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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — The lively back-and-forth between Sean McVay and Matt LaFleur inside the meeting room at the Los Angeles Rams‘ practice facility made for explosive offense and a lively environment.

As the head coach and playcaller, McVay wanted to install a play into the game plan one way. LaFleur, the offensive coordinator, would insist on some sort of variation. And after the fact, LaFleur wouldn’t hesitate to criticize McVay if he made a bad call.

Neither coach would easily yield, so the banter would continue.

“He and I never battled each other — just kidding,” LaFleur deadpanned this week. “Every day was a battle.”

“He told me what I needed to hear, and it was good,” McVay said. “Even though sometimes we wanted to choke each other out.”

That was 2017. When McVay and LaFleur arrived in L.A. to lead an offensive juggernaut that turned a stagnant franchise into a division winner.

Three seasons later, McVay and LaFleur will battle it out again Saturday, but from opposite sidelines, when the Rams (10-6) play LaFleur’s NFC top-seeded Green Bay Packers (13-3) in a divisional-round playoff at Lambeau Field (4:35 p.m. ET, Fox) in their first battle as head coaches.

“That’s one of my closest friends in life,” LaFleur said about McVay, who will turn 35 later this month. “I love him like a brother.”

The feeling is mutual.

“I love him,” McVay said. “He’s like my big brother, and we’ve been close for a long time.”

The two met in 2010 with the Washington Football Team, where they worked as assistants under head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. LaFleur knew the first time he met McVay that he had a bright future.

“I’ll never forget when Coach Shanahan and Kyle were interviewing him,” LaFleur said. “My office kind of butted up to the offensive staff room, and I could kind of hear them through the wall and just the excitement and enthusiasm and energy he had in his voice.”

Together for four seasons in Washington, their relationship grew beyond the confines of the practice facility. They lived across the street from each other, and McVay often would drop in on LaFleur and his wife, BreAnne, for meals.

“I’d come third-wheel it with them a lot,” McVay said. “They kind of took me under their wing.”

Their paths diverged when LaFleur departed to become the Notre Dame quarterbacks coach in 2014, then took the same job for two seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. When McVay was named coach of the Rams in 2017, he snagged LaFleur to join him.

“[LaFleur] did a great job with me in that second year, really pouring into me and giving me everything he had,” said Rams quarterback Jared Goff, referencing his second NFL season, when he passed for 3,804 yards and 28 touchdowns with seven interceptions. “That’s what I’ve always appreciated from him, is how hard he coached me and how hard he worked me and how much he believed in me.”

Goff smiled when he thought about the dynamic of the McVay-LaFleur relationship.

“They’re really close and would get after each other a little bit sometimes,” Goff said. “But I know they’re as close as anyone, and I think that’s just how it works. You guys all have brothers and sisters, you know how it gets sometimes.”

“It [was] a great match being with them,” Rams wide receiver Robert Woods recalled. “High-energy guys, competitive practices, but really just pushing our offense to be the top offense.”

However, after one season in L.A., LaFleur departed for the Tennessee Titans, where he’d have the same title and be able to call plays. After just one season, the Packers named LaFleur head coach.

“Definitely saw it coming with his offensive mind,” Woods said about LaFleur’s head coach potential. “But really my experience with him was just his connection with the pass game, encouraging his players, building confidence and really encouraging guys to be at the top of their game.”

The 41-year-old LaFleur has now coached the Packers to back-to-back playoff appearances, earning the NFC’s top seed this year. Behind future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the Packers have the NFL’s top-ranked offense, scoring an average of 30.81 points per game.

The Rams this season have been plagued by inconsistencies on offense and, since Week 17, uncertainty at quarterback, as Goff continues to recover from Dec. 28 surgery on his throwing-hand thumb.

But the Rams likely won’t have to rely on scoring at an aggressive pace if their top-ranked defense, which is allowing an average of 18.5 points per game, can affect Rodgers, slow down receiver Davante Adams and score. Since Week 12, the Rams’ have scored five defensive touchdowns, the best in the NFL.

This will be the fifth matchup between the top-ranked scoring offense and the top-ranked scoring defense in the past 20 postseasons, and the defense has won three of the past four matchups, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

McVay and LaFleur anticipate they’ll see some familiar looks from each other’s offense.

“I joke with him about running plays that we ran the previous week the next week, and I’ll steal from him, too,” McVay said.

But both insist Saturday’s matchup is the Rams versus the Packers, nothing more. After all, playing old friends has become old hat for each.

Both have faced their former boss from Washington, Kyle Shanahan — the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers — multiple times, and he’s gotten the best of them.

Shanahan’s squad has won four straight over McVay and the Rams, while the 49ers routed the Packers in the regular season last year, then delivered a knockout in the NFC Championship Game.

“He’s a great friend of mine,” LaFleur said about McVay, “but the gloves will be off on Saturday.”

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Sources — Free agent J.J. Watt has offers from multiple NFL teams

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Free-agent defensive lineman J.J. Watt has received contract offers from multiple teams, league sources told ESPN’s Dianna Russini.

Multiple sources told Russini that the most lucrative offer Watt currently has on the table is believed to be worth between $15 million and $16 million.

The Browns are among the teams interested in Watt, according to ESPN and multiple reports, but it was not clear as of Thursday morning whether Cleveland has submitted an offer to the five-time Pro Bowler. Cleveland.com reported last week that Watt had some mutual interest in signing with the Browns.

The Texans released Watt earlier this month, ending the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year’s decade-long run in Houston.

At the time of his release, sources told ESPN that approximately a dozen teams — including the Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills — had already expressed interest in Watt.

Watt, who turns 32 next month, finished last season with five sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception that he returned for a touchdown. He ranked 15th out of 119 qualified pass-rushers in pass rush win rate in 2020, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and ended his Texans career as the franchise’s all-time leader with 101 career sacks.

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Defending Baker Mayfield: Why wouldn’t the Cleveland Browns give him an extension? – Cleveland Browns Blog

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BEREA, Ohio – In the wake of Jared Goff and Carson Wentz being dealt away from the teams that drafted them, the same phrase has begun to reverberate with regards to the Cleveland Browns and their quarterback, Baker Mayfield.

“Cautionary tales.”

Two years ago, Goff and Wentz, the top two picks of the 2016 draft, signed the richest contract extensions in NFL history. Yet just this month, the two were jettisoned before those record extensions had even kicked in, leaving their former teams with record heaps of dead-money blows to their respective cap sheets.

This offseason, another former top pick is extension-eligible coming off a banner third season quarterbacking his team to the playoffs. And yet, some are wondering if the Browns should kick the can down the road on a Mayfield extension, largely because Goff and Wentz cratered soon after signing theirs.

Of course, that’s a rather fatalistic viewpoint of Mayfield and the Browns. And one focused on events elsewhere, instead of the facts on the ground in Cleveland.

True, Goff and Wentz regressed for various reasons after enjoying success early in their careers. But that doesn’t mean Mayfield will follow suit. In fact, all signs point to him getting better — next season and beyond.

For the first time since the Browns drafted him in 2018, Mayfield won’t have to dedicate his offseason to learning yet another new offense. After playing for three different head coaches over his first two seasons in the league, Mayfield thrived during the back-half of last season in first-time head coach Kevin Stefanski’s scheme, portending their budding future together.

“That’s a huge part of this,” Stefanski said last month, while revealing how thrilled Mayfield was to finally begin growing within the same offense. “We can start at that baseline and that foundation and build on what we’ve done.”

Mayfield had some rough moments early while adapting to Stefanski’s offense following a virtual offseason learning it. But from Week 7 through Week 15, just last year’s MVP (Patrick Mahomes) and this year’s MVP (Aaron Rodgers) posted a better QBR than Mayfield, who during that stretch tossed 15 touchdowns with just two interceptions. As a result, the Browns wound up finishing the regular season with 11 wins, their most since returning to the NFL in 1999.

“Once he started getting comfortable with what we were doing and once I was using more concepts that he was comfortable with, which is a big part of this,” Stefanski said, “he really started playing at a high level.”

Mayfield continued to play at a high level in the postseason, throwing for 263 yards and three touchdowns without an interception in Cleveland’s first playoff victory in 26 years, a 48-37 win in Pittsburgh — where the Browns had not won in 17 attempts.

“You saw growth from him as a player from the first game to the last,” Stefanski said. “Really pleased with his progress, and I think he recognizes that he has room to grow.”

Any extension to any NFL player comes with at least some risk, as the cases of Goff and Wentz underscore. But at this point, the Browns either believe in Mayfield — or they don’t, at least not yet.

Cleveland already demonstrated that belief last offseason, committing a franchise-record $60 million in guaranteed money in free agency to upgrade Mayfield’s supporting cast, with All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin and Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper, plus veteran quarterback Case Keenum, to serve as Mayfield’s mentor.

The Browns also used the 10th pick in the draft on left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. to solidify the offensive line. With vastly improved protection and a scheme befitting his skill set, Mayfield rekindled the confidence and touch he flashed during his first season when he broke the NFL rookie record with 27 touchdown passes. He also emerged as the unquestioned leader of the locker room.

Given the upward trajectory of Mayfield and the Browns, there’s nothing to suggest Cleveland won’t double-down again on the former No. 1 overall pick in the coming months.

The Browns already will have to make a partial commitment to Mayfield this summer. As colleague Dan Graziano pointed out, starting with Mayfield’s 2018 draft class, fifth-year options for first-round picks are now fully guaranteed at the time they’re executed, at a significantly higher price than before.

But going halfway and pushing off an extension invites downside, too. What if Mayfield is better in 2021? A potential extension would cost the Browns even more down the line, as Tim Hasselbeck noted on ESPN this week. That would only make it more difficult to get one done at all.

On Wednesday, ESPN colleague Ed Werder suggested that the Dallas Cowboys might have to use their first-round pick on another quarterback, if they can’t lock up Dak Prescott to a multiyear deal before March 9. Returning to square one at quarterback is not where Cleveland wants to be again anytime soon.

To get a deal done with Mayfield this summer, the Browns probably will have to start in the neighborhood of $35 million over four years. That would make Mayfield one of the five highest-paid quarterbacks in the league, pending what happens with Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, who also are extension eligible.

But others down the line, like Mayfield’s former Oklahoma teammate Kyler Murray, are going to continue to reset the quarterback market next offseason. What might seem expensive now could quickly become a bargain, especially as the league negotiates new rights deals.

The Goff and Wentz situations also showed that even the worst-case scenario can still be mitigated. The Rams were able to turn Goff into Matthew Stafford; the Eagles flipped Wentz into draft capital. Sure, the cap sheets in Los Angeles and Philadelphia will be a mess this year as a result of those trades. But if Mayfield proves not to be the answer at quarterback, the Browns will already be in short-term trouble anyway, whether they extend him or not.

Franchise quarterbacks are incredibly hard to find, and it’s virtually impossible to win without one, as Cleveland has had to painfully learn over the years. Now is not the time to get cute, dodge about or worry why it might go wrong, just because it did in Philly or L.A.

The Browns appear — finally — to have their franchise quarterback. Acting otherwise could prove to be a cautionary tale of its own.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers would be ‘elated’ to extend Tom Brady’s contract beyond 2021

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Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht said Thursday that he and coach Bruce Arians would be “elated” if they could get a deal done with quarterback Tom Brady to keep him in Tampa beyond his two-year contract, which will end after the 2021 season.

Licht said Tuesday on the Rich Eisen Show that signing Brady to extension is a possibility, but declined to discuss the specifics of any conversations with Brady’s agent Don Yee when asked Wednesday in the Bucs’ pre-combine and free agency zoom conference.

“Bruce and I both have a great relationship with Tom, and I have a good relationship with his agent,” Licht said. “We thought Tom played incredibly well this year, along with the entire team. We would love to have Tom play here — I can speak for Bruce — I think as long as he continues to want to play. If that comes to fruition at some point, we’d be elated. But I’d like to keep those conversations private right now.”

Brady, 43, is set to earn $25 million next season. He had previously said his goal was to play until age 45, but Brady said last month the week of the Super Bowl that he would now consider playing beyond 45. Brady would be 44 next year and tacking on a year to his deal would keep him under contract through his 45th birthday.

A new contract would not only ensure more long-term stability at the position, but could help the Bucs’ salary cap situation. They will have less than $30 million in salary cap space, with a number of high-profile players who need to be re-signed, including Pro Bowl wide receiver Chris Godwin, inside linebacker Lavonte David, outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, tight end Rob Gronkowski, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Leonard Fournette.

While there is uncertainty as to whether or not there will be an offseason program, Arians anticipates Brady would be recovered from his offseason knee procedure and ready to fully practice by early summer. If there is no offseason program this year, they could lean on Brady’s player-organized workouts similar to what he led at Berkley Prep last summer.

“I think he’s probably looking [at] somewhere around June, right now, from what I hear,” Arians said. “His leadership — he doesn’t have to be out there throwing it anymore. He can be there standing and coach the s— out of them. Wherever they meet and work out — I’m hoping we have an offseason for the younger players. Tom doesn’t need it, but for the younger players — first-, second-, and third-year players — we’ve missed two years of player development with where we’re at now. We don’t need to miss another one.”

Licht also said he “expects” center Ryan Jensen and left tackle Donovan Smith back next year. Both are under contract but neither are due any guaranteed money. With Smith set to count $14.25 million against the salary cap this year and Jensen $10 million, some had questioned if they’d be cap casualties. But the Bucs were thrilled with their performances down the stretch and in the postseason.

“We love Ryan and Donovan,” Licht said. They played a pivotal role in our offense — in their protection, in the run game. We envision Ryan and Donovan both being on this team. We expect them, not just envision them.”



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