offensive coordinator.
As for Kelly, a league source said he was headed to New England to meet with Belichick once the Jaguars decided to go with Hackett. What that means is anybody's guess for now. Kelly's knowledge goes well beyond offense. His command of the science of football is highly regarded in enough circles to be an asset in more than one way.
-- Chris Mortensen
Options continue to expand for Cousins' future
There are better players than Kirk Cousins -- the four quarterbacks in Sunday's conference championship games come to mind. But there's no player in the NFL right now with more leverage and power than the Washington Redskins' starting quarterback.
Cousins already has played one season under a franchise tag worth almost $20 million. Now, Washington has three options: sign him to one of the richest contracts in NFL history, place the franchise tag on him again for $23.94 million, or let him test the market -- and the Redskins know they cannot allow that to happen.
Former Washington offensive coordinator and current Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is set to become the San Francisco 49ers' head coach after Atlanta's season ends. San Francisco needs a quarterback as much as any other team in the league. If Cousins is available, the 49ers would pursue him as hard as they've pursued Shanahan.
Even if Washington tags Cousins, San Francisco could attempt to pry him loose in a trade with a package that could include this year's No. 2 overall draft pick. And if Washington doesn't want to deal now, it could have issues later.
Tagging Cousins again in 2018 would cost Washington $34.48 million, an unpalatable number for any team. And even if the Redskins did commit to that, Cousins could walk away from Washington after the 2018 season and sign where he wants, and Washington could do nothing to prevent it.
This leaves Washington overly vulnerable and Cousins particularly powerful. He gets to dictate where he will play, and the lure of Shanahan in San Francisco will be strong.
As if that weren't enough, Shanahan's successor in Washington, Sean McVay, left his job as the Redskins' offensive coordinator to become the Rams' head coach. Los Angeles still needs to see more out of former No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff. If it doesn't, what would prevent the Rams from dipping their toes into the Cousins market? A bit far-fetched now, sure. But it's not out of the question down the line.
So this offseason, Washington lost its offensive coordinator and lost more leverage with Cousins, who now has expanded options. There are better quarterbacks in this league, but no quarterback wields the power that Cousins does.
-- Adam Schefter
Why the league likely will punish Seattle
All coach Pete Carroll was trying to do was to praise the tenacity, professionalism and dependability of cornerback Richard Sherman, a day after the Seattle Seahawks were eliminated by the Falcons from the NFC playoffs.
But in applauding Sherman, who was a notch below his usual Pro Bowl standard this year, Carroll blew the whistle on his Seahawks when he noted that Sherman had played with a "significant knee [injury] the whole second half of this season, and it was a struggle to try to get him out there."
The Seahawks coach described the injury as an "MCL" in one of Sherman's knees. His revelation is now being matched up against the team's public injury reports. In Week 8, Sherman missed a Wednesday practice that was listed as "not injury-related." That certainly was understandable, considering the Seahawks had played an exhausting five-quarter overtime tie against the NFC West rival Arizona Cardinals two days earlier on Monday Night Football.
But Sherman missed one or more practices every week from that point on, and his absence was listed as "not injury-related." The interpretation often was that Sherman was being given a veteran's rest day. Only once, on Nov. 27, did the Seahawks attribute a missed practice to an "ankle" injury.
Carroll said he was not aware that Sherman's knee injury was not submitted on injury reports, in part because "he never missed anything" because of the knee, even though he had just described it as "significant." And Sherman did play in almost 98 percent of the Seahawks' game snaps. When Carroll says he was unaware the team had not revealed the knee injury, it can be noted that the coach is not the one who submits injury reports to the league.
From the policy itself: "It is the club Public Relations Director's responsibility to obtain and disseminate accurate injury and practice participation information. It is the responsibility of the clubs to review unusual situations with their Conference Football Communications Director to determine if a player should be included on the Practice Report. When in doubt, it is best to include a player on the report."
Fair or not, the NFL describes it as a clear violation of the league's injury-reporting policy that has been under investigation since Carroll's revelation this week. Because the Seahawks have been repeat violators of league policies for which they were punished at accelerated levels, they could lose a second-round draft pick in this year's draft, in place of the fifth-rounder they had been docked because of their third offseason violation, per league sources.
The NFL tried to improve its injury-reporting policy during the 2016 season, but it doesn't really absolve the manner in which Sherman's injury was handled.
Why is this a big deal? Many moons ago, the integrity of injury reporting was explained rather bluntly to a reporter: "We don't want degenerate gamblers poking around in the shadows, with incentive, knowing that there is injury information to be gained because teams are not forthright. The integrity of the game is at stake, period. Use your imagination. You'll get it."
The counterargument is that while a team must list an injury, specifics can be somewhat vague, such as a quarterback who is listed with a "shoulder" injury. You seldom see it listed as a right or left shoulder, unless the media has independently reported it. The team, or the player himself, has federal laws to protect health privacy. It's complex in a sport that basically has a 100 percent injury rate.
Regardless, that still invites a motivated gambler to dig deeper on the specificity of an injury, if you buy into that belief.
-- Chris Mortensen
Bell could run away with postseason MVP
Nobody would deny that the NFL's top three MVP candidates this season are, in no particular order, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, all of whom are playing on championship Sunday.
Yet none of those three might be the most valuable player of this postseason and the most important player on the field Sunday.
Bell has 337 rushing yards this postseason, the second-most of any player through two games in a single postseason, behind only Terrell Davis and his 366 rushing yards in 1998, when he helped lead Denver to a Super Bowl title.
Bell has set a Steelers single-game postseason rushing record in each of the playoff games he has played this season, first rushing for 167 yards against the Dolphins in the wild-card round, then for 170 against the Chiefs in the divisional-playoff round. No other player in NFL history has rushed for more yards in his first two postseason games; the next-closest is Arian Foster, who ran for 285 yards during his first two postseason games in 2011.
If Bell's pace continues, he'll run the Steelers straight to Super Bowl LI in Houston and prove why he just might be the most valuable player during a season in which he will not win the award.
-- Adam Schefter
Antonio Brown could really use a big game
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin did not hold much back on Tuesday when he discussed star receiver Antonio Brown's inglorious Facebook live stream from the postgame locker room after the Steelers' playoff win over the Chiefs on Sunday night.
Tomlin's most forceful, impactful statement about Brown's actions: "It's a global thing in regards to professional sports. I think that's why oftentimes you see great players move around from team to team. And I definitely don't want that to be his story. I am sure he doesn't want that to be his story."
It was a reminder and a warning. Brown is one of the truly elite receivers in the NFL, with a success story to tell, but Steelers players have boundaries that are meaningful to the Rooney family that owns the storied franchise.
One longtime NFL executive said he believed that Brown had jeopardized his future in Pittsburgh before Tomlin offered his pointed rebuke. Plaxico Burress was cited as one example. Others, too.
The NFL executive even suggested QB Ben Roethlisberger had almost worn out his Steelers welcome when he was involved in the off-the-field scandals that resulted in his six-game suspension in 2010, a suspension that was later reduced to four games.
When Tom Jackson saw Brown's video, it was the most significant moment for which he missed not being on ESPN to offer his thoughts that made him the network's top NFL studio analyst. (He retired before the 2016 season after 29 years in broadcasting.)
"It's funny because I picked up on Coach Tomlin saying this is how great players move from team to team -- the interpretation being pretty clear that you won't be here if you don't get the message because there are repercussions for that kind of stuff," Jackson said.
"He did a disservice to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was not even paying attention to the coach to understand what he was doing. He was completely unaware or didn't care that the coach was talking to the team after the game. And the thing about it, assuming he's one of the leaders because he's such a great player, there were three or four other players at least who were hamming it up for the guy's video, not listening to their coach after a big win and a message to establish the week ahead of them for the [AFC] championship."
Jackson said he doesn't believe Brown's act was "intentionally malicious, but clearly he's become self-absorbed. I believe Coach Tomlin was forced to address a rule about locker room decorum that never should have to be stated. He never thought he'd have to be dealing with this.
"I also don't think Tomlin needed to apologize to anyone for his language, which wasn't out of the norm for the moment. You think he thought during that private time with his team that he'd be feeling the need to publicly apologize a couple days later?"
Stuff does happen. One piece of advice that Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells offers to new head coaches is that "four or five things will happen every day that you never thought you'd have to deal with."
Jackson added, "All I can say is that Antonio needs to have a really good game. And we'll see whether adding another layer of pressure will interfere with his ability to have that type of game. If he doesn't, I'm interested to see whether it impacts his future with the Steelers, because he violated one of the most sacred spaces of a football team."
-- Chris Mortensen
Mover's remorse in San Diego
As much as the Chargers' move to Los Angeles angered San Diego, it angered NFL executives and owners just as much, if not more.
Since the move was announced, the NFL has been "besides itself," in the words of one league source. "There are a ton of owners very upset that [the Chargers] moved," one source said. The source added that the NFL wants the Chargers to move back, though nobody believes that possibility is realistic.
But some NFL owners and some league officials are still hoping, now that the move has been made official, that Chargers chairman Dean Spanos will wake up one morning soon, recognize this situation has been "bungled so bad," and take his team back to San Diego, where it spent the past 56 years. Again, the chances are at best remote that this happens.
But some owners and league officials are still praying that the longest of long shots occurs and the Chargers bolt back to San Diego.
-- Adam Schefter
Emptying the notebook
Four great teams are playing in the championship round in what should be two great games. If each team plays to its capabilities, the games should be close, which would bring the kickers into play. After a season of missed field goals, kickers have made all 33 attempted field goals this postseason, including seven from 50 or more yards. Packers kicker Mason Crosby became the first kicker in NFL postseason history to connect on two 50-yard field goals in the last two minutes of regulation. Steelers kicker Chris Boswell set a postseason record with six field goals Sunday night versus Kansas City. Falcons kicker Matt Bryant consistently has been one of the league's best kickers, as has the Patriots' Stephen Gostkowski, though he has struggled with inconsistency this season. Still, these are four great kickers in a huge spot. Nobody particularly cares to discuss how important kickers could be Sunday, when four teams so evenly matched square off, but they could be the difference. One miss, which could be the first miss of this postseason, could loom large.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' decision to remain with New England could have affected others. If McDaniels had gone to San Francisco, maybe the 49ers would have been more apt to make a push for Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. And maybe the Patriots would have gotten back extra draft picks. But file it into the "what if" department. McDaniels stayed, and now we wait to see whether, or how hard, the 49ers and/or Browns pursue Garoppolo.
Here's one of the most impressive things about Dallas' season, and it bodes well for its future: Former Cowboys players who watched running back Ezekiel Elliott this season believe he is a bigger, faster, stronger, better Emmitt Smith. That's quite a statement from the former Cowboys, but they believe it. Elliott wowed them during his rookie season.
Tom Brady has been the Patriots' starting quarterback for 15 seasons, and on Sunday he will be playing in his 11th AFC Championship Game. McDaniels will be coaching in his 11th AFC Championship Game during his 13 seasons with the Patriots.
As popular and well-known as the NFL is, here's what we should get ready to see in the 2017 season: the Las Vegas Raiders versus the Los Angeles Chargers at the StubHub Center in Carson, California. This is not your father's NFL.
The Chiefs have at least two key players to sign before they become free agents in March -- safety Eric Berry and defensive tackle Dontari Poe. If neither is signed, one of them figures to get the franchise tag. Sources say don't be surprised if it's Poe. It's something to watch.
The championship-weekend focus has been on the marquee players, but the offensive lines of all four teams -- the Patriots, Steelers, Falcons and Packers -- have been among the best in the league. The Steelers and Patriots feature two of the great offensive line coaches in NFL history: Mike Munchak (Steelers) and Dante Scarnecchia (Patriots).
When the Packers and Falcons play, the oldies but goodies are still pass-rushing factors, but in different uniforms: In 2002, Julius Peppers was the No. 2 overall pick by the Panthers, and Dwight Freeney was No. 11 overall by the Colts. Peppers has 143.5 sacks in his career, including 7.5 this season with the Packers. Freeney has 122.5 career sacks and has three sacks for the Falcons this season in a more limited role, but he is largely credited with the rapid development of Vic Beasley, who improved his sack total to 15.5 this season after having four as a rookie.
-- Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter