SANTA CLARA, Calif. — What I love about NFL training camps was on display Sunday, around 4:30 in the afternoon, as the sun beat down on the fields where the Super Bowl favorites (in the eyes of many) went through their fourth practice of the summer. From the right slot, Anquan Boldin, the uber-valuable Ravens wideout who broke so many Niners-loving hearts with a 100-yard receiving game in the Super Bowl less than six months ago, cut across the middle of the first-team 49ers defense. Nnamdi Asomugha trailed, but just barely, in tight coverage on him. The quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, went elsewhere with the throw. But just seeing Boldin in Niners red, wearing his familiar No. 81, was notable for a couple of reasons: One, the best receiver in the 2012 postseason moving from brother (John Harbaugh) to brother (Jim) in a lightning-fast trade has gotten far too little attention in the NFL world. Two, with the Achilles injury to top San Francisco wideout Michael Crabtree knocking him out until at least midseason, Boldin, traded for a pittance (the 199th pick in the April draft) could be the most important receiver on two different Super Bowl contenders, just months apart. And nobody’s talking about it. It’s the NFL story hiding in plain sight.
“It’s amazing how quiet it’s been,” 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said after practice Sunday.
There are good stories in every camp this time of year. I’ve seen five teams out west in Week 1, and I’ll share some of the best ones with you this morning. But first, the two things about the Boldin deal, and its aftermath here, that interest me the most:
1. The story at the time was how quickly the March 11 deal between Baltimore and San Francisco came together, after the Ravens decided they’d rather cut Boldin than pay him the full $6 million he was due in 2013. Just how sudden did the deal get done? “From start to finish, about 40 minutes,” Jim Harbaugh said in his office Sunday.
2. Boldin asked a Niners staffer for a white greaseboard the other day. Sure … but why? “I want to be able to quiz some of the young guys on their routes,” Boldin said.
“I was told to be myself from day one,” Boldin said as the Niners opened defense of their NFC title in the shadow of the quickly rising stadium that will be their home beginning in 13 months. “So I feel comfortable to speak up if I see something that can help this team.”
In Baltimore’s improbable Super Bowl run last winter, Boldin started with a 145-yard game against Indianapolis, keyed the AFC title win over New England with two touchdown catches, and then made the kind of catch that so few receivers in the NFL can make—at a vital point of the Super Bowl. Baltimore led 31-29. It was 3rd-and-inches at the Ravens’ 45. Joe Flacco had four options. He could sneak it, or hand it to Ray Rice, or run some kind of option play. Or he could throw to Boldin on the right side, about a 12-yard out. Huge play. Kaepernick was on fire, and Baltimore couldn’t afford to give them the ball back needing only a field goal to go ahead. That night, at a family celebration at a bar in the French Quarter, Joe Flacco told me the Niners’ defensive formation took away the run and the option, and he said he’s always felt the sneak’s a crapshoot for quarterbacks. “I had only one option: throw to Anquan,” Flacco said.
Flacco’s throw was right in Boldin’s gut—but so was the arm of cornerback Carlos Rogers. Boldin is strong, and he hung onto the ball for dear life. He and Rogers fell together, and the ball stayed caught. Gain of 15. A field goal made it 34-29. Now San Francisco would need more than a field goal in the last four minutes to win, and a Ravens goal-line stand (with a controversial non-interference call on Baltimore corner Jimmy Smith on the Niners’ last chance) clinched it. Without the Boldin third-down conversion, who knows?
And there he was Sunday, rambling across the middle and exchanging ideas with Kaepernick after plays, rushing to get on the same page.
“That’s a grown man out there,” a grinning Kaepernick said. “He’ll help the young guys whenever they ask him something. He’ll tell them how he kind of works things, but he just has a savvy for the game that you can’t teach. He knows how to position his body to make a catch, he knows how he wants to stick and work routs. To me as a quarterback, that’s what you want. You want someone who knows, ‘All right, I need to be in this window in this amount of time.’ He’s going to be there and make sure he’s open.”
One more thing about Niners camp on Sunday: Anyone who watched practice understood why Jim Harbaugh chose Kaepernick over Alex Smith last November. In a half-hour span Kaepernick flicked five sizzling passes of 21 yards or more, right on target, throwing three of the receivers open in very tight coverage. With a needy receiver corps until Crabtree returns (and maybe longer), Kaepernick’s going to have to make the most of some fledgling receivers. From the looks of practice, one of the newbies, second-round tight end Vance McDonald from Rice, could get a very long look in the preseason.
News of the Weekend.
On Dennis Pitta. In the Ravens’ 4-0 playoff run last year, Boldin and Pitta averaged nine catches and 136 receiving yards per game. Now Joe Flacco will have to win without either of them this year. That’s one of the reasons why Flacco, I’m told, was walking around the Ravens’ complex looking disconsolate after Pitta was lost for the season with a dislocated hip on Saturday. I’d argue Pitta was Baltimore’s second-most valuable offensive player. First, he’s Flacco’s best friend on the team, and their wives are very close, so personally it’s going to hurt Flacco. But without Boldin, Pitta was going to be more important as a security blanket for the quarterback. Now Flacco will have to build more trust with backup tight end Ed Dickson, which has clearly been an issue; he targeted Dickson only three times in the championship game and Super Bowl combined. The Ravens may have to forge a completely different offensive identity, perhaps built around the speed threats Baltimore has at wideout. GM Ozzie Newsome told SI.com’s Don Banks on Sunday, “We don’t know yet what our identity is going to be on offense, because it hasn’t been established yet. Are we capable of running the football? Are we capable of getting the ball out faster? It could be an offensive identity where we’re running, going play action, and having speed at receiver. Because we’ve got three guys who are going to get behind people now. And people are more afraid of that than the 10- to 12-yard completion … They’re going to have to defend the full field because of Torrey [Smith], Jacoby [Jones] and Deonte [Thompson, an undrafted speed receiver].”
On Percy Harvin. Harvin flies to New York to be examined by a hip specialist on Tuesday after feeling some restrictions while running last week. He got nervous about it, saw the usually conservative Seahawks doctors (who believe the injury isn’t season-threatening) and decided to exercise his right to have a second opinion. Last year, Seattle safety Kam Chancellor played a full season after getting a cortisone shot and some rest for a similar injury, a torn labrum in his hip. That leads the Seahawks to think they’ll escape a season-ending injury for Harvin. I’ve got a little different opinion on this than most. Harvin had trust issues with authority in Minnesota dating back to a poor relationship with head coach Brad Childress. So now the Seahawks can establish that they’re going to be different—they’re going to give their blessing on getting the second opinion, and they’re going to tell Harvin, We want you to have peace of mind about your hip. Opening day is 41 days away, and aside from the fact that Russell Wilson and Harvin need to be building familiarity, there’s not a major issue with a guy who has a history of missing time (10 games in four seasons) getting as healthy as he can in the preseason and feeling confident in his body when September comes. As one Seattle source said to me, “Percy’s a confidence player—he needs to feel good about his condition and himself. This time should give him the best chance to feel right entering the season.” That is, unless a doctor in New York tells Harvin he needs surgery this week. My money’s on rest and treatment—and Harvin to be ready on opening day.
On Von Miller. I’ll be very interested to hear Miller’s defense in challenging a four-game league suspension. The process is ongoing, and should be decided by opening day—in time for Miller to miss games against Flacco and Eli Manning to kick off the season. Miller’s argument could be that he didn’t test positive but simply missed a test. The NFL’s procedure is that a missed test can count as a positive test. Or, as one source with knowledge of the case told me, Miller at least has a chance to beat the rap—partially or in whole—if he can prove he was simply late for the test or has a valid excuse for missing it.
On Jeremy Maclin. What’s most hurtful about Maclin’s being lost for the season with a torn ACL after collapsing at practice Saturday is that Eagles coach Chip Kelly needs the quickness and playmaking Maclin surely would have provided the offense. Now Kelly will have to find it in a far less experienced player like Riley Cooper. This increases the pressure on DeSean Jackson to be a home-run hitter. I remember talking to one NFL GM last fall about Kelly’s strengths. The GM said one of the reasons Kelly would be in such high demand in the NFL is because at Oregon he consistently took players other colleges didn’t want and turned them into high-functioning contributors in a fast-paced offense. I wouldn’t count out the Eagles. I just figure Kelly will use the summer to test two or three guys down the depth chart (Greg Salas, Cooper, Arrelious Benn) and find a way to make plays. I still think who the quarterback is, and how fast the offense can play competently, will be a bigger factor in Philly’s success or failure than the loss of Maclin. As for Maclin, he will enter his free-agency offseason in 2014 rehabbing from ACL surgery.
On Santonio Holmes. The Jets already were in contention to be the team with the worst offensive skill players in the league. Now there’s no indication when, or if, the best one, Holmes, will play. He’s had two foot surgeries in the last nine month, and he still feels pain when he runs. Asked if he was sure he’d play at some point this season, Holmes said, “I can’t answer that question.” Just one more reason not to feel good about the Jets right now.
On Amber Theoharis. You recall from last week’s column (or maybe you don’t) that NFL Network anchor Amber Theoharis had a baby by Caesarian section four hours after going off the air hosting NFL Total Access July 17. Theoharis was in labor during the show. Now for the rest of the story, from Theoharis, via email: “We weren’t expecting her to come while I was still working. I should have known better. My first girl, Dylan Mattea, was 12 weeks premature. I began labor with her in the Chicago White Sox press box while working as a beat reporter for the Orioles in 2010. That time Jim Palmer held my hand, but that’s another story. Back to Kamryn. When I began to feel contractions about an hour before NFL Total Access‘ airtime, I knew I was most likely in labor. What I didn’t know was how quickly she was coming. Here’s where it gets surreal. Never in my life would I believe Willie McGinest and Warren Sapp would be part of my child’s birth story. They were. Willie McGinest was sitting next to me during that break when I knew the contractions were getting stronger. As a father of three, he knew what was up. He just put his hand on my shoulder and asked if I was okay. I nodded yes. Warren was another story. This is why we love Warren. He just kept yelling across the set. ‘She’s going to have that baby!’ To his credit he did predict correctly it was a girl. Needless to say, it’s a funny story. I’m sure I’ll never live it down. I can say, however, if you want to improve your street cred, just host an NFL show in labor.”