CLEVELAND—On the 300 level of First Energy Stadium, in the concourse a half-hour before kickoff of the Browns’ preseason game, I observed the scene.
In the Cleveland Browns Pro Shop, four jerseys were for sale, two on top of two. Top two: Myles Garrett’s 95 and Nick Chubb’s 24. Bottom two: Denzel Ward’s 21, Deshaun Watson’s 4. I asked a shopper, young woman, if she’d buy a Watson jersey. “Too soon,” she said.
Outside, I posted up to count the passersby for 15 minutes. Of 163 jerseys I counted on fans, I saw Kosar, Manziel, Mayfield, Garrett (the most), Chubb, Beckham Jr., (Jim) Brown, (Joe) Thomas, even an Owusu-Koramoah. Zero Watsons.
Guy passed me in the concourse with a NEXT YEAR DAMMIT Browns T-shirt.
I stopped a 30-ish fan in Browns garb, Quinton from Lorain, Ohio, and asked if he supported the team acquiring Watson. “I thought it was a good deal,” Quinton said. “It’s tricky. On the one hand, he never got found guilty of anything in a court of law, so what do we really know? But I’m conflicted because I feel for the women if something really did happen.”
“City seems divided,” I said.
“It really is,” Quinton said. “Lots of people have strong feelings on both sides.”
“What’ll it be like when Watson plays for the Browns in December?” I asked.
“What do they say? Time heals all wounds? If he wins, it’ll be forgotten.”
South of the city, an architect and former mega-Browns fan, Kyle Marvin, was not as forgiving as Quinton from Lorain. Marvin hates the Watson trade and signing. He ignored the Browns-Eagles game on local TV Sunday. He’s been a religious Browns’ watcher and tailgater, the kind who gets to the tailgate lot at 6 a.m. on gamedays and delights (before Steeler games) in catcalling anyone wearing a Pittsburgh jersey.
“I have loved this team,” Marvin said from his home, “but I will not be a Browns fan this year. It’s going to be hard for me to be a Browns fan again. I’ll watch the NFL on TV, but not the Browns.”
I asked what his biggest issue with Watson and the Browns was.
“The lack of contrition by Watson,” Marvin said. “He continues to lie about what happened. Nobody’s being honest. If he’d just come out and say ‘I’m sorry,’ it’s a different story. And the Browns just keep supporting him.”
Now that the Watson reality has set in—he’ll be suspended for the first 11 games of the season, and fined $5 million, and made to undergo counseling to address what Roger Goodell called “predatory” behavior—closure allows the Browns to plan for the season and Watson to plan for an uncertain future that will include five weeks when he can have no contact with his team.
This, as one person in the middle of this maelstrom told me Sunday, “is a complicated, complicated, complicated story.”
There is closure, but there is not satisfaction. Watson issued a statement when the settlement was announced saying, “I take accountability for the decisions I made.” Shortly thereafter, before the press, he said, “I’ve always stood on my innocence … I never assaulted anyone or disrespected anyone.”
How does one person say—sort of—I’m sorry, and two hours later say, I’m not sorry for anything? It’s disingenuous absurdity. A few things I learned reporting on the Browns:
Watson has begun the league-mandate counseling, a source told me. My sense is the Browns hope that at some point Watson will understand what he either doesn’t understand or a denial he has been continually fed by his enablers—that he did nothing wrong. Very likely, the Browns believe counseling can help Watson get to the bottom of why he sought treatment from 66 massage therapists in 18 months, per the New York Times. That he has begun the counseling is a step in the right direction.
I would expect the Browns will look hard at adding a quarterback to supplement Jacoby Brissett. But tamp down the expectations that Jimmy Garoppolo is on the way. Not saying it’s impossible, but I don’t sense the Browns think the conditions are right for it. Too much money (unless the Niners pick up a ton of the obligation), lack of certainty on Garoppolo’s health with him coming back from shoulder surgery, and the difficulty of learning a new playbook overnight. Those are real issues. I doubt Cam Newton is in play either. But I do think the Browns will search for a challenger to backup Joshua Dobbs around the final cutdown next week.
I think the Browns gave Watson the $230-million guaranteed contract because they figured it was the only way they had a chance to get him. The Haslams have been pilloried for the contract, and rightfully so; Watson, even after his fine, will earn from the Browns $40 million in 2022. This is just my gut feeling, not something I was able to verify. But my gut tells me they felt they had only one chance after Watson told the team he was likely headed elsewhere after interviewing with four teams. Watson had Atlanta (near his home of Gainesville, Ga.), Carolina (near Clemson, his college) and New Orleans ahead of Cleveland on his wish list. How could the Browns differentiate themselves? A fully guaranteed contract. If you’re Jimmy Haslam, who had been through a slew of failed quarterbacks in his 9.5 years as owner, you might think: Taking an avalanche of criticism for a year will be worth it if I have my long-term QB on opening day 2023.
The league doesn’t like the 11-game suspension, but they wouldn’t have liked the continuing soap opera of this story if Watson had been banned for a season. I bet 90 percent of football fans, asked what they think of Watson being banned for 11 weeks with a $5-million fine, would have some significant problem with it. Either it’s too severe, not severe enough, or the league is soft, whatever. All of those positions can be argued. But the league just wanted this to end. Could they, would they have triumphed if the appeals office, Peter Harvey, had banned Watson for the season and the NFLPA fought it in court? Probably. At what cost? Two more months of Watson headlines? No thanks, they thought.
The plan for Watson during his suspension has some question marks. Mileposts along the way: Watson has to have no contact with the team from Aug. 30, when the suspension begins, until Oct. 9. He can return to the Browns facility on Oct. 10 and can be in meetings but can’t practice with the team for the next five weeks. On Nov. 14, 20 days before he is eligible to play, he can begin practicing with the team. I asked coach Kevin Stefanski Sunday about Watson’s work—presumably with private QB coach Quincy Avery—in the 41 days he’s away from the team with no supervision. “We can’t really direct that program,” Stefanski said. “Can’t check in day to day. Can’t watch him throw. He has a really good quarterback coach, Quincy Avery, so I know that they’ll have a plan of attack. It will be important for him to make sure that every day will count for him when it comes to the psychological part of this.”
I got the feeling that Watson will almost certainly start Dec. 4 in Houston, when he’s eligible to play, almost two years since he last played in a game. How ready will he be?
Stefanski: “It’s a totally fair question. There’s not a lot of examples of guys doing this. But Deshaun’s played a lot of football in his life. He’s played in a lot of big games, national championship games, playoff games. I think that he’s a player… that… say this the right way… in his young career, he’s had so many big moments that I think he’ll be ready to go. I’m not naive enough to say there won’t be some rust or whatever it may be because that’s a long time.”
Jacoby Brissett, the temporary QB, seems almost blissfully unaware of the turbulence in the outside world about this, and that’s probably a good thing.
Odd career … Backup to Brady, backup to Luck, successor to Luck, co-starter in Miami, now the 11-game man (probably) in Cleveland. “His career has uniquely prepared him for this,” Stefanski said. Talked to Brissett Sunday. “I never worry about all that stuff on the outside, really,” he said. “I tell myself to stay ready and actually believe it. I knew what I was getting myself into when I signed up for this job. We set a plan when we first started this thing, and we’ve been going along with our plan. That’s why I think you see none of us really stressing with whatever’s going on on the outside.”
The other day, on NFL Network’s morning show “Good Morning Football,” panelist Kyle Brandt called Watson’s denials in a Thursday press conference “the actions of a liar.” He said, as if speaking to Jimmy Haslam: “You’re an enabler.” That’s on the NFL’s channel. It’s not just the outside world attacking the Browns and the Haslams—it’s league-friendly people too.
I formed this opinion over the weekend talking to people on this story … Jimmy Haslam is a big entrepreneur. He’s taken quite a few slings and arrows in his business life, some of them seriously litigious. Deep down, I would not be surprised if, thinking whether he wanted to go after Watson, this went through his mind: I’ve watched team after team build and build and build, and they’ve failed because of one thing—they didn’t have a quarterback. Fabulously successful businessmen—Steven Ross, David Tepper, Woody Johnson—have tried for years to find that guy. Even if we took a torrent of rip jobs, wouldn’t it be worth it if we could get Deshaun Watson? Character witnesses vouched for him. A guy like Haslam is used to looking at the bottom line. If there are rocky patches— even legal and moral ones —on the way to great success, isn’t it all worth it?
That’s the cynical, pragmatic way to look at it. But if Watson doesn’t come through counseling on this tremendous flaw a changed person, and if he doesn’t play great in years two through five of the deal, the decision to trade three first-round picks and to sign him to a ridiculous contract will be viewed in history as a desperate move without a moral compass. I know why the Haslams did it, but they’d better be right.
And that is all up to Deshaun Watson now.
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif.—This encapsulates why the Rams are so high on defensive coordinator Raheem Morris—and the rest of the league should be too—as they begin their quest to try to be the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls in 18 years:
The Rams led Cincinnati 13-10 at halftime of the Super Bowl last February. But they hadn’t really impacted Joe Burrow, who’d completed two-thirds of his throws and been sacked just once in the first 30 minutes. The Bengals were—surprise!—sliding protection to thwart Aaron Donald, and the Rams couldn’t take advantage of the rest of the defense.
“Coach Rah,” is what the players call Morris, and when he stood in front of the defense at halftime, he announced a decisive change. It involved an unlikely piece of the Rams’ D: a lightish rookie linebacker with a maniacal streak named Ernest Jones. Six months later, Jones, 22, talked like he couldn’t quite believe what Morris said at halftime during the biggest game of his life.
“Rah told us, ‘We’re gonna change things up here. We’re gonna start sending [blitzing] Ernest in the second half. It’ll be Ernest one-on-one against their back. We think we’ll be able to get more pressure that way.”
In the second half, Jones blitzed seven times. He sacked Burrow late in the third quarter to foil one drive, then had a three-yard tackle for loss on running back Joe Mixon in the fourth quarter that stunted another drive. In all, Jones had four pressures on Burrow. Morris’ coaching wrinkle led to six second-half sacks by the Rams, and intense pressure on the final drive in the Rams’ 23-20 win.
“No way I was expecting Rah to send me like that,” Jones told me in camp. “I’m sure the Bengals weren’t expecting us to send the rookie linebacker either. Maybe that’s why Rah’s so good.”
Morris deflected credit for the decisive wrinkle. “The beauty of football, and the beauty of being a coordinator, is that it’s never just one person,” he said. “In this case, it was the clear, concise information given to the players by coaches, their position coaches in particular. It’s about incorporating everybody, the players and coaches alike.”
True. But someone’s got to make the decision to feature a third-round rookie on a defense full of megastars in the biggest game of their lives. Morris’ gambit helped win it.
I came to take the temperature of the Rams on a hot, arid dog day of August. Turns out it was a great day to come. This was a feisty, competitive practice with good news about the quarterback with a supposedly balky elbow. What I saw and heard:
- Matthew Stafford, given some time off to deal with the barking throwing elbow, threw at least 70 balls at all distances against the defense. Looked good. “I practiced every practice last year, and it wasn’t a big issue,” he said. “We’re just trying to be smart. I’m fine.” Sean McVay told me: “Looked like Matthew Stafford to me. No restrictions, throwing it all over the yard, all different kinds of launch points.”
- Aaron Donald practices hard. There was a scrum, pushing and shoving, in the middle of practice, and Donald grabbed the facemask of right tackle Rob Havenstein, ripped it off and threw it 10 yards downfield in anger. The Rams love Donald in large part because he takes football so seriously on every snap, whether it’s in the summer in training camp or in the winter in the playoffs. Sean McVay got in the middle of it and helped break it up, and then was thrilled with the offense later. “Good job standing up to those guys!” he yelled. McVay doesn’t want his offense to be intimidated by the best defensive player in the game. Donald smiled when I asked him about it. “It’s football,” he said. “All love.” (Recently retired Andrew Whitworth told me the scrums with Donald and the offense are common, and all would be forgotten by the time players are in the locker room. For their sake, I hope so. That was a good rumble.)
- Donald told me he plans to play at least through the end of the 2023 season. “I got a two-year commitment right now, so I’m going to do everything I can while I’m here to help the organization win and be successful. I’m gonna last as long as I can, as long as I can play at a high level,” Donald said.
- Regarding the future of McVay, who considered TV before signing a contract extension: Whitworth told me he wouldn’t be surprised if McVay coached two more years and he wouldn’t be surprised if he coached 32 more. “That’s somebody who’s one of my closest friends and knows me very well,” McVay told me. He called what Whitworth said “a fair statement. [I’m] just living in the moment and I know I’m loving coach right now.” I doubt McVay would leave as long as he has a powerful offense with a quarterback he trusts. Matthew Stafford is that, and at 35, he’d like to play a while longer.
Raheem Morris, part II:
He stepped into an odd but overall healthy situation last year, taking over the league’s top-rated defense after Brandon Staley left to coach the Chargers. Morris was asked not to change the successful Vic Fangio/Staley scheme but only to tweak it, so that was an adjustment for him. Jalen Ramsey told me: “We wanted to make sure that the next person to come in kept at least that same kind of defensive personality, where we kind of build around the stars and we elevate the quote-unquote role players to play extremely well. I remember having conversations with Sean—he wanted to keep that the same as well.”
“When you get a new coach, it comes down to trust,” Donald said. “He let players he trusts give feedback, and he learned his players. It was real good as the season went on.” By late in the season, after some porous defensive days against Tennessee, Arizona and Green Bay, Morris had a good play-calling feel. After Dec. 1, the Rams’ D allowed 18.4 points a game, including the 4-0 run through the playoffs.
Morris got just one head-coaching interview, in Minnesota. The previous year, five teams wanted Staley for interviews, and the Chargers hired him the day after they lost in Green Bay in the playoffs. Some of that is timing in the NFL hiring cycle. Staley got hired on Jan. 17; Morris wouldn’t have been available till Feb. 14. That’s one of the idiotic things the NFL does: Often times, the best coaches get eliminated from head-coaching contention because teams sprint to fill jobs once their seasons are over. Super Bowl assistant coaches often get the shaft.
Back to that Super Bowl, and Ernest Jones. Watch this video of the play to see why the decision by Morris to blitz Jones at halftime was so smart. Watch the Cincinnati line shade to the left, and watch the massive hole open at right guard. Then it’s Jones versus blitz-pickup-back Joe Mixon, and may the best man win. Mixon wins the first contact, but Jones keeps his feet, and well, you can see the rest.
Football is a matchup game; when Morris saw the Cincinnati effort to eliminate Donald, he changed up. “We knew if we could get Ernest matched up on the back, we had a pretty legit chance of winning on whichever back it was,” Morris said. “Ernest gives us an advantage with his ability to rush, his ability to spin, spin on the move.”
Morris is a power-of-positive-thinking guy. With a top-heavy-spending franchise like the Rams, lesser draftees and free-agent marginalia need to be coached up to contribute. Nick Scott, a seventh-round pick in 2019, was a special-teamer when Morris took the job 18 months ago. “During OTAs,” Scott told me, “Raheem told me based off the tape he saw, I could be so much better than where I’m at at the time. That was great for me because I saw it as a challenge, but he was expressing a belief in me too. It changed my off-season. I attacked my craft hard. I wanted to be the player he saw in me.”
Due to injuries in the secondary last season, Scott became a late-season starter at free safety. He played every defensive snap for the Rams in four playoff games. Scott stalled one Tampa Bay drive in the divisional playoff game on the last interception Tom Brady would ever throw—or so we thought.
Morris is plagued in the public sphere, to some degree, by his first head-coaching experience. The Bucs were coach-searching in early 2009, and they had a bad memory of letting a young, energetic, charismatic DBs coach, Mike Tomlin, get away three years earlier. So, they promoted their charismatic young DBs coach, Morris, to head coach. He wasn’t ready. After going 17-31 in three years, he got fired. Then he spent a decade coaching on both sides of the ball for Washington and Atlanta.
Had to be tough to go back to being a position coach in Washington and Atlanta after that, right? And switching to a receivers coach for four years with the Falcons?
“Actually,” Morris said, “it was exciting. Going to the offensive side in Atlanta, I got to coach and learn from one of the greatest wide receivers to play the game, Julio Jones. I talked to him through a defensive lens, and I learned so much about offensive football at the same time—and remember, I was with Mike Shanahan, Kyle, Sean [McVay], Matt LaFleur in Washington. Honestly, those years were an outstanding turn of events for me.”
“He sees the game differently than other coaches, and I think it’s because he’s coached both sides of the ball,” Ramsey said. “He’s taught us that too. When you play for Raheem, you see why the adjustments should be made. You feel them.”
Re: second chances … I talked with Morris about Josh McDaniels getting a second chance this year in Las Vegas, and the prospects of him and Morris getting another chance to be a head coach.
“Josh and I were the same age when we got the jobs,” Morris said, smiling. “Thirty-two.”
Hmm. Looked it up. McDaniels got his first head coach job at 32, as Morris said. He’s 46 today. Morris was 32 when his first shot came, and he’ll be 46 in two weeks.
When Morris took the Rams’ job after the ’20 season, club president Kevin Demoff told him it’d be a great opportunity to be a coordinator for what could be a very good defense, then work back to being an NFL head coach. Morris told Demoff: “I’m not gonna be a head coach again.”
“I remember that,” Morris said. “I wanted Kevin to know I wasn’t coming to the Rams for the glorification of Raheem Morris. I was coming to help them win a Super Bowl.
“Now, let’s do it again.”
As with every Super Bowl contender this time of year, so much will have to go right for that to happen again. Joe Noteboom needs to have a seamless transition replacing the retired Whitworth at left tackle. Leonard Floyd and someone (2020 third-rounder Terrell Lewis?) have to fill the pass-rush hole vacated by Von Miller. Allen Robinson needs to take the pressure off Cooper Kupp, who will face double-teams more than ever. Stafford’s got to stay upright, with a healthy-enough elbow. It’s a lot to ask in a 17-game season, with an opener against 2022 Super Bowl favorite Buffalo.
You should know that, in the previous 1,700 words, I didn’t mention that Morris is Black. He doesn’t want to be seen as a top Black coaching candidate, but rather a top head-coaching candidate, period. He’s a coach who had a shot, wasn’t great at it, and set about over the last decade to coach better, on both sides of the ball, with good mentors. He wants people to look at his background, all of it, and then, he said, “The best coach should get the job.” Morris is one of them.
This happened Thursday, at the conclusion of the Chargers-Cowboys joint practice. The quarterbacks had a throwing-into-the-net contest (Ben DiNucci for the Dallas win!), and then Chargers QB Justin Herbert went to the far end of the far field to practice a specific route. I went down and took a few photos, and a couple videos, when a ball boy approached me.
“Could you please stop filming,” he said.
It was not a question.
“Sure,” I said.
Herbert went at this specific route for 12, 15, 18 minutes, throwing to a couple of camp receivers, time after time. By my watch, he stopped 37 minutes after practice ended. Don’t know how many throws he made … maybe 60.
Then he came off the field, did a scheduled session with the news media, and walked over to me. “Hey, I’m sorry for that,” he said. “I could have handled it better. Should have.”
“You definitely don’t need to apologize,” I said. “I wasn’t aware that was off-limits.”
I asked him about the time he spent—after both the Wednesday and Thursday practices—with the extra throwing. It wasn’t just working extra after practice. I wondered about all the extra throws, and the wear on his arm. It’s one thing for a receiver to catch a bunch of balls off the JUGS machine (see: Ja’Marr Chase, in this space two weeks ago), and another thing for a quarterback to air out his arm in practice two days in a row, with extra sessions after each.
“During practice,” Herbert said, “there are times where maybe I miss a throw or maybe I don’t feel like I did my best on that play. I think practice is a time to let it go and go onto the next one. You never want your last play to affect your next one. After practice is where if I need to focus on something, I need to work through something, that’s where I’m gonna make that throw again and again. I just feel like it’s something I have to do. I just have to. I place the ball where I want to, and work on that throw a few times.”
“And your arm’s okay with all that extra throwing?” I asked.
“I take great care of my arm. Plenty of strength training, ice, all the stuff that I need to so I’m able to throw the ball like that … every week. I think now is the time to do it because I’m not playing in the preseason games. We’re off for the next three days. I’ll have plenty of time to rest it. My arm can take it. I’ll rest and I’ll get back at it. I would hate going into this weekend knowing maybe I didn’t throw as well as I would’ve liked. The way I am—I have to go out there and get it right. Throw, feel good about it, and then head off the field. That’s sort of my routine.”
Driving away that day, I thought: There’s a reason this guy’s thrown for 9,300-some yards and 69 touchdowns in his first two NFL seasons, and I think I just saw it.
Teams I’ve seen, and camps I’ve visited, compartmentalized:
When I saw them: Aug. 16 and 17, training camp, Jack Hammett Sports Complex, Costa Mesa, Calif.
Five things: I was in camp on Thursday, the day the Derwin James deal got done. Everyone understands the weirdness of rewarding a player who has missed 29 games due to injury in his first four years, but seeing James hugging 12 Chargers’ employees (not coaches, not players, but staff members) post-practice told me something about his value to a young and growing organization. When GM Tom Telesco couldn’t make the dedication of a high school weight room funded by the Chargers, and with most of the team and coaches on summer break, James went instead. He’ll play all over the back seven of a better defense … The Chargers allowed a ghoulish 4.7 yards per rush last year. So, it is fitting that the last play from scrimmage in the last game of the year was Vegas back Josh Jacobs busting up the gut for 10 yards, enabling the Raiders to kick the winning field goal. Thus the off-season importing of defensive tackles Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson. “They fit our style up front,” Telesco said. “Size, power, inside anchors. That’s what we needed.” … J.C. Jackson and Asante Samuel Jr., the starting corners, played the Dallas receivers feisty and aggressive in 11-on-11 work … Seeing Mike Williams lay out in a practice, fully parallel to the ground, for a Herbert deep ball that went just off his fingertips, says a lot about his ethos. He was a vital re-sign last March … Just a gut feeling after being around the Chargers for two days: The Deshaun Watson fully guaranteed $230-million contract won’t be the way this team goes when it comes time to negotiate a new deal for Herbert next offseason. I think they’ll make that clear at the start of the process, and the chips will fall where they fall.
Player to watch: Edge-rusher Khalil Mack. He’s 31, coming off missing 10 games with a foot injury his last season in Chicago. It’s natural to wonder if this is the start of a decline for Mack. “I really hope people believe that,” Mack said to me, “so I can go out there and show what I’m capable of.” If Mack hadn’t missed those 10 games, my bet is the Chargers never would have gotten him for the 48th pick in the draft this year (and a sixth- next year). It might have required the 17th pick, which the Chargers used on guard Zion Johnson, who they hope will be a crucial piece of the protection package for Justin Herbert for the next eight years. GM Tom Telesco understands the risk. “It’s impossible to really know [about Mack’s long-term health] but having a head coach who coached him mitigates that risk.” Brandon Staley broke into the NFL on Vic Fangio’s defensive staff in Chicago in 2017 and coached Mack. The plan here is for Mack to rush from the right and Joey Bosa from the left side. Many days in training camp, Bosa and Mack have gone off to the side and worked on pass-rush moves together. “You talk about two guys still learning the game and wanting to play it at a high level,” Mack told me. “It’s been so much fun studying film with this guy. It’s a good mix of finesse and power. We kinda go back and forth all day … what moves to use on later downs versus earlier downs. We’re gonna try to break records.”
He said it: Mack on his aims for the season: “I’m trying to be better than classic Khalil Mack.”
What I’ll remember: Something you’ll see next week in this space. (Spoiler alert: Move on if you don’t want to know a chunk of the column next week.) Meeting coach Brandon Staley at his home in San Juan Capistrano for a ride to work. John Carroll University is involved.
When I saw them: Aug. 20, in a preseason game against Detroit.
Five things: Shaquille (nee Darius) Leonard, the centerpiece of the defense, may or may not be ready for opening day in Houston. He had a nagging calf injury throughout the offseason that was eventually diagnosed as a back injury straining the calf. Leonard’s been doing personal walkthroughs with coaches at 6:30 a.m. in training camp, playing the mental game so he’ll be ready when the physical games begin. I’d expect him to play early in the season, and maybe even the opener, but he may not have the burst of the normal Leonard … Nick Foles, backup quarterback, led a crew of backups (plus impressive rookie wideout Alec Pierce), on a first-drive scoring drive Saturday. “We’ve wanted Nick here for some times,” Frank Reich told me. “You know what he told me? ‘Frank, my arm is so much stronger than it was back in ’17.” That’s when St. Nick led the Eagles to the Super Bowl stunner over New England and when, telling almost no one, his elbow was hurting all down the stretch. Reich says Foles’ arm in camp has been terrific … The Colts like third-string QB Sam Ehlinger, who’s throwing the ball with more velocity this summer, and he made two nice drives in the loss to Detroit. But he made a dumb play on his first snap against the Lions and wasn’t impressive overall against Detroit. Pushed out of the pocket, he scrambled right and instead of throwing it easily beyond the line of scrimmage to save a loss, Ehlinger just ran out of bounds. Two-yard loss, needlessly. A limited player like Ehlinger can’t make mental errors like that one … Reich on 6’3″ second-round rookie Alec Pierce, wideout from Cincinnati: “Fast, tall, tough, smart, plays with great confidence, steps on the field and acts like he belongs.” First catch of the day Saturday—a drag route across the shallow middle, and he bulled for a first down. Look for Pierce to play a big role early as a complement to Michael Pittman and Parris Campbell … Bill Polian spent some time scouting players and giving his input for the Colts this week, and watched the second half of the game with owner Jim Irsay. Nice resource to have.
Player to watch: QB Matt Ryan. This is Frank Reich’s fifth year as head coach. Ryan will be his fifth opening-day starting quarterback (Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz, Ryan). Ryan played 14 years in Atlanta, and you’d think a guy who played 14 years with some playoff success would come in and tell Reich, Here’s 20 plays or so I’d like to incorporate into what we do. He hasn’t asked for anything. “Pro move,” said Reich. Ryan’s not one of these guys who’s big into I-told-you-so, but you can bet he’s got some motivation to prove the Falcons wrong here.
He said it: After Frank Reich told me he could feed Jonathan Taylor 370 times this year “and he’d break all the records for yards and TDs,” this was Taylor on whether that’s something he’d like to do: “You can have all the yards and all the records, and if you don’t get the wins, what does it all mean? I just don’t care.”
What I’ll remember: Lunch with Reich on Friday near the Colts’ camp complex north of the city, when I asked him about the trials of having five starting quarterbacks in five years. “It’s made me a better coach,” Reich said. “It hasn’t worn on me. It’s not a script I’d have written—I mean, normally it takes a lifetime of coaching to have five starters, and I’ve had that. In five years—but you play the hand you’re dealt in this business. The crazy thing is, I never thought any of them would be one-and-done. Andrew Luck was gut-wrenching, obviously. Jacoby Brissett, we made a tough decision after one year. Philip [Rivers], I thought he’d play a couple of years. Carson [Wentz], that was gut-wrenching too. Now with Matt, I definitely don’t think it’s only one year.”
When I saw them: Aug. 6 at their training center in Eagan, Minn.
Five things: There’s just more of a positive vibe around this camp than I remember in my last stop. The players had been tired of what many felt was Mike Zimmer’s negative approach, and that showed up in the performance. Being awful on defense with a ton of injuries in 2020 was understandable; being 30th in defense with a better cast in 2021 meant it was time for a change after eight Zimmer seasons … Rookie coach Kevin O’Connell, imported from the Rams, on his team-building approach: “From day one here, we talked about building a positive culture, where we bring out the best in people and people want to come to work every day and be at their best for the guy next to him. We want player ownership of what we do. I learned it from, in my opinion, one of the best at cultivating that culture, Sean McVay. Not that we’re going to duplicate everything that happened in L.A. or try to, but I’d be a fool not to want that type of work environment for these players.” … Receiver K.J. Osborn’s been great in camp this summer. After a 50-catch, seven-TD season in 2021, he enters year three with a legit chance to be a 1,000-yard receiver in an offense that could see Kirk Cousins throw for 4,500 yards … Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell brings the Fangio defense to the Vikings, and there’s so much to clean up there. The biggest area of need: a run defense makeover after the Vikes allowed a putrid 4.7 yards per rush last year. A 307-pound nose man, Harrison Phillips, came from Buffalo in free-agency to steady the front. That’s a vital focus of camp. Linebacker Eric Kendricks should thrive in this scheme. It’s about time he gets recognized as one of the best linebackers in football … So what’s new for Justin Jefferson, whose average season after two years is 98 catches and 1,508 yards? Continuing work on his precision. He runs such beautiful, effortless routes, with almost perfect body control. I won’t be surprised if, at the end of this season, he’s considered the best receiver in football.
Player to watch: QB Kirk Cousins. Cousins won’t say it, but I think he got tired of the Zimmer negativity and should thrive under O’Connell, who will run a completions-based offense (aren’t they all?), likely with two or three more downfield throws per game, or at least chances for them, than Cousins is used to. Now, when I talked to Cousins, he chafed a bit at the suggestions that he wasn’t taking chances or throwing it enough downfield. “I think we’re pretty explosive when you look at what Justin Jefferson has done and Adam Thielen has done and if you look at just the simple numbers with air yards and downfield passes. I think the actual statistics would suggest that we’re doing that.” The stats bear him out—to a degree. His 7.52 yards-per-attempt was eighth in the league. He had 20 completions thrown at least 30 yards downfield, ninth in the league, and two receivers—Jefferson and Osborn—with per-catch averages of more than 13 yards.
Playing for O’Connell is going to be interesting to watch, at least as far as pushing the ball downfield goes. Last year, coaching Matthew Stafford, O’Connell had a QB tied for the league lead with 17 interceptions. “That wasn’t a stat we were even talking about,” O’Connell said. “We obviously talk a lot about ball security, but taking a risk will come up from time to time with how we’re going to call plays. It could be one or two plays a game—maybe a play’s been set up for a quarter or two, you’re just waiting for that perfect time to take that one chance.”
He said it: Adam Thielen on the unpredictability of the Kevin O’Connell offense: “What’s cool is that we’ve learned you never know when the shot’s coming. But we all see that it could be on any play, and to any of us. That’s a great offense to be in.”
What I’ll remember: Graciousness. Kaden O’Connell, the coach’s 7-year-old son, was jonesing to get the post-practice pizza with his father when I spoke to O’Connell on the field after practice. “Kaden,” Coach said to his antsy son, “I promise you’ll get your pizza. Can you say, ‘Nice to meet you Mr. King?’ And please say, ‘Sorry for interrupting you, sir.’ Kaden did.
Colts quarterback Matt Ryan, in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium, after the Colts-Lions preseason game Saturday:
FMIA: You’ve said all the right things, but doesn’t some voice deep inside you say, I gave the Falcons everything for a decade and a half, and it’s gone in an instant, and it hurts?
Ryan: “You know, it’s one of those things, when you’re going through it, it hurts. Obviously it does. You wake up every day for a decade and a half and you’re giving it everything you can to try and help that organization. But at the same time, I’m not going to let four, five days mar the experience that I had for 14-plus years of enjoyment. It’s a reminder that there’s a harsh reality to this business. I feel like … I’ve never had to go through it, but that’s the day-to-day for lots of guys. I feel like I’ve always been somewhat empathetic to guys going through that, but certainly you know it’s heightened at this point. I really do feel fortunate that I’ve only had to do it once, when that’s just not the norm.” If Tom Brady can leave New England, if Peyton Manning can leave the Colts … it’s part of this life.”
FMIA: Frank Reich has had five starting quarterbacks in five seasons, and he told me he doesn’t think you’ll be one-and-done like the others. You’re 37. Is it more likely you’re one-and-done or six-and-done?
Ryan: “I would hope six-and-done! My mindset is not for one year. It’s really not. Still feel great. I still feel like I’m playing very well. Feel like camp has gone great. Obviously you never know what’s gonna happen. But I would say it’s more likely six than it is one.”
FMIA: If I were in your shoes, I might feel pretty energized by being in a new place and having to prove yourself again. True?
Ryan: “It definitely has. It’s not necessarily football-specific. It’s all of the other stuff. It’s like getting to know your teammates. It’s not just a handful of new guys coming in, as I dealt with every year in Atlanta. For me, everyone’s new. You feel like you’re making new friends, getting a feel for the city and going around and meeting people. Then there’s an added challenge of learning players on the field that when you’ve played with guys for a long time, that doesn’t come up in OTAs. If I had played with Julio Jones for 10 years, in years seven through 10 there was not a whole lot new you were gonna find out in May. But for me this year, there was a ton of discovery in May and June and really now even into July and August every day. Jonathan Taylor not only can run the football but he catches it pretty well out of the backfield—how do we take advantage of that? Michael Pittman—what are his strengths? How does he come out of breaks? It’s taken me all the way back to when I was a rookie in Atlanta. And I’ve been good adjusting to a new playbook. It’s always easier for one person to adjust to what 25 or 26 players know than for 25 or 26 to adjust to one.”
“We don’t even really look at it as going for back to back. It’s being the best version of the 2022 Rams that we can possibly be. Everybody’s got the goal of trying to be able to win a championship. But I think our players know, you hear them talk about it, last year has nothing to do with what we’re gonna do this year. There’s too many good coaches and players around the league that adjust and adapt.”
— Sean McVay, to me, on repeating.
“The message today to all victims is clear, if you believe you have been sexually assaulted by a powerful person, keep your mouth shut and go away.”
— Houston attorney Tony Buzbee, who represented the plaintiffs in the case against Deshaun Watson.
“You feel like a zoo animal sometimes when people are just looking at you and taking pictures; it’s all very weird.”
— Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow, on his loss of privacy, to Conor Orr of Sports Illustrated in Orr’s prescient NFL season-preview cover story on the new Bengals phenom.
“The most rewarding thing about the last year … is about people coming up to me and telling me the positive impact that I’ve had. It’s really just so rewarding. That’s the reason why I did it and I think that everyone can continue to help and be that positive person in anyone’s life to make their day a little bit better. So yeah, I hope that I can be a little push in a positive direction.”
— Tampa Bay defensive end Carl Nassib, who came out last year as gay, after signing with the Bucs last week.
“Gimme a second. Oh, oh … [long pause] Thank you very much, Jim. You made my day, that’s for sure. I’ve had too many of the ‘no’ phone calls, and to get this with the ‘yes’ is just absolutely exciting. It’s a great time in the Klecko house.”
–Pro Football Hall of Fame seniors committee finalist Joe Klecko to Hall of Fame president Jim Porter upon being notified he will be one of three finalists from the seniors committee—along with Chuck Howley and Ken Riley—for the class of 2023.
New Tennessee wide receiver Robert Woods, on the experience of missing a Super Bowl victory because of a knee injury last year:
“I mean, obviously, it is a different experience. I was on the sideline. It’s a full-on story.
“I played in the Super Bowl a couple years before and we ended up losing to the Patriots. Cooper [Kupp] was in my position for that game. He tore his ACL, was on the sideline that day. Having that Super Bowl experience and losing was a total … I’m doing everything in my power to make sure our guys are ready: mentally, physically … so it doesn’t happen that way again.
“I was coaching. Coaching. I had an iPad. I’m coaching up Van Jefferson. I’m coaching up Cooper, Odell [Beckham Jr.], giving guys a pile of energy.
“Oh, I was really coaching up Van. I had the iPad on one of them. I forget the exact play, but I told him you gotta just keep running. Really, I remember just coaching him up and then he came back in the play and he ended up making that correction and making a play. I was like, I’m getting a ring too, so I’m making sure everybody knows what they’re doing, knows what assignments, making sure the attitude’s right. I had a job to do. I remember [Kendall Blanton], one of our tight ends, had his shoulder banged up. He was holding his shoulder and I’m like, ‘Bro! You don’t need to worry about the shoulder right now. Worry about that tomorrow!’
“I just thought, this is worth everything. It’s worth the injury. It’s worth my ACL injury. It’s worth Odell’s ACL injury. You see the smiles. After the Super Bowl, when the confetti’s coming down, the parade, when we get our rings – it’s all worth it. It’s like, you gotta be selfless. You gotta put your body on the line, because at the end of the day, this is all what we dreamed of since we were kids.”
California notes of the week, with a few bonus items from the Midwest:
1. There are two Nordstroms eight miles apart in Orange County. Expensive-suit overkill, no?
2. Leaving Cal Lutheran and the Rams facility, 68 miles to Orange County and the Chargers … but maybe 15 minutes out of Thousand Oaks, around the town of Chatsworth, I see two gigantic helicopters overhead. Like, gigantic pregnant helicopters. With some smoke to the left, off route 118 headed east before going south to Orange County. There’s some smoke to the left, brushfire smoke maybe a half-mile to my left, and suddenly one of these monolithic choppers drops a lake of water out of the bed of the chopper and it drops onto the smoky area. A few hundred yards to the side of the water-drop, there are six or eight firefighters digging a trench. The American summer, 2022.
3. Nice thing happened the other day in Costa Mesa. Ref Craig Wrolstad’s officiating crew—side judge Jeff Lamberth, umpire Steve Woods, down judge Jim Mello and the rest–came off the field after the Cowboys-Chargers practice and every one of them came over and shook my hand and said hello. I didn’t know one of them. Cool.
4. If you saw a crazy man in gym shorts and red T on the lawn at the Hyatt Westlake north of L.A. on Tuesday morning, with an iPhone propped up by a kettlebell, AirPods in the ears … that was me getting a workout orchestrated virtually by my trainer, Elise Young (www.elisesbodyshop.com, for those interested). Only my second true workout of the trip, and it was superb. She killed me. Lunges, dumbbell squats, pushups, planks, the works.
5. One restaurant never disappoints: Pizzeria Mozza in L.A., and I gladly went out of my way on a painful rush-hour drive from Orange County to get there before a redeye east on Thursday evening. Thinnish crust, great puffy edge crust, not overloaded with cheese, perfect tomato sauce with a touch of oregano. Good salads; the frisee rocks.
6. LAX to Indianapolis. Interesting. No non-stop redeyes, so I redeyed to Cincinnati on Delta, landed at 6:35 a.m., picked up a rental car, drove the one-hour, 55-minutes to downtown Indy, lucked into early check-in, and took a two-hour nap. Felt ready to go by 12:45 p.m.
7. If you drive from the Great Cincinnati Airport in Hebron, Ky., to downtown Indianapolis, you go from Kentucky to Indiana to Ohio to Indiana on I-275 and I-74. Bet you didn’t know that.
8. Gotta love the pitch clock. Friday night, Victory Field, across the street from my JW Marriott, downtown Indianapolis, glorious evening, stayed for six innings. Those six innings got played in 72 minutes. Time of Indy’s 3-2 win over Iowa: 2 hours, 8 minutes.
9. Indianapolis to Cleveland. It’s 263 miles between Colts’ and Browns’ stadia. No non-stop flights, which seemed odd, either Saturday evening or Sunday morning. Didn’t want to risk one of the smaller connecting flights getting cancelled, so I drove it and split the drive. I left Lucas Oil Stadium at 5:15 p.m. Saturday, post-Lions-Colts, and drove the first 173 miles to a Renaissance in Westerville, on the northeast outskirts of Columbus, hard by I-71. Got there by 8, ate some dinner, worked a bit. Up Sunday morning, in the car by 8 for the final 90 miles. At First Energy Stadium by 10:05.
10. The flight attendant on my Delta trip home Sunday night was named Muffin.
1. When Deshaun Watson takes the field to play in Houston Dec. 4, it will have been 23 months—and exactly 100 weeks—since he last played a football game.
2. Watson will make $45,367,500, minus the $5-million fine that was part of his suspension, to play six games this year.
So six games played, $40,367,500 earned. Per-game compensation: $6,727,916.
Dallas coach Mike McCarthy is 58 years old. On Tuesday, when the Cowboys had to travel from Ventura County, an hour north of Los Angeles, to Orange County, an hour south of L.A., for practices Wednesday and Thursday and a game at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles Saturday, they decided to take a train.
McCarthy grew up in Pittsburgh and had taken streetcars around the city and area before. Before Tuesday and his 2-hour, 30-minute trip from Oxnard to Irvine, McCarthy had never traveled by train in his life.
We probably don’t pay enough attention to scheduling when analyzing a team’s prospects for the coming season. In a team’s 17-game regular-season schedule, 14 games are the same as the other three teams in its division. The other three games match a team against foes that finished in a like position in the previous year’s standings.
The crossover games were a big factor in the NFC West race last year. In 2021, Seattle was coming off a first-place division finish, and San Francisco was coming off finishing last. Seattle went 0-3 in its crossover games (Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Washington), and the Niners went 3-0 (Cincinnati, New Orleans, Philadelphia).
San Francisco finished 10-7, earning a Wild Card. Seattle finished 7-10, finishing last in the division.
It’s not the best example, because, in retrospect, there’s not a huge difference in quality of competition in the crossover games. But, it’s still an example of how teams’ fates can be determined in the games division teams don’t have in common.
Looking at three divisions this season that could be affected by the schedules faced by returning first- and fourth-place teams…
In the AFC North:
- Cincinnati (first place, 2021) plays Dallas, Tennessee, Kansas City.
- Baltimore (fourth place, 2021) plays N.Y. Giants, Jacksonville, Denver.
In the AFC West:
- Kansas City (first place, 2021) plays Buffalo, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay.
- Denver (fourth place, 2021) plays N.Y. Jets, Baltimore, Carolina.
In the NFC West:
- L.A. Rams (first place, 2021) play Green Bay, Dallas, Buffalo.
- Seattle (fourth place, 2021) plays Detroit, N.Y. Giants, N.Y. Jets.
Who knows how these things play out, of course. But one thing that hits me about schedules this year is what Cincinnati faces after Thanksgiving in Week 12 through 18, abetted by the first-place schedule: at Tennessee, Kansas City, Cleveland, at Tampa Bay, at New England (short week), Buffalo, Baltimore (short week). The Bengals will learn late this season all about the price of 2021 success.
One week ago today, as Cowboys played a preseason game, so did two 9-and-under teams in Dallas area. One coach, Michael Hickmon, was fatally shot amid an officiating dispute. “A football field should be a safe haven for kids.” Story from @JJT_Journalist. https://t.co/jvBuCHC7oi
— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) August 20, 2022
Important story by longtime football journalist and columnist Jean-Jacques Taylor about the unconscionable murder of a Texas youth football coach. The brother of Aqib Talib stands accused of the murder.
Diana Russini said on ESPN that Deshaun Watson's camp is "still angry about those 6 games, so now it's 11, so to them this is too many games. They still stand by the fact that they're denying all of this."
So much for Jimmy Haslam's statement that Watson is "remorseful."
— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) August 18, 2022
Michael David Smith is the managing editor of Pro Football Talk.
When referee John Sculli had a heart attack during a game, one of the players performed life-saving CPR on him. Now, @SteveHartmanCBS goes On The Road to reunite the two for the first time since that incident. pic.twitter.com/ei5FEznfZX
— CBS Evening News (@CBSEveningNews) August 19, 2022
The Bills look like they are ready to absolutely destroy every other team’s backups.
I mean, they’re also the SB favorites when they have to play against starters. But against backups? Destruction.
— Aaron Schatz 🏈 (@FO_ASchatz) August 20, 2022
Aaron Schatz, the Football Outsiders czar, commenting astutely as always.
RIP, Pete Carril.
Does heaven have a back door?https://t.co/19AU3bnoKy
— Charles P. Pierce (@CharlesPPierce) August 15, 2022
Pierce writes for Esquire and Tweets on all things having to do with the world, and I echo the RIP Pete Carril.
I hate music on a practice field more and more every training camp. Go ahead. Call me old and get-off-my-lawn guy
— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) August 17, 2022
Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com is really not that old but he is most definitely a get-off-my-lawn guy.
Football is dead to Brad. From Brad Sher: “The settlement for Deshaun Watson has turned into the worst of all options. Eleven games? Time to come back for the Houston game? Ratings win … $5 million for victims, with $2 million matched? Peanuts. And the apology that turned into a declaration of innocence? The greatest con of all. A predator set free. I cannot support this sport anymore. It’s dead to me.”
You aren’t alone, Brad.
You live in Paris? From Francesco Segoni, of Paris, France: “I agree with you (and Deion Sanders): It’s easier to get into the Hall today. Part of the reason is the excessive reliance on players’ stats. As the rules and style of play change from decade to decade, stats follow suit. I’m not saying we should throw away stats altogether but we should stop using them as absolute references, such as ‘This WR had five 1,000-yard seasons.’ We need to use relative numbers, comparisons vs. other players from the same era. Also, we need to disregard Pro Bowls completely – the voting is totally bogus.”
All I can say is, how did you get so smart about the NFL and the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
Preaching Jim Marshall’s Hall cause. From Dean Dudley: “While I know that Joe Klecko was not ‘selected over Jim Marshall’ as a Hall of Fame finalist, it is still a fact that his candidacy advanced further than Marshall’s ever has. I am baffled that year after year, the committee continues to overlook Marshall as a finalist for the Senior Hall of Fame pool. Marshall, at right defensive end, played in 282 straight games with 130 sacks and 30 fumble recoveries. Klecko, who moved from RDE to NT, played 140 games and had 78 sacks and nine forced fumbles. While the comparison isn’t fair based on the position change, it’s still a question worth asking: Why are Marshall’s accomplishments considered to be less ‘Fame’ worthy than the likes of Klecko?”
Marshall’s case is good, and I’m not on that particular subcommittee; 12 other Hall voters are. So I was not part of the winnowing process for that group. I do know that many people on the full committee give great heft to Super Bowl titles. The Vikings never won one with the Purple People Eaters, and two of the four defensive linemen from that line, Carl Eller and Alan Page, are in Canton. Klecko gets rave reviews from the great players he played against, most notably Dwight Stephenson, and made the Pro Bowl at defensive end, defensive tackle and nose tackle. So I liked his candidacy a lot.
I got a few of these. From David Beall, of Atlanta: “A small pet peeve in your article this week: You say you hope people go back to work for the sake of the cities. People are working, just not from their offices in huge buildings that require them to drive, pay to park, and wear certain clothes. Saying you hope people go back to work makes it sound like if you’re at home you’re not doing anything. I put in more time now from the house because I don’t have to commute. I don’t have to pay for dry cleaning. It’s a huge benefit, and effectively a pay raise.”
All true. And this may just be the beginning of the evolution of cities, where experts will have to find uses for buildings that no longer house workers from the suburbs. I am sure people who work from home work hard. (I should know. I have done it for almost all of my 42 years in the American work force.)
On retired numbers. From Dillodude13, via Twitter: “With the NBA retiring No. 6 [for Bill Russell], only the NFL does not have a number retired league-wide. Does someone merit that? Pat Tillman? Jim Brown?”
This question made me think, Dillodude13. Thanks. The answer is: I don’t think so. I have never been in favor of putting Pat Tillman in the Hall of Fame because of his gallant post-NFL military career, which resulted in death in Afghanistan by friendly fire in 2004. I’m not anti-Tillman; I truly admire his patriotism and selflessness. But 14 NFL players died in service to the country. What makes Tillman’s service any more deserving of note, other than recency bias? (And, knowing Tillman a bit, which I did, I feel sure he’d agree with this; he wasn’t a fame-seeker.) I don’t even think the number of an exceedingly honorable player should be retired. That is the number 32. And not for Jim Brown. It’s for Al Blozis. He was an all-pro tackle for the Giants in 1943 and desperately wanted to serve in World War II. Twice denied entry to the Army because of his size (6-foot-6, 255 pounds), Blozis finally entered the Army in late 1943. He was a second lieutenant, stationed in France, scouting enemy lines in late January 1945. Two of his officers didn’t return from a scouting mission on Jan. 31, 1945, and he went in search of them. He was killed searching for them, and buried in a French cemetery with many of his military brethren. Lots of American heroes had NFL lives before they died. I don’t think retiring one of their numbers is the way to go.
In defense of Houston. From Chris VanDagna, of Houston: “Your articles have been a Monday morning staple for the majority of my adult life. Thank you. I wanted to respond about Houston. Most corporations (mine included) started a hybrid work schedule where you’re only required to be in the office Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Almost all major energy companies employ a 9/80 schedule, where half of the company is off every other Friday (so long as they work 80 hours over the nine days prior. What you experienced was a typical Friday in our lovely city. And Davis Mills is correct: The Texans are going to shock the NFL. I see a bright future for them and potentially a 7-10 season this year.”
Great note, Chris. Thanks. I’m bullish on Mills too.
Can’t see ‘em all. From Iain Beveridge, of Seattle: “As a long-suffering Jets fan from Queens living in Seattle for the last 40 years I do not see either the Jets or Seahawks on your training-camp tour! Is this a personal slight or should I take it to mean they are going to suck this year and you don’t want to waste your time.”
Just the way the schedule fell. Also did not go to Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, Carolina, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Miami, Detroit and Arizona. Hard to do 32 teams in a month. This is the first time I missed Seattle in a while—it just didn’t fit in my schedule.
1. I think preseason games, mostly, are a gigantic waste of time, a grifting way for teams to get full prices to see a collection of 30 through 85 on the roster play football that means something only to 30 through 85. The games should be eliminated. In their place: The league should televise the joint practices more and more teams have now. If fans so desired, they could have seen, for free at Chargers camp Wednesday and Thursday, Justin Herbert throw a TD pass to Keenan Allen, covered by Trevon Diggs, at the Cowboys-Chargers joint practice. In the Saturday game at SoFi, fans had to pay full price to see Chargers third-string QB Easton Stick throw a pass to free-agent Michael Bandy, covered by free-agent safety Markquese Bell. You might say, Who’d watch a joint practice on TV? I don’t know. I do know it’s an insult to ticket-buyers to pay to watch backups when two days earlier all the real players were playing competitive snaps for two hours.
2. I think it might be time to worry about the Tampa Bay offense. I’m not worried about Tom Brady’s absence—yet—because two people with knowledge of his time off told me over the weekend they expect he’ll be back sometime this week, and they’re not concerned. What to be worried about:
- The starting offensive line at season’s end was, left to right, Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Alex Cappa, Tristan Wirfs.
- After Marpet retired and Cappa left in free-agency, the starting offensive line a month ago, at the start of camp, was Donovan Smith, Aaron Stinnie, Ryan Jensen, Shaq Mason and Tristan Wirfs.
- Wirfs strained his oblique last week; no timetable for his return. Stinnie was carted off in Nashville Saturday night; he was diagnosed with a torn ACL and MCL—out for the year. So the starting line for Brady (we guess) to open the season could be, left to right, Donovan Smith, rookie Luke Goedeke, Robert Hainsey, Shaq Mason and street free-agent Fred Johnson.
- No guarantee that Chris Godwin (ACL surgery, Jan. 3) will be back for opening day, though he’s making good progress. Practice this week and next will tell.
We’ll see how the beat-up front plays out. But offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich had better get his short drops and quick throws dominating his play sheet in September.
3. I think that’s a fascinating media deal by the Big Ten, giving the conference the best football deal in college sports and boosting the exposure of both men’s and women’s basketball. (The SEC would like to have a word down the road re the football portion, however.) And they did it without the power of ESPN, going with Fox, CBS and NBC for an eight-year deal beginning in the 2023-’24 seasons. Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, the former Vikings executive, patterned the deal after the NFL’s TV contracts, with wall-to-wall games every Saturday during the college season, per Michael Smith of Sports Business Journal. Reports Smith:
Even without ESPN, the Big Ten’s new set of partners will provide a powerhouse lineup of college football on Saturdays in the fall. It will start with Fox’s “Big Noon Saturday” at noon ET, followed by CBS’ 3:30 p.m. window and NBC’s new “Big Ten Saturday Night” game in prime time.
The Fox-CBS-NBC triumvirate will provide the Big Ten with an NFL-like lineup of games on over-the-air TV.
“The goal was to own each of these windows,” said Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren, the former Vikings COO who used the NFL as a model for the Big Ten’s own rights negotiations. “To capture the hearts and minds and the fan avidity, I think you’ve got to make it very simple for your fans. So, I always had this visual, especially coming out of the NFL, that we’d have partners in each one of those windows. And then we’d have some special events, like two games on Black Friday.”
4. I think putting a football tripleheader on the big networks every Saturday, football from noon to 11:30 p.m. ET, is precisely what the NFL did, right down to NBC now owning the prime-time football windows on Saturday and Sunday nights. The difference, obviously, is that NBC will be counter-programmed on Saturday by ESPN and other college-football airers, and on Sunday NBC has the only game in town.
5. I think, and I don’t really know anything about this, that there is almost always a method to Aaron Rodgers’ madness. And when he calls out his young wide receivers for drops or lousy route-running, what he’s really saying is, HEY!!!! GET IT IN GEAR!!!! You guys are playing opening day, and playing big roles, and I have to have you, so let’s go. Do you think Aaron Rodgers would be calling out stiffs who weren’t going to make the team or contribute early?
6. I think the Football Story of the Week is Kevin Clark of The Ringer on the deep-passing prowess of Joe Burrow. It’s a collection of stories about how Burrow sees things in the defense and changes on the fly, the way smart (and more veteran) quarterbacks do. Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan told Clark there’s a point in every game when Burrow says: “I know they can’t cover this.” The gift of having a quarterback who has the physical tools to execute changes-on-the-fly that his beautiful mind is telling him about is something so incredibly valuable in today’s game. Good story by Clark explaining it all. He’s so good at diving deep into complicated things. I like the fact he got his receivers and Callahan to tell the tales too.
7. I think, apropos of nothing, I admire Andrew Luck walking away from football on his terms, staying away, and living another life. Apparently. It’s so cool he has disappeared and there aren’t 16 rumors a week about him. He’s just … living. Without football. It’s possible, you know.
8. I think when Mike Tomlin says he wants to see Kenny Pickett in more “varsity action,” that’s a signal his mind is a sliver open about his QB1 decision. Good for him. Pickett still needs to significantly outplay Mitchell Trubisky, but it’s helpful that is two games out this summer, he’s completing 86 percent (19 of 22) with three TDs and no picks. Mitchell Trubisky is very likely the opening-day starter, but good on Pickett for making it interesting.
9. I think I really appreciate Judy Battista. A lot. So Battista works for NFL.com and NFL Network, and so obviously she understands she can push the envelope, but not napalm the envelope. But she understands the outrage of the Deshaun Watson ruling and of the appeal and of the settlement. This was the first graf of her story analyzing the settlement:
“Perhaps the only good thing to come of Thursday’s announcement that Deshaun Watson would be suspended 11 games, fined $5 million and required to undergo an evaluation and counseling for violating the NFL’s personal-conduct policy were a few words near the bottom of the NFL’s statement: ‘Today’s announcement concludes the process.’”
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Happy 95th birthday to an American treasure, Rosalynn Carter.
b. Radio Story of the Week: Rachel Treisman of National Public Radio with a gem: “A man who held up a bank demanding his own money becomes an unlikely hero.”
c. Some stories seem impossible. This is one of them.
d. Reported Treisman:
Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein, a 42-year-old food delivery driver, held up to 10 people hostage during the seven-hour standoff last Thursday, according to The Associated Press. He entered the Federal Bank with a shotgun and canister of gasoline, fired three warning shots, locked himself in with several bank employees and customers and threatened to set himself on fire unless he was allowed to withdraw his savings — which he said he needed to pay his father’s medical bills.
e. And it gets nuttier.
f. Scary Story of the Week: Indiana obstetricians and gynecologists consider fleeing the state because of fear of prosecution … and persecution, from Farah Yousry of NPR. Yousry and hospital exec. Dr. Nicole Scott discuss the problem.
YOUSRY: A survey of residents and fellows across all specialties at the hospital found that 80% of the doctors said they are less likely to stay and practice in Indiana with the abortion ban. Scott says last year, more than half of them stayed.
SCOTT: I mean, our residents are devastated. I mean, they signed up to provide – I’m sorry – they signed up to provide comprehensive health care to women. And they are being told that they can’t do that. And I think it will deeply impact how we recruit and retain people to our state.
g. Imagine people making choices about where to live and raise families, and learning that in some places their medical options are severely limited for women.
h. Coffeenerdness: I neglected last week to mention a really nice feature of the NRG Stadium press box that only a coffee nerd like me would appreciate. The Texans PR staff features a Keurig cup brewing system with a wide variety of coffees, from Dunkin’ Donuts to Starbucks. Never thought I’d have a Starbucks French Roast coffee in an NFL press box, but here we are. Thanks to the Texans for being considerate of caffeine snobs.
j. Beernerdness: Speaking of snobs for St. Arnold’s Beer Garden in Houston (it’s outdoors)… If you are a fan of diverse beers and you can take the warmth (fans are present), this funky place just east of downtown will make you very happy. Get the pretzel.
k. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I don’t cover the NBA and don’t follow it all that closely. I respect Bill Plaschke a ton. But his column about the Lakers re-signing LeBron James really surprised me. “Two more years of LeBron James? Two more guaranteed years of embarrassing Lakers mediocrity.”
m. Would they be better not signing LeBron? How possibly would they?
n. Training Camp Road Song: “Times Like These,” a Covid song with some remote artists combining as the Live Lounge Allstars (Dave Grohl, Dua Lipa, Sean Paul, many others)
o. “All Too Well.” Man, Taylor Swift slays people who have crossed her, and so literately.
p. Or maybe this one. Live, from Tokyo
q. U2 and Jagger onstage together. “Gimme Shelter.” That’s some good writing music.
r. How great is Dennis Eckersley? The Hall of Fame pitcher, who will retire after this season from Red Sox telecasts, was in Pittsburgh Thursday for Sox-Pirates and called this Pittsburgh team “a hodgepodge of nothingness.” Is that perfect or what?
s. Column of the Week: John Canzano, the wordsmith from Oregon, on a great mother-in-law … and wife
t. Beautiful writing and a wonderful sentiment, John Canzano:
We pulled into her mother’s driveway on Saturday and found a line of American flags planted in the ground of her front yard. They stay up, year-round. She’s insanely proud to live in this country. Anyone who knows her story would understand. Her journey may have began in a boat, fleeing China. But it resulted in a daughter who emigrated to the United States, became her high school class president, and earned a full-ride scholarship to Pepperdine University.
A single mother.
The little girl, who became my wife.
I wonder how in the world they ever made it. Faith, for sure. Each other, definitely. Sports was the great unifier in my family of origin. We rallied around baseball games, played soccer, and watched football on the weekends. We also went to movies and bookstores. On Saturday, as we drove south on Interstate-5, I asked my wife what she and her mother did together for fun.
“There wasn’t a lot of time for going and doing things,” my wife said.
u. You know what I really miss about home life when I am on the road this long? Doing the crossword at lunch with Ann King.
v. Naps, too. I have become a professional napper. Those will continue this week in Brooklyn. Can’t wait.
w. Not a bad age, 65.
x. I have truly loved this camp trip. There are a few people I’d like to thank. When I signed with NBC in 2018 (I’d been a part-timer there since 2006, thanks to the great Dick Ebersol), I made two things a condition to my employment: the annual summer camp trip, with a videographer/producer at every stop; and editorial control of the FMIA column. FMIA used to be MMQB, but I left that for Albert Breer at The MMQB, and my wife Ann thought of Football Morning in America, playing off the Football Night theme. NBC loved it. Anyway, NBC was gracious enough to send great people along with me. This year, those great people were Kelsey Bartels and Morgan Miller on the first leg of the trip (terrific and tireless), and Annie Koeblitz on the second leg; it was Annie’s fourth time on the road with me, and she for some reason likes this trip and prods me to think of things I never would think of.
One example that you’ll see next week in this space: Annie and I agreed to meet Chargers coach Brandon Staley for a ride to work at 5:30 a.m. at his home 25 minutes away from my hotel and the Chargers’ facility. Annie didn’t have a Go Pro (the portable mini-cam used on dashboards in things like Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee), and so she found one late the day before. She lives just south of Los Angeles, so she was at home, and I was at a hotel in Orange County. We were to meet at the Chargers facility in Costa Mesa to drop one car and take another at 4:40. At 4:09, I was in the shower and heard a ping on my phone. I wondered, what is that? It was Annie, 31 minutes early, saying she was in place. Incredible. Annie, Kelsey, Morgan. That’s who they are. That is their ethos: Just get the job done. I cannot do this trip without them. They drive, they arrange, they sacrifice personal lives, they cut sleep short. I am so appreciative of their work. Future employers of them? Be in touch with me. By the end of the conversation, you’ll think you can’t live without them. Anyway, at this point in my life I appreciate young people who love the work and who make me better, and these three women are just awesome. My thanks to them.
Heard of him? You will, quite soon.
New Cowboy phenom.