Big surprise here.
So on Friday of draft weekend last April, Wisconsin running back Montee Ball and his family rented a room in a Madison hotel to celebrate his being drafted. It happened in round two, when the Broncos chose Ball.
“My phone started blowing up,” Ball said the other day. “You know, friends and family all texting and calling to congratulate me. I couldn’t read ‘em all, there were so many. Then this real long one came in, from a number I didn’t know. Like, Congratulations, so proud of you, you worked so hard to get to this point, you made your mark at Wisconsin, and now this is what we expect of you. Stuff like that. I scrolled all the way down, and at the bottom, it said, ‘P. Manning.’ Whoa! Peyton Manning texted me. I said, ‘Hey! I got Peyton Manning’s phone number!’ “
I am not surprised. Manning did the same thing after the Colts drafted Donald Brown in 2009, and I’m sure if I asked every offensive guy drafted by his team in recent years, they’d say Manning reached out to them and began laying the plan for the guy to get to know the offense.
Manning, 37, and I spoke for The MMQB when I was in Denver on Thursday (more coming soon in our every-weekday 3Q Interview), and I asked him if he was starting to get to the point where football was becoming wearisome—in any way. The prep, the sameness … anything.
“The reason I’m lucky,” he said, “is because I still love working at it. I’ve heard older players say, ‘The game’s the easy part. I dread the meetings, the practice, the preparation.’ That’s not me. [Brother] Eli and I had a little minicamp with some of our receivers down at Duke in the spring. Which, obviously, we didn’t have to do. But I loved it. Loved it. Loved it. Loved it. Loved working with the receivers during the day, loved having dinner at night and talking football. I think if it doesn’t eat you up and you’re not consumed by it, it’s time to go. It’s not time for me yet.”
Ten things I learned out West.
1. Coaches watched the Jason Garrett speech. A couple were surprised that the Cowboys allowed the 35-minute tape of Garrett’s pre-training-camp speech to his team to be shared with The MMQB. Two coaches I’ve spoken to watched the entire 35 minutes. “A good resource,” one said. “I liked how he stressed camaraderie, because with teams being so fluid and changing so much, that becomes an important issue.” This coach said he enjoyed the section of the speech when Garrett discussed eating together as a team. Said the Dallas coach to his players: “Eat your meals with your teammates. I’m about to ban the Styrofoam deals, guys. [Dallas allows players to go through the team-meal line with a Styrofoam container and get food to go.] … This is an incredible opportunity you guys have. It’s one of the great experiences of your life to be a teammate with somebody in the National Football League. The camaraderie you develop at a team meal is like nothing else. When people retire from the game, you know what they say? ‘I miss the locker room. I miss the camaraderie at the meals.’ So lose the Styrofoam thing, get a tray, sit down next to one of your teammates, and let’s build a football team. Let’s build a football team. It’s really important stuff. You’re gonna thank me for it later. Trust me. You’re gonna thank me for it later.”
2. The riskiest draft pick in the first round isn’t hitting anyone yet. Oakland cornerback D.J. Hayden, who nearly died from a heart injury on the practice field at the University of Houston last November, has a red shirt on at practice, as so many quarterbacks wear this time of year. That signifies a player who shouldn’t be hit. I watched Saturday’s practice in Napa, Calif., and Hayden, who has not had a collision since the day he was hurt, ran and covered well—except on a play on which he clearly interfered with a receiver in deep coverage. There’s no plan for precisely when Hayden will put on pads, in part because his recovery was hampered in the spring when he kept vomiting on the practice field. Turns out scar tissue from the surgery was wrapped around part of his bowel, so he needed bowel-obstruction surgery. When we spoke on Saturday, he seemed tired of talking about the story. “I just want to play football,” he said. “I really think after the first collision, I’ll be fine. I really don’t think it’ll be an issue.”
3. Most impressive unknown player I saw: Oakland tight end David Ausberry, who had the best single move—a nifty catch, juke and run—in the first week of my tour.
4. Eric Mangini’s back. Hidden, quiet and understated, Mangenius watches practice as a Niners offensive consultant—he, of course, has been a longtime defensive coach—and tries to absorb Greg Roman’s offense.
5. Quentin Jammer could be reborn in Denver. The Broncos are looking at him at safety in the nickel and also at slot corner. His impact could be felt most in his versatility. And by the way, John Elway loves him some Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Thinks he’ll be reborn playing next to Champ Bailey and Chris Harris.
6. Of the Denver DUI twins—personnel men Matt Russell and Tom Heckert—I expect to see Heckert back first, perhaps within a month. Both are undergoing counseling. Sounds like Russell’s is significantly more involved, and if he returns to the team it will be well into the season.
7. The Niners are getting a kick out of Lawrence Okoye, the British Olympian trying to make the transition to football. He put on pads for the first time Friday, and put the thigh pads in upside down. He’s trying to make it as a 6-6, 304-pound defensive lineman. The British record-holder in the discus asked one day which bloke he was supposed to block. Justin Smith liked that one.
8. Seattle and Denver fans are drunk on Super Bowl Express punch. The fervor in those places is noticeable at practice and in the city. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, it’s a pretty business-as-usual atmosphere. “No hoopla here,” new corner Nnamdi Asomugha said. “Just football. I like it.”
9. Most beloved player on the trip: Oakland safety Charles Woodson. Raiders fans are smitten with their guys anyway. Woodson, who spent his first eight seasons in Oakland before leaving for Green Bay in 2006, is being feted as though Howie Long or Lester Hayes returned.
10. Best sight I saw: Marcus Lattimore, on a side practice field, running at about 85 percent speed and in perfect form on Sunday afternoon. Lattimore is only 10 months removed from his gruesome knee injury at South Carolina, and he told me he’s confident of being on the field with full contact by midseason. I expect the Niners, who drafted Lattimore in the fourth round, will treat this as a redshirt year for him. “This,” he said, looking out on the field before practice, “is my reward.” What an optimistic, hopeful kid.
If this doesn’t make you feel old, nothing will.
Seeing this line on the camp roster of the New York Giants:
Eli Manning, a 10-year veteran. Same for Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, of course.
Just another reminder of how time marches on for everyone in this game, and how it won’t be long before the Giants, Chargers and Steelers have to start thinking of life after their franchise quarterbacks.
“It’s gone by quickly,” said Manning, upon checking in for his 10th camp. “It really has. Each year I’m very grateful to be here and have another opportunity to play for the New York Giants and compete for championships for the Giants and the organization. They put a great team together, a great coaching staff, and Coach Coughlin and everybody is going to be on the same page and determined to go out there and win a championship, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
That quote is another reason why Manning is so invaluable to the Giants. In an era when anything that smells remotely controversial ends up in a screaming headline on the back pages in New York, Manning, in the tradition of his family, can always be counted on to say and do the right thing—win or lose.