Last month, Matt Rhule gave the speech he’d been preparing, one way or another, since he knew he wanted to be a football coach back in sixth grade, growing up in New York City. Rhule didn’t actually give the speech live, which of course he hoped to do, seeing as it would be the first time he’d ever speak to his NFL team, the Panthers, sitting in the team meeting room in Charlotte. The rookie coach would tell his 62 players what kind of program he’d run and what kind of team they’d be. But the coronavirus changed everyone’s plans. The virus changed the speech too.
Rhule recorded the speech on his iPhone, sitting at the picnic table in his backyard, the phone propped up vertically against a lantern. He reversed the screen, so his face would take up virtually the whole thing, and he spoke for 6 minutes and 21 seconds, setting the stage for the NFL program he wanted to build. Kind of funny: a $60-million coach in a T-shirt, talking to the men of his $2.4-billion franchise in a video recorded on his $699 phone, looking very much like a foreman down at the mill FaceTiming with his wife on his lunch break.
When the players opened the email and clicked the attachment, they saw a 45-year-old man, graying at the temples, with a full beard and mustache, in a dark T-shirt. Behind him, the background morning sun made the image over-exposed, so his face was shadowy.
“Hey everybody. This is Matt Rhule. I hope you’re all doing well, staying safe. It’s the start of our offseason program. While we all can’t be together, I thought it was really important I reached out and kicked this thing off the right way.”
The right way? For Rhule and these Panthers, the obstacle-filled offseason fits what they face.
No NFL team in this historically different offseason is as challenged as Rhule’s Panthers. Consider:
• New coach, with one year of previous NFL experience. (Of the other four new coaches, Ron Rivera and Mike McCarthy are NFL vets, and Joe Judge and Kevin Stefanski, combined, have 23 years of NFL experience.)
• Two NFL rookie coordinators.
• A new quarterback who still has not met a single one of his receivers.
• The defensive leader, Luke Kuechly, is gone; retired.
• The offensive cornerstone, 2015 MVP Cam Newton, is gone; released.
“I’ve coached at Temple and at Baylor, and my players will probably tell you we didn’t have a lot of advantages when we got there,” Rhule said in a conversation from his home Friday. “Just figure it out. Figure it out, bro. Really, that’s the key to life.”
This is a strange offseason for every team. It’s almost certain teams won’t be able to gather until late July at the earliest. I’ve documented in this column in recent weeks how teams are learning by videoconference instead of in meetings, and there’s really no way to know if this virus will allow the season to open on time, or whether training camps will exist at all, or how long teams will have to practice for the season. Rhule has told his coaches: Plan as if the players are reporting tomorrow. Prepare as if we won’t have them till a week before the season. Teams that succeed this season (assuming there is a season) are going to be the very talented ones, as always—but I bet they’ll be the ones, too, that prosper in a time of mayhem. The mayhem won’t matter. The football will.
And so when Rhule did his 6-minute, 21-second iPhone video on the picnic table, talk of the program and the schedule and the plans . . . poof. Meaningless. Why bother?
“Please know that my thoughts, your thoughts, our thoughts, are with everybody on the front lines of those fighting the coronavirus. But also know that whatever you need, we have resources here—whether it be medical, physical, psychological, emotional. Whatever we can do to help you during this time, please reach out.
“Obviously, I was looking very much forward to getting together, to seeing everyone, as we were supposed to start phase one. It can’t happen. I also understand that there are some things way more important than football. So I just want to share a couple of thoughts about things that I think are important to me, things that maybe set the stage for us as we think about how this time’s affecting us.”
When a coaching staff and key players don’t know each other well—quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, for instance, has never met the assistant he’ll be joined at the hip with this year, QB coach Jake Peetz—the communication via videoconference is vital. NFL rules mandate that teams and veterans can meet virtually for only two hours per day, four days per week. So those eight hours a week are gold. With the Panthers, offensive coordinator Joe Brady, 30, and Peetz 37, are spending about three more hours per day by videoconference going over scheme and plays and the minutiae that guys coaching together for the first time just have to get right. On Friday, Rhule jumped into their Microsoft Teams videoconference three times as they try to design a new offense with a new quarterback.
“I’m a walk-around coach,” Rhule said, “and so because I can’t pop into a coach’s office or sit down with a player in the weight room or the locker room, I pop into their Teams meetings sometimes, just to ask questions. I learned about being a walk-around coach from studying [former coach] Bill Parcells. Only now I have to do it talking to a screen, not a person.”
Rhule has a seven-year contract, and so he’s concentrating on building a strong foundation. (It’s like the 49ers did with Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch, on six-year deals, building for the long haul and surviving a 10-22 start.) On paper, the NFC South is miles ahead of the 2020 Panthers. Ten months from now, Carolina might be in the Trevor Lawrence derby. But whatever happens this year, owner David Tepper hired Rhule to build from the ground up so in 2022 the Panthers will be going toe-to-toe with Sean Payton and the best of the South. Tepper knows 2020 is an investment.
The Panthers will use this time to do something NFL-unconventional. Rhule has each coach watch the other coaches’ videoconferences and how they teach their individual positions. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow teaches on the greaseboard in his garage, the old-fashioned way. Peetz teaches the quarterbacks on a virtual projector, focusing his Microsoft Teams cam, standing next to a monitor with videos running to illustrate plays the way players would see them in a classroom. And they have an overseer. Rhule, in his time in college and the NFL, has coached linebacker, defensive line, special teams, offensive line, defensive line, quarterbacks, tight ends and as recruiting coordinator. So he finds value in having every coach learn every position. And he feels comfortable in giving coaching points to every assistant. Also: He’s assigned each assistant an area of expertise to present concepts and education topics to the rest of the staff, in 40-minute classes beginning this week. Linebackers coach Mike Siravo will give a clinic Monday on how to teach tackling. On Tuesday, Peetz will show routes that best attack a defense’s quarters coverage. And so on.
“Over the years,” Rhule said, “I just felt like there was a real disconnect between how much offense the defensive coaches know, and how much defense the offensive coaches know. And so that’s just allowed me I think to be really confident as a head coach. I’m not some guru, but I do know enough about every position on the field. The ones I haven’t been an expert at, I’ve hired really good coaches there. I’ll learn from them. It’s my job as a head coach to have players play their best football when they play for me. . . . You can’t ask the players to learn the full game if our coaches don’t do that. I think that all comes from my background.”
It bleeds down to the players. One day last week, Peetz handed the teaching for a day to Bridgewater. “He taught some drop-back and play-action,” said Brady, the new offensive coordinator. “We wanted Teddy to do it because I think there’s a fine line. Football’s in the grey. We can sit there as coaches and say, ‘Hey Teddy, you’re gonna take a three-step drop, and you’re gonna hitch, and here’s where the ball’s gonna go.’ But it’s good hearing a quarterback who’s actually going through it and seeing it—what he likes, what he sees, where he wants to go with the ball, where his eyes are going during all of it. He went about an hour and a half.”
Said Peetz: “He did allow a bathroom break. I had to ask coach Bridgewater for permission.”
“It’s pretty well-documented that over half of the Fortune 500 companies, the most successful companies in the world, were started in depression or recession times. That’s really kind of counterintuitive. How can great companies come out of times when there wasn’t much money, when things were hard, much like they are right now? Really, the answer is these companies weren’t built on fads. They were built on solid fundamentals. They were built the right way because they had to be or they never would have survived. By having to scrap and fight to be successful in those hard times, when good times came, they were already successful, and they are to this day. I take that as a message for me. How can I build myself to be the man, the husband, the father, the coach that I want to be? If I can find a way to make myself better during these hard times, how much better is it going to be when we can all go out to dinner again?”
It all sounds good and inspiring, but if history is a judge, Carolina fans better be patient. The edge Rhule has over, say, a Joe Judge or a Kevin Stefanski, is that he’s been a head coach—twice. And he’s had to build a program with a new base. His first Temple team was 2-10; his first Baylor team 1-11.
There are issues. Bridgewater is working with pro and college receivers (including Buffalo’s John Brown) in Miami, but not yet with any of his own. He’ll have to hit the ground running with five of his first 10 games against division foes with much more collegiality and collective experience. But Rhule wanted positive people who wouldn’t look for excuses. Bridgewater on that: “It’s a blessing to be back in this position that I’m in. Having someone believe in you, having an organization that believes in you and gives you the keys and says, ‘Here, this is your opportunity,’ that’s all that I’ve asked for. I know that it’s a difficult time right now and I’m not able to be around the guys, but with technology, we can FaceTime each other. We can call each other. We can meet. Guys have questions, it’s easy to get access to each other.”
Bridgewater might not be the most interesting story in the quarterback room. In the last 15 months, Brady has gone from being an invisible Saints offensive assistant to the passing tutor for Joe Burrow at LSU to the offensive coordinator for a division rival of Drew Brees and Sean Payton. Brady wakes up in his new Charlotte home every morning around 5, makes his schedule, and knows everyone in the NFL world is wondering, Okay, kid. You think you can complete with the big boys? Bring it on. He doesn’t sound intimidated.
Maybe the most valuable lesson Brady learned from Payton/Brees is watching them on Saturday nights. Prep week would be finished, but one important element remained. Brees would take every one of the 18 sections in the New Orleans game plan—screens, quarterback movement, play-action, red zone 20-to-the-11-yard-line, red zone 10-and-in, empty-backfield, and others—and pick out the plays he liked and wanted called the next day. He might pick out 40 or 45. Payton, every week, would hope to call every one Brees liked in the game.
“I learned,” said Brady, “that if your quarterback doesn’t have trust in the play, why are you calling it? He needs to have a clear vision on why you’re calling the play and what you’re looking for in the play and that understanding so that when that pigskin hits his hands, he knows where to go with the football. That exact meeting Sean and Drew had each Saturday night is what I did with Joe Burrow every week. So Joe knew when we get to third-and-4-through-6, this is what we’re gonna call, and he’d like it. At New Orleans and LSU, I learned to create a system that fit the players we had.”
“I think the thing we’re learning right now is there’s a lot of good people in this world right now—a lot of good players, a lot of good coaches, a lot of good doctors. But when you go through something like this, you realize we need great. I challenge you, I challenge myself right now, to be great. As players and coaches, if we can master our playbooks and our systems right now through distance-learning, iPads and laptops, if we can overcome all those obstacles, how great will we be when we have the opportunity to interact as teammates and co-workers and coaches?”
Peetz, the QB coach, worked for Nick Saban in two different stints at Alabama. Saban would start a season building a process for how the staff wanted the season to end—with a national championship—and build it, perhaps, differently in one year than the previous one. That would often depend on the players on the roster. Rhule’s way reminds Peetz of that. In an offseason that’s different than any these coaches have seen, Peetz believes that approach is important.
“What I think you’re going to see,” Peetz said, “is the people who come out of this ahead are people who have a process and a clear vision of what they want. That’s why Matt has been successful—because he’s had a defined vision and purpose and process as to how he’s gone about it.”
Rhule learned most from two coaches: Joe Paterno (Rhule was a walk-on backup linebacker at Penn State in the ’90s, and Paterno’s dog-earned 1971 tome “Football My Way” is at his office desk) and Bill Parcells. Parcells lived by two things Rhule values. One: There is a way to win every game. Two: Every 100 yards of field-position gained is worth seven points. What does that mean? Don’t underestimate special teams, and don’t underestimate field-position football. The Giants won a Super Bowl in 1991 with those mantras. Those are the kinds of things Rhule preaches. Does it matter, really, if you’re in the same room with a group of players, or with a group of coaches, when you’re teaching what you believe about football?
“People overuse ‘It is what it is,’ “ Rhule said, “but this situation is what it is. This is the adversity. There were a lot of constraints on me as a college head coach, going 1-11 and 2-10 and bearing the brunt of all that negativity and criticism and all those things. My first year at Baylor, my dad was around and I remember him saying to me, ‘You’ll rebuild Baylor football one relationship at a time.’ Same thing here. We’ll figure it out.”
“We’re going to see a lot of tragedy, but we’re also going to see a lot of greatness as we beat the coronavirus. As I sit here in my backyard, not doing much on the front lines like our heroic doctors and nurses are, I can learn from their example. What can I do to be better today? What can I raise that standard to? Take some time to really look at ourselves.
“Stay safe . . . Let’s find a way to go be great.”
When Jim Trotter of NFL Media broke the news the other day about the unconventional spur for teams to hire more minority GMs and head coaches, I thought the effort was a good thing. Incentivizing teams to hire minorities for big jobs by improving their draft positions showed the desperation of a league at the end of its rope on the issue, frustrated by having only four minority head coaches and two minority GMs. In the 2019 NFL Racial and Gender Report Card, issued annually by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida, the NFL’s score was its lowest in 15 years.
On Tuesday afternoon, during the NFL’s virtual spring meetings, owners will vote on these proposals:
- Teams can no longer prevent assistant coaches from interviewing for coordinator jobs on other staffs.
- Teams hiring a minority for a GM job will have their third-round draft position improved by 10 spots in the draft in the following year.
- Teams hiring a minority as head coach will have their third-round draft position improved by six spots in the draft in the following year.
- If the coach or GM is still employed entering the third season after their hire, the team’s fourth-round selection would be improved by five spots in that year’s draft.
- A team hiring a minority as quarterback coach would receive a fourth-round compensatory pick in the following year’s draft.
- The team losing an employee to be a minority head coach or GM would receive a third-round compensatory pick, and a team losing a minority coach who moved on to be a coordinator would get a fifth-round compensatory pick, in the following year’s draft.
That’s a lot to consider. Providing incentives to do the right thing in a league with an estimated 70 percent players of color is laudable, and Goodell and NFL exec Troy Vincent have been trying to come up with an aspiring tablet for this splitting headache. So I was taken aback by the near-universal condemnation of the proposals in the media and the public. The most common-sense voice on the issue I heard was ESPN’s Louis Riddick, an African-American who was runner-up to Dave Gettleman for the Giants’ GM job in December 2017. I called him Saturday to ask his thoughts.
“I understand what the diversity committee is trying to do,” Riddick said. “Their intention is honest and real. I know they spent a lot of time trying to think of how to get people into these positions. But the bottom line remains the same: Owners can hire who they want to hire. When I interviewed with the New York Giants, I felt it was a fair process. But if these policies are implemented, the first day I walk into the building, I know people with that organization would wonder: Did he get this job because he’s the best man for the job, or did he get it at least in part because it gives us a big break in the draft? On the first day of the job, that team would be undermining its own hire by injecting doubt in the minds of the people who work in the building. Is that how you really want a GM to start off his career?
“Owners need to answer the questions about why the numbers are the way they are. Nobody wants to get a job they didn’t earn. But of all the minority scouts who have risen up to be pro or college scouting directors, you cannot tell me some of them are not qualified to be GMs. If it’s not racism or they’re qualified, then what is it? We tend to surround ourselves with people who we’re comfortable with, people we have shared experiences with. How do you then branch out and get different people in your circle. You have to spend time with them, learn them. If the very first time minorities are meeting these owners is in an interview for the GM job, how are you going to get a fair shot?
“How can we set up more networking opportunities, so scouts and directors can mingle with and get to know owners—maybe at Super Bowls, at the combine, at owners meetings? But it truly has to have 100 percent buy-in from the owners.”
I’m dubious about networking leading to jobs. The NFL’s tried that—maybe not at the level Riddick would like, but it’s not a new concept. If the NFL by three-quarters vote implements rules to spur minority GM and coach hiring Tuesday, it sounds like one of the leading candidates, Riddick, would be angry about it. He doesn’t want to get a job unless he wins it with the factors the same for every candidate. So the NFL risks alienating the very group it’s dying to help by passing these bylaws.
Now for the coaching issue, which I think is a bit different. Think of these three jobs: offensive quality control, quarterback coach, assistant quarterback coach. Eight of the last 13 hires as NFL head coaches have entered coaching in those positions. So the NFL should be motivated to improve the pipeline there. My proposal would be to mandate that every coaching staff have at least one of the following five positions filled by a minority: head coach, offensive coordinator, quarterback coach, assistant quarterback coach, offensive quality control coach. To think that a staff would be somehow disadvantaged by forcing one of those coaches each year on every staff to be a person of color is silly; lots of teams don’t even have an assistant QB coach. So mine the colleges for the best and the brightest and give them shots at the highest level. Get them in the pipeline.
1. I believe it’s likely the vote to allow assistants to interview for coordinator jobs will pass. There seems to be little opposition to it.
2. The measures to buttress the Rooney Rule—the improvement in draft slots—are another matter. I believe Art Rooney of the Steelers, a strong believer in diversity as his father was, and Vincent want to see this pass. I’m not sure of Goodell’s ardor for it; usually when it comes to owner votes, what Goodell wants, Goodell gets. But Sunday night, someone with knowledge of the issues in the league told me, “This is going to be close. I can’t call which way it’ll go.”
3. If the measures fail, the NFL absolutely has to turn to strengthening the minority fellowship programs. Instead of “internships,” have all 32 teams budget every year for a full-time minority coach to assist on the offensive side of the ball (sort of my point about making sure one of the key five pathway jobs to being a head coach goes to a minority coach) for one year. Ask Bruce Arians how Byron Leftwich got to his post now, and he’ll tell you Arians kept asking and asking until Leftwich agreed to come to Arizona for a season . . . and now Leftwich, who has fallen in love with coaching, is on a track to be a head coach.
This is the third in a series on how NFL teams are conducting their offseason programs, and installing their 2020 plays virtually. Previously: the Chargers offensive line and the Seahawks tight ends.Today: the Minnesota wide receivers.
This spring, the NFL allows two hours of classroom work virtually for players four days per week. The Vikings receiver group met via videoconference on Wednesday, with the initials of the receivers on the bottom of the screen: Chad Beebe, Alexander Hollins, Justin Jefferson, Tajae Sharpe, Dillon Mitchell, K.J. Osborn, Quartney Davis, Adam Thielen, Dan Chisena (pictured), coaches Christian Jones and Andrew Janocko (pictured), and Davion Davis (pictured).
The coach: Janocko, 32, is in his first year as wide receivers coach.
“Our attitude is to turn every situation into a positive. This is the hand we’re dealt—everybody’s dealt the same hand. So let’s find a way to turn this into an advantage. The biggest challenge, I think, is to make sure everybody understands everything you’re teaching. You can’t see them the way you’d see them in a room, so if anything, I over-communicate. I never assume anyone knows anything. Some guys, if their internet is slow one day, or if my voice skips and he misses a point I made, I’ve got to be sure he tells me and we get it right. Basically, never assume the guys all have it till you get that reinforcement that they do.
“I’m fortunate in that my sister and my dad are both teachers; my dad’s a teacher and a coach. I’ve reached out to both of them quite a bit. I ask, ‘How do you use this medium to keep guys engaged? That’s what they say—over-communicate.
“I know this: We’ll never take it for granted again when we’re all together in one room.”
The veteran: Thielen, 29, is one of the game’s leading wide receivers.
“I like to be able to share with the guys the little things I do to maybe help them understand a concept or a route. I think it’s gone pretty smooth. Andrew will put up the route and then some video to illustrate it. . . . It’s really not too much different from learning in a meeting room.”
The good news: Thielen is one of the most popular Vikings, and he’s married with two boys at home. Asher Thielen was climbing on his dad as we did this Zoom call. “The one benefit, I’ve found, is how much more time I can devote to my family and to my training and nutrition. I’m not traveling, and I don’t have a lot of things to do outside of football and family, so I feel it’s been the best offseason for me as far as preparing for the season.”
Thielen has a sophisticated home gym, and he does some running and aerobic work at a high school near his home. He works with his trainer and business partner, Ryan Engelbert; together, their firm, ETS Performance, provides training and nutrition services to athletes and non-athletes. “I’ve got a dialed-in nutrition plan, the best I’ve ever had, and I’m able to regulate my calorie intake because I’ve got the time to do it—and I know the right calories to consume,” Thielen said. “The idea is to get leaner, stronger, faster, quicker. That’s my main focus now.”
Next month I’m going to start my annual series of guest columns. I’d like one of them to be a special one paying tribute to those on the front lines of the pandemic, and so I’m going to go on a bit of a fishing expedition here.
If you read this column, and you work in ANY aspect of putting yourself on the line during the coronavirus crisis, I’d like you to be part of one of the guest columns. I’m looking for several people among the following who read this column: doctors, nurses, EMTs, hospital workers, firefighters, police officers, ambulance drivers, grocery store workers, sanitation workers, bus drivers and all transit workers, truck drivers, meat-packing plant workers, shipping employees working in close proximity, utility employees, cab drivers—and whatever other business I have not included with those who put themselves in harm’s way these days.
I am interested in your stories, and I am interested in what role your background in sports might have played in your work and in your diligence in putting your lives on the line for the rest of us. Maybe your discipline or work ethic as molded by a high school team, or a college team, or some experience in athletics.
As I said, I am fishing for something here, and it may not be there. But when I think of former Titans defensive back Myron Rolle working in Mass General Hospital in Boston, aiding in the fight there, I wonder if there are other stories with important pandemic-fighters with roots in sports somewhere in the past.
If you are someone in this category, I’d love your contribution to the guest column coming this summer. Send 200 words or less describing what you do and how sports might have aided your drive and determination to help others with the following information:
Include: Your name, where you live, your job and a description of 200 words or less about how something in your athletic past influenced what you’re doing now.
Thanks. Looking forward to reading the submissions.
“She mattered. She did not receive enough credit for mattering.”
—Former “NFL Today” host Brent Musburger, to me Saturday night, on the first female NFL studio analyst, Phillis George, who began on the NFL show 45 years ago. She died Saturday at 70.
“Remember this one phrase: Farther is safer.”
—Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, in a video that was mandatory viewing for NFL employees accompanying the news that team facilities will begin to reopen this week.
“Certainly it had a chance to be successful. But quite honestly we weren’t ready in New York to handle it. I know that sounds critical, but it’s just a fact.”
—Saints coach Sean Payton, a member of the Competition Committee that crafted the pass-interference-review rule in 2019 only to see it not handled by the officiating department the way the rule was written. Obvious pass-interference infractions, not called on the field, were sent to New York for review and not overturned for much of the year. Kindergartners could see it.
Glad to see somebody’s got the guts to call it like it is.
“He didn’t ask to be drafted by the Packers. He’s not to blame at all … I’m not going to say I was thrilled by the pick.”
“The goal is, obviously, to play in my forties. That hasn’t changed.”
“You won’t be having full stadiums. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have some fans in the stadium, either. If you’re comfortable being in a closed airplane for a cross-country trip, you know, 18 inches apart, maybe with two seats in between you and being five feet away from each other, you might be comfortable in an open-air stadium. Maybe, right?”
—Carolina owner David Tepper, to CNBC last week, on the prospect of playing NFL games in front of some fans in 2020.
“Your community needs you. When I say your community, I mean your rec league, the church, your youth group, and most of all your school. They need you. Most importantly, building your community is how you change the world … Be the first generation to embrace your responsibility: to rebuild your community. Class of 2020, the world has change. You will determine how we rebuild. And I ask that you make your community your priority.”
—LeBron James, in a message to high-school grads, on the ABC “Graduate Together” show Saturday night.
For those Giants fans questioning the naming of Jason Garrett as the team’s offensive coordinator, thinking he didn’t do enough with the offensive weaponry he had:
- Dallas was sixth in the NFL in scoring last year, first in total yards.
- Since the Ezekiel Elliott/Dak Prescott draft in 2016, Dallas is 40-24 in the last four regular seasons, and the Cowboys’ average finish in those four years was 10th in total yards, 12th in points scored. You might think that’s not good enough, which is fair, but it is, on average, top third of the league.
- Prescott and Russell Wilson have each played all 64 regular-season games since 2016. Comparing Prescott’s 64 starts to Wilson’s 64 starts since 2016, Prescott has 19 more passing yards and is 1.5 percent more accurate.
- Prescott was picked 109 slots after Paxton Lynch in 2016, and 84 slots after Christian Hackenberg.
Why’d I use that last note? Because coaching is involved in NFL player productivity. And 133 days after Prescott was picked 135th overall by Dallas, he started at quarterback for the Cowboys. The Cowboys went 13-3 in 2016, and Prescott has quarterbacked every Dallas game since. So I would feel fine with Jason Garrett being my offensive coordinator and coaching my young franchise quarterback and young franchise running back.
Teddy Bridgewater hasn’t had much to do in the relative lockdown at his home in Miami. So one recent day, he got on his bike, rode 75 miles against the wind to West Palm Beach, got on the train back to Miami, and 96 minutes later he was back home. “Just under five hours on the ride up there,” Bridgewater said. “I’m planning a 100-mile ride next.”
2019 was a bad year for highly drafted cornerbacks, and not just Deandre Baker of the Giants. There were eight cornerbacks picked in the first two rounds, and all eight were picked in a 25-choice span. All eight got drafted between 30th overall (Baker) and 54th (Lonnie Johnson, Houston), and none were among PFF’s top 50 cornerbacks in their rookie years. Sean Murphy-Bunting was the top-rated corner, 56th among the 128 corners rated by PFF. Johnson was the last—128th among 128.
Could be an outlier season, but lots of low-performing talent (Greedy Williams, Cleveland, was PFF’s 107th corner last year) need to improve their games as sophomores.
Third in a series, while I have not been on the road in 2.5 months.
CLASSIC TRAVEL NOTE
From August 2015.
Dallas Cowboys camp. Oxnard, Calif. Who walks into PR man Rich Dalrymple’s office but Tommy Lasorda? Lasorda loves Jason Garrett.
Garrett tells Lasorda: “Tell Peter the story about Sandy Koufax.”
Here’s the windup, and the pitch, from Lasorda, the former little lefty pitcher in the Dodger system.
“[In 1954] I have a godd— good spring training with the Dodgers, trying to make the ball club. We go into Brooklyn to open the season and I get a call from Buzzie Bavasi, the general manager, to come to his office. I walk in and he said, ‘Tommy, I’ve got a problem.’ I said, ‘What’s the matter Buzzie? One of your relatives sick?’ He said, ‘No, I have to send somebody out. I have to cut one guy out of this ball club, Tommy.’ I said, ‘You didn’t bring me in here to tell me that! No! I won 17 games in f—ing Triple-A last year! What do I have to do to show you I can pitch here? You’re going to keep Koufax over me? No!! He’s a f—ing guy who can’t throw a ball and hit a f—ing barn door! And you’re going to keep him over me?!’ He said, ‘Look Tommy, you’ve gotta go.’ So, I went. So like I say, it took the greatest left-handed pitcher in baseball to knock me off of that Brooklyn team. That was my claim to fame.”
RIP Michael McCaskey! Five years before I became the HC of the Bears, I attended an NFL Symposium to help minority assistants become head coaches. I was blessed to randomly sit at the same table as Michael.
— Lovie Smith (@LovieSmith) May 17, 2020
Smith, the former coach of the Bears, now coaches at Illinois.
My kid asked “is the F word the boss of all the swear words?” Virtual school is going great, thanks for asking.
— Jason Gay (@jasongay) May 15, 2020
Gay is a Wall Street Journal columnist.
Making college kids stay in a hotel the night before a game is an example of overspending to pacify coaches who feel the need to control everything.
I'm sure it has some value, but it's a luxury that has become a "necessity" because _ well they do it so we gotta.
— Ralph D. Russo (@ralphDrussoAP) May 15, 2020
Russo is a college football writer for the Associated Press.
The “stay-at-home” order was cool… can we do a “stay-somewhere-else” next.
— Rich Ohrnberger (@ohrnberger) May 12, 2020
Ohrnberger is a former NFL offensive lineman and now a radio host in San Diego.
I miss rain delays…I miss getting jammed in cold weather..i miss batting gloves…I miss long replay reviews that don’t get overturned even though he was safe.. I miss umpires..I miss long flights at 3 am after a tough loss… I miss the shift.. i do.. I miss it all…
— Matt Carpenter (@MattCarp13) May 13, 2020
Carpenter plays for the St. Louis Cardinals.
You’re not the only one, Matt.
Dubious about the NFL playing. From Chris Williams: “After reading what Dr. Fauci said, I don’t see how the season opens. His scenario of testing multiple times per week and the possible results of one, or more, players testing positive on a Saturday before a Sunday game makes me say this. Absent a miracle cure before September, there absolutely will be players that test positive at some point. It’s a certainty. (I’m totally ignoring the fact that some states haven’t yet said they would even allow games to be played, fans or no fans in attendance. I applaud the fact that the NFL is charging forward, but I just don’t see it.”
You might be right, Chris. But we really don’t know where we’ll be in three months; this virus changes and morphs into different variations by the week, it seems. I think time is one of the best allies that the NFL has, and the league will use it all. Dr. Fauci told me he thinks having football being played is good for the country, and I agree.
I am a hypocrite. From A.J.: “Dr. Fauci’s credentials and knowledge are not in question. He is very obviously an intelligent and accomplished scientist who has access to all the information regarding Covid-19 that he could ask for. And he makes the most sensible medical recommendations as you would hope a doctor would. That said, you are somewhat hypocritical to write, ‘Perhaps one day we’ll live in a world that values truth and science more than it does now.’ You are asserting that we should all follow Dr. Fauci’s, and other medical authorities, advice on Covid-19 to the letter and eliminate any risk. Yet earlier in your article, you write that you will sit all day on Oct. 15 and drink a bucket of beer. Please do share the doctor’s name that says that is okay! All modern science tells us to not drink at all, eat less, exercise more, no red or processed meats, etc. We know most people (you and I included) don’t follow all that advice. Why is this pandemic any different?”
Well, I suppose the difference is one can kill you in six days, and the other can kill you in 60 years.
So nice of you to say—thanks. From David Saks, of South Africa: “I just wanted to drop a short note to say that this week’s column was your best in ages, certainly the best FMIA so far. The stories on Don Shula were fantastic and the entire article was tight. I religiously read your article every Monday (afternoon for us here) and love your inside scoop. My question is whether you believe that there are elements of this strange offseason, which will be incorporated in the post-corona era (such as Zoom meetings in the offseason or scouts available on zoom to owners/GMs in war rooms on draft weekend)? Please visit South Africa again soon!”
Thank you, David. That was a rewarding column to write. Good question about what will be part of the NFL’s new normal when the pandemic goes away. So many teams have gotten attached to using Microsoft Teams or Zoom to communicate and hold meetings—I think many teams will at least run some scouting meetings virtually from here on out. I do think there have been surprising benefits to not traveling as much, and being able to get work done while staying home.
I doubt it, but who knows? From Anthony Bagnette, of Australia: “G’Day from Australia. If the pandemic prevents the NFL from playing the 2020 season in the U.S. at all, do you envision them considering alternative locations? In light of the current pandemic situations in Mexico and the UK, I understand that the NFL has already cancelled overseas (London and Mexico City) games for the 2020 season. in contrast, NRL [National Rugby League] matches are scheduled to resume in Australia this month. Whilst the rugby matches will initially be without fans, if Australia can continue to successfully contain the Covid-19 virus, it is envisioned that the games will eventually be played in front of fans. Do you think the NFL would consider playing the 2020 season in Australia (or someplace similar with respect to its Covid-19 position)?”
Thanks for writing, Anthony. I doubt the NFL would move lock, stock and barrel anywhere for the season. Players would protest, surely, at being asked to leave home for four or five months, and the players union I’m sure would not allow it. I think the NFL will play here, or not at all.
It seemed topical. From Troy Ruskamp, of Topeka, Kans. (after The Peter King Podcast last week featured Dr. Anthony Fauci): “What happened to this being a football podcast? I remember about a month ago you said your podcast was going to be a break from the pandemic world we now live in. But this morning I see your newest episode with guest Dr. Fauci!? I do enjoy the pod, you have the most well-rounded yet detailed and accurate perspective on the NFL, I think you’re the best sports journalist out there. Having Dr. Fauci on seems kind of weird. I guess my point is, more football, no virus.”
Thanks for listening, Troy. I thought Fauci’s comments on the NFL would be something people would like to hear, particularly since he hasn’t said those things anywhere else. I’ll keep your thoughts in mind—though I’ve had Matt Ryan, Ron Rivera, Tom Telesco, Frank Reich, Trey Wingo (on the draft), Thomas Dimitroff, Justin Herbert, Zac Taylor, John Lynch and Larry Csonka since the beginning of April, along with my mock draft. I also thought just hearing Fauci talk about the NFL was interesting. To each his or her own.
1. I think, when asked about the proliferation of football information people on television, I’ve made it clear over the years that the late Will McDonough is responsible for all of us who have gotten our mugs on TV to talk about the NFL. Years before, there was a trailblazer for women who, as Brent Musburger said higher in the column, never got the kudos she should have gotten.
Phyllis George, the 1971 Miss America, was hired by CBS Sports CEO Robert Wussler in 1975 to join the new “NFL Today” show hosted by Musburger and Irv Cross. Think of that: 45 years ago, one of the three studio hosts for an NFL pregame show was a woman. George admitted her football knowledge was very much a work in progress. “But when she got sent out to interview players,” Musburger told me Saturday night, “she came back with some great ones.” In George’s rookie year, 1975, star Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach, who seemed to chafe at his image as a total straight-arrow compared to Joe Namath, told her: “I enjoy sex as much as Joe Namath. Only I do it with one girl.” That’s the greatest line of Roger Staubach’s public life. Is Staubach telling that to Irv Cross?
2. I think it’s easy to forget about the first woman in the NFL TV world, because there are so many good ones on the networks covering the NFL in 2020. We think of women on TV covering the NFL as a relatively recent phenomenon. She did it 45 years ago. The NFL is 100 years old, and George started on the “NFL Today” just past the midpoint in league history. As Murberger told me Saturday night:
“Irv Cross and I had been selected to do the NFL Today, doing a live pregame show for the first time. In late June, Bob Wussler called and said, ‘Brent, do you know Phyllis George?’ I didn’t, really. He said she’d been Miss America, and he said, ‘I would like to put a woman in the studio with you and Irv. Would you be okay with it?’ I said sure, that’d be good to start this endeavor. I never met anyone like her who had the presence she had when she came in the room. Not arrogant. Not at all. Just a good person. But in that era, you get a Miss America on a football show, and it was like, whoa, whoa, whoa. The old boy network didn’t like that. But she was able to convince the hard-core fans that it would be fine to have her come into the living room. She was able to capture both genders. Men and women were comfortable with her being in the living room, so comfortable that she became part of the family. I told her once, years later: ‘Phyllis, you never received enough credit. You opened doors. You were the pioneer in this industry.’ ”
3. I think I always consider Mike McCaskey the accidental team architect. McCaskey, grandson of George Halas and the eldest son of Bears principal owner Virginia McCaskey, died of leukemia Saturday night at age 77. Mike McCaskey ran the Bears from 1983 to 1999, lording over the team that won the Super Bowl in 1985. At league meetings, he was as likely to talk to reporters about the real world as the football world. I’ve never met a team executive as well-rounded. McCaskey went to Yale, played wide receiver, majored in psychology and philosophy, loved photography. After Yale, he spent two years in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, teaching children there. He was a cheerful guy but not particularly jocular, and he clashed with bigger-than-life Mike Ditka. But he was a Halas/McCaskey family man through and through, and felt after his tenure that, even though the Bears probably should have won more than the one Super Bowl with that great defensive team of the ’80s, his grandfather would have been proud of the team the Bears put on the field in those days.
4. I think, regarding the armed-robbery charges in south Florida against Giants cornerback DeAndre Baker: If the charges prove true, he should not play in the NFL again. (An alleged accomplice, Seattle cornerback Quinton Dunbar, was not armed, a witness said, but if it is proven he was involved, it’s hard to think the Seahawks will keep him either.) The charges against both players included very big ifs, obviously. But I wonder if the Giants might not give Baker the benefit of waiting till trial, if there is one, after police said Baker allegedly directed an accomplice to shoot someone at a Miami party last Wednesday.
5. I think the Baker story is not good for Giants GM Dave Gettleman. With a desperate cornerback need upon taking over as GM late in 2017, Gettleman used a third-round Supplemental Draft pick in 2018 on Western Michigan cornerback Sam Beal, a first-round pick on Baker (moving up seven spots by dealing fourth and fifth-round picks to get him), and a three-year, $43-million contract this year on Carolina free-agent cornerback James Bradberry (average PFF cornerback ranking among NFL cornerbacks in his four seasons: 76). Beal’s barely played, Baker was a discipline and motivational problem last year as a rookie, and Bradberry will have to play better than he has to justify $31 million guaranteed. To acquire Baker and Beal, Gettleman invested second, third, fourth and fifth-round picks, as it turns out. This is a crucial year for the Giants, who’ve had the worst record in football over the last three years, and for Gettleman, for spending so much in draft capital and real money to fix a major problem.
6. I think it’s good on Aaron Rodgers the teammate to bury his feeling about the Packers drafting a quarterback in the first round and being magnanimous about it in his first public comments three weeks after the fact. Maybe it took him that long to cool down (doubt it, but who knows), but time was the friend of the Packers. He was gracious, probably 83-percent honest (“not thrilled by the pick necessarily” was likely his euphemism for “just about blowing a gasket that Brian Gutekunst picked a quarterback instead of a wideout”), but it can’t help Rodgers or his team to be publicly warring with the front office. I do think he’ll be a good guy for Jordan Love to learn from, particularly in terms of decision-making; Love threw some awful interceptions at Utah State.
7. I think, even if only for appearance’s sake, the NFL needs to investigate James Harrison’s original comments on former teammate’s Willie Colon’s podcast “Going Deep” that after Harrison knocked out Cleveland receiver Mohamed Massaquoi with a vicious hit in 2010, coach Mike Tomlin “handed me an envelope.” The inference, of course, was that Tomlin gave him money either as a reward for the hit or as payment to help him with a major NFL fine. Harrison insisted Friday on his Instagram account that Tomlin “has NEVER paid me for hurting someone or TRYING to hurt someone” but that, of course, leaves a pretty big question in the wake of all this: What was in the envelope that Harrison claims Tomlin gave him—a thank-you note? Perhaps Harrison will say now he was just kidding. But the story has to be vetted.
Fair or unfair, there’s a perception the NFL and the Steelers are very close. The late Dan Rooney advocated hard for Goodell to win the commissioner race in 2006, and when he did, it was Rooney who delivered the good news in person at a Chicago hotel. (I’ve never bought the favoritism claim. After Goodell issued a heavy fine to Steelers receiver Hines Ward for what the league deemed an egregious hit, Rooney complained bitterly. “Dan,” Goodell told him, “the problem is, you never think your players do anything wrong.”) But perceptions are perceptions.
8. I think the Saints are watching this very closely. If the NFL doesn’t at least investigate and speak to Harrison and Tomlin, it will buttress the Saints’ belief that they were creamed for Bountygate two years later, while a franchise they believe is tight with Goodell, the Steelers, is treated differently. In a radio interview last week, Saints coach Sean Payton said of the Harrison claim: “That’ll be something that’s tucked away or under the rug at Park Avenue. [NFL offices are located on Park Avenue in New York.] They’ll look into it briefly.”
9. I think I try to avoid clichés when possible. But the other day, I looked up “tone-deaf” in the dictionary and there was a photo of Blake Snell.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Remembrance of the Week: A wonderful piece by Liz Clarke of the Washington Post on the multifaceted Pepper Rodgers, who died last week at 88.
b. Rodgers was perhaps the most quotable coach/raconteur of all time. I’d forgotten one of his best lines till Clarke wrote it. Working to help the city of Memphis try to get an NFL expansion team in the nineties, Rodgers scoffed at Jacksonville’s bid—because no one had ever written a song about Jacksonville. Wrote Clarke, of Rodgers’ tenure as UCLA’s head coach:
Rodgers’s wishbone offense and wide-open personality played well in Westwood. Addressing his Bruins before a game against Stanford, Rodgers said: “Men, the rest of your life the Stanford man is going to have the best job, make the most money and marry the most beautiful women. This is your last chance to knock him on his ass!“
c. So many people dying these days. RIP Fred Willard. Lord, was this a funny man. As the play-by-play man in “Best In Show,” commenting on the bloodhound, I fell off my chair when I first saw it in the theater and did the same when I found it Saturday night.
d. Obit of the Week: Ed Antonio Jr., “the original take-care-of-your-essential-workers person,” in the New York Times. He died of the virus in New York City at 79.
e. Now, this is a man of service, from the obituary:
Mr. Antonio, a retired pharmaceutical salesman, and his wife, Paula, were married for 60 years. They had met as toddlers living on the same block in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay section. Later, they were high school sweethearts. After Hurricane Sandy decimated the Rockaways in 2012, the couple stayed in their home despite having no electricity. They fed cleanup workers and watched over the homes of neighbors who had decamped. Mr. Antonio died at home on April 14. He may have exposed himself to the virus by mobilizing a mask-making effort for hospital workers while many New Yorkers sheltered in place, his son said.
g. TV Story of the Week: (Actually, I’m two weeks late with the praise—just catching up) Steve Hartman of CBS, on an Anaheim restaurateur who—I promise—is simple too good to be true, Bruno Serato.
h. “He may end up in the food line himself,” Hartman reports. That’s how amazing this story is, and this man.
i. RIP, Jerry Stiller. Really, RIP, Frank Costanza. That’s how I’ll always remember Stiller, George’s LOUD father on “Seinfeld.” In no particular order, my favorite Frank Costanza quotes of all times:
- “At the Festivus dinner, you gather your family around and YOU TELL ‘EM ALL THE WAYS THEY DISAPPOINTED YOU OVER THE PAST YEAR!”
- “I find tinsel distracting.” (One reason why Festivus was his winter holiday.)
- “I got a lot of problems with you people!” (At Festivus dinner.)
- “This is Frank Costanza. You think you can keep us out of Florida? We’re moving in lock, stock and barrel.” (To Morty Seinfeld, on the Costanzas’ plan to move to the Seinfelds’ neighborhood in Florida.)
- “You sayin’ you want a piece of me?” (To Elaine.)
- “Let me understand. You got the hen, the chicken and the rooster. The rooster goes with the chicken. So who’s having sex with the hen?” (To no one in particular.)
- “In the car with my wife he stopped short. You think I don’t know what that’s about? That’s my old move. I used it on Estelle 40 years ago.” (After Kramer stopped short.)
- “What the hell did you trade Jay Buehner for?” (To George Steinbrenner.)
- “Do you know about the, uh, cup sizes? They have different cups. You got the A, the B, the C, the D—that’s the biggest.” (Preparing George for his bra-salesman interview.)
- “Serenity now!”
j. Send me your favorites to firstname.lastname@example.org.
k. Football Story of the Week: Michael-Shawn Dugar of The Athletic, on the two-time Super Bowl champ Brandon Browner, now imprisoned for eight years for attempted murder of his girlfriend in California.
l. Great point in the story from a former teammate, Cliff Avril:
“Nobody can relate to what you’re going through with the transition — or the denial — of your career being over with. Trying to fit into the real world, trying to find who you are outside of football. It’s just a wide range of different thoughts guys struggle with because they’ve been doing this their whole life. If you can find that community of people who have gone through that . . . it allows you to be able to vent, and people understand what you’re going through.”
m. Dugar’s strong end to the Browner story: “His family is broken. He has three young children. He is eligible for parole in 2024.”
n. We started watching “After Life,” with Ricky Gervais, on Netflix. Um, I don’t know what to say. Dark, disturbing, funny in a weird way. I’m going to continue with this story of an unhappy man who’s just lost his wife to cancer and generally hates his life anyway . . . but I don’t know for how long.
o. Coffeenerdness: My 63-day macchiato-less streak was broken last week, when my wife and I invested a very long walk to go a to-go Starbucks near Barclays Center. Two words describe breaking the drought: Worth it. Chuck the dog found many good smells along the way. I savored the macchiato, sipping a third of it immediately, then walking home with the rest and microwaving it and finishing the last two-thirds at my desk.
p. Beernerdness: Kudos to Georgetown Brewing in Seattle—one of America’s great craft breweries—for making Manny’s Pale Ale available portably for the first time. Manny’s, my favorite Pale Ale and the beer of choice when I’m at Safeco Field (which usually happens once a year at least), has been canned by Georgetown. If you’ve had it on a foray to the Pacific Northwest, you’ll know why being able to have it in the home fridge is a great thing.
hasn’t passed to a Panther.