SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Very impressed with Cam Newton on Sunday. Very impressed. Impressed with his real talk with the hard-core fans during training-camp practice breaks in the end zone near the woods on the Wofford College practice field. Impressed with a couple of 35ish-yard completions (one with a little mustard to darting wideout Curtis Samuel), in his third real football practice since his January rotator-cuff cleanout arthroscopy. Impressed that his mechanics and form look more precise and practiced. And impressed that, at age 30 and with a warning shot (the surgery) about his mortality fresh in his mind, he’s moving to the next phase of what still could be a dominant run for him.
This is one of the things that impressed me in a post-practice conversation: He doesn’t think he has to be Cam Superman anymore. (I’ll explain why he’s absolutely right.) He may be a different quarterback than he’s ever been—maybe; I’m certainly not sure of that—but the answer to a question about his arm strength speaks volumes about where Newton is right now.
I asked: “Do you worry that you’ll never have the fastball you had, let’s say, in 2016?”
“This is what I do know,” Newton said, sounding placid. “You can look back at any type of player. You can look back at any type of sport and as a player grows, your game has to change. I remember reading and seeing a lot of clips about Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Brett Favre, even Peyton Manning to a degree. When you get old, you have to change certain things. It kind of keeps you young. I actually look forward to it. I embrace this whole process because it’s made me feel like a rookie again. Learning certain things, learning new mechanics, focusing on the little nuances of playing a quarterback position and trying to master it. So at this point in my career, it’s not about velocity. It’s not about throwing a ball 70 yards. It’s about efficient football that’s gonna win football games.”
That’s part of why this was such an educational day at Panthers training camp.
I’ll dive into my other early stops on the camp tour—Carson Wentz’s happiness, how the very new-look Ravens are looking like the Astros of the NFL, and Le’Veon Bell’s challenge with the Jets—and you’ll hear about Mark Ingram’s lingering NFC Championship Game resentment, an underrated NFL power figure reaching a milestone, how Doug Pederson has become a better coach (and person), and why I can’t see the Ezekiel Elliott holdout lasting. Opening night is 39 days away.
Sunday, mid-practice, Newton tossing with a ballboy, keeping his arm warm. He’s precise. He’s not out here jacking around, throwing sidearm, just to throw. There’s a purpose. Windup, exact overhand throw, follow-through. Serious business. I don’t see a lot of Panther practices of course, but Newton, on Sunday, was more serious and precise with his work than I remember. Even though he was carrying on conversations with fans—not just one-liners, but 30 or 40-second chats—practice was business-like.
You may not remember this, but when Peyton Manning was struggling with his neck injury and recovery post-Indianapolis, he got some advice from Bill Parcells, which I’ll paraphrase: You know who Jamie Moyer is? Soft-tossing major-league pitcher. He’s found a way to have a long career without having even a good fastball. Work on your lower-body strength, use your legs to help your arm strength, and just find a way to win. You’re smart enough to figure it out. Manning did, and it was enough in Denver to cap his career with a Super Bowl win four years ago, even though he was a contributing player on that title team, not a dominant one. Who cares? Denver won it all—coincidentally against Newton’s Panthers.
It’s silly to think of Newton as some hobbled guy who won’t be able to summon up greatness and the ability to throw deep effectively. He had his shoulder surgery in late January, spent most of the offseason simulating his throwing motion or throwing a small football, and is obviously still rehabbing and recovering for the season. But he knows he doesn’t have to be Scherzer; he can win in other ways, particularly because of short-passing weapon Christian McCaffrey.
It’s actually a work-in-progress that started in 2018, when the new offensive staff—coordinator Norv Turner and son/QB coach Scott Turner mostly—began working to make Newton’s throwing motion more precise. “People in football would notice, but maybe a fan wouldn’t,” Scott Turner said Sunday. “Cam historically had a throwing motion where it was very open, where he put a lot of stress on his shoulder. Now he’s worked to close it up, which relieves a lot of pressure on his arm. He can still throw with a lot of velocity. But he is getting used to a little bit of a new way. The shoulder, being a little more closed. If you stay closed, with the right weight transfer and upper body movement, your shoulder’s not going to be stressed as much.”
In the first three months last year, Newton’s completion percentage (.696) was 10 points better than his career number (.598); his passer rating at the end of November, 103.7, was four points better than his MVP year of 2015. Clearly, he was a willing student. Some of the credit goes to McCaffrey with his 107 catches in 124 targets. Some goes to the willingness of Newton to be coached, to learn and to change. “It’s given me a different type of confidence, knowing that we got the personnel. … All I have to do is just get the ball in their hands,” Newton said.
But the good performances were masking a continuing shoulder issue, one that he couldn’t hide any longer in his last three games. The Monday night game in Week 15, a 12-9 loss to the Saints, was excruciating to watch. Newton couldn’t break a pane of glass with his throws. Of his 29 passes that night, one (one!) traveled more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. Ever watch a fight being dominated by one boxer, and you get to the ninth round, and you’re yelling: Throw in the white towel! End this thing! With the Panthers 6-7 that night and still in the playoff hunt, coach Ron Rivera—and Newton—figures Newton at 55 percent still gave Carolina the best shot to win.
That didn’t make it easier to watch.
“As a quarterback in this league,” Newton said, “you’re unanimously the leader, right? We needed that game. I felt as if I wanted to give my team everything that I had honestly. Being hurt, being injured … looking back at it, it probably wasn’t the smartest, efficient thing, knowing that I left it all out there on the field. And if you asked me if I’d do it again, I’d do it again. I just know my worth to this team—know how much these guys believe in me and how much I believe in them. If I’m willing to do that, and I know I’ve seen other guys do the same thing, too.”
The surgery in late January was a significant clean-out, but Newton felt better right away. “Cam and I came in together, in 2011,” coach Ron Rivera told me. “And so I can read him pretty well. The day after, he motioned his arm [moving the arm in a throwing motion] and gave me this look. It was the kind of confident look in his eyes I’ve seen before.” But as Andrew Luck can tell you, there are no guarantees post-shoulder-surgery about when you’ll feel right and when you’ll feel you can cut it loose. Or if you can. So it’s premature to say what we’ll see in Newton in six weeks for a really tough opening stretch: Rams at home on opening Sunday, Bucs at home four days later. Yikes. Imagine a short-week game, coming off shoulder surgery against the defending NFC champs … and after being chased by Aaron Donald for three hours.
Newton called his current state “still a work in progress. One thing about the shoulder and constant moving, constant muscle manipulation, constant trying to get your range of motion back: You can’t mimic real life reps. This [training camp] is actually the first time I’m actually throwing to moving targets, things like that. … Now it’s another phase. You gotta work on throwing the deep pass. You gotta work on throwing on opposite fields, something that you haven’t been doing for so long because you’re just trying to perfect the small kind of intimate, intermediate throws.”
The only time in our conversation that Newton bristled a bit was when I wondered how he’d feel if he couldn’t be the old Newton. Understandable … because even Newton doesn’t know exactly what his shoulder’s going to feel like this fall.
“See,” he said, “it’s still speculation. You know, at the end of the day, God has possessed me with things that I’m grateful for. … Now, being older, you kind of look at things different. For me, it’s not that I’m limited with certain things, or that I’m not capable of doing certain things, it’s just other ways to do it. I’m not saying I’m not gonna run people over. I’m not saying I’m not gonna run the football. I’m not saying I’m not gonna throw the ball down the field. I’m just in a position now where none of that matters but one thing, and that’s winning football games. If it requires me to do all those things, I’m willing to do it. And if it doesn’t, I’m still fine with that.”
If I’m a Panthers’ fan, I like what I see out of Newton six months after surgery. I like what I hear just as much.
Eagles: The Franchise Has Landed
PHILADELPHIA — Sometimes it’s hard to read body language. Sometimes it’s not. Last year, when Carson Wentz was returning from a torn ACL and he was getting peppered with versions of the same questions (Mostly: When will you be ready?), he was pretty clipped with his answers to me when I visited training camp. Wentz is a pleasant guy usually, but I remember him being just okay that day. Borderline sullen. But he did not want talk about this knee injury that kept him from his Super Bowl dream—that’s for sure.
On Saturday morning, Wentz was the sixth of 90 Eagles out at practice. He stretched, and he jogged forward and backward, and he smiled, and he had a hell of time in the oppressive summer humidity for the next two-and-a-half hours, even when he had an interception taken to the house by linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill in a team period of training camp. No question in my mind this is a happier soul than a year ago. I don’t think that’s because he’s $128 million richer; the Eagles signed him to this huge four-year contract extension in June. I think it’s because now he’s playing without the knee brace that limited him last year, and he’s playing with a healed vertebra in his back that he hurt last year.
A couple of notes that interested me on Wentz:
• He tore his ACL in a big NFC game at the Rams on Dec. 10, 2017. Wentz missed six games, including the Super Bowl, and watched Nick Foles lead his team.
• He suffered his back injury in a big NFC game at Dallas on Dec. 9, 2018. Wentz missed the last five games, including the NFC divisional game, and watched Nick Foles lead his team.
So … two season-ending injuries in three seasons. And the Eagles committed to Wentz with a four-year contract extension that binds the two sides to each other through the end of 2024.
Injuries, and subsequent contract extensions after them, are risk-reward things. I understand why Eagles GM Howie Roseman did what he did—the price for quarterbacks keeps going up, and if Wentz plays 16 games this year at his 2017 level, after suffering two fluke injuries (lots of those happen in football), the extension that was worth $32 million a year this year jumps to $37 million next year. The Eagles took a leap of faith, for sure. This deal has to keep Roseman up at night. When I asked Doug Pederson about it, he was pretty matter-of-fact about what the Eagles need to happen here with Wentz.
“He’s been given the keys to the kingdom,” Pederson told me. “Now it’s up to him to make sure the kingdom stays healthy.”
(Cap numbers for Wentz for the next six years, by the way: $8.39 million, $18.66 million, $34.67 million, $31.27 million, $34.27 million, $32 million. The highest percentage of the cap that Wentz will take up? About 17 percent. On average, his pay will take up about 13 percent of the Eagles cap, by my best projections, over the next six years.)
Would I have waited to see Wentz play a full season? Tough call. Probably not. I think he’ll be a little smarter about putting himself in harm’s way. Plus, officials will err on the side of protecting the passers, always; starting NFL quarterbacks missed only 60 games due to injury in 2018—and that’s out of 32 starters. Pederson says he isn’t changing the offense to bubble-wrap Wentz, and Wentz isn’t going to overhaul how he plays. Nor should he. It’s a hard game. I remember when Phil Simms got hurt in four of his first five NFL seasons with the Giants, and he was called injury-prone. Then he became an ironman. So you just don’t know. Sometimes people get hurt. Wentz has to play smarter, but he’ll neuter himself if he changes his game entirely.
In some ways, what the Eagles did with Wentz this offseason, giving him the big deal, reminds me of how Pederson coaches. Pederson did get a little more conservative last year than in Philly’s Super Bowl year, but he says now that’s because early in the season Wentz was coming back from the knee injury, and late in the season, he wasn’t playing. “I want to coach aggressive,” Pederson told me on my camp visit. “That’s what I gotta get back to. Last year was not my mentality. I’ve learned from that.”
Wentz looks a little Bradyish, actually. He’s lost a few pounds (he won’t say how many) which he attributes to training and nutrition—not trying to be Tom Brady II.
“Back feels good. Knee feels good,” Wentz told me. “I feel about as healthy as I’ve felt in a long time, both physically and mentally. Been able to take a step back due to the injury the last few years, unfortunately, but it allowed me to see the game from a different perspective. Allowed me to invest a lot of time and energy into my body and into not only get healthy but finding ways to stay healthy for hopefully the duration of my career. I feel really good and ready to go.
“I wasn’t necessarily setting out to lose weight. It was just a byproduct of some of the things I’ve been doing but at the end of the day it’s all about how I feel. By no means do I think I’m now too skinny or anything. I’ve lost a couple pounds. I’m not making a big deal about that. But just overall, being healthier … I think will help the longevity of my career. Having played a couple seasons now knowing the rigors of this game, obviously I’ve gotten hurt a few times but it wasn’t because of not being able to take a hit or anything.”
The NFL needs Wentz. He’s a North Dakota kid loved by the fans and the public. He’s smart, driven. Did you know he never got a grade lower than A in any level of schooling? Teammates loves him, coaches love him. He’s electric as a player, with a great arm and athletic legs. He’s got great leadership. He’ll never do something embarrassing for the franchise. At Saturday’s practice, by my very unofficial count, I saw 43 Wentz jerseys by the fans invited to the camp workout; no idea who was second, but it wasn’t close. Wentz is one of the stories of the year in the NFL, and the fate of the NFC East rests on him. A bit of a cliché here. But it’s why we watch.
Ravens: Analytics R Us
OWINGS MILLS, Md.—Four Ravens thoughts:
1. What a weird look. Think how many stalwarts are missing. Quarterback Joe Flacco. Pass-rusher Terrell Suggs. Linebackers C.J. Mosley and ZaDarius Smith. Safety Eric Weddle (admittedly a late-arriver, but a really good contributor recently). Change is good, usually. Revolution … that’ll take a big adjustment.
2. The DeCosta takeover. I’ve always been interested by Baltimore’s ability to do things a different way. The Ravens were leaders in accumulating compensatory draft picks, and the league followed. The Ravens figured out that offensive linemen in spread systems were tortured acclimating to the NFL, so they made hay with mid-round Big Ten, pro-style linemen. Now they’ve got an analytics-savvy GM, Eric DeCosta, taking over for the legendary Ozzie Newsome, and he’s great friends with the progressive Astros team that was hired to rebuild the Orioles—GM Mike Elias and assistant GM Sig Mejdal. “They question everything, and I love that,” DeCosta said. This offseason, the Ravens put an ad on social media for an analytics hire. In baseball, analytics is the new wave. The NFL is still trying to figure it out. “We got hundreds, I mean hundreds, of applications,” DeCosta said. The Ravens hired a 22-year-old woman who will try to make sense of the new data—including GPS tracking of players in practices and games. DeCosta is so protective of the Ravens’ analytics plans that when I asked him how many analytics hires he had this year, he said, “More than one.” And about the number of analytics employees in the organization? “Less than 10.” DeCosta doesn’t think analytics provides a magic formula, but that’s not what he wants. He wants a small edge. A tiny edge. “We’re looking for 1 percent, 2 percent, 3 percent advantages,” he said. “There’s no 50 percent edge anymore.”
3. Lamar Jackson looks like more of a thrower than runner. It’s just one practice that I saw, but new quarterback Lamar Jackson stuck in and around the pocket Friday. He spent the offseason doing what smart quarterbacks do—adjusting to the passing portion of his team’s playbook. He was a 58 percent passer last year, but his 170-147 pass-run ratio in 2018 should be far more lopsided in favor of the pass in 2019. “I’m not afraid of anything in this offense, what they ask me to do,” he said. “Pressure busts pipes, but I don’t feel pressure. I just feel opportunity.”
4. The defense it is a-changin’. Defensive coordinator Don Martindale led the second-stingiest unit last year (287 points allowed) but now the Ravens are relying on imports like Earl Thomas to buttress the D. What’s interesting about Thomas’ role after arriving from Seattle is that he’ll be asked to be orchestrator and play-caller, the way Ed Reed was here, more than he was in Seattle. “Excited about it,” Thomas said. “New place, new coast, new energy.” The Ravens need Thomas, 30, to be the playmaker and enforcer he was in the Legion of Doom.
Jets: Can Le’Veon be Le’Veon?
FLORHAM PARK, N.J.—Four Jets thoughts:
1. This ain’t the Pittsburgh offensive line. Interesting watching the Jets practice on Thursday. It was an “all-eyes-on” practice. As in, “All eyes on Le’Veon Bell.” He hadn’t been on a football field for a real practice or game in 18 months, since he finished his Steelers career and entered a rancorous holdout season. In 2017, he averaged 27 touches a game, 406 in all, behind one of the two or three best lines in football, with one of two or three best line coaches (Mike Munchak) in football. Here, he’ll line up behind a suspect line—PFF ranked the five Jets starters, left to right, 81st, 51st, 39th, 68thand 104that their positions in 2018—and his trademark style will be tested. His line coach is Frank Pollack, who doesn’t have the resume of Munchak (though few do). Bell is the most patient runner in football. It’s his trademark. When he took one handoff from Sam Darnold in practice here, he looked precisely the same as in his Pittsburgh days, pausing and waiting till his crease developed, then rushing through the right guard/tackle hole. But no one was tackling him on this play-installation day. If the biggest question on the Jets is whether Bell’s rust will show in 2019 (“if I’m rusty, I don’t feel it,” he said), next is whether he’ll be able to shine with a line not on the same level as Pittsburgh’s.
2. Gase’s interesting plan. Bell says he’s willing to touch the ball 500 times if that’s what he’s called to do. (That’s not happening, of course.) I asked the first-year Jets coach, Adam Gase, his plans for Bell. “I keep telling him, ‘We’ll keep stretching this thing, trying to find as many things that possibly you haven’t done before.’ Pass game, run game, all those types of things. He’s so open to anything, which is great.” Gase isn’t giving away anything, but I wonder if that might be a regular turn at receiver, particularly with the Jets’ intermediate game taking a hit with the four-game suspension of tight end Chris Herndon to start the season. That’ll be interesting watch. For now, Gase will study Bell’s style the way Bell studies the defenders he’s trying to evade. “When he stands behind the quarterback, he’s talking—about whether to cut, where to cut, or how the ‘backers flow or how the D line’s working and how the pressure is coming. That’s happening in real time. The way he thinks, you understand if he’s talking like that, I can’t imagine what’s going on in his head when he’s actually running the ball. I mean, at that point of the play, the game is slow for him.” I have to say I’ve never heard that about a back.
3. Now this is interesting. The weirdest coaching triangle in the NFL is here. Gase, the head coach and son-in-law of Joe Vitt, hired Vitt to be a senior defensive assistant/outside linebackers. Gase also hired Gregg Williams to be his defensive coordinator, and to be Vitt’s boss. At one point, Vitt and Williams were on the same Saints staff that got whacked by the league office for the Bountygate scandal in 2012; Vitt was suspended six game and Williams whacked for the season. Vitt and others blamed Williams for ratting out the team to league investigators. “Joe actually recommended Gregg to me in Miami when [Vance Joseph] left our staff for Denver,” said Gase, “but I’d already gone in a different direction. He said to me, ‘This guy’s the best for you.’ That’s interesting. Kind of put a thought in my head.” I expressed surprise, and Gase said what’s past is past, they’re close now, and they even have offices next to each other at the Jets facility. Interesting to see how this will work, obviously.
4. Man, Sam Darnold is impressive for 22—or any age, for that matter. “He’s so fun to work with that I want to hurry to the facility every day to get going with him,” Gase said. When we spoke, Darnold said to me, “I like your podcast. I’ve listened to all the quarterback ones, trying to learn something.” He also told me he’s grateful for his year with Josh McCown, the retired longtime NFL backup who mentored Darnold the rookie in 2018, because it taught him not just how to learn the pro game, but how to study it. One of the good things for Gase is he’s finally got a guy, after three shaky-QB years in Miami, to grow with. Good for the franchise too.
“Shoutouts to the ’85 Bears, but we want to top everything they’ve done.”
—Chicago free safety Eddie Jackson, on Sirius/XM NFL radio.
It’s nice to have goals.
The ’85 Bears led the NFL in scoring defense and allowed the fewest yards. They allowed 11 points a game, including playoffs. They won their three playoff games by 21-0, 24-0 and 46-10. In 14 of 19 games the D allowed 10 points or less.
My bold prediction for the 2019 season: No team will allow 10 points or less 14 times.
“Yes! I just love him. He was one of the main reasons I always tell everybody why I ended up coming to the Steelers when I was a free agent. Just the way he treats players, just the way his coaching style is. Ever since I’ve been here, I just love him even more.”
—Steelers cornerback Joe Haden, upon reporting to camp, told the news of coach Mike Tomlin’s contract extension through 2021, per Ed Bouchette of The Athletic.
“I’ve heard his name … only about a thousand times.”
McSorley could be the next in a line of Swiss Army Knife players in the league—he’s been working on multiple special teams early in Baltimore camp and eventually could play some receiver—after the Saints made Hill a special-teams ace as well as option quarterback backing up Drew Brees.
“I gotta really make sure we’re all on the same page. But that’s kinda life for me. In the QB room yesterday, I started telling this story, and I realized, Nobody in here probably was here even seven years ago, probably knows who I’m talking about, so I’m just gonna stop.”
—Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, on the newness in Packers camp.
“I’m Forrest Gump!”
—Hines Ward, a wide-receiver coaching intern at Jets camp, to me.
Ward has packed a lot into his 43 years.
Ward caught 1,000 NFL passes. He played 14 NFL seasons. He won MVP at Super Bowl 40. He had a post-career role on NBC’s “Football Night in America.” He’s worked for CNN and “Headline News.” He was a player relations executive for the ill-fated Alliance of American Football. He has part-owned two restaurants. He had a role in “The Dark Knight Rises.” He won “Dancing With the Stars.” He completed an Ironman Triathlon. He was an honorary ambassador for the 2018 Winter Olympics. And now a coach.
Run, Hines, Run!
“For anyone who questions our relationship, it’s the stupidest thing ever.”
—San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan, on a vague report of a rift in his relationship with GM John Lynch.
“If I die on game day, have a drink. Celebrate.”
—Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians, asked about his health at Bucs training camp.
A new weekly look at a different side of an NFL person
Mark Ingram • Baltimore running back • Photographed in Owings Mills, Md.
On the memory of the botched pass-interference call in his last game as a Saint, the NFC championship loss to the Rams in January:
“That is something that no one on our team, no one in our organization, will ever get over. That is tough. Tough. When you get to that point, basically one play from the Super Bowl, there’s no justifying that, there’s no comfort in that. Obviously, they changed the rule, so they know they got it wrong. Some players play 14, 15 years without making it to a playoff game, so to be able to make it to that point, a minute and some change left, and if you get this call, you’ve got a fresh set of downs, and you’re going to the Super Bowl. It was sickening. Every time I see the play, it’s a bad feeling, it’s a dark cloud over me.
“Now I’m in a new place. It’s a business. It’s difficult. Eight years in New Orleans. I love New Orleans. They gave me my chance. They drafted me in the first round. Every single person in that organization, I have feelings for, and they know that. No bad feelings, no bitter feelings at all. Hey, Peyton Manning didn’t play in one place forever. It’s a business. You move on. You live to fight another day, and I’m with a new team, and hopefully we’ll get the chance to go to a Super Bowl here.”
“I won a few games before he got here.”
• Manning won 93 games in 10 seasons (including playoffs) pre-Beckham. He won 31 in the five seasons with him.
• Super Bowl wins: two pre-Beckham, zero post-Beckham.
• Playoff wins: eight pre-Beckham, zero post-Beckham.
• Average wins per year: 9.3 without Beckham, 6.2 with Beckham.
The Steelers extended Mike Tomlin’s contract through 2021 last week. Assuming he coaches at least that long (and why wouldn’t he—Tomlin is 47 and not burned out, and the Steelers are patient), I think Tomlin has a good shot of coaching many more years.
At the end of the ’21 season, assuming Tomlin coaches the next three years, here’s how the three coaches the Steelers have had over the last half-century stack up:
Tomlin (15th season in 2021): .645 winning percentage currently.
Bill Cowher: 15 seasons, .619 winning percentage.
Chuck Noll: 23 seasons, .572 winning percentage.
The difference, of course, is that Noll’s Steeler teams won four Super Bowls. Cowher won one, and Tomlin has won one.
You might say New York Yankees reliever Tommy Kahnle is an avid Eagles fan. Stitched on his baseball glove, in script, in Eagles green: “Fly Eagles Fly.”
Baltimore coach John Harbaugh’s daughter Alison, a rising high-school senior lacrosse star in Baltimore, will play lacrosse at Notre Dame beginning in 2020.
Denver, Las Vegas, New Jersey, Maryland, Philadelphia, Spartanburg … seven nights on the road on the training camp trip, and I haven’t turned on a TV yet in a hotel room.
I’m not anti-TV. I like “Jeopardy,” the “NBC Nightly News,” lots of other news shows, and I like sports. But for some reason, I get on the road at this time of year, and TV is quicksand to me. I’ve got so much to do, and if I turn on the TV, it’s a time suck. Just thought you’d like to know.
One other question, which occurred to me as we crossed the state line into South Carolina just after dawn Sunday, and saw a string of fireworks stores (OPEN EVERY DAY!) just over the border: Why can you buy fireworks in South Carolina on Sunday in stores and not beer or wine?
The Newspaper Section
In support of the great newspapers across the United States, we’re buying the local papers in every place on our trip, and showing them week by week as we go. This first section of our trip—five teams, one Holzhauer—stretched from Denver to Vegas to the Eastern seaboard, with Spartanburg being Sunday’s stop. What we’re seeing in the local press:
Last Tuesday, Greg Cosell tweeted that he was marking his 40th anniversary at NFL Films. I thought that should not pass uncelebrated.
Cosell deserves notice in this football history space—pro football is playing its 100th season in 2019—because of his role in the invention of the genre of X-and-O football on TV. In 1984, five years after he started at NFL Films, Cosell did the legwork in establishing the “NFL Matchup” show, which debuted with Chris Berman, Steve Sabol and former Giants coach Allie Sherman as hosts, previewing the Monday night games, airing the half-hour show on fledgling sports channel ESPN. That was the first TV show breaking down plays the way coaches might.
“At the time,” Cosell said Saturday, watching the Eagles practice, “I was told and Steve Sabol was told, that no one would have any interest in football in that fashion. But ESPN needed programming, so it was an easy thing to mess around with. How do we take football concepts, tactics and strategy, and air them so that an accountant or lawyer or regular fan could say, ‘Hey, I understand this. It’s not too complicated. I’m not going to change the channel.’ I think adding Ron Jaworski a few years later really helped, because he made it so understandable.”
I asked: “Do you think, in your little corner of football, that you’ve played a role in football history?”
“Well, that’s difficult to answer … but yes I do. I pioneered showing X-and-O football on television. We know how far we’ve come. So many shows do it now, and so many people on social media do it. The ‘NFL Matchup’ show was first, and for years, we were kind of put in the corner with a dunce cap on, told no one cares about that. And now it’s a part-and-parcel of the fan experience.”
What’s your best habit, Eagles coach Doug Pederson?
“What I do when I get here in the morning—my quiet time. That’s a habit I’ve developed over the last five years, getting in here to the office, spending some time reading my Bible, doing a devotion. I start my day that way, with a 30-minute block of time, and I find it carries over to the rest of the day for me. Good habits, energy, how I treat people, how I deal with situations that come up with the football team.”
And your worst?
“So I’m on this diet right now, doing this intermittent fasting. I eat, say, from 12 to 8 and that’s it, for the last two, two-and-a-half months. But I cannot kick the sweets. I went home last night, it was about 10, and I needed something … We have those little pints of Haagen Dazs ice cream, and I haven’t had one in a long time, and I just ate it. Straight vanilla. Sweets … Man, that is a true bad habit.”
Send your questions or comments to me at email@example.com.
Miscarriage of justice. From Jake Cmelik: “I appreciate your thoughts on the mind-blowing decision to not suspend Tyreek Hill. For us here in the Pacific Northwest, Jarran Reed‘s six-game suspension stemming from a police investigation from 2017 seems even more confusing side by side with Hill’s case. Jarran was subject to allegations of domestic violence, but was never charged with anything. No evidence beyond that accusation has been released regarding the incident … How does this not look like a case of a superstar player (Hill) getting preferential treatment due to his status in the league? Thanks for writing the best column on football week in and week out.”
Thanks Jake. The league will say it can’t release all of its finding in these cases, and I am sure that is a factor in the disparate punishments. But as Judy Battista (employed by the league) says, correctly, the impression left by these decisions is that the process is capricious and arbitrary. At the very least, the league should be more transparent—or its spokespeople should be empowered to be more transparent off-the-record to explain the cases.
Thank you, Solomon Thomas, for your work in suicide awareness. From Stu Jacoby, of Dorchester, Mass.: “I want to thank you for writing about San Francisco 49er Solomon Thomas [and his efforts to urge boys and men particularly to get help if they’re feeling depressed or suicidal]. As a school psychologist in Boston I help coordinate suicide prevention efforts. I want to make you aware of an organization for which I am a suicide prevention trainer. The organization, MindWise (formerly Screening for Mental Health), a part of Riverside Community Care, provides a training program for middle, high school, and college students known as Signs of Suicide. It is psychoeducational in nature and teaches students about depression, mental health, and how to respond to issues of friends who may want to hurt themselves to support them in obtaining appropriate support.”
Win some … From Jon Asher of Glorieta, N.M. “Your inclusion of non-football topics including everything from news of your family to national politics, the environment and more, are greatly appreciated. My missive was prompted by your brief Dan LeBatard reference. He spoke out about an issue that can’t be ignored, and since ESPN has declined to discipline him (as of this writing) it makes me wonder if the Disney empire may be waking up to the new reality that has become America. Staying silent, or trying to force one’s employees to do the same, is counter-productive and doomed to failure.”
Thanks Jon. It’s time to voice your opinion in America.
… Lose some. From Jason Hebel: “One thing I think I think: I wonder if you realize with each subtle and not so subtle dig at President Trump, that you sound like just another liberal partisan hack. Please stop already.”
Thanks for your input, Jason. I’m going to voice my opinion about all things as I have for more than two decades in this space.
1. I think some franchises can look like they’re under black clouds. That’s how the Browns have looked for more than two decades, mostly; whatever can go wrong does—at least until about last November. As I watched the opening days of New York Giants training camp, I saw that black cloud. The top three receivers might be lost for between six weeks and the season. How amazing that GM Dave Gettleman might have to consider bringing in a player that brought him heartache in Carolina, Kelvin Benjamin, or a former Cowboy who is dying to get back, Dez Bryant, to scotch-tape the Giants at receiver.
And a note about Golden Tate, who is facing a four-game ban for a PED that he claims was an innocent fertility drug—taken in a family-planning mode to help he and wife have a child. Then he found out the drug contained a substance banned by the NFL. Here’s the problem: If the NFL lets Tate slide on this, and agrees that he and his wife are innocent parties here, what does the league do about the point it’s made in scores of team meetings and scores of public statements about performance-enhancing drugs: All players are responsible for what they put in their body, and if it’s on a banned list, there are no exceptions. Does the league roll back that stricture? I doubt it.
2. I think the biggest reason why I don’t think the Ezekiel Elliott holdout will last into the season is that Jerry Jones won’t allow it to happen. He’s too excited about the Cowboys normally. But this year, with a young, play-making defense and a stacked offense, he’s got to feel like this is his best chance to go deep into the playoffs for a long time. And he knows he’s not going deep into the playoffs without Ezekiel Elliott. I can’t see this holdout lasting. Zeke’s supposed to make $3.8 million this year and $9.1 million in 2020. What seems fair to me: Elliott just turned 24. He already has 5,247 scrimmage yards in his young NFL career (even with suspensions), and he is the force that makes the Cowboys’ offense go. Take the $12.9 million he’s due over the next two seasons, add two years at, say, $8 million and $10 million, and give him a $21-million signing bonus. That’s not enough, you say? Well, it’s $52 million for the next four years, and it allows him to hit the market for one last contract at age 27 (his birthday is in July). Seems equitable for all.
3. I think the NFLPA is in business to protect players like A.J. Green, who was injured on a University of Dayton field over the weekend. If that playing surfaced was sub-standard, as some have claimed, the union has to fight for its players—and the Bengals will have to be held accountable if the surface was poor. Let’s see first what happens with the investigation.
4. I think there have been the usual injuries in the first few days of camps around the league, but no loss of player hurts a team more than the four games Tennessee tackle Taylor Lewan will miss due for violating the league’s policy against performance-enhancing substances. With Marcus Mariota facing a crucial fifth season, and the Titans already on the fence about keeping bookend tackle Jack Conklin long-term, losing the left tackle and conscience-of-the-line Lewan is a killer. Three of the first four are on the road against playoff contenders: at Cleveland, Indianapolis at home, at Jacksonville, at Atlanta. Good luck with that.
5. I think the Ravens, right now, don’t miss Joe Flacco. Being at their camp for a day, I got the distinct impression it was just time for a change, for all.
6. I think this is the time of year to get smart about football, and to be educated by some excellent football analytics people in our business. One is Aaron Schatz, who does yeoman’s work on a staple of my preseason reading: a superb annual book called Football Outsiders Almanac. Strongly recommended. A few tidbits from the 2019 Football Outsiders Almanac:
• Tampa Bay had the most injured defense of any team since at least 2001, based on adjusted games lost (which accounts both for games missed and for games where players do play but are not 100 percent because they’re injured). They had 92.0 adjusted games lost in 2018 on defense, from starters and important situational players. The average for the league was 36.1 adjusted games lost on defense.
• Arizona’s passing game last year averaged just 2.7 yards after the catch on passes thrown past the line of scrimmage. No other offense was below 3.4 yards.
• Atlanta was the first team to keep its head coach but fire all three coordinators since the 1988-89 Indianapolis Colts under Ron Meyer.
• Based on “Approximate Value Over Replacement,” the Ravens lost more veteran defensive talent than any defense since 2003 except for the 2009 Buccaneers. The previous 10 teams that lost the most defensive talent dropped an average of nine spots in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA rankings.
• Seattle not only used six offensive linemen way more than any other team (20 percent of plays; the Colts were next at 10.5 percent) but the Seahawks were the only offense that used six linemen on at least 3 percent of plays.
• San Francisco used two players in the backfield on a league-leading 59 percent of running plays; New England and Pittsburgh were the only other offenses above 40 percent.
• Under Mike McCarthy, Green Bay faced an average of just 5.89 men in the box on offensive plays, lowest in the NFL. New Packers coach Matt LaFleur, in Tennessee, had the offense that faced the most average men in the box (6.60).
• Kansas City led the league last year with 163 penalties, including declined and offsetting. No other team was above 150. The Chiefs were first in defensive penalties and second in offensive penalties.
• Pittsburgh used less play-action than any other offense in the NFL (12 percent of passes) while every other offense was at 17 percent or more. This might be because—although the average NFL offense is much more efficient with play-action—Pittsburgh has been less efficient with play-action than without play-action for four straight years.
7. I think there’s a heavy birthday day coming Saturday. Big. Todd Gurley, Dante Fowler Jr., Derwin James, Tyrod Taylor among the active players. Lance Alworth and Maxie Baughan among retirees. Then … Tom Brady. Surely he’ll celebrate his 42nd with a slice of avocado cake.
8. I think the drumbeat for an end the preseason as we know it will grow louder when West Coasters realize the two sexy young NFC quarterbacks on the coast, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jared Goff, likely will skip all their exhibition games. And well that drumbeat should grow.
9. I think this smart piece from longtime Pro Football Hall of Fame selector Rick Gosselin—one of the most respected voters in the history of the august Hall—makes a great point about the expanded 2020 Hall of Fame class. Next year, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of pro football (founded in September 1920 in a Canton, Ohio auto showroom), the Hall of Fame will have an expanded “Centennial Class” of 20 candidates (there are usually eight, max), in part to celebrate the history of the league, in part to whittle away at the logjam of great players whose cases have not been heard by the selection committee. Gosselin believes those players merit strongest consideration for next year’s Centennial Class. Interesting read. I do think there also needs to be some wiggle room as we (I am one of 48 electors) consider Senior candidates, so that players with excellent cases like Cliff Branch and Joe Klecko don’t get lost in the enormous backlog. They aren’t the only two—just two whose cases I’d love to see get before the committee.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. TV Story of the Week: NBC’s Tim Layden and producer Marissa Bouyajian, with a seven-minute beauty on a distance runner who died of a rare cancer last month, Gabe Grunewald. So touching, so important.
b. Now that’s a story that made me cry. I watched it in the third row of our Training Camp boat, a Suburban, riding down I-95 in Virginia, and that was probably good. My two pilots, Annie Koeblitz and Nicole Granito, switching off on the driving up front while I wrote Saturday night, weren’t able to see the tears stream down my cheeks.
c. Story of the Week: “The Assassin Next Door,” by Hector Tobar in the New Yorker.
d. The author, as a Guatemalan boy in Los Angeles in the mid-sixties, lived a few doors away from James Earl Ray, the transplanted midwestern racist who drove east from L.A. to murder Martin Luther King in 1968. It is amazing how the writer’s life—Tobar is now a university professor—could have turned sour in handscrabble LA but for the positive influences in his life, and not so surprising how Ray’s life turned out.
e. Not often that the best sentence of a story is the last one. But Tobar, on a trip back to the old neighborhood, imagines what Ray would have felt in the homogeneous place today. “I imagined his ghost lurking about, disgusted at the polyglot city around him, and raging at the futility of his act of murder.”
f. Just brilliant.
g. So much admiration for David Martin, the Pentagon correspondent for CBS News. He’s 75 and so at the top of his game. The other day, he’s reporting exclusively from one of our aircraft carriers in advance of the possible conflict with Iran. You go, David Martin.
h. When you’re flipping the channels during the few days at home, funny things happen. Hilarious tease by Deborah Norville of “Inside Edition” the other day … “How to know when your food goes bad!”
i. Maybe smell it.
j. The Athletic is really doing some great work. So happy it’s working.
k. Someone asked me the other day if I’d seen anything on Broadway recently. I have, including “Come From Away” for the second time. I could see that play a third time. A fourth. It is wonderful, inspirational and not to be missed.
l. Coffeenerdness: I owe Stefano and Camila, proprietors of Gran Caffe de Martini in my Brooklyn ‘hood, for opening early so we could get the training camp trip off to a caffeinated start. Thanks to them for the best espresso in the land too.
m. RIP to a great American citizen, lover of books and lover of people George Mitrovich.
n. We have a Training Camp Tour song, in the grand tradition of “Shake it Off,” (Swift) and “Shut Up and Dance” (Walk the Moon): “Sweet but Psycho,” by Ava Max. Catchy.
Today: Falcons, Flowery Branch, Ga. Quinn takes over the D, and other things.
Tuesday: Buccaneers, Tampa. Let’s see the Jameis/Arians/Leftwich experiment.
Wednesday: Dolphins, Davie, Fla. The Flores era begins. Will it be led by Fitzmagic or Rosen?
Thursday: Jaguars, Jacksonville. (Thursday evening: Throwing out the first pitch at a Pensacola Blue Wahoos game.)
Friday: Saints, Metairie, La. Loaded again. Might be best Saints team since they won the Big One.
Saturday: Travel/sanity day. May stop off and see an interesting subject along the way to Indy.
Sunday: Colts, Westfield, Ind. Intriguing team. I’ve got to learn what makes Darius Leonard tick.
Wentz looked pretty good.
Early, but as Laura King
says: “I’m just saying!”