PFT 2019 storyline No. 8: Is Father Time closing in on Drew Brees?

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The Saints have had, over the past two years, heartbreaking exits from the postseason. Coach Sean Payton has expressed confidence that they’ll be able to return to 0-0 and climb once again.

Maybe they’ll be able to process the heartbreak of the Minneapolis Miracle and the NFC Championship non-call debacle, but there will be another potential challenge to deal with in 2019: Will quarterback Drew Brees still be quarterback Drew Brees, or will he begin to feel the effects of Father Time?

Tom Brady has made us all think that through sheer force of will (and avocado ice cream), quarterbacks can play well, well into their 40s. Brees turned 40 in January. And some would say that, already, age is starting to affect his game.

How often did the Saints use Taysom Hill to throw the deep ball last year? How often did Brees throw a deep ball that didn’t go quite as deep as he wanted?

The first play from scrimmage in the divisional-round game against the Eagles was a long ball to Ted Ginn, but Brees underthrew it, the Eagles picked it off, and before the smoke had cleared from pre-game introductions Philly led 14-0. The next week, when receiver Tommylee Lewis was uncovered and Nickell Robey-Coleman was sprinting across the defensive formation, Brees didn’t get the ball to Lewis fast enough to take advantage of the obvious hole in the Rams’ defense.

Other potential evidence would be more subtle. How often were big plays the result of expertly-designed plays by Payton, and how often were big plays the result of Brees making a big throw in a big spot? There’s a creative and healthy tension between play designer and quarterback; it’s fair to wonder whether Brees is, and more importantly, will be holding up his end of the bargain by making decisions and throws and crisply and forcefully as he once did.

If he can’t, the Saints won’t have to worry about another heartbreaking loss in the playoffs, because they likely won’t make it that far.

PFT 2019 storyline No. 10: How will expanded replay review for PI affect the game?

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For now, it’s No. 10. In time it could be No. 1. Hopefully, it will slide off the list altogether.

After a couple of months of signaling that it was fine with the status quo in the aftermath of the Rams-Saints officiating debacle, the NFL overreacted worse than Andy Bernard when he couldn’t find his cellphone with the Rockin’ Robin ring tone, blasting a hole in the wall that keeps replay review from creating anarchy.

As it currently stands, the NFL took a sledgehammer to a problem that could have been solved with a scalpel, making replay review available for all calls and non-calls of defensive and offense pass interference. As explained to NFL Media employees last month by NFL senior V.P. of officiating Al Riveron, what should have simply been a “break glass in event of emergency option” will result in plenty of fans breaking plenty of glasses while watching plenty of games get bogged down by plenty of extra challenges and automatic reviews, with Riveron taking close, subjective decisions made in real time and dissecting them (possibly erroneously) to change rulings based on something other than clear and obvious evidence — just like he did on multiple occasions with the catch rule in 2017.

The panic button has not yet been pressed on this one, because most are waiting to see how it plays out in the preseason. And if, like the ill-advised helmet rule a year ago, it becomes a disaster, it presumably can be changed on the fly before Week One.

And the change could be an easy one. The Commissioner needs to explain to Riveron that the league wants only to ensure that blatantly missed calls will be rectified this way, and that Riveron should not give in to the temptation to micromanage the full-speed assessments of the pushing and shoving and jostling that happens when the ball is in the air.

It’s been said time and again that replay should overturn a ruling on the field only when 50 drunks in a bar would agree that a mistake was made. With pass interference, the number should be more like 500 or 5,000 or even 50,000. The power to drop or to pick up a flag (or to simply call offsetting fouls and order a do-over) should be used rarely, and only when it’s clear and obvious and the judgment and discretion given to the officials on the field has been badly and inexplicably abused.

Like it was when Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman blew up Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis with a conference title on the line. That non-call sparked a multi-day controversy, saber-rattling by politicians, a lawsuit, and ultimately an anti-Super Bowl parade in New Orleans. Riveron’s session with NFL Media employees identified for reversal via replay review two other calls (one from Chargers-Chiefs in Week 15 and one from Super Bowl LIII) that created barely a blip of controversy.

The challenge for the NFL in its 100th season — and ultimately the challenge for the Commissioner — will be to protect the integrity of the game from this kind of overuse of a tool that seems to be far too big and far too powerful for the person who will be in position to use it on a regular basis.

Hopefully the failure to do so won’t become the top story for the entire year.

FMIA: Peyton Manning (Remember Him?) Quarterbacks New TV Series, Mulls Long-Term Life After Football

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Peyton Manning (remember him?) is returning to your television later this summer. In his Football Morning in America column, Peter King returns from vacation to visit with Manning on location in Chicago for his new ESPN show. Plus:

• Manning explains Peyton’s Places and its unique look at the NFL’s 100-year history, and also reveals how he envisions his long-term life after football.

• The CBA and an 18-game schedule are both back in the news, and neither a new deal nor adding two more games (and $500+ million in revenue) seems likely.

• New column sections debut, including a fun look at Manning’s habits (good and bad) and Glover Quin’s financial philosophy

• More thoughts, notes and opinions on Melvin Gordon’s possible holdout; the truth about how often coaches throw challenge flags; guest columnist review

• Plus 10 things, factoids, beernerdness, coffeenerdness and why vacations from vacations get a full endorsement.
[more]

PFT 2019 storyline No. 11: After a year off, what will Le’Veon Bell do?

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When last we saw running back Le'Veon Bell, he generated more than 1,900 yards from scrimmage in 15 regular-season games with the Steelers. But that was in 2017; he skipped all of the 2018 season in lieu of playing under the franchise tag for a second straight year.

So now he a new team and a new contract (even if it’s not nearly as much as he expected to get). The real question is whether he’ll do in New York the same things he did in five seasons with the Steelers.

Although he escaped a year of wear and tear by sitting out, Bell has taken plenty of contact during his career, with 1,541 regular-season touches — an average of 308.2 per year. Now 27, there’s a chance that Father Time will catch up with him sooner than expected, even if he can pick up where he left off more than 18 months after he left off.

The Jets didn’t hesitate to assume that Bell will be the same guy, even if they were the only ones to offer him a contract in the range of $13 million per year. He won’t have the same supporting cast he had in Pittsburgh, which means that we’ll quickly find out whether the team was good because of him or whether he was good because of the team.

If he’s still the guy that he was. That’s still the real question. Whether Bell will continue to be special, different, unique after a year out of the sport. Whether that stutter step before blasting through the hole happens like it once did. Whether the yardage continues to pile up. And, most importantly for the Jets, whether the wins will follow.

PFT 2019 storyline No. 12: Will Carson Wentz stay healthy?

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December 2017. Led by second-year quarterback Carson Wentz, the Eagles rocketed toward the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and Wentz had the inside track to the league MVP award.

Then came a visit to the Rams, an ill-timed head-first dive to the end zone, an unexpected ACL tear in the process, and that was that for Wentz.

But not for the Eagles, of course. Journeyman Nick Foles took the Eagles on the ultimate journey, holding (barely) the top seed in the conference, beating (barely) the Falcons in the divisional round, beating (handily) the Vikings in the NFC Championship game, and winning (somehow) the Super Bowl over the Patriots. Wentz didn’t win the regular-season MVP award, and Foles ended up being named the Super Bowl MVP.

Wentz’s recovery and rehab hovered over the 2018 offseason, keeping Wentz from starting the season, one that started sluggishly and stayed that way. Until, that is, Wentz was lost again for the balance of the season in December, Foles returned to the field, securing a playoff berth, upsetting the Bears in Chicago, and nearly stunning the Saints in New Orleans for a second consecutive berth in the NFC Championship.

Now, Foles is gone, and Wentz is supposedly healthy. But will he stay healthy? That’s the question that will determine whether the Eagles can deliver on a ceiling that has them winning another Super Bowl.

Wentz has spectacular skills. However, he has been too reckless with his body — dating back to the preseason of his rookie year, when he went head over heels and eventually suffered a hairline rib fracture in the opener against Tampa Bay. The challenge becomes finding a balance between playing with abandon and playing with an abundance of caution, allowing him to do special things but also enabling him to keep playing.

If he can find that balance, he can stay healthy all year, and he can become the league’s MVP. If he can’t, he’s destined to be injured again, and the Eagles may end up regretting the decision to keep Wentz and to watch Foles walk away.

Especially if Foles keeps working in Jacksonville the magic he managed the last two years in Philadelphia.

PFT 2019 storyline No. 13: How and when will the Tyreek Hill situation be resolved?

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Most of the items on the list of top storylines for 2019 focus on things that will happen when the regular season begins. This one focuses on something that will happen before the regular season starts.

And it’s an important question, given the undeniable skills and abilities of Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill. Embroiled for most of the year in legal issues related to the care of his young son, who has been removed from the custody of Hill and the child’s mother, the NFL has explored the situation — and the only question left is whether and to what extent the NFL will discipline Hill.

A source with knowledge of the situation told PFT on Wednesday that nothing has been scheduled beyond the eight-hour meeting recently conducted in Kansas City. That session occurred as part of the investigation; if/when Hill receives an involuntary invitation to New York City, it likely will be a precursor to a suspension (unless, of course, the Commissioner simply intend to give Hill an Ezekiel Elliott-style stern talking to).

Many have made a guess as to what will happen to Hill, but no one other than the Commissioner or a tight circle of his confidants know what that will be. Based on the four-game suspension imposed last year on Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith for threatening and engaging in emotional abuse of the mother of his child, Hill’s “you need to be terrified of me too, bitch” remark to Crystal Espinal could spark a similar punishment, especially in light of Hill’s history.

As to Hill’s history, the recent publication of secretly-recorded comments he made to Espinal in a Dubai airport contradict his public admission of guilt in connection with allegations that he choked and beat her in December 2014, when she was pregnant. Although he never was punished for that incident by the NFL (it happened more than a year before the Chiefs drafted him), the incident hovers over the pending case — and it gives greater weight to the threat he more recently made to Espinal.

The NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy also permits additional punishment if the NFL concludes that Hill crossed the line when disciplining his son (regardless of whether there’s any evidence that Hill was involved in the breaking of the child’s arm, and currently there isn’t), and if the NFL believes that the circumstances resulting in Hill’s son being removed from the home constitute proof that Hill engaged in conduct that “[p]oses a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person.”

However it plays out, Hill’s availability (or not) for the 2019 season will have a major impact on one of the best offenses in the NFL. The answer to that question necessarily becomes one of the biggest storylines of the season.

PFT 2019 storyline No. 14: Will Kirk Cousins be something more than a .500 quarterback?

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Kirk Cousins, despite periodic bouts of Michael Scottishness on social media, has found true self-awareness when it comes to assessing his football fortunes.

“I’m pretty much a .500 quarterback in my career so far and I don’t think that’s where you want to be and that’s not why you are brought in or people are excited about you,” Cousins admitted last month.

He’s actually just below .500 for his career, with 34 wins, 37 losses, and a pair of ties. During Cousins’ first season with the Vikings, a Week Two tie against the Packers kept him barely above .500, finishing 8-7-1. For the second time in his career, however, Cousins had a Week 17 home game against a division rival that already had clinched a playoff berth, and yet he couldn’t deliver.

Yes, quarterbacks get too much credit when things go well and too much blame when things go poorly. But when a quarterback gets two years of franchise-player salary and then a three-year, fully-guaranteed $84 million deal, the bar moves considerably higher. Cousins failed to get over it in 2018.

Will he in 2019? Reasons exist for optimism, based on the retention of offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, a recommitment to the running game fueled by the arrival of Gary Kubiak as an offensive consultant, the drafting of center Garrett Bradbury, the full health of running back Dalvin Cook, the decision to devote a second-round pick on tight Irv Smith, and the ability to retain veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph. The defense still has plenty of potency, and an improved offense will make the defense even better.

But it all comes down to Cousins. He needs to not just generate big statistics, but to make big throws in big moments to deliver big wins, especially in prime time, when the Vikings are scheduled to play five of their 16 games.

Winning at night — and against the likes of the Bears and the Packers — will go a long way toward determining whether Cousins can lift himself, and his team, above .500 and into the postseason.

PFT 2019 storyline No. 15: Will Kyler Murray be the NFL’s next big thing?

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As NFL quarterbacks go, Kyler Murray is as little as they get. But that may not stop Murray from becoming the NFL’s next big thing. Whether he does lands at storyline No. 15 as the 2019 season appraoches.

From the moment he chose football over baseball, Murray captured the imagination of scouts, coaches, players, and fans. In this golden age of quarterbacking, Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield became the darlings of the league in 2018, a year after Deshaun Watson was all the rage, until he suffered a torn ACL.

Despite his (lack of) size, Murray brings an explosiveness that the league hasn’t seen since Mike Vick, but possibly with a better set of passing skills. While Murray may not be the next Mahomes, Murray doesn’t need to be a 50-touchdown MVP to justify Arizona’s faith in him.

Ulimately, it was an easy analysis. The Cardinals have struggled with young quarterbacks in recent years (decades), getting their best performances from veterans like Kurt Warner and Carson Palmer. Murray could be their first born-and-raised franchise quarterback since moving to the desert 31 years ago.

Sure, there’s a chance he’ll be a bust. That he won’t be able to stay healthy once he’s hit hard by NFL-caliber defensive players. That his speed and other skills won’t translate to the pro game.

The risk is worth it. And it’s far better to roll the dice on Murray and get it wrong than to pass on him and have him become a star player for someone else.

If he becomes a star for the Cardinals, the NFC West becomes very interesting, perhaps before long the best division in the league.

PFT 2019 storyline No. 16: When will Daniel Jones play?

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The awkward, clunky transition from Eli Manning to someone not named Eli Manning has gotten even more awkward and clunky for the Giants.

But at least they have a post-Eli option, in the form of sixth overall draft pick Daniel Jones. The question becomes when Jones will play. That question lands at storyline No. 16 on our #CountdownSZN list for 2019.

The Giants have suggested the KC model (sit for a year, in reference to Patrick Mahomes and Alex Smith) and the GB model (sit for three, in reference to Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre). Then there’s the NYG model, which the team used 15 years ago, benching Kurt Warner (who was 5-4 at the time) for Eli during Eli’s rookie year.

Of course, there’s also the “we used a top-10 pick on a quarterback for a reason” model, which points toward making him the Week One starter. After the draft, the clues of Jones potentially starting from the get-go were hiding in plain sight — given that the Giant thought enough of Jones to make him the sixth overall selection, and given that Eli is widely believed to be in decline.

Giants coach Pat Shurmur initially pooh-poohed the possibility, but clearly kicked the door open to a potential competition at the conclusion of the offseason program.

Ultimately, it’s a simple analysis. If Jones performs as well as the Giants thought he would (given that they made him the sixth pick in the draft), he should be able to win a fair and square competition with the fairly square Eli Manning. If, after all, Eli were playing at a level that would make him the sixth pick in the 2019 draft, the Giants wouldn’t have taken Jones.

So now the question becomes whether Jones performs during training camp and the preseason in a way that makes the Giants think he was indeed worthy of being the sixth pick. Given the intense criticism that the Giants received for making Jones the sixth pick, maybe they’ll be inclined to let the two compete — and to quietly root for Jones to win.

At some point, Jones will play. When he does, the Giants will find out whether he was indeed worthy of being the sixth pick in the draft. Along with everyone else.

If the Giants ultimately decide to go with Jones from Week One, a very interesting decision will have to be made about Eli. He has a no-trade clause; unless he’d waive it, the options will be to keep him, paying $11.5 million in addition to the $5.5 million he has earned in roster bonus and workout bonuses, or to cut him loose before that $11.5 million becomes fully guaranteed at the start of the regular season.

Guest FMIA: Indy GM Chris Ballard on Scouting and the Power of Sundays

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Peter King is on vacation until July 15, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his spot writing Football Morning in America. Today, it’s Chris Ballard, the general manger of the Colts. He writes about:

• Scouting in the NFL, and why finding out a draft prospect’s floor is just as important than finding out his ceiling.

• Rock Ya-Sin, and how the Colts used a thorough process to discover, learn about and ultimately draft the rising cornerback.

• The power of Sundays, and three stories that show the importance of how football brings people together.

• Plus 10 Things I Think, including thoughts on the combine staying in Indianapolis, a Hall of Fame case for Edgerrin James and much more. [more]

PFT 2019 storyline No. 17: How much does Todd Gurley have left?

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A notorious running back who knows a thing or two about playing in the L.A. Coliseum showed that he doens’t know squat about fantasy football by suggesting that Todd Gurley is in the mix to be one of the top picks this year. Really, anyone who has been paying even the slightest bit of attention to the situation realizes that Gurley is hardly the no-brainer touchdowns-and-yardage machine that he previously was.

Gurley’s torn ACL from 2014 seems to have caught up with him, and the Rams’ decision to handle him with extreme care this offseason underscores the reality that the 2017 NFL offensive player of the year abruptly has shifted past the workhorse phase of his career.

Officially, Gurley’s knee swelled after the Week One win over the Raiders, quickly healed, but then became a problem later in the year, knocking him out of a couple of regular season games and keeping him from being in the postseason the dominant force he has been. Unofficially, Gurley’s knee bothered him all year. Which suggests that it quite possibly will be bothering him this year and every year for the remainder of his career, especially given the multiple reports and acknowledgements of arthritis in the knee.

The questions will hover over the entire season for the defending NFC champions, with constant questions posed to Gurley, coach Sean McVay, and others regarding the distribution of the workload and the status of the knee — especially in light of the perception (reality) that the Rams concealed the condition for most of the 2018 regular season. The issue of Gurley’s bum knee could quickly become a sore point for him, especially if he indeed isn’t and can’t be the guy he recently was, and if the Rams begin considering whether they want to escape after 2019 the big-money contract they gave to Gurley last year.

Then there’s the impact of Gurley’s status on the rest of the offense. Unless former Memphis tailback Darrell Henderson can perform like Gurley has performed at his best, quarterback Jared Goff will have to do more to get the Rams back to where they were in 2018. Throw in the murmurs that the league has begun to catch up with McVay’s offense, and Gurley’s situation could spark a regression for the defending NFC champs.

PFT 2019 storyline No. 18: How much better will the Jaguars be with Nick Foles?

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After the Jaguars made an unexpected appearance in the 2017 AFC Championship, they had a decision to make regarding quarterback Blake Bortles, who was entering the fifth and final year of his rookie deal. They made the wrong decision.

The Jaguars converted the balance of the contract to a three-year arrangement that paid out $26.5 million guaranteed, and then the Jaguars finally decided after one more year that Bortles isn’t the answer. Fueling the decision was the availbility of Nick Foles, the Super Bowl LII MVP who came relatively cheap ($22 million per year), thanks to lingering doubts about his abilities — doubts that surely will serve only to fuel Foles for 2019, and beyond.

Yes, Foles struggled with the Rams. His time with the Chiefs, while underrated, wasn’t spectacular. But forget about the distant past. More recently, he has proven that, in the right system and with the right support and the right coaching, he can be the right man for the job. By reuniting him with former Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, Foles should be in good hands, and the Jaguars should be in a great spot.

Foles carries with him a vastly underrated set of intangibles. He can lead. He can inspire. He can connect. He can hold teammates accountable because he makes himself accountable.

Bortles, frankly, never really clicked, but the Jaguars (until Foles was available) never really had a better option (other than passing on Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson for Leonard Fournette, that is). Too many teammates resented the double standard that the team appied to Bortles, demanding excellence from them but looking the other way regarding the obvious deficiencies at the most important position on either side of the ball.

With Foles, the most important position on either side of the ball is taken care of. With plenty of other talented players, the Jaguars could threaten to recapture the division, and they could shake up the upper crust of the conference.

However it plays out, they’ll be better off than they were with Bortles.

PFT 2019 storyline No. 19: Which young offensive coach will live up to the hype?

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The 2019 hiring cycle saw the pendulum swing sharply in the direction of Sean McVay. More specifically, anyone who has worked with him, worked for him, and/or shared an elevator with him.

Three of eight head-coaching jobs went to coaches with McVay connections, sort of. Two were direct — new Packers coach Matt LaFleur and new Bengals coach Zac Taylor worked for McVay in L.A. One was tenuous, but nevertheless mentioned by the Cardinals when hiring Kliff Kingsbury: He and McVay are friends.

So which of them will live up to the hype? LaFleur arguably has the best team, but also the toughest task of getting through to a locker room dominated by the presence of Aaron Rodgers. Taylor has low expectations as he takes over a team that has a feel of irrelevance and mediocrity; the low bar actually gives him a great chance to overachieve, since no one expects much from the Bengals.

Then there’s Kingsbury, who is essentially a crapshoot with the Cardinals. He wanted quarterback Kyler Murray, and Kingsbury got him. Now, the guy who was fired for not being good enoug in a so-so college conference has to navigate the toughest division in football.

With defensive-minded Vic Fangio getting his first head-coaching job at age 60 in Denver, the Broncos’ performance relative to Green Bay, Cincinnati, and Arizona will become a great litmus test for the new infatuation with young offensive minds. Depending on how things go this season, the pendulum could swing sharply in the other direction by January.

PFT 2019 storyline No. 20: Can the young QBs in the AFC East compete with the Patriots?

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On the second night of the 2019 draft, the planets fully aligned in a way that likely guarantees yet another New England division title (11th straight) and/or AFC title-game berth (ninth straight), at least for one more year.

The other three contenders in the AFC East, none of which have done much contending in recent years, now have three of the quarterbacks taken in the top 10 of the 2018 draft.

The trio became cemented with the trade that sent Josh Rosen (pick No. 10) to Miami, joining Jets quarterback Sam Darnold (No. 3) and Bills quarterback Josh Allen (No. 7).

Last year, the Patriots faced Darnold and Allen only once each, due to injuries suffered by both players. This year, barring injury (or Fitzmagic), the Patriots will have six games against the young quarterbacks in their division. Throw in the fact that the Patriots will play all four teams of the AFC North (including Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson), and half of New England’s games will be played against first-round quarterbacks from the 2018 draft.

Advantage Belichick, a master of devising game plans that confuse and confound quarterbacks — especially those without much NFL experience. Which means that the Patriots will likely once again rule the division, and that the soon-to-be-42-year-old Tom Brady could end up emerging with wins over quarterbacks who were two years old (Darnold), three years old (Rosen, Allen, and Jackson), and five years old (Mayfield) when Brady arrived in the NFL via pick No. 199 of the 2000 draft.

PFT 2019 storyline No. 21: Will the Ravens continue with a run-heavy offense?

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When then-rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson got a chance to turn cameo appearances into full-time starting, the Ravens threw the NFL a curveball, turning the offense into a run-heavy attack.

Jackson’s first start included a whopping 26 rushing attempts. (In contrast, Joe Flacco had 19 total rushing attempts in his nine 2018 starts.) Through seven 2019 starts, six of which the Ravens won, Jackson ran the ball 119 times — an average of 17 per game. He also gained 556 yards on the ground in those seven starts.

The success of both Jackson and the team has created the impression that the Ravens will do more of the same in 2019. But the Ravens have done a nice job of clouding the issue, from swapping out Marty Mornhinweg for Greg Roman at offensive coordinator to adding a pair of fleet-footed receivers in the draft (after being unable to attract any quality wideouts in free agency) to making it clear via owner Steve Bisciotti that Jackson won’t run the ball 20 times per game to strongly hinting via G.M. Eric DeCosta that a far more diverse attack will be used to, most recently, the vow from backup quarterback Robert Griffin III that the new offense will “shock some people.”

It’s still not clear what the Ravens will do, and that’s good news for the Ravens. Whether it’s the Dolphins in Week One or the Cardinals in Week Two or come Week Three a rematch of an epic 2018 regular-season battle in Kansas City with the Chiefs, those early-season foes may be on their heels as they try to figure out whether the pre-snap looks are hinting at a run or a pass.

Until the Ravens tip their hands by generating several games of film, opposing defenses would be wise to look at 49ers games played with Roman as the offensive coordinator. The Ravens in turn would be wise to use some of those 49ers games as the basis for making what once was a pass into a run, and vice versa.

However it turns out, the fact that no one quite knows what the Ravens precisely will be doing on offense is a bonus for Baltimore. It becomes a bigger bonus if Jackson, who ran the ball last year nearly as well as he did at Louisville, can begin throwing the ball like he did in college.

Through it all, the overriding goal should be ensuring that Jackson doesn’t run the ball so much that he gets injured. In the NFL, that’s the biggest reason why teams choose to avoid putting their quarterbacks at risk by repeatedly subjecting him to the kinds of hits that usually only running backs absorb.