Welcome to the Starting 11. This NFL season, we’ll be collecting the biggest story lines, highlighting the standout players, and featuring the most jaw-dropping feats of the week. Let’s dive in.
1. The Dallas Cowboys hired Mike McCarthy on Monday morning, and hours later it’s still hard to believe. The jokes here are pretty easy to make, especially after ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that McCarthy had a slumber party at Jerry Jones’s house this weekend. McCarthy was much maligned by the time Green Bay fired him last season, but wisecracks about him and Jerry eating s’mores aside, it’s easy to understand why teams were interested in the veteran coach. McCarthy won 125 games in 13 seasons with the Packers, including a 10-win campaign in 2010 that ended with a Super Bowl victory. For most of his tenure, Green Bay fielded one of the league’s most explosive offenses. Having a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers certainly helps in that regard, but as the Packers’ passing-game struggles this season have shown, Rodgers and his desire to play outside structure may have been more detrimental than some thought at the end of McCarthy’s tenure.
McCarthy has more than a decade of head coaching experience for a legendary franchise, which makes him uniquely suited to take over an organization like the Cowboys. It also sounds like he spent his season away from football tweaking his coaching approach to better fit the modern NFL. As Peter King reported last month, McCarthy’s plans for his next job include a 14-person football technology department, eight of which will oversee analytics. He spent a day at the Pro Football Focus offices last summer to learn about their process. He assembled a team of coaches to dig through college tape and revamp his offensive mind-set. In a lot of ways, McCarthy has said and done all the right things since being fired by the Packers. He wants to be better than he was in his final seasons in Green Bay, and he’s formed a tangible plan for how to do it. He would have been a smart hire for an organization like the Browns or Panthers, who are determined to implement an analytics-heavy approach. And in Cleveland’s case, he could have served as the adult in a messy locker room. But the Cowboys aren’t the Browns or Panthers.
When it became clear that the Cowboys were going to fire Jason Garrett (a month ago for most of us; a few days ago for Jerry Jones), the assumption was that Dallas would cast a wide net in search of its next head coach. With the Cowboys’ endless resources and apparent ambitions, no candidate seemed out of reach. Maybe they could pry Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma. Perhaps Jones could coax Urban Meyer to Dallas with a Godfather offer. Would the Cowboys at least call and inquire about Sean Payton or Bill Belichick, even if both of those options were pipedreams? In the end, none of that happened. Jerry’s big swing was barely a swing at all. He interviewed just two coaches—Marvin Lewis being the other—and hired a retread who went 4-7-1 in his final year with the Packers.
It’s entirely possible that McCarthy will do an excellent job with the Cowboys. He’s absolutely an upgrade over Garrett and his staid style. During McCarthy’s tenure, the Packers went for it on fourth down at a high rate and threw the ball more often than most teams. He’s taking over an excellent roster—particularly on offense—and his plans to create a robust analytics team should position the Cowboys well to compete with the Ravens, Eagles, and other forward-thinking NFL franchises. If I were hiring a head coach, I’d definitely take a long look at Mike McCarthy.
But this just doesn’t feel like the outcome many expected in Dallas. McCarthy isn’t a splashy name that will be easy to sell to the Cowboys’ fan base. Maybe Jones saw him as another midtier coach who won’t steal his spotlight. Maybe the front office truly believes that McCarthy gives Dallas the best chance to win a Super Bowl and satisfied Jones’s reported desire to hire a coach with prior experience. We’ll never know. What we do know is that Mike McCarthy will be the Cowboys’ head coach in 2020, and that’s a weird place to be.
2. We’re going to spend the rest of the Starting 11 looking at the players who shaped the wild-card round—in ways good and bad. That starts with the Titans’ hulking, bruising RB. Tennessee’s offensive line did an excellent job opening holes for Derrick Henry (and we’ll get to them), but the 248-pound back also created plenty of space on his own against the Patriots. My favorite Henry run on Saturday came early in the fourth quarter, on a first-and-10 from the Titans’ 44-yard line. Tennessee lined up in a jumbo formation with three tight ends and handed the ball to Henry on a gap run. Nose tackle Danny Shelton managed to shake free of right guard Nate Davis and meet Henry in the hole, but Henry was able to bounce outside thanks to a nice block from tight end Jonnu Smith. Running with a full head of steam, Henry was left one-on-one with cornerback J.C. Jackson, who wanted no part of tackling him in the open field. Watch the clip below. Jackson is running away from a guy he’s supposed to be tackling. It’s incredible, but it’s also the reason that Henry is such a weapon for the Titans as they’re trying to put games away. He carried the ball 34 times on Saturday, and trying to tackle that guy 34 times is just a miserable experience for any defense. Despite Henry’s excellent day, Tennessee put up just 14 offensive points, which illustrates the problems of relying on a running back as your main source of production. But it’s important to acknowledge the small, mental advantages that a punishing run game can give a team during a game. The ability to lean on Henry is a luxury for the Titans.
3. The Titans’ offensive line did work on Saturday. I’m not going to pick a single lineman to acknowledge here, because I honestly don’t know how I would. Tennessee’s line has really come together in the second half of the season. Left tackle Taylor Lewan has found his form since returning from a four-game suspension to start the season. Left guard Rodger Saffold has settled in nicely in the past couple of months since arriving from the Rams in free agency; he’s playing as well as any left guard in football in the running game. And though center Ben Jones has been underrated for his entire career, he acts as a great linchpin for this group.
Take a look at the movement these guys get on this second-quarter run. Not only does Saffold reach defensive end Lawrence Guy with no help from Lewan—he mauls Guy in the process. Not having to help Saffold allows Lewan to immediately climb to the second level, where he delivers a massive punch to Dont’a Hightower (who weighs 260 pounds) that sends the linebacker flying backward. With all that room to work, Henry rumbles for 11 yards, and four plays later, he plunges in for what would be the game-winning touchdown. This group is really fun to watch right now, and they’re dominating teams in a way that’s hard to do in the NFL.
4. Danielle Hunter just doesn’t move like other defensive ends. The Vikings’ star pass rusher—who has 54.5 career regular-season sacks and is somehow only 25 years old—is one of the best defensive players in the NFL. He finished the season with 14.5 sacks and 88 pressures, the second highest total in the league. His limited pass-rush production at LSU caused Hunter to fall to the third round in the 2015 draft, but he was one of the most explosive defensive ends to enter the league in years. At 257 pounds, he ran a 4.57 in the 40-yard dash at the combine. His five closest comps on Mockdraftable were Kamerion Wimbley, Barkevious Mingo, Jadeveon Clowney, Dion Jordan, and Gaines Adams. All of those guys were drafted in the first round; four of them went in the top six.
Since entering the league, Hunter has really refined his pass-rush skills, but his best trait remains his ability to instantly change directions. No other pass rusher (aside from maybe Clowney) gets from 0 to 60 as fast as Hunter, and that acceleration was on full display against the Saints. On his strip sack in the fourth quarter, Hunter barely moves at the snap, which causes All-Pro right tackle Ryan Ramczyk to hesitate for just a beat. With Ramczyk standing still, Hunter explodes inside, works his way into the backfield, and drags Drew Brees to the turf. It’s a move that’s just not possible for many defensive ends. It was also the first sack that Ramczyk has allowed this season.
5. Adam Thielen is back and healthy, and his presence is a boon for the Vikings offense. After returning from a hamstring injury in Week 15, Thielen tallied just three catches for 27 yards in two games. But on Sunday against the Saints, he exploded for 129 yards on seven catches. Thielen is a master at the subtleties of creating separation, but an area of his game that occasionally gets overlooked is how well he tracks the ball in the air. His 41-yard reception in overtime—the one that set up the Vikings’ game-winning score—may not look like an especially impressive catch, but locating the ball over his shoulder and holding on to it while getting yanked down by Patrick Robinson is immensely difficult. The same goes for his 34-yard reception in the third quarter, which seemed to shatter cornerback Marshon Lattimore’s soul. When he’s right, Thielen is one of the most complete receivers in the NFL, and his return could make the difference for a Vikings playoff run.
That throw...#GoGetIt pic.twitter.com/58NOQCxmNy— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) January 5, 2020
6. The Texans seemed to understand that using DeAndre Hopkins in two-receiver stacks was a way to create separation against Tre’Davious White. In the first half of Saturday’s game, the Texans staff aligned their star receiver in the slot on 75 percent of the team’s snaps. The goal was to avoid White on the outside, but it resulted in Hopkins going into halftime without a catch. Houston adjusted, and Hopkins spent more than 50 percent of his time out wide in the second half. But rather than putting him on an island against White, the Texans consistently used stack formations with Hopkins as the point man. Those alignments prevented White from playing close to the line of scrimmage, and allowed Hopkins to find space in the secondary. Smart coaches find ways to put their stars in advantageous positions, but a player like Hopkins is eventually going to win on his own too. On his key 41-yard reception to set up Houston’s go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, Hopkins got a fantastic outside release against White, widened his route to subtly create more room up the sideline, and hauled in a fingertip catch. Even for one of the best cornerbacks in football, it’s not easy to hold a guy like Hopkins down.
7. The often exciting and sometimes maddening Josh Allen Experience was in full effect against the Texans. Rooting for Allen seems exhausting. The Bills’ second-year quarterback has one of the best arms in the NFL, and in the first half against Houston, he was ripping throws all over the place. It’s so easy to fall in love with Allen’s tantalizing skill set, but his decision-making is enough to make fans lose their minds. Allen was careless with the ball down the stretch against the Texans, including on a jump ball he threw to his fullback in double coverage. I think the Bills are a smart organization with an excellent coaching staff and the resources to improve this roster in 2020. But it all comes down to Allen’s development. There are plenty of encouraging signs, but for Buffalo to become a true contender, he needs to be better than the guy we saw on Saturday.
8. DK Metcalf has ended up being one of the best picks in the 2019 draft. I’m officially taking an L on Metcalf. The gargantuan Seahawks receiver struggled with change of direction tests at the combine, and I was worried that he wouldn’t be flexible enough to consistently create separation on nonvertical routes in the NFL. Well, that weakness doesn’t matter much based on how Seattle is using him. At 6-foot-3, 228 pounds, Metcalf ran a 4.33 in the 40, which just shouldn’t be possible. He might already be the most explosive straight-line receiver in the NFL, and he’s a perfect fit for Seattle’s downfield passing approach. He blew past cornerback Avonte Maddox on his 53-yard touchdown in Sunday’s win. Watch how Maddox reacts when he realizes that Metcalf is going vertical. You can almost hear him say, “Oh, shit.”
9. Anthony Harris is the best player that casual fans don’t know about. The Vikings’ free safety has been incredible since taking over the starting job for an injured Andrew Sendejo last season. He’s brilliant in coverage and has a playmaking ability that few safeties possess. Harris finished tied with All-Pro cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Tre’Davious White for the league lead in interceptions (six), and his pick against Drew Brees on Sunday showed exactly what makes him great. Harris started the play as a deep safety on the right hashmark to shade coverage toward Michael Thomas. The Saints’ star receiver ran a deep in route, and Brees clearly thought that would suck Harris toward the line of scrimmage. But instead of taking the bait, Harris maintained his position in the deep middle and picked off a deep throw for Ted Ginn Jr. Discipline, range, ball skills. That’s a play that requires all three. Harris and Harrison Smith is just an unfair safety duo.
10. This week’s line play moment that made me hit rewind: It’s good to have this guy back.
J.J. WATT!— NFL (@NFL) January 4, 2020
No. 99 comes up with the clutch sack on third down. #WeAreTexans @JJWatt
: #BUFvsHOU on ESPN/ABC
: NFL app // Yahoo Sports app
Watch free on mobile: https://t.co/g2IubuwcCg pic.twitter.com/Ct5HE6Osrz
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Deshaun Watson is not real.
Unbelievable.@deshaunwatson | #BUFvsHOU pic.twitter.com/N0A4HEx558— Houston Texans (@HoustonTexans) January 5, 2020