Read the full transcript from General Manager Chris Grier and Head Coach Mike McDaniel's press conference on January 15, 2024.
(On DT Christian Wilkins and OL Connor Williams, is it a priority for you to keep both of those two players?) – "Like we've always talked here in the past, our goal is to keep as many good players here as we can. They've both earned the right to be free agents. Christian and I actually had a really good conversation today. I was very happy for him. He bet on himself after a summer of negotiations where we made a couple offers and one we felt very good about, was fair, and he and his representation said as much, but we couldn't close that gap at the end. So he bet on himself and it paid off for him. I'm very happy for him. So we'll stay in communication and see where this ends up, but he earned the right to be a free agent. Again, I'm happy for him. We drafted him here, developed him here, and he's the type of person we're looking for. So we'll see what happens."
(And with OL Connor Williams, obviously the line play didn't seem as effective once he went down against Tennessee.) – "I wouldn't say that consistently. I mean, we ran the ball against Baltimore, Buffalo, and we did some good things. Liam (Eichenberg) came in and battled through his bumps and bruises and did a great job for us. So yeah, Connor was playing some good football for us and the leadership stuff he provided. Unfortunately with football, injuries happen. He's been great communicating with Mike (McDaniel) through us here through the end of the season. Again, we'll stay in touch with him and see what happens."
(You started this rebuild in 2019 trading veterans, accumulating draft picks. Five years in, do you think it's been a success?) – "It's a little mixed, and I only mean that because this is now year two with Mike (McDaniel) here. We won nine games a year ago, 11 this year. We've taken steps. I think we have a good roster. Whether success, failure, I leave that for you guys to judge, but I think we're building something good that we feel good about and we're looking forward to continuing that in the offseason towards next year."
(Last offseason, you guys didn't have contract talks with QB Tua Tagovailoa. You said that you'd see how the season played out. Is it your intention and your desire to strike out a long-term deal with Tua this offseason?) – "We've had conversations. Like we said, we wouldn't talk throughout the season in terms of contract stuff, but we've stayed in touch with his agent and had good conversations throughout the year. We never talking about money or anything, just good conversations about where he is and the relationship with Mike (McDaniel) and the team here and everything he's done. So the goal is to have him here long term playing at a high level. That's always the goal and we'll continue to communicate with him through the offseason here. Like we've always said in the past, you guys know me, we don't really talk in the media through all that stuff, so we'll just keep all those talks internal and with his reps."
(The market for quarterbacks of QB Tua Tagovailoa's age have been $50+ million. Is that the number where we should expect if an extension gets done in that range? Or is there another level than $50 million AAV?) – "I think that's just one we're going to keep talking with him. We'll work through it all. We'll just keep our conversations and working with him. I think everything will be productive and we'll just see what happens."
(You're right now about $40 million over the cap. I know you'd like to keep an awful lot of players, but is it realistic to think that all the good players who you'd like to keep, you're going to be able to keep? Or is that just not going to be possible?) – "I mean, at the end of the day, we have good players here. Everyone will have a market. We're not really, right now, concerned about where we'll be in March, salary cap wise. I think (Senior Vice President of Football & Business Administration) Brandon Shore and (Director of Football Administration and Strategy) Max Napolitano, we've had a lot of conversations. They've given us a lot of flexibility with multiple options of ways we can be creative and so hats off to them just through their work and grind on things. Mike (McDaniel), Brandon and I will have a lot of discussions. We'll talk with Steve (Ross) as we get through here and we'll try and keep as many of the players here that we can."
(How successful would you say the season was even though it ended in the Wild Card round?) – "That's always a little bit of a trick question, because the goal was always to win first the AFC East, then a playoff game, then the Super Bowl. We fell short of those goals. I would say in year two with what Mike (McDaniel) and his staff has done – especially not making excuses through the injuries we had, I think 12 or 13 offensive line combinations, losing all the pass rushers, outside linebackers, running backs banged up here and there – they did a fantastic job of working through that. Our players deserve a lot of credit. I mean, they battled their ass off through everything and working and just buying into what the coaches are preparing. Last week we probably had the oldest outside linebacker group in the history of football playing out there. There were a lot of successes, a lot of things we're happy about. But at the end of the day, you know what our goals are so we'll just keep working to achieve those."
(You mentioned injuries. How much do you look at the strength and conditioning staff with potential things you could do differently to keep players healthy? We saw QB Tua Tagovailoa last year go basically outside and take jiu-jitsu, and he made it all the way which was great. How do you look at that?) – "Yeah, we feel very strong that our group are some of the best in the NFL. I think if you were to ask a lot of agents and stuff, we get feedback of all that when they deal with our players and they always say your guys are the best. Like everything, we'll evaluate everything that we do on and off the field, but we feel really strongly that they are the best. And sometimes, it's football, injuries happen, but those guys do a fantastic job getting our guys prepared. I think you would have some players who have come here from other teams that have talked about injuries they've had at previous places and they've had no issues here. It's just one of those years where it was our turn unfortunately to have injuries and it's part of football."
(Mike, how would you assess yourself as a play caller this season? Is that something you would ever consider delegating to an offensive coordinator?) – "I think you're always assessing things. The important part of right after the season is to make sure that you're not making your judgements based upon the emotion of the rollercoaster ride that you just went on. I think you have to critically assess by slowly evaluating everything. I think the way I look at it is nothing is off the table ever, just because to just say well that's the way we've done it, that's not a good enough reason to me. I think we failed to reach our goals this season. Play calling wouldn't live outside that. We'll see based upon what we do with this season. If we utilize all the lessons learned, we'll see what it actually means as we press forward."
(I have to ask about your coaching staff. It's silly to ask, but I have to ask it. Do you expect Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio back in 2024?) – "Yeah, I think all things are fair right now. We're still kind of grieving through the process collectively as a coaching staff. Quite honestly, the main thing that I'm trying to do is make sure that I maintain and communicate with the players as they go through their exit interviews. It's between 50 to 70 guys that I meet with. Then we'll get together as a coaching staff and kind of undress the season in a painful but productive way. I think that's what all healthy staffs do really regardless of success or failure."
(How much of this offseason, if any, will you spend studying why you were 10-1 against winning teams and 1-6 against playoff teams?) – "A fair amount. I think we talk all season about progressing to be your best and we weren't. You talk about a narrative is a narrative assuming that you're getting better, learning from it. When you ultimately fall short, then you have to look it between the eyes and look at where we had successes and where we had failures, and not really harbor any defensive mechanism because it's the bottom line. We didn't get the results that we wanted. We feel good about our process, but everything has to be really evaluated. First and foremost are the short comings. You also have to look at what you did do well, but that's always the last thing on our minds in the offseason. You'd have to go through the transcripts, but when we were having this press conference a year ago, we weren't necessarily talking about pre-snap penalties, I don't think. For me, I knew they were an issue. But then you take a step back, you critically assess everything, you see how much of a hinderance it was on our overall productivity and you make it an emphasis. You get what you emphasize, so then it's supremely important that we look at everything, not assume it's correlation or causation, look at everything flat lined, and find the ways that you can get better. That's what I think players sign up for and organizations depend on."
(Mike, I wanted to ask you about the play calling, specifically the Kansas City game. Obviously the weather was a factor in how you called plays, but why were there so little downfield passes? Was there concern whether QB Tua Tagovailoa could play in those conditions?) – "No. I think the type of defense that they were playing with aggressive re-routes, it was a quarters man predominately. That's what it's orchestrated to take away. I didn't really think of it in that lens. That night, at times, guys made very accurate passes, short and long. I think our one touchdown was on a ball over the top of a quarters safety. I didn't really look at it like that. I wish we would've gotten more opportunities. I think the biggest hindrance really for the varied ways we could execute our gameplan, and we did have some stuff down the field that was appropriate for the defense we were expecting, but it makes it real difficult when you are one of whatever on third down. I think we had the mindset to run the ball and we had some mirrored shots in the pass game that we felt pretty good about that had to be specific for their defense. But you don't get to those calls when you have to either avoid third down, or you're punting, which is the situation we found ourselves in that game."
(Chris, I wanted to ask you, after making the playoffs the last two years, the losses have amounted to where you guys now have the longest playoff win draught after the Lions win. What would be your message to the fans, that you are a little bit closer to a win than the last 20 years?) – "First off, congratulations to Detroit and Dan Campbell. I'm happy for Dan. He was here and is a good guy and a good man. Him and Brad (Holmes) are doing a good job there, so I'm happy for them. But for us, we're just going to keep grinding, chopping wood. We have a good roster. We know that we'll keep adding and the team will look different. As we all know every year, 30 or 40 percent or more of rosters change. But we'll find ways to have good players here and be competitive. We are very excited about our core nucleus players here. We will be competitive. The goal is to win the AFC East and win a playoff game, and ultimately a Super Bowl. That's the goal of all 32 teams and it's no different for us."
(Just based on the answers you've given today, it doesn't seem that you think big changes are needed. That what you have built, you just need to continue to build on, and the results will also come. Is that accurate?) – "Yeah, I mean we feel good about it. But like we said, this is 48 hours or less after a game still. We go through our process like we always talk about. Coaches are going to go look through everything from spring through the summer, through the season. Personnel will go talk through everything and look at it through our lens. We'll get together, we'll talk about it, and exit interviews here be a part of it. Mike (McDaniel) will meet with the coaching staff and then we'll all get together and we'll make appropriate decisions that we feel we need to make."
(Where do you stand on OL Robert Hunt as he enters free agency, and his importance to this offensive line?) – "I'm happy for Rob (Hunt) that he got to get back at the end of the year for us. We drafted him here. He's gone through a bunch of different coaching philosophies and styles of an offensive line, and I think Mike (McDaniel) and then Butch Barry this year coming in did a fantastic job. Rob and all those offensive linemen worked tirelessly to improve and get better and buy into the scheme and so for us, like all of them, he's earned the right to be a free agent. We did have a conversation with him during the season, so we'll see what happens here as we go through it. But again, these guys have earned the rights to be free agents. We would like them to be here. They want to be here. So we'll have to see what happens."
(We spoke to CB Xavien Howard not too long ago and asked about his future with the team. He said it's up in the air. He didn't really say that he was open to taking a pay cut. I'm not sure if there's any guaranteed money left in his contract, but is your hope that he's still with, and do you anticipate him still being with the team in 2024?) – "Yeah, but like with everyone, we're going to go through this whole process right now. Xavien (Howard) has been a good player here for a long time. He was part of the first draft class I had. He and I have had many talks and discussions and I really appreciate him and love him as a person and player. So we'll go through this process here like with every player individually and I think he met with Mike (McDaniel) today and he and I may have a conversation here in the next day or so. So yeah, just right now we're just going through this with every single player on the roster and it's no different with Xavien."
(I asked Head Coach Mike McDaniel, but I'm curious because we don't get to talk to you much, why do you think you guys struggled against the good teams so much this year?) – "I don't know. I think just piggybacking off Mike, I just think it's a combination of things. We've played some good football teams and a majority of the games were fairly close late in the game, and for various reasons, we weren't able to pull it out and win it. So I think that will be something we'll go through and evaluate and look at through here in the offseason and that's what the whole spring is for. As Mike said, you look at – it's not necessarily improving the things you're great at. It's working at the things that we had struggled (with) or would like to finish better."
(What would you point to as one of the biggest areas of improvement that you want to see from QB Tua Tagovailoa in this offseason and I guess how would you assess his mobility and ability to make plays with his legs this season while also understanding that he has to protect himself and be available for the team?) – "I just want to see him make sure the curve continues to be exponential in his growth. We've seen at every stretch of the way him improving. That doesn't mean it's void of a result that isn't desired. But what we've seen is him learn from all the things that he goes through. I think that's the one thing that I can say in my two years of experience with him, is he's as good of a learner as I've ever seen. Take jiu-jitsu, or throwing left-handed, or etc. I think that's what I want to see, is that continued thirst to find different ways, while maintaining and growing your confidence, to always create new edges in your game. Is Tua going to be a zone-read option quarterback? No. But I think he has developed in some – like buying extra time when necessary. I think that will continue to improve where you can just maybe move off the spot a little bit and not necessarily run for a first down, but you can extend the play. I think those things improve with a lot of things – the continuity of an offensive line group that you learn where guys are generally blocking from the launch point, and so then you know your safe spot is in the pocket. All these things, it's all about progression. I think he just needs to continue to do what he has been doing in terms of progressing and I'll be very much happy with that."
(I know you were asked about Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio specifically coming back, but do you see any other coaching staff changes?) – "Like I said, I was very, very happy with the way that our coaching staff responded to the various things that happened during the course of the year. I thought really down the stretch, they did give it their all. We ended the season with losses, but knowing how they invested in their players and tried to give them the best chance, that's what I was left with. And then I've just been inundated with trying to connect with – as a head coach, you are talking to guys every day, but you don't get those extended conversations that's entirely just about them and where their game is at. That's kind of what I've been inundated with. Besides having a staff meeting, I haven't even really talked or thought about the coaches, to be honest."
(When we talked to you guys at the NFL Draft, Head Coach Mike McDaniel joked "can't wait to have a first-round pick next year for the first time." Do you still plan on using that pick? And are you definitely going to have a first-round pick this year? How important is it now you have a full draft to make the most of it?) – "Can't promise anything, but we'll see. (laughter) We've had a couple draft meetings with the scouts and they'll be coming back in February and we'll hit that hard before we go to Indianapolis. But also if there's an opportunity that we feel can help our roster and it makes sense and most of the guys we've traded for have been in an age bracket, too, that makes sense for us to do that if you're going to move a pick like that. So we're always open to listening if people want to contact us, as well. I know he wants a first-round pick bad." (laughter)