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Deshaun Watson answers questions at the NFL Combine.
Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Inside this column

  • Aaron Rodgers faces a daunting question
  • Texting with … Sean Payton
  • Antonio Brown to Baltimore or in court? “Highly doubtful”
  • Reports of the Wonderlic’s demise are premature
  • 9-1 in the playoffs and going strong
  • Jimmy G’s possible payday

Here’s the biggest question Aaron Rodgers must consider over the next month and a half.

Does he trust Packers head coach Matt LaFleur with what remains of his career?

In the aftermath of Green Bay’s abrupt exit from the playoffs for the second year in a row as the top seed in the NFC, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Rodgers deserves his share for leading an offense that produced only 10 points at home and didn’t score a touchdown after the opening drive. That’s purely unacceptable by the standards of a Most Valuable Player, which Rodgers is likely to win for the second year in a row.

But it’s also fair to say that Rodgers is hardly first in line for blame. Not when your head coach chokes for the second year in a row in a big moment and when the special teams commit three blunders of varying Seismic proportion.

Aaron Rodgers’ Dilemma

Aaron Rodgers throws a pass for the Packers.
Christian Petersen via Getty Images

Dice it up any way that you want, but LaFleur has wasted the past two years with Rodgers playing at an extraordinary level. This is firmly on LaFleur’s shoulders, who has been otherwise spectacular in the regular season with a 39-10 record in three seasons. In the playoffs, however, LaFleur has performed like a junior high band member who hasn’t practiced. He has been forever offbeat and slow to react.

And when you deal with a quarterback who is a perfectionist, often prickly, and has a persecution complex (such as Rodgers’ claim this week that people root against the Packers because he’s not vaccinated), LaFleur’s mistakes are going to eat at their relationship. Whatever way you want to look at it, Rodgers is going on the past two years and will be angry.

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Rodgers certainly blamed previous coach Mike McCarthy to anyone and everyone who wanted to listen. While McCarthy also bears plenty of responsibility for Rodgers and the Packers not winning a title the past 11 years, LaFleur bungled the best two years with gigantic failures in both strategy and preparation.

And if you’re a head coach who isn’t good at strategy and preparation, you’re missing the biggest prerequisite to the job. When you continually screw that up, players eventually tune you out. Rodgers has been complimentary of LaFleur in the past and mostly had problems with General Manager Brian Gutekunst before this season.

At the same time, Rodgers started to show signs of frustration last offseason with strategy. There was the subtle exchange he had with a contestant while serving as a guest host of “Jeopardy!” last offseason. Just go to the 1:10 mark of this video to see the look on Rodgers face.

Calling for a field goal with 2:09 remaining at the Tampa Bay 8-yard line down 31-23 wasn’t the only mistake LaFleur made in that game. He also allowed then-defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to make a horrible defensive call at the end of the first half that allowed a touchdown from Tom Brady to Scott Miller. Pettine lost his job, not that it’s any type of consolation.

But even that was nothing compared to the loss to San Francisco on Saturday night. Allowing a blocked field goal, a blocked punt for a touchdown return and then having only 10 players on the field for the 49ers game-winning field goal was a Triple Crown of awful. It’s made worse by the fact that the Packers have three (yes, THREE) coaches who work on special teams. That’s three coaches to handle roughly a dozen plays a game between field goals, extra points, kickoffs and punts.

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And it’s not like this was a mystery to LaFleur that there was a problem. He knew before the game that his special teams were suspect (longtime NFL reporter and Pro Football Hall of Fame selector Rick Gosselin rated Green Bay with the worst special teams units in the league before the game). LaFleur not only knew it, he had two weeks to make corrections before the game.

LaFleur also had two weeks to come up with an offensive plan that might solve the 49ers defense, which he knows all too well. He came up with an opening touchdown drive and then two other drives that ended in field goal attempts (the one block and a make).

This performance was damningly bad by the 42-year-old LaFleur. Rodgers knows it. Worse, it’s another reason he has to concede any notion that he might be the greatest quarterback of all-time despite his other-worldly physical skill. There are few humans (Patrick Mahomes, Brett Favre and John Elway are notable comps) with Rodgers’ talent to make almost any throw from almost any body angle.

And while there is no shame walking away from your career (or perhaps just Green Bay if Rodgers forces a trade) with only one Super Bowl title, that doesn’t mean there isn’t frustration. Lots of frustration.

Hall of Fame Look Ahead

Tom Brady celebrates after winning Super Bowl LV.
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Having alluded to Rodgers possibly retiring, Brady possibly also walking away, Ben Roethlisberger already calling it quits and Rob Gronkowski implying he’ll probably retire (and almost certainly if Brady retires), the Pro Football Hall of Fame could welcome the greatest class in history in 2027. That would be a minimum of four first-ballot Hall of Famers.

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If Adrian Peterson also quits, it could be five.

Moreover, it would include two guys who are arguably the best to ever play their positions in Brady and Gronkowski. Finally, it would make the selection meeting one of the shortest in history.

Antonio Brown is “Highly Doubtful”

Antonio Brown Before Jets Game
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Since Antonio Brown can’t go more than about three days without being in the news, he twice managed to capture headlines this week, first by begging for a job with the Baltimore Ravens. The next was by doing an interview with Bryant Gumbel of HBO Real Sports in which he and his attorney claimed they could go after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for salary and bonus money he is owed. Brown’s attorney also implied that Brown may sue for defamation.

When asked about how much he would be seeking in damages for defamation, Brown smiled and said, “A whole lot of money! A whole lot.” He clearly believes he has a case that will enrich him.

He is woefully wrong and so is whoever is telling him that.

While a claim for salary and bonus money could be interesting, the notion that Brown could sign with Baltimore was called “highly doubtful” by a Ravens source this week. Finally, the notion that he could win a defamation lawsuit is basically insane.

Let me focus on Baltimore and then the defamation idea.

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Brown posted a picture of himself with cousin and Baltimore wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Ravens star quarterback Lamar Jackson when stating his interest in the Ravens. Aside from the unlikely chance it will happen, anybody thinking it would be a good idea should be careful with what they wish for.

This has nothing to do with Brown’s emotional behavior. What few people understand about Brown is that he is not a precise route runner. In fact, he makes it a constant habit to change routes on the fly depending on what he sees. That works fine if you have a quarterback like Brady or Roethlisberger. Those guys are smart enough to read changes quickly and alter their arm angles to compensate.

It’s a lot harder with a quarterback like Jackson, who is not an accurate thrower to begin with and doesn’t have experience with receivers who make it up as they go along. Of course, that’s the pure X’s and O’s approach to this hypothetical marriage. The idea of Ravens coach John Harbaugh buying into Brown’s B.S. after Brown talked his way out of four different teams seems like an extraordinarily absurd.

As for the defamation lawsuit, Brown’s history of erratic behavior on and off the field is so lengthy — from throwing furniture from the 14th story balcony of an apartment building to throwing his uniform at the end of the last game he played to getting traded or let go by four teams– that it is almost impossible to prove that he has been defamed by anyone. He is the one who established this behavior and the list of witnesses against him would go on for weeks of testimony.

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Anyone who tries to convince Brown that he somehow has a reasonable case should be called into question. Finally, any type of lawsuit like that would also make it even less likely that another team is going to sign him. What owner or executive would want to take a chance on doing business with an erratic player who sues employers?

It is, quite frankly, absurd.

Texting With…Sean Payton

Sean Payton looks on in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings at Mercedes Benz Superdome on January 05, 2020.
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Former New Orleans coach Sean Payton called it a day with the Saints on Tuesday after 15 great years with the team. Is Payton a Hall of Fame coach? If Bill Cowher is, I have little doubt that Payton deserves the same honor. The rebuilding project that Payton did with the Saints in 2006 after the team was forced to the road because of Hurricane Katrina remains one of the great stories in league history.

Eventually bringing a Super Bowl to New Orleans was electric and joyful as the city was still picking up the pieces years later. While some people like to criticize Payton for not getting enough out of his partnership with former quarterback Drew Brees, Payton will forever be a hero in The Big Easy.

I have appreciated watching Payton coach and talk about the game. His enthusiasm is palpable. If he ends up on television or perhaps with a company like Amazon in the streaming world, he’ll probably be great. If he takes a year or two off and ends up in some place like Dallas coaching again, all the better. It has been fun.

With that, here’s a quick exchange with him from Tuesday.

JC: “Congrats and good luck. I’m sure whatever you do will be fun.”

SP: “Jason, rarely does the coach get to choose. Appreciate you.”

The Wonderlic is Not Dead Yet

Roger Goodell before a NFL game.
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Roughly two weeks ago, much was made of the fact that the NFL had said it would no longer administer the Wonderlic Test to all draft-eligible players at the NFL Scouting Combine in late February. The 50-question, 12-minute, general knowledge test has been a source of contention among players, particularly when low scores are leaked to the media. Additionally, some players who score relatively high on the exam fear that results actually work against them. They believe coaches are intimidated by smarter players who might question authority.

Suffice to say, the exam has generated a lot of negative publicity for the league over the years for what is perceived as a small gain. Many in the media cheered the league’s change in stance.

But it turns out in that the Wonderlic may not really be gone. In a confidential memo released on January 17 to NFL teams, NFL Executive Vice President Troy Vincent told clubs that they have the right to administer the Wonderlic if they choose. Here is an excerpt of the memo:

We have received inquiries about the Wonderlic test over the last week. The League office has implemented the following policy regarding assessment tests, including the Wonderlic test:

  • The NFL … will not administer the Wonderlic test at the NFL Scouting Combine.
  • Whether to administer the Wonderlic test, or any other assessment test, is an individual club decision. A club can request a prospect to take an assessment test at all-star games, pro days, the NFL Scouting Combine, at a pre-Draft visit, or if applicable, virtually.
  • Clubs are prohibited from collectively administering assessment tests at any time. For clarity, clubs cannot agree to have another club(s), BLESTO, NFS, NIC, or any other thirdparty administer assessment tests and share the results with other clubs.
  • A draft-eligible prospect and/or the prospect’s certified contract advisor may share assessment tests results with clubs to avoid the prospect from taking the same test multiple times.

The takeaways from that memo are clear. First, the fact that teams have asked about being able to use it means that plenty of teams still want to use it. While some people believe that the Wonderlic is useless, plenty of personnel people like it. The Wonderlic was first devised in 1936 and the NFL’s use of it dates to at least the 1970s. Back then, teams such as Pittsburgh and Dallas regularly devalued players with low test scores.

Second, if several teams are interested in the data, don’t be surprised if all teams are interested. That means that players are still going to be taking the test several times or are going to be asked to share the results of their test from one team with every other team. While the NFL memo threatens teams with a $150,000 fine and the possible loss of draft picks for trying to administer the tests as a group, the teams have a clear and easy way to get around the fact that the league is no longer administering the test.

Third, the NFL continues to promote the Player Assessment Test that it devised in 2012. Vincent spent roughly a full page touting the alternate test. However, personnel people are greedy when it comes to data. Until the league fully bans the Wonderlic, all this means is that teams will find a way to get both the PAT results and the Wonderlic results.

NFL Playoff Predictions

David Eulitt via Getty Images

I’m now 9-1 picking playoff games this season and would be 9-1 against the spread (not that I gamble because I don’t) if that were part of the exercise. Also, the only game that went against me was the completely random and aforementioned San Francisco-Green Bay game, which I also noted that LaFleur could panic. Anyway, with all of that said, here are the Championship Game picks.

AFC

Kansas City 38, Cincinnati 30: Yes, the Bengals believe they can beat Kansas City because they already have. The combination of Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase is too young and too swaggerlicious to be intimidated. That said, just about the worst thing the Bengals could have done earlier this season was beat the Chiefs and get quarterback Patrick Mahomes riled up. Mahomes and the Chiefs sometimes sleepwalk through long stretches of games, such as when they only scored a field goal in the second half of that loss to the Bengals on Jan. 2. Mahomes won’t let that happen again. That said, the Chiefs defense was a disaster against Buffalo and Cincinnati has better receivers that Buffalo. This game is going to be fun.

NFC

Los Angeles Rams 27, San Francisco 21: As the 49ers celebrate the 40th anniversary of their first title season, this team has a lot of the same sort of magical qualities that the 1981 team had. The big exception to that is that the 49ers don’t have anything remotely close to Joe Montana. Jimmy Garoppolo is a good dude and a tough guy. But every time he starts to float one of those passes to the sidelines these days, 49er fans are gripped with terror. As for the Rams, they are playing very well in some critical ways over the past two games after blowing a big lead to San Francisco in the season finale. Furthermore, the Rams? errors, including four fumbles against Tampa Bay, can be cleaned up. The trouble is that one of those errors included a bonehead piece of coaching by Sean McVay in the fourth quarter that resulted in a botched shotgun snap. McVay can’t do that again. If the 49ers can keep the score in the low 20s or less, they have a great shot to win.

This and That

Jimmy Garoppolo Plays Catch Before NFL Game
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images
  • There are very few coaches or personnel people who love the idea of signing Garoppolo if he becomes a free agent. That said, almost all of them said they expect him to cash in. Two estimated he could make more than $30 million a year on a long-term deal, especially if Rodgers and Brady retire. “It’s just supply and demand,” one executive said. “There are too many teams who need a guy who can make them competitive. He’s going to make some mistakes and panic at times and you better build a team that reduces the chance for him to make mistakes. The 49ers did, it’s not impossible.”
  • Friends and colleagues of former Dallas star running back Tony Dorsett said the Hall of Famer’s mental health continues to decline severely. “It’s sad because he’s in really bad shape,” one close friend said this week. “I’m very concerned about him.” Dorsett has been battling degenerative brain issues since at least 2013.
  • Having mentioned the NFL Scouting Combine, former Pittsburgh and Buffalo executive Tom Donahoe shared a humorous story about asking one draft prospect how he expected to do in the 40-yard dash. Donahoe was working for the Steelers at the time and the team was interviewing a running back. As the interview was wrapping up, former longtime Pittsburgh running backs coach Dick Hoak asked the player, “What do you usually run the 40 in?” The player responded, “Tennis shoes.”

MORE: Cole’s Thoughts: Ben Roethlisberger’s Clever Gamesmanship + Is Lamar Jackson Worth Big Money?

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Jason Cole has covered the NFL since 1992 and has been a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame since 2012. He is the author of seven books, including the biography of John Elway (Elway: A Relentless Life).
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