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Kareem Hunt’s second chance with Browns shouldn’t make Chiefs reunion ‘personal’

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It’s true that the Chiefs cut Kareem Hunt, and he’ll play for the Browns against his former team in their NFL divisional playoff matchup. That has created a redemption story narrative for some before Sunday’s game.

“Kept telling the guys, I got a feeling we’re gonna see them in the playoffs,” Hunt said Thursday. “I knew they were gonna make it to the playoffs, that’s a terrific program over there. I just kept telling them early in the season, we got to make it to the playoffs, we’ve got to make a run and I’ve got a feeling we’re gonna see the Chiefs.”

Kansas City released Hunt in 2018 when video emerged of him appearing to kick and shove a woman. Kansas City said it knew about the incident but that Hunt hadn’t been fully truthful about what had occurred. Hunt’s subsequent release was the correct choice for the Chiefs given the circumstances Hunt himself created.

Hunt apparently doesn’t see it that way. In an Instagram Live video Sunday after the Browns beat Pittsburgh, Hunt repeated multiple times that the upcoming matchup with Kansas City is “personal.”

Cleveland-area NFL analyst Tony Grossi doubled down after Hunt’s comments. He tweeted Monday, “Forgot about this angle: Kareem Hunt returns to Kansas City seeking to topple the team that gave up on him.”

Here’s what Hunt’s current and former teammates have been saying ahead of Browns vs. Chiefs.

MORE: Why did the Chiefs cut Kareem Hunt?

Kareem Hunt: ‘Next week’s personal’

The Chiefs selected Hunt in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft out of Toledo, and he took the NFL by storm, leading the league in rushing yards as a rookie with 1,327 yards. He played the first 11 games of the 2018 season, too, running for another 824 yards.

But between his first and second seasons, Hunt was involved in an incident with a woman, Abigail Ottinger, according to her account to the Cleveland Police Department. Ottinger told police that Hunt “pushed and shoved her.” Hunt also allegedly punched a man in the face in June after a verbal dispute, according to TMZ.

The Chiefs said later they knew about Hunt’s incident with Ottinger, but they also said that the security camera footage released in November made Hunt’s discussions with them look less truthful. Kansas City quickly released Hunt after the video was released, with footage showing him kicking and shoving a woman.

When the Chiefs made it to the Super Bowl, Hunt could be heard telling a police officer during a speeding stop that it “hurts my soul” that the Chiefs were in the big game without him.

“I think that’s going to permeate for our guys, as well,” Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield said during the week, per Cleveland.com, “and they’re going have those same feelings and want to play for him. It’s like the give-and-take of Kareem is hurt that they’re in the Super Bowl, and he was cheering for his guys but you know he wanted to be there. That’s why he comes to work every day and works his ass off to try and get there with us now.”

The Browns signed Hunt in February 2019, and after he served an eight-game suspension in 2019, he’s been the second piece to a dynamic backfield with Nick Chubb. Cleveland’s 2019 season was a disappointment, but with Chubb and Hunt dominant in 2020, the Browns made their first playoffs since 2002 and won their first playoff game since 1994 to set up a game against the top-seeded Chiefs in the divisional round.

Hunt ran for 48 yards and two touchdowns against Pittsburgh in the wild-card round win, and he hopped on Instagram Live after the game, twice proclaiming: “Next week’s personal.”

“Kareem talked about this game all year like he knew it was going to happen,’’ Browns running back Nick Chubb said during the week, per Cleveland.com. “He’s excited for it. I’m excited for him. I’m excited to watch him go out there and play. He’s ready for it.”

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What the Chiefs are saying about Kareem Hunt

Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Andy Reid have all been asked about Hunt’s upcoming matchup against his former team. Hunt had his league-leading rushing year during Mahomes’ MVP 2018 season with Reid at the helm, too.

“He has a lot of success on that field every opportunity he gets and he’s a great football player and someone that I know will keep getting better and better as his career goes on,’’ Mahomes said on KCSP 610 in Kansas City. “He’s a special football player. He finishes every single play, he catches and runs, he can do it all. I’m happy for him that he’s back home in Cleveland and he’s able to play really good football.’’

Reid, too, kept the focus of his answer on what Hunt can do on the football field.

“Listen, I like Kareem,’’ Reid said in a Monday press conference. “I’m glad things are going well for him. He knows a lot of the guys that were on that team last year and felt bad about not being a part of that. I get all of that. But most of all, I’m happy for him that things are going in the right direction for him. He’s on a good football team, they’re well-coached and they won their first playoff game. There’s something to be said about that.’’

Kelce’s comments suggested Hunt has overcome adversity since his release.

“I wish we spoke more often,’’ Kelce said, via Cleveland.com. “That’s my brother for life. To see what he’s gone through and to see him grow from everything. I’m somebody who had a few red flags coming out of college. It wasn’t always a whole lot of fun for me. I had to break through some things that were tied to my name. With that, you have to challenge yourself as a man, as a human.

“You have to grow from it, understand how people are viewing you, and you have to move on knowing that. I think Kareem has done an unbelievable job of just going out there, playing football and keeping his head on straight. I’m happy as hell for him.”

The Chiefs didn’t ‘give up’ on Kareem Hunt

Despite what Cleveland radio and TV personality Tony Grossi tweeted, the Chiefs didn’t give up on Hunt. 

No one gave up on Hunt. His release was just the effect of a cause: His incident with Ottinger and the subsequent release of the video showing it. That’s not giving up. It’s responding in kind.

And so no matter what anyone says about redemption or revenge, there aren’t any redeeming qualities to Hunt’s game against the Chiefs. His performance won’t suddenly make Kansas City feel foolish for releasing him or make Hunt seem like a changed man. It’ll just be a running back playing a football game against his former team, nothing truly “personal” about it. 

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NFL playoff picks, predictions against spread: Bucs solve Saints; Chiefs bounce Browns; Bills, Packers survive

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And then there were eight teams remaining in the race for Super Bowl 55. With the divisional round of the 2021 NFL playoffs here it’s time for another round for picks and predictions against the spread.

Although the slate drops from six games during wild-card weekend to a combined four this Saturday and Sunday, there’s still plenty of good two-day action between the AFC and NFC matchups. There are two strong favorites and two mild favorites among the home teams this week.

Here’s to trying to build on our solid success navigating through the numbers from last week:

MORE NFL PLAYOFFS:
AFC & NFC bracket | TV schedule | Super Bowl picks

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NFL playoff picks, predictions against the spread

  •  Game of the Week: Ravens at Bills (-2.5, 50 o/u)

Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC

This game will live up to the billing of being a dynamic passing and running duel between 2018 first-round quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen. The Bills’ defensive weakness is against the run, which will allow Jackson, J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards to get going between the tackles and around the edges. The Ravens are solid against the run but, despite some having some good, experienced pass rushers and cornerbacks, they have lapses in pressure and coverage, which can expose them further with their frequent blitzes.

Jackson will do plenty of damage on the ground and Allen will have his share of key physical runs. It will come down to which quarterback can make a few more big pass plays off script. Jackson will see Tre’Davious White contain Marquise Brown, left leaning mostly on tight end Mark Andrews in a great matchup. The difference will be the Bills’ Stefon Diggs, who can consistently get the better of Marcus Peters outside to boost Allen.

Pick: Bills win 27-24 and cover the spread.

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Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET, CBS

The Browns came out looking for big plays and takeaways against the Steelers and were successful, eventually closing out their AFC North rivals with Nick Chubb and the power running game. Chubb and former Chiefs feature back Kareem Hunt will be critical to the chances of a second consecutive (and much bigger) road upset.

Baker Mayfield can’t get into a pure chuck-fest with Patrick Mahomes because he doesn’t have the same all-around weapons and is facing the much tougher of the two overall pass defenses. The Browns need to play ball control, picking good spots for Mayfield to hit on big plays off play-action and bootlegs and then make sure they lean on Chubb and Hunt most to finish in the red zone.

The Chiefs will counter by relentlessly throwing with a rested Mahomes. The Browns simply do not have anyone who can cover wide receiver Tyreek Hill deep or tight end Travis Kelce on intermediate routes. The goal will be jumping off to a significant lead and limiting the Browns’ use of the run, putting Mayfield in uncomfortable situations against Frank Clark, Chris Jones and the rest of the Chiefs’ pass rush. Mayfield also needs to be careful throwing to the middle of the field with safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Daniel Sorenson looming.

The Browns won’t have answers for Mahomes. The Chiefs will find plenty for Mayfield in the second half.

Pick: Chiefs win 34-17 and cover the spread.

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  • Upset of the Week: Buccaneers (+3, 52 o/u) over Saints

Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET, Fox

Tom Brady’s first game as a Buccaneer was rough in New Orleans in Week 1. His second shot at the Saints was even worse at home in Week 9. But Brady wasn’t playing nearly at the same level in either previous meeting as he is now, fully locked into his wide receivers, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown. He’s set at tight end, too, whether it’s Cameron Brate or old buddy Rob Gronkowski running the routes. The Saints have developed more coverage issues all over the field and after seeing their defense twice on film, Brady will adjust into the most comfortable matchup, most every time.

The Bucs and Saints both stop the run well, so it will come down which fortysomething quarterback, Brady or Drew Brees, can avoid the big mistakes but also deliver big plays. Brady has simply been the more impressive passer with the stronger arm for his age and has more guys who can cause matchup problems. Brees will have success working on shorter routes to Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, but Evans, Godwin and Brown will be of bigger help to Brady.

Pick: Buccaneers win 34-31.

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Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, Fox

The Rams will make this a game because of their running game. Their offensive line pushed around the Seahawks with Andrew Whitworth back and the fresh legs of rookie Cam Akers has made the rushing attack central again. Jared Goff will be a little healthier to take advantage of that, working play-action to Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. The Packers will handle some of that by putting cornerback Jaire Alexander on Woods.

On the other side, Aaron Rodgers will see Davante Adams locked up with Jalen Ramsey and knows center Corey Linsley and the rest of his strong interior offensive line need to keep Aaron Donald at bay, especially with the edge compromised without left tackle David Bakhtiari. Rodgers and Aaron Jones don’t find it easy at first, but then Rodgers finds tight end Robert Tonyan and other matchups he likes away from downfield and Jones will go to work on a worn-down group in the second half.

The Rams’ defense makes a statement against the MVP QB in Green Bay, but they can’t do enough to make sure the Rams’ offense outscores whatever Rodgers leads the Packers to do.

Pick: Packers win 24-20 but fail to cover the spread.

Stats of the Week

  • Wild-card playoff straight up: 5-1
  • Wild-card playoffs against the spread: 3-2
  • Season straight up: 169-93
  • Season against the spread: 135-119

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Why the Jaguars hired Urban Meyer: Florida ties, top pick helped lure ex-Ohio State coach to Jacksonville

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The Jaguars on Thursday made official what had been rumored within NFL and college football circles since late December: Longtime college football coach Urban Meyer is coming out of retirement to become Jacksonville’s newest coach, replacing Doug Marrone.

While Meyer’s sustained success at the college level is undeniable, the hire nevertheless will raise a few eyebrows, considering he has zero NFL coaching experience. Many will be quick to compare him to college contemporary Nick Saban, who infamously floundered in two seasons with the Dolphins before returning to coach college at Alabama.

Whether Meyer will learn to overcome the professional hurdles Saban couldn’t remains to be seen. But there are other factors — his ties to the state of Florida, his history of health issues and scandals and his managerial style, among others — that owner Shad Khan had to weigh while deciding whether to hire him.

Here’s a look at those factors, and how they could affect Meyer’s tenure with the Jaguars:

MORE: How Meyer can succeed in NFL, somewhere between Nick Saban & Pete Carroll

Why did the Jaguars hire Urban Meyer?

Khan, in announcing the hire, said Meyer “is who we want and need, a leader, winner and champion who demands excellence and produces results. While Urban already enjoys a legacy in the game of football that few will ever match, his passion for the opportunity in front of him here in Jacksonville is powerful and unmistakable.” 

“With upcoming opportunities in the NFL Draft, and strong support from ownership, the Jaguars are well-positioned to become competitive,” Meyer said in a prepared statement: “I’ve analyzed this decision from every angle — the time is right in Jacksonville, and the time is right for me to return to coaching.” 

Urban Meyer’s record at Florida, Ohio State

Meyer is an exclusive group of coaches who have won national championships at multiple schools; only he and Saban have accomplished that feat, with Meyer doing it at Florida (2006, ’08) and Ohio State (2014). Curiously, Meyer had to go through Saban’s Alabama teams in his latter two national championship seasons, beating the Crimson Tide in the 2008 SEC championship game and the 2014 College Football Playoff semifinal.

Meyer owns an impressive 187-32 record across 17 college football seasons. That includes a 17-6 record at Bowling Green (2001-02); a 22-2 record at Utah (2003-04); a 65-15 record at Florida (2005-10); and a 83-9 record at Ohio State (2012-18). Meyer has never suffered a losing season at the collegiate level, with his worst season (8-5) coming in 2010 at Florida. He also has two undefeated seasons, at Utah in 2004 and Ohio State in 2012.

Jacksonville would love for Meyer to continue that sustained success after suffering losing records under previous coaches Doug Marrone (23-43), Gus Bradley (14-48) and Jack Del Rio (68-71).

Ties to the state of Florida

There’s no doubt Meyer’s ties to the state of Florida had a hand in his choosing Jacksonville over other head coaching opportunities with the Chargers, Falcons and Jets, among others. Jacksonville is only an hour-and-a-half drive from Gainesville, where Meyer coached the Gators for six seasons.

If Meyer, 56, intends to retire for good after his stint with the Jaguars, it makes sense for him to choose Jacksonville as his final coaching destination if he intends to reside permanently in the state afterward.

Track record of evaluating, developing talented players

Meyer has a long history of recruiting, evaluating and developing top-tier talent before sending them to the NFL. That includes former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith (Utah), running backs Carlos Hyde and Ezekiel Elliott (Ohio State), defensive ends Nick and Joey Bosa (Ohio State), receiver Michael Thomas (Ohio State), offensive linemen Mike and Maurkice Pouncey (Florida) and receiver Percy Harvin (Florida), among others.

While Meyer will have to learn to navigate the draft, free agency and the trade market instead of cherry-picking the top players along the recruiting trail, he had a hand in developing those players into NFL-caliber talents. If he can have similar success with his Jaguars players already on the roster — and those he takes in the draft — there’s no reason to think Jacksonville can’t become a regular AFC South contender in the coming seasons.

Of paramount importance will be his success in developing that all-important position: quarterback.

MORE: Meyer reportedly assembling staff for Jaguars job

History of quarterback development

Jacksonville’s quarterback situation was less than ideal in 2020 with Gardner Minshew II, rookie Jake Luton and Mike Glennon all struggling: They combined to complete 387 of 616 passes for 3,955 yards and 25 touchdowns to 16 interceptions. Luton and Glennon were winless as starters, and Minshew wasn’t much better, going 1-7 in eight starts.

Meyer will be asked to upgrade that position immediately, which he will be in prime position to do with the No. 1 overall pick. He has a moderate history of success with that position, helping Smith to become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft as well as recruiting future NFL MVP Cam Newton to Florida (Newton later transferred to Auburn after a one-year stint in JUCO). Meyer has also produced NFL draft picks in Tim Tebow, Cardale Jones and Dwayne Haskins, though none of those players ended up panning out professionally.

That leads to the most important question Meyer will face ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft:

Will Meyer draft Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields?

There are more than a few people who watched the 2021 Sugar Bowl matchup between Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and wondered if the Buckeye quarterback’s performance in that game should vault him to the No. 1 overall draft pick.

Fields was clearly the better of the two in their second all-time meeting; despite taking a nasty shot to the ribs , he completed 22 of 28 passes for 385 yards and six touchdowns to one interception. He also ran eight times for 42 yards. Compare that to Lawrence, who completed 33 of 48 passes for 400 yards but only two touchdowns and an interception.

Fields transferred to play for the Buckeyes in January 2019, the month after Meyer’s second retirement from football. So there’s no personal connection between the two that would sway Meyer to draft him over Lawrence. And while Meyer has lauded Fields’ natural ability and leadership — even comparing him to Deshaun Watson — he has already made an evaluation of who is better be better of the two:

Assuming Meyer’s evaluation hasn’t changed, he should take Lawrence with the top pick of the draft.

MORE: Why Trevor Lawrence is a much better fit with Jaguars than Jets

Meyer’s history of scandals

Despite his on-field success, Meyer does not have the cleanest record off it heading into Jacksonville: Both Ohio State and Florida faced scandals that have origins from when he led the programs.

Thirty-one Florida players were arrested while enrolled at school under Meyer from 2005-10. According to a 2013 report by the New York Times, 41 players on his 2008 national championship team — roughly a third — faced arrest either in college or after leaving Florida. The most notable of those is tight end Aaron Hernandez, who in 2015 was found guilty of first-degree murder.

Meyer in 2018 also came under fire for his relationship with Zach Smith , whom he kept on his staff at Florida and Ohio State despite reportedly having knowledge of domestic abuse between him and his wife, Courtney Smith. Meyer fired Smith in July 2018 after national football reporter Brett McMurphy published a story in which Courtney Smith discussed a 2009 incident of domestic abuse.

Meyer was placed on administrative leave because of the scandal, missing three games; he later announced his impending retirement, citing health concerns that were exacerbated due to Ohio State’s investigation.

It remains to be seen whether Meyer took lessons from those scandals, or if working with professional players — instead of 18- to 22-year-olds — will help him avoid any future issues.

What will Meyer, Khan’s relationship look like?

Khan has been a largely hands-off owner of the Jaguars, resulting in a 41-106 record from 2012 to 2020. It stands to reason, then, that he will want more of a say in how the team is run and what players he thinks Meyer and the future general manager should go after.

That’s a far cry from Meyer’s experience at the collegiate level, where he maintained complete control of his respective programs — from recruiting, coaching, and roster management. It’s that lack of control that contributed to Saban return to the college game. Meyer’s ability to handle that will go a long way in how successful he is in Jacksonville, but he needs to be prepared to let Khan have a say — and to let his future general manager do their job as well.

Something else to consider: Meyer is not used to losing. His worst came in 2010, when Florida went 8-5 (.615). A comparable season in Jacksonville would be 10-7, or 11-6. It’s unlikely Meyer achieves double digit wins in his first season, or maybe even his second. He’ll have to be patient while building the organization up toward AFC South contention.

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Nets GM Sean Marks confident James Harden will jell with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving

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Nets general manager Sean Marks is confident Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden will jell as they work toward a “common goal.”

Questions have been asked about whether the three stars can work together, but Marks sounded convinced that they will.

“These guys have given us the right answers. They’ve said, hey, they want to play together, they can see this fitting,” Marks told a news conference Thursday after the Nets confirmed they had completed Harden from the Rockets in a blockbuster four-team trade.

MORE: How Harden fits in Brooklyn, by the numbers

“They’re at a time in their careers — I don’t want to speak for each one of them because I let them have their own their own voice and their narrative around this — but I think they understand that there’s without a doubt going to be some nights where one or two need to sacrifice for the other and so forth. But I think they’re all looking for a common goal.

“We’re all looking for that common goal, as I’ve said before, is to be the last team standing. I think when you have a group that is willing to sacrifice and play hard, play together on the court, and they already have a relationship, a prior relationship to this, so I think that will help.”

Harden, Durant and Irving all rank in the top 10 in the NBA in scoring average since the latter’s rookie season in 2011-12 (minimum 500 games).

Durant or Harden have won seven of the past 11 NBA scoring titles. No Brooklyn qualifier has ever finished higher than fifth in the league.

TRADE GRADES: Nets go all-in on championship chase

Marks said the opportunity to land a player like Harden came at a good time for the Nets.

“The timing was right for us. And fortunately, any time you get an opportunity to acquire or try to acquire a player of this caliber it’s something you do look hard at [and] is something we did,” he said.

“The process sped up very, very rapidly and very quickly over the last 48 hours.”

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Blue Jackets’ Pierre-Luc Dubois ‘wants out’: Timeline, latest trade rumors

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There’s a whole lot of drama coming out of Columbus these days — and, for once, it’s not entirely about John Tortorella. Instead, it’s focused on Pierre-Luc Dubois. The Blue Jackets’ prized 22-year-old center reportedly needs a change of scenery. 

Dubois is coming off a season in which he potted 49 points (18 goals, 31 assists) in 70 regular-season games before tacking on 10 points in 10 playoff bubble games. In three NHL seasons, he has collected 158 points in 234 games for Columbus and would be a great pickup for any team.

Obviously, it could be a tad difficult this year for general manager Jarmo Kekalainen to ship out the disgruntled No. 1 centerman — with quarantine and border issues — but it sounds as if Dubois’ time in Ohio is winding down.

So, what exactly is going on? And how did it get to this point? Here’s a timeline of everything we know, including rumored destinations.

Pierre-Luc Dubois timeline

Aug. 4

Is this where the relationship between Dubois and Tortorella soured? Before the start of the third period of Game 2 in Columbus’ qualifying-round series against the Leafs, Dubois goes to the bench and gets laid into by Tortorella — including finger-pointing. Dubois goes back at him, respectfully. It looks as if Tortorella yells “Wake up!” at him at one point: 

The Blue Jackets lost that game 3-0 but Dubois responded in Game 3 with a hat trick, including the overtime winner. According to the Columbus Dispatch’s Brian Hedger, there were other clashes during the regular season that involved public airing of grievances. 

Dec. 31

Dubois signs a two-year, $10 million contract with the Blue Jackets days before the start of training camp.

“I’m excited to have the contract done and to be able to get back on the ice and play hockey again, especially with everything that is going on in the world right now,” Dubois says after the team announces the signing. “I’m very fortunate and looking forward to being with my teammates at camp and the start of a new season.”

Sounds like everything was hunky-dory, right? Well, just prior to the announcement, TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported that the restricted free agent was not in Ohio and “Dubois may be looking for a change of scenery.” Per The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline, Dubois had been skating in Columbus but left. LeBrun added about an hour later that Kekalainen was “confident” he would get a contract done.

Jan. 3

The Blue Jackets open camp and Dubois is asked about his trade request, but he doesn’t offer up much, saying a few times that conversations between he, agent Pat Brisson and Kekalainen are private and will remain as such.

“I’m going to be the best player I can be, the best teammate I can be, the best person I can be,” he says when pressed about the trade request. “I don’t want it to be a distraction. So I think that’s the only way. I think if I go out there and I work hard in practices, have a good attitude, work hard in games, play well, [then] I think it’s not a distraction.”

Jan. 13

Tortorella confirms in an interview with Columbus radio station WBNS that the team’s first-round draft pick in 2016 (third overall) already has his bags packed.

“He wants out,” Tortorella tells Rothman and Ice. “(Dubois) hasn’t given a reason why he wants to leave. He should get in front of it. That’s the way I think you should go about your business, and be the best team you can be.

“He needs to continue to do the things to help this team win and be the best teammate he can be, or I’m not sure where it goes. It’s a situation and we’ll go to it day by day.”

Jan. 14

Dubois is in the lineup for the Blue Jackets’ 2021 season opener, a 3-1 loss to the Predators in Nashville. He’s slotted in as the No. 1 center between Mikhail Grigorenko and Oliver Bjorkstrand. In 18:30 of ice time, most among Columbus forwards, he notches one shot on goal and two hits and wins 12 of 19 faceoffs.

Trade potential

As mentioned, trades could be hard to complete because of border restrictions and the fact Dubois would have to quarantine for 14 days if shipped north — which is looking more likely.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported in his “31 Thoughts” column that a number of teams want Dubois, with the Canadiens and Jets the more serious pursuers.

On Jan. 12, Darren Dreger added fuel to the Jets rumor on TSN’s “Insider Trading,” saying there has been speculation they’re looking at Dubois and noting that Winnipeg has its own disgruntled forward in Patrik Laine. 

On Jan. 14, former NHL insider Nick Kyrpeos tweeted that Dubois wants to go to the Canadiens — which makes sense because he hails from Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Que. The only catch, Kypreos said, is that the Blue Jackets want Nick Suzuki in return and the Canadiens may be wary of trading the future star. (Suzuki looked fantastic between Jonathan Drouin and Josh Anderson in Montreal’s opener.) Kypreos added that rookie defender Alexander Romanov was deemed untouchable.

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Jets hire Robert Saleh as head coach, return to defensive posture

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The Jets announced Thursday night that they had reached an agreement in principle with 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to become their new head coach. The move marks a return to the mindset the franchise has held for the better part of a quarter-century.

Saleh, 41, is succeeding Adam Gase, who was fired after the Jets’ Week 17 loss to the Patriots. The Jets finished 2-14 in 2020 after losing their first 13 games. Gase was 9-23 in two seasons with the team.

MORE: Jets fan takes Saleh watch to an extreme

New York is getting one of the hottest coaching prospects in the NFL, a coordinator who led a Super Bowl-caliber unit two years ago and a group that was fifth in total defense this year despite multiple injuries to key players.

It’s also returning to its recent philosophy of going with a defensive mind as its head coach. Todd Bowles, Rex Ryan, Eric Mangini, Herm Edwards, Al Groh, Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells all hailed from that side of the ball, with Gase breaking the string. The individual coaching records show a mixed bag of results:

Gase9-23
Bowles24-40
Ryan46-50
Mangini23-25
Edwards39-41
Groh9-7
Belichick0-0
Parcells29-19

The Jets were 24th in total defense, 28th against the pass and 26th in scoring defense this season under coordinators Gregg Williams and Frank Bush.

They’re also following the pack when it comes to coaches in their division: Belichick, the Bills’ Sean McDermott and the Dolphins’ Brian Flores all have defensive backgrounds.

But New York is bucking a trend, as well, by not hiring a young offensive hotshot: think Sean McVay, Matt LaFleur, Kevin Stefanski, Kliff Kingsbury, Matt Rhule and Zac Taylor. On the other hand, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Thursday night that 49ers passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur — brother of Matt and all of 34 years old — is expected to become Saleh’s offensive coordinator with the Jets.

The OC choice is crucial because Saleh is inheriting the worst offense in the NFL (32nd in yards and scoring in 2020). There’s the likelihood that Saleh may want to go with a new quarterback in 2021 in place of incumbent Sam Darnold. New York will pick second in the NFL Draft in April; it could turn to Ohio State’s Justin Fields or BYU’s Zach Wilson if it wants to start over at the position.

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Spurs’ Gregg Popovich gets wine question from Grant Hill during in-game interview

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TNT analyst/Basketball Hall of Famer Grant Hill got through his in-game interview with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich on Thursday night unscathed because he asked about wine instead of basketball.

Hill, saying he didn’t know what to ask, opened the floor to Pop rather than face a withering look or response to a hoops question. Popovich went along and kept the segment light.

MORE: Tim Duncan on what he hates about the modern NBA game

“Let’s see . . . I’ll stay away from politics for a change,” Popovich told Hill, who was working remotely. “Let’s talk about defense. Ask me something about defense.”

Hill declined the coach’s offer but instead asked for an opinion on what type of wine best complements a steak. Popovich is a wine connoisseur.

Popovich responded with a complaint about Hill being able to go to dinner when he has to go home because of NBA COVID-19 protocols. (Hill said he would order delivery.) He did add that an expensive Australian wine would make a nice pairing.

“We’ve got a game here, geez Louise,” Popovich joked as he ended the interview.

The reporters who have to speak with Popovich after the game won’t get the same treatment, not after the Spurs lost to the Rockets 109-105.

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Why the Jaguars hired Urban Meyer: Florida ties, top pick helped lure ex-Ohio State coach to Jacksonville

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The Jaguars on Thursday made official what had been rumored within NFL and college football circles since late December: Longtime college football coach Urban Meyer is coming out of retirement to become Jacksonville’s newest coach, replacing Doug Marrone.

While Meyer’s sustained success at the college level is undeniable, the hire nevertheless will raise a few eyebrows, considering he has zero NFL coaching experience. Many will be quick to compare him to college contemporary Nick Saban, who infamously floundered in two seasons with the Dolphins before returning to coach college at Alabama.

Whether Meyer will learn to overcome the professional hurdles Saban couldn’t remains to be seen. But there are other factors — his ties to the state of Florida, his history of health issues and scandals and his managerial style, among others — that owner Shad Khan had to weigh while deciding whether to hire him.

Here’s a look at those factors, and how they could affect Meyer’s tenure with the Jaguars:

MORE: How Meyer can succeed in NFL, somewhere between Nick Saban & Pete Carroll

Why did the Jaguars hire Urban Meyer?

Khan, in announcing the hire, said Meyer “is who we want and need, a leader, winner and champion who demands excellence and produces results. While Urban already enjoys a legacy in the game of football that few will ever match, his passion for the opportunity in front of him here in Jacksonville is powerful and unmistakable.” 

“With upcoming opportunities in the NFL Draft, and strong support from ownership, the Jaguars are well-positioned to become competitive,” Meyer said in a prepared statement: “I’ve analyzed this decision from every angle — the time is right in Jacksonville, and the time is right for me to return to coaching.” 

Urban Meyer’s record at Florida, Ohio State

Meyer is an exclusive group of coaches who have won national championships at multiple schools; only he and Saban have accomplished that feat, with Meyer doing it at Florida (2006, ’08) and Ohio State (2014). Curiously, Meyer had to go through Saban’s Alabama teams in his latter two national championship seasons, beating the Crimson Tide in the 2008 SEC championship game and the 2014 College Football Playoff semifinal.

Meyer owns an impressive 187-32 record across 17 college football seasons. That includes a 17-6 record at Bowling Green (2001-02); a 22-2 record at Utah (2003-04); a 65-15 record at Florida (2005-10); and a 83-9 record at Ohio State (2012-18). Meyer has never suffered a losing season at the collegiate level, with his worst season (8-5) coming in 2010 at Florida. He also has two undefeated seasons, at Utah in 2004 and Ohio State in 2012.

Jacksonville would love for Meyer to continue that sustained success after suffering losing records under previous coaches Doug Marrone (23-43), Gus Bradley (14-48) and Jack Del Rio (68-71).

Ties to the state of Florida

There’s no doubt Meyer’s ties to the state of Florida had a hand in his choosing Jacksonville over other head coaching opportunities with the Chargers, Falcons and Jets, among others. Jacksonville is only an hour-and-a-half drive from Gainesville, where Meyer coached the Gators for six seasons.

If Meyer, 56, intends to retire for good after his stint with the Jaguars, it makes sense for him to choose Jacksonville as his final coaching destination if he intends to reside permanently in the state afterward.

Track record of evaluating, developing talented players

Meyer has a long history of recruiting, evaluating and developing top-tier talent before sending them to the NFL. That includes former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith (Utah), running backs Carlos Hyde and Ezekiel Elliott (Ohio State), defensive ends Nick and Joey Bosa (Ohio State), receiver Michael Thomas (Ohio State), offensive linemen Mike and Maurkice Pouncey (Florida) and receiver Percy Harvin (Florida), among others.

While Meyer will have to learn to navigate the draft, free agency and the trade market instead of cherry-picking the top players along the recruiting trail, he had a hand in developing those players into NFL-caliber talents. If he can have similar success with his Jaguars players already on the roster — and those he takes in the draft — there’s no reason to think Jacksonville can’t become a regular AFC South contender in the coming seasons.

Of paramount importance will be his success in developing that all-important position: quarterback.

MORE: Meyer reportedly assembling staff for Jaguars job

History of quarterback development

Jacksonville’s quarterback situation was less than ideal in 2020 with Gardner Minshew II, rookie Jake Luton and Mike Glennon all struggling: They combined to complete 387 of 616 passes for 3,955 yards and 25 touchdowns to 16 interceptions. Luton and Glennon were winless as starters, and Minshew wasn’t much better, going 1-7 in eight starts.

Meyer will be asked to upgrade that position immediately, which he will be in prime position to do with the No. 1 overall pick. He has a moderate history of success with that position, helping Smith to become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft as well as recruiting future NFL MVP Cam Newton to Florida (Newton later transferred to Auburn after a one-year stint in JUCO). Meyer has also produced NFL draft picks in Tim Tebow, Cardale Jones and Dwayne Haskins, though none of those players ended up panning out professionally.

That leads to the most important question Meyer will face ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft:

Will Meyer draft Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields?

There are more than a few people who watched the 2021 Sugar Bowl matchup between Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and wondered if the Buckeye quarterback’s performance in that game should vault him to the No. 1 overall draft pick.

Fields was clearly the better of the two in their second all-time meeting; despite taking a nasty shot to the ribs , he completed 22 of 28 passes for 385 yards and six touchdowns to one interception. He also ran eight times for 42 yards. Compare that to Lawrence, who completed 33 of 48 passes for 400 yards but only two touchdowns and an interception.

Fields transferred to play for the Buckeyes in January 2019, the month after Meyer’s second retirement from football. So there’s no personal connection between the two that would sway Meyer to draft him over Lawrence. And while Meyer has lauded Fields’ natural ability and leadership — even comparing him to Deshaun Watson — he has already made an evaluation of who is better be better of the two:

Assuming Meyer’s evaluation hasn’t changed, he should take Lawrence with the top pick of the draft.

MORE: Why Trevor Lawrence is a much better fit with Jaguars than Jets

Meyer’s history of scandals

Despite his on-field success, Meyer does not have the cleanest record off it heading into Jacksonville: Both Ohio State and Florida faced scandals that have origins from when he led the programs.

Thirty-one Florida players were arrested while enrolled at school under Meyer from 2005-10. According to a 2013 report by the New York Times, 41 players on his 2008 national championship team — roughly a third — faced arrest either in college or after leaving Florida. The most notable of those is tight end Aaron Hernandez, who in 2015 was found guilty of first-degree murder.

Meyer in 2018 also came under fire for his relationship with Zach Smith , whom he kept on his staff at Florida and Ohio State despite reportedly having knowledge of domestic abuse between him and his wife, Courtney Smith. Meyer fired Smith in July 2018 after national football reporter Brett McMurphy published a story in which Courtney Smith discussed a 2009 incident of domestic abuse.

Meyer was placed on administrative leave because of the scandal, missing three games; he later announced his impending retirement, citing health concerns that were exacerbated due to Ohio State’s investigation.

It remains to be seen whether Meyer took lessons from those scandals, or if working with professional players — instead of 18- to 22-year-olds — will help him avoid any future issues.

What will Meyer, Khan’s relationship look like?

Khan has been a largely hands-off owner of the Jaguars, resulting in a 41-106 record from 2012 to 2020. It stands to reason, then, that he will want more of a say in how the team is run and what players he thinks Meyer and the future general manager should go after.

That’s a far cry from Meyer’s experience at the collegiate level, where he maintained complete control of his respective programs — from recruiting, coaching, and roster management. It’s that lack of control that contributed to Saban return to the college game. Meyer’s ability to handle that will go a long way in how successful he is in Jacksonville, but he needs to be prepared to let Khan have a say — and to let his future general manager do their job as well.

Something else to consider: Meyer is not used to losing. His worst came in 2010, when Florida went 8-5 (.615). A comparable season in Jacksonville would be 10-7, or 11-6. It’s unlikely Meyer achieves double digit wins in his first season, or maybe even his second. He’ll have to be patient while building the organization up toward AFC South contention.

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How Urban Meyer, Jaguars can avoid ruining Trevor Lawrence after picking him in 2021 NFL Draft

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The Jaguars have hit the Jacksonville jackpot when it comes to their future at head coach and starting quarterback. They have hired three-time college national champion Urban Meyer and will most certainly draft four-time College Football Playoff QB Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft..

If the Jaguars wanted to make a splash around the league, it would be hard to hand-pick a better combination. But “on paper” and “in theory” are different concepts when it comes to producing actual results. 

Meyer was drawn back out of retirement from his Fox Sports analyst gig at age 56 for the chance to return to Florida and work with a generational talent at the game’s most important position. Although owner Shad Khan is expected to be more involved in football operations, Meyer should still have the strongest say (and sway) in key personnel decisions.

Getting Lawrence is a big step toward getting back to playoff-caliber relevance in the NFL. Here’s what Meyer and the Jaguars need to do this offseason to quickly get on track to get the best of the elite Clemson prospect as soon as he becomes a Jaguar in April:

MORE: How Meyer can succeed in NFL, somewhere between Nick Saban & Pete Carroll

1. Hire a smart and creative offensive coordinator

Right off the bat, Meyer carries weight to assemble an all-star coaching staff. There are two play-callers the Jaguars should go after first and foremost: former Texas coach Tom Herman and Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott.

Herman had great success under Meyer at Ohio State. Elliott worked with Dabo Swinney to get elite, prolific play from Lawrence for three seasons. Either of those guys would be home runs to attach to Lawrence to maintain his explosive playmaking in the NFL. If Meyer cannot get those guys, he should make sure he hires someone who would build an offense around Lawrence’s immense skill set instead of trying to fit him in a scheme with mostly unfamiliar concepts.

The Cardinals had this fortune a couple years ago, knowing that Kliff Kingsbury, as head coach, would be an ideal pairing for Kyler Murray at No. 1. Last year, the Bengals were very comfortable with Zac Taylor being the established man for Joe Burrow.

Meyer has had success with many styles of QBs over the years, from Alex Smith to Tim Tebow to J.T. Barrett to Cardale Jones. The Jaguars should have all that confidence he will connect Lawrence with the right OC to mesh with his personality and talent.

(Getty Images)

2. Be aggressive in free agency to get veteran help

The Jaguars are sitting on the most salary cap room in the NFL for 2021, around $73 million. They have some promising skill-position talent for Lawrence’s arrival. Undrafted James Robinson quickly established himself as a worthy feature back as a rookie. D.J. Chark Jr., Laviska Shenault Jr. and Collin Johnson bring the youthful juice at wide receiver.

But those guys have limited experience in the NFL and will be adjusting to a new offense while they also get settled with Lawrence. The Jaguars still have veteran tight end Tyler Eifert under contract for another year to be better deployed for Lawrence, but Chris Thompson, Chris Conley, Keelan Cole, Dede Westbrook and James O’Shaughnessy all are free-agent pass-catchers.

The Jaguars could think about bringing back Allen Robinson or signing Marvin Jones Jr. as someone to put outside opposite Chark and move Shenault full time into the slot to replace Cole. If the Chargers let Hunter Henry hit the market, he would be the top tight end target. The Jaguars also could look cheaper and deeper to complement Eifert with Jonnu Smith, Jacob Hollister or Trey Burton.

If they don’t re-sign Cam Robinson and they become available, they could look at a sturdy older left tackle, Alejandro Villanueva or Trent Williams. The Jaguars also have plenty of market options to better flank Brandon Linder and Andrew Norwell inside, led by Brandon Scherff and Joe Thuney. Meyer and Lawrence are big splashes, but a couple of worthy splurges would be good, too.

NFL MOCK DRAFT 2021: Projecting where Alabama, Ohio State players will land in first round

3. Use the extra first-rounder to upgrade the offensive line

The Jaguars will have a second pick in the top 32 overall (to be determined) because of their Jalen Ramsey trade with the Rams. The Jaguars did have major defensive issues last season, but one pick won’t solve that. They have got to look to sign and draft to upgrade a little on every level.

There’s good edge pass-rushing, linebacker and safety depth in the draft class for Jacksonville to steal players later and the values at defensive tackle and defensive back in the late first round (No. 25 or below) aren’t there. Should they miss out on top free agents up front or limit it to one big addition, there are prospects such as Texas tackle Samuel Cosmi and USC guard Alijah Vera-Tucker to target.

The Jaguars could also think about tight end in that range in Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth or go for a dynamic offensive weapon in Purdue’s Rondale Moore. The Jaguars need to think defense often this offseason, but with Lawrence, they can also think offense first.

(Getty Images)

4. Create a stronger quarterback room

Mike Glennon is a free agent and not exactly the textbook mentor type as a willing backup. Gardner Minshew had his mania, but in the end, he is a third-year sixth-rounder about to learn a new offense after a second year of struggling to read defenses. The Jaguars could use a locker-room leader type with starting experience behind Lawrence, with Jacoby Brissett, Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Fitzpatrick topping the most appealing available options. Minshew is worth having around as a smart, still developing player, but the Jaguars need that headset/clipboard guy to act like an extension of the coaching staff.

There’s no question that Taylor and Fitzpatrick, who got displaced by Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa in 2020, were extremely supportive and professional in helping to make their rookie replacements do well with a team-first mentality. That should make the Jaguars want to have either in the room during an NFL offseason that won’t be as “virtual.”

MORE: Why Trevor Lawrence is a much better fit with Jaguars than Jets

5. Don’t try to limit the playbook for a rookie Trevor Lawrence

The Chargers let Herbert loose with aggressive throwing and running and the result was one of the best rookie QB seasons ever. The Bengals gave Burrow full command and he didn’t let down with his smarts and savvy beyond his years. Meanwhile, the Dolphins probably reined in Tagovailoa too much early in his starting tenure, and that cost them a playoff berth in the end.

Lawrence is an experienced starter from a major college offense with established pro-style assets. He can pick up things quickly like that other Clemson star NFL QB Deshaun Watson and like Burrow, can earn instant teammate respect with his intangibles. Meyer is also an NFL rookie, but there’s no doubt he needs go into 2021 with the mind-set that Lawrence is already capable of performing like a fearless, efficient veteran passer (and runner).

It will take a team effort for the Jaguars to lift Lawrence into the top QB he should be for a long time. As the man in charge of putting that all together, to that end, Meyer can waste no time proving he was a great hire.

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Why Josh Allen’s MVP case is closer to Aaron Rodgers’ than you think

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Aaron Rodgers is almost certainly going to win NFL MVP. It may even be in a landslide after he closed the regular season stronger than Patrick Mahomes.

That’s what it was all about down the stretch: Rodgers vs. Mahomes. That was after Russell Wilson had made an early-season run at the award before falling off. Lamar Jackson entered the year as a potential repeat winner after claiming the honor in 2019, but his start pushed him out of the running, too. But the second-place MVP finisher when the award is announced the night before the Super Bowl is someone who was never realistically considered by the public to win the award: Bills quarterback Josh Allen.

In his third NFL season, Allen took major leaps across the board, becoming a more accurate passer while limiting mistakes and leading Buffalo to a 13-3 record. The Bills closed the season red hot, winning nine of their last 10 regular season games, with the only loss coming on the Cardinals’ miraculous “Hail Murray.” Allen quickly became the face of a franchise that had been lacking one since the days of Jim Kelly.

None of that is to say Allen should win the award over Rodgers, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time who may have just had the best season of his career. But no matter what the vote totals say at NFL Honors, Allen deserves a long MVP look of his own. It’s a lot closer between Allen and Rodgers than one might think.

MORE: How Josh Allen rose from junior college, Wyoming to NFL MVP contender leading the Bills

Josh Allen vs. Aaron Rodgers stats

 Completion %Passing yardsTotal TDsINTsRushing yardsQBR
Josh Allen69.24,544511042181.7
Aaron Rodgers70.74,29945514984.4

(Getty Images)

Josh Allen vs. Aaron Rodgers perception

There are two layers of public perception working against Allen. Let’s start with the broader one, team and market affiliation.

Allen is quarterbacking the Buffalo Bills, one of the NFL’s consistent losers over the past two decades, and in one of the league’s smaller media markets, too. Rodgers leads the historic Green Bay Packers, having taken over for Brett Favre and starred for more than a decade at Lambeau Field. While Green Bay is an unusual market by NFL standards, it’s also a major player in the public eye because of how good the Packers are.

That doesn’t help Allen garner the type of mainstream notoriety he probably deserves. It came by the end of the season because Allen made himself impossible to ignore, but he basically balled out from day one in 2020 whether anyone was watching or not. 

In the season’s first four games, Allen threw 12 touchdowns compared to one interception, and he ran for another three scores in those games. But because he’d yet to become a full-on superstar and is in a less-noticed market, it was easier to pay attention to the numbers of Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson without acknowledging that Allen was playing just as well as them.

That starts to get to the second perception issue, timing. Allen had the bad luck of never being at first during any point of the race. Prescott was on pace to shatter the NFL’s single-season passing yardage record before his season-ending injury. Wilson brought on the “Let Russ Cook” refrains. Mahomes and Rodgers both had their moment in the sun. But at least based on mainstream conversation, Allen was never in first. That meant he never had his case examined as fully as that of Prescott, Wilson or Kyler Murray early on or Mahomes and Rodgers down the stretch.

If Allen had broken out to an early lead in MVP talks and kept playing how he did, maybe he would’ve stayed in first for the whole season. But instead he was forced to come from slightly behind in a race where he’d face more obstacles than more established players. It likely made it slightly too difficult to catch up. 

The MVP case for Josh Allen over Aaron Rodgers

If any one season of Rodgers’ career deserved an MVP award, which he’s already won twice, it’s this one. The statistics above speak for themselves. He had career-bests in both completion percentage and passing touchdowns this season, and if anything, MVP awards occasionally trend toward the “career achievement award” when a veteran player has an amazing year.

That’s all fine and dandy, but think for a second about what Allen accomplished this year. He led the Bills to their first 13-win season since 1991. He vanquished the AFC East’s mighty Patriots (albeit with some help from shaky GM Bill Belichick). Allen threw for one fewer touchdown than Patrick Mahomes, ran for one more touchdown than Lamar Jackson, threw for more yards than Rodgers, had a better quarterback rating than Wilson, Drew Brees and Tom Brady.

The question of what “valuable” means in MVP is always a sticking point, and the “How would their team play without them?” argument can get silly. Of course the Packers would be much worse without Rodgers, and the Bills would be much worse without Allen.

The point here is that Allen had nearly as good a year as Rodgers, by the numbers, and he did it in a place much less used to winning. Allen grew up before the NFL’s eyes, turning from a raw, inaccurate passer at Wyoming to a dominant force in his third year. Any questions about Stefon Diggs fitting in were answered when Allen made him the league’s leading receiver in multiple categories. Slot man Cole Beasley’s had a career revival with Allen. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll will likely be a head coach elsewhere in 2021 thanks to how Allen executed his system.

Just look at the packed Buffalo airport that greeted Allen and the Bills after they clinched the AFC East. Green Bay loves Rodgers, yes, and he loves his city back. But Allen was working against two decades of incompetence and the question of whether he had been worth trading up for in 2018. Allen’s magical season just meant so much.

It’s almost eerie the things Allen and Rodgers have in common. Two California kids who had to go first to junior college to prove themselves, eventually breaking through in the NFL because of incredible arm talent and high-level mobility. One, Allen, is still near the start of his pro journey, while the other, Rodgers, is on the down slope. 

They, of course, would both tell anyone that they’d rather hoist the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champion than the MVP award, and maybe one will at Super Bowl 55 in Tampa, Florida. But the night before that, one of them, likely Rodgers, will be named the National Football League’s Most Valuable Player. It could just as easily be Allen, no matter what the final vote totals say.

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