Tuesday, February 13, 2018
Somewhere within this vast universe, an alternate timeline exists where an aging Tom Brady reluctantly passes the baton to Jimmy Garoppolo, extending New England’s reign of dominance well into the next decade. But back in the real world, Brady is still licking his wounds from Super Bowl LII and Jimmy G is making it rain Kenny-Powers-style on the West Coast.
We knew Garoppolo would get paid. If the check-down king himself, Alex Smith, can net $91 million from the Redskins, surely a small fortune awaited Jimmy Handsome at the end of his rookie contract. The Niners could have played it by ear with Garoppolo by giving him the franchise tag, but instead they pushed all their chips to the center of the table. San Francisco emptied the vault by handing Garoppolo, he of seven career starts, a five-year, $137.5 million megadeal that will make him the highest-paid quarterback, excuse me, PLAYER of all-time.
The Niners’ plan is simple—Jimmy or Bust. And why not? It worked last season. The 49ers went 5-0 after Garoppolo took over for a struggling C.J. Beathard in Week 13, with wins over the playoff-bound Titans, Jaguars and Rams to close out the season. All Garoppolo did during that span was throw for 1,542 yards (308.4 per game) and six touchdowns while contributing a mesmerizing 94.0 quarterback rating. And for style points, he did it while throwing to the relatively anonymous trio of Marquise Goodwin, Aldrick Robinson and Trent Taylor.
Twenty-seven-and-a half-million a year sure isn’t chump change, but look around the league. The Broncos, Browns, Cardinals, Dolphins, Jaguars, Jets and Vikings could all use a shake-up at quarterback while the Giants are already preparing for life after Eli Manning. Though Garoppolo remains relatively unproven, his age (26) and ample skill set (accurate, strong, confident, lightning-quick release) are in perfect alignment. The fact that he spent the past four years learning from/competing with the greatest quarterback ever is just a bonus. In a desolate quarterback landscape, the Niners felt breaking the bank for Garoppolo was a risk worth taking. Installing a franchise quarterback has historically been the preferred method for building a contender. Then again, the Eagles just won the Super Bowl with Nick Foles under center, so maybe there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
You’ll notice Garoppolo’s deal is heavily frontloaded. He’s due a guaranteed $42.6 million the first year with another $18.6 million on the books for 2019. That seems ambitious, but even with Garoppolo’s contract taken into account, San Francisco still has over $74 million in cap space, third-most in the NFL behind only Cleveland and Indianapolis. If the 49ers want to put that money to good use, they can improve Garoppolo’s pass-catching corps by landing a top-tier receiver (Jarvis Landry, Allen Robinson and Sammy Watkins will be the biggest names available) or perhaps a running back to replace Carlos Hyde, who is headed for free agency. In his annual Team Needs column, Evan Silva points out that the Niners have holes to fill on the offensive line and could also benefit from adding a cornerback or pass rusher.
Garoppolo’s payday is well-deserved but what does it mean for the rest of the quarterback market? And when I say “rest of the quarterback market,” I really mean Kirk Cousins. Case Keenum and Josh McCown will draw interest—both fit the profile of one or two-year stopgaps for teams grooming franchise quarterbacks. But the real prize is Cousins, who has settled in as one of the league’s most consistent signal-callers in recent years. Even with much of his receiving corps injured in 2017 (he also lost Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson to free agency) Cousins still finished top-10 in passing yards (4,093), yards per attempt (7.58), touchdown passes (27) and completion percentage (64.3). Cousins has led the Redskins to a .500 or better record in two of his three seasons as the team’s starter. However, he won’t have a chance to make it three out of four as Washington has committed to Alex Smith, who was acquired in a blockbuster trade from the Chiefs late last month.
Placing the franchise tag on Cousins for a third straight year wasn’t realistic, so the Redskins cut their losses by bringing in Smith, a proven veteran coming off a career-best year in Kansas City. Smith came at a cheaper cost than Cousins would have, but he’s also four years older and owns a horrific 2-5 career mark in the postseason. Of course, Cousins has had even less postseason success, losing his lone playoff appearance against the Packers in 2015.
Cousins isn’t a perfect quarterback by any measure but supply and demand should dictate a robust market for the 29-year-old. The Vikings would be a particularly strong fit for Cousins and, according to one source (Paul Allen of KFAN Minneapolis, if you must know), are “number one with a bullet” on his free agent wish list. The NFC runner-ups have just one quarterback under contract (Kyle Sloter) for next season and boast one of the league’s better receiving duos in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. He’d also be a great fit in Jacksonville if the Jaguars finally gather the courage to pull the plug on Blake Bortles. The cap-rich Browns can offer Cousins the most loot but his clear preference is to play for a winner. Even with a pair of top-four picks in the upcoming draft, playing for Hue Jackson in Cleveland is going to be a tough sell. Wherever he ends up, Cousins is sure to top nine figures and may even exceed Garoppolo’s $137.5 million.
The Curious Case of Josh McDaniels
Josh McDaniels went full Leo from Wolf of Wall Street. McDaniels’ decision to stay in New England, which came hours after the Colts had already announced his hiring as head coach on social media (the lesson here: never post until the contract is signed), sent shock waves throughout the NFL. There was talk of the Patriots OC getting cold feet ahead of Super Bowl LII, but even the most plugged-in beat reporters dismissed the rumors as mere hearsay, promising that McDaniels-to-Indy was still on track. According to ESPN’s Mike Reiss, McDaniels was cleaning out his office last Tuesday when Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft gave one last pitch for him to stay. Whatever they said must have done the trick as McDaniels placed a phone call to Colts GM Chris Ballard shortly after, announcing that he would no longer be accepting the head job in Indianapolis.
By pulling the rug out from underneath the Colts, McDaniels lost his agent and likely torpedoed any chance of getting another head-coaching opportunity outside of New England. Was McDaniels scared off by whispers of Andrew Luck’s slower-than-expected recovery from shoulder surgery? Was he having second thoughts about working in the same building as owner Jim Irsay, who is known to be a loose cannon? Or was McDaniels’ betrayal an elaborate way to get back at the Colts for being the whistleblowers in the excruciating Deflategate saga?
All would be reasonable explanations, but mostly McDaniels was reluctant to uproot his family—his four children range from age 3-12—and decided to stay when Kraft offered him a “significant” raise. McDaniels was also promised a bigger role in roster and salary cap decisions, which are usually handled exclusively by Belichick.
The league-wide assumption has been that McDaniels will eventually succeed Belichick as the Patriots’ head coach, which would somewhat justify his decision to turn down the Colts. However, according to Reiss, McDaniels has been given “no assurances” of this and has said privately that he’d prefer not to succeed Belichick, believing it would be a “hard act to follow.” It’s entirely possible that McDaniels is still damaged by the memory of his failed tenure as Denver’s head coach eight years ago and may have decided that he’s simply more comfortable as a coordinator. Or maybe McDaniels is just a victim of bad timing. Most head-coaching hires take place in the weeks immediately following the regular season, but with New England usually assured of a deep playoff run, Patriots assistants don’t have the same availability as other coaches and often miss out on jobs for that very reason. In this instance, New England’s long postseason gave McDaniels more time to mull his decision and ultimately led to a change of heart.
Maybe it was for the best. The Colts quickly pivoted to Frank Reich, a long-time offensive coordinator who led the Eagles to their first Super Bowl this past season. Saints TEs coach Dan Campbell and Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub were also considered but Reich, who previously served as Indy’s QBs coach under Jim Caldwell, was always the favorite. It’s anyone’s guess how Reich will fare in his first head-coaching stint but at least Indy is hiring someone who genuinely wants to be there, as opposed to McDaniels, whose heart was never in it. The Colts have a challenging road ahead following a disastrous 4-12 campaign in 2017 but can draft a difference-maker with the third overall pick. Saquon Barkley, anyone?