LATROBE, Pa. — I had something of a revelation on my annual summer training camp trip, which covered 17 camps and two games and 22 teams in 20 locales. It happened on the last stop, in the Laurel Highlands of west-central Pennsylvania. On a hot Thursday with no breeze, in the place where Joe Greene and Mike Webster and Jack Lambert and Mel Blount and Alan Faneca and Levon Kirkland and Hines Ward and Casey Hampton once jousted, the 2017 Steelers took shape under the very physical direction of coach Mike Tomlin.
The receivers and defensive backs, in full pads, did the Oklahoma drill—the ultra-physical one-on-one blocking drill in which the defensive player tries to fight off the offensive player and get to the ball-carrier, and the offensive player tries to block the defensive player to the ground. That’s exceedingly rare. One snap: 211-pound wideout Martavis Bryant fired across the line at 198-pound cornerback Artie Burns. Burns threw Bryant aside, then thudded the ball-carrier, Sammie Coates, to the earth.
“GOOD!!!!!” yelled Tomlin, standing right there.
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The Steelers had two other live tackling periods during practice. That’s two more than I saw all summer. When I went to Minnesota and asked veteran defensive end Everson Griffen what it would be like to tackle former Vikings legend Adrian Peterson when the Vikes and Saints played on opening night, he said he relished being able to get the chance to find out because, in seven years of practice, he’d never tackled Peterson—not once. That’s the NFL these days. The most physical teams I saw, by far, in my 17 camps visited were Seattle and Pittsburgh. Pete Carroll told me it was important to go “right to the edge” of full-scale tackling and bruising hitting to get ready for the season. After practice, Tomlin stood by the side of the camp field and told me more why he practices like it was 1990.
“Preparing to play without the physical part,” the 11th-year coach said, “is like asking a boxer to go in and fight without sparring. There is a certain hardening that has to happen to your group individually and collectively, I believe, through this process. I believe live tackling not only aids in that, but is kind of central to that. That’s why we made the conscious effort to have at least 12 to 15 snaps a day of live football. It provides an opportunity, it sets the pace, it gives a certain urgency, in your group.”
Regarding the risk of injury in those snaps, Tomlin said: “I think there is probably a propensity for increased injury in the stadium if you haven’t done this. So from that perspective, I am willing to present an argument that one approach is not any more safe. The bottom line is, you better find ways to impose your will on your opponent. Sometimes that’s physical, but sometimes it’s conditioning, sometimes it’s mental.”
It’s so counter to the logic we’ve grown to accept in the modern NFL. The vast majority of drills, even in camp, involve some sort of exhortation from coaches like this: “Stay up! Stay up! Don’t take ’em to the ground!” And then there’s Pittsburgh, and overtly physical Seattle. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? It’s hard to criticize the two programs that appear to me to be the most physical in the preseason, those run by Tomlin and Carroll, when you see their NFL coaching records (including playoffs):
Coach Years W-L-T Avg. Wins/Year Tomlin 10 111-63-0 11.1 Carroll 11 113-79-1 10.2
One more scene from Latrobe: It’s called Seven Shots.
Tomlin puts the ball at the two-yard line, the spot, not coincidentally, where the two-point conversion attempt is placed. Tomlin loves the two-point play; he’s attempted 20 of them in the past two years. And for the first four snaps, it’s ones against ones. First teams, full pads, full tackling.
Snap one. Ben Roethlisberger steps to the line.
“Blue 80! Blue80SET!” Snap. Handoff to top back (with Le’Veon Bell holding out) Fitzgerald Toussaint, who is buried by four defenders at the 3-yard line. “DEEEEEEEE-fense!” someone in the camp crowd yells from the bleachers at St. Vincent College.
Snap two. Roethlisberger: “Blue 80! SET ALERT! Blue80SET!” Audible. Quick handoff to rookie running back James Conner, who bursts through the left guard-tackle hole. Touchdown. “Le’Veon WHO!!!!!” a fan yells.
Snap three. Double reverse. Touchdown to Bryant. Huge cheers.
Snap four. Antonio Brown with a double-motion-shift pre-snap, and Roethlisberger with a double-clutch, and then a laser to tight end Jesse James in the middle of the end zone. Looks like a clear TD … but as the 261-pound James comes down with the ball, missile-like cornerback Ross Cockrell blasts James with a shoulder to the sternum, and the ball flies out. Defense goes nuts. Crowd goes nuts. Tomlin smiles. The backups take the last three shots, and the defense wins each.
A Thursday at Steelers camp. Live tackling and the Oklahoma drill for the small guys. It’s the Tomlin way. It isn’t fashionable in the new world of football, and Mike Tomlin doesn’t care.
One J.J. Watt Prediction: ‘Better Than He Was’ Before Injury
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.V. — On Wednesday, in a joint practice session against the Patriots, J.J. Watt lined up at left defensive end, across from Patriots tackle Marcus Cannon, a rising 335-pound building block for the New England line. Tom Brady took the snap. Now, in most of these joint practices, there’s no blitzing, no motion, and little stunting—it’s just man-on-man. And with the Patriots and Texans set to play in Week 3, you won’t see either team trying out many tricks. For the defense, it’s basically bull-rush football.
Watt low-leveraged into Cannon and pushed him back a couple of straining steps with brute force. Cannon prevented Brady from taking a hit, but on this play and many others over two days, the Texans, and Watt, saw everything they needed to see against prime competition. Watt’s surgically repaired back held up, and he is playing with no residual pain after disc surgery that KO’d his 2016 season. The man who won the NFL defensive player of the year award at 23, 25 and 26 before sitting his age-27 season believes he can pick up where he left off at 28. As does his coach.
“I can tell you right now the guy’s going to be at the top of his game,” Bill O’Brien told me. “He’s had a great training camp. I think he’ll be better than he was.”
When I told Watt what O’Brien said, he seemed genuinely happy—not just in a cliché sense. “I appreciate that, I appreciate it very much,” Watt said. “Obviously coming from him, it means a ton because he has seen every practice. He’s been out here, he’s been watching the film, he’s seen the practices, he knows what’s been going on. I haven’t talked too much about it. Everybody always asks, ‘Hey, how are you going to be? What is this season going to be like for you?’ And I don’t talk too much about it because the thing I have been focused most on this year is letting my play do the talking in practice. It’s been fun, I’ll say that. I feel very good.”
Remember that Watt won his third defensive award in 2015 when he was entirely healthy for maybe two weeks. It was September 2015 that a series of injuries—to his core, his groin and his back—began to accumulate through the season, and he and trainers had to scotch-tape the way through the season. It was still a 17.5-sack year, though it was often agonizing. He paid for that year with back surgery last fall, and the lost 2016.
“I feel like I am playing football the way I am supposed to play football, and I feel like I am the player I am supposed to be,” he said. “In the offseason, I transferred the tire-flipping and the 700-pound back squats into different exercises. Now I’m doing 14 different core exercises. It’s not any less time or less effort. It’s just different.”
“Do you honestly think you can be better than you were?” I asked.
“I don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “I’m sure the doctors don’t know the answer. That’s the goal. But all I know is I can be as smart as I can possibly be, and that’s with practice reps, that’s with workouts, that’s with doing everything I can to make sure that for those 16 games-plus a year, I am ready to roll. I feel great, and as long as we stick to the plan that we’ve got—a day off here and there, some practice reps off here and there—I think we are going to be in good shape.”
The Texans were first in the league in defense last year, and, obviously, they’re going to be scarier with Watt. As of now, when they line up in the 3-4 under new defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel, it looks like, from left to right on the line, Watt, second-year nose man D.J. Reader and Christian Covington will form the front, with Whitney Mercilus behind Watt, Brian Cushing and Bernardrick McKinney on the inside and Jadeveon Clowney at the right outside linebacker. If healthy, it’s the best front seven in football, and only Seattle is close.
The Bill Belichick Fan Club Was Here
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.V. — As the Patriots coach filed out of the football building at The Greenbrier Resort in southern West Virginia, he Pied-Pipered a few people behind him. Hall of Fame baseball manager Tony LaRussa was in the mini-entourage, as was former Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean. Both are excellence nerds. They read everything they can get their hands on about how to succeed in sports, and in life.
As Belichick did his morning press briefing, LaRussa looked on and said quietly: “What Bill does so well, I think, is reset his team every year at zero. What you did last year doesn’t matter. You’ve got to learn from everything, but last year’s over. And he’s got a great leader who believes the exact same thing in Tom Brady. That helps.”
Tom Brady, Yadi Molina. LaRussa knows player leaders.
“I would take it another step, beyond Tony,” said Crean. “Bill resets every day. You’ve got to look and see where you are every day. Everything matters. There’s nothing he leaves to someone else that matters. A lot of people say it, but I’ve seen it. He lives it. The fundamentals, the details, the winning in the fourth quarter. Being around Bill, you can see it come to life.”
Crean is married to the sister of Jim and John Harbaugh. Belichick and Ravens coach John Harbaugh have a spirited rivalry, and that’s putting it nicely. There’s a grudging respect there. So it was curious to see Crean here, sort of behind enemy lines.
“My brothers-in-law are like Bill, in that they’re inquisitive,” Crean said. “They want to learn. They have as many questions as answers. Coaching is coaching, management is management. We’re all trying to get better, we’re all trying to get smarter. Bill’s got a great base of friends, and people he respects who respect him. It’s about getting better.”
Anquan Boldin: Humble Greatness Retires With Him
Every year, the information packets would come in the middle of December, with the nominations of all 32 teams for their NFL Man of the Year. Each team could pick one player. I lost count how often Anquan Boldin was in the packet. I was one of the voters for the award, and I’d read through each of the bios of guys who would donate X per sack to X charity, or who would give out turkeys to families and backpacks to children before the school year … all tremendous gestures, illustrative of the scores of fine people, generous people, selfless people, who play in the NFL. But there was something about Anquan Boldin’s candidacy, over several years, that jumped off the page. In 2014, he and his wife endowed a long-term scholarship fund for needy high-school seniors with $1 million in seed money. He went to Ethiopia for Oxfam in 2012 to bring attention to a severe drought. He established an eight-week summer program for kids struggling academically in his needy community of Pahokee, Fla. He was a solid and influential voice among NFL players angry at the treatment of black citizens in some police incidents. I voted for Boldin because he was such a good player on the field and so valuable off it. He won the award in 2015.
Boldin, 36, told the Bills over the weekend he was retiring from football, and he told Jim Trotter of ESPN that he would be focusing on humanitarian work in his retirement. When Boldin accepted his 2015 Man of the Year award, he said he discovered soon after arriving in the league in 2003, “I realized my purpose in life was not to make it to the NFL and score touchdowns.” So good for him that he’ll give the planet more consistent good deeds than he could have as a backup Buffalo wideout.
But appreciate what Boldin did with his talent. He was a slow receiver coming out of Florida State—a plodding 4.71 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the ’03 combine—but he worked for 14 years to prove speed isn’t everything. Precise route-running is, and toughness is, and durability is. Boldin played 14 years and finished ninth in NFL history with 1,076 receptions. He caught 94 more passes than Randy Moss, had seven more touchdown catches than James Lofton, and amassed more receiving yards than Torry Holt and Andre Reed. He’ll join a crowded receiver field and be a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in February 2023. If he ever makes it to Canton, I can assure you this: It won’t be his life’s crowning achievement.
Quotes of the Week
“I am here to support anyone who has the courage to stand up against injustice and oppression anywhere in this country and the world.”
—Frank Serpico, the 81-year-old former New York City detective, at a New York City police rally supporting Colin Kaepernick on Saturday.
Serpico was the subject of the 1973 film “Serpico” starring Al Pacino about the cop’s efforts to uncover police corruption in New York.
“I don’t think about that. I just know that it is less about the nameless gray faces that you play, and most of the time your issues and your solutions are in house. We gotta strengthen ourselves for the fight. It’s easy as a cop out for me to identify the outside variables. It’s a much tougher discussion with yourself to really get gritty and look within yourself and look at the things that are important and what you need to get done. It’s not a lack of acknowledgement of the dominance of the Patriots. But it’s really not that important. We better take care of our house. We better till our soil, as they say.”
—Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, when I asked him, “Did you spend much time or energy this offseason thinking, ‘How are we going to beat the Patriots?’”
“It’s a blessing to be out there. It’s a blessing to be playing for America’s Team. I’m thankful to be here, and it was a great night.”
—Dallas linebacker Jaylon Smith, the team’s second-round pick in 2016, who had not played in a football game since suffering a debilitating knee injury in Notre Dame’s Jan. 1, 2016, Fiesta Bowl game. He played 12 snaps against the Colts in Arlington on Saturday night, making one key third-down stop of Indy tight end Jack Doyle, forcing a Colts punt.
“I think that the likelihood of either a strike or a lockout in 2021 is almost a virtual certainty.”
—NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith to Albert Breer of The MMQB.
“His strengths are, he has a strong arm. He’s a mobile quarterback. Other than that, I’m lost. I have to stop at two. I haven't seen anything else as a big strength right now … Has he gotten better from last training camp to this training camp? Yes he has, but he’s just not ready to be a starting quarterback in the NFL.”
—Denver radio host Brandon Stokley, a former NFL wide receiver, to Tiki Barber and Brandon Tierney on “Tiki and Tierney on CBS Sports Radio.” Stokley was talking about Broncos quarterback Paxton Lynch.
“Every year you try to build your team the best that you can, and so we did what we felt like was the best way to build our team. I mean, I don’t know what the options are going to be next year, but whatever they are, we’re going to do the best we can with them. To say that we wouldn’t trade for a player or we wouldn’t pay a player this much, or we wouldn’t do this or we wouldn’t do that, I mean, I don’t know what those … I don’t have any of those rules.”
—Bill Belichick to Greg Bedard of Boston Sports Journal, on an offseason that saw the Patriots, after winning the Super Bowl, revamp their backfield, trade for a star wide receiver and sign a rising-star cornerback in free agency.
Stat of the Week
I realize I’m one of those in the media banging the drum for Tennessee taking a giant step this year. I think the Titans are going to be good, and could play deep into January, and the performance of the offensive first unit in limited play this summer hasn’t deterred me. But I will splash some cold water on my own story.
• The Titans are 14-34 in AFC South games.
• The Titans have not swept a season series with Jacksonville, Houston or Indianapolis.
• The Titans are 1-15 against the Colts.
• One more thing: Marcus Mariota has not beaten Houston or Indianapolis in four career starts.
Factoids That May Interest Only Me
Tennessee left tackle Taylor Lewan has a tattoo of a mug shot of Frank Sinatra on his right hand.
“We both have criminal records. That’s why I got that,” he said.
Sinatra was arrested in Bergen County in New Jersey in 1938 and charged with seduction, basically for having an affair with a married woman.
Lewan was arrested in Washtenaw County in Michigan in 2014 and charged with assault in connection with a fight at a bar.
Lewan is very well tatted. He has a tattoo of an otter in a top hat, smoking a cigarette, on his lower right leg.
“What possibly would possess a man to get a tattoo of an otter in a suit and fedora, smoking a cigarette, on his leg?” I asked. “When you wear shorts, people are going to see that for the rest of your life!
“That’s a good question,” Lewan answered, earnestly. “I should have thought of that before I got it done. No, honest … I saw a tattoo once of an otter in a top hat and it said, ‘Keep on floating,’ and I thought it was really really cool. Kind of a Frank Sinatra look. Just appealed to me. So I got it and got ‘Float on.’ That’s just me.”
Tennessee defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, 79, shot a 66 at a golf course in Winston Salem, N.C., this offseason.
Houston defensive end J.J. Watt and his brother, rookie Pittsburgh linebacker T.J. Watt, have never opposed each other in an organized athletic event, in any sport. Pittsburgh plays at Houston on Christmas evening.
Not a bad scheduling job, Howard Katz—and the schedule came out a week before the draft placed T.J. in Pittsburgh.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Notes
The Greenbrier Hotel and Resort is a 104-year-old throwback to charm and the sharp-dressed in southern West Virginia, nestled in the oft-fog-shrouded Allegheny Mountains. It’s really a lovely place. The Saints had training camp here for three years ending last summer, and now the Texans had camp there this summer. I was there with Tim Rohan and Jonathan Jones of The MMQB on Tuesday and Wednesday to cover the Patriots-Texans joint practices. On Tuesday evening we’d finished sessions with Houston coach Bill O’Brien and GM Rick Smith and headed to the hotel for dinner. Well, most of the restaurants have a pretty strict dress code. So I asked the hostess if we might be able to find a secluded spot.
“We’re clearly not dressed for this,” I said, “but this is sort of a big place—think you could seat us somewhere out of the way so we could eat?”
The hostess looked a bit uncomfortable.
“Sir, we have jackets and ties for you to borrow,” she said. “But you will have to find some pants.”
Ouch. We moved on.
At Litton’s Market Restaurant and Bakery, a restaurant staple for all Volunteer fans in Knoxville, The MMQB stopped on the way from Nashville to West Virginia for cheeseburgers. Well worth the stop. Litton’s is the place that Peyton Manning made his home away from home while in college. One of Litton’s long-time employees, Mark Taylor, told us an interesting story. On the night after his junior season when Manning was on the precipice of deciding whether to turn pro and be drafted number one overall by the New York Jets in 1997, he ate a burger at Litton’s and there was a little whatever-happens-happens party for him in a back room. As Manning left with dad Archie to take a drive around campus to make his final decision … well, let Taylor tell it.
“Peyton stood there and right above him, on the crawl on the TV, it said, on ‘SportsCenter,’ I think, Manning to turn pro tomorrow. And he told us he didn’t know where that came from, but he hadn’t made his decision. And he left. The next day, none of us knew what he was going to do. We thought he was probably coming out and going to the NFL. But he had his press conference and decided to stay.”
This was the same place where the Titans coaches (Mike Munchak, Chris Palmer) and Manning met for cheeseburgers when his 2012 free-agent recruitment tour came to Tennessee.
I emailed Manning to tell him we’d had cheeseburgers at Litton’s.
“That’s my spot!” he wrote back.
Stopped at the Mini Mart just west of Knoxville on I-24. There was a shirt in the market with the following statement on the front:
Cat hair is both a condiment and a fashion accessory
Temple Street, the hardscrabble village of Hinton, W.V., just past the villages of Pipestem and True, on the way to Pats-Texans practice in White Sulphur Springs, 8:30 a.m. Tuesday …
On the sidewalk ambling past our van on a sleepy, threatening morning is a boy, maybe 9, with a blue Odell Beckham Jr. Giants jersey. Number 13. The boy has spiky dark hair, with blonde tips.
This hamlet, I can assure you, in so many ways is as far from the lights of MetLife Stadium and Broadway as any hamlet in the United States. But here is an Odell Beckham wannabe. The reach of the NFL.
Training Camp Awesomeness of the Week
As you can see, I’ve put a photo of Gil Brandt in this section. Brandt is the indefatigable 84-year-old Sirius XM NFL Radio host (shown here with co-host Alex Marvez, left, debriefing Atlanta wide receiver Mohamed Sanu at Falcons camp eight days ago) whom I saw at three different stops along the way—in Oxnard, Calif., with the Cowboys; in Napa, Calif., with the Raiders, and in Georgia with the Falcons.
I always love conversing with Brandt, because there’s a football history lesson in every chat. This year in Oxnard, we talked about the early days of the Cowboys—particularly the early exhibition games.
“We played everywhere in the preseason in our early days: Tulsa, Birmingham, New Orleans, Bakersfield, Sacramento, Atlanta, Roanoke. We played a doubleheader in Cleveland in 1962. We played Detroit, and then Cleveland played someone [Pittsburgh], back to back. We played in Norman, Okla. We played in Sioux Falls. But our first year, 1960, that was really something. We played an exhibition game in the smallest place ever to host an NFL preseason game—Pendleton, Ore. Look it up!”
• THE MMQB ALL-TIME DRAFT: Gil Brandt’s Dream Team roster
Sunday afternoon, Sept. 4, 1960, right in the heart of the intense Kennedy/Nixon presidential campaign: The Rams and expansion Cowboys, in the fifth game in their history, played at Round Up Stadium in Pendleton, Ore. (1960 population: Brandt said it was 5,000; the census says it was 14,434 then), about 200 miles east of Portland in rural north-northeast Oregon.
Rams 49, Cowboys 14. The Cowboys press guide says the crowd was 13,500.
“Gil,” I asked, “why in the world would the Dallas Cowboys play in the middle of nowhere in Oregon?”
“They paid us $25,000,” he said. “It was a pretty memorable day, for a lot of reasons. The stadium was actually their rodeo grounds, and it turns out the rodeo just finished the day before, right on the field where we played. It was lined like a football field, but it was in pretty rough shape. When our players came off the field, they were saying there was still droppings on the field from the rodeo.”
Gotta love Gil Brandt. I could listen to the man talk about house painting all day.
Tweets of the Week
From the new season of “The MMQB Podcast With Peter King,” available where you download podcasts.
This week: New Orleans coach Sean Payton and Cleveland coach Hue Jackson.
• Jackson on how his job is different from most of the other coaches’ jobs in the NFL: “It’s different. We started from rebuilding the roster. And I think our executive team has done a great job of putting more talent on our football team. We understand the predicament we were in a year ago and we look to improve our team, and I think we did that. It took us until Christmas to get a win last year. … We talk about little victories. It’s making sure that our players, the guys who are our core players—let’s find a way to let them have personal success. We don’t know what it is going to look like as a team, but If players can start getting personal wins, then they turn into unit wins, and they turn into team wins. I think that is really important.”
• Payton on why he decided to speak to me after four years of silence following what he considered my unfair coverage of the team’s bounty scandal in 2012: “I always felt like we had a good relationship. Look, there has been a handful of people maybe that … it wasn’t like a checklist, it was just—it just seemed like it was time. If you enjoy the company of some people, and there is a point at which your mind says, ‘Hey, what are you doing now? All right, are you going to continue to put spitballs in the straw and blow them at an individual? Or be bitter and angry?’ If that were the case, then the relationship to begin with was never that significant. And I felt like ours was built on trust and good experience and we've had a number of great experiences.”
• Payton on discovering the meaning of the Saints to the post-Katrina city of New Orleans: “I think the thing that became unique was, I don’t know that any one of us at the time in ’09 realized the magnitude of it, until the season was underway and until we were into the playoffs and people were at the airports [mobbing the team after returning from road games]. I think at that point you began to realize this was more than just football. I would argue that the ’06 season was probably as important as the ’09 season and the ’06 team wasn’t as talented. But I’m not so sure … that ’06 team in a bar fight wouldn’t have beaten all of our postseason teams.”
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think these are a few thoughts about the preseason weekend:
a. Looks like Trevor Siemian has a leg up on Paxton Lynch down the home stretch of the Denver QB derby.
b. Looks like Tom Savage has two legs up on Deshaun Watson (three of 10 against the Patriots on Saturday night) for the Houston QB job.
c. Most interesting preseason performance: Jared Goff going 16 of 20 for the Rams, and not just all little dunks either. That’s got to be encouraging for Sean McVay and that coaching staff.
d. In 12 days, NFL teams will wave goodbye to more than 1,000 players, when they go from 90 to 53 at this year’s only roster cut-down. This story by The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas is the closest you’ll get to feeling exactly how those 1,000 or so players are feeling this morning.
e. The Ronald Darby debut for Philadelphia (one interception, two passes broken up) brings up this point: Heck of a deal by Howie Roseman to get Darby. And a heck of a job by Roseman to overhaul a very needy position, cornerback, in the span of four months. Roseman dealt a good receiver with one controllable salary year left before free agency, Jordan Matthews, plus a third-round pick to Buffalo for Darby. Darby has two years left, at a combined salary of $1.858 million—highly reasonable for a good press corner. The Eagles will have four controllable years of rookie second-round cornerback Sidney Jones (recovering from a March Achilles tear) beginning this year. Assume that Darby, 23, and Jones, 21, will be the opening-day starters for Philadelphia in 2018. They’ll be 24 and 22 years old, and they’ll have a combined cap cost of $2.849 million. That means Roseman used Matthews plus second-round and third-round draft picks to build what, most likely, will be the best starting corner situation (considering money and age and ability) in the NFC East in 2018. It’s not easy to figure a way to build a good corner situation from scratch, but Roseman did it, and he deserves credit for it.
f. The Denver defensive backfield, one of the best in football clearly, came away impressed with the San Francisco passing game—and who thought you’d hear that about 31-year-old Brian Hoyer running Kyle Shanahan’s offense with a cast of mostly newbies? “He [Hoyer] runs the offense well,” Aqib Talib told Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. “Shanahan has a hell of an offense. Hoyer is doing a great job running it. They get the ball out fast. They move you left and right. It takes a polished quarterback to run the offense.”
g. If Jameis Winston doesn’t cut that occasional trait of extremely careless passes (the pick he threw, blindly, while falling to the ground in Jacksonville on Thursday was inexcusable), he’s going to drive Dirk Koetter nuts and lose a game or two this year that could cost the Bucs dearly. Winston is potentially really good. But really good quarterbacks eat the ball a few times a game instead of attempting miracle throws into traffic.
h. Start Mark Brunell, Doug Marrone.
i. First-round corner Adoree’ Jackson is going to be a factor in the secondary and the return game for Tennessee … right away.
j. Fittingly, Delanie Walker (last four years: more catches than Rob Gronkowski, more receiving yards than Jason Witten, more touchdowns than Greg Olsen) caught the first TD pass of Marcus Mariota’s summer. What an underrated player Walker is, at $4.2 million in salary this year.
k. I am a sucker for the Von Miller/chicken farm commercial. Good one.
l. If I’m Ron Rivera, after what I’ve seen out of my offense up to now, I’d like to see Cam Newton play some Thursday in Jacksonville. Carolina has a favorable early slate (at Niners, Bills at home) but the Panthers will be a total unknown with Newton coming off the shoulder surgery if they don’t see him before Sept. 10.
m. Jerry Kramer for one of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s seniors committee nominees this year? The pros at Talk of Fame Network say it’s complicated.
n. Two 52-yard field goals for Seattle kicker Blair Walsh, the ex-Vike, against Minnesota. That had to feel good—but not for the fans who watched him slice a 27-yarder that could have won a playoff game 19 months ago in Minneapolis.
o. The Jets did the right thing in Detroit, giving Christian Hackenberg the entire first half of play. He generated two completions and 42 yards passing (not on one drive, but for the entire half), likely handing the starting job to Josh McCown.
p. If you watched any of the New England’s preseason game at Houston, you saw Tom Brady’s new 2017 pet: running back Rex Burkhead. He’s going to be the kind of reliable weapon the Patriots seem to find in low-cost free agency almost ever year.
q. Speaking of surprise impact players, there’s Seattle wideout Kasen Williams. The practice-squad native of Sammamish, Wash., and Washington Husky alum made two difficult catches from Russell Wilson, one for a touchdown, against Minnesota. That plus his special-teams play make him very likely to make the 53-man roster and be active on game days for the Seahawks.
2. I think the two biggest injuries of training camp—and, of course, there have been several since late July—are these: the torn ACL suffered by Seahawks left tackle George Fant on Friday night against Minnesota, putting him out for the year; and the foot injury and subsequent surgery undergone by vital Indianapolis center Ryan Kelly. Let’s start with Kelly.
If the Colts choose to put Kelly on Injured Reserve/Designated to Return, he’ll miss at least the first eight weeks of the season. If he starts the year on the active 53-man roster, he’d probably miss at least first four or five weeks. Either way, Kelly’s injury has to make the Colts even more cautious about the return of Andrew Luck. If Luck’s best offensive-line protector isn’t playing, he and the Colts have to be realistic about his return from offseason shoulder surgery. I’ve thought even before Jim Irsay made the comments he did about Luck possibly missing a game or two to start the season that it was highly possible he’d miss real time. I’d put the over-under on games started by Luck this year at 14 or 15 right now. But I might be tempted to say 13 if Kelly’s not in the lineup. The Colts are going to err on the side of extreme caution with Luck … and they should. And for those wondering: Luck is on the team’s side here. He’s okay with the plan the Colts and their medical staff have for him.
Regarding Fant: He was woeful in his debut season last year, finishing 84th among 85 qualifying tackles in the Pro Football Focus rankings, but he’d earned the left tackle job clearly on a weak Seattle offensive line. With Fant gone, look for Seattle to consider moving former failed Jacksonville tackle-turned-pretty-good-guard Luke Joeckel from left guard to left tackle, or giving backup Rees Odhiambo a shot. “Really broken-hearted about George Fant,” Pete Carroll said.
3. I think, if I’m watching the Seahawks closely, I watch GM John Schneider at least inquire about some established veterans. Schneider’s unafraid of making any deal at any time, which is why I’d be at least cognizant of the following situations:
• Donald Penn (Oakland). He’s holding out and is vital to the Raiders’ 2017 success. But I put him here because Schneider and Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie are close and have dealt before (Marshawn Lynch), and if Oakland isn’t going to budge on Penn’s $7.2 million cap number this year and Penn stays solid, maybe it’s more than just a conversation. I doubt it, but we’ll see.
• Duane Brown (Houston). He’s got two years left at a total of $19.2 million, and Texans GM Rick Smith has made it clear he’s not re-doing the deal. Brown turns 32 in nine days. He’s played nine years. Lots of wear on the tires. But I include this because the Texans have already dealt both their first-round and second-round picks next year, and Schneider, to solve this problem, knows he’d have to talk a high pick or picks.
• Joe Thomas (Cleveland). I doubt this because the Browns love Thomas and have said internally they won’t deal him. But whenever anyone needs a tackle, Thomas’s name gets tossed out there. If I’m Seattle, and I get assurances that Thomas wants to play three more years, I’d trade my 2018 first-round pick for him. Cleveland shouldn’t but might have to think about it. My rejoinder to Cleveland would be: You’ve got nine picks in the first four rounds next year, more than any other team in the league. Don’t give up the best player on your team for a 10th draft pick.
• Cyrus Kouandijo (Detroit). Stopgap guy after failing in Buffalo. He’s a backup in Detroit now, and he wouldn’t be a long-term solution for Seattle. But a low pick for Kouandijo might be better than Odhiambo or moving Joeckel.
4. I think in the 34 years I’ve been covering the NFL, I’ve never seen such sportsmanship and passionate good-will practices between two teams at joint practices as I saw Tuesday and Wednesday when the Patriots traveled to West Virginia to work against the Texans. Every coach in the NFL should study what the Patriots and Texas did.
First, the sportsmanship was off the charts: Several Texans, most notably Whitney Mercilus, held up from making contact with the Patriots’ quarterbacks, and Mercilus two or three times patted Tom Brady on the back on his way back to the Houston huddle. Most players on the two teams lined up to shake hands and embrace or bro-hug after the second day of workouts in West Virginia. Bill O’Brien and Bill Belichick made it clear there would be no fighting; O’Brien said if anyone did, he would immediately have been ejected from practice. O’Brien’s respect for his former mentor, Belichick, was such that he picked music (Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life,” Springsteen’s “Born to Run”) he knew Belichick would like to hear. The practices were profitable, intense and precisely what teams should aim for when joint practices are scheduled. I thought it was a great example of how teams can compete hard against each other during the regular season and playoffs and come together for work that benefits both in August.
“These last two days were all about the name of improvement for both teams, and I think everybody understood that,” J.J. Watt told me. “You don't get better when you go fight. You get better when you put good film on so you can learn from it and grow from it. These days were very, very good work in a very professional manner by two teams with a ton of respect for each other.”
5. I think it’s amazing how often the Pats and Texans have seen each other—particularly for teams not in the same division:
• Sept. 22, 2016: at Foxboro (regular season), New England 27, Houston 0.
• Jan 14, 2017: at Foxboro (postseason), New England 34, Houston 16.
• Aug. 15-16, 2017: at White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.: New England-Houston practices.
• Aug. 19, 2017: at Houston (preseason), Houston 27, New England 23.
• Sept. 24, 2017: at Foxboro (regular season).
In 53 weeks, that’s four games and two practices between two teams not in the same division. That’s amazing. And a fifth instance, with an asterisk: The Patriots won Super Bowl LI on Houston’s home field.
6. I think the NFL and NFLPA can snipe at each other all they want. It’s not going to affect the appeal to Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension. By the way, Elliott’s side had to be thrilled with the appointment of Harold Henderson as appeals officer in the case. The appeal will be heard Aug. 29. Henderson is the guy who reduced Greg Hardy’s Goodell-handed suspension from 10 games to four and clearly was the person neutral observers thought would give Elliott the best chance to see his suspension reduced or vacated.
• WHY A WORK STOPPAGE IS LIKELY: NFLPA boss DeMaurice Smith on the prospects for a strike or lockout in 2021
7. I think this Kathy Wise story in D Magazine is the most compelling thing I’ve read on the Elliott case. Whether you believe Elliott or his alleged victim, knowledge is power. You need to read this.
8. I think I see a couple of interesting books on the horizon, just in time for the football season. (I will have more to say, by the way, on the Dr. Z memoirs, which will be out imminently, next week.)
• Let’s start with Gary Myers’ book on the fathers of NFL passers: “My First Coach: Inspiring Stories of NFL Quarterbacks and Their Dads” (Grand Central Publishing). In so many cases, it’s the father who sees the talent in the son first, and the father who drives the son to early success. Myers finds a load of good stories in it. One of the ones I liked about John Elway and his dad Jack:
John’s father, Jack, was driving him to high school on the first day of football practice in ninth grade when he asked John what position he was going out for with the team. “Running back,” John said. Jack stopped the car, a ’68 Chevy Impala, and put it in park. Jack knew his son had a golden arm. John liked to carry the ball. They went back and forth for 15 minutes. By the time he got out of the car, John was a quarterback.
In 1982, when John played at Stanford and Jack was coaching at San Jose State, Stanford and San Jose State played in the second game of the season. John took the worst beating of his college career and lost 35-31. When Jack and John met up on the field after the game, Jack insisted he come home for dinner that night in San Jose. John just wanted to hang out with his friends in Palo Alto. Jack finally told him that John’s mother would not let him back in the house unless John was with him after the beating his team just gave her baby boy. John went home.
• I learned a lot about Al Davis that I didn’t know—and I’ve just skimmed some of the anecdotes—from “Al Davis: Behind the Raiders Shield,” (Rather Be Feared Publishing) by Bruce Kebric and Jon Kingdon, with Steve Corkran. Kebric and Kingdon are former Raiders scouts who worked for Al Davis, and Corkran is a longtime beat guy covering the team. This is the kind of cool content you’ll get in the book, a scene from after the devastating Tuck Rule loss to the Patriots when Davis was ruminating about Jon Gruden’s future as coach:
Not long after the New England game, Davis asked Kingdon: “Would you take a first-, third- and fourth-round draft picks for Gruden?”
“No,” Kingdon said. “We’re getting ready to go to a Super Bowl and Gruden’s a great coach. Why make a change like that?”
Davis, as always, had an answer. “He’s only going to stay for one more year, and then he’s going to leave,” Davis said.
“Fine, I’ll take the one year,” Kingdon said. “Maybe we can change his mind.”
Soon, Davis received a blockbuster offer from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “Al called me late one night,” Kebric said, “and he said, ‘I can get two ones and two twos for Gruden. Would you do it?’ I said, ‘I would trade Vince Lombardi for two ones and two twos.’ ”
Ultimately, the Raiders received a first-round and second-round pick in the 2002 draft, a 2003 first-rounder and a 2004 second-rounder, plus $8 million, from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This was a coup, in Davis’ mind, in relation to what other teams had received for trading coaches. Acquiring Bill Belichick from the New York Jets in 2000 cost New England a first-, a fourth-, a fifth- and two seventh-round selections, while the Jets had sent four of their draft picks, including a first-rounder, to the Patriots for the rights to Bill Parcells in 1997. Davis wanted more, but Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer refused to include perennial All-Pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp as part of the compensation.
Glazer held firm, and Sapp played an integral role in helping the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory over the Raiders in Gruden’s first season in Tampa.
9. I think you’ll be reading more in the coming weeks about the new Paul Zimmerman book, “Dr. Z: The Lost Memoirs of an Irreverent Football Writer” (Triumph Books). The publishing date is Sept. 1, and you can pre-order at Amazon or Barnes & Noble or IndieBound.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Op-Ed of the Week: From Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, about a man named Manuel Chaidez.
b. Baseball Story of the Week: From Eric Moskowitz, about a sickening thud that has stuck with me for 50 years.
c. Social Activism Story of the Week, by Master Tesfatsion of the Washington Post, on the lone vocal Richmond protester to the Washington team name. I have lots of admiration for Stephen Rivera, and not just because I agree with his stance on the team name. I admire him because he believes so strongly that he’ll stand against something day after day, even if he has to stand alone.
d. I missed this last week in the training camp blur. But it is so good: Kevin Clark of The Ringer on the lasting legacy of the 2007 Patriots. “There will be no dead route in this offense. Everything is live.” That’s Josh McDaniels’ 10-year-old lesson to then-Pat Donte’ Stallworth, as mined by Clark. Insightful stuff.
e. Sox-Yanks rivalry is back.
f. Chris Sale, 250 strikeouts in 25 starts. I’m no John Urschel, but that’s 10 Ks per start, and that doesn’t happen every day.
g. Coffeenerdness: Thanks to Starbucks in Greensburg, Pa., and in Oxnard, Calif., and in Napa, Calif., and in Green Bay and in St. Joseph, Mo., for welcoming me at dawn on several days of the camp trip, and for the oatmeal, which is an underrated part of their fare.
h. Beernerdness: I like the exotics, as you know, but during the final leg of the trip late last week, I did enjoy a couple Coors Banquet Beers (Coors Brewery, Golden, Colo.). That’s a good beer, particularly—for me, anyway—in the heat of August.
i. Good luck to Gregg Easterbrook on the return of Tuesday Morning Quarterback this week. I’ll be reading.
j. And no, MMQB and TMQB are not related. Not even distant cousins. TMQB (if you can believe this, stick-to-footballniks) has a tad more non-football stuff.
k. Loved this line by Jonathan Jones on our trip to The Greenbrier in West Virginia for Patriots-Texans practices: “It’s the Versailles of West Virginia.”
l. Good luck at Vermont, Dulcie Ulloa! Chuck will miss you. As will we.
m. Hello, eclipse.
The Adieu Haiku
Dr. Z book out.
You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll learn—lots.
Intro by Linda.
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