FMIA: Annual NFL Training Camp Tour Begins—And It’s Already In Jeopardy

NBC Sports

LAS VEGAS — I have led my football column with girls softball, and written way too many words about the death of my dogs, and the death of my brothers, but I must say this: I have never written about a “Jeopardy” contestant. And I certainly have never met my column subject at a Jack in the Box restaurant a few bounce passes from Jerry Tarkanian Way, 10 minutes west of the Las Vegas Strip.

James Holzhauer has had that effect on people over the past couple of months. We’re here because this Jack in the Box has a Coke Freestyle machine. (God, I’m old.) This machine has the diet grape soda Holzhauer loves, and he goes back for two refills in an hour. He’s a pretty simple man, ever after his 15 minutes of fame. It’s a placid hour for Holzhauer here, which has become rare for him. Holzhauer never was noticed, even in his adopted town of Vegas, till his magical two-month run on “Jeopardy,” when he won $2.46 million in 33 episodes. He started getting recognized in Prague, Barcelona and Lisbon because of his hot streak on the game show that’s been alive since before man walked on the moon. (True story: “Are you the Jeopardy guy?” he got asked on his European vacation in June. Several times.)

No one before or since ever won $100,000 on a “Jeopardy” episode. Holzhauer did it six times. He treated money unemotionally, and he had no fear about betting big at all times. Well, until his last bet, but there’s a story there, and I’ll get to that.

The NFL noticed.

“James Holzhauer? He’s awesome,” Aaron Rodgers told NBC’s Chris Simms recently. The Packers quarterback watches “Jeopardy” nightly.

The praise was cool for Holzhauer when I told him, but hardly overwhelming. “Aaron’s one of the best players ever on ‘Celebrity Jeopardy,’ for those who don’t watch,” Holzhauer said. “I know he’s a fan of the show. I’m a Bears fan though, so …”

The Lead: Holzhauer

As training camps open in full this week, I’ll detour to Holzhauer for a bit. You also come along on my tour of the new Raiders stadium in Las Vegas, with cool images from NBC Sports videographer Annie Koeblitz, then take you with me to Denver, for two days of Broncos training camp.

There’s a football element to Holzhauer, which is mostly why he’s in this space. He’s a big football bettor, and he’s so good at it that he’s got limits of how much he can put down on his bets at most Vegas sports books. So we talked “Jeopardy,” but we talked a lot of NFL too.

“If I had to pick a team or two to make it to the Super Bowl, win the Super Bowl, the boring answer is the Patriots and the Rams,” he told me, sitting a table away from an octogenarian couple. They were nibbling at chicken sandwiches before noon Sunday. “Everyone knows these guys are the best teams out there. But if you’re looking to invest in a futures ticket, I would say that the big thing to avoid is look away from the teams that have all the hype surrounding them. I can’t believe we live in a world where the Cleveland Browns are the most hyped team in the preseason. But I would say they’re probably the single worst bet to win the Super Bowl right now.”

Whoa.

Another story … I sat across the aisle from CBS broadcaster Andrew Catalon on my flight from Denver to Las Vegas late Saturday afternoon, and told him I was headed to Vegas to chat with Holzhauer. When I got off the plane, one of the Delta flight attendants said she overheard our conversation, and she was a big “Jeopardy” fan, and thought it was so cool that I’d have a chance to speak to him.

“Tell James we miss him,” the flight attendant said.

Apparently. The premier of “America’s Got Talent,” a pretty popular TV show, was seen bv 9.7 million viewers in late May. A week later, the climax Holzhauer episode—when he lost to a Chicago librarian in his final “Jeopardy” show—drew 14.5 million viewers. That’s more than watched a scintillating Chiefs-Broncos Monday-nighter in Week 3 last year, more than watched Brady-Luck on a Thursday night in Week 5 … and almost twice the audience of the Ravens-Chargers playoff-implication game on Saturday night in Week 16. I couldn’t look away. My brother-in-law, who is not a “Jeopardy” fan, somehow got hooked during the Holzhauer run and watched so intently that he’d call or text us after most episodes. All of it blew Holzhauer away.

Peter King and James Holzhauer on Sunday in Las Vegas. (NBC Sports)

“A lot of things in my life have changed,” he said. “I really underestimated how many people are paying attention to Jeopardy and what’s out there. I figured, maybe one in five, one in 10 people would recognize me. But no, it’s everywhere, especially in Las Vegas. I think the city’s kind of embraced me which is good. There’s a lot of attention on me which can be good, it can be bad. Sometimes my daughter’s acting up in public and I really wish I could become anonymous for a few minutes.”

On the show, I thought it was interesting to watch Holzhauer play the board from the bottom, making the big bets first instead of working up from easy to hard. It was cool to watch him bet absurd amounts all the time. “It’s a lot easier when it’s me doing the work than when I’m watching a player fumble away my bet at the last second,” he said. “You get the idea that money comes and goes especially in this line of work I’m in. I’m a pro sports gambler. You have winning days and you have losing days. But you know if you’ve got the right strategy, you’re going to get it in the end.

“I started taking the online tests to get on the show about 13 years ago. If they had called me that first year, honestly, I probably would’ve just been another forgettable contestant. As time went on, it kind of felt like, ‘Hey wait a minute. I only got one shot at this, maybe I need to really maximize that one shot.’ Do everything I can right. Take a little time, do my studying, know what I need to know and develop a really good game plan going in and just think, How would a gambler approach Jeopardy to maximize his winnings? That was basically how I was playing up there.”

On the last show, Holzhauer did something that appeared to be wholly uncharacteristic. He went light on his “Final Jeopardy” bet. “A modest one [bet] for the first time!” host Alex Trebek exclaimed. I was stunned too. I just figured, This guy’s human. He wanted to go back to his normal life. He’d won enough, and it was time for someone else.

Nope.

“Certainly not,” he said, cradling his diet grape soda. “I certainly did not want to lose. I would still be playing if they let me.”

Here’s how it went down: Entering “Final Jeopardy,” Emma Boettcher had $26,600, Holzhauer had $23,400 and Jay Sexton, the third contestant, had $11,000. If Holzhauer bet it all and won, Boettcher could beat him. He knew that. She knew that. She was really smart. He knew that too. So he set his sights on making sure no matter what, he would beat the third-place guy. Holzhauer bet $1,399 and America gasped. Well, America in the King living room, at least.

Holzhauer: “Some people said, ‘Oh you know, you couldn’t even have covered Emma if she’d bet zero.’ I thought there was a very low chance she was gonna bet zero in this spot. Even though she had never met me before this episode aired, she’d heard that I was a 32-time champion. She knew she was gonna have to shoot for the stars to beat me which is why she went big on those Daily Doubles bets [in ‘Double Jeopardy’]. And I thought to myself there was maybe like a 5 percent chance she’s not gonna bet big enough to cover me if I go all in. What I really need to worry about is the situation where she misses and then I need to worry that the third-place contestant isn’t gonna be able to double up and overtake me. The small bet was the way to protect against that. If I had gotten it right and Emma had gotten it wrong, and bet zero, then oh well. She played poker better than I did I guess.”

I said: “As I look at the science of it, if you had bet your max, you could’ve ended up at exactly $46,800. She ended up betting $20,201. So she ended up with $1 more than you could’ve won at your max.”

“Yeah,” he said.

“By her getting that, there was no way you could’ve beaten her anyway,” I said.

“Exactly. And you know, maybe there’s some small chance that she says, OK, this guy’s a pro gambler, maybe he knows that I would do this so maybe I should try to outfox him by making a small bet. But you know, 95 percent of the time, the player in first is gonna make that big bet and you just have to react accordingly.”

The Rams, the NFC’s No. 2 seed last season, reached the Super Bowl. (Getty Images)

Life goes on. And football betting goes on. One of the bets Holzhauer likes this year, and every recent year, is a futures bet on the two teams with the playoff byes. “If you dig deep into the numbers,” he said, “you can get an idea of which teams have the inside track at the bye weeks and the tiebreakers come into play. There are times where there’s a decent chance that two teams will end up tied for the second and third spot, but one team has the tiebreaker locked up and you don’t always see that reflected in the odds … The one seed, just by virtue of having to play only two home games, would win the conference about 35 percent of the time and make it to the Super Bowl. The two team makes it about 29 percent, and the three seed makes it like 11 percent. That’s just an enormous gap between the two and the three. At least the past five or six years, something like that, you keep seeing the one and two seeds advancing to the Super Bowl.”

One other thing: Bet on Sunday nights for the week ahead. “If they put the odds up for next week’s football games on a Sunday night, there’s not a lot of thought that goes into that,” he said. “But you give people a week to bet on this, the odds are going to be a lot more efficient.” Oh, and one other thing after that: Bet on college football. There’s not as much attention paid to those games.

Before he got his last diet grape refill at the Coke Freestyle machine, Holzhauer told me about the time in his life when he was told he couldn’t do something. And damn if he didn’t sound like a undrafted rookie who’d been doubted, and then rushed for 1,000 yards or caught 80 balls. Seriously: This line coming up made Holzhauer sound like Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay, ignored in the draft and then rushing for 1,037 yards as a rookie, ninth in the league last year.

“This is kind of a thing throughout my life,” Holzhauer said. “When I was 10, I got the, You’re wasting your time studying sports statistics. When I was 20, it was, You’re wasting your time gambling, playing poker.’ When I was 24, it was, You’re wasting your time gambling on sports. Then when I was 30, it’s, You’re wasting your time studying for Jeopardy. I hope I’ve proven all these things wrong.”

Camp Stop: Denver

10

Broncos: Englewood, Colo.
Saturday, July 20
Von Miller is the key to the Denver season

Late in the first padded practice of the year for the Broncos, Von Miller lined up on the defensive left edge, outside rookie tight end Noah Fant. Miller, suddenly 30, has always had a get-off stance similar to Lawrence Taylor’s, one foot back, leaning forward, threatening the inside but usually going outside, so you have to respect both. At the snap, he beat Fant outside and charged at rookie quarterback Drew Lock; it would have been sack in real life, but you don’t sack the quarterback in training camp. Next snap: Miller dropped three steps back into coverage, then pivoted quick and cut to his left, velcroing himself to an undrafted wideout, Romell Guerrier, in the slot. Lock, nothing there to his right, threw incomplete to the left side of the field.

The second play is more important to the 2019 Broncos, strangely enough.

The new coaching staff, led by pass-rush maestro Vic Fangio, has set out to make a very good player great at all things. Last year, Von Miller was not. He was sloppy. He got called for three encroachment penalties in the first half against the Niners late in the season and got yanked by coach Vance Joseph. PFF rated him the 16th-best edge-rusher in the game (low for him), 57th in coverage and 127th against the run. Numbers don’t lie. Miller was not a complete player last year. That was a significant factor in the Broncos sinking from third in team defense in 2017 to 22nd last year—and the dismissal of Joseph. Poll 32 offensive line coaches, and Miller might still be the most respected edge-rusher in the game. But in an era when edge-rush is all-important, it’s interesting to note that Miller, in eight seasons, has never won Defensive Player of the Year.

So why am I talking about blanket-covering Romell Guerrier in the slot? Because Fangio and his respected outside linebackers coach, Brandon Staley, are building Miller from the ground up, fundamental by fundamental. They know he can rush the passer, and know he can be better even at that. But they know he has to be better at the other aspects of the game, because he’s the defensive leader of the team, and other players follow him. If Miller’s working his footwork and his drops and coverage early in training camp, and that shows up at nighttime when practice tape gets dissected in front of the team, well, then Bradley Chubb and Derek Wolfe and all the new guys are going to see that and they’re going to work to be perfect too.

Broncos pass rusher Von Miller. (Getty Images)

After practice, I said to Miller I thought that coverage play was a good example of the re-made Miller—and the respect he must have for Fangio early on.

“A hundred percent,” said Miller. “Just do the job you’re asked to do, coached to do, every play.”

More Miller: “I got a great coach here, one of the best coaches I’ve ever had in my life. We have great leadership here but he’s an outside linebacker guy. He’s coached a lot of great ones. I wanna be his greatest product yet. It’s the little things, like coach Fangio says. When you really focus on the little things it turns into a change of game. It turns into a whole different athlete. I bought into that. I bought into my outside linebackers coach as well, Coach Staley. He stays up super late thinking about how to make me better … I can really appreciate that. I bought into whatever those coaching points that they give me.”

Like this one on encroachment/offside. Miller has liked to take chances at the snap to get a millisecond of an edge. A myth, Fangio told his team one day. We had 60 sacks with the Panthers in 1996 and we jumped offside four times all season.

“Every player is going to have an assignment and a technique on every play,” said Staley, a rising coach under Fangio who came from Chicago with him. “If you can master those two things, then your beautiful instincts can take over. What Vic has taught Von—and with Vic, you’re talking about the Bill Walsh of outside linebackers, he’s had Kevin Greene, Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Khalil Mack—is, ‘These are parts of your game we think can get better. And it will lead to more for you.’ That’s not a knock on Von. It’s a compliment. There’s another gear he can get to. And to Von’s credit, he has had a refreshing humility about being coached.”

Said Fangio: “Von’s been excellent, receptive from the beginning.”

The Broncos, coming off the 11-21 Joseph era, have been harped on by Fangio about the little things. Denver was seventh last year in turnover margin in the NFL; excellent, really, considering the top six made the playoffs. But the offense stumbled all season, and the lack of discipline on both sides (30th in penalties) crippled consistency. You’d think a defense with the bookend rush of Miller and Bradley Chubb and a secondary led by the great Chris Harris Jr., could make up for that, but they were 22nd in explosive plays allowed. Fangio watched tape of the season and couldn’t believe all the defensive breakdowns.

Fangio, getting acclimated to Denver over the past few months, has been to a few Nuggets and Rockies games. He loves talking to other coaches. Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce and his staff attended Saturday’s practice.

“The details of each sport need to be tended to,” Fangio said, asked about lessons from his baseball manager friends Bud Black and Joe Maddon, and those in other sports. “And there’s team organization, team morale, maintaining the structure of a team where the individual is promoted so much. I like watching all games. Seeing the other games just solidifies to me that fundamentals is what wins. In a basketball game, a guy doesn’t box out correctly, and the other team scores on a putback. Baseball, they miss a cutoff, a run scores, you lose by one and it’s a huge play. Fundamentals is ultimately what causes you to win and lose.

“I think the other thing, and this has really been the case with Von, is players want the truth. Joe Maddon told me: ‘If I tell the truth to a player and he doesn’t like it, he’s gonna be mad for a couple days. If I lie to the player and he figures that out, he’s going to be mad at me forever.’ And rightfully so. We’re in this business to make people better, not gloss over things.”

At practice Saturday, the Denver radio host/FOX broadcaster/former NFL guard Mark Schlereth looked out at Miller during practice on a broiler of a Colorado morning. “I’ll make this prediction: Von’s sack numbers will go down, but he’ll be a better player at everything, and he’ll open it up for other guys on the defense. Derek Wolfe could have a career year with Von and Chubb being better at the total game. Von is like the Matrix; the things he can do athletically are not of this world. But now what I think Vic has done is impress on him that there’s no more freelancing. If one guy on the defense freelances, he f—- us all. Plus, we have to get out of this business of equating sacks with total success of a pass-rusher. It’s nonsense. Von can get 12 sacks and be the best pass-rusher in the league—playing the right way, he opens it up for 10 guys to make plays, and for this to be a complete defense.”

It’s a balancing act for Miller, who told me he wants to break Bruce Smith’s all-time sack record. Interesting numbers:

  • Bruce Smith, after his eighth NFL season, had 92 sacks entering his age-30 season. He finished his career with 200 sacks.
  • Miller, after his eighth NFL season, has 98 sacks entering his age-30 season.

So Smith got 108 sacks after his 30th birthday. “That’s encouraging, definitely encouraging,” Miller told me—but he also said he, like Fangio, is not going to make proclamations. Miller has become friends with Smith, who came to Miller’s Pass Rush Summit this year and spilled everything he had for Miller.

Ask those who have played with Miller and those who coach him now, and they’ll tell you he likes to be coached, and coached hard. If Miller takes it all in, Denver will be far better on defense, and the pressure on Joe Flacco to lead an explosive offense will be lessened. Miller knows what’s on his shoulders. It’s only the pressure of the 2019 Broncos season. He’s okay with that. Just a gut feeling here: Miller’s smart; he majored in Poultry Sciences at Texas A&M and has a big chicken/turkey production facility in Texas. He had a good presence at the Kentucky Derby doing TV for NBC with Dylan Dreyer on the network’s pre-race show. He gets it, though, that he needs to keep the big thing the big thing.

“I do a lot of stuff good,” Miller told me, “but the thing I do best is play football.” Fangio’s counting on that.

Raiders Stadium

I toured the Raiders’ new stadium site Sunday morning and learned much about the difficulties of building a stadium in the heatbox of southern Nevada, and about the interesting wrinkles of this stadium. The structural steel is in place; in fact, when you drive north on I-15 from the airport, the specter of the stadium just to the west of the interstate changes the skyline significantly. It seems amazing that there will be football in this place in 13 months, but I was assured the stadium would be done in time for the 2020 season. Some 200 workers were on the job at 10 a.m. Sunday, as the temperature inched into the high nineties.

A few notes of interest:

• There are 1,700 construction workers on the job, working two shifts most days. The first shift starts at 5:30 a.m. and runs till mid-afternoon. The second shift starts at 4:30 p.m. and runs till about 2 a.m. Most of the concrete is poured at night and not in summertime months because it’s too hard to set when temperatures are into the low hundreds most days.

• The stadium will be domed by a semi-translucent roof and the playing surface will be natural grass. Lots of attention has been paid to the semi-translucent roof. Raiders owner Mark Davis wanted natural light to flow through the covering of the stadium, both for more outdoors-looking visuals and because he insisted on real grass. As with the Cardinals’ stadium in suburban Phoenix, the grass will slide in and out of the stadium on trays, and sit just west of the stadium. The experience in Arizona, and with so many golf courses that bake for five or six months a year here have left stadium management confident that real grass can be used year round in the building.

• I wondered how, for an early September 1 p.m. PT game where the temperature outside could be 108, the fans in large swaths of the stadium would be able to sit in comfort with the sun shining down on them. I was told 9,000 tons of cooling would help. The roof will also have other elements to block significant portions of solar radiation, and the seating areas should have temperatures in the seventies even with full attendance on the sunniest and hottest days.

• The Al Davis Memorial Torch, a 90-foot-high structure with an eternal flame that Mark Davis wanted built to honor his late father, the founder of the Raiders, is taking shape in the peristyle plaza on the east side of the stadium. That’s sure to be the signature TV shot in the early days of the stadium.

• UNLV will play its football games here too, as will the Las Vegas Bowl, and the city will push for a Super Bowl in the next round of bidding for the game.

Fans Roar About Camp

20

There is one defense for teams staying in their home facilities instead of opening up their training camps in nearby road sites, so fans can meet and greet players, and watch practices. “Because we’re so limited in the amount of time we can practice,” Denver coach Vic Fangio told me the other day, “I understand when teams say they’ve got to be able to have the ability to go inside in case of bad weather.” But, Fangio said upon the opening of Broncos camp, he’s an unabashed fan of opening camp to fans—and would be even if Denver didn’t have a state-of-the-art indoor facility.

Please, please, please—every NFL coach, every NFL GM, every NFL owner should read these words from Fangio:

“I think it’s good to have the fans out here. One of the things that has driven the NFL to it being the most popular sport in the country is that you let people come and watch practice, people that maybe can’t afford to go to a game, and maybe get an autograph from a player. Maybe a player shakes their hand or throws them a sweatband or a glove. You do that with a young person, you have a fan for life and football has a fan for life. There’s more to be gained by that than any advertising slogan or any commercial you put on TV. So I think it’s a good thing, and I’ll embrace it, the players will embrace it. I wish there could be more [fans] here. But I think about half or less of the NFL teams now don’t go to college campuses and don’t have the wherewithal to have people at their facilities to watch practices, and I think that’s a little bit of a negative.”

I think it’s more than a little bit of a negative. It’s a huge negative. These teams sealing themselves in hermetic jars in training camp might be good for controlling coaches and keeping all technology in place is bad for their brands and bad for the game, and very bad for connections with fans. I asked fans to share their favorite camp memories, and I picked these from a flood of emailed responses:

• From Titans camp: I coach a Special Olympics flag football team here in the Nashville area.  Every year I take a small group of my players to a Titans camp. After practice in 2017, my group was allowed to go on the field and talk to any player that was still out there. Marcus Mariota was there so I decided to introduce him to my guys. The last one I introduced as our QB and joked that he had to wear a red vest when we practiced just like the pros. To that, Marcus replied, “Then you need this,” and proceeded to peel off his red jersey, autograph it and give it to my guy. An incredible moment for my players. —John Wilson, Nashville

• From Packers camp: Back in the early nineties, I was one of about 25 kids who showed up to two-a-days with the Packers to give players a ride on my bike. For my friends and me, that was our summer job. My favorite summer of “working” for the Packers was when I met Keith Neubert, a fringe tight end brought in for training camp. I let him ride my bike to and from practice every day.  At the end of every practice, Keith would walk into the locker room and get me a cup of Gatorade for all my hard work.  Every kid at practice lived for that cup of Gatorade. We all sat around after practice sipping our Gatorade like we just worked an eight-hour shift at the local mill.  I still remember where I was when I found out Keith didn’t survive cut down day, sitting in my bedroom listening to the radio. The DJ announced the players the Packers were releasing, and unfortunately Keith was on the list. Just the day before, Keith had given me the Packers wrist bands he wore at practice along with a couple rolls of ankle tape. After that year, I would still give rides to players during Packers practice, but nothing beat that year with Keith. —Steve Rykoski, Green Bay

Peyton Manning with fans at Broncos camp in 2012. (Special to NBC Sports)

• From Broncos camp: It was the Broncos’ first training camp with Peyton Manning as their QB in 2012, and I was sitting in the front couple of rows on the grassy hill observing practice. During a break, Manning came over to our section and asked if anyone was thirsty. (Note to self: When Peyton asks if you’re thirsty, find a reason to be.) Everyone was pleading for Manning to pick them, and he walked over and reached over my head with a Gatorade bottle, giving a drink to a thirsty young fan—with a catch. Manning told the kid he had to chug it and put the bottle bottoms-up if he really wanted it. The kid, of course, agreed. He whipped the bottle up over his head and squeezed, and the cap came shooting off and water drenched the kid. Manning and everyone watching had a good laugh. The kid was a champ about it. Manning ended up giving him one of his wristbands for being such a good sport. He got to keep the bottle, too.” —Sayre Bedinger, Omaha

• From Jets camp: “I was with my family at Jets training camp at Hofstra in 1997 or 1998. We’re die-hard fans. I was 16 or 17. I was wearing my trusty Wayne Chrebet jersey, and he was my favorite player. Wayne’s from Jersey, and of course went to Hofstra, and my dad recognized his parents sitting in the bleachers. I stalked his parents around the complex for a while, building up the nerve to ask them to see if he could sign my jersey. I finally did it, and they could not have been nicer. I ripped the jersey right off my back, and gave it to them. They went and found him, and he not only signed it, but personalized it to me. One of the best days of my young life. I still have the jersey. I’m 38 now, and my wife accidentally washed it several years ago. The ink is pretty faint, but it’s still there. “To Brian, Best Wishes, Wayne Chrebet.” —Brian Adamowsky, Snohomish, Wash.

• From Steelers camp: For three straight summers, 1975 to 1977, I attended basketball camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, where the Steelers simultaneously held cap. So the $90-per-week fee (dorm and cafeteria meals included) was the best bargain ever, a dream vacation at the height of the Steelers Dynasty. Access to the players was unreal. We shared a cafeteria with the team, stayed in an adjacent dorm, scrounged the fields after practice for left behind shirts and equipment, and played games of HORSE in the gym with players. We had a mission of getting an autograph from every player in camp. Some players were elusive. Terry Bradshaw, in disguise, would have someone pick him up in a car behind his dorm and deliver him to the back of the cafeteria for lunch, a distance of probably 300 yards. But we sniffed him out and got his autograph, and he complimented us on our sleuthing abilities. One day Mel Blount lifted me up to his eye level and said, “You want my autograph little guy?” and happily obliged. Jon Kolb told us the team wanted him to gain weight by making him eat four ice cream sandwiches after each meal. We made a deal to take a few of those ice cream sandwiches off his hands each day. Basketball was secondary. By week’s end I had a full autograph book and stories I will never forget. —Gary Kissinger, Pittsburgh

• From Saints camp: The Saints had camp in Jackson, Miss., when I was 9 years old and my little brother was 7. We were so excited to have Saints training camp where we lived in Jackson. We went almost every day over our summer vacation. One day I brought a Joe Horn rookie trading card for Joe—a star wide receiver—to sign after practice, and when I finally got up to him he was so excited to see the rookie card. But he was hesitant to sign it, which confused us. This was the only trading card of himself that he didn’t have. So he offered to trade me his black Nike cleats for the card so he could complete his collection. As a 9-year-old, this was easy business. We talked, and he treated me like I was an equal which was so cool … especially at my age. —Alex Wilson, Jackson, Miss.

• From Vikings camp: I took my wife and daughter to Vikings training camp in 2015, when it was in Mankato, Minn. My wife was a Bears fan and unfortunately had been winning the battle to this point on where our daughters fandom was heading. This was the first time both my daughter and wife had attended with me. An Adrian Peterson high-five and an autograph by rookie MyCole Pruitt had my daughter hooked—she was a Vikings fan. My wife even left that day wearing a brand-new Vikings shirt she had purchased! Unfortunately for me, she got one look at safety Andrew Sendejo and said, “Who is that?!” She couldn’t stop staring at Sendejo the rest of the day. Thanks to AP, Pruitt and Sendejo’s physique, I converted the whole family that day! My daughter is now 10 and has her Stefon Diggs jersey she loves wearing on game days and jersey days at school. —Joe Allen, Watertown, Minn.

Quotes of the Week

I

“Based on the evidence presently available, the NFL cannot conclude that Mr. Hill violated the Personal Conduct Policy.”

—The NFL’s ruling on Friday that Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill will not be suspended after a case in which his 3-year-old son suffered a broken arm and Hill was heard on tape telling his fiancée that she should be terrified of him.

II

“He’s poised to be a Chief for a long time.”

—Terez Paylor, former Chiefs beat man for the Kansas City Starand now of Yahoo Sports, reporting that the Chiefs are interested in signing Tyreek Hill to a long-term contract extension.

III

“Those guys set foot [on the moon] for us astronauts to keep striving and to be the best we can be every day.”

—Denver pass-rusher Bradley Chubb, a space freak whose Twitter handle is “@Astronaut,” on Saturday, the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.

IV

“He wants to be surrounded by people who love him and allow him to be himself. He’s here to play in front of fans who actually care.”

—Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield, to ESPN.com, doing a not-so-subtle rip job on the Giants and Giants fans in defense of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

I mean, come on. I get defending your new teammate against all the evil monsters out there in the football world. But please. Enough with the it’s-everybody’s-fault-but-Odell’s.

That’s a good and enlightening story—by Mina Kimes—about Mayfield, by the way. That one quote is just silly.

V

“He’s a hard-throwing pitcher who doesn’t know how to pitch yet.”

—Denver coach Vic Fangio, on second-round quarterback Drew Lock, who has started camp quite shaky.

The Profile

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A new weekly look at a different side of an NFL person.

Solomon Thomas • San Francisco defensive end • Photographed in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Thomas’ older sister Ella killed herself on Jan. 18, 2018 in Texas, and he has since become a leading advocate for suicide prevention. Suicide numbers in America have increased every year since 1999. An average of 130 people a day (80 percent men) kill themselves; it’s the second-leading cause of death for people 10-to-34-years-old.

“If I can keep my sister alive through this work, that’s my goal. My main motivation in talking about this is to change the culture, especially for men, in mental health. We use phrases in society like, ‘Man up,’ or ‘Get over it,’ and we suppress real feelings. I want to tell people it’s okay to be emotional, it’s okay to be sad. Be who you are. You can’t push away depression; you’ve got to deal with it. You can’t cure depression with money. Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain showed us that.

“For a long time last season, I was in a dark place. [Niners GM] John Lynch approached me during the season and asked if I needed help, and I did. So often I felt like I was helpless, like I was running in sand. So I started seeing a therapist. I still see her. She’s taught me how to be a better version of myself, so to speak. How to grow. How to not have so much self-doubt. One of my messages is It’s okay to reach out. It’s okay to not be okay. It’s been huge for me.

“My teammates have told me they’ve been seeing a different side of me now. Now I feel more comfortable showing exactly who I am every day, no matter how I feel. Ella had such a passion for living, for giving. I think she would be proud of me. At least I hope she would.”

If you’re having suicidal thoughts or severe depression, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK.

Numbers Game

It was notable last week that the Madden NFL 20 game gave four players a near-perfect rating of 99: Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, Bobby Wagner and DeAndre Hopkins. Donald is a no-brainer, Mack nearly one, Wagner as consistent a player as there is in football, and Hopkins—well, I dug into him a bit, and I love the honor bestowed by the Madden people. Hopkins is real, and he’s spectacular.

Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. (Getty Images)

Let’s compare Hopkins to the all-world Julio Jones. The raw numbers paint a slight edge for Jones in 2018:

Jones: 113 catches, 1,677 yards, eight touchdowns, 104.8 receiving yards per game.
Hopkins: 115 catches, 1,572 yards, 11 touchdowns, 98.3 receiving yards per game.

The deeper numbers, per PFF:

• Jones dropped eight passes. Hopkins dropped none, which, since PFF began keeping official drop stats in 2006, was the most sure-handed season by far a receiver has had. No receiver in the last 13 years has 110 or more catches and zero drops in a season.

• Hopkins saw a “catchable but inaccurate” pass thrown his way 46 times in 169 total targets (27.2 percent of his targets), and he caught 35—meaning he caught 76 percent of all catchable but difficult passes. Jones had far fewer “catchable but inaccurate” balls thrown to him, just 23, and caught 14 of them. That’s 61 percent of balls caught by Jones on challenging throws.

What does it mean? Hopkins had a tougher job catching balls from Deshaun Watson than Jones had in dealing with Matt Ryan, and Hopkins did a more efficient job on the tough catches than Jones.

So Hopkins had far fewer drops than Jones, and he made far more tough catches.

Case closed: The best wide receiver in football in 2018 was Hopkins, and the Madden game recognized it.

Factoidness

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I

The ninth-leading rusher in the NFL in 2018, Denver’s Phillip Lindsay, still lives at home with his parents in Denver. I talked to him about it the other day, and he seems quite content with the arrangement. Hard to imagine there are many players with more self-assuredness and presence than Lindsay, the undrafted rookie in 2018 from Colorado who went on to rush for 1,037 yards last fall, more than Melvin Gordon, David Johnson and Alvin Kamara.

II

Robbie Gould is more accurate kicking field goals than extra points over his two years as a San Francisco 49er.

You can look it up: In 2017 and 2018, Gould is 72 of 75 (.960) on field goals, 55 of 59 (.932) on PATs.

Gould is truly one of the most underrated player stories in the NFL. He’s missed one of his last 56 field-goal tries (from 45 yards, wide right, into a 15-mph crosswind in Santa Clara last Oct. 7). He’s missed three field goals in his last 45 NFL games. I would argue that no kicker has ever been as consistent over a four-year run as Gould has been from 2015 to 2018.

King of the Road

I

I have been traveling for work for 39 years, and I had a first at the start of this camp tour.

Last week in the northeast, from Thursday through the weekend, was hell. Thursday was windy and stormy. Friday through Sunday had heat index temperatures between 105 and 110. So Delta flight 834, Laguardia to Denver, 6:05 p.m. departure, was endangered from the start.

Delay till 6:35. Delay till 6:50. Delay till 8:30. We boarded, and the uber-nice and courteous pilot twice came on and said we were in trouble and we were going to try to find a window to get out, and finally, around 8:25, he announced the flight was cancelled, and we would be flying in the morning. We queued up at the gate and got taxi vouchers from Delta, and I prepared to leave the airport to go home and wait for word on the Delta app for flight time Friday morning. Bummer. I really wanted to see the Broncos practice twice, but it wasn’t to be.

I told my videographer on the trip, Annie Koeblitz, I hadn’t eaten since noon, and I wanted to grab a quick bite in the airport before we left for the night, so she came with me and we got a bite at Crust in the D terminal. Midway through the quick bite, I get a ping on my phone, from Delta. The flight was now schedule for 9:50 p.m. I went to the gate, and someone in line said, We all got that, false alarm, we’re not going anywhere tonight.

So I went to finish eating. Then I got pinged by Delta again. Flight 834 is now boarding. Lord. So I went to the gate and sure enough, we boarded … and the plane was half-full at most. Turns out most everyone trusted Delta and Laguardia when told, Go home for the night. We’ll fly tomorrow. That never happened to me, a pilot telling us the flight was off and go home and we’ll see you tomorrow, and two hours later we’re in the air. I still have no idea what happened.

P.S. Landed in Denver at about 12:30 mountain time. Turned on my phone. Mets-Giants, 1-1 in the 14th. I pull up the MLB app and got the game on my iPhone. Waiting for bags, I saw Pete Alonso hit a solo shot in the top of the 16th. Pulling into the Hertz lot, I saw the Giants rally for two in the bottom of the 16th.

Bed, Marriott TownePlace Suites, 1:45 MT (3:45 on my clock).

Travel fever! Catch it!

II

Las Vegas, Hertz rental car dashboard, 6:37 p.m. PT Saturday: 106 degrees.

But it’s a dry heat.

The Best. The Worst

50

What’s your best habit, Joe Flacco?

“My best habit is being disciplined, and showing my kids that being disciplined is really important, and showing them continuously that having discipline is a very important trait.

And your worst?

“My worst habit is I whistle. My wife can’t stand that. I’m in the car, and we’re singing along with the songs, and I’m piercing everybody’s ears by whistling. My wife really hates that.” 

Tweets of the Week

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V

10 Things I Think I Think

40

1. I think this is what I cannot understand in the Tyreek Hill case. There is a broken arm suffered by his 3-year-old son, and there’s an accusation on a recording from his fiancée that Hill abused his son, and there is this quote from Hill to his fiancée: “You need to be terrified of me too, bitch.” There is a murkiness to it all, and we don’t know who is telling the truth, and the local authorities are not entirely forthcoming, and there is a he-said, she-said tinge to the entire story. But this entire episode is not worth some sanction by the league? Even if it’s only because of his ominous threat against the woman? How does Ezekiel Elliott get six games for his he-said, she-said domestic violence incidence and Hill skates because of his? I know nothing of the evidence. But the inconsistency of the two rulings, and of Hill getting nothing, cries out for an explanation. It just doesn’t feel right. At all.

2. I think the NFL is probably right in bringing back the culprit officials from the blown non-interference call in the NFC title game. Side judge Patrick Turner and down judge Gary Cavaletto are on the league’s 122-official roster for the 2019 season, and participated in the league’s season-opening officials symposium in Dallas last weekend. When I asked NFL vice president of officiating Al Riveron about the two men, and whether he or the league had considered replacing them or disciplining them for the blown call, he said, basically not at all—that they’re good officials, playoff officials, who had a good season and simply erred on a big call. Riveron: ‘Our officials are evaluated on every play. They’re judged on 15 or 16 [regular-season] games, 157 plays per game [on average]. Not only are they evaluated when they put a flag down, but when they don’t. These officials graded close to the top at their positions. We made a mistake [on the non-interference call], no doubt about it. Unfortunately it happened. But no, at no time did I consider not bringing them back.”

3. I think that’s the right call—but I would also say if they’re in the playoffs next winter, Turner and Cavaletto better have had near-flawless regular seasons this year.

49ers kicker Robbie Gould. (Getty Images)

4. I think that’s the first win of the season for Niners GM John Lynch, staying the course with kicker Robbie Gould (arguably the best kicker in football over the past two years) and convincing Gould to stay out west on a four-year contract. Gould, as you read, wanted to play only near his family in the Midwest, but Lynch and Niners worked at it and convinced Gould stay in San Francisco. At 36, Gould is a risk on a four-year deal, but there’s no way the Niners couldn’t go the extra couple of miles to sign their best offensive weapon over the last two seasons.

5. I think I wonder what the enlightened players in the Patriots’ locker room, particularly those like Devin McCourty who do a lot of work with social causes and the Players Coalition, really think of owner Robert Kraft cozying up to President Trump.

6. I think I get that Kraft is trying to moderate Trump—and he really is—but the optics of him dining with Trump have to reverberate in his locker room. And I get that Kraft has done a load of good things recently in the wake of the day spa fiasco in south Florida. He’s on the right side of sentencing reform. He’s been very supportive of linebacker Elandon Roberts after his incident with police this offseason. All that’s good. I just wonder what the players really think of Kraft’s ties to Trump.

7. I think I’d love to see you somewhere on my camp tour this summer. My current schedule of stops, beginning this week:

Driving portion
July 25: Jets, Florham Park, N.J.
July 26: Ravens, Owings Mills, Md.
July 27: Eagles, Philadelphia.
July 28: Panthers, Spartanburg, S.C.
July 29: Falcons, Flowery Branch, Ga.
July 30: Bucs, Tampa.
July 31: Dolphins, Davie, Fla.
Aug. 1: Jaguars, Jacksonville.
Aug. 2: Saints, Metairie, La.
Aug. 3: Travel/writing/sanity day
Aug. 4: Colts, Westfield, Ind.
Aug. 5: Texans-Packers joint practice, Green Bay.
Aug. 6: Browns, Berea, Ohio.
Aug. 7: Steelers, Latrobe, Pa.

Flying portion
Aug. 11: Cardinals, Glendale, Ariz.
Aug. 12: Raiders, Napa, Calif.
Aug. 13: 49ers, Santa Clara, Calif.
Aug. 14: TBD (Rams/Cowboys)
Aug. 15: Seahawks, Renton, Wash.
Aug. 16: Saints-Chargers joint practice, Costa Mesa, Calif.
Aug. 17/18: Travel/writing days.
Aug. 19: Chiefs, Kansas City.

We have a landing page for all the content too. We’ll have some fun along the way. I’m throwing out the first pitch at a Pensacola Blue Wahoos game in Florida on Aug. 1, and there will be other mayhem I’m certain. I’ll be assisted by videographers Annie Koeblitz, Nicole Granito and Kaitlin Urka of NBC. We’ll be videotaping for a four-part TV series beginning in August (details TBA) on NBC Sports Network. We already had good times in Denver and Las Vegas over the weekend, and I hope to meet as many of you as we can over the next month. The 10 teams I’ll miss … I hope to get to them later in the summer or early in the fall.

8. I think we will never see anything like this again: Tom Brady and Bill Belichick start their 20th training camp together Thursday. Coach and player, together 20 years, with 19 as premier coach and premier player. Amazing. What happens first—DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak gets broken, or some coach and QB last 20 years (or more) together?

9. I think there aren’t many frontiers that haven’t been mined for information in the pro football media world, but you’ll be seeing a new thing this month. Russell Wilson and a production crew, West2East Empire, covered in a three-part series Wilson and his receivers doing a pre-training camp “camp” near Wilson’s off-season home in San Diego.

I screened the first of three episodes, and it’s Wilson running his 13 teammates (most of them rookies or first-year guys) through workouts, meetings and basketball (D.K. Metcalf’s got a nice outside shot from the corner) on day one of the camp. Wilson knows he’s got a raw crew, and he tries, in one meeting that’s shown, to convey the urgency of off-the-field study. “Who are you studying [at your position]?” he asks. “If you’re not studying, you’re not learning.” If I were them, I’d be studying the retired Doug Baldwin, and trying to see what made him so good for so long.

10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:

a. So happy for my good friend Don Banks, hired by the Las Vegas Review-Journal as its NFL writer and columnist. What a great call. Nevada’s lucky to be getting a guy with great contacts and so much left to give. And to write.

b. RIP, Mike Maser, Tony Boselli’s line coach for his Jaguars career. Maser was a good one.

c. Podcast of the Week: “Silencing Science,” from the Reveal series, a weekly show from the Center for Investigative Reporting. It’s not pleasant to hear how we’re blatantly ignoring the changes to our climate, but it’s real, and this is an insightful look.

d. You go, Dan LeBatard.

e. Football Story of the Week: Kent Baab of the Washington Post on DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFLPA, as he heads into negotiating season with the league over a new CBA. “I’m kind of wired to be combative,” Smith tells Baab in a strong and real self-analysis.

f. Story of the Week: An amazing tick-tock of the fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, and how close it came to completely collapsing during the dreadful inferno this year.

g. TV story of the week: NBC’s Jimmy Roberts on “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, and how stunning it was to see the British Open played there this year.

h. Investigation of the Week: Great Washington Post work by writers Joel Achenback, Lenny Bernstein, Robert O’Harrow Jr., and Shawn Boburg on the scourge of opioids in America.

i. What a damning piece. “The origin, evolution and astonishing scale of America’s catastrophic opioid epidemic just got a lot clearer. The drug industry—the pill manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers—found it profitable to flood some of the most vulnearable communities in America with billions of painkillers.”

j. Billions. With a “B.”

k. Imagine this: the pill industry shipped 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pills across the U.S. from 2006 to 2012. How is it possible for an adult population of about 250 million to consume that many painkillers?

l. I don’t mind all the home runs in baseball. In fact, I like them.

m. I don’t mind all the strikeouts either.

n. Baseball’s a cyclical game. And when teams build stadia (Camden Yards and particularly the right-field porch at Yankee Stadium), you’re going to see fly balls by powerful men be home runs. I suppose the balls might be easier to hit for homers, which I don’t like. But the home runs themselves, unless they’re the pop-up variety that make a mockery of homers, don’t bother me much. Same rules for both teams.

o. Boston has changed from an offense led by Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez to one keyed by Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts … and both of the latter might end up with better offensive seasons than Betts and Martinez, who battled for the A.L. MVP last year.

p. Coffeenerdness: Whoa. I’ve found my training camp tour, afternoon-pick-me-up drink. It’s the Starbucks iced caramel cloud macchiato, with an extra shot. Had one at the Vegas airport Saturday. Perfect combo of a little bit sweet, a lot espresso.

q. Beernerdness: Moped Blood Orange Witbier (New Image Brewing, Arvada, Colo.) was recommended to me Friday at a beer store near Broncos camp. Glad I found it. So fresh, with a hint of citrus and strongly hopped. Drank it while watching the sun set (hope you get to see that one on NBC Sports Network) in the foothills of the Rockies on Friday night.

The Adieu Haiku

Camp time. Forty-five
days till Rodgers-Mack, and till
LaFleur feels big heat.

16 responses to “FMIA: Annual NFL Training Camp Tour Begins—And It’s Already In Jeopardy

  1. Peter, thanks for visiting my town Las Vegas. Just to let non Las Vegas people know, Jerry Tarkanian Way is a frontage road for one of our freeways. The Raider stadium is coming in nicely.

    One question Peter, would you rather have 103 degrees at 6:42 pm with 7% humidity or 98 degrees with 70% humidity? I would take the dry heat any day.

  2. Peter, on August 8th Cincinnati would love to see one of its former Sons return home. To further help you with the logistics, their 8/8 practice at Paul Brown Stadium starts at 1500 hrs, so you wouldn’t have to leave Pittsburgh till 0900 that AM. And I know as a former Queen City resident, you will want to leave there ASAP. Sorry had to add that in. Who Dey

  3. zultimatefan says:

    One question Peter, would you rather have 103 degrees at 6:42 pm with 7% humidity or 98 degrees with 70% humidity? I would take the dry heat any day.

    —————

    Not too many places have 98/70 for long periods. A few hours a day in July in Miami?

    As a former pitcher, I’ll take the humidity. Nothing makes a ball move more consistently than humidity. Wind gently in your face is nice. But wind generally is a pitch to pitch thing. I think the PCL is plagued by HR’s because of the dry heat.

    Just an observation. 3 showers a day is a pain. At the same time, touching your car in 117 degree dry heat hurts too. Cold weather sucks too. I guess that’s why they call Santa Barbara the ‘American Riviera’ 🙂

  4. Who cares what the players think about Kraft and Trump, it’s none of their business. Kraft is an individual also who has a right to his beliefs and opinions.

  5. I know the 18 game season is controversial, but has anyone polled season ticket holders (as opposed to fans in general)? As a long time season ticket holder, I can tell you it sucks to pay for those awful pre-season games. I don’t know a season ticket holder who wouldn’t vote for an 18 game season –since we are paying regardless. Perhaps its better to keep it at 16, but only if they get rid of 2 preseason games, or quit making season ticket holders pay for them.

  6. I think that the Pat’s locker room is pleased with Kraft’s association with Trump. The players seem to have a great relationship with Kraft and having an opportunity to be one degree separate from POTUS can be a good thing. Most people up here know Kraft is a registered Democrat and I think that softens any concerns for hard line support.

  7. Thanks, Mr. King, for your coverage of the Packers tradition of the players riding back to the stadium from practice. Years ago I saw a report on television of this practice. The Rev. Reggie White was featured riding a very small bike probably for an 8-year-old. His knees were practically up by his elbows, and he was wearing an unbelievably big smile. How great that you brought that to mind. Thanks for the memory!

  8. 3 things I think:

    – how are people disagreeing with Fezaz above? Every ST holder would agree

    – make it a 3 game pre-season: 1 home game, 1 away game and 1 at a neutral site; make the regular season 17 games with the extra game in Week 9 at the same place as the neutral site pre-season game with the same teams

    – why publicize the officials names who made the bad calls? What next, home addresses?

  9. Good morning Peter,

    I followed you for years, even before mmqb, and never felt compelled to write you until now. Could you please, please talk to Eagles’ management about the way they are messing up training camps? As a transplanted Pa native, how did I get my kids off the local Ravens and Redskins? Lehigh of course. After the 2012 camp, Foles’ rookie year, where they saw Lesean up close, talked to and loved Jon Dorenbos, they became Eagles fans for life. For years, the girls would watch just to see #46. When they moved back to Novacare, the limited seatings/tickets made it so much harder. Now, down to one? Of all the right things the Eagles and their players (who I am very proud of) done over the last few years, this is just plain wrong. Seriously, have we became the Pats?

    Thank you Peter and let me note that the main reason that I’ve always enjoyed reading your columns is the “side stuffs”, your daughters growing up, Dr. G, Sgt. Mike, all making you so human, like all of us 🙂

    Have a nice day Peter.

  10. Peter – A person should not be judged on who the associate with (Kraft-Trump). If you publicly pick a side (social media for that matter) then you have lost half your friends. The rule at my house before you enter is no talk of politics or religion during your stay. Just have a great time.

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