Art Rooney II: We’ll see on Mike Tomlin extension, don’t want to speculate

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers
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The Steelers broke with tradition by waiting until the final year of head coach Mike Tomlin’s contract before signing him to a three-year extension in 2021.

Pittsburgh had typically extended Tomlin’s contract with two years left on the deal and that’s where he finds himself heading into the 2023 season. Tomlin extended his run without a losing season to all 16 years he’s held the job with a 7-2 finish in 2022, but Steelers president Art Rooney II didn’t say whether an extension is on the table when he spoke to reporters Thursday.

“I don’t like to speculate on coach’s contract,” Rooney said, via Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “We’ll see.”

Rooney said “you should be your best team at the end of the season” and believes that was the case for the Steelers this season. He said he’s also “encouraged” by how Tomlin and the staff brought rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett along, but the contract question will remain an open one as the Steelers move into the offseason.

Trent Williams: Starvation for Super Bowl is what pushes us

NFC Divisional Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v San Francisco 49ers
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The 49ers have played a lot of football already this season, but they hope there are two games left on their schedule.

They’ll play their 20th game of the season against the Eagles on Sunday and left tackle Trent Williams said on Thursday that the team’s “brand of football” is a tough one for players to fight through over such a long span. He said that the desire to keep pushing has to come from “a place of hunger” and shared his belief that the 49ers are a really hungry football team as they head into the NFC Championship Game.

“It’s been a long season, but when you have the pinnacle of the game, which is the Super Bowl, dangling right in your face, I think, yeah, the starvation to get there is what’s going to push people through,” Williams said, via 49ersWebzone.com. “It’s going to push people to focus a little harder down the stretch, to treat their bodies right during the week to be ready to go, to play until the whistle. I think starvation has a lot to do with that. We’re all starving to win. Everybody wants that ring.”

Tight end George Kittle used the same word when discussing the 49ers’ mindset and a feast on Sunday would send the team on to a 21st game for all the marbles.

Chiefs now favored over Bengals after more line movement in AFC Championship Game

Kansas City Chiefs v Cincinnati Bengals
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It’s been a roller coaster of a week for those who follow the point spreads in the NFL.

The latest line movement has the Chiefs favored over the Bengals by a point, and at some sports books 1.5 points, as the news continues to look good on Patrick Mahomes‘ injured ankle.

The Chiefs opened as favorites in the AFC Championship Game. The the line shifted and the Bengals became favorites. And now it’s back to the Chiefs again.

All the news out of Kansas City the last two days has indicated that Mahomes is moving around well on the practice field and isn’t likely to be significantly impacted by his high ankle sprain, and that’s why the Chiefs are now favored. But the line movement all week shows how volatile the betting market is on this game, and any rumors that Mahomes is hobbling could result in the Bengals being favored again before kickoff.

Eric Bieniemy on Patrick Mahomes’ recovery: I want whatever he’s taking

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Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy wishes he could bottle whatever it is that has allowed quarterback Patrick Mahomes to do everything on the practice field just days after suffering a high ankle sprain.

Asked what the biggest reason is for Mahomes’ fast recovery, Bieniemy answered, “I have no idea, but I want whatever he’s taking.”

Bieniemy praised Mahomes’ competitive nature as something that sets him apart.

“He’s just a competitive person, he’s a competitive player,” Bieniemy said. “It’s the intestinal fortitude that’s in him. He just refuses to accept that he’s not going to put himself out there to be with his teammates. You love that about him. Last week was a unique situation and difficult in a lot of ways because obviously you always want to make sure that the player is OK, but more importantly, you also know that he can give you the best chance of winning.”

Until we see Mahomes on the field on Sunday, we don’t know precisely how far he has come in his recovery from that ankle injury, but from all accounts, he’s going to be able to play and play well.

Statement from Steve Wilks’ lawyer is also a warning to the Cardinals on Brian Flores

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The statement came swiftly from lawyer Doug Wigdor. And it should be regarded by Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill as a clear warning.

Wigdor, who represents former Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks, reacted sharply to the news that the Panthers had passed over Wilks for Frank Reich.

“We are shocked and disturbed that after the incredible job Coach Wilks did as the interim coach, including bringing the team back into playoff contention and garnering the support of the players and fans, that he was passed over for the head coach position by David Tepper,” Wigdor said. “There is a legitimate race problem in the NFL, and we can assure you that we will have more to say in the coming days.”

The statement comes at a time when the primary plaintiff in the lawsuit Wilks has joined — Brian Flores — is under consideration for the head-coaching job in Arizona. Wilks has sued the Cardinals for firing him after one year. Wilks likely will be suing the Panthers, given the content of Wigdor’s statement. And Flores joined the Texans to the litigation last year, after they interviewed him for the head-coaching job, made him one of three finalists, and eventually went off the board and hired Lovie Smith.

The argument that Flores made against the Texans, that Wilks likely will make against the Panthers, and that Flores would potentially make against the Cardinals is a simple one. The decision not to hire them was motivated in whole or in part by the fact that they have attempted to pursue their rights under federal anti-discrimination laws.

Although many non-lawyers assume it’s perfectly fine to shun someone who has dared to pursue available legal remedies, the law provides separate protection against retaliation. In many cases, the retaliation case is less difficult to prove than the original case, since it’s conceptually easier to sell a jury on the notion that someone who has legitimately made trouble for an employer is regarded derisively as a troublemaker.

By interviewing Flores, the Cardinals have made it hard not to hire him. Unless the person they hire is clearly and obviously more accomplished than Flores, they would be inviting a claim for Flores for retaliation. Basically, that means they need to hire Sean Payton (who interviewed for the job on Thursday) or Flores.

But at least the Cardinals gave Flores an interview. The Texans didn’t, even though he was a finalist last year. The Broncos didn’t; they’re one of the teams Flores sued, alleging a sham interview in the process that resulted in the hiring of Vic Fangio. Neither the Colts nor the Panthers interviewed Flores either, putting them at risk for a retaliation claim, too.

The Cardinals can do the NFL and all of its teams a favor by hiring Flores. The Cardinals also may be doing themselves a favor from a football standpoint by hiring him, since he could be exactly what the organization currently needs, in the aftermath of the loose ship that Kliff Kingsbury ran during his four seasons with the team.

For now, here’s the main point. Wigdor’s statement about the Panthers includes a very strong message to the Cardinals. If they don’t hire Flores, they’d better be able to prove that they have a good reason for it — and that reason can’t be “we don’t want to do business with someone who has dared to sue The Shield.”

Could conference championships become a Sunday, Monday event?

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Rams
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The 2022 postseason has featured plenty of talk about the possibility of neutral-site conference championship games. Even though plenty of fans — and at least one owner — hate the idea, it’s definitely in play for the future.

There’s another idea that definitely has some traction among the NFL’s power brokers. In lieu of jamming both conference championship games into one day, the two games could be spread between two days, Sunday and Monday.

Fans who responded to a Twitter poll on the possibility overwhelmingly dislike it. But, again, that won’t stop the league from doing it, if the league sees value in it.

And there could indeed be value in it. Currently, one game ends and the next one starts. By Monday morning, one of the two games dominates the conversation. By splitting them into two days, full focus could be placed on one game, before attention shifts to the next one. The NFL would dominate the sports conversation all day Sunday, all day Monday, all day Tuesday.

With a two-week break before the Super Bowl, the team that wins on Monday night would experience no disadvantage when it comes to preparing for the game. And it would give the two teams that play on Monday an extra day to prepare.

It’s something the league would have to do, if the Chargers and Rams or the Jets and Giants ever host a conference championship in the same playoff cycle. The league may decide not to wait for those planets to align; it may decide to give it a try.

Again, fans wouldn’t like it. But what would they do about it? Not watch? Not attend?

I’d assumed it would be a Sunday night and Monday night arrangement. A source with a finger squarely on the pulse of the league, when asked about the possibility, quickly responded by saying the Sunday game could be played a 4:00 p.m. ET, with the Monday game starting at in the range of a normal Monday night game — 8:00 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. ET time frame.

The reply made it clear that folks in the league office have considered the possibility.

Frankly, this year’s game are too good to play consecutively. I’d like a full day to prepare for, to watch, and to process 49ers-Eagles before doing the same for Bengals-Chiefs. As it stands, once the NFC Championship ends, it’ll be time to pivot immediately to the AFC game. And, again, one of the two will dominate the conversation on Monday, while the other gets short shrift.

As it was (and is) with the possibility of neutral-site championship games, splitting them between two days becomes a simple way to enhance the overall experience without increasing expenses by a penny. And it would provide more value to the network that televises each game, especially on Sunday — when a major audience can be delivered to the subsequent programming when, under the current schedule, the channels immediately change to the network carrying the second game.

For both games, there would be a longer pregame, and a longer post-game. More attention. More discussion. More everything. Two days to become immersed in football, rather than one.

Typically, we don’t like change. But some changes end up being for the better.

Over the years, the NFL has shifted the times of playoff games. In 2002, the conference championships moved to later in the day. In 2021, the NFL added a Monday night wild-card game.

As Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said when asked about the inherent disadvantage to playing in Tampa on Monday and playing in California on Sunday when the 49ers had two extra days to prepare, “TV is king.”

King TV would likely be in favor of this. This year in particular, I definitely would be.

Buccaneers complete interview with Jim Bob Cooter

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The Buccaneers completed an interview with Jaguars passing game coordinator Jim Bob Cooter on Thursday, the team announced.

The Bucs are seeking to replace Byron Leftwich, who they fired Jan. 19. They have eight other vacancies to fill on their coaching staff for 2023.

The team interviewed Broncos passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak on Wednesday and Vikings wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell earlier on Thursday.

Cooter joined Doug Pederson’s staff last February and helped Trevor Lawrence take a step in his second season. Jacksonville had the 10th-most passing yards in 2022, averaging 232.9 yards per game, and Lawrence threw 25 touchdowns and eight interceptions and had a 95.2 passer rating.

Cooter was the Lions’ offensive coordinator for 3 1/2 seasons after being promoted from quarterbacks coach on Jim Caldwell’s staff midway through 2015.

Cooter spent two seasons (2019-20) as the Jets’ running backs coach and one (2021) as a consultant for the Eagles. He also has worked for the Colts, Chiefs and Broncos.

Deion Sanders confirms Mike Zimmer is joining his staff at Colorado

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Former Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer will have a role on Deion Sanders’ staff at the University of Colorado.

Sanders confirmed that during an interview with Thee Pregame Show posted on YouTube on Monday. He did not indicate Zimmer’s role.

Zimmer served as an analyst for Sanders at Jackson State in 2022.

Former Florida State head coach Willie Taggart also is joining the Colorado staff.

“Taggart’s coming, too, by the way,” Sanders said during the interview. “Coach Zimmer’s coming, too, by the way. So another two head coaches. One in the NFL as well as collegiate. But not only that. Forget the titles — they know this game and they know kids and they’ve been capable of making tremendous decisions with the kids and the young men in mind. So that’s what I adore the most — understanding how to establish the relationships with these young men.”

Zimmer was the Vikings’ head coach for eight seasons. He also has served as a defensive coordinator for the Cowboys, Falcons and Bengals.

He was the defensive backs coach of the Cowboys from 1995-99 when Sanders was a cornerback for the team.

Greg Olsen braces to be bounced from top Fox booth by Tom Brady

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Former NFL tight end Greg Olsen knew when he ascended to the No. 1 booth at Fox this year that the assignment would last until Tom Brady retires from playing and begins earning $37.5 million per year. Olsen gets it. But that doesn’t make him happy about it.

We all know the reality,” Olsen recently said on ESPN 1000 in Chicago, via the New York Post. “I know what I signed up for this year. My goal — and I said this before the season even started — my goal was to try to do the best job that I could. Give people a fun listen. Give people maybe a little bit of a different perspective and insight into the game. Do the best job that I can.

“Listen, if Brady ends up retiring and coming, and decides, and that’s how everything unfolds, it sucks. But at the end of the day, I’m a big boy. I know what I signed up for. I took a chance on myself. I rolled the dice. Let’s see how it plays out.”

Olsen presumably would be relegated to the No. 2 team at Fox. Or maybe he could end up becoming the top option elsewhere.

Much of it depends on how much longer Brady plays, and whether he instantly goes to work at Fox after retiring.

There’s also a chance Brady eventually decides not to do it. Players travel nine or ten weekends per season. Game analysts travel 19 weeks, and the No. 1 crew handle three weekends of playoff games.  Once every four years, they work the Super Bowl.

It’s not the same physical grind as playing, but it’s grueling in its own way.

For Brady, there’s also the question of whether he truly believes he’ll be good in that capacity. Can he balance his generally salty attitude about “bad football” with his obsession to be liked or, more importantly, not disliked?

Those who speak with authenticity regarding pro football end up being disliked by fan bases of specific teams and players. Brady will be constantly trying to straddle the line of kicking ass and kissing it. He simply may decide it’s not for him.

He possibly will come to that conclusion before he even shows up for his first day.

Until then, Olsen has a plum assignment. With each game he works, he’s likely one game closer to having a lesser gig.

Chargers interviewed Luke Steckel on Thursday

NFL: NOV 28 Titans at Patriots
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The Chargers confirmed Thursday that they interviewed Luke Steckel for their offensive coordinator position.

The Chargers are looking for a replacement for Joe Lombardi, who they fired, along with quarterbacks coach Shane Day, on Jan. 17.

They also have interviewed Rams assistant head coach Thomas Brown, Vikings assistant quarterbacks coach Jerrod Johnson, Rams senior offensive assistant Greg Olson and Rams pass game coordinator Zac Robinson. They have requested an interview with Bills quarterbacks coach Joe Brady.

Steckel just completed his second season as the tight ends coach for the Titans and has 14 seasons of NFL experience.

He was assistant to the head coach for the Browns from 2009-12 before leaving for Tennessee. With the Titans, Steckel has held titles of offensive assistant/special assistant to the head coach (2013), offensive assistant coach (2014-16), receivers coach (2017) and offensive assistant (2018-20) as well as tight ends coach.

The Chargers ranked ninth in total offense and 13th in scoring in 2022, but they ran the ball only 35 percent of the time and finished 30th in rushing yards.

Vikings complete interview with Brian Flores for defensive coordinator job

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The Vikings completed an interview with Steelers assistant Brian Flores for their open defensive coordinator position, the team announced Thursday.

The Vikings are seeking a replacement for Ed Donatell, who they fired last week.

The Minnesota defense was one of the worst in franchise history, finishing the season ranked 28th in points allowed (25.1) and 31st in yards allowed (388.7).

The team also has interviewed Seahawks associate head coach for defense Sean Desai, Saints co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen and Vikings assistant head coach Mike Pettine.

Flores just completed his first season as senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach for the Steelers.

He also had an interview with the Cardinals for their head coaching job and for the defensive coordinator jobs with the Browns and Falcons.

Flores’ NFL career includes work in the Patriots personnel department and as an assistant. The Patriots won four Super Bowls during Flores’ time with New England (XXXIX, XLIX, LI and LIII). He also was head coach of the Dolphins from 2019-21.

Panthers’ recent hire of Frank Reich’s daughter could become an issue in Steve Wilks’ litigation

NFL: OCT 30 Panthers at Falcons
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After the Panthers hired Frank Reich to be the team’s next head coach, the lawyer representing former interim coach Steve Wilks strongly implied that the Panthers will be added to the pending litigation against the NFL and multiple teams over racial discrimination in hiring practices.

For Wilks, the argument would be both that racial bias infected the process and that the Panthers shied away from Wilks at least in part because of the fact that he has sued the Cardinals for racial discrimination.

Here’s a fact that will become an issue in the inevitable discovery process once Wilks adds the Panthers as a defendant: as of January 8, roughly 90 minutes after the team’s regular season ended, Reich’s daughter announced that she officially had become an employee of the Panthers.

There’s nothing wrong with that fact, in isolation. Nepotism is already rampant in the NFL. And it wasn’t even nepotism if Reich wasn’t the coach when she was hired.

That said, Wilks and his lawyers will want to explore whether and to what extent it was known that Frank Reich was destined to become the head coach when his daughter was offered and/or accepted the job. Was it a done deal, a fait accompli, that the Panthers were hiring Frank Reich to be the coach when the Panthers hired Reich’s daughter?

It will require a careful review of the electronic paper trail (emails, texts, etc.) along with questioning of those involved in the process. The argument will be, if the facts support the notion that it was Reich all along, that the interview process was a sham.

That’s one of the major themes of the entire litigation, that Rooney Rule compliance occurs simply as a matter of perfunctory box-checking, and that as a result worthless and pointless interviews occur at a time when the owner already knows what the owner plans to do.

That’s what makes the hiring of Reich’s daughter relevant. When she was offered the job, did the team already know that Reich would be the next head coach?

If the answer is no, it’s just another issue that was explored as part of a lawsuit. If the answer is yes, any claim Wilks may make against the Panthers suddenly becomes stronger.

Trent Williams on Eagles fans: When you walk in there, they let you know you’re not welcome

NFL: SEP 19 49ers at Eagles
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49ers left tackle Trent Williams spent his first nine NFL seasons with Washington. The All-Pro made nine visits to Lincoln Financial Field with his former team and another last season with his current team.

Williams is 5-5 in his trips to Philadelphia.

“It’s a little bit more than just the noise that comes with that place,” Williams said, via Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. “Philly is just one of those places where the fans — they make a difference. They get under your skin. They yell at you. They don’t stop. That will be an added factor.

“When you walk in there, they let you know that you’re not welcome.”

The Eagles went 7-2 at home in the regular season in 2022 and won their divisional round game against the Giants on Saturday.

Sean Payton denies report of concerns with unnamed member of Broncos ownership

Denver Broncos v New Orleans Saints
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As some wonder whether former Saints coach Sean Payton will wait to return to coaching until 2024, he has spoken out in response to a report regarding one of his potential destinations for 2023.

Mark Maske of the Washington Post tweeted the following on Thursday: “[T]here was an issue with Payton’s interview with the Broncos. Payton likes the idea of coaching Russell Wilson and having that defense but fears a potential power struggle with a member of the ownership group, source says.”

Maske did not name the member of the ownership group about whom Payton supposedly has concerns. Limited partner Condi Rice was directly involved in the first round of interviews, along with CEO and owner Greg Penner. The other primary owners involved in the hiring process are Rob Walton and Carrie Walton Penner.

Said Payton in response to Maske’s report: “Zero truth to this. We had a great visit and [Broncos] ownership was fantastic!!”

Payton has drawn interest from the Broncos, Texans, Cardinals, and Panthers. This week, a sense has emerged that he’s likely to return to Fox for another year, and to re-enter the market in 2024.

If that happens, the reason won’t be (according to Payton himself) that Payton fears a potential power struggle with an unnamed member of the Denver ownership group.

49ers’ injury report confirms Christian McCaffrey, Elijah Mitchell didn’t practice again

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The 49ers’ practice report confirmed what coach Kyle Shanahan said would happen in practice: Running backs Christian McCaffrey (calf) and Elijah Mitchell (groin) remained out Thursday.

McCaffrey said there was “zero” chance of him sitting out Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.

Last week was the first time since Week 12 that the 49ers running back wasn’t listed on the practice report. But he injured his calf in Sunday’s game against the Cowboys when he played 44 of 66 snaps.

Mitchell played 22 snaps Sunday.

Shanahan said he expects both backs to play Sunday, but he hasn’t guaranteed it.

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who won’t play again this week with a foot injury, was the only other player who didn’t practice Thursday. Left tackle Trent Williams, who had a rest day Wednesday, returned to full participation.

Wide receiver Deebo Samuel (ankle), cornerback Ambry Thomas (ankle) and defensive end Charles Omenihu (oblique) were limited for the second consecutive day.