IRVINE, Calif. — There was a telling moment in Rams practice Saturday, though barely perceptible. The best defensive player in football, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, walked up to Matthew Stafford, mid-practice, and hugged him. This is not done, a defensive player hugging the quarterback, during a competitive period of practice. But here it was, under an unforgiving southern California sun, 99 hugging 9, and then practice continued.
“I mean, I’m just so happy he’s on our team,” Donald told me later. “I hugged him, just because. I said to him, ‘Man, I just wanna give you a hug.’ “
Donald, the most decorated defensive player in football, was searching for the right words here, because it was clearly unusual for him to do that in practice to a guy he’s trying to foil. “It’s honestly nothing funny,” he said finally. “He’ll be throwing the ball at practice, and I’m rushing, trying to win the play, and the throws he makes, the balls he throws, throwing to spots, how perfect a spiral it is. It’s crazy. As a competitor, I’m just happy. Happy he’s here.”
This will be a bit of a quarterback-centric column, because I’ve been places on my training-camp tour where this is a very big season for the quarterbacks—Derek Carr (Vegas), Dak Prescott (Dallas), Jimmy Garoppolo/Trey Lance (San Francisco), and Stafford with the Rams. Regarding Stafford: How amazing is it that a quarterback who was drafted first overall by Detroit in 2009, and never won a division title in 12 seasons, and never won a playoff game in 12 seasons, is now unabashedly viewed by some of the most respected people in football—Donald and coach Sean McVay, for two—as the missing piece in a Rams’ championship.
Lots of pressure on Stafford. And on his coach.
Last week, a bunch of baseball teams did what the Rams have been doing to build their team since McVay arrived in 2017: Stars went flying at the trading deadline. Six months to the day after the Rams traded a ransom to Detroit to get Stafford, the crosstown Dodgers traded their top two prospects to Washington for mega-stars Max Scherzer and Trea Turner. Just as the Dodgers did that to try to beat back major contenders San Francisco and San Diego in their division, the Rams got Stafford because they need to compete in the best division in football—and they’d fallen out of love with Jared Goff. It’s unfair to put the ’19 and ’20 failings on Goff’s shoulders alone; this is the player who did so much to get the Rams to a Super Bowl in 2018. But he’d hit a wall, and McVay and he just weren’t working. So here we are.
McVay fell in like with Stafford during a chance meeting with him while vacationing in Mexico in late January. (Both men say the encounter was unplanned.) As Carolina, Washington, New England (lightly), Denver, Indianapolis and the Jets tried to get involved in the Stafford stakes, the Rams had a quarterback Detroit thought may be its future (Goff), the Rams wanted Stafford badly, and the Rams were willing to surrender two first-round picks to get him. No other team could make an offer that complete.
Half a year later, Aaron Donald’s hugging Stafford and Sean McVay is lifting Stafford’s kids up to the sky and chortling with them post-practice. So how’s it going? Pretty good—but camp is camp, and we’ll see what happens when Khalil Mack is chasing Stafford around SoFi Stadium in six weeks. On Saturday, I made the rounds of Rams execs, McVay and players, and watched their two-hour practice. The biggest takeaway from the day: In Jared Goff, McVay had a student. In Matthew Stafford, McVay has a peer.
Some of it might be proximity of age: Stafford is 33, McVay 35. Goff is 26. But it’s more than that. To McVay, a quarterback needs a lot of traits, but two important ones are disciplined reads going through his options on a play, and boldness on downfield throws—the ability and mental acuity to be willing to take risks when it’s smart. Clearly, those are traits McVay sees in Stafford.
Last Thursday during the team’s nightly meeting at the hotel, McVay cued up a play that had meaning far beyond one down. Stafford took the snap inside the 5-yard line. Empty formation. Stafford started on Cooper Kupp in the right slot. Covered. Tight end Tyler Higbee on a crossing route from the left. Too much traffic. Then Robert Woods, back of the end zone. Stafford lowered his arm slot to three-quarters to fit the ball where he saw an opening. Then zzzzzzzzip. “That thing came whizzing by my left ear,” center Austin Corbett said. “I heard it! I’m like, ‘Holy cow!’ “
“When the pros are saying ‘Ooh, holy blank,’ you know it’s a pretty good play,” said McVay. “Those who know, know.”
That play accomplished a lot. It showed McVay and the offense that Stafford was going to be honest and thorough in his progressions, so the second and third and fourth options need to be ready. That wasn’t always the case with Goff. And the fastball. And moving and manipulating the pocket, changing his arm slot. And did I mention the fastball? “He will attempt throws that 26 or 28 starting quarterbacks in the NFL won’t,” said Dan Orlovsky, the ESPN analyst who projects a happy marriage for Stafford with McVay. “Matthew’s aggressive, and his confidence is founded in aggression. But he’s smart about it.”
Saturday was a good day for the team too. Stafford went at top cornerback Jalen Ramsey a few times, and Ramsey made a great play to bat away a deep throw for DeSean Jackson once; later, in a red zone period, Ramsey may have lulled Stafford into thinking he had a pathway to Kupp, but he darted in at the last second to pick Stafford—and ran it back for a touchdown. On the last play of practice, another tight window, and Stafford risked it, hitting Woods over leaping safety Juju Hughes.
All of that is exactly what practice on July 31 should be: great competition among very good players trying to get ready to win the final game of the season.
“When you really study him,” McVay told me, “you see the intricacies of quarterback position. He’s playing it at the highest level in the most difficult spots. You’re getting rushed. His ability to navigate the pocket, his movement, his feel for the rush, his ability to keep his eyes down the field. And then to exhaust your progression against that rush, that’s something in the NFL that a quarterback just has to do, and you see him progress to second, third, fourth, maybe even the fifth option, is real. It’s important.”
FMIA: How much did losing wear on you in Detroit?
Stafford: “Had some great seasons there where we were successful and that’s as much fun as you can have playing football. It’s tough to lose. Everybody knows that. For me, it wasn’t so much that as it was just kind of knowing where the organization was going. It was going through a big change with new head coach, new general manager. Gonna be a lot of new players as well. I just felt like the timing was right. It was well within their rights to tell me that it wasn’t, and I would’ve understood. Just really appreciate them for at least entertaining the idea and then obviously going through and together making that happen. It’s something that as a player, you want to have chances at it. Luckily, they were great and sent me to a place that’s got a bunch of great players and a bunch of recent success.”
FMIA: Any part of you feel you let the franchise down there?
Stafford: “Definitely. I sit there and go, ‘Man, I wish I could’ve gotten it done.’ I mean, it would’ve been amazing to have a Super Bowl parade down Woodward Avenue in Detroit. Didn’t happen. Tough pill to swallow as a competitor and somebody who touches the ball on every single offensive play. You definitely look back and wish you’d done a few things different here or there in some games, that maybe change the outcomes of seasons, but I’m focused completely forward now.
FMIA: Are you a good fit for the McVay offense?
Stafford: “I mean, it’s very complex. At the same time, it all makes sense. There’s just quite a bit to it. I’m doing everything that I can to make sure that I’m diving into it and getting as comfortable as I can as quickly as I possibly can. As far as fitting me, I think it probably fits most quarterbacks to tell you the truth. It’s a really good offense. I’m excited to try to bring it to life.”
FMIA: Think the fun of football will be rekindled here?
Stafford: “I don’t think I ever lost it. I love playing this game. I love competing. Being in those big moments late in games, playing in big games, playing in playoff games, that’s what you play this game for. You live for those moments. Hopefully I get a bunch of opportunities at those while I’m here and make the most of them.”
Honeymoons are wonderful. McVay and Stafford are on one now, as you can see. Stafford has the undying respect of his peers for his arm strength and guts and football smarts. Lots of good quarterbacks have been stuck on bad teams and played parts or all of their careers in the mire of mediocrity. But Stafford isn’t in the Michigan muck anymore. He’s got two of the best defensive players in the game, Donald and Ramsey, and enough weapons so that any good to very good quarterback should have a good chance to win. His running game will be diminished after the loss of Cam Akers for the season last month, but that might just mean three to five more ball-control safe throws per game to try to move the chains. Stafford was already going to be a strong contender to lead the league in passing yards and touchdowns. Minus Akers, Stafford could be the most desirable fantasy quarterback in the NFL’s golden age of quarterbacks.
There’s nothing standing in his way now. The offensive chessmaster who is McVay will challenge Stafford to be great and give him every chance to be great. After 12 years in a football hinterland, the L.A. lights will be bright, starting in prime time on NBC in the Sunday night season-opener against Chicago. Now it’s on Stafford. His legacy awaits.
Good start for Trey Lance
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — I’m on the sidelines of the second Niners’ training camp practice, standing behind the defense. (This just in: Arik Armstead is tall.) Avicii’s “Levels” is blasting at 85 decibels through speakers right over my shoulders. Hard to hear yourself think. Offense v defense, unpadded, on the practice field. First-round rookie Trey Lance takes the snap, gets chased to his left, fluidly, calmly, portraying no sense of rookie yips. Up the left seam, maybe 18 yards downfield, wideout Brandon Aiyuk has a step on a corner. Lance whirls so his body is mostly facing Aiyuk, and he whips a hard spiral maybe 23 yards downfield that Aiyuk plucks out of the air. Big gain.
“Oooooohhhhhhhhhh,” is the sound emanating from the defenders standing in front of me.
Translation: This kid might be the goods.
One of the men who watched that throw and was impressed is the new highest-paid linebacker in the game, Fred Warner. “You see the raw talent, and you see the ball fly out of his hand. Impressive,” Warner said. “Games will be different. But 11 on 11 out here is still football, and we’re seeing a young guy work and be humble and make throws like that. That’s what he needs to do.”
Covering training camps for 38 seasons, going back to Boomer Esiason’s rookie year in Cincinnati in 1984, I’ve learned that these summer practices are not just about who wins the starting right guard job. They’re time for rookies to prove themselves—to show the veterans on both sides of the ball whether they can be trusted. It’s a long process. Days. Weeks. Dog days, disinterested weeks, at times. But every snap, every seam route is Trey Lance’s chance with this team to show if/when he can wrestle the starting job from Jimmy Garoppolo. Early on, Lance has thrown a few flutterballs and his accuracy is just okay. Those things are important. But it’s as important to show you’re unafraid—and Lance has not hesitated to follow a bad incompletion with a liner in traffic to Aiyuk or Deebo Samuel.
At some point this year, probably not Week 1, coach Kyle Shanahan may put Lance in charge of a team the Niners are convinced is a playoff team. He’d be asking the 21-year-old Minnesotan to go win. Fred Warner and Nick Bosa and Jimmie Ward—not to mention Mike McGinchey and George Kittle—will have to be convinced that Lance is ready. That’s why seam routes in traffic on July 29, in shorts and jerseys, are important.
“That observation is accurate,” Kyle Shanahan told me after practice. “We’re on the practice field now and you’re a first-round pick so everyone’s looking at you. Your new team wants to see your talent level, which he has, but they also want to see how he carries himself. I think that’s what they’ve been impressed with. He doesn’t know everything yet. He’s still trying. This was his eighth practice since he’s been here, including OTAs.
“But Deebo Samuel comes up to me at one point, and he’s like, ‘This guy’s got some balls.’ And I think that’s what the guys feel. He goes out there and he’s not scared to fail. He goes out there and lets it rip, and there’s some good, some bad. Players can feel it. When you’re not scared to fail and you’re talented, you do things the right way, guys believe it’s a matter of time.”
I learned this, too, in my time here: The team gave every player an iPad to study plays and the playbook and that day’s gametape. Of the 90 players in camp, guess whose iPad has registered the most minutes used on the Niners’ internal server—where every login is recorded? Trey Lance’s iPad.
So that brings us to Jimmy Garoppolo. I’ve got mixed feelings for him. I think the Niners did the right thing in selling out to take a quarterback. Garoppolo had missed 23 of the last 48 regular-season games with injuries, fluky though they may have been. In 2018 and 2020, when he got hurt, the Niners’ season went south. When he was healthy in 2019, San Francisco had a fourth-quarter lead in the Super Bowl before losing. In the four seasons of the new John Lynch/Shanahan regime, the team has won six, four, 13 and six games, the struggles in large part due to inferior quarterback play without Garoppolo. So the Niners made the painful future-mortgaging call to trade up to take a probable heir to Garoppolo.
“What went through your mind when you got that phone call about the big trade?” I asked Garoppolo.
“It was a lot to process, to take in,” Garoppolo said. This is the year he turns 30 (Nov. 2), and gray flecks are appearing on each side of his sharp-shorn hair. But he’s remarkably good-natured about his fate. My guess is he’s had plenty of time to stew and then get over it.
“No one ever wants to get that call. The first thing I asked John was, ‘Am I still gonna get a chance to compete for the job?’ He said, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ That’s really all I can ask for, being a player.”
By all accounts, Garoppolo has been welcoming and decent to Lance. “They could have picked anyone,” Garoppolo said. “Trey’s the one that got selected. You don’t want to have weird feelings about him, or take it out on him. I welcomed him with open arms. If he asks me anything, I’m willing to help.”
I remember early on in my career covering the Giants, and hearing the early book on Phil Simms was he was injury prone after a spate of injuries early in his Giants tenure. Seemed so foolish as Simms, starting in 1984, led the Giants on a golden era of football, winning a Super Bowl and becoming an iron man, relatively, in the process. Garoppolo’s got that chance now—if he plays well, of course, and avoids the kind of late-season slump that seems to make Shanahan question him in the 2019 playoff run.
In any case, it’s a fascinating chemistry experiment. Shanahan’s going to have a tough decision to make: when to play the kid?
“It’s not been as hard as you think,” he said. “In this business, if you’re trying to plan out the next six months and say, ‘Where’s it going?’ that’s a mistake. You can’t do it. What I told Jimmy right when we made the trade is, ‘I don’t know any rookie who can come and beat you out if you’re playing at his best self. I didn’t necessarily think he was there last year at training camp. Then he had the injuries and stuff. But right now I see him playing well out here. If he can continue to go that way, that’s great for Trey. That’s great for our team. Then Trey can wait till he’s at his best self, which doesn’t happen overnight.”
But . . .
“I truly don’t know what’s going to happen here.”
Dallas: The Dak and Micah Show
OXNARD, Calif. — The Cowboys were a collective debacle last year, of course, but the good news is they’re in a lousy division with a good chance to win it if two things happen:
- The defense gets some juice it never had all last year. Think of this: The defense had to rally late to average giving up less than 30 points a game. It was a brutal show.
- Dak Prescott is able to return to form. The Cowboys need a top five offense, in a big way, because they’re not going to be dominant on D.
So I bring you the two most important players in the franchise this season: first-round linebacker Micah Parsons and Prescott. Early in camp, Parsons has been playing like July practices are October games. “Wrecking practice,” one camp observer said. He’s been making a play or two every practice, roaming sideline to sideline, and he’s starting to force his way into an every-down role in those nightly camp meetings when personnel is discussed. “The real difference-maker on defense is going to be Micah,” Dallas EVP and SOJ (son of Jerry) Stephen Jones said.
When I met with coach Mike McCarthy, I was surprised at one thing he talked about in our 30 minutes. McCarthy is a traditional coach. Players have to prove their worth, and though he’s not against playing rookies, he has to see them perform consistently well. So when I asked about Parsons, his answer surprised me.
“He needs to play opening day,” McCarthy said. “You have to trust what your eyes are telling you. And when I watch him, I see a fluid and explosive player. This game’s not too big for him. Some guys run 4.3. Some guys play 4.3. He’s the kind of guy who plays fast. He looks like he’s done this at this level before.”
Interesting, because Parsons opted out of his final season at Penn State. He sounds like he’s making up for lost time, so happy to be back on a football field. “Last year was pretty long and dreadful,” he said. “That’s why I’m really excited to be out here this year.”
Dallas has an interesting and deep linebacker group. Holdovers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch will find roles in new coordinator Dan Quinn’s hybrid D—it can morph from 4-3 to 3-4 because of some versatile pieces at linebacker—while former physical safety Keanu Neal comes over from Atlanta, when he played under Quinn, and he’ll be a solid run player. It’s early, but look for Parsons to be a strong contender to be an every-down sideline-to-sideline player. “I’m gonna blitz, I’m gonna go sideline to sideline, I’m gonna drop,” he told me. He could be a classic middle linebacker at 248 pounds, with the added benefit of quickness to chase down plays. Dallas wanted the kind of playmaking Fred Warner/Bobby Wagner-type ‘backer, and they’re going to give Parsons the chance to be him.
The last time we saw Prescott, he was on the field trying to put his ankle back together against the Giants last Oct. 11. I don’t recall the outpouring of emotion for a player injury like I saw that day. Think of it. Four years after being a fourth-round pick of the Cowboys, Prescott had worked his way into a solid starter, and the Dallas offense was all his, and their playoff hopes rode heavily on his shoulders. And in an instant, his right foot was torqued in a different direction, his ankle dislocated.
“I walked up on him when he was down on the field,” McCarthy told me, “and I don’t think I’ve seen anything exactly like it. He was trying to put his ankle back together, right there on the field. It was almost—this isn’t quite the right word—but it was almost barbaric.”
Prescott to me, on a quiet day at camp last Friday: “I remember that. My mom had always told us when we got hurt, just to get off the field so she knew that we were like okay. I initially thought I had rolled it and I had looked and grabbed my ankle and it was facing the other way. I’m like, ‘No way.’ I just was trying to like, I thought maybe if I slammed it into place a couple times it’d just snap back or maybe it was just dislocated and it wasn’t broken, stuck like it was. When I did that a couple of times and it didn’t move, that’s when I just started waving to get help. I was literally like, ‘I can’t do this myself. Help, help.’ “
I mean . . . As Bill Parcells once said, “Playing football is not for the well-adjusted.” It was amazing to hear Prescott discuss it all so clinically.
“Any lingering effects of it?” I asked. “Do you feel it now?”
“No I don’t,” Prescott said. “I can say, at this point honestly, it might not feel quite like my left leg. But as far as pain or as far as anything that I think something’s wrong — I mean, absolutely not. It may take me a little bit longer to warm it up than it obviously would this left leg. Once I’m going and rolling, there’s not anything that I think about with my ankle.”
There is, though, the matter of a right-shoulder issue. Prescott took himself out of practice last week after feeling some pain there, and will not throw competitively for at least a few days. He’s not worried, and the Cowboys are not worried, but we’ll see. “I just didn’t want to make something small worse,” Prescott said. “I never have felt soreness in my arm, to be honest. But it’s not a big concern to me.”
It’s always hard to project players returning from major injury. But the left and right tackles (Tyron Smith and La’el Collins) and the quarterback are all coming back. If they’re right, and if CeeDee Lamb can build on some of the great days he’s having early in camp, well, this offense will be one of football’s best. My little secret fantasy projection: Watch out for Michael Gallup. The buzz in the passing game will be all about Lamb and $20-million-man Amari Cooper, and rightfully so. But I’m told Prescott and Gallup have been building great chemistry all offseason, and the QB can trust exactly where the disciplined route-runner will be. So we’ll see.
Fascinating team, as Dallas usually is. I thought Washington, with its strong defense, would be the king of a weakened East again. But I’m leaning Dallas now.
Las Vegas: (Lucky) Seven Things I Saw
HENDERSON, Nev. — Wow. The torch of Al’s eternal flame, in front of the Raiders’ new palace in a suburb that’s unlike any suburb I’ve ever seen. Like, everything is new. Everything. At 8:30 a.m., the FedEx facility next door begins to belch out the trucks for the days deliveries—30, 40, 50, 60 trucks, I couldn’t count—while next door to that, the Amazon facility that looks like it’s 50 football fields wide fulfills orders. And the cranes, and the construction noise, in all directions. I met GM Mike Mayock at 6 a.m., 90 minutes before practice, sitting across from each other in a conference room, and that’s where we’ll start.
1. Mayock is bold. This is the third year for the man who went from combine prophet to NFL GM—and he needs a big year after 15-17 in his first two seasons, and an underwhelming performance from his drafts. But he lays it out there when we meet in a conference room in Raiderland: “We need to be a playoff team—and beyond,” he told me. “It’s time to win. We started 6-4 [in 2019] and couldn’t finish, and then 6-3 [in 2020] and couldn’t finish. That’s got to change.”
In our conversation, he says it’s time for the top picks who have disappointed so far, such as disappointing first-rounders Clelin Ferrell, Johnathan Abram and Damon Arnette, to play like their pedigrees. Ferrell, in particular, has been just a guy in his two seasons (6.5 sacks, little impact, in 26 games) despite being Mayock/Gruden’s first pick in 2019, fourth overall. “We need more production out of that group,” he says. “But we’ve been able to have an off-season this year, and we’ve had great attendance in the building.”
Here’s the tough thing for Mayock: He got in this job to evaluate personnel and to pick personnel, and he finds himself monitoring COVID cases. That’s the thing that frustrates him the most. If he’s going to be judged on his record, he wants to be judged on his football record, not on the record of how many guys contracted a virus when they were away from the facility, and how that impacted his team. But that’s football in 2021, unfortunately.
2. The Relationship. Mayock-Gruden. “The head coach and GM have to be tied at the hip,” Mayock said. “We’re two passionate people, and we can’t agree 100 percent of the time. But it’s nothing contentious. It’s two guys who study tape and have opinions. We’ve got a really good relationship.”
3. Marc Badain. The franchise president resigned two weeks ago, and no one knows why—or is saying why. But it’s a big deal. Badain ran the day-to-day operations of the Raiders, decided who would come from Oakland and what exactly their roles would be, and was the front man on every aspect of the move. I heard lots of theories about why he left—that he didn’t approve of some of the spending by owner Mark Davis in the midst of a disastrous first financial season in Las Vegas (including Davis’ decision to buy the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces), that he was just tired of the nonstop pace of running a franchise in a new city, that he and Davis were having significant disagreements on the direction of the franchise at a time when money was tight. Whatever, it’s not great having an interim president, ex-legal counsel Dan Ventrelle, running the show at such a crucial time. This is not a franchise that is flush with cash, and the likelihood that the Raiders lost out on at least $100 million in 2020 revenue in a fan-less season could well have something to do with the Badain’s departure.
4. There’s a lot of buzz about making Allegiant Stadium home. So the way the stadium was built, I’m told, will lend itself to high decibel levels when there’s a big crowd. The Raiders need that. They won their opener in the stadium last year, then went 1-6 at home, with zero fans all season. “I have a feeling we’re not going to repeat that this year,” said Derek Carr, “but we better go prove it first.” No contending team can go 2-6 at home.
5. It’s such a young team. The Raiders could start 14 players who still are on rookie contracts, a startling number. I watched practice, and I thought how important it was that really young guys like rookie free safety Trevon Moehrig, wideout Henry Ruggs (rookie per-game averages: two catches, 34 yards), and rookie right tackle Alex Leatherwood play big roles right away. Leatherwood’s the guy the Raiders picked 17th overall, a 6-6, 317-pound fortress who will be handed the right tackle job, and the braintrust loves what it sees in him so far. But he’ll have to be better than good to justify that high pick. Said Jon Gruden: “We’ve got some guys in the bullpen that should be ready to make an imprint on this franchise. I’ll be upset, really depressed, if we don’t see that happen.”
6. Gruden’s got to make up ground. Asked him: “Are you pissed to be 19-29 in your first three years?” He spat back: “I’m not pissed. I’m excited about the progress we’ve made. We weren’t very good. We had, I think, 20 new starters my first year. Our second year, we got off to a pretty good start. We lost our right tackle. We lost our right guard. We lost our featured back down the stretch. We struggled. And we lost games against Jacksonville and Denver late in the year. You gotta really see it to believe how we lost those games. Got off to a good start last year. Decimated at times because of the virus. We had a tough schedule. But we were in the playoff hunt last couple years until the latter part of the season. I think we are improving. But I don’t like to lose. I don’t like hearing 19-29. I do like the feeling of progress. We were 6-2 in the West. 6-2 on the road, that’s pretty good. We gotta continue to get better obviously at home.” I’m told Gruden’s not under any win-now mandate from the owner. Mike Mayock, I don’t know.
7. This team’s such a mystery. I can’t predict what they’ll do, or how much they’ll win, because so many of their key players are questions marks. I like the power-of-positive-thinking defensive coordinator, Gus Bradley, in for Paul Guenther, who badly needed an offseason with all his young troops, didn’t have one, and got waylaid by a record number of mental errors. Now, for instance, Bradley hopes by putting the reckless safety Abram as a box linebacker he’ll limit his options and make sure he focuses on a limited assignment. By backstopping running back Josh Jacobs with efficient Kenyon Drake, the Raiders should have a steadier run game. I don’t worry about Derek Carr, and I don’t worry about his weapons—unless Ruggs doesn’t make a big jump this year. Carr compares him to DeSean Jackson, which is fine, except Jackson is always hurt. Brent Musburger, the radio voice of the Raiders and Las Vegas denizen, thinks if they don’t fix the defense, it could be a long year. Agreed. Bradley’s vital. Yannick Ngakoue impacting the pass-rush is vital.
Prediction? Mark me down for 8-9. Tough schedule, plus the need for the young players is so big. Lots of question marks here.
Every team has a player who’s an X factor. That’s the player coaches look at and say: “If this guy comes through for us, it’s going to make a big difference. If he doesn’t, we’re in a jam.” With that in mind, I’ll give you one of them from every team I see this summer.
Las Vegas: Maxx Crosby, defensive end
The Raiders think they’ve solved their pass-rush famine with the signing of free agent Yannick Ngakoue. I’m not so sure. Two teams traded Ngakoue last year, and a third (Baltimore) chose not to re-sign him. Four teams in 12 months—does that sound like a player who will solve your pass-rush problems? One projection of their four-deep defensive end depth chart would be Ngakoue and Maxx Crosby starting, with Clelin Ferrell and Carl Nassib as rotation help. Last year, those four men played 2,487 NFL snaps and had 19.5 sacks. Not good—and definitely not good enough to scare Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert in the AFC West.
My money’s on Crosby to rebound a bit. He had just seven sacks in 905 snaps last year after a 10-sack rookie year. Last year the admitted party boy gave up drinking, went into rehab and then a halfway house, and who knows? Maybe sobriety was more important than football last year; he admits when he cut the alcohol, he subbed eating for the drinking and wasn’t in top shape. This year, no one’s been in the facility more through the spring and summer, and he’s buff and excited about football again. “I want to be a Hall of Famer,” he told me. “Last year, no excuses, but my routine was just a little bit off the whole year. This year, once the Super Bowl ended, I had a full routine, including meal prep. I’ve been on a locked-in schedule since February.” He looks it.
San Francisco: Jalen Hurd, wide receiver
Hurd, a third-round wideout/running back from Baylor in 2019, was on his way to a role as a versatile offensive weapon as a rookie when he broke a bone in his back in camp and missed the year. On the first day of camp last year, he tore his ACL. So I had my eyes on him a lot in practice Thursday. He looked fluid and fast and bigger (6-4, 224) than I’d recalled from two years ago. There’s a huge hole in the Niner offense at slot receiver, and if Hurd stays whole, he’s got a shot to be The Man there. If. Mentioned to Kyle Shahanan that he’s my X factor on the Niners this summer.
“Great X-factor,” Kyle Shanahan told me. “Honestly, he’s probably mine on this team too. He’s got to stay healthy so he can be a big factor here. You get your heart broken and you get frustrated because you know how great he’d be in the offense. But he’s just as frustrated. It’d be a hell of bonus to have him.”
Dallas: Tyron Smith, left tackle
Smith, one of the best blindside protectors in football, is starting to show signs of being a thirty-something tackle with lots of mileage on him. He’s missed 26 games in the last five seasons due to injury, including 14 last year when major neck surgery ended his season in October. He reported to camp this summer in California saying he feels great after suffering through neck pain for years. I could call this Tyron Smith and La’el Collins because the Cowboys’ starting tackles played a combined two games last year.
But late in the week, Smith was nicked again—with elbow pain. It’s good to be optimistic about Smith, but his recent history make it wise to think, We’ll believe he can play a full season when we see it. Coach Mike McCarthy believes it, though. As does Smith, who had played through neck pain for several years before finally getting it repaired last fall. “He says it’s the best he’s even felt,” McCarthy said. “Tyron returning to the way he plays at left tackle is going to have a huge effect on everything we do offensively.”
Smith’s range and quickness on the left side could allow a Dak Prescott-to-CeeDee Lamb deep game to emerge. Last year, with more pressure on the quarterback because Dallas had to play backups at tackle, and with the loss of Prescott, Lamb got plenty of chances (111 targets) but averaged only 12.6 yards per catch on 74 completions. More time for Prescott will make a dangerous offense more dangerous.
L.A Rams: Austin Corbett, center
A tackle at Nevada, a left guard in 2019 with the Rams, a right guard in 2020 with the Rams, a center in 2021 with the Rams. Corbett gets the first shot to be Matthew Stafford’s personal protector, and he’ll be a vital part to the L.A. offense if he makes the quick adjustment. Still, having a new center snap to a new quarterback, with the two newbies in charge of the choreography of the front line, bears watching for a team that need to hit the ground running with the oppressive Chicago defense in a loud stadium (SoFi, presumably) on opening night. “I think if Corbett can handle the mental part—which is tough in our offense—and if he gets comfortable with the consistent accuracy on the shotgun snaps, I think you’re going to be talking him as one of the better centers in this league. Very quickly,” said coach Sean McVay.
“I can breathe again. Because I’ve seen the other side, and I’m excited to be back here. One of my teammates was like, ‘You look like you just got out of prison.’ “
Man, the hits just keep on coming for the Texans. You look like you just got out of prison.
“I was unable to speak with him myself, though I tried to.”
—Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who sounded disappointed that Julio Jones would not speak to him after the trade from Atlanta to Tennessee this summer.
“The Olympics is overwhelming. I mean, talk about the weight of gold. We carry a lot of weight on our shoulders, and it’s challenging, especially when we have the lights on us and all of these expectations that are being thrown on top of us. It broke my heart … I think the biggest thing is that we all need to ask for help sometimes, too, when we go through those time. For me personally that it was something that was very challenging. It was hard for me to ask for help.”
—Olympic swimming hero Michael Phelps, on NBC’s Olympics coverage, on Simone Biles dropping out of some Olympic gymnastics events. Biles talked about the stress and pressure of the Olympics as factors. Smart to have Phelps, who’d been through the same pressures, discuss them before a big American TV audience.
“He’s not a coach that can ever win a Super Bowl because he sits there and cusses all day … He’s a know-it-all.”
—Kelvin Benjamin, on Giants coach Joe Judge, after being cut by the Giants last week, to Zack Rosenblatt of NJ.com.
“Sometimes colorful language happens.”
—Joe Judge, a day after Benjamin’s diatribe. Judge also said of Benjamin about 14 times, “I wish him well.”
I bet if you gave Joe Judge sodium pentathol and asked him about Benjamin, he would say about 14 times, “I do not wish him well.”
“Picasso, the best of the best, Michelangelo, them boys. Sistine Chapel. Stuff like that.”
—Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen, asked in camp to compare himself to an artist.
The Sistine Chapel’s a building, but you catch his drift.
“It’s July. We play a game in September. We’ll be careful about it.”
—Dallas offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, on the sore arm that has kept Dak Prescott out of practice in the last few days of camp.
In the last two years, since Aug. 2, 2019, here are the starting quarterbacks for the Indianapolis Colts, with the lengths of their tenures:
Check out this helmet weirdness: This is new 49ers center Alex Mack wearing a soft shell helmet atop his regular helmet.
This is a thing. Some teams in the NFL have their players, in camp, wear these helmets in walk-through practices minus the real helmet.
“Another shock absorber,” Mack told me.
At Raiders camp, in some periods, players wore the shell on their head with no helmets. At Niners’ camp, most players wore them as crowns on their regular helmets for much of the practice. Mack appreciates the effort to make the game safer, and he’s wearing the double protection for the time being, but he’ll take it off as the team gets closer to the season. It’s sightly offputting to feel you’ve got something on top of your head.
“The main thing is, when they talk about like concussions and head trauma, the biggest trouble is repetitive hits to the head,” Kyle Shanahan said. “That’s why you hear head trauma in boxing is a bigger issue than MMA. You’d rather just get one shot than just over and over. When you’re D-line and O-line, no matter what happens, when you go towards someone, you’re going to get those head hits. With this thing on, you don’t hear those little cracks anymore.
“The other thing I’ve liked the most about it that I didn’t realize? I’m not worried about our quarterbacks breaking their hands on people’s helmets. That happens all the time. Now the throwing hand will come down hard, and instead of hitting a helmet, it’s like they’re landing on pillows.”
Ten days ago, Cole Beasley openly questioned (on Twitter) teammate Jerry Hughes’ defense of taking the vaccine by asking, “Jerry so if a vaccinated gives an unvaccinated player with underlying conditions covid it’s cool though?” Hughes responded to Beasley, and it seemed edgy. Two teammates, socially jousting about the vaccine on Twitter. Seemed weird.
Over the weekend, I learned one team showed to its players a Power Point of the Beasley-Hughes exchange on Twitter, and the message—I’m told—was this: “Do NOT do this.”
Thursday, 2 p.m., leaving Niners’ camp in Santa Clara, Calif., for Cowboys camp in Oxnard, 65 miles north of L.A. Six-hour drive, with some traffic; 322 miles. I really wanted to drive it, through garlicky Gilroy on the 101, hugging the Pacific Coast when the highway presented that chance. I love the California scenery. But my videographer, Matt Buckman, and I would get hungry at some point, and wherever would we stop?
I asked two Californians who knew the coast—daughter-in-law Kim, John Pock of the San Jose Sports Authority—where to go. San Luis Obispo, they both said. To get one specific local delicacy.
Poch: “Go to Firestone Grill. Get the Tri-Tip sandwich.”
Kim, a vegetarian who went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo: “Get the Tri-Tip Sandwich at Firestone. It’s one of the few meat items I still crave.”
So we stopped there, close off the 101, and stepped into a beehive of meaty activity. Families outside and inside, scores of sports memorabilia on the wall, TVs with the Olympics (saw the floor exercise of gold-medalist Sunisa Lee in the women’s all-around) and MLB games (ugh: Jays 9, Sox 0). We ordered a couple of the Tri Tips, made with meat from the prime parts of the sirloin and they were exquisite. Tender, with lots of BBQ sauce, on an eight-inch soft white roll. Perfect.
“The legend didn’t disappoint,” Matt Buckman said. Agreed.
Aaron Rodgers thx for very rational explanation. Baffles the mind that Packers won’t engage w him on personnel. My greatest regret was not raising my voice more. Brian G let him in the room where it happens! He would be hugely additive to the conversation.
— Steve Young (@SteveYoungQB) July 29, 2021
The Hall of Fame quarterback, adding to the Rodgers-Packers debate.
Cowboys DE Randy Gregory with an honest Oxnard review. Been multiple instances of him slipping in practice. On field conditions: "It sucks. The WiFi here sucks. I can't make phone calls in my room. I hope the Joneses don't get mad," but as pass rusher, he prefers artificial turf.
— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) July 31, 2021
Gehlken is the Cowboys reporter for the Dallas Morning News.
The #Vikings are expected to be without three quarterbacks — including starter Kirk Cousins — for tonight's practice after rookie Kellen Mond tested positive for COVID-19, per league sources.
Cousins is a high-risk close contact. The team is going through contact tracing.
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) July 31, 2021
The NFL Network reporter with the 2021 nightmare scenario, reporting from Vikings camp Saturday.
Of all the things I miss about playing football, training camp is the least of those.
I hear Telluride is nice this time of year.
— Sage Rosenfels (@SageRosenfels18) July 30, 2021
The retired quarterback had nine NFL camps to glean such an opinion.
When Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi finished the men's high jump competition tied, they could have gone to a jump-off to decide the winner.
— #TokyoOlympics (@NBCOlympics) August 1, 2021
Vax 1. From Corey Livermore: “People like you are the ones that will be responsible for turning unvaccinated people into second-class citizens. There are a host of reasons why people would choose to not get vaccinated, and you have outright discounted the two most important ones—medical reasons and freedom of religion. A lot of people do not have the biological capacity to get the shot. My wife is an outstanding example of this. She struggles with high blood pressure, is type 1 diabetic, and two years ago suffered a heart attack. She has been advised by her primary care physician that she should not get the vaccine until the full, long-term effects of it are known. There are millions of people worldwide that are in her same shoes.
“In the United States, we have this little thing called the Constitution, which has the Bill of Rights, part of which holds the First Amendment. That civil liberty states that people are free to practice religion of their choosing, so long as they aren’t (and I’m paraphrasing here) evil and destructive . . . What the league wishes to do is akin to segregation. This time, instead of telling someone they can’t use that water fountain or go into that restaurant because of the color of their skin, they can’t do it because they made a decision to not get injected with what is still an experimental vaccine. Now, I know your next argument will be, ‘COVID is a public health threat.’ I do not disagree with you. But if you want to talk about public health threats, then why is nothing being done about the tobacco industry? Nobody has a choice in whether they contract COVID or not, but they certainly do have a choice as to whether or not they wish to poison themselves.”
Sorry about your wife’s condition, Corey. I haven’t heard players mention medical factors (except for some who say they don’t want to put foreign substances in their bodies); I’ve heard no one connected to the NFL say they don’t want to get the vaccine because of religious reasons. Football is a team game. The actions of some, or the inactions of some, put others at risk. There’s a pandemic about the re-plague this country, and, as Rich Eisen said in my column last week, the fact that so many aren’t getting the vaccine leads to the rise of variants and the risk of another massive outbreak. That is indisputable. People will die, perhaps thousands, in the coming weeks because of a fundamental distrust in our health institutions, because of so much misinformation out there. That also is indisputable. Many of the unvaxxed say, “We want education. We want information.” It’s out there. But in many cases, they simply don’t want to hear it. It’s easier to hang onto conspiracy theories. I can’t defend tobacco or tobacco companies; I wish tobacco was outlawed. But if you tell people they can’t smoke for their own good, why can’t you tell people who are able to get the vaccine they have to get it?
Attaway, Nassib. From Jon Drucker: “My kids’ grandparents were scheduled to fly from Florida to the New York area last week to visit their two daughters and nine grandchildren. After a lengthy delay, their flight was canceled and they were struggling to figure out their next steps. A young man who was also on the flight, noticed that they were flustered and came to their assistance. He accompanied them through the terminal, took them to the ticket counter, assessed their various flight options and spoke to their daughter to enable them to book a new flight. When they invited him to dinner later in the week, as a gesture of their profound appreciation for his immense kindness, he politely declined because he was headed to Las Vegas to prepare for the opening of training camp for his football team. His name: Carl Nassib.
Cool story about the Raiders’ defensive end. Thanks, Jon.
Good to hear from Brazil. From Joao Bezerra, of Brazil: “I am a huge fan of the work you do, not just from a football standpoint but from a social standpoint also. The best thing you did I think was recommending Chanel Miller’s book [“Know My Name,” the memoir about a sex-attack survivor]. It is maybe the best book I have ever read. She is a gift to humanity. You should invite her to do a guest column next year. Go Bills! Hopefully this is the year. (Guys, gotta be vaxxed though).”
So good of you to write, Joao. Thank for the kind words, and for the good words on Chanel Miller, who is such a blessing in our world. Good idea about the guest column next year. Not sure she cares much about football, but I will keep it in mind.
He had other things on his mind. From A.J. Wormuth: “How did the throwing lessons with your grandson go?”
A.J., we never did them in our days as caretakers. Six hours of Legos, yes. Four hours of playgrounds, yes. A couple hours, collectively, of Octonauts (which I love). And other general mayhem. We swung the bat a few times in the backyard, but he was not too interested in throwing lessons. Maybe next time.
1. I think not much has changed on the vax front with Cole Beasley, except he can’t stop talking about something that is fruitless. Speaking of the issue on Twitter on May 14, Beasley said: “This is the end of it. I’m done speaking on it.” Ten weeks later, he’s giving statements and singing songs and still sparring with people about it, while wearing his mask incorrectly. It’s a debacle, and I’m starting to think, really, that the Bills’ season is going to be impacted by this campaign he can’t stop waging that will convince no one he is right.
2. I think, of all the non-Aaron Rodgers events of the first full week of the camp season, the most ominous was the Michael Thomas ankle surgery news, and the clear frustration that a high ankle sprain suffered in Week 1 of 2020 that ruined Thomas’ 2020 season will also significantly mar his 2021 season. To recap: Saints signed Thomas to a five-year deal worth $19.25 million a year before the 2019 season. Thomas caught a league-record 148 passes in 2019. Two stays on IR last year contributed to a non-impact season; 40 catches, zero touchdowns in seven games. Now Thomas will miss at least a third of this year after surgery in June that requires a four-to-six-month rehab. Sean Payton said the other day the surgery “should have” happened much earlier than it did. Apparently, Thomas was trying the non-surgical option of aggressive rehab. But when you get to a point where an injury suffered in September 2020 continues to linger, clearly there should have been a line of demarcation that said if the injury isn’t right by, say, April 1, surgery would be done. That obviously didn’t happen.
3. I think for a team that runs such a tight, organized ship, it’s surprising that the Saints didn’t ride herd on this injury better.
4. I think I don’t want to read too much into this one either, because I’m not inside the organization. But it’s bothersome that WFT players hear their coach, who is still feeling effects from his battle with cancer last year and is immune-deficient, plead with them—and it sounds like “plead” is the right word—and then many still don’t get the vaccine. Per Nicki Jhabvala of the Washington Post, coach Ron Rivera is still working on the unvaccinated, after offensive linemen Brandon Scherff and David Sharpe were recent additions to the team’s burgeoning COVID list. From Jhabvala:
Rivera posed to his players a what-if scenario: What if Saturday had been Sept. 12, and the team was about to face the Los Angeles Chargers in its season opener? If Scherff and Sharpe were, at minimum, flagged as close contacts, they would have to miss two games because Washington hosts the New York Giants the following Thursday night.
“It brings the reality of what the rules are, and I hope it helps,” he said. “But, again, these young men have to make their decisions.”
Not to mention that if their coach, who is in close contact with the players every day, could get seriously ill, or worse, if he catches the virus. They should all read the story from Utah that I’ve highlighted below in 10d and 10e.
5. I think so much has been said about Aaron Rodgers, and the story’s so old by now, that I’m not going to give you a mega-take on it. A few thoughts instead:
• I’ve seen discussion about how Rodgers didn’t win anything, didn’t get concessions. The reworked contract, as reported by Adam Schefter on Thursday, has the 2023 contract year voided in his deal (it was scheduled to end then), meaning 2022 is now the final year, and setting up triggers that will make it better for the Packers to move on from Rodgers rather than face a monstrous cap charge all in 2022. I believe the Packers have known for some time that a good and smart trade would be Rodgers giving the franchise one more season and then being allowed to leave if that’s his desire. I still believe that.
• I liked the fact that instead of dancing around tough topics and handling his issues in a passive-aggressive way, Rodgers spent his press conference elucidating exactly what troubled him and why he thinks he should have some (even small) say in the way his team operates on the field. I do understand the reticence to bring active players into the decision-making process. But this is 2021. And players realize if there’s something they want, and they feel strongly about it, they can make enough of a stink about it or simply demand an exit. It’s going to work with Deshaun Watson. In a different way (free agency), it worked for Tom Brady. It’s the modern business. And if you want the principal of not hearing out your franchise player and league MVP when he’s got something on his mind, you should be in another business. The fact that he still holds animus over Jake Kumerow being let go last year should tell Gutekunst that maybe he should ask the quarterback for his thoughts about which receivers he likes the most before cutting the roster. Doesn’t mean the Pack has to keep every player Rodgers wants, but why shouldn’t he be able to tell the GM which receivers run the best routes and which he’s most comfortable with?
• The trade to bring Randall Cobb back was all Rogers’ idea, all the way, as Schefter reported. That had to sting GM Brian Gutekunst. But now maybe it’ll be good for Gutekunst.
• I lost count how many veterans Rodgers stuck up for as having been treated poorly by the team. I think it was 12. I’m sure he scored some points in his locker room, but that’s football. It just is. Lots of players are bitter when their team won’t pay them. And there surely were some factors (like common courtesy in negotiations) that Rodgers has a point about, but the salary cap forces some cruel decisions.
• Denver is such a perfect team for Rodgers in 2022. I’m sure Carolina and Philadelphia and Washington will enter the fray if/when Green Bay trades him, but sending him to the AFC minimizes the rematches which I’m sure the Packers would want to avoid at all costs.
6. I think this was a great cross-sport comparison that a friend at NBC sent me. Swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines, describing the burst into the pool of America’s latest swim hero, said gold medal sensation Caeleb Dressel “comes off the starting blocks, I don’t know, like Aaron Donald.” That caused me to watch a video of his start in the 50-meter freestyle. Whoa. Gaines is right on the money.
7. I think I miss Terez Paylor. I’ll miss him more this week when I go to Kansas City.
8. I think the best way to handle the unknown is to not say anything till you know something. The silence out of the Colts over the weekend tells me they don’t have real information—just gut feelings—about the foot injury suffered by only the most important person in the franchise right now, quarterback Carson Wentz. After having his 2017 and 2018 seasons cut short in Philadelphia due to injury, forcing the Eagles to use a second-round pick on a quarterback last year, it’s crazy that Wentz went down last week, at age 28, with what could be the third major injury of his young career. But let’s wait before entering Panicsville. Indy is expecting to have a better idea of the path forward early this week, cautiously optimistic that Wentz can avoid surgery and rehab his way into play at the start of the season or early in it. We’ll see.
9. I think you may have read about my former peer at The MMQB, Andy Benoit, taking a job with the Los Angeles as a coaching assistant to Sean McVay. I saw Andy on Saturday when I was at Rams camp, and he is thrilled with the development, and McVay told me he’s happy to have Andy on staff. It’s a cool thing to see Andy pursue his dreams. When he was writing, he was such a student of the game—studying tape of every game, and using his contact with 50, 75, 100 coaches to ask, “Am I seeing this right? What are you doing in this formation?” He’d urge me to approve expense money so he could travel to places like Mobile for the Senior Bowl and Indy for the Combine so he could spend sessions with assistant coaches league-wide to study his craft. Sean McVay told me Andy will start on the ground floor as his personal assistant, learning the basic stuff like how to do a practice script. His office will be adjacent to McVay’s so he can learn everything straight from the boss, and at practice Saturday he trailed the boss around the field, just observing. One day, if all goes well, McVay hopes Andy Benoit can be his Ernie Adams, the deep-thinking master of private projects for Bill Belichick for lo these many years. High expectations. I really like Andy a lot, and I’m pulling for him.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. I’ve never seen a baseball trade deadline like that one. Who plays for the Cubs now? The Nats? Juan Soto just became Juan Solo. The one deal that shocked me was Washington trading Trea Turner. Isn’t he a top 15 player in baseball?
b. Baseball Factoid of the Week I — Average salary of a Dodger on the 26-man roster: $10.23 million. Average salary of a Ray on the 26-man roster: $2.71 million.
c. Baseball Factoid of the Week II — 2021 team wins, as of this morning: Rays 64, Dodgers 64.
d. Story of the Week: Jack Healy of the New York Times, reporting from Utah, on people who rejected the vaccine now experiencing the disease in some very raw ways.
e. Healy captures the anguish of Mindy Greene on her 42-year-old husband, Russ Greene. They are parents to four kids, and now Russ Greene’s life is in the balance. Writes Healy:
Amid a resurgence of coronavirus infections and deaths, some people who once rejected the vaccines or simply waited too long are now grappling with the consequences, often in raw, public ways. A number are speaking from hospital beds, at funerals and in obituaries about their regrets, about the pain of enduring the virus and watching unvaccinated family members die gasping for breath.
“I have such incredible guilt,” Ms. Greene said one morning as she sat in the fourth-floor lobby outside the I.C.U. at Utah Valley Hospital in Provo, which looks out to the mountains where her family once went hiking and four-wheeling. “I blame myself still. Every day.”
The recent surge of infections and hospitalizations among unvaccinated people has brought the grim realities of Covid-19 crashing home for many who thought they had skirted the pandemic. But now, with anger and fatigue piled up on all sides, the question is whether their stories can actually change any minds. Some people hospitalized with the virus still vow not to get vaccinated, and surveys suggest that a majority of unvaccinated Americans are not budging. Doctors in Covid units say some patients still refuse to believe they are infected with anything beyond the flu.
“We have people in the I.C.U. with Covid who are denying they have Covid,” said Dr. Matthew Sperry, a pulmonary critical care physician who has been treating Mr. Greene. “It doesn’t matter what we say.”
f. Sports Column of the Week: Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times on Suni Lee winning the women’s all-around gold medal in gymnastics at the Olympic Games.
g. Liked this one because Elliott told the story of exactly who Lee is—her family is Hmong, an Asian ethnic group with some population in various regions of the United States—as well as capturing the moment of the victory. She wasn’t supposed to be the American who won this gold, obviously. Wrote Elliott:
When Suni Lee first showed interest in gymnastics, her father, John, built her a wooden balance beam in the family’s backyard in St. Paul, Minn., because they couldn’t afford to buy one. He’d always given her a pre-competition pep talk, and she vividly imagined how he’d join her someday to celebrate an Olympic triumph. Her dream shifted shape when John fell off a ladder and was paralyzed from the waist down two years ago. She nearly gave up the dream and quit gymnastics when she broke her foot a year ago and lost an aunt and uncle to COVID-19.
Learning that Tokyo Olympic organizers wouldn’t allow foreign visitors to attend the Games also hit her hard. Her parents were her strength. She couldn’t imagine them not being by her side. Distant though her parents were, Lee felt her father was close in her heart when she looked up at the scoreboard and saw she had made their dream come true.
“We’ve always talked about this,” Lee said, “like, if I were to win a gold medal he would come out on the floor and do a backflip with me. It sucks he’s not here, but virtually they’re here.”
h. Interesting story on the Simone Biles malady the Twisties, from Kalyn Kahler of Defector.
i. I’m pretty sure no one in the non-gymnastics population ever heard of the mental malady when these Olympics began. Wrote Kahler:
The twisties are gymnastics’ version of the yips, the same type of mental block that golfers, pitchers, and kickers struggle with, but on a seriously dangerous level. The yips means Jon Lester doesn’t get a runner out on an attempted steal. The twisties means Simone Biles lands on her neck.
“It’s when you are getting ready to do something, and you have done it, how many times, especially her, and you get in the air and you just can’t or you don’t remember,” says gymnast Chellsie Memmel, who won a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics. “Your body and your brain are fighting each other and it is completely and utterly disorienting because you really don’t know where you are in the air. It is incredibly scary and incredibly dangerous with how much height that she is getting on vault or on floor.”
Memmel struggled to find the words to accurately describe this phenomenon, which is feared and dreaded by gymnasts at every age and level. “It is just crazy,” she said. “It is really hard.”
Memmel was at the Team USA watch party in Orlando when she saw Biles’s shocking vault. She noticed Biles’s head positioning was different, a dead giveaway for the twisties.
j. Life Story of the Week: Jack Thomas of the Boston Globe with a gem about his own mortality.
k. The headline and subhead are pretty good, and the story’s better. Headline: “I just learned I only have months to live. This is what I want to say.” Subhead: I’ve been a journalist for more than 60 years. So after doctors delivered the news, I sat down to do what came naturally, if painfully: Write this story.”
l. Writes Thomas, in a voice sounding not at all miserable to be doomed, but rather emotional and clinical and real at the same time:
After a week of injections, blood tests, X-rays, and a CAT scan, I have been diagnosed with cancer. It’s inoperable. Doctors say it will kill me within a time they measure not in years, but months.
As the saying goes, fate has dealt me one from the bottom of the deck, and I am now condemned to confront the question that has plagued me for years: How does a person spend what he knows are his final months of life?
Atop the list of things I’ll miss are the smiles and hugs every morning from my beautiful wife, Geraldine, the greatest blessing of my life. I hate the notion of an eternity without hearing laughter from my three children. And what about my 40 rose bushes? Who will nurture them? I cannot imagine an afterlife without the red of my America roses or the aroma of my yellow Julia Childs.
. . . After I die, I’m not expecting the world, but this business about the afterlife is more complicated than what they describe in the Bible. The experts say more than 100 billion humans have died. If you’re looking for a buddy to have a beer, like jazzman Dave McKenna or writer Jerry Murphy or possibly Peter Falk who played Columbo, how are you going to find him in a mob of 100 billion people?
m. You read that, and you think there are good things about knowing that you’re dying rather than going lightning-fast: You get to do the things (if you choose) like telling people you love how much you love them, and seeing things and appreciating them for the last time, and openly pondering the meaning of it all. You’ve written a great piece, Jack Thomas, with words for all of us to live by.
n. No good segue after that story. So I’ll just say: Nothing like the In-N-Out fries. Crispy, plus you’re eating some real potatoes.
o. Unless it’s the In-n-Out cheeseburger. Now that’s an impressive burger. California’s lucky.
p. West Coast Camp Soundtrack Find of the Week: Kygo. “Happy Now.”
q. Soundtrack II: “California,” by Joni Mitchell . . . “Wake Me Up,” by Avicii . . . “Levels,” by Avicii . . . “Million Reasons,” by Lady Gaga . . . “You Baby,” by The Turtles . . . “I Live for the Sun,” by The Sunrays . . . “Midnite Cruiser,” by Steely Dan . . . “Gimme Shelter,” by the Rolling Stones . . . “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” by Tom Petty . . . “Something Just Like This,” by the Chainsmokers and Coldplay . . . “One Tree Hill,” by U2 . . . “Dog Days Are Over,” by Florence and the Machine.
r. Line of the Week, from Jay Busbee: “The SEC is becoming the Amazon of college football.”
s. I’m really sorry I have mostly missed the Olympics. I love the Olympics. But on the road, often writing when I’m in my room alone, I like to work in silence in my old age. The TV would just be a distraction. Since I left home in Brooklyn two weeks ago for the West Coast, I have not watched one minute of news, and I’m a TV news hound, and I’ve caught only snippets of Caeleb Dressel’s dominance and Suni Lee’s gold performance and some women’s volleyball (USA v Turkey) and some table tennis while waiting for food somewhere, and a little of Spain v Argentina men’s hoops, and a little bit of men’s steeplechase, somewhere along the road. Who thought up the steeplechase? Who said, Let’s have people run an obstacle course, including jumping over a huddle into a big puddle? Fun to see every four years, I guess, but the origin story would be a good story. Last note on the Games: A headline I never thought I’d see is about Novak Djokovic smashing his racket in a bronze medal loss at the Olympics. Yikes.
t. Not sure if I’ve written this on one of my trips to the Westin South Coast Plaza in the last few years, since the Rams and Chargers began doing training camps in Orange County. But every time I’m at the place, I think of 34 years ago, January 1987, sitting in the lobby of the hotel around 5 a.m. two or three days in a row, a fly on the wall as Bill Parcells and his high-school coaching mentor Mickey Corcoran drank coffee and passed the time before the practice day began. Parcells was so confident. Mickey was too, but the old coach was good at grounding Parcells too.
u. Beernerdness: I didn’t actually have this one, but I do believe it is the best name for a beer in world history: Belching Beaver Peanut Butter Milk Stout (Belching Beaver Brewery, Vista, Calif.); I photographed the logo on my iPhone in a BevMo. Look at it.
v. I challenge you to come up with a better name and logo—with a beaver actually in full belch mode.
w. This week’s lineup of camps:
Monday: Chargers, Costa Mesa, Calif. By the way, amazing thing about staying in this area is the luxurious proximity. Drove 6.4 miles to interview Sean McVay at his Newport Beach hotel Saturday morning just after dawn. Drove 4.2 miles to the UC-Irvine campus for Rams practice. Snuck away to see Rockies-Padres at Petco, 78 miles away, Sunday afternoon. This morning, perhaps while you’re reading this, I’ll be off to see new Chargers coach Brandon Staley early at their facility 1.7 miles away. Then I’ll drive 2.4 miles to Chargers practice at Jack Hammett Stadium. Post-practice, videographer Matt Buckman and I will hustle over to John Wayne Airport, 4.6 miles away, to fly to the next stop.
Tuesday: Seahawks, Renton, Wash.
Wednesday: Broncos, Englewood, Colo.
Thursday-Friday: Kansas City, at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Mo.
Then home for 2.5 days before the East/South/Midwest portion begins. Hope to see you on the road. Come up and say hi.
Gut feel, ‘22:
ARod follows Peyton west.
Rodgers v Mahomes.