LAS VEGAS — The Super Bowl is just days away now and the festivities are starting to ramp up in a manner where the game actually feels in reach. This week's Opening Night is as good a place as any to start the final Four Verts column of the 2023 NFL season.
Kadarius Toney has the confidence we all need
The Chiefs have a new wide receiver on the top of the depth chart, according to reports. After a season of strife, turmoil and healthy inactive listings, Toney has apparently turned the corner and will take over a big spot for Kansas City.
Earlier this week when the Chiefs touched down in Vegas, Toney proclaimed that he could in fact be the Chiefs’ WR1.
“Yeah, if I get the ball,” Toney said.
This is actually a salient moment for everyone who needs a pick-me-up right about now. If Toney, who has 169 yards receiving on the season and hasn’t played in a game since Dec. 17, can believe that he’s the No. 1 wide receiver for the AFC Super Bowl representative, that’s the type of goal everyone should have for themselves. Nothing is out of reach with enough belief in oneself.
To be fair to Toney, this is the confidence that he should have in himself, even if the opportunities haven’t materialized in the ways that he would have hoped by now. It’s that belief that allows him to keep showing up through the mistakes. It’s that belief that allowed him to weave through the Eagles' punt team en route to the longest punt return in Super Bowl history last season. Things have gone a bit downhill for Toney, but this might not be the most egregious thing that someone can say or believe about themselves on the biggest stage of their career. He was asked a question, and he answered it without doubting himself.
There’s a little room to poke fun at this response, especially because Toney has been at fault for a handful of gaffes this season that ultimately led to his benching, but he was never going to slander himself just to make someone on the other side of the camera laugh. He has a good chance to be inactive for the Super Bowl, but that doesn’t mean he should have a lower opinion of himself — especially to a stranger on Opening Night at the Super Bowl.
Now, Toney should probably stop arguing with fans on Instagram or throwing shots at his original team, the Giants, but it’s not the end of the world for him to have this opinion of himself, even if it is a bit far-fetched. Everyone could use a smidge of Toney.
Trent McDuffie is in for a heavyweight fight
Like most Super Bowls, this year’s game features a handful of players that are among the most talented in the league — and they’ll be facing off directly against each other during the game. One player who has a tough matchup ahead is Chiefs All-Pro slot defender Trent McDuffie going against a wildly talented group of skill players that demand attention working in the short and middle areas of the field. Running back Christian McCaffrey, tight end George Kittle and wide receiver Deebo Samuel are going to be used heavily in that portion of the field and those players will see a heavy dose of McDuffie.
For every team that wants to play heavy nickel — which is basically every single team in 2023 — they need a trustworthy player in the slot who can bunker down and go to war against heavier players. Four defensive linemen and two linebackers are guaranteed to be in the box. To match the traditional idea of seven players in the box, a cornerback is going to have to fill that last spot — that’s where McDuffie comes in. Running backs, tight ends, receivers in the slot, these are all of the types of players that McDuffie has to defend. Unfortunately for McDuffie (and fortunately for fans of the sport), the 49ers have an ace trio in that portion of the field.
Everyone knows these players are going to get the ball and see a high volume of targets in the passing game. Particularly against Kittle and Samuel, McDuffie may find himself on an island defending some of the best players in football. That’s about as tough an assignment that any player can see and a huge reason why the 49ers made the Super Bowl in the first place.
On the other hand, McDuffie is uniquely qualified to take this stand against the 49ers’ dominant middle-of-the-field trio. He’s tough as nails when it comes to making physical plays downhill and has the athleticism needed to make plays on the ball. This is partly a function of the Chiefs’ aggressive scheme, but it’s difficult to find a cornerback that can nab three sacks, three tackles for loss, five forced fumbles and seven passes defended. To quote the youth of today, McDuffie has that dawg in him and he’ll need every tooth and nail to keep his area of the field at bay.
Of course, McDuffie isn’t doing this by himself. The Chiefs feature tremendous talent along the defensive line and have developed some nice talent at linebacker, but McDuffie has a huge challenge in front of him that he’s actually equipped to handle to a degree. It may just be the matchup that tilts the Super Bowl in either direction.
The Commanders and Ben Johnson didn’t even date
What is going on in Washington? The Commanders' new ownership group has taken over and somehow found themselves in a self-made “scandal” before their era even really takes place.
This all started when Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, who has been one of the hottest names in coaching over the past few years, decided to turn down the Commanders head coaching gig to stay in Detroit. The Commanders eventually hired Dan Quinn as head coach to stabilize things, but that did not stop this shadow back and forth between Johnson and a franchise he doesn’t work for and will likely never work for.
It started when Johnson’s agent reportedly texted the Commanders as they were on a flight to Detroit that he wasn’t interested in the job. They became frustrated and all of a sudden reports attacking Johnson’s character began flooding the internet. Then reports about Johnson thinking the Commanders are “basketball guys” due to their new ownership hit the internet. THEN, a day after Quinn was officially introduced as the head coach, another report against Johnson was published by The Athletic.
If you had no information outside of all this, it would be fair to assume that there was deep history between the Commanders and Johnson. But there isn’t! He turned them down! Why are they spending this much energy on a coach that didn’t want to be there in the first place? It’s a strange, bizarre move from an ownership group that is still trying to establish its credibility in the NFL.
What really hurts the Commanders’ unrighteous anger here is that they revealed their true plans for the Detroit trip amid the fallout. Even though Johnson canceled on them, the trip was still (presumably) not a waste of time from a logistical standpoint, since they were still there to interview Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn too. Well, he clearly was not seen as a serious candidate considering how much time was spent going back and forth with Johnson’s camp through the media.
That is as big of a stain on this mess as anything, and it's disappointing that they telegraphed their intention of using Glenn as an interview to check a Rooney Rule box rather than taking him seriously as a candidate. There is no reason to waste his time like that if they knew he wasn’t going to factor into their search, but this is not an unfamiliar spot for a Black head coaching candidate to be in. That component of this situation can’t be ignored.
Perhaps things will turn around and this is just a stumble to a long, successful ownership run for Josh Harris and the rest of his group running the team, but it’s hard not to feel like the Commanders are still just the Commanders following this nonsensical mess. Quinn honestly may be the adult in the room that they needed because there don't appear to be many walking around that organization right now.
Jim Harbaugh is embracing the old and new with his Chargers staff
Jim Harbaugh, welcome back to the NFL. Greg Roman, welcome back to the NFL. Jesse Minter, welcome to the NFL.
Jim Harbaugh has the gang back together in his attempt to turn around the Chargers and make them relevant again. Roman will be returning to run Harbaugh’s offense, where he was the offensive coordinator for Harbaugh in San Francisco, which has brought some mixed reviews in the initial reaction. Minter was a much more popular hire, where he will be an NFL defensive coordinator for the first time after leading Michigan’s defense to a national championship where they just bludgeoned the poor Washington Huskies.
Roman is going to be under the most scrutiny as next season starts. He’s known as a run-first guy who can maximize that portion of a team’s offense and has meshed incredibly well with mobile quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson and Colin Kaepernick in the past. Justin Herbert has some mobility, but he’s never going to be a guy that has 1,000-yard rushing potential like the other two quarterbacks Roman has worked with in the NFL. Still, it could be a valuable hire for the Chargers and what they need to accomplish this season.
According to RBSDM.com, the Chargers ranked 30th in rushing success rate this year (33.1%) and Roman should help boost that, especially with an offseason of personnel switch-ups. Harbaugh wants to be able to run the ball at a high level and there might not be a better person for that specific task than Roman. They’re going to need to do some work on the passing game as far as Herbert’s style of play is concerned, but Herbert might be good enough to buoy the passing game by himself.
Minter should bring some fresh ideas to a defense that was one of the worst in the league. It’ll be tough to upgrade this unit in terms of a huge jump in 2024 because they still have massive personnel issues at every area of their defense, but it was abundantly clear that previous head coach Brandon Staley was not going to be the guy to move the needle as far as defense is concerned. Minter should be given a leash to get used to the NFL, but if his experience in college is anything, he will probably be a good get for Harbaugh once they can rebuild the defensive side of the ball.
There’s no way to know yet which direction the Harbaugh era will go in Los Angeles, but it’ll be interesting to say the least — and that starts with the staff that he’s put together. Harbaugh, Roman, Minter and Herbert are the key players here. How they mesh will decide if the Chargers can get close to knocking off the Chiefs from atop the AFC West over the next few seasons.