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NFL morning after: The four best teams advance

marshawn AP

Let’s be honest: That wasn’t a very good weekend of football.

Now let’s look on the bright side: That’s because the four teams we’ll watch in the conference championships on Sunday — San Francisco at Seattle in the NFC and New England at Denver in the AFC — are the four best teams in the NFL. By a lot.

The 49ers, Seahawks, Patriots and Broncos were all considered strong Super Bowl contenders heading into the season, they all went 13-3 or 12-4 during the season, they were all favored to win this weekend and they all won in convincing fashion. What we have are four superior football teams advancing to the conference championships.

That doesn’t happen every year. The Ravens were 10-6 in their Super Bowl-winning season last year. The Giants were 9-7 the year before that and the Packers 10-6 the year before that. In the NFL in the last few years, the Super Bowl hasn’t featured the best teams. It has featured the teams that got hot in the playoffs.

I like it better this way. The Seahawks and 49ers are great teams with a great rivalry. The Broncos and Patriots are great teams with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks who have battled each other for more than a decade. The combined record of the four teams still in the title hunt is 50-14, the best combined record of the final four teams in the playoffs in the last 15 years. This is what championship football should be like.

Here are my notes from the weekend:

For three quarters, the Broncos looked like the most complete team in the NFL. We all know Denver’s Peyton Manning-led passing game is great, but the Broncos were good all over the place for the first three quarters against the Chargers. Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball were a very strong 1-2 punch running the ball. Denver’s defense held a very good San Diego offense in check for most of the game. Early in the game, even the Broncos’ bad plays looked like flukes, not like major problems. But the Broncos’ fourth-quarter letdown may be a concern: A comfortable 17-0 lead turned into a closer-than-it-should-have-been 24-17 win. The Broncos will need to play well for four quarters to beat the Patriots.

LeGarrette Blount is something special. The Patriots made Blount the focal point of their offense on Saturday, and he rewarded them in a major way, carrying 24 times for 166 yards and four touchdowns. (Blount has only played in one postseason game, and he has more career postseason rushing touchdowns than Barry Sanders and Walter Payton combined.) Blount has always had a phenomenal combination of speed and power, but after a great rookie season in Tampa Bay in 2010, he was largely a forgotten man with the Bucs. Now the Patriots are getting the most out of his talents. One of the primary differences between a bad coach like Greg Schiano and a great coach like Bill Belichick is that Schiano saw Blount as a problem to get rid of, while Belichick saw Blount as an opportunity to make the most of.

Marshawn Lynch is a beast in the playoffs. Lynch has only played in five postseason games in his career, and he has topped 130 rushing yards in three of them: He had 140 yards in Sunday’s win over New Orleans, 132 yards in last year’s win over Washington, and 131 yards in Seattle’s playoff win three years ago over New Orleans, the game in which Lynch reeled off one of the greatest runs in NFL history. Only two players in NFL history — Terrell Davis with five and Thurman Thomas with four — have more 130-yard games in the playoffs than Lynch’s three.

Dan Skuta got the weakest flag of the weekend. Skuta, a 49ers linebacker, made a great play to fight through a block, hit Cam Newton and wrap him up for a sack in the fourth quarter. But the referee somehow claimed that Skuta had committed “roughing the quarterback” by hitting Newton in the head. I’m all for player safety, but the idea that a linebacker can’t tackle a quarterback the way Skuta tackled Newton is ridiculous.

The Panthers needed more from their running backs. Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams, who just finished the third season of a five-year, $43 million contract, gained 13 yards on five carries on Sunday. Carolina fullback Mike Tolbert, who just finished the second year of a four-year, $8.2 million contract, gained 20 yards on eight carries. (Running back Jonathan Stewart, who just finished the second year of a five-year, $36.5 million contract, was inactive with a knee injury.) A team that’s devoting as much salary cap space to running backs needs a lot more production from them than that. Cam Newton, who had 54 yards on 10 carries, was the only Panther who was a consistent threat on the ground.

The Trent Richardson trade was terrible. There are no two ways about it, the Colts made a huge mistake when they gave up their 2014 first-round draft pick to acquire Richardson from the Browns. Richardson ended the playoffs with four carries for a grand total of one yard, with one fumble. That’s horrific. In the regular season Richardson gave the Colts 157 carries for 458 yards, a pathetic average of 2.9 yards a carry. If Richardson can’t show significant improvement in the offseason and the 2014 preseason, can he even make the Colts’ 53-man roster next year?

The Saints’ clock management was abysmal. There will be plenty of blame to go around in New Orleans this week after the Saints’ loss at Seattle. But a big share of the blame should go to coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, both of whom were responsible for some atrocious clock management. Twice in the fourth quarter Payton and Brees wasted timeouts because they couldn’t get the play called and the offense set in time to avoid a delay of game penalty. And Payton wasted the Saints’ final timeout challenging a Seahawks catch that was clearly ruled correctly on the field. You simply can’t waste all three of your timeouts when you’re trying to come from behind in the fourth quarter, but that’s what the Saints did.

The trumpet national anthem was awesome. Instead of famous singers who try way too hard to put their own spin on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the Carolina Panthers got trumpeter Jesse McGuire to play the national anthem, and he was outstanding. How about bringing him back for the Super Bowl, NFL? That was an anthem fit for a great game, which this year’s Super Bowl — whether it’s the 49ers or Seahawks, Broncos or Patriots — is virtually guaranteed to be.

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Todd Bowles doesn’t rule out carrying four quarterbacks

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 19:  Head coach Todd Bowles of the New York Jets during play against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on December 19, 2015 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) Getty Images

Not long ago, the Jets were trying to sell the idea that Geno Smith would be the team’s starting quarterback. Now, they’re trying to sell the idea that Smith, the only quarterback inherited by the current regime, won’t be dumped in favor of 2015 draft pick Bryce Petty and 2016 draft pick Christian Hackenberg.

Keeping Smith could mean keeping four quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. Coach Todd Bowles was asked on Friday how conceivable keeping four quarterbacks would be.

“It’s conceivable,” Bowles told reporters. “It all depends on the strengths and weaknesses of other positions, because you have to steal from a position to keep a position and we have pretty good competition right now at about five positions, at least. It’s going to come down to seeing who we’re able to keep and who’s able to perform and who’s able to do things where we can steal one from another and who can play a dual role and have some versatility. It’s early, but we’ll see how it works out.”

Bowles pointed out that he once played on a Washington team that carried four quarterbacks, but that it happened in the days before the salary cap.

Bowles also made it clear that counting reps won’t be the best way to spot the man in danger of being cut.

“It’s not just if you get the least reps, you’re not going to be on the team,” Bowles said. “Sometimes you only need a little bit to show a lot and that’s at every position and that’s how we evaluate. We’re not going to evaluate somebody because they start out third team — and I’m not just talking about the quarterback spot — so you can make plays in a small amount of time to make an impact depending on what our need is for making this team.”

The Jets have no reason to admit that Smith or any other quarterback is in danger of being cut. They surely hope that someone will offer to trade for one of them. That’s why anything the team says about wanting to keep Smith should be taken with a grain of salt. They have to act like they want him in order to ever have any hope of training him.

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Bills hope Manny Lawson doesn’t have a long-term injury

DETROIT, MI - NOVEMBER 24: Manny Lawson #91 of the Buffalo Bills celebrates a third quarter blocked kick recovery while playing the New York Jets at Ford Field on November 24, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images) Getty Images

With Mario Williams gone, the Bills are counting on Manny Lawson stepping in and stepping up. For now, however, the Bills don’t have Lawson, because he injured himself working out on his own shortly before training camp.

While most stints on the non-football injury list will be temporary, the Bills are still waiting to learn more about Lawson’s absence. On Friday, G.M. Doug Whaley was asked whether Manny Lawson’s absence could be a long one.

“We’ll have to assess and get information from the medical staff here pretty soon and hopefully not,” Whaley told reporters. “We don’t anticipate it, but again, you never know with these things.”

Whaley said Manny Lawson suffered an upper body injury. If he’s not available, IK Enemkpali will have even more opportunities with the Bills.

“I’m excited about IK and I’ve mentioned that before,” coach Rex Ryan told reporters on Friday. “It may give him an opportunity to get the majority of the reps at the one.”

If Manny Lawson’s absence is extended, the team may look to add players at the position — especially since first-rounder Shaq Lawson could be missing much of his rookie year.

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Jets’ GM says Geno Smith remains in team’s plans

Geno Smith AP

Jets quarterback Geno Smith was essentially demoted when the team re-signed Ryan Fitzpatrick earlier this week, and Smith hasn’t hidden the fact that he’s not happy about it.

Still, Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan told reporters Friday that Smith remains in the team’s plans.

Asked if he expected Smith to be on the opening day roster, Maccagnan said he “assumes” that answer is yes and said the team likes Smith.

The team will almost certainly end up either moving on from Smith or second-year quarterback Bryce Petty after drafting Christian Hackenberg last spring. That’s a decision Maccagnan doesn’t have to make now, but Smith knows he might also be auditioning for other teams.

Jets Coach Todd Bowles praised Smith in the offseason. Whether that was about trade value or whether the team still thinks Smith could end up being in its long-term plans might is unclear, and a lot could depend on what happens over the next four or five weeks with all of the team’s quarterbacks.

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Roethlisberger honors Heath Miller on first day of camp

Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller AP

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger paid tribute Friday to retired tight end Heath Miller by wearing Miller’s No. 83 jersey for the start of training camp.

Friday marked the start of the Steelers’ first camp without Miller since 2004. He was a first-round pick in 2005 who caught 45 career touchdown passes and went to two Pro Bowls.

Miller announced his retirement in February.

The Steelers tweeted a video of Roethlisberger taking the field in the No. 83 jersey on their official Twitter account.

Ladarius Green figures as the team’s new No. 1 tight end after signing with the Steelers in March, but he’s starting camp on the PUP list. His absence means extra reps for tight ends Jesse James and David Johnson.

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Texans extend G.M. Rick Smith’s contract through 2020

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 22: Houston Texans General manager Rick Smith watches the New York Jets and Houston Texans warm up on November 22, 2015 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images) Getty Images

With the signing of quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller, the Texans were one of the busier teams in the early days of free agency.

They aren’t going to wait to see how those moves or any of the others they made this offseason work out before deciding on General Manager Rick Smith’s future with the team. The Texans have extended Smith’s contract, which was due to expire after this season, through the 2020 campaign.

“Rick’s doing a good job for us, and I think stability in the organization is important,” owner Bob McNair said, via John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. “He works hard. He’s very diligent. He communicates well. He knows what our objectives are. Rick has put together a good scouting staff, and he works well with the coaching staff. I thought this was a good time to get this done.”

Smith is the second G.M. in the history of the franchise. He succeeded Charley Casserley in 2006 and built the first Texans teams to advance to the postseason. They took a step back in 2013 and 2014 and had a rough draft in 2013 outside of wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, but returned to the postseason as AFC South champs last year and McNair clearly believes Smith will continue to be successful in the years to come.

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Panthers first-rounder Vernon Butler carted off practice field with cramps

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Draftee Vernon Butler of Louisiana Tech arrives at the 2016 NFL Draft on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Kena Krutsinger/Getty Images) Getty Images

In the early days of training camp, the most dreaded sight is the flatbed cart.

It made its appearance at Panthers camp today, to haul first-round pick Vernon Butler off the practice field, via Bill Voth of Black and Blue Review.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said moments later that Butler was suffering from cramps, alleviating some of the concern.

Butler is a key piece for the Panthers for several reasons, even beyond his presence on the field. Having another interior presence should help them keep waves of linemen coming, and add to a pass-rush that isn’t as well-stocked at defensive end.

But he’s also a useful deterrent/insurance policy in the ongoing Kawann Short contract talks, allowing General Manager Dave Gettleman some cover for the future if they can’t work out a deal with Short.

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Raiders parting ways with Roy Helu

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 06:  Roy Helu #26 of the Oakland Raiders rushes with the ball against the Kansas City Chiefs during their NFL game at O.co Coliseum on December 6, 2015 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Raiders put running back Roy Helu on the physically unable to perform list at the start of camp because he had surgery on both hips this offseason, but it’s going to be a brief stay.

The change isn’t because Helu is moving back to the active roster. Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said Friday that the team has removed Helu from the 90-man roster entirely and replacing him with defensive tackle Derrick Lott.

Helu signed with the Raiders in March 2015, but he was hurt during training camp and wound up getting just 17 carries and nine receptions in nine appearances with the team. His hip problems suggested more of the same could be on tap this season and the Raiders will look elsewhere for backs to complement Latavius Murray.

They have 2016 fifth-rounder DeAndre Washington, Taiwan Jones, George Atkinson and Jalen Richard on hand to compete for that role now.

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Eli, Cruz say Beckham needs to be careful with his emotions

Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham Jr. AP

Giants receiver Odell Beckham’s 2015 season ended with a suspension for repeated personal fouls in an ongoing skirmish with Josh Norman. Beckham’s veteran teammates want to see 2016 go differently.

And so, quarterback Eli Manning told Sal Paolantonio of ESPN, the veterans on the Giants have talked to Beckham about keeping his emotions in check.

“Odell knows what he needs to do,” Manning said. “He’s got to be careful with his emotions and make sure that doesn’t affect his play. You want to get in that right temperament, be at your best, play your best football and he’s got to make sure he controls that, where we’re getting his best and his actions don’t affect the team in a negative way.”

Receiver Victor Cruz added that Beckham, as a young star in the NFL, needs to consider what kind of reputation he wants to have.

“I think he understands that this past year, since last season, has been a little bit of a whirlwind, in that regard, and he understands that — he wants people to know him for him and how he’s a great player, great person, and how he wants to be perceived and I think he’s really taken charge of that,” Cruz said.

Beckham already has the “great player” part down. He may have some work to do rehabbing his personal image, after the ugly ending to last season.

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Kubiak admits the obvious: 2015 Broncos offense “did not play well at all”

SANTA CLARA, CA - FEBRUARY 07:  Head coach Gary Kubiak of the Denver Broncos  reacts against the Carolina Panthers during Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) Getty Images

After the retirement of Peyton Manning and the departure via free agency of Brock Osweiler, the Broncos official website referred to the quality of the team’s quarterback play in 2015 as “sub-optimal” and “near-replacement-level.”

On Friday, coach Gary Kubiak didn’t use such specificity in connection with the quarterback position. But he used a broad brush to paint a not-so-flattering picture regarding the team’s offensive performance in 2015.

“We’re talking about a group,” Kubiak told reporters. “We’re not talking about a position. You go back to last year and you look at us, we finished in the middle of the pack. I think we finished 16th. Out of 12 playoff teams, I think we we’re like sixth offensively, but we feel like we did not play well at all. That tells you the standard that we have, the standard that I have and [offensive coordinator Rick Dennison] has, and what we want to do. We’ve got to improve as a team. We can’t turn the ball over as much as we did last year and we’ve got to play better up front. If we do those things with the players we’ve got, we’re going to be a better offense. That’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about a group, not a player.”

Fine, but it’s hard not to throw stones at an entire offense without hitting the former leader of it in the red splotch on his forehead. Quarterbacks get the credit when offenses thrive and the blame when they sputter. The Broncos sputtered on offense last year, and the play of Peyton Manning was a big factor in that.

This year, if the Broncos can get more out of the quarterback position, they can be better on offense and, if they perform as well as they did defensively in 2015, hoist another Lombardi Trophy.

On Friday, Mark Sanchez had the first crack at leading the first-team offense. After he threw an interception to cornerback Chris Harris Jr., however, Trevor Siemian entered and, according to Mike Klis of 9news.com, remained the No. 1 quarterback for the rest of the day.

With multiple options and no clear-cut leader at the position, that’s likely how it’s going to go. With Kubiak wanting to protect the ball, the one that does will play. Until he doesn’t, at which point someone else will play.

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Richardson missing from Jets practices for personal reasons

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 01:  Sheldon Richardson #91 of the New York Jets warms up prior to playing the Oakland Raiders in their NFL game at O.co Coliseum on November 1, 2015 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Jets have excused defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson from their training camp practices due to personal reasons, Jets coach Todd Bowles told reporters Friday.

Bowles said he expects Richardson to be absent for a couple days.

The Jets started camp on Thursday.

Richardson, 25, had five sacks last season after serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. He has 16.5 sacks in three seasons and was named to the Pro Bowl in 2014.

Richardson is suspended for the Jets’ season opener vs. the Bengals for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. He’s still allowed to participate in camp and the preseason.

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Dennis Pitta: I don’t feel like I’ve lost a step

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 07: Tight end Dennis Pitta #88 of the Baltimore Ravens is tackled by linebacker Emmanuel Lamur #59 of the Cincinnati Bengals in the second half at M&T Bank Stadium on September 7, 2014 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Cincinnati Bengals won, 23-16. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) Getty Images

Tight end Dennis Pitta avoided a spot on the physically unable to perform list this week, leaving him eligible to take part in practices with the Ravens as they opened training camp.

Pitta didn’t practice at all last year as his twice-broken and dislocated hip was never well enough for him to get on the field. Pitta contemplated retirement in the offseason, but restructured his contract with the team in order to give it another go.

After the first two practices, Pitta told reporters that he’s not thinking about his hip unless he’s being asked about it and that he feels his chemistry with quarterback Joe Flacco hasn’t suffered as a result of his long layoff.

“I don’t feel like I’ve lost a step,” Pitta said, via ESPN.com. “I don’t feel like I’m any slower or do anything different than I did a couple of years ago, in my opinion. That’s my goal. I want to be the lead guy.”

Whether he’s the lead guy at tight end or part of a group with Benjamin Watson and Maxx Williams, getting Pitta back in a form close to where he was in the past would be a big win for the Ravens offense. So far, it looks like there’s good reason for optimism about his chances of doing that.

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RG3 says he’s fine with Hue’s hesitation to name starter

BEREA, OH - APRIL 21, 2016: Quarterback Robert Griffin III #10 of the Cleveland Browns drops back to pass during a voluntary mini camp on April 21, 2016 at the Cleveland Browns training facility in Berea, Ohio. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images)  *** Local Caption *** Robert Griffin III Getty Images

Robert Griffin III got the first reps with the first-team offense as the Browns opened training camp Friday, but Browns coach Hue Jackson has been adamant that the team does not yet have a starting quarterback.

As he did throughout the spring, Griffin said he’s just “having fun” and whatever level of uncertainty may exist hasn’t affected his thinking or his work.

“I think Coach is going to come out and see what he needs to see and make that decision,” Griffin said, per the team’s official camp transcript. “It’s our job as players to put our best foot forward.”

Jackson has said he’ll name a starter before the team plays its first preseason game, and since the spring it’s seemed like Griffin’s job to lose. Friday marked the first of 11 practices the Browns have on their schedule before their Aug. 12 preseason opener at Green Bay.

“At the end of the day you come out here every day having to work to be the guy, to be the best,” Griffin said. “Even when they name the starter you still have to come out here and work and prove it every single day. Nothing’s ever going to be given to you.

“I don’t worry about things that I can’t control. If [Jackson] asks me to stand up in front of the team and present something, I’m going to present something. If he says, ‘Don’t tell me anything,’ then I’m going to sit there and take notes. At the end of the day, you don’t worry about what you can’t control. Coach has decisions that he has to make, and your job is to make that decision easy for him.”

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Telesco attributes Bosa impasse to “small, fundamental differences”

108311214-1 Getty Images

The Chargers have reported for training camp. Defensive end Joey Bosa hasn’t. It’s unclear when he will.

We’re disappointed that he’s not here,” G.M. Tom Telesco said Friday, via Michael Gehlken of the San Diego Union-Tribune. “We just have some small, fundamental differences that haven’t been resolved yet. But we’re still actively talking. We’re still actively working on it.”

If the differences are “small,” it should be easy. The fact that they are “fundamental,” however, makes things more difficult.

The fight reportedly centers on offset language on the fully-guaranteed contract and cash flow on his signing bonus. Common sense suggests that a compromise can occur by giving the team what it wants on one issue and the player what he wants on the other.

But common sense ain’t, and Gehlken suggests Bosa could be absent for a while. That’s the last thing the Chargers need as they try to maximize their on-field victories as their biggest off-field fight — a vote on public funding for their new stadium — looms.

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Eleven years later, Frank Gore remembers draft snub

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 02:  Frank Gore #23 of the Indianapolis Colts warms up before their game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on November 2, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) Getty Images

Colts running back Frank Gore, with only 700 rushing yards, will find himself as No. 8 on the all-time NFL rushing yardage list. That will provide plenty of motivation. His spot on another list still gives him motivation, more than a decade later.

“When I was coming out I had injuries,” Gore told reporters on Friday. “Me, I like people doubting me. I go even harder and I love proving people wrong. When I was the sixth [running] back taken, I made sure I told myself I would be the best one out of all of them.”

He clearly is. Gore’s accomplishments become even more impressive when considering that his draft year of 2005 had three running backs picked in the top five: Ronnie Brown (by the Dolphins), Cedric Benson (by the Bears), and Cadillac Williams (by the Buccaneers).

The other two running backs selected before Gore in round three had their names called in round two: J.J. Arrington of the Cardinals and Eric Shelton of the Panthers. (Although the question that sparked Gore’s response called him the “last guy standing” at his position from 2005, Darren Sproles also was taken that year, by the Chargers in round four. Sproles signed a contract extension with the Eagles earlier today.)

The five taken before Gore had combined career rushing yards of 16,123. Gore has 12,040 and counting — including more than twice the amount of the guy with the second most (Benson, who had 6,017).

Most glaringly, the last running back taken before Gore, Eric Shelton, had 23 total rushing yards in his career. Gore could beat that number by the end of the first quarter of his current team’s first game of 2016.

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Cowboys say Nick Foles isn’t an option for them

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 8: Quarterback Nick Foles #5 of the St. Louis Rams passes the ball under pressure from Brian Robison #96 of the Minnesota Vikings during the first quarter of the game on November 8, 2015 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) Getty Images

When quarterback Nick Foles was released by the Rams, speculation about his next stop often included the Cowboys.

Kellen Moore is the No. 2 in Dallas, but the team talked about upgrading their options behind Tony Romo at points earlier in the offseason and Foles’ best days in the NFL looked a lot better than what Moore did in his appearances with the Cowboys last season.

Foles has had plenty of bad days as well and it seems that the sum total has left the Cowboys unconvinced that he would be a better choice to be a heartbeat (or broken collarbone) away from the starting quarterback job. Owner Jerry Jones said Friday that Foles “isn’t an option” and reiterated that they like Moore.

Executive vice president Stephen Jones added that the team has to develop their own quarterbacks to improve the overall depth at the position, something they’ll try to do with fourth-round pick Dak Prescott this year.

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