SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif.—It’s 5:39 a.m. in Orange County, and Chargers coach Brandon Staley is in a rush to get to work 25 minutes away. But he can’t rush his drive too much through the thick fog enveloping the area around his home, not far from the Pacific Ocean.
“In the morning, you can get this fog, which is kind of cool,” said Staley, an Ohio kid exposed to California life for the first time in 2020. He speaks of it not in annoyance for adding five minutes to his commute — but rather in a Hey, look at this awesome rolling fog tone.
“My wife is from Chicago. I’m from Cleveland. I don’t know what our picture of California was, but coming to southern California we couldn’t believe how much it feels like home.”
Staley, 39, has a natural eagerness to him, which the football world should see a lot of this year. The Chargers were doomed by a leaky defense last year — the dramatic postseason-elimination loss to the Raiders has left a scar — and the offseason has brought in credible reinforcements: cornerback J.C. Jackson, pass rusher Khalil Mack, run-stoppers Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson, guard Zion Johnson. With mature-beyond-his-years quarterback Justin Herbert piloting a top-five NFL offense, the pieces are in place for a young team to make a 2022 run, even in the stacked AFC West.
Staley’s not just a coach, though. He’s become a lightning rod for progressive football. The Chargers led the NFL in fourth-down conversions last year with 22, and they were fourth in efficiency, making a first down on 65 percent of their fourth-down tries. But it’s the one they didn’t convert — fourth-and-one from their own 18- in the third quarter of that final game in Las Vegas, leading to a Raider field goal in a three-point loss — that prompted a torrent of criticism.
The young coach is wounded but unbowed. The analytics community, quietly, loves Staley. “He’s our Trojan horse,” said one team research analyst in the growing community of numbers-crunchers throughout the league. Meaning: Staley’s taking the heat from many who think it’s insane to go for it on fourth-and-one deep in your own territory in a tight game, but four models say (narrowly) it was the right thing to do. Another analyst told me, “Everyone screamed about fourth-and-one from the 18-, but no one mentions the Chargers were six of seven on fourth down in their biggest game of the year, and they lost because they were awful against the run.”
Raiders 35, Chargers 32, Week 18, game 272, Sunday night. America watching.
“That was the … that’s the toughest loss that I’ve ever been a part of as a competitor for sure,” Staley said, merging onto I-5, fog dissipating. “Then to watch the playoffs unfold how they did, you know, to see the AFC Championship Game and then the Super Bowl, that was a tough month for me. As tough a month as I’ve had.
“But I think it was a good month for me because I got a lot of work done in that month. I really took a hard look at myself number one, our team, our organization, how we did things, make those after-action reports in all phases. I got a lot of work done. As hard as it was, I think it set the stage for the type of offseason that we’ve had but it was as tough as it gets.”
“Ryan Tannehill told me he got professional help,” I said. “Not suggesting you did or you needed it, but can football send you into, even temporarily, a really depressed state?”
“When things matter to you so much, like I’m sure they do for Ryan…I think the finality of the NFL and sometimes how you lose, you can’t help but be affected, because of how much it means, how much you care. But that’s part of competition. I think when you compete, especially in the NFL, you’re gonna sign up for losses like Ryan had, like we had. There’s gonna be these really tough moments. That’s what gets you back going again, though, knowing that you get an opportunity to prove yourself again. You have to show that resilience and I think that’s what it’s about for me. You learn a lot from everything and then you gotta bounce back and you gotta come back better. That’s what I spent my time learning this offseason.”
One thing that sticks with me about that game — and that spurred GM Tom Telesco to over-scout run defenders last winter — was the very end, the last two plays of the 2022 NFL regular season. The Raiders had second-and-11 from the LA 46 with 80 seconds left. Tie game. If it ended in a tie, both teams would have made the playoffs. Next two snaps: Josh Jacobs for seven, Jacobs for 10. Daniel Carlson’s 47-yard field goal won it.
“My regret,” Staley said, “is that in what should’ve been able to get us out of there with a tie. They ended up splitting us on a 10-yard run and that’s what I’ve been thinking about — our execution on that last play. That’s the tough side of things, having to live with that. I didn’t do a good enough job. That’s the tough side of things. That’s what gotten me moving this whole offseason.”
Staley was hired after coaching the league’s top-rated defense with the Rams in 2020. The Chargers were 23rd in team defense last year, allowing more points than Jacksonville and Houston. That led to the offseason urgency to fix the defense. In Staley’s first year as an NFL assistant, 2017, he coached the Bears’ outside linebackers and got to know Mack well. Now he’s gambling that Mack, at 31 and coming off foot surgery, can be the Mack of five years ago. It’s a big gamble.
“I felt like we were missing…that presence up front,” Staley said. “I think Derwin James is as good of a leader as there is in pro football. I think Joey Bosa is one of the top defensive players in pro football. But I think to establish a culture and the type of mindset, you gotta bring in players who can live that. I think there’s no better example of that than Khalil. I saw it happen in Chicago. He’s a fierce competitor.”
Of course you regret something when it doesn’t work. That’s human nature. But in the six or seven minutes we discussed it, these were the five words that meant the most: “The mindset, I don’t regret.”
I don’t see Staley changing. And he shouldn’t.
“I think as a coach any time something doesn’t go down, you’re gonna challenge yourself and say, ‘Was that the best thing? Did I give myself, our team the best chance to win?’ That was a moment in the game that I felt like we could take advantage of to really give our team a lift. And looking back on it, when we didn’t make that fourth down, it had an impact on our offense for a couple of possessions. Defensively, we stopped them right away. I like the way we were playing but it had an impact on our offense for a few possessions and so I think I underestimated that, what that could do if we didn’t make it. But the mindset, I don’t regret. That’s obviously something that in one of the many decisions in that game that if you had to do over again and you knew it was gonna happen, you obviously wouldn’t do it. But the mindset of why we did it, I think in games like that, you have to go meet moments like that head-on.”
There’s a Twitter account run by a football analyst for The Athletic, Ben Baldwin, called the 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin). Baldwin uses historical data for each team and each situation and analyzes each fourth-down decision to go for it during the NFL season. He provides, by the numbers, a percentage for the team to win if it goes for it and if it doesn’t. He first-guesses, essentially. On this play — Raiders up 17-14, Chargers with fourth-and-one at their 18-, 8:57 left in the third quarter, Chargers with 15 running-back rushes for 77 yards to this point — the 4th down decision bot said the Chargers had a 44 percent chance to win the game if they went for it, a 41 percent to win if they punted. The recommendation (“STRONG”) was to go for it. NFL partner Next Gen Stats and two other public analytics sites also said the right call was to go for it.
Austin Ekeler got swarmed trying to pierce the left side of the line. Loss of two. Maybe the Chargers will put the ball in Herbert’s hands even on a short one the next time. Herbert was six for six throwing it for conversions on the other six times Staley went for it on fourth down.
There’s a bit of an old-school/new-school divide on fourth-down tendencies. The four coaches who went for it on fourth down the fewest times in the league last year, in order: Pete Carroll (11 fourth-down attempts), Andy Reid (15), Bruce Arians (16), Bill Belichick (17). But Sean McVay (19 tries) and Kyle Shanahan (20) were close, so it’s not definitive that the youngsters are all changing the landscape.
“We had two primetime games at the end of the season that were really, really, really the big games. We didn’t win. There were some [fourth] downs in there that people are gonna scrutinize. That’s part of it.
“But then there were five or six, seven games for sure — five games for sure, six seven depending how you look at it — where I know that we don’t win without that mindset. What you have to be able to do is look at the entire season and then in those games that everyone is rightfully talking about, just be really critical of yourself and that’s what I’ve tried to do. I know that what I’m not gonna apologize for is how our team played in those games because our team played exactly how I would want them to play.”
Fourth-down attitude is the bright shiny object; it’s easy to take shots when the team doesn’t convert a controversial one, and it’s understandable because it’s such an untraditional decision. But this was the big picture for the ’21 Chargers: They lost three of their last four. They gave up 34, 41 and 35 points in those losses. They weren’t enough of a complete team and didn’t deserve to make the playoffs. Now they’ve done something about it —but that something isn’t a change in philosophy by the head coach. It’s a change in personnel.
Now Staley was in the parking lot in Costa Mesa. Time to go to work.
“I know the mindset I tried to create within our team,” he said. “I know that’s not gonna change. Not one bit.”
Take a minute away from current events. I just love what I saw in Kansas City Thursday night, and as I set out to find out about it over the weekend, it went from being a cute note to a much bigger part of the column. Something about the delay-of-game on Kansas City’s first snap Thursday night was just…beautiful.
Dawson, the Hall of Fame quarterback who led Kansas City to the Super Bowl IV title 52 years ago, and the first sports hero for current owner Clark Hunt, died Wednesday at 87. You may have seen the tribute to Dawson from the current-day KC team on the first offensive play against Green Bay. The 11 offensive starters team got in a “choir huddle” that Dawson popularized in the sixties — five linemen standing upright in the back, five skill guys hunched over in the front, hands on knees, this time with Patrick Mahomes facing them.
How it happened: “Clark Hunt asked me if we could do the choir huddle,” Andy Reid told me via text Saturday, “and then we put a little juice on it.” Mahomes and some of the offensive starters weren’t due to play in the game, but when Reid told the team about it at the Thursday morning walk-through at the hotel, Mahomes wanted in. Tight end Travis Kelce wanted in. You’re in, Reid told them.
Reid had a picture of Dawson and the choir huddle on his phone, and he passed it around to the offense. “We practiced it at the walk-through,” Reid said. The three players who would be in the middle — wideout Justin Watson, Kelce and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire — saw that, 52 years ago, the trio of Mike Garrett, Fred Arbanas and Robert Holmes all had their hands on knees so Dawson could have a clear vocal lane to the guys in back in case the stadium was loud. So Watson, Kelce and Edwards-Helaire practiced hunched over, like their historical predecessors.
Because Hunt spends a short meeting every season giving the rookies a history lesson on the franchise, everyone knew who Dawson was. When NFL Network, in a tribute to Dawson, played the “America’s Game” hour-long documentary of Super Bowl IV (KC 23, Minnesota 7) Wednesday night, Reid made sure it was on at the hotel for the players to see. The choir huddle is the only huddle to ever grace the cover of Sports Illustrated, as it did on Nov. 24, 1969, after KC routed the Jets in New York. The iconic shot shows Dawson from the back, everyone else staring in for the playcall.
Before the game, Reid told the officials what was coming: On the first offensive huddle of the game, Kansas City would align in the choir huddle and not come out of the huddle, causing a delay-of-game flag. Reid told Packers coach Matt LaFleur, who loved it and agreed to decline the penalty.
So with most of the people in the stands at Arrowhead Stadium unaware of what was up, Mahomes took his spot facing the five linemen in back and five skill guys in front (Skyy Moore and Mecole Hardman bracketed Watson, Kelce and Edwards-Helaire, who stayed with hands on knees for the full play-call). Here came the flag from Wrolstad.
As Mahomes jogged off and urged the crowd to cheer with waiving arms, Wrolstad announced:
“Delay of game, Kansas City, number 16. Five yards, penalty declined.”
Mahomes is 15. Wrong number.
Right number. Wrolstad is a big fan of NFL history. He didn’t tell the teams what he planned. He announced 16, he admitted Saturday, as a nod to history and his personal tribute to Dawson — number 16.
“That,” Reid texted Saturday, “might have been the best part. It was awesome, all the way around.”
We can find a lot wrong with this sport. Thursday night, we saw something very right.
Twenty tips, mostly from my 27 days on the camp trail this summer, on players I feel strongly about — keeping one thing in mind: I stink at fantasy football, don’t play it, and am throwing these tidbits out there because they might be able to help you, particularly in the late rounds:
1. I saw somewhere that Green Bay rookie WR Romeo Doubs was a “super sleeper,” and that’s nuts to me. Doubs, barring injury, could be on the field for 700 snaps this year, and his quarterback is Aaron Rodgers, and Davante Adams isn’t there anymore. Doubs (pronounced “Dobbs”), the fourth-round receiver from Nevada, was a sleeper in May, but you should be wide awake on him now.
2. Colts RB Jonathan Taylor should be the first overall pick in every draft. He’s Roger Craig — potentially better. He had 332 carries and 51 targets last year. That means Frank Reich tried to put the ball in his hands 383 times, which, in modern football, means Taylor’s workload is an outlier. (He actually had 372 touches.) He had a league-high 2,171 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns and ran it at 5.5 yards-per-carry. And he’s 23 with a coach who loves him.
3. Reborn Player of the Year: Kansas City WR JuJu Smith-Schuster. I wrote a couple of weeks ago Smith-Schuster won’t be in the slot exclusively for KC, and he’s been revitalized because he thought he was typecast as a slot guy only with the Steelers. He loves Patrick Mahomes, and the feeling is mutual.
4. If you want to glom onto the explosive Bills, think of WR Gabriel Davis, fairly early. What round, I don’t know. But when I was in Bills’ camp, I was told with certainty that his four-TD performance in the playoff loss at Kansas City was the start of something big, not a fluke. He’s a worker, and Josh Allen sees him as a great complement — not a distant number two — to Stefon Diggs.
5. I don’t think RB Dameon Pierce will be a top-15 back, but if he gets pushed down far enough, the Houston rookie is good value. Watch the way Pierce runs — tough, gritty, can run out of tackles. For a growing team with a questionable line like Houston, and with a coach, Lovie Smith, who values the run hugely, Pierce will get a chance to be the top back for a team that will need to run a lot.
6. Worst-kept secret on the camp trail: Steelers WR George Pickens. King of the contested catches at Pittsburgh camp. I won’t be surprised if he gets more targets than Chase Claypool, though I don’t know which quarterback will be throwing the majority of those balls.
7. One of my favorite players to emerge this year is Vikings WR K.J. Osborn. (And not because he was born on my 40th birthday, June 10, 1997.) New coach Kevin O’Connell loves Osborn’s route-running and ability to get deep and O’Connell plans to feature all three of his receiving threats. I could see Osborn getting 100 targets out of O’Connell’s scheme that will feature a majority of three-wide sets.
8. The Bucs are unpredictable because of injuries and tender players, and I’d steer clear of receivers not named Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Liked Russell Gage a lot, but he just tweaked a hamstring. Don’t trust Julio Jones to stay on the field (game or practice). And Godwin might not be whole early on, coming back from ACL surgery. Evans, in smart leagues, will be over-drafted.
9. D/ST faves. Four I’d pick: Buffalo (top-five D), Baltimore (another new punter, Jordan Stout, with great potential), Green Bay (Rich Bisaccia factor) and Dallas (coordinator Bones Fassel, returner KaVontae Turpin).
10. Rams WR Allen Robinson is a smart mid-round pick. Robinson caught 200 balls in 2019-’20, in 32 games, with very iffy quarterbacking in Chicago. Sean McVay loves him, and Matthew Stafford needs an alternative to Cooper Kupp.
11. The only Bear I’d consider is WR Darnell Mooney. Met him at Chicago camp, and what I liked was his attentiveness to stories about Tom Brady and the value of practice. You can tell he wants it. In the mayhem of the Chicago season last year, he still got 8.2 targets per game, and with Robinson gone, I’d be surprised if that number doesn’t bump up to 10.
12. Hard to love any fantasian with the Giants, but I’d take a flyer on rookie WR Wan’Dale Robinson. I see him getting the ball in a lot of ways — from the slot, outside, in jet motion, out of the backfield. I expect Daniel Jones to lean on the little guy heavily as a change-of-pace playmaker.
13. Speaking of second-round rookies, I present Indy WR Alec Pierce. “Forget that he looks 15. Pierce plays like a fourth-year guy. “From the first day he walked in here, he’s acted and played like he belonged in every practice,” Reich told me. I saw him catch a pass from Nick Foles on a shallow drag route, and Pierce had a note for the sticks, driving hard for the first down.
14. This is pretty fundamental, but Derek Carr will be a top-five fantasy QB. Threw for 4,804 yards last year, and now he’s got Josh McDaniels calling plays and Davante Adams running routes. What’s not to like? Threw only 23 TDs last year. I’d be surprised if he was held under 5,000 yards and 35 TD passes this year.
15. Gut Feeling of the Year: Chris Olave of the Saints will be the most productive rookie WR. Receivers used to take two or three years to stand out, and now they hit the ground running. “Ohio State’s pretty close to an NFL program,” Olave says. He’s shown maturity and instincts early, and coach Dennis Allen told me he’s one of the most polished route-runners he’s seen come out of the college game in his time in the NFL. When I asked teammate Jarvis Landry about Olave, he said: “Coachable, playmaker, his speed really stands out. He just belongs.”
16. Okay, so here’s a sleeper: Ravens TE Isaiah Likely. You say, I’m not picking Baltimore’s second tight end. I get it. Can you stash him on your bench just in case? He fell to the late fourth round in the draft for two reasons: a slow 40 time (4.8-ish) and he played at Coastal Carolina. But he’s playing more to a 4.55 speed in camp, and my guess is Baltimore offensive coordinator Greg Roman is dreaming up lots of two-tight-end sets. Ideal-world would be Likely matched up on a linebacker in space and singled (of course). Likely could turn out to be a great rookie producer.
17. Pick a 49ers’ running back, or a second, or a third. The Niners will enter the season wanting to bring Trey Lance along slowly, and so Kyle Shanahan will gameplan to protect him. That could mean 55 percent runs, especially early. I’d forecast Elijah Mitchell to be the stalwart here with Trey Sermon an active number two. Both will get major chances, and if Mitchell gets hot early and stays healthy, he’ll be a 1,000-yard back in this offense.
18. Kickers Are People Too Dept.: Justin Tucker’s the Man. Of that there is no doubt. But what would you say if I told you Tucker is 61 of 66 in field goals in the last two years, and the undervalued Nick Folk is 62 of 67? If you could get Folk two rounds later than Tucker, wouldn’t it be smart to do it?
19. I’m a broken record on this: Tony Pollard is the best running back on the Cowboys roster. Again, we enter a season hearing Dallas fans talking about Zeke dominating once more. Elliott in the last two years: 32 games, 481 carries, 1,981 yards, 4.12 yards per rush… Pollard in the last two years: 31 games, 231 carries, 1,154 yards, 5.00 yards per rush. Why argue about what you see every week? Pollard should carry it more.
20. Absolutely stuck in your last round? Don’t know what to do? Look to Houston. Stop laughing! I’d say this about wideout Nico Collins, who might be gone midway through the last round of your draft anyway. He’s 6-4, 215, Davis Mills loves him, and, when Mills got hot in the last five games of 2022 (102.4 rating, making the Texans forget chasing Jimmy Garoppolo this offseason), he targeted Collins 30 times. That projects to 102 targets over 17 games, and I’d be surprised if it wasn’t more than that if Collins stays healthy.
The news of the week:
The Bills, of course, had no choice but to cut punter Matt Araiza. The problem is the timing. The organization knew about the serious charges — Araiza stands accused of being involved in a gang rape of a then-17-year-old female with two teammates at San Diego State last fall — in late July; GM Brandon Beane said the woman’s attorney reached out to the team and informed the Bills of the story. On Thursday, the Bills said they had conducted a “thorough investigation” of the charges — but said investigation apparently did not include a conversation with the woman or further talks with the attorney. When a civil suit was filed Thursday by the woman against Araiza and others, and when the attorney released what he said was a journal entry by the woman after the attack — graphic and disturbing — that accelerated the Bills’ decision-making, and Araiza was gone Saturday. We’re still pretty early in this story, but without a refutation of the facts laid out to this point, Beane and Bills ownership should draw up some new guidelines for investigating lurid accusations against future and current players.
Life Intercedes Dept. According to police in the District of Columbia, Washington running back Brian Robinson Jr., was shot in a carjacking attempt Sunday evening in Washington. The injuries, reportedly, are not life-threatening. But they’re likely to put a crimp in what was one of THE rising-star stories in Washington camp this summer. Robinson, drafted 98th overall from Alabama last April, was likely to play a prominent role in the Commanders’ backfield this fall after rushing for a 4.1-yards-per-rush average in the preseason. He was shot twice, police said. It’s too early to draw any conclusions about anything relative to this story other than this: Being an NFL player doesn’t disqualify you from the everyday gun violence that plagues our society. You’ve got to feel for a guy who’d done everything right in training camp and worked his way into a big role in coordinator Scott Turner’s offense.
I just got done visiting w/Brian. He is in good spirits and wanted me to thank everyone for their kind words, prayers & support. He wants his teammates to know he appreciates them all for reaching out and he loves them all & will be back soon doing what he does best.
— Ron Rivera (@RiverboatRonHC) August 29, 2022
Congrats, Geno Smith. One of the oddest quarterback lives of this era took a sunny turn Friday night when Pete Carroll named 31-year-old (is that all?) Geno Smith the Seahawks’ starting quarterback. Over the last seven years, he’s endured everything from a broken jaw to being invisible. Smith’s highlights: second-round pick of the Jets in 2013…Yo-yoed between starter and backup…Punched out over a reported unpaid debt by linebacker IK Enemkpali in 2015, lost for two months with a fractured jaw, then could never supplant Ryan Fitzpatrick as the starter when healthy…Tore his ACL in 2016…Signed with the Giants in 2017. Named to start for the Giants in November, clumsily ending local hero Eli Manning’s 210-start streak…That was his only start in 2017, ’18, ’19 or ’20 with the Giants, Chargers or Seahawks…Played creditably in three starts for Russell Wilson last year, and won the QB (non-) competition with Drew Lock this summer…Assuming Seattle passes on acquiring or signing Jimmy Garoppolo, Smith has this season to show he belongs in the league long-term as something more than a two or a three.
A tragedy in south Florida. The Dolphins’ senior vice president for communications and community affairs, Jason Jenkins, died unexpectedly Saturday. He was 47. Players, a coach, alums and co-workers were left in tears Saturday, and it’s easy to see why. A selfless and invaluable part of the Miami organization, Jenkins was the king of outreach in south Florida. “He got the Dolphins more involved in the community than any team in south Florida’s history,” wrote Dave Hyde, sports columnist for the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. “ … All we can do today is cry.” No team in the NFL has quite the diverse melting pot that the Dolphins have, and Jenkins invented Football Unites, an effort to bring every community in the community some Dolphins sunshine. Other franchises called and asked, How can we build this? Jenkins walked them through it. During Covid, Jenkins established an immense daily food pantry at Hard Rock Stadium, getting thousands of dollars and donations-in-kind so those without work would have something to eat. He got youth and high school football teams to come to practice and stand on the sidelines with players and coaches. Such a doer. The football world, and the world, will be lesser places without Jason Jenkins.
It’s getting late early in New England. Hate overreacting to the preseason. It’s always a fool’s errand. But the Patriots looked bad, particularly on offense, throughout the summer, and Mac Jones wasn’t as sharp in practice this summer as he was in games as a rookie. After another clunker of a preseason game in Vegas Friday night, Bill Belichick said, “I need to clean up a lot of things here.” The Patriots enter the season the clear number three in the AFC East behind Buffalo and Miami. New England’s 17-17 post-Brady. Last playoff win: 43 months ago.
Happy trails, Bob Glauber. After a 45-year career in sportswriting, the last 30 as Newsday’s NFL columnist, Glauber retired Sunday, effective immediately. Little-known fact: Glauber replaced me at Newsday in 1989 when I got a gig at Sports Illustrated, and he became an institution at the New York paper. When I called to wish him well Sunday, he told me an amazing story. The first NFL game he covered was a Giants game in 1978, when some fans were flying airplanes demanding change with the woebegone franchise and others were burning season tickets in the parking lot. The last game he covered: the Rams’ Super Bowl victory over Cincinnati last February. John McVay coached the first game. Grandson Sean McVay coached the last. Glauber will be 67 in December, and he deserves some months/years for the stomach acid that churns around daily deadline time to dissipate. My best to my heir.
That’s more important than playing football, so we want Matt to focus on that.
— Buffalo GM Brandon Beane, after the Bills waived rookie punter Matt Araiza, who is at the center of a gang-rape accusation by a southern California woman.
We’ll have him back for the playoffs.
— Dallas owner Jerry Jones, on star left tackle Tyron Smith, who underwent surgery last week to reattach his torn hamstring.
A tad presumptuous, I’d say.
— 49ers starting QB Trey Lance, on the oddity of San Francisco’s invisible $24-million quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, who works out alone and doesn’t attend meetings as he waits to be either traded or released (he hopes) prior to the season.
They weren’t affected by what they did, and they probably felt like it was something that they would never have to face consequences for. That makes me sick.
— The anonymous southern California young woman who has charged several San Diego State football players, including current Buffalo Bills punter Matt Araiza, with a gang rape last October, speaking to the Los Angeles Times.
All the way through the process, Kansas City was awesome. They wanted to do right by Tyreek.
— Drew Rosenhaus, agent for Tyreek Hill, to me on March 26, after Kansas City traded Hill to the place he wanted to go, Miami.
What really motivates me is I feel like they basically just threw me to the side, like I was trash or something.
— Tyreek Hill, on Kansas City trading him to Miami in the off-season, to Armando Salguero of Outkick.
I don’t know exactly what KC offered Hill, but Rosenhaus told me in March it was more than he and Hill thought they’d be offered, and certainly in the Davante Adams neighborhood after Adams moved to Las Vegas.
The other very strange thing here: Hill, according to two different people close to the talks, wanted to go to Miami for family reasons. Lord. He goes to the place he wants and becomes the highest-paid receiver in history and he’s ticked off? What is wrong with people? Kansas City is better off without him.
It’s a lot of routes I never ran before, different concepts, just a whole new feel. It’s probably the most complex offense I’ve been a part of.
— Davante Adams, to the Raiders’ YouTube page, on getting used to coach Josh McDaniels’ offense after years in Green Bay.
Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott enters year seven as the unlikely franchise player of the Cowboys. Unlikely because in 2016, Dallas tried hard to trade up to pick Paxton Lynch in the first round of the draft and planned to pick Connor Cook early in the fourth round. Both plans failed. And so late in the fourth round, 84 picks after the Jets chose Christian Hackenberg to be the quarterback of the future, the Cowboys picked Mississippi State’s Prescott, hoping that maybe, possibly, he could turn into that.
Prescott, on how he got to Dallas and the attitude he takes into football and life:
“Knowing what could have happened, knowing I could have landed on any one of 31 other teams…People [were] pulling some strings upstairs for me.
“I feel I’ve been doubted at every level, honestly. I got the starting quarterback job in high school, college and pro due to the guy in front of me getting injured. So when I stepped in [in Dallas, for Tony Romo], I said, ‘Maybe this is it, again.’ I didn’t want to put it in anyone else’s hands to take it away from me. And as the success happened, it was just a confirmation — it doesn’t matter what others say about you, it doesn’t matter if others believe in you. I know who I am, I know what I’m capable of. Never forget that.
“I’m comfortable with who I am. I try to be transparent and genuine in everything I do. I just focus on the things I can control. The more that everyone in this world does that, they’ll control their emotions, their responsibilities. A lot of things are gonna be revolving doors around you, but you can’t control those things. Don’t allow that to seep into your head, into your confidence, your mojo. Be comfortable with who you are. That’s been the answer for me.
“It’s not just smoke with me. It’s real-life events. [The deaths of] my mom, my brother, my severe [ankle] injury. I’ve been through it. Months, years later, I’m able to talk about it and be vulnerable about it. People understand that’s who I am, and I talk from a place of experience, and it’s easy for someone to listen to someone who’s been in those shoes.
“If it’s suited to be the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, then God knew what he was doing. I’m thankful to be in this position. I’m gonna make the most of my opportunity.”
As Alex Leatherwood slithers to the bottom of the Las Vegas depth chart at tackle — his decline is as stunning as the other three top-20 picks of the three-year Mayock Era — the 17th pick in the 2021 draft would be endangered on the roster this year if not for the Raiders having to eat $7.9-million on the cap if cut before the final cutdown Tuesday. (Now, a trade is another matter, per Jason Fitzgerald of overthecap.com. If traded, his Raiders cap hits would $1.96 million this year and $3.91 million next year, manageable numbers if anyone would want Leatherwood.)
So there are three other first-round tackles in the AFC West slated to start this year: Rashawn Slater (Chargers), Garret Bolles (Broncos) and Kolton Miller (Raiders). I compared total quarterback disruptions (sacks, hits, hurries) surrendered by the four first-round tackles in the division in 2021. Ranking the tackles by sacks/hits/pressures allowed in 2021, per PFF:
Bolles, Denver: 11 QB disruptions allowed in 525 pass-block snaps.
Slater, L.A. Chargers: 16 in 752 pass-block snaps.
Miller, Las Vegas: 25 in 730 pass-block snaps.
Bolles/Slater/Miller total: 52 QB disruptions in 2,007 pass-block snaps.
Leatherwood, Las Vegas: 65 QB disruptions in 708 pass-block snaps.
Leatherwood allowed his quarterback to be sacked/hit/hurried once per 11 pass-blocking snaps. Combined, the other three tackles allowed one disruptions per 39 snaps.
Clelin Ferrell, Henry Ruggs, Damon Arnette and Leatherwood were picked fourth, 12th, 19th and 17th overall in Mayock’s drafts. Give Mayock major credit for getting Maxx Crosby 106th overall and Hunter Renfrow 149th overall in 2019. But man, those early picks haunt the ex-GM.
Forbes Magazine last week issued its 2022 valuations of NFL franchises, I noted that in 1989, Jerry Jones bought the Cowboys for $140 million. Today, Forbes values the team at $8 billion.
Which means the Cowboys are worth 57 times what Jones bought them for 33 years ago.
Hat tip to reader Terry McManus of Maine for the kernel of this note — much appreciated.
In the ninth round of the 1955 draft, the Steelers selected Louisville quarterback Johnny Unitas. In the first round of the 1957 draft, the Steelers picked Purdue quarterback Len Dawson.
Pittsburgh cut Unitas in training camp. He hitch-hiked back to his home in the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
Dawson was a bit player in Pittsburgh, throwing 17 passes before being traded to Cleveland on New Year’s Eve, 1959. After two frustrating years as a Browns backup, he was released and signed with the Dallas Texans in 1962. The franchised moved to Kansas City the next year.
The Steelers watched two Hall of Fame quarterbacks become big stars and quarterback their teams to Super Bowls. Having let two franchise quarterbacks go without giving either much of a chance to play, Pittsburgh drafted 11 more quarterbacks in the 13 years between Dawson and Terry Bradshaw.
TV announcers haven't figured out that there's been a revolution in thinking on fourth downs. Austin Peay just lined up on fourth-and-1 at its own 30-yard line and the announcers assumed it was just to try to draw the defense offside. Nope. They went for it and got the first down
— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) August 27, 2022
Michael David Smith, who knows what he’s talking about, is the managing editor of Pro Football Talk.
Not sure that I've ever covered an NFL game, preseason or not, where there is no media in attendance from the visiting team. Crazy….
— Jeff Duncan (@JeffDuncan_) August 27, 2022
Jeff Duncan, who covers the Saints, reporting from Chargers at Saints Friday night, and he’s right: That is very odd.
— Wes Welker (@WesWelker) August 27, 2022
My body my choice? Your loan my responsibility? This isn’t loan forgiveness, it’s a generation of lazy unaccountable uneducated children being covered by hard working debt paying Americans.
— Curt Schilling (@gehrig38) August 25, 2022
The Twitter account of Curt Schilling, who got $75 million in loan guarantees to open a video-game company in Rhode Island, only to have the company fail and stick the state with millions in losses.
Not the best issue to wade into for Schilling.
Since the 2011 CBA was signed, the value of the average NFL team has gone from $1B to $4.46B. Owners' wealth has more than quadrupled. Meanwhile, player salaries haven't even doubled and we don't have lifetime healthcare.#EmpowerPlayers https://t.co/X0pUYTfzq2
— Matt Schaub (@matt8schaub) August 23, 2022
Longtime NFL starter/backup QB Matt Schaub.
Maybe something got lost in translation. From Andrew Gross: “Have never felt compelled to email a sports columnist. I’m a loyal reader who appreciates your diverse opinions. However your flippant response to the idea of a special place in the HOF for players who leave famous (if not lucrative) careers for the anonymity of the military really triggered me. As a retired-by-medical-injury combat vet I find your flippancy regarding the ultimate sacrifice and service to our country to be repugnant. Your comment was dismissive and embarrassing and beneath you. We fought so you wouldn’t have to.”
Andrew, first, thanks for your service. We’re lucky that people like you have served and continue to serve. The question was whether a number should be retired in the NFL, the way Jackie Robinson and Bill Russell have been honored by baseball and basketball. I perhaps wasn’t as clear as I should have been. I said I didn’t think there was one number in football that deserved to be retired, and I said I wasn’t in favor of putting Pat Tillman in the Hall because what of the other 13 active NFL players who left the league to serve and were killed in wars? I don’t think those 14 players deserve busts in Canton, but I do think they deserve to be honored there — and they are. There is a display in the Hall telling the stories of these men and the history of NFL players’ service to the country. Not everyone agrees with me, to be sure. Lots of people, blown away by Tillman leaving a lucrative starting job in the NFL after 9/11 to serve our country, believe he deserves to be enshrined in Canton. I don’t, but I have tremendous respect for what he did.
Hope that clears it up, and sorry for not being clear enough when I answered the question.
If it were that easy. From Tim Willis, of Iron Station, N.C.: “I’ve long thought preseason games were a waste. But here’s an easy fix: Fans should stop buying the full-price tickets and just stop attending the glorified practice sessions. When the money stops rolling in, the teams and the league will quickly figure something out!”
Problem is, Tim, that the preseason games are a part of the regular ticket packages that every NFL team sells. If you want season tickets, you’ve got to buy the exhibition games.
Eagles’ fan has never been to a preseason game. From Joe Miegoc, of Carbondale, Pa.: “I have had Philadelphia Eagles season tickets since 1995, and while I have been billed for and paid for preseason games for 27 seasons, I have never been to one preseason game. With nine home games this season, plus the preseason game I did not attend, my average ticket price is $105. So $210 for a game I did not attend. But just how are ticket-holders going to fare if preseason games are discontinued? Will my season plan cost decrease with the loss of a meaningless game or two?”
No, Joe. As I explained last week, the NFL should cut the number of “preseason events” to two. They should be controlled scrimmages between two teams, with the understanding that they be just like the joint practices teams hold now. In those joint practices, the starters play a lot. I believe it would be better to see the Packers practicing against the Saints with Aaron Rodgers throwing to starting receivers on one side, and Jameis Winston doing the same on the other side. That’s already happening, so now just change the time of day that they happen to either prime time or some time convenient to be televised, and show those events rather than third-stringers battling it out.
Thank you. From Dan Donovan: “Thank you for emphasizing the positive people in the business/sport of football.”
I don’t always do it, Dan. But I try to point out the good when I see it.
1. I think this comment really surprised me from a prominent team executive the other day: “I think there were multiple owners who didn’t want Deshaun Watson suspended for the season, and told Roger Goodell that.” Hmmmm. Reasoning: If Watson was banned for the year, his contract would have rolled over into 2023, and the Browns would have had him for an extra season—through the 2027 season. By Watson playing part of this season, his contract now expires after the 2026 season, and the Browns will owe him $40 million for being eligible to play a meager six games in 2022. The way NFL contracts work is if a player doesn’t play in a season because he either chooses to sit out or is suspended for the year, the contract “tolls,’’ or is pushed back one season. Watson, of course, was suspended 11 games and fined $5 million on sexual-offense charges.
2. I think the NFL is going to have to get in the business of monitoring behavior at joint practices and negotiate a change to the player discipline policy with the union. That’s my takeaway when the league said that discipline for the Aaron Donald helmet-swinging incident would be left to the Rams. If Donald did it in a preseason game, he’d likely get suspended multiple games, as Myles Garrett did for Cleveland. But because he did it in a joint practice — with video and sound of Donald swinging the helmet and striking another player or players on the Cincinnati Bengals — the league passes it off to the team. I don’t see much of a difference there. There’s grainier video when it happens in a practice. But it’s still very evident that someone could have gotten seriously hurt here.
3. I think, talking to a couple of football executives about the incident, a couple of things are clear.
One: Donald didn’t start this. It originated from a fracas involving Bengals tackle La’el Collins and Rams edge rusher Leonard Floyd. Even though there were NFL officials working the practice, the officials don’t have the authority to kick players out of practice. So tensions simmered and the Donald explosion resulted. That’s not justifying what Donald did, which was reprehensible. It’s just explaining why Donald went so nuts. Coaches should empower officiating crews to throw players out of joint practice if they do something egregious.
Two: I’ve thought this for something, but players know that when a fight is started, particularly late in a practice, coaches often will then just end practice. So aren’t players actually motivated to start fights when these practices happen and it’s hot and players want out?
4. I think if I’m Jimmy Garoppolo, and I get my freedom sometime in the next two weeks, I don’t sign anywhere. I wait. I get fully healthy and sign with a team when there’s a quarterback injury. Maybe Seattle’s a good opportunity for him (I haven’t heard the Seahawks are very interested anyway), but he’d have to learn a new offense and join a team not committed to him on the fly when two quarterbacks already have been immersed in the offense since the spring. (And in Geno Smith’s case, longer.) Waiting allows Garoppolo to be choosy and maybe to get very lucky if the team with an injury is a strong playoff team.
5. I think, after being in the selection meeting of the Coaches/Contributors Subcommittee of the Pro Football Hall of Fame voting panel last week, a few thoughts:
a. Lots of deserving people on the 12-man ballot. A subcommittee of 12 Hall voters Zoomed for four-plus hours Tuesday to hear the cases of 12 coaches and contributors, and three votes whittled the process to one: innovative coach Don Coryell. I liked the choice not because of a record beyond reproach—Coryell won just three playoff games and never got to a Super Bowl—but because of his legacy of offensive innovation and influence on great coaches. At Coryell’s 2010 memorial service, John Madden sat with Joe Gibbs and Dan Fouts and when asked to speak, got emotional. “Something’s missing,” Madden said. “All three of us are in the Hall of Fame because of Don Coryell.” Fouts set the NFL record for passing yards in a season for three straight seasons playing for Coryell — in 1979, ’80 and ’81. Think of this: Fran Tarkenton led the league in passing yards in 1978 with 3,468. Two years later, Fouts threw for 4,802. Before he died, Bill Walsh said Coryell was as good an offensive innovator as any in NFL history. So I liked that choice.
b. Kudos to Jim Trotter and Fouts (a Hall voter) for presenting a strong case for Coryell. That matters. They aced it.
c. I kept thinking during the presentations that former Lions and Steelers coach Buddy Parker deserves to be in the Hall. I’ve thought it for years, but again, Parker came up short against a good field. One of the reasons is lots of these coaches of more recent vintage have a strong and wholly credible advocate — Fouts with Coryell, for instance—to speak up for them. Parker’s got no one. For a coach who had Paul Brown’s number at a time when Brown and the Browns were the kings of the sport, it’s a shame. The Browns won all four All-America Football Conference championships from 1944-49, then, after moving to the NFL in a 1950 merger, won the NFL title in 1950. Parker’s Lions went 4-1 against Brown, including NFL championship game victories in 1952 and 1953. The team he left in 1957 beat the Browns for a third Lions championship in the fifties, in 1957. The Lions haven’t had a deep playoff run since. Parker deserves better, but not enough people agree with me.
d. Patriots owner Robert Kraft is going to get in the Hall. He would be helped by separating coaches from off-field people because my sense is there are those on the committee who favor accomplishments on the field versus off. But Kraft’s case is so strong — kept the Patriots in New England, hired Bill Belichick against very strong advice from big league people that Belichick would be a disaster, allowed Belichick to start Brady over golden boy Drew Bledsoe when both were healthy, helmed a franchise that won six Super Bowls, was key in finding a compromise in the 2011 CBA talks — that he’ll eventually make it.
e. As for the coaches, my sense is the next one will be Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan or Parker. Just a hunch.
6. I think it’s easy to take a shot at Tyron Smith, after he underwent surgery to repair a torn hamstring last week. It’s an injury that will keep him out till at least December. Good for Dallas to have the foresight to take Tulsa tackle Tyler Smith in the first round last April, and even though the Cowboys didn’t want to force-feed Smith at tackle this year, they may have to. Stat of the week re Tyron Smith, assuming he is out till at least December: As of Dec. 1, he will have missed 31 of the Cowboys’ previous 44 regular-season games due to injury. Hard to imagine the Cowboys not taking the $8-million cap hit and cutting Smith next spring, at age 33, unless he takes a significant pay cut.
7. I think these five units would worry me entering the season if I were a coach of one of these teams:
a. Offensive line, Raiders
b. Special teams, Chargers
c. Quarterback, Jets
d. Wide receiver, Patriots
e. Interior line, Buccaneers
Not to say those things can’t be overcome, but, for instance, the constant battering the Bucs’ line has taken since the retirement of Ali Marpet is going to be felt at some point early this season by a 45-year-old quarterback.
8. I think, with next week being my annual preseason prediction column, I’ve opened a template for division winners and award winners, and I cannot find any good reason to pick someone other than Josh Allen for MVP. You?
9. I think Mike Tomlin deserves a back-pat for how he’s handled the quarterback situation. He told the entire team before camp everyone would have a chance, and may the best man win, while knowing all along Mitchell Trubisky would have to be decisively beaten out to lose the starting job. Now, he could still change his mind before announcing the starter for the season opener at Cincinnati on Sept. 11. But the spirit of competition contributed to a team completion rate of 72.5 percent in three preseason games. Trubisky was at 71 percent and didn’t turn it over. Kenny Pickett was at 81 percent and didn’t turn it over, and he showed Tomlin precisely what he needed to show him — that the game’s not too big for him, he throws the back-shoulder fade and touch passes like a vet, and he’ll be ready to play when/if Tomlin calls his number. Even Mason Rudolph was good. The preseason is not something to care about, but in this case, at the very least, the Pittsburgh quarterbacks played as if to say, The death of the Pittsburgh quarterback position has been greatly exaggerated.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Story of the Week: Dan Zak of the Washington Post with a question I’ve been wondering about: “There’s a water crisis. Why do we still have lawns?”
b. Don’t you ever wonder? The West is frying, rivers and lakes and streams are drying up, and occasionally you see these beautiful oases of verdant grass. Why?
c. Writes Zak:
Lawns, still, somehow.
The planet has accelerated its revolt against us and still we tend our lawns, one part of Earth we can control. Society falters, resources dwindle and, still, lawns.
Lawns: burned out, blond and dead, in the air fryer of August. Lawns: emerald green — no, alien green — and kept that way by maniacal vigilance and an elaborate system of pipes and potions, organic and otherwise, in defiance of ecology. And for what? To have, in this chaos, dominion over something?
d. It’s a heck of a question.
e. Column of the Week: Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports, on the death, and eternal life, of the late Oxford (Mich.) High football player Tate Myre, “In the wake of tragedy, Oxford High’s Tate Myre is here forever as an inspiration.”
f. Wetzel captures well the murdered Myre — one of four students senselessly slaughtered in that Oxford, Mich., high school last November—and his impact on the life of so many people.
g. Wrote Wetzel:
The Myres’ split-level home backs up to a small lake and it is easy to envision a time when this was a house of constant activity, constant energy. Noise, laughter, arguments, homework, whatever. A home full of growing boys and their friends.
This was a family family. This was a community family. This was an Oxford family.
Now it is a family trying to find its footing. Frivolity is in short supply. There are quiet stares and impromptu tears and a lingering question of what’s next, what’s possible? “We hope to one day once again find joy among each other,” Buck said. Grief therapy has taught them it’s a challenge to keep a family together after such trauma.
They refer to Tate’s death as nothing more than “November 30th.” Anything more descriptive is just too much. There is rage and anger and hurt, their son shot and killed, taken from them, while simply walking between classes. The days and weeks and months have been a blur, but the pain never subsides.
Some days are better than others. Many are worse than seemingly imaginable.
They just keep going.
h. Dan Wetzel is a gem. He’s so good. I cried reading this, reinforcing what was lost to another act of the idiotic, sinful, senseless gun violence that plagues this country.
i. Reportage of the Week: Paul Sonne, Isabelle Khurshudyan, Serhiy Morgunov and Kostiantyn Khudov of the Washington Post with a play-by-play of the Ukrainian battle to save Kyiv.
j. It’s the kind of reporting and intricately detailed work that should win a Pulitzer.
k. There’s no catchy anecdote to pull out, just thorough, inside reporting that so illuminates the Ukrainian resolve. It’s so admirable.
l. I really like something the Packers did this week. The Green Bay Packers Foundation awarded $200,000 (matching a like award raised in the local community) to replace a field and install an artificial-turf field for the local Pop Warner league in Appleton, Wis., and the Challenger League, which is a flag-football league for children with disabilities. The league serves children in Green Bay, Appleton and Oshkosh and all communities in between, and the field will also be used for local lacrosse and soccer leagues and community events.
m. This will be the 20th athletic field the Packers foundation has funded in its history. I’m sure other franchises do similar things, but I saw this one this week and wanted to point out what a good deed it was — particularly the part about the Challenger League, and the accessibility features of the field and the facility.
n. Beernerdness: I’ve got the perfect ballpark beer for you: Osiris Indiana Pale Ale (Sun King Brewery, Indianapolis) is great at the ballyard because of its smooth drinkability. I had a couple of them 10 days ago at the Iowa-Indianapolis Triple-A game across the street from my downtown hotel as I wrapped my training camp trip. Surprised to find just a hint of citrus in strong hoppy ale. Beautiful. The evening was still and sunny, perfect for seven innings with a couple of pale ales. Hard to imagine a better night at a baseball game—I don’t care what level of ball it was.
o. I’ll tell you what: I’m so happy I found Sun King in the midst of Combine coverage a few years ago. Great brewery with great people, community-minded and generous people who make excellent beer.
p. I love the Indy downtown. Vibrant.
q. Happy trails, Tess Quinlan, and good luck in your next job after seven great years at NBC. You are going places. But I’ve known that since you were 12.
r. One thing you should remember about the late Len Dawson: Cris Collinsworth broke into studio shows when Dawson and Nick Buoniconti were co-hosts of HBO’s “Inside the NFL.” Truth be told, the host was mostly Dawson, who at the time was doing it professionally as a local sports anchor in Kansas City. Collinsworth on Dawson: “The smoothest operator I’ve ever been around in the TV business. Like [HBO executive] Rick Bernstein said, ‘He never made us do a second take.’ Len didn’t run through life. He glided through life. On our show, he was in charge. He was the quarterback. He had zero ego. From what I’ve heard, he was that kind of quarterback too.”
s. Finally, my brother-in-law’s dad died Thursday. Jack Whiteley, of Enfield, Conn., was 97. I loved that guy — the most cheerful, positive dad, friend and golf partner there could be. In 2010, my bro-in-law Bob and I took Jack to The Masters, which always had been a dream of his. We told him to be ready at 6 a.m. in the lobby of the Atlanta hotel where we were staying. I went down at 5:45 to fetch the car to pull it up so we’d be ready to go at 6. When I got out of the elevator, there was Jack, then 84, in a chair close to the front door of the hotel. “All set!” he announced. And what a day we had. Bob and Jack walked all 18 holes of the course, then settled in at one of them to watch all the golfers come through. I also love that, a couple of weeks before he passed, Jack’s grandson, Connor, visited him in his assisted-living facility in Connecticut with his infant son, Jack. Jack Whiteley leaves son, Jack, grandson Jack, and now great-grandson Jack. That tells you everything you need to know about the impact of a man.
Aaron Donald is
an all-time great. But come on.
Man, that temper. Sheesh.