Saturday: Earth City, Mo.
The Rams have some weapons, finally.
A year ago, the young Rams defense was winning most training camp practices. In routs, really. Quarterback Sam Bradford had one weapon he could rely on in the passing game—slot receiver Danny Amendola—but he was hurt a lot, and everyone else was a kid, still going to chemistry class with Bradford. The offense held a rising team back, averaging just 18.7 points a game in a pass-happy league.
As the sun beat down and the humidity lay on top of a late afternoon practice here, two men looked like they were about to change that. Three times in a five-play span in red-zone seven-on-seven drills, Bradford found Jared Cook, with a catch radius as wide as Jeremy Shockey’s used to be (and that’s a good thing), at the goal line; it’s like the defense knew what was coming and just couldn’t stop it. The Rams don’t know quite why Cook caught only 44 balls for Tennessee in his free-agency walk year, but they’re happy he was a free agent, and that he walked. What an afternoon he had in the St. Louis sauna, and how happy Bradford looked to have an offensive weapon in the middle of the field. I have not seen a better offensive weapon in all the practices I’ve seen on this training camp tour than I saw in the athletic and imposing Cook on this afternoon.
Then there’s the eighth pick in the April draft, slot receiver/kick returner/slot back Tavon Austin. (Want to see a few more slashes in his title? Just watch. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer might expand Austin’s job as the season goes on.) Come to practice now, and watch the eight-yard curl he ran on Cortland Finnegan.
Austin, a 5-8, 174-pound whippet, sprinted out hard, right at Finnegan. Austin stopped suddenly and turned to face Bradford. Finnegan—a $10 million a year corner, by the way—backpedaled two more steps after Austin turned, leaving him wide open for the easy completion from Bradford. Austin’s so quick it was almost unfair, and Finnegan explained why later.
“Pick your poison,” Finnegan said. “That’s what’s going to be so tough on corners covering Tavon. If I think he’s going to do that little eight-yard curl, and I play him tight, I might be able to stop it. But if he reads me, he can blow past me and then he’s off for a deep one, and there’s no way I can catch up after I’ve committed to the eight-yard route. He’s going to be a headache.”
“His cutting ability,” I said, “and the way he changes course so suddenly …”
“I know,” Finnegan said. “He stops on a dime, and he leaves change.”
I don’t know what that means, but it sounds good. I do know, though, what “stops on a dime” means, and you’ll see that a lot this year—particularly with half of Austin’s games on the fast track of the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. “That surface will make me feel like I’m back at West Virginia,” Austin said before practice.
When you watch Austin, the only thing you worry about is durability. But as he points out, he missed one practice or game in his four seasons at WVU. If he’s that durable—and it’d be stunning to see someone his size stay that healthy for a long time in the NFL—we’re going to have fun watching an explosive player in the Percy Harvin mold.
Friday: Charlotte, N.C.
Bears vs. Panthers
Ten things I saw
1. Marc Trestman’s a communicator—much more than I thought. After the game, he spent 13 minutes walking through the locker room, shaking the hands of half the players in the room, stopping for 10- to 60-second conversations. “The book on Marc, the public persona Marc had, was wrong,” said GM Phil Emery. “He’s talking to everybody in the building, all the time.”
2. Kyle Long, the first-round guard from Oregon, and son of Howie, and brother of Chris, is not only a strong, solid player. (He was promoted to first-team guard in practice Sunday.) He carries himself like a fifth-year player. Smart, very media-savvy, and from the look of it on the two series I watched him on each snap, he plays quick for a 313-pound man.
3. Love that Long wears 75. Howie, a Raider, No. 75. Kyle, a Bear, No. 75. The family number, carried on in a second storied franchise. It just looks right.
4. Jay Cutler and the Bears, long-term? I like Emery waiting to see if they’ll sign him at the end of the year. I think they’ll decide to fork over the money for him, and right now I think that’s the logical thing to do. But he’s going to have to curb that devil-may-care side of him for Trestman to fall in love with him.
5. Early reports are Cutler and Martellus Bennett will be a great match. The QB likes Bennett’s athleticism and ability to get open in a crowded middle of the field.
6. Dave Gettleman, the Panthers’ rookie GM from the Polian/Accorsi school, gets it. “We all gotta win,” he said before the game. “Cam Newton’s had the best first two seasons for a quarterback in NFL history. But the sin, obviously, is 13-19 [Carolina’s record in those two seasons]. And 2-12 in games decided by seven points or less.” Gettleman’s clear that he doesn’t put this all on Newton; it’s a team thing.
7. Gettleman said his job was to determine whether the Panthers’ 5-1 finish was real, or fool’s gold. He said it was legit. (I’ve never, though, heard a GM or coach said a winning streak was phony. Just doesn’t happen.) So he cleaned up the salary cap, got Jordan Gross to take a big pay cut, and figured he’d fix more things in the future when he had time, cap space and draft picks.
8. The Panthers offensive line could be an issue. A big one. Center Ryan Kalil’s back, and that’s big. But the right side of the line, former free agents Garry Williams and Byron Bell, could be a weak link, even after getting starting experience last year.
9. Armanti Edwards played 130 snaps last year. Not much for a guy the Panthers used a third-round pick on as a projection in 2010. But he’s rallied this summer, had a good camp, and could win the third receiver job. That’d be a good payoff for a guy best known for quarterbacking Appalachian State to a win over Michigan in the Big House.
10. Hard not to be impressed by Panthers cornerback Josh Norman’s two-interception night against the Bears. The fifth-round pick from Coastal Carolina last year is fighting to start. He showed excellent instincts in disrupting and jumping an Alshon Jeffery route on Chicago’s first pass of the night.
Thursday: Nashville, Tenn.
Titans vs. Redskins
Chance Warmack: The education of a rich rookie.
On the first play of Chance Warmack’s professional career (I am not crazy about calling preseason football “professional,” but the fact is men get paid to do it), Washington defensive end Jarvis Jenkins attacked Warmack under his shoulder pads, around breast level, and pushed the rookie back three stunned steps into the backfield. Third play: Worse. Much worse. Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, 63 pounds lighter, bull-rushed Warmack, tossed him aside, and sacked quarterback Jake Locker. Warmack trudged off the field, a bit shocked at what just happened.
“Embarrassing,” Warmack thought.
Warmack went to the bench with his four linemates, and line coach Bruce Matthews immediately showed him what he’d done wrong. Among other things, he committed the cardinal sin for offensive linemen—playing too high. Even lighter foes gain the upper hand when they can get leverage and momentum, and that’s what happened on both of the bad plays.
Something else shocked Warmack: the pictures.
“I didn’t know they took pictures of the plays,” Warmack said. “I never saw that before. I just came off the field, and they had the pictures of the plays I just was out there on. We never had that at Alabama. That … that was different.”
This is where Chance Warmack is coming from: We expect rookies to walk out of powerful programs like Alabama and move seamlessly to the next level. And he should have been better on this night than he was—he’d better be, long-term, or else heads will roll, courtesy of owner Bud Adams. But we shouldn’t say this night was a sign Warmack might be a bad pro. We should say he’s been in pads two days and for whatever reason wasn’t mentally prepared to face the kind of pressure he’s going to face weekly in the NFL. If you don’t even know they take pictures and print them out for you to examine after every series … well, you’ve got a ways to go to learn the ropes here.
“There is nothing that can prepare you for this level,” Warmack said afterward, a half-eaten hot dog in his hand on the stool in front of his locker at LP Field—in the rookie section of the locker room. “Nothing. You can play at Alabama, the highest level of college football, or you can play at a lower level. It doesn’t matter. You have to experience it for yourself.
“It’s like being in a fight and taking the first punch. You’re like, Oh. I never saw that before. I never experienced that before. Now I’ve taken that first punch. I’m just glad I’ve got three more chances before we play a regular-season game.”
One of the telling plays in a first half of them—the Titans are trying to catch Warmack up quickly after a short holdout, and thus played him for the entire first half—came when he had to block a linebacker, Perry Riley, on the second level, just past the line, on a running play. Warmack broke through and got to Riley, diving at him and knocking his legs out, making him sprawl to the ground. Mind you, this isn’t NaVorro Bowman or Derrick Johnson, some Pro Bowl player. This is Perry Riley, a marginal NFL linebacker. And Riley sprang up, pursued the ballcarrier, and made the tackle. Welcome to the NFL. It won’t be the first time Warmack thinks he’s gotten a player finished, only to see the player come back to make a play.
After I spoke with Warmack, I wandered back into the locker room. I’d never met the offensive coordinator, Dowell Loggains, and went up to introduce myself. I asked about Warmack. “The kid has been so honest,” Loggains said. “It’s refreshing. He came up to me after he got here and said, ‘Coach Loggains, I’m going to come to your office every week, and if I’m playing f—ed up, I want to know about it. I want you to be honest with me.’ ”
That’s not going to get Ryan Kerrigan blocked, but it’s good to know the kid cares. Now, if he can just remember his fundamentals when the lights go on.