Predicting the Buffalo Bills’ defensive-line rotation

Buffalo Bills

We checked out the snap-count data for the duration of the McDermott era to predict a playing-time leader board

Under head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, the Buffalo Bills have deployed a heavy rotation along the defensive line. While two players have dominated the snaps at their respective positions, they each played far less than they did under McDermott’s predecessor, Rex Ryan.

In 2016, Ryan’s last season as head coach, Jerry Hughes led all Bills edge defenders in snaps, and Kyle Williams led all of Buffalo’s interior defensive linemen in snaps. Hughes played on 856 snaps, or 79.93% of the team’s total, while Williams played on 794 snaps, or 74.14% of the team’s total. Both men also led the Bills in snaps at their respective positions in 2017 and 2018, as well; however, they did so with a reduced workload.

Hughes has played on roughly two-thirds of Buffalo’s defensive snaps since 2017, playing on 735 snaps in 2017 (66.34%) and 668 snaps in 2018 (65.88%). Williams had a similar workload, playing on 756 snaps (68.23%) in 2017 and on 656 snaps (64.69%) in 2018. Under McDermott and Frazier, the starting defensive line group has seen an overall reduction in time, while the reserve group has seen an uptick in playing time. Here is Buffalo’s distribution of defensive-line snaps over the last two seasons:


DE1—Hughes (668; 65.88%)

DT1—Williams (656; 64.69%)

DT2—Lotulelei (475; 46.84%)

DE2—Murphy/Lawson (440; 43.39%)

DE3—Yarbrough (307; 30.28%)

DT3—H.Phillips (389; 38.36%)

DT4—J.Phillips (268; 26.43%)


DE1—Hughes (735; 66.34%)

DT1—Williams (756; 68.23%)

DT2—A.Washington (509; 45.94%)

DE2—Yarbrough (462; 41.7%)

DE3—R.Davis (457; 41.25%)

DT3—Thornton (387; 34.93%)

DT4—Dareus (138; 12.5%)/Coleman (129; 11.64%)/Worthy (115; 10.38%)

DE4—Lawson (436; 39.35%)

Two things jumped out at me right away. First off, man, that was not a good defensive line group in 2017. Neither Ryan Davis nor Cedric Thornton even suited up for an NFL team in 2018, yet they were among Buffalo’s top-line rotation players in 2017. Adolphus Washington managed to play in five games and Marcell Dareus in 15, but it’s amazing that Buffalo squeezed as much as they did out of as little as they had that season.

The other thing that stood out is the percentage of snaps played by the reserves. In 2018, the Bills finally found a grouping that they liked and, as a result, each of the top eight defensive linemen played on at least one quarter of the team’s defensive snaps. If this is the template for 2019, then we should expect that the team will follow that path barring injury.

Speaking of injuries, those have caused the second defensive-end position to be a group effort over the last two seasons. Shaq Lawson dealt with injuries in 2017 and Trent Murphy dealt with them in 2018, leading to a far greater split than I’d imagine the coaching staff wanted. While it seems to be a given that Hughes will lead the defensive ends in snaps, most likely by playing on 66% of them, the race for the second defensive-end spot will be more competitive.

Without Williams along the interior defensive line, the easy guess would be for rookie Ed Oliver to step in and take over most, if not all, of those snaps. However, Jordan Phillips has played with the first team this summer, so if Oliver is going to step up and take those snaps, he’ll have to earn them. Star Lotulelei will probably play around half of the snaps again, with Harrison Phillips playing between 35 and 50 percent as well.

I think most of us imagine a “top-four” defensive line of Hughes, Oliver, Lotulelei, and Murphy, with the second wave including Lawson, both Phillipses, and either Eddie Yarbrough, Eli Harold, or Mike Love. However, there is a possibility that Lawson cracks that top group, especially if Murphy is injured or ineffective, and that seventh-round draft choice Darryl Johnson earns a spot in the second group.

In any case, the Bills will rotate heavily along the defensive line again in order to keep their top unit fresh.

3 main X-Factors for the Carolina Panthers in 2019

The Carolina Panthers finished the 2018 season with a 7-9 record. That record wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs, effectively ending their run early.

However, a poor 2018 doesn’t necessarily have to foreshadow 2019. The Panthers have a lot of massive pieces in place that could help them to turn things around extremely quickly and find themselves in the playoffs again in 2019.

To do that though, Carolina will need some players to step up. They’ll need to be the X-Factors that can help the team reach new heights. Who are they exactly though?

Here are the three main X-Factors for the Carolina Panthers in 2019.

Cam Newton

Cam Newton is a pretty obvious one. As much as you’d expect Christian McCaffrey to be here, he isn’t. While McCaffrey is the MVP of the offense, Newton is the most important.

Look what happened when he had his best season in the NFL. Newton threw a career-high 35 touchdowns in 2015. He also had a career-low 10 interceptions. The Carolina Panthers went 15-1 and found their way to the Super Bowl.

Clearly, as Newton goes – so do the Panthers. If he can turn out an elite-level year, the sky is the limit. Therefore, although he isn’t the best offensive weapon they have, he’s the most important.

Greg Olsen

Since joining the Carolina Panthers in 2011, Greg Olsen has been one of the best tight ends in the entire NFL.

However, that claim hasn’t been backed up over the last two seasons. It’s not Olsen’s performance on the field that’s making people question the validity of the statement though – it’s injuries.

From 2011 to 2016, Olsen appeared in all 16 games of each season for the Panthers. In the last two seasons he’s only player in a combined 16 though.

Not only did he not play in a lot of games, but he rarely looked healthy in them either. This wasn’t the Olsen of old.

One of the reasons Cam Newton has looked so good in the past is having the elite Olsen as a fantastic safety net.

With a healthy Olsen on the roster, there’s a whole different wrinkle to the offense. He’s an elite route-runner who can get open and make the short-game and medium-games unstoppable. That helps open up the top of the defense and make the deep-threat lethal again as well.

Olsen will help the passing game, which in turns helps the rushing game. A good offense helps a defense as well. Basically, he means a lot to the Carolina Panthers.

Eric Reid

The Carolina Panthers have a weird secondary. It’s hard to identify them. Eric Reid in 13 games for them last year was exactly that identity.

Reid looked great at times, but definitely didn’t look like the elite safety he was in the past. However, 2018 was his first season with the Panthers.

Reid can still be that elite safety. He’s just 27 and still entering his prime. He’s also been the anchor of a defense back when he was with the San Francisco 49ers.

Last season, the Carolina Panthers were 15th in yards allowed and 19th in points allowed. When you see a team in the middle-of-the-pack like that, you have to wonder what way the scales will tip the next season.

It could all come down to one or two players. Can they play good enough to shift the defense into top-10 territory? Or will they falter and drop them down into bottom-1o territory?

For the Panthers, Eric Reid should be considered one of their best defensive backs. Due to that, it’s his play that could be the major difference in 2019 when it comes to their defense.

Just like how Greg Olsen and Cam Newton leading a good offense could help the defense, Eric Reid leading a good defense could help the offense succeed. If that happens, the Carolina Panthers could find themselves as Super Bowl contenders once again.

Due to that, it’s hard not to see these three as major X-Factors for the 2019 season.

Kerryon Johnson is the guy who will spoil ‘Game of Thrones’ for you

If you’re trying to avoid any chatter of “Game of Thrones” after an episode airs, you’d best avoid Detroit Lions second-year running back Kerryon Johnson. He wants to talk about it. He will talk about it.

And he does not care whether you’ve seen it or scream “spoiler alert” at him.

“I promise you, I don’t care nothing at all about it if you ain’t caught up,” Johnson said. “Look, I watched it. You can watch it. Man, I don’t care. I’ll spoil it. I’ll spoil it again, too.

“I don’t care. I don’t care.”

A few years ago, he wouldn’t have cared about “Game of Thrones” at all. Now, he’s invested enough not to want to wait even a minute to try and chat about it.

He started watching a few years ago, dug into Season 1 and stopped. He hated it. Was part of the “I’m not into Game of Thrones club” that occasionally pops up.

But he gave it another shot last year in training camp as a rookie with the Lions. Now he’s very, very invested, including “going crazy” after last Sunday’s episode, “Winterfell,” which marked a pivotal point in the series.

“Any off time we got, when I was doing all my other stuff, I try to get a little episode in and I got hooked, so now I’m watching it and Arya, Arya came through in the clutch and did her thing and I was going crazy in my room,” Johnson said. “I was running all around the room. Because I thought they were going to all die

“I really thought everybody was gone, like, ‘Oh. Well. You know, hey, he tried.’ But they came through and they did their thing so I’m happy the show is going where it’s going.”

Jags: No punishment for Fournette after arrest

Leonard Fournette will not face any punishment from the Jacksonville Jaguars after his arrest last week for driving on a suspended license.

Coach Doug Marrone said he spoke with Fournette about the incident and that the arrest — the latest trouble for the running back and 2017 fourth-overall pick — isn’t going to impact how they evaluate Fournette’s offseason.

“It doesn’t change it for me,” Marrone said Tuesday. “I don’t want to get into where I stand here and I’m trying to lessen anything, meaning that a law was broken. But at the same time, I don’t want to get into, ‘Oh my gosh, is that going to change my relationship?’ or anything like that. We’ll just see where we’re at.”

Marrone called the circumstances that led to Fournette’s arrest — failing to pay a speeding ticket from November — a mistake. He also said he made a similar mistake when he was an assistant coach at Georgia Tech from 1996-99.

Marrone said he received a speeding ticket while on the road recruiting (he doesn’t remember which state) and thought he had paid it. However, he found out he hadn’t when he was stopped for speeding in 1997 in Daytona Beach Shores, Florida, while driving Georgia Tech coach George O’Leary around to visit high school coaches in the area.

“I give them my license. I give them my rental car agreement. And as soon as he came back and he said, ‘You need to step out of the car,’ I said, ‘Damn,'” Marrone said. “I had no idea. Everything was racing through my mind. I made a mistake, so I had to get handcuffed, which is tough when you’re my size.”

Marrone was charged with driving on a suspended license and was released after O’Leary posted a $100 bond, per court records. He eventually paid a $163 fine, and learned a lesson he made sure he emphasized to Fournette.

“You want to make sure that you follow up on things and you follow through,” Marrone said. “Now I’m, like, crazy about it.”

Fournette was arrested last Thursday after a Jacksonville Sheriff’s officer pulled over a 2016 GMC Yukon that he clocked at 65 mph in a 45 mph zone. Fournette was charged with knowingly driving with a suspended license, speeding, and improper window tint on the side and rear windows.

Fournette’s license was suspended because he failed to pay a speeding ticket from Nov. 17, 2018. Per Duval County court records, Fournette paid that outstanding ticket ($227) the day after his arrest.

Defensive end Calais Campbell has the locker next to Fournette and said he spoke with the third-year player briefly about his situation when the offseason conditioning program began Monday.

“I won’t put words in his mouth or anything like that, but it was a good conversation,” Campbell said. “Nobody’s worried about what’s going to come from that. We’re confident that that’s going to pass over. He’s going to be ready to go to work. He came in in great shape. He looks good and has a good attitude, so I’m looking forward to seeing his progression and what he does this year.”

The Jaguars need Fournette to make the kind of impact he did as a rookie in 2017 (1,040 yards and nine TDs rushing) to complement the addition of quarterback Nick Foles in free agency. Fournette had a good start to the offseason, working out at the University of Wyoming with a former LSU strength coach to get away from distractions in his hometown of New Orleans.

Fournette reported to the team Monday for Phase One of the offseason conditioning program. The only two Jaguars players not in attendance are cornerback Jalen Ramsey and linebacker Telvin Smith.

Marrone said Tuesday afternoon that he had contacted each player but had yet to get a response.

Bears TE Miller retires 1½ years after leg injury

Bears tight end Zach Miller announced his retirement on Tuesday, more than a year and a half after suffering a catastrophic injury in Week 8 of the 2017 regular season that nearly cost him his left leg.

Miller, 34, was one of Chicago’s most consistent offensive performers from 2015-17, catching 101 passes for 1,161 yards and 11 touchdowns over parts of those three seasons.

Miller entered the NFL as a sixth-round draft pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2009, but battled injuries throughout most of his career. Miller landed in Chicago at the tail end of the 2013 season after being cut by the Jags and Buccaneers. The tight end spent the 2014 season on injured reserve before emerging as a key offensive contributor for the Bears in 2015.

The team honored Miller as the Bears’ 2018 Ed Block Courage Award winner last week, and the veteran, who has not played since the leg injury occurred close to 19 months ago, hinted that he planned to make a decision soon about his future.

“There will be a time, probably soon, that we’ll make that decision,” Miller said on April 9. “I haven’t made that decision yet. It’s something we’re exhausting every option we can. I know it’s getting close. I can’t hold it hostage forever. And I don’t plan to, but there are some things I need to try and do physically and see if it’s possible. What we’ve been doing rehab-wise and communication-wise with the franchise is we’re going to give it a little bit of time to kind of see where we go, and when that point comes, I know I’ll have given every single thing I had to do that. And I’ll be comfortable any which way that it happens.”

Miller was rushed to University Medical Center New Orleans on Oct. 29, 2017 after he dislocated his left knee while making an over-the-shoulder catch in the end zone against the New Orleans Saints.

Miller’s leg bent awkwardly on the play, and he stayed down for several minutes until he was taken off the field on a cart.

Officials later ruled that Miller did not maintain possession of the ball, negating a touchdown.

Doctors performed emergency vascular surgery that night to repair a damaged artery in Miller’s left leg that stemmed from the knee dislocation. Miller was hospitalized in New Orleans for eight days before being transported back to Chicago in a medevac jet.

Miller underwent a total of nine surgeries, but was a regular visitor to the Bears’ team facility last season, where he underwent rehabilitation on the leg and assisted whenever possible.

Miller is now able to walk without a noticeable limp, but admitted last week that he still experiences discomfort after he jogs.

As of last week, Miller said the Bears had not discussed any permanent non-football playing role for him moving forward, but given Miller’s popularity among teammates and fans, it would not be a surprise if the organization retained him in some capacity.

“I had a first-class seat throughout all of last year, and in a weird way it was one of my favorite seasons,” Miller said. “Not being able to be on the football field and do the things I love was difficult, but to see that whole thing take place, Coach Matt Nagy coming in and the regime change and everything put together, it was special because now you see the game through a different viewpoint.

“I’d love to do anything and everything I could to stay around this game I love.”

Vikings’ Griffen: ‘Rough year’ with mental health

Everson Griffen offered an introspective look at his life over the past few months and discussed the difficulties that came with returning to the field while dealing with personal issues related to his mental health.

At the start of offseason workouts, the Minnesota Vikings defensive end said he’s in a place where he finally feels like himself again after a “rough year.” Griffen was hospitalized when concerns arose over his well-being last September, which led to him miss five weeks of the 2018 season.

“It’s a progression each and every day,” Griffen said Tuesday. “I’m taking it day by day, staying consistent with my life outside of football with those matters and stuff like that, and I’m happy. I’m happy.

“Am I back to myself? Yeah, I’m back to smiling, joking, that fun guy to be around, but I truly have an understanding of the things that I have to hold myself accountable with day in and day out. That’s what I took upon myself this offseason to handle and make sure I got a good handle on that, to be able to come back with an open mind and ready to play football at a high level again.”

Everson Griffen took a pay cut to remain in familiar surroundings with the Vikings.

Griffen returned to action in a Week 8 loss to New Orleans and finished the season with 5.5 sacks, his lowest output since his days as a situational pass-rusher in 2013. Getting back to his routine as a football player came with its own set of challenges. While the Pro Bowl defensive end applauded the Vikings organization for handling his situation “perfectly,” trying to work through what he was dealing with off the field while maintaining his production on it proved difficult.

“To be honest, it was more of a get-through,” Griffen said. “I need to get through this. I need to be tough. … I enjoyed coming here because I’m a competitor, but it was more of a get-through because of how much I had on my plate. So it was more of a get-through. So I didn’t really get the chance to enjoy it as much as I normally do.

“… Now it’s time that I can enjoy it and bring that enjoyment, but still enjoy life. Find that balance. That’s what I really want to find, that balance.”

Last month, the 10th-year defensive end agreed to a contract restructure before his salary was set to become fully guaranteed on the third day of the league year. Griffen took a near $3 million pay cut to remain with the team that drafted him in 2010 and admitted that his struggles on the field gave him a feeling that restructuring his contract was inevitable.

“When I’m me, when I’m myself, I can play well,” Griffen said. “And last year I wasn’t myself. If I was myself, I wouldn’t have to take a pay cut — if I was myself, if I was playing at the level I know I can play at each and every year. But I wasn’t, and sometimes things happen in your life that you have to get better with and you have to move forward and you have to learn from it. And this was a big learning experience and I dealt with some stuff.

“But now I’m comfortable, I’m happy, my family’s happy, my kids are happy and that’s what matters the most to me right now. Sitting here and being free and understanding where I can go and what I can do.”

Though Griffen said the Vikings didn’t approach him about taking a pay cut until close to the start of free agency, where the 31-year-old pass-rusher wants to be for the rest of his career was never in question.

“With me, it was bigger than football,” he said. “I took it upon myself and my family to make the right decision to stay here because I want to be a Viking for life and it’s rewarding because I know the people here love me and they have my best interest in mind. I just wanted to come back here and finish what I started. It feels good to be back in this building and being a Viking and just being around all my boys. This is going on my 10th year and I’m very blessed to be where I’m at right now and really, I’m just happy. I’m just happy to be standing here in front of you guys in this place I’m in right now.”

Perfectly balanced: Baltimore Ravens’ schedule is fair and rare

Lamar Jackson first season opener as a starting quarterback comes at Miami on Sept. 8.

The NFL has released its 2019 regular-season schedule. Here’s a look at what’s in store for the Baltimore Ravens.

Game-by-game predictions

Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley is predicting a 9-7 finish:

Sept. 8: at Miami, Win

Sept. 15: vs. Arizona, Win

Sept. 22: at Kansas City, Loss

Sept. 29: vs. Cleveland, Win

Oct. 6: at Pittsburgh, Loss

Oct. 13: vs. Cincinnati, Win

Oct. 20: at Seattle, Loss

Nov. 3: vs. New England, Loss

Nov. 10: at Cincinnati, Win

Nov. 17: vs. Houston, Loss

Nov. 25: at LA Rams, Loss

Dec. 1: vs. San Francisco, Win

Dec. 8: at Buffalo, Win

Dec. 12: vs. New York Jets, Win

Dec. 22: at Cleveland, Loss

Dec. 29: vs. Pittsburgh, Win

Strength of schedule: .496 (T-14th)


The Ravens become the fourth team since the NFL switched to a 16-game schedule in 1978 to receive a perfectly balanced schedule, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Over the past 41 years, the only other teams to alternate home and away every game of the season were the 1985 Atlanta Falcons (finished 4-12), the 1991 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-13) and the 2012 Falcons (13-3). Baltimore is slated for three prime-time games (the same number as last season): Sunday night at home against the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots (Nov. 3), Monday night at the Super Bowl runners-up Los Angeles Rams (Nov. 25) and Thursday night at home against the New York Jets (Dec. 12). This marks the Ravens’ first home Sunday night game since their 2012 Super Bowl season.

Notable homecomings

Lamar Jackson’s first season opener as a starting quarterback comes at Miami, which is just an hour drive from where he played high school football in Boynton Beach, Florida. The Ravens will also have reunions with three starters from last year’s top-ranked defense, facing Terrell Suggs and the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2, Eric Weddle and the Rams in 12, and C.J. Mosley and the New York Jets in Week 15. New Baltimore safety Earl Thomas returns to Seattle to meet his former team in Week 7.

Midseason test

The Ravens face one postseason team from last year in the first six games. The schedule becomes much more challenging after that. Baltimore’s toughest stretch comes in the middle of the season. Starting Week 7, the Ravens play four 2018 playoff teams in a five-game span: at Seattle, home against New England and Houston and at the Rams. This span features four starting quarterbacks — Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, Deshaun Watson and Jared Goff — who have combined for 23 Pro Bowls.

Schedule twist with Steelers

The Ravens are not scheduled to face their archrivals in prime time for the first time since 2006. If neither game against the Steelers is flexed, it would end a 12-year streak in which Baltimore battled Pittsburgh in front of a national audience. The Ravens also meet the Steelers at an unusual time on the schedule. Baltimore will play Pittsburgh in the regular-season finale for the first time since 2007, when the Ravens beat the Steelers, 27-21, in Brian Billick’s final game as the Baltimore head coach.

Can Kyler Murray rewrite years of NFL draft history and go No. 1?

You’d think the NFL, the corporate and cultural behemoth of American sports, would have a set of rules governing the attributes of a franchise quarterback.

You’d think, 100 years into this thing, it would have a stone-scroll template that determines how it chooses the young men who become the most exalted and fetishized athletes in the game.

You would be wrong — not that it doesn’t try. Oh god, how it tries. It has the combine and the pro days and the interviews and the individual workouts and the jumps and the leaps and the shuttles and the endless measuring and the computerized timing and whatever else it can think of to analyze a human being within a centimeter of his life. And yet, when it comes to what’s important and predictive as it pertains to a presumptive franchise quarterback, your guess is probably as good as theirs.

History shows us he can be slow. He can be weak. He can be dumb. He can be a bad teammate. He can even combine a few of those at once and still get drafted before the first bank of commercials. But as the NFL defined itself as America’s favorite pseudo-religion, and as the dumb and the weak and the slow cleared the underbrush for future generations of dumb and weak and slow, there remained just one thing a quarterback couldn’t be: short. Football’s merchants of speculation might argue about Wonderlic scores, hand sizes and the pitfalls of a country-club background, but they all view short the same way: quantifiable and damned obvious. Short can’t hide.

Being tall excuses just about everything. If he’s 6-4 and dumb, they’ll call him football-smart. If he’s 6-4 and slow, they’ll tout his real or imagined ability to move in the pocket. If he’s 6-4 and weak, they’ll change his diet and point him toward the weight room. If he’s 6-4 and a bad teammate, they’ll surround him with veterans who can fix that right quick. Every flaw can be worked around or compensated for or beaten out, organizationally speaking. Except height.

Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray measured 5-10 1/8 at the combine, and the number was reported as an achievement, maybe even a defining moment in the Heisman Trophy winner’s career. He is small, not just for a quarterback but for a high school point guard. And yet the Arizona Cardinals just might make him the first pick of the 2019 NFL draft.

How did this happen? Did the NFL’s thinking change? Or is Kyler Murray that rarest of humans — the kind who can change the NFL’s thinking?

"Here's the one thing you need to know about Kyler," says former NFL quarterback and coach Jim Zorn. "Short goes away when you see what he can do."

MURRAY IS MANY things other than short. He is wickedly fast, smart, strong and slightly mysterious. He throws the ball with both ease and a force that can be measured audibly. He possesses an undercover agent’s awareness of his immediate surroundings and a distant reserve that is easily — and inaccurately, according to those who know — taken for cold detachment.

Some of the stories seem to border on the apocryphal. He is so fast that his center at Oklahoma, Creed Humphrey, swears there were times he would block on a quarterback draw and “feel the wind coming off him when he’d go by.” At the risk of further hyperbole, Murray’s athletic ability might be generationally transcendent. By the end of April, he will be the only person ever drafted in the first round in both Major League Baseball (ninth, by Oakland, in 2018) and the NFL. The Athletics gave him a $4.7 million bonus and projected him to be their star center fielder of the future. They also gave him their blessing when he said he wanted to play one more year of football at Oklahoma, which he turned into 4,361 yards passing, 1,001 yards rushing and that Heisman. The Athletics’ generosity came with a cost; now he’s someone else’s quarterback of the future. (Unless, of course, they return with the offer of a major league contract that might be lucrative enough to change his mind one more time. Baker Mayfield got $32.7 million guaranteed as last year’s No. 1 pick — the A’s could double that if they choose.)

The analytics that recommended Mayfield, another undersized Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Oklahoma, serve Murray well. Murray’s 11.6 yards per pass attempt was the highest by an FBS quarterback since 2004. And despite his height, he had just four balls batted down or defended within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage last season. Daniel Jones, a 6-5 likely first-round pick from Duke, had 14. In addition, the NFL’s lean toward more spread-style offenses (the kind Kliff Kingsbury will employ with the Cardinals) has lessened the perceived risk of a short quarterback. Evaluators can point to Russell Wilson and Drew Brees as evidence that shorter quarterbacks can find passing lanes inside and outside the pocket, and they can fulfill themselves by comparing Murray to Wilson-despite vast differences in speed and style-because nobody has much of an imagination anymore.

“Kyler’s always had bigger people in front of him,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley says. “He’s always had to find creative arm angles, find different lanes, move in the pocket to create them. He’s had to deal with it forever. I’ve always said, ‘If you’re going to be short now, you’d rather be short the whole time.'”

It’s an interesting recommendation: Look, we know he’s short, but he’s always been short.

“Don’t look at his film from college or even high school,” says Tom Westerberg, Murray’s head coach at Allen High, north of Dallas. “Look at peewee football or middle school. He’s always been what he is now — a small quarterback. There was never a time when he was one of the bigger ones on the field. This is all he knows, and I think he’s going to challenge the NFL’s thinking and then blow it out of the water.”

Murray started for Riley at Oklahoma for just one year, and yet when Riley is asked if there’s one play that typifies Murray’s rare skills, he is silent for a full 13 seconds as he sorts them through his mind. Finally, he says it happened midway through last season, against Texas, when the Sooners’ offensive linemen so thoroughly botched a play that it’s a wonder they all made it out alive. The ball was snapped, and the right guard and right tackle pulled to the left while the left tackle pulled to the right. As they tried to dodge one another — there’s a split second where it seems plausible the right guard might ask the left tackle what he’s doing there — Murray acted as if this were the plan all along. He maneuvered past the pileup, sidestepped an unblocked defensive end, turned the corner and ran 67 yards for a touchdown.

“Here’s the one thing you need to know about Kyler,” says former NFL quarterback and coach Jim Zorn, who worked with Murray to prepare him for his pro day. “Short goes away when you see what he can do.”

THE MAKING OF a legend, in three parts:

I. Jeff Fleener was an assistant coach at Allen High — home of the $60 million, 18,000-seat stadium — when he first heard that Kevin Murray had started a business to train high school and college quarterbacks in the area.

Another coach told him, “Kevin’s son can get it.”

That’s a good tip, right? Son of a former star quarterback is training in your area, be worth your time to check it out.

“Oh yeah? How old is he?” Fleener asked.

“He’s 9, but I’m telling you …”

Fleener cut him off. “OK, whatever. I mean — he’s 9.”

The guy shrugged and raised his eyebrows in a suit-yourself kind of way.

“I’m just telling you,” he said, “the kid can flat-out throw — and he can fly.”

“Yeah, but he’s 9,” Fleener said.

“Yeah,” the guy said, “but just you wait.”

II. When Oklahoma running back Trey Sermon was at Sprayberry High School in Marietta, Georgia, the last thing his quarterback did before he took the field on Friday night was take out his phone and watch a highlight video to get hyped for the game.

Sermon asked him what he was watching, and the quarterback just held the phone up and said, “Kid from Texas. Kyler Murray.”

The quarterback knew this Murray kid had never lost a high school game. Eventually, he would go on to win three straight state championships at Allen and enter the conversation about the best and most famous prep player in Texas history.

Back in that locker room in Marietta, Sermon watched the video to its end, and when that little kid was finished running past people and throwing over them, Sermon looked at his quarterback and said, “Wow. He’s something else.”

III. Lincoln Riley is sitting in a deep leather couch in his office when he’s asked to recall his first impressions of Murray. The office has the feel of a sacristy — ornate furnishings, ceilings tall enough to create echo-y acoustics, a Vatican-level shrine of the sponsor’s brand of sneakers on one wall. It’s an oligarch’s office presided over by a 35-year-old guy in a sweatsuit and a baseball cap. The scene is worth mentioning because A) guys like Murray helped to build it, and B) it’s so comically outsized and ostentatious that even Riley seems a little embarrassed by it.

Asked about Murray, Riley tugs at the bill of his OU golf cap and starts talking about the one and only occasion he’s known Murray to run a timed 40-yard dash, right after Murray transferred to Oklahoma in 2015.

“He left Texas A&M and came here after the first semester ended, early December, so by the time we got him he hadn’t been playing a sport for about six weeks,” Riley says. “It was the first time in his life he wasn’t playing a sport, and it was easily the most out of shape I’ve ever seen him. For him, he was kind of pudgy. I knew he was very athletic, but I thought he might come in here and run a 4.5, which for a quarterback is blazing fast. Well, we tested him the first week he got here and he ran a 4.3 on a laser. That was just like — wow. Out of shape — wow. And that’s the last 40 he’ll ever run in his life.”

Is that why Murray didn’t run at the combine or his pro day?

Riley draws his words out like blown glass.

“There … is … no … need.”

"I think he's going to challenge the NFL's thinking and then blow it out of the water," says Murray's high school coach, Tom Westerberg.

VIEWED FROM A certain angle, Kyler Murray’s life has taken shape as a variation on a theme. Thirty-six years before Kyler became an Athletic, 18-year-old Kevin Murray, Kyler’s dad, was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers and played one unsatisfying year in the minors before deciding to play quarterback at Texas A&M. He was sued by the Brewers, who claimed breach of contract and demanded that Kevin’s $35,000 signing bonus be repaid.

After leaving baseball, Kevin led the Aggies to two Southwest Conference championships, set SWC records for total offense and sat through 12 rounds of the 1987 draft without hearing his name. Nineteen quarterbacks — Mark Vlasic, Sammy Garza, Ken Lambiotte, Dave Walter from Michigan Tech — were taken in 12 rounds of that draft, and a Dallas Morning News story on Kevin after the draft ran under the headline, “He’s a QB Nobody Wants.” In the story, one NFL scout, as if calling out a 1987 bingo card for criticizing black quarterbacks, said the league decided Kevin was “a little arrogant, didn’t always go to school; his work habits are not good and he’s moody.” There was talk that he was an inaccurate passer, despite his completing nearly 60 percent of his passes at a place and time when throwing the ball happened primarily on third-and-10. An unnamed A&M official at the time told the Morning News that Kevin wasn’t drafted because he was black, and Lynn Amedee, A&M’s offensive coordinator, said, “Somebody blackballed him.”

Kevin, who still runs a quarterback-training service, was a prominent figure at Kyler’s pro day workout in Norman. He was on the field helping his son warm up before his throwing drills, and he and his wife, Missy, stood directly behind Kyler as Zorn led the throwing session. “Kevin isn’t there so he can say, ‘Look what I’ve done,'” Zorn says. “He’s supporting his son. The son could say, ‘Dad, go away,’ and he would. But Kyler respects his dad and appreciates what he’s doing for him.” When I introduced myself to Kevin earlier in the day and told him I’d like to interview him in the coming weeks for this story, he nodded noncommittally and flashed a look that discouraged further conversation.

“Kevin is tough,” Westerberg says. “He has a pretty good front to people who don’t know him. He definitely wants what is best for his son, but he is not a coddling parent. If Kyler does something wrong, he’s going to get the same look Kevin gave you.”

Camp Murray is a tightly sealed ecosystem but is not without its complications: Kevin’s brother, former big league outfielder Calvin Murray, is a longtime lieutenant of agent Scott Boras, who handled Kyler’s baseball negotiations. When Kyler announced his decision to play football instead of baseball, any further public discussion of baseball was prohibited. Kyler and his parents declined to be interviewed for this story, and two sources — despite having nothing but laudatory things to say about Kyler — had to clear it with the family before consenting to speak.

No man’s distrust is abstract, untethered to the lines and angles that shape his life, and in that light, Kevin’s protection of Kyler is understandable. Kyler is a 21-year-old public figure in a hypercritical environment where everyone has a voice, and opinions are wielded like knives. The insulation and learned circumspection is part of the reason Kyler lives in the spotlight and yet remains unconstrained by it. Athletes would seem to face a binary choice: Embrace the fame or avoid it. Either on guard or onstage. Murray resides in a third realm: He ignores its very existence. If you don’t acknowledge it, is it really there? And when it’s been there as long as you can remember — when coaches know your name when you’re 9 and kids four states over are watching your high school highlights as pregame hype — does it eventually blend into the background, just more white noise?

“Kyler’s aware of the attention — he just doesn’t care,” Riley says. “When he first got here, it was almost like he was a little anti-social. He’s come to embrace it a little more. He doesn’t dread that part of it now. When he first got here, he didn’t want to do interviews. He was like, ‘It’s not going to help me become a better football player, so why should I do it?’ Not to be a jerk — it’s just not him. I told him, ‘If you want to be what you want to be — an NFL quarterback or an All-Star center fielder — this is part of it. You have to develop this part just like you do other parts of your game.'”

Did he? Riley says Murray got better, that he tried, but there’s not a lot of conviction in his words, and the results are inconclusive. During Super Bowl week, Murray appeared on the Dan Patrick Show as part of a promotional gig for Gatorade, and the interview devolved into an excruciating question-and-nonanswer session about whether he would play baseball or football. He assiduously avoided any in-depth media interviews as the draft approached. CeeDee Lamb, an Oklahoma receiver who caught 1,158 yards’ worth of passes from Murray last year, says he’s never met anyone who can isolate himself from outside influences, good and bad, the way Murray can. He laughs just thinking about it and says, “Kyler, man — he’s away from everything. Honestly, I don’t know how he does it.”

And within those words is a mystery that remains unsolved: Is he blocking it all out, or taking it all in? Someone, probably someone in Arizona, is about to launch a revolt against the establishment, and who better to lead than a guy who leaves expectations flailing in his wake? Murray’s next challenge is both enormous and simple: upend decades of convention and, along the way, determine whether new expectations represent limits — or possibilities.

Cleveland Browns’ schedule set up for December playoff push

Baker Mayfield and the Browns will have plenty of prime-time opportunities.

The NFL has released its 2019 regular-season schedule. Here’s a look at what’s in store for the Cleveland Browns.

Game-by-game prediction:

Browns reporter Pat McManamon is predicting an 11-5 finish:

Sept. 8: vs Tennessee, Win

Sept. 16 (Monday): at New York Jets, Win

Sept. 22 (Sunday night): vs. L.A. Rams, Loss

Sept. 29: at Baltimore, Win

Oct. 7 (Monday): at San Francisco, Loss

Oct. 13: vs. Seattle, Loss

Oct. 20: Bye

Oct. 27: at New England, Loss

Nov. 3: at Denver, Win

Nov. 10: vs. Buffalo, Win

Nov. 14 (Thursday): vs. Pittsburgh, Win

Nov. 24: vs. Miami, Win

Dec. 1: at Pittsburgh, Loss

Dec. 8: vs. Cincinnati, Win

Dec. 15: at Arizona, Win

Dec. 22: vs Baltimore, Win

Dec. 29: at Cincinnati, Win

Strength of schedule 23rd, .484


Odell Beckham Jr.’s first game with the Browns will be in Cleveland against Tennessee, a team the Browns should be favored to beat. But the most eye-opening reality of the 2019 schedule is that the NFL gave the Browns a December made for a playoff run. The Browns close against Cincinnati, at Arizona, Baltimore and at Cincinnati. Those three teams combined for 19 wins in 2018, and the Browns handled the Bengals in both games last season, winning both by a combined score of 61-38. If the Browns improve as the season goes on — something good teams do — and if they want to live up to the excitement generated by the arrival of Beckham and the development of Baker Mayfield, their success will come in how they close the season.

Challenging start

Though Tennessee is far from the most difficult opener — the Titans were 9-7 last season — the Browns do have a tough first few weeks. They play at New York on Monday night in Week 2 against a Jets team that has high hopes, return home for a short week to play the Rams’ powerful offense in Week 3, follow with the division champion Ravens and then travel for a Monday night game against Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers. A home game against Seattle and the trip to New England round out the first seven. Four of those first seven games are against 2018 playoff teams (including the Super Bowl champions), and two are against teams that figure to be much improved in 2019 (the Jets and 49ers).

Ready for prime time

The excitement over the Browns is reflected in the four prime-time games — three in the first five weeks of the season. The Browns travel to play the Jets on Monday night in Week 2, face the Rams the following Sunday night in Week 3 and play at San Francisco on Monday night in Week 5. The final night game scheduled is Thursday against Pittsburgh on Nov. 14. If the Browns live up to expectations, they could be flexed into three more night games — two late in the season (beginning Week 11) and the other in the finale, when any team’s game could be shifted. The Browns have not been on Sunday Night Football since Sept. 14, 2008. The last time they were on Monday Night Football was the infamous “kick-six” game Nov. 30, 2015, when the Browns saw a winning field goal attempt blocked by Baltimore and returned for a touchdown on the final play.

Cincinnati Bengals’ schedule has rough road early again

A.J. Green and the Bengals have three of their first four games on the road in 2019.

The NFL has released its 2019 regular-season schedule. Here’s a look at what’s in store for the Cincinnati Bengals:

Game-by-game prediction

Bengals reporter Katherine Terrell is predicting an 8-8 finish:

Sept. 8: at Seattle, Loss

Sept. 15: vs. 49ers, Win

Sept. 22: at Buffalo, Win

Sept. 30: at Pittsburgh (Monday), Loss

Oct. 6: vs. Arizona, Win

Oct. 13: at Baltimore, Win

Oct. 20: vs. Jacksonville, Loss

Oct. 27: vs. L.A. Rams (at London), Loss

Nov. 10: vs. Baltimore, Loss

Nov. 17: at Oakland, Win

Nov. 24: vs. Pittsburgh, Win

Dec. 1: vs. New York Jets, Win

Dec. 8: at Cleveland, Loss

Dec. 15: vs. New England, Loss

Dec. 22: at Miami, Win

Dec. 29: vs. Cleveland, Loss

Strength of schedule: .473 (T-20th)


There’s no doubt about it: This is a tough schedule. The Bengals have to play the Patriots and the Rams, who were both in the Super Bowl last year, a 49ers team that will get quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo back, and an improved Browns team that beat them twice last season. The organization has been trying to find the spark to get the fans back into the stands at Paul Brown Stadium, but if they struggle early on the road, they might not see the fans come back all year. Unlike previous seasons, there’s no real “break” in the schedule. The opponents that seem like the biggest challenge are spread throughout the season.

Quick start needed

The league schedule makers didn’t exactly take it easy on new coach Zac Taylor. The Bengals start off at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, historically one of the toughest venues to play in the NFL, then have to travel to Buffalo in Week 3 and to Pittsburgh in Week 4 on Monday Night Football. The Bengals haven’t beaten Pittsburgh since 2015. If the Bengals play like they did last September, when they finished 3-1 despite going on the road three times, they have a fighting chance. But if the 2018 late-season Bengals show up, things could be over before it even really starts.

Logging mileage

This could be the most air miles the Bengals ever log in one season. Their four longest trips: at Seattle, against the Rams in London, at Oakland and at Miami add up to almost 10,000 miles of travel. This might be an exhausted team by the time they get to December, where they’ll face the Browns twice in addition to the Patriots.