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The NFL loves Lincoln Riley, but Oklahoma job is hard to leave

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NORMAN, Okla. — Not long after Bob Stoops won a national championship in his second season at Oklahoma, the Cleveland Browns tried to pry him away.

In his words then, Stoops had “always been intrigued” by the NFL. And so he did listen to the Browns. But ultimately, Stoops opted to remain in college. And in the end, exclusively with the Sooners.

Nearly two decades later, Stoops’ successor at Oklahoma, 35-year-old Lincoln Riley, is about to arrive at a similar crossroads. Time will tell whether Riley’s second season with the Sooners will also end, like Stoops’ did, with a national title. But regardless of what happens with Oklahoma on Dec. 29 in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl against No. 1 Alabama, Riley figures to be a hot commodity when the NFL coaching carousel begins to spin.

The Browns have an opening again after firing Hue Jackson last month — and their franchise quarterback is Baker Mayfield, who won the Heisman Trophy under Riley at Oklahoma. Speculation on Riley taking over the Browns is so rampant in Cleveland that Mayfield was actually asked Wednesday about his former coach potentially making a move to the NFL.

“Lincoln’s been ready,” Mayfield said, when asked whether Riley could make the successful transition to pro football. “Just who he is, how he coaches, the respect level he’s had from all of his players. How detailed he is. He’s ready.

“But that’s his decision. He’s got something special there. I don’t think anybody’s going to blame him if he stays there for the next 20 years.”

Riley indeed has something special working at Oklahoma.

In two seasons with Riley as head coach, the Sooners have led the country in both total offense and offensive efficiency. The two years before, with him calling plays under Stoops, Oklahoma ranked in the top four in college football in scoring.

After losing Mayfield, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, along with several other key starters, Oklahoma seemed destined for a dip offensively this season.

Instead, the Sooners have remarkably been even more lethal on the way to their third playoff appearance in four years, posting the highest offensive efficiency rating (96.6) since ESPN began tracking the data in 2005. On top of that, quarterback Kyler Murray owns the highest QBR (96.0) going into a bowl of any FBS player since ESPN starting using the metric in 2004. This weekend as a result, Murray could give Oklahoma the first back-to-back Heisman-winning quarterbacks of any school in the history of the award.

Such virtually unprecedented level of production with two quarterbacks boasting different skill sets and fairly different personalities has caught the eye of NFL executives. And Riley’s imagination intrigues the the league’s coaches.

“If you’re an NFL team and you’re looking for a head coach and (Riley) says, ‘I’m out there, call me.’ … he’ll be No. 1 on their list,” one NFL scout said. “With the success he’s had there so far, not only with the offense that he has and the numbers he’s put up, but those players, specifically Baker, that have come into the league and played well. … I assume he’d be a lot of people’s first call, when he decides to make that choice.”

Riley’s own success with the Sooners isn’t the only reason why. Versions of the Air Raid offense Riley honed while working under Mike Leach at Texas Tech have already begun thriving around the NFL.

“The NFL game is certainly trending more toward what you see on Saturdays for a lot of different reasons,” Riley said late last month. “The games look a lot closer than they did five years ago, without a doubt.”

That is occurring most notably in Kansas City, where Air Raid alum Patrick Mahomes leads the NFL with 41 touchdown passes — nine more than any other quarterback.

“That’s where our game is going,” the scout said. “Guys in the Air Raid and all those systems that were looked down upon as gimmick offenses before, that’s where we are now. And those are the guys that are going to be in the league”

Sean McVay, meanwhile, is proving that age is just a number when it comes to coaching in the NFL. Three years younger than Riley, McVay, also regarded as an offensive guru, has powered the Los Angeles Rams to the best record in the league.

“The more guys like Sean McVay win, the age thing is kind of slowly going away. You see the energy the Rams have, the passion, how guys play for a guy like Sean McVay, I think people are energized by that,” said the scout, who noted Riley’s biggest obstacle would be hiring an NFL staff and finding an experienced, proven coordinator, like the Rams’ Wade Phillips, to run the defense. “And Lincoln has always struck me as a guy that was just mature beyond his years.”

All meaning the overriding question could be less about whether the NFL is ready for Riley — and more about whether Riley is ready for the NFL.

“You sit here and answer these questions and I always want to be truthful,” Riley said on the same day the Browns job came open last month. “The truth is for me is I love Oklahoma. I love coaching here. I love college football. I certainly don’t have that itch right now. Don’t know that I ever will.

“But I’m never going to be a guy that stands up here and says no way, no how, with any of these things ever happening. I don’t know that.”

Before the Big 12 championship game, Riley was pressed to expound on specifically what he loves about coaching at Oklahoma and what he loves about coaching college football.

“I like the age, the guys I’m coaching. Still kind of in that ‘hot zone’ where they’re still growing. They’re kind of learning to become men at this point but there’s a lot of growth that’s gotta happen in these years. I enjoy that part,” Riley said. “I enjoy the X’s and O’s, but I do enjoy at this level the different hats you have to wear, especially in this role as a head coach. I enjoy getting out and recruiting. I enjoy talking to these guys about their academics, about things going on in their lives you don’t necessarily have at other levels. There’s just a lot more going on, a lot more growth, a lot more things that are going to shape the rest of their lives and it’s kind of all yet to be determined for these guys. Kind of like being a part of this process with them. I like the vibe of college ball, I do. The way it’s set up, the rivalries. I just think the sport’s in such a good place right now, I do. I love that part of it. I always have.”

And Oklahoma?

“I love that fact that we’re invested here. I love the fact that we have what we need to be successful,” he said. “I love the fact that people care about our program, [which] has been nationally relevant for a long time. People here are invested in it, that the former players come back. I know how much it means to this community, to this state. … To coach football at any level, anywhere, this is absolutely one of the elite programs, regardless of level, without a doubt.

“There’s not a better job anywhere else.”

Barry Switzer, who won three national championships with the Sooners before later winning a Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys, certainly agrees.

“There would be a hell of a lot of NFL coaches who’d rather coach at Oklahoma,” Switzer said. “Because at Oklahoma, you’re one of the top five schools in the country. Everyone in coaching wants to get to an Oklahoma. The Alabamas, the Ohio States, the Oklahomas, they’re the top jobs in the country. Why? Because you can dictate. You can control your destiny. You can win. You can win consistently. You recruit consistently well. They’re paid tremendously now. They make a lot more than some of those damned NFL jobs.”

Riley is currently making $4.8 million at Oklahoma, plus up to $700K in bonuses. That already would rank middle of the pack in the NFL. Riley, however, has a clause that includes a $100K raise year, meaning Riley will earn roughly an average of $5 million per year through the life of the contract. Despite being at Oklahoma, Riley is still not one of the 15 highest-paid coaches in college football, according to USA Today, though that is sure to change soon after he’s put the Sooners back in the playoff.

“Pro football is a suitcase job,” said Switzer, referring to the number of times an NFL coach might have to move from job to job. “You think Bob Stoops is going [to] work it the rest of his life? He’s made $30-40 million dollars coaching Oklahoma.”

Riley already has Stoops-level job security in Norman with big paydays on the horizon. Yet that also doesn’t mean he’s destined to stay in college for the rest of his career like Stoops, either.

The NFL is ready. It could be a matter of time before Riley is, too.

“I think down the road, probably,” Mayfield said. “I’m not going to speak for him.

“But he’s ready whenever that time comes.”



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From streak to slump: What has happened to Adam Thielen? – Minnesota Vikings Blog

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EAGAN, Minn. — The Monday Night Football audience didn’t just sense Adam Thielen‘s frustrations, they heard them. Loud and clear.

After a 35-yard catch-and-run ahead of the two-minute warning in the second half of the Minnesota Vikings’ 21-7 loss at the Seattle Seahawks, ESPN’s field mics picked up a colorful outburst when the Pro Bowl wide receiver voiced his concern with what was transpiring on offense.

Thielen leads the NFL in receptions, with 103, but his production has decreased considerably since he posted 100 yards receiving for eight straight weeks to open the season. In Seattle, Thielen wasn’t targeted and didn’t catch his first pass until 6:12 left in the third quarter. For the first time in the past two seasons, he didn’t catch a pass in a half.

“A little bit frustration of not moving the ball,” Thielen said of his outburst. “When you’re an athlete and a competitor, you feel like you can win. So, you want the ball in your hand, you want opportunities. So that’s probably where that came from.”

It’s not like he wasn’t getting open. On Minnesota’s second drive of the game, Thielen was free of defenders 20 yards downfield. Sensing pressure, quarterback Kirk Cousins dumped off a pass behind him to running back Latavius Murray that went for 2 yards. Instead of finding Thielen on fourth down from Seattle’s 1-yard line with more than nine minutes to play in the game, Cousins targeted tight end Kyle Rudolph in double coverage in the back of the end zone. The pass was broken up, and the Vikings failed to score.

Thielen’s production dip has been noticeable since Week 9, when his 100-yard streak was snapped by the Detroit Lions. With Stefon Diggs sidelined due to an injury to his ribs, the Lions zeroed in on Thielen, limiting him to four catches for 22 yards.

After averaging 115.6 yards receiving in the first eight games of the season while catching 76 percent of his targets, Thielen has caught 64 percent of his targets over the past five weeks while averaging 62.2 yards per game. Amid a rough stretch for Minnesota’s offense, Thielen was back to his ways against the Green Bay Packers in Week 12 (eight catches for 125 yards and a touchdown), but he has been quiet outside of that.

Thielen isn’t the only one whose numbers have decreased after a hot start. Diggs has gone three straight games without eclipsing 100 yards receiving, and he was visibly frustrated during a defeat at the New England Patriots as cameras caught him ripping off his helmet and screaming after being left wide open.

So what’s happening?

“I think a lot of discussion, even talking to my own family after the game, that they noticed watching on TV of Adam and Stefon are being doubled and taken away,” Cousins said following the tilt in Seattle. “That was true probably the first two third downs of the game, and then really the rest of the game I didn’t notice it showing up. So, while that is happening — that happened against the Lions, that happened against the Patriots and it’s going to happen. But it’s not play in and play out all game long. So I don’t want to overstate that. Certainly, from time to time they’ll be doubled.”

Teams typically utilize bracket coverage when putting two defenders on one player, but the way the Patriots and Seahawks chose to routinely double Thielen and Diggs with defenders playing man coverage is less common. But it’s far from surprising that teams have begun to deploy this strategy to contain the prolific receiving duo.

“I didn’t ever think I’d get triple-teamed,” Diggs said. “That’s something that I’ve never experienced in my life. For me, I can beat double-teams. I feel like I can still win. And if it’s three guys, I’ve got to beat three guys. It don’t really matter how it comes up. But more importantly, we’ve got guys on the outside that can win, and if I’m occupying three people, I know we’ve got some guys out there that can get involved.”

Interim offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski hopes to reignite Thielen and Diggs on Sunday at home against the Miami Dolphins in a game that could establish the tone offensively for what the Vikings aim to do the rest of the season.

“I think it’s our job and we’re charged with getting those guys the football in space,” Stefanski said. “It changes, and it varies by game, because certain teams have a certain plan to take those two guys away. The nice part is we have a very unselfish group, so if it’s going to be a big Stefon Diggs game, Adam’s great about it. If there is going to be a big Kyle Rudolph game, those guys are great about it.

“So, I think the ball goes where the ball goes; but we as coaches, need to try to design plays to get the ball, obviously, to our playmakers.”

Another way Stefanski could do that is by getting running back Dalvin Cook more involved in the passing game.

Cook has 50 yards receiving on just 13 catches over the past two games, and opportunities to get him involved in the passing game could help him evolve into the Vikings’ No. 3 receiver. The two touchdowns he has scored this season have come as a pass-catcher.

The influences Stefanski pulls from the previous offensive coordinators he has worked under will start to become evident on Sunday. But judging by the success former Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur had utilizing running backs in the passing game, particularly with screens, Cook could get more involved.

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Kobe Bryant gives Cleveland Browns pep talk before playing Denver Broncos

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The Cleveland Browns, getting ready for a prime-time game in Denver, had a special guest at their team meeting Friday — one who knows a little bit about Showtime.

Former Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant spoke to the team for about an hour at its hotel, then took questions from the players.

Bryant, whose relentlessness and competitive drive were hallmarks of his career, talked about the “Mamba Mentality,” and what motivates him.

The Browns (5-7-1), have won three of their past four games and are coming off a 26-20 victory over the Carolina Panthers. They play the Broncos at 8:20 p.m. ET Saturday.



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‘Nutcracker’ and helping homeless give Josh Norman a mental break – Washington Redskins Blog

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ASHBURN, Va. — He won’t be dancing with any stars, but he will continue to dance. Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman will make a cameo appearance in a local production of “The Nutcracker” on Friday night.

It’s a way for Norman to raise a little money for his foundation; it’s also a way for him to stay mentally fresh during a turbulent time for the Redskins, losers of four games in a row.

That’s also why he spent Wednesday night handing out clothing items at several homeless shelters in Washington. He called that an early birthday gift. Norman said he decided to do this the previous night while sitting at home on his couch. Norman, who turns 31 Saturday, said he wanted to do this in lieu of doing something else for his birthday.

“What else is there for me to get?” he said.

The past several weeks have been filled with stories about devastating injuries and the waiver claim of linebacker Reuben Foster and players upset with one thing or another — their role, the coaches, teammates, fans. Wednesday provided perspective and respite.

“You always have to think positive,” Norman said. “I deal with it by helping other people out. It’s pretty cool when you can do that, give back to other people. Helps out a lot.”

Norman said the people he was handing out items to did not recognize him.

“They finally found out,” he said. “They were like, ‘Oh, shoot, you come down to see us?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, man, I came down to chop it up with you guys.’ Took a couple pictures, signed some autographs. It was just really cool and refreshing and rejuvenating. You ask why I come in and keep high spirits. It’s because I can do things such as that. It’s much bigger than football. It’s just cool.”

And “The Nutcracker” helps him out, too. The Loudoun Ballet Performing Arts Co. approached him earlier this year about performing as a special guest. His one and only appearance as the Arabian Prince is Friday night. Half the proceeds will go to his Starz24 Foundation. Norman was on “Dancing with the Stars” earlier this year. While training for the show, he met some of the dancers at the LBPA.

When he was on the ABC show, Norman flew across the country and would return in time for Redskins spring practices. For the ballet, he has practiced once a week (on his off day) for a little more than a month at a local high school, he said.

“It’s cool; it’s something to do,” he said. “I’ve got to be doing something.”

He also knows some fans will be upset that he has spent part of his off time in a non-football activity at a time when the Redskins are losing.

“How are we held to a higher standard than a doctor or a physician?” he said. “I do what I do anyway.”

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