Cowboys face critical year, Baker Mayfield rumors and more

For the Dallas Cowboys, this is a season of reckoning. Without significant progress, expect sweeping changes, starting with the head coach.

Jerry Jones has shown incredible patience with head coaches. Don’t expect it to continue.

After allowing Jason Garrett and Wade Phillips to spend 14 combined years on the Dallas Cowboys sideline, the 79-year-old owner needs results. To that end, he might soon turn to a friend and familiar face if Mike McCarthy fails to make a deep playoff run.

Enter Sean Payton.

Payton, 58, spent 2003-05 as Dallas’ assistant head coach under Bill Parcells before taking the top job with the New Orleans Saints. With New Orleans, Payton took a long-time laughingstock and won 152 games across 15 seasons, including seven division titles and a Super Bowl.

Now, after leaving the Saints for the FOX broadcast booth, Payton is waiting for his next opportunity. After reportedly almost landing in Miami this offseason for $100 million, Payton is a prime candidate in Dallas come 2023.

For years, Jones and Payton have been connected in league circles as destiny for each other. At league events, the two are often spotted together, sharing dinner and a few glasses of wine. It’s an open secret, and with Payton out of New Orleans, one-half of the tandem is free.

As for McCarthy, he faces enormous pressure both because of Payton’s availability and Dallas’ decades-long drought from legitimate Super Bowl contention. The Cowboys haven’t reached the conference championship round since 1995, and with McCarthy entering his third season in Big D, that might be the bar for him to continue in his post.

But McCarthy isn’t the only one in Dallas who should be fearful.

In the NFL, regime changes mean personnel turnover. If Payton comes to Dallas, he’ll have major sway in the roster construction, something Jones has held close during his ownership.

Through that lens, Dallas has a slew of key free agents slated for next year including tight end Dalton Schultz, corner Anthony Brown, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, running back Tony Pollard, and others. Then there’s left tackle Tyron Smith, who will be 32 years old and worth $9.6 million in cap savings if released.

All told, maybe the Cowboys need to be remade. Perhaps McCarthy isn’t the answer despite Dallas winning 12 games last season. It’s arguable they feasted on the lousy NFC East — going 6-0 in the division but 6-6 otherwise — and were a paper tiger. In the NFC Wild Card round, the league’s most penalized team in the regular season committed 14 penalties in a 23-17 home loss to the San Francisco 49ers, punctuated by a comical time-management gaffe.

But make no mistake, hiring Payton isn’t a cure-all. For all his considerable skills, Payton reached one Super Bowl (in 2009) with loaded Saints rosters and did so as a young man. If Payton was still coaching today, he would be the eighth-oldest coach in the league. There isn’t much runway for the Cowboys to get it right if they make such a move.

Yet for Jones, it could be seen as the best option. By season’s end, McCarthy will have had three years to make a run in Dallas with a top-10 quarterback, excellent offensive line, top-five group of weapons, and elite pass-rushers, all while in a poor division. While his first year was derailed by Dak Prescott’s leg injury, he had no such excuse in Year 2. Now, his defining moment.

All this while Payton watches on, surely having a few assignments this fall in Dallas, giving him time to visit as a media member with players and coaches before spending hours with Jones, talking about anything and everything.

McCarthy has his chance right now. If he doesn’t seize the moment, he’ll likely be gone, with Jones making a move he’s dreamed of for years.

Power rankings

Top 10 quarterbacks not in the Hall of Fame (eligible-only)

1. Boomer Esiason, Cincinnati Bengals – 4x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro, ’88 MVP, 37,920 yards, 247 TDs
2. Ken Anderson, Cincinnati Bengals – 4x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro, ’81 MVP, 32,838 yards, 197 TDs
3. Randall Cunningham, Philadelphia Eagles – 4x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro, 29,979 yards, 207 TDs
4. Roman Gabriel, Los Angeles Rams – 4x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro, ’69 MVP, 29,444 yards, 201 TDs
5. Steve McNair, Tennessee Titans – 3x Pro Bowl, ’03 MVP, 31,304 yards, 174 TDs
6. John Brodie, San Francisco 49ers – 2x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro, ’70 MVP, 31,548 yards, 214 TDs
7. Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia Eagles – 6x Pro Bowl, 37,276 yards, 234 TDs
8. John Hadl, San Diego Chargers – 6x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro, 33,503 yards, 244 TDs
9. Joe Theismann, Washington – 2x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro, ’83 MVP, 25,206 yards, 160 TDs
10. Phil Simms, New York Giants – 2x Pro Bowl, 2x champ, 33,462 yards, 199 TDs


“We’re still doing some research right now. Hopefully, before the season starts, maybe we can get the games down a little bit. But no, it wasn’t on me. I’m a natural. I’m pretty much a naturopathic kind of person, man. And what it was, it was called Ostarine, and there was 0.1% of it found in my system. If you know what that is, it’s contamination, not something directly taken.

– Arizona Cardinals receiver DeAndre Hopkins on his looming six-game suspension

Odds of Hopkins getting a reduced suspension are low, but the All-Pro is apparently still hoping and willing to fight. For the Cardinals, even getting Hopkins back for a few extra games could be the difference between being inside or outside the playoff bubble come January.

Including the playoffs, Arizona was 8-2 when Hopkins played. Without him, the Cards were 3-5.


Random stat

From 2003-15, Peyton Manning was never swept by a divisional opponent, spanning between the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos.

Info learned this week

1. Gronk walks away for second time, but will it last?

Rob Gronkowski has called it quits. Again.

On Wednesday, Gronkowski retired from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after spending 11 NFL seasons, including the first nine with the New England Patriots. All told, the five-time Pro Bowler and four-time First-Team All-Pro leaves the game with a quartet of Super Bowl rings and an argument as the greatest to ever play tight end.

To the latter point, Gronkowski’s numbers are right there. He checking in 60th all-time with 9,286 receiving yards, ranking fifth among tight ends, with Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce likely to pass him in September. His 92 receiving touchdowns are more statically impressive, coming in 12th among all players and third for the position, behind only Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez.

Yet what sets Gronk apart was his supernatural blocking ability, making him instrumental in New England’s run scheme for almost a decade. Few if any have ever combined blocking and receiving like Gronkowski, making him a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer and a strong argument as the best there ever was.

2. Watson settles 20 suits, but still faces possible lengthy suspension

Deshaun Watson saw 20 civil suits settled last week. However, news also broke over the weekend surrounding the Cleveland Browns’ quarterback, as his disciplinary hearing between the NFL and NFLPA is set to begin Tuesday.

According to multiple reports, the NFL is looking to ban Watson for at least all of 2022, and perhaps go with an indefinite suspension. If you’ve been consistently reading this space, you’re aware how unsurprising that is. The league has to make sure it comes down hard on Watson — despite not facing any criminal complaints or charges — due to the heinous nature of the allegations levied against him,  not to mention the four outstanding civil suits.

The question now isn’t whether Watson will play this year, it’s who is going to start for Cleveland come September.

Currently, the Browns have Baker Mayfield and Jacoby Brissett on the depth chart.  Trading Mayfield would alleviate some (unlikely all) of his $18.8 million cap hit, but would give Cleveland a substantial downgrade at quarterback. Keeping Mayfield is the best on-field decision, but can the two sides co-exist?

What a mess, a self-created mess, in Cleveland.

3. Ravens have tragically sad day with two passings

Wednesday was a day of mourning for the Baltimore Ravens.

In the morning, the horrible news came down of edge rusher Jaylon Ferguson passing away at age 26. Ferguson, a former third-round pick in the 2019 Draft, set a collegiate record with 45 sacks during his time at Louisiana Tech. Unfathomably, his life was cut short, leaving behind three children.

Then, hours later, more heartbreak. Tony Siragusa, a Super Bowl-winning defensive tackle who later gained acclaim as a sideline reporter for FOX NFL Sunday died at 55 years old. The man lovingly known as Goose enjoyed a stellar 12-year career with the Indianapolis Colts and Ravens, retiring after the 2001 campaign.

One would imagine the Ravens honor both men, as they should when the season begins.

4. Snyder probe continues with likely subpoena

On Wednesday, we saw NFL commissioner Roger Goodell answer questions from the House Committee. Soon, we’ll be seeing Washington Commanders owner Daniel Snyder.

Snyder, who refused to appear or speak at the congressional hearing last week, is getting subpoenaed by the United States government. Never a good thing.

From a football standpoint, what does it all mean? Snyder will eventually have to answer for his franchise’s workplace environment, which could lead to all kinds of new information. For example, we saw Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden resign in disgrace last season after ugly emails were leaked during an investigation into Washington. Some believe the emails got out due to Snyder. Is this revisited with new info coming out?

As a result of the aforementioned investigation, Snyder was fined $10 million by the league last summer. Yet considering the avalanche of allegations brought against Snyder, along with his well-documented history and the recent report of Snyder skimming money from other owners, having a government inquiry might force Goodell’s hand at some point.

While Goodell can’t strip Snyder of his franchise, the other owners can vote to a three-fourths majority to force a sale. It’s not likely because owners don’t want to set such a precedent, but if it’ll ever happen, Snyder may be the man.

5. Mayfield saga continues with Panthers, Seahawks still pursuing

Baker Mayfield might suddenly be in demand for many teams.

While Mayfield’s Cleveland Browns await word on Deshaun Watson — potentially making him extremely valuable to them for 2022 — the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks are reportedly intrigued by adding him at the right price.

Still, the question becomes what would Carolina or Seattle be willing to part with to acquire Mayfield? In some ways, that answer is dictated by how much of Mayfield’s salary the Browns are willing to eat, with the former No. 1 overall pick due $18.8 million against the cap this year. The more Cleveland takes on, the better the return.

Yet even if the Browns are willing to pay half or more of Mayfield’s freight, they have no leverage. Carolina and Seattle know barring training camp injuries, there aren’t other bidders. Additionally, the Browns are paying $230 million to Watson over the next five years. The Browns either unload Mayfield or lose him for nothing at the season’s end, with a compensatory pick being their best play.

Ultimately, Seattle and Carolina will keep tabs, wait for the price to drop, and then reevaluate.  It could be a long game.

Two cents

On Wednesday, the New England Patriots announced their throwback uniforms featuring their old-school Pat Patriot helmets are returning in 2022.

Frankly, a few teams should take their throwbacks and make them primary looks again.

The Patriots top the list, but the Broncos and Buccaneers aren’t far behind. The Detroit Lions haven’t strayed too far from their previous uniforms, but they could go back to the Barry Sanders era. The Buffalo Bills? Return to the standing buffalo. What a great aesthetic that is.

So many teams had it right and then went amiss. Right those wrongs.

Inside the league

On Thursday, the Pittsburgh Steelers signed Kenny Pickett to his rookie deal. With that, all 32 first-round picks are under contract.

For years, it was normal to see a litany of early picks sit out of some or all of training camp. Then the league enacted the rookie wage scale in 2011 and effectively ended rookie holdouts barring extreme circumstances.

While most decisions in Collective Bargaining Agreements are controversial, the wage scale has proven a home run. Veterans get a bigger pie of the salary cap, and teams aren’t forced to pay record contracts to players who haven’t played a single snap.

A rare win for all, save the initial bank accounts of a few.

History lesson

Len Dawson (Kansas City Chiefs), Bob Griese (Miami Dolphins), and John Elway (Denver Broncos) are the only starting quarterbacks to ever win a Super Bowl after losing in their first appearance.

Dawson fell in Super Bowl I prior to getting his revenge three years later against the Minnesota Vikings. Griese lost Super Bowl VI and then led the undefeated ’72 Dolphins to victory the following year. Elway lost in his first three tries before going back-to-back, beating the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons, leading into retirement.

Parting shot

Is Davis Mills just filler, or the franchise?

For the Houston Texans, answering that question is paramount.

Despite playing on a horrific team with one weapon (Brandin Cooks) and no offensive line, Mills threw for 2,664 yards and 16 touchdowns against 10 interceptions across 13 games (11 starts) as a third-round rookie. Respectable numbers, although only on 6.8 yards per attempt.

Now, still saddled with arguably the worst team in football and a new head coach in Lovie Smith, Mills must prove himself. After trading Deshaun Watson to the Browns, Houston is armed with multiple first-round picks in 2023 and ’24. If the Texans want to move up for a quarterback — should they need to — it won’t be difficult.

Therefore, Mills must showcase his talents. And if he does, Houston is now armed with a cache of draft choices while not needing a quarterback. It makes the job much easier for general manager Nick Caserio.

Houston’s record won’t be good this year, but if Mills is, it’s a successful campaign.