WEST DES MOINES, Iowa—Pondering the biggest stories of the NFL weekend from a hotel room halfway between the Chiefs (St. Joseph, Mo.) and Vikings (Mankato, Minn.), as The MMQB training-camp tour rolls on:
1. A kicker from Norway, who’d never appeared in a football game in his life, kicked 49- and 50-yard field goals for the Lions.
2. On opening day eight years ago, the Colts, with Brandon Stokley keying the offense with a seven-catch game out of the slot, beat the Ravens. In the playoffs seven years ago, Indy tight end Dallas Clark caught the key pass in the fourth quarter to beat the Ravens. The Ravens, in need of warm bodies to catch balls, signed Stokley and Clark (average age: 35 years, 8 months) over the weekend.
3. Andy Reid coached Kansas City. Chip Kelly coached Philadelphia. Brian Banks played an NFL game. Sean Payton coached his first game in the Superdome in 19 months. Tom Brady played two series for New England and led two 80-yard touchdown drives, with Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson the starting wideouts and Zach Sudfeld the starting tight end.
4. On the first pass of the Marc Trestman Era, Jay Cutler threw an interception. On the first series of the Jets’ preseason, Mark Sanchez threw a pick-six. And the band played on.
For the sheer story-telling of it, Havard Rugland has to be this morning’s winner. He’ll tell his story at The MMQB in detail Tuesday, but the short version is this: Soccer player from a small town in southwest Norway, enchanted with American football. Ordered a football online in early 2011, began kicking it for fun, made a YouTube video of him powerfully kicking a football, Norwegian TV picked it up, it got some buzz on American TV, and the Jets invited him for a tryout late last year. Detroit tried him out, then signed him last spring.
“I scored some points in a real football game,” Rugland said from the Lions’ facility Sunday, still sounding incredulous about it all in his quite-good English. “It is such an incredible feeling, when that first kick went through.”
It showed. For a third-quarter first-preseason-game field goal, Rugland’s 49-yarder engendered huge emotion on the Lions’ sidelines. Linebacker Stephen Tulloch lifted Rugland in the air, and the team gathered ‘round, pounding him on the pads and helmet. It’s hard to have a feel-good, memorable moment in a first preseason game, but this was certainly one.
“Now,” Havard Rugland said, “I just have to focus on getting better, doing something every day to make myself better.”
Sounds very much like he’s gone to the NFL School of Quotology. Then I asked if he thought this good game would put him closer to winning a job. He’s in competition with David Akers.
“All I can do,” he said, “is focus on controlling what I can control.”
“You have already learned a lot with quotes like that,” I told him. “You talk just like an NFL player.”
“You see right through that, don’t you?” Rugland said.
The one thing he does know: If he keeps nailing 49- and 50- yard kicks, someone’s going to find a job for him. He already kicks, and talks, the part.
Now for the tale of a week on the NFL road—this time in inverse order, because the Andy Reid/Alex Smith story was my favorite of a very interesting week.
Sunday: St. Joseph, Mo.
Should this fresh start have happened sooner?
Andy Reid comes to the door of his Missouri Western State dorm room, in his red CHIEFS hoodie, and the first thing you notice is how happy he is. For 40 minutes, you notice that over and over. To the public, Reid rarely shows exactly how he feels, and I doubt he’ll do that now, on a different sideline, in a different state, in red and not black and green. But even in private, toward the end of his 14-year period coaching the Eagles, it wasn’t quite like this. Not that he was sullen. But as a very good friend of Reid’s told me last spring: “Usually when a coach gets fired, he thinks of everyone to blame but himself. But in this case, Andy actually wanted to go, and he wasn’t mad at all that Jeff Lurie wanted to make a change.”
And that’s how it seemed on this unseasonably cool morning in the heartland. For one thing, though he won’t say it, it’s clear that he’s happy to have a GM like John Dorsey in his corner, because he clearly was tired of refereeing the front-office skirmishes that quietly characterized the last two or three years in Philadelphia. He just wanted to coach. And here, he’s basically just handed all personnel decisions to Dorsey. You know how most coaches are dying to buy the groceries? Well, after a few personnel debacles in Philadelphia (the Dream Team fiasco, mostly) and the front-office in-fighting between what used to be a tight band of brothers, Reid’s happy to be a personnel consultant and leave the heavy lifting to Dorsey.
“When I got into coaching a long time ago,” he said, sitting on the RA’s couch in the Spartan room an hour north of Kansas City, “I got into it to coach. That’s the fun part of the game to me. Now I’m able to do it again—all of it. The hands-on coaching at practice, the install [installation of plays and the gameplan], and to call the plays.”
It’s odd to see Reid without one of his old confidants—former offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg with the Eagles. Mornhinweg’s now with the Jets. It’s not because Reid and Mornhinweg clashed or disagreed over play-calling; it’s because if Reid was going somewhere—and both men knew midway through the 2012 season that the party was over in Philadelphia, and the staff was going to be fired after the season—he was going to go back to doing the coaching himself. So Mornhinweg looked out for himself, and ended up with Rex Ryan, calling the offense in New York. Reid and Mornhinweg both know when a coach takes play-calling and installation of the offense back from a coordinator after years of the coordinator calling the shots, it’s going to be an awkward situation. Reid knew it wouldn’t work, and so he took a young coach, Doug Pederson, with him to support him as a different style of coordinator.
“I’m enjoying the heck out of it,” Reid said. “I loved Philadelphia. I love the Eagles—still do. I love the organization. But I think, change can be good, and right now, it’s very good for me, and I think it’s very good for the Eagles.”
On the field for the morning practice—Reid’s practicing at 8 a.m. most days here, to beat the Midwest heat—he spends significant time with the offensive linemen, coaching, and with the quarterbacks. “You see it out there,” Dorsey said, “how happy he is, back to coaching.”
“I knew he loved offensive linemen—that’s what I heard,” said tackle Brandon Albert. “But I never had a coach who knew the offensive line before like coach Andy. He gets down and actually teaches us little technique things. One day out there, in this thing we call the cut-off drill, he’s out there sprawled on the ground showing us the right technique. I don’t see many coaches doing that. You say, ‘Wow, our head coach is really into line play.’
“The other thing about coach Andy: This is a hard game. Sometimes I think coaches forget that. I mean, I’ve got Tamba Hali over me. Sometimes I’m going to get beat. I understand if I get beat I’ve got to do it better, and I’ve got to have better technique. But the attitude here, with this staff, is not to yell and tell you how you messed up. It’s ‘Okay, on to the next play. Make the next play great.’ Then, we’re watching tape after practice, and I see what I did wrong, and I’m taught the right thing. Like, ‘Stop ducking your head.’ To me, that’s the right way to teach. That gets your players wanting to play hard for a coaching staff.”
Two other things about Reid: In the New York Times Sunday, he admitted he’d twice tried to trade for Alex Smith while in Philadelphia. He didn’t say when, and he told me that while it was true, he didn’t remember exactly when it was. Once was around the time the Eagles were in the process of fact-finding on Michael Vick before they signed him. “I just always watched him and thought, ‘Man, I’d like to coach that kid,’ ” Reid said of Smith.
And it was 53 weeks ago today that Garrett Reid was found dead at Eagles training camp in Bethlehem, Pa., of a heroin overdose. Garrett and Britt Reid, sons of Andy Reid, had drug problems during his tenure in Philadelphia. Garrett couldn’t beat it. Britt has been clean for several years now, and after a stint on the Temple University coaching staff, he’s working for his dad as a defensive quality control coach. Britt Reid is working under Tommy Brasher, the veteran defensive line coach, learning the NFL coaching business. “He’s with the right guy,” Andy Reid said.
This is a good spot for Reid. The fans are ready to adore the Chiefs again, after the nightmare of a 2-14 season in 2012 and the ouster of GM Scott Pioli and coach Romeo Crennel. Kansas City is one of those fan bases that will give a coach and GM more of the benefit of the doubt than in Philadelphia. One thing, though: He sure looks strange in red.
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.
Wednesday: Flowery Branch, Ga.
The son also rises.
I’d been thinking about Brian Banks for some time. He’s the wrongly accused, wrongly imprisoned former California high school football star who was jailed for five years for a sex crime he never committed. After a 10-year nightmare of courts, prison and home confinement, Banks was freed 15 months ago, and now the Falcons have him in their training camp. He’s trying to make the team, or the eight-man practice squad, as a special teams player and linebacker.
One day in camp, between the morning walk-through and afternoon practice, a coach walked through the locker room and saw 12 players sitting around Banks, listening to a story of his incarceration. Say this about the Banks signing by the Falcons: Whether he has the athleticism, tenacity and ability to survive cutdown day, the move is smart if only to show the rest of the players—rich and not-so-rich, stars and roster longshots—how lucky they are to have a chance to do this for a living.
“What has been great, sort of as a by-product of Brian being here,” said quarterback Matt Ryan, “is while sometimes you get up in the morning and say, ‘We have to practice today,’ Brian’s attitude is different. He thinks: ‘We get to practice today.”
On Thursday night, in the preseason opener against Cincinnati, Banks played middle linebacker on the last Atlanta defensive series, and twice tackled Bengals running back Daniel Herron. He didn’t get steamrolled, at all. But it’s the kicking teams that will decide whether Banks gets to continue his career or not. Watch him there in the next two weeks. If he stars, maybe he claws onto the practice squad. As he told me, though, if he doesn’t make it, he’s not going to feel cheated. He gets it. Guys don’t miss 10 years of football and walk onto an NFL roster.
I have had a couple of long conversations with Banks, though I can’t say I know him particularly well. I really like what I’ve heard from him—the earnestness, the lack of bitterness (somehow), how he used his time away to get educated, his continuing work with the California Innocence Project. You meet him and feel he’s going to do something good in his life, and maybe many good things. So I brought him a book: Wave, the heart-wrenching memoir of a woman whose life went from normal to ruined in the span of minutes when her extended family—all except her—was wiped out in a tsunami in Sri Lanka in 2004. It’s a story about what happens when something indescribably tragic hits your life.
It was raining hard this morning, and the Falcons were practicing in their indoor facility. When Banks and the rest of the team were heading back to the locker room, they had to walk through the rain. So Banks put the book in his helmet, covering it with his jersey. “Don’t get it wet, don’t get it wet!” he said.
Tuesday: Richmond, Va.
I’m telling you, RG3’s fine.
Scenes from a side field:
For 20 minutes during practice, while his 89 Washington teammates (give or take a few injured ones on the stationary bikes) were on the field going through drills, Robert Griffin III and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan worked on a side field. This is as good as it gets for Griffin, as active as it gets, as close as he gets to real football—because owner Dan Snyder, coach Mike Shanahan and GM Bruce Allen made a plan, and they’re sticking to it in the rehab of Griffin’s surgically repaired knee. For now, anyway. No seven-on-seven. No team drills. No 11-on-11.”We’re not taking any chances,” said one member of the Washington brass. “No one’s falling into that knee by accident.”
So Griffin took his place on the side field in a faux shotgun, and Kyle Shanahan went to work, orchestrating every movement.
Hands to the right … Griffin sprinted right. No limp.
Hands to the left … Griffin sprinted left. No limp.
Hands way forward … Griffin backpedaled. No limp.
Hands to the left … Griffin sprinted left, then threw on the run to a ballboy.
Over and over they did this drill, back and forward, left and right. After it was over, maybe 12 to 15 of these, Griffin and Shanahan met on the field, alone. Griffin nodded a few times, then smiled. This has happened often here at Washington’s invented training camp in the city, and the reaction has been the same every time, I’m told. No swelling. No limping. No residual soreness the next day.
No one knows what will happen Sept. 9 when Griffin takes the field to play his first game since looking like a wounded colt against Seattle in January. Will Griffin last the game? The season? A 15-year career as the biggest hero in Washington sports? But Griffin will be there to face the Seahawks. That much I can tell you. Judging by what I saw on this side field, with maybe 30 or 40 fans watching, there’s no question he’ll at least start the season the way he played at his peak in 2012: making defenders miss, and throwing the ball deep, with accuracy.
Aug. 5: Owings Mills, Md.
The cost of building a defense.
So, as many of you know, I have pointed out (harangued?) that I thought the Ravens should have paid Anquan Boldin his full 2013 salary, $6 million, instead of trying to trim it. Now it looks like an absolute gimme decision—if GM Ozzie Newsome had to do it all over again, with his intermediate and deep middle passing game wiped out without Boldin and Joe Flacco favorite Dennis Pitta, surely he’d have kept Boldin for $6 million.
“The acquisitions of Elvis Dumervil and Michael Huff are a direct result of the money we saved from that contract,” Newsome told me, watching practice at the Ravens’ facility. “And other guys we got—Chris Canty, Marcus Spears, Daryl Smith—were helped by the savings. So if you ask the question, you can’t just say, ‘Do you wish you kept him?’ You also have to look at the unintended consequences of your actions.”
Newsome’s point: Baltimore went into cap jail after winning the last Super Bowl 13 years ago, then paying dearly to keep the team of aging vets together. So he could have paid Boldin, and then mortgaged the future to sign Dumervil and Huff and others. Or he could have not paid Boldin, signed some solid players to repair his defense, and been in good cap condition in the coming years. That’s the route he chose. It could doom the Ravens this year if Flacco struggles and can’t make the kinds of plays he made in the postseason last year with Boldin; remember the sideline throw a scrambling Flacco made on the game-winning Super Bowl drive, with Boldin fighting and winning a battle with Carlos Rogers for the ball? It’s no lock he made the right call. But he made the call he’s comfortable with, and he knows the team, and its fans, will be happy he did in 2014. For now? Time will tell.
But look at this stat first:
Boldin’s 2013 cap number in San Francisco: $6.0 million.
Combined Baltimore cap numbers of defensive starters Dumervil, Huff, Canty and Smith (courtesy of overthecap.com): $6.47 million.
Or, looking at it the way the Ravens like to: Boldin for one year … or Dumervil for five, Huff for three, Canty for three and Smith for one.
“You have to have an owner who understands the long haul, and I’m fortunate that Steve Bisciotti does,” said Newsome. “When Dumervil came free, unexpected of course, we weren’t looking to spend that kind of money (five years, $27 million), but Steve’s point was, ‘We’re going to be winning, and we’ll never be able to get a pass rusher like that in the draft where we’ll be picking.’ That’s really beneficial for a GM like me, to have an owner who can see down the road and see the big picture.”
But Newsome knows there will be some 2013 pain for some long-term gain. “I took a safety net from Joe, and I’m well aware of that,” Newsome said. “I’ve been a safety net for Brian Sipe and Bernie Kosar, so I understand what he’ll be missing.”
I would have tried to get the best of both worlds—keeping Boldin and mortgaging part of the future for the defensive additions. How much would that have hurt my team in the future? No question there would have been some pain, and some players who’d either have to get cut or a free agent left not pursued. But a GM of a championship team gets paid to make these calls, and Newsome leads me in that department 2-0.
A good week for The MMQB.
Just minding my own business on the field at halftime of Friday night’s Bears-Panthers game, watching the Frisbee dogs stalk their plastic prey, when the game’s referee, Clete Blakeman, approached. Introductions were exchanged. Pleasant man. Then he said, “I’m really enjoying the new site.”
After the game, our Greg A. Bedard was in the Panthers’ locker room, talking to center Ryan Kalil, who praised the fine piece about a veteran in camp battling for his job, by punter Chris Kluwe. Kalil said, “I’d love to write a story for the site.”
At the Washington practice in Richmond, a woman from the crowd yelled out, “Love the new site, Peter!” Same with a guy who got out of his car at a gas station off I-40 in Tennessee Thursday morning, and with columnist David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune, graciously, on Friday night in the Bears’ locker room.
That stuff is exciting to me. People are noticing. It’s cool.
Three weeks in the books, and we’ve got some fun stuff planned for you this week. Not to give away everything, but we struck a vein of gold Friday night in Minneapolis. Before we launched, we asked Jenny Vrentas, the Penn State biochemistry department’s contribution to our writing team (yes, she was a biochemistry major in college), to find an undrafted rookie free agent we could follow through the season—whether he makes the team or is cut. Vrentas nosed around with a few PR people and agents, and came up with a guy she thought would represent the hopes and dreams of the masses well, Vikings running back Zach Line. Already, Vrentas has written well about Line—twice—and was in Minnesota Friday to document his first NFL dress rehearsal.
Vrentas and our video man walked into the stadium with Line, interviewed him before the game, followed him to the field during warmups, then settled in with his parents and girlfriend in their seats in the stands.
I won’t spoil the surprise for you—her third chapter in the Zach Line mini-series will run later today—but suffice it to say that at 12:25 a.m. Saturday, after she left the Line family for the night, Vrentas knew she’d just had one of the most fun nights she’d ever had in this business. She texted me thusly: “This was just a really cool night. Seeing a kid live his dream, and how completely, totally happy it made his family. You forget about this side of the game sometimes.”
One other point from the road: Titans PR man Robbie Bohren was talking to me about the site and made a good point. He said he didn’t know what all the different column titles meant. He said he didn’t have much time to surf all the different columns and writers, and thought I should define them, so if you see “Mediaville,” you know who writes it and what exactly it is. So here goes:
• Monday Morning Quarterback. This column, by me, posted every Monday morning.
• Ten Things I Think I Think. Several times a week (we’re still playing with how many), a player or NFL-related person will post 10 opinions, based on the part of my Monday column where I do the same. Posted around 10 a.m. Eastern Time.
• 3Q Interview. Three questions for an NFL person, posted Monday through Friday around 3 p.m. Eastern Time.
• The Business of Football. Andrew Brandt, former agent and club vice president, tells you why decisions are made the way they are deep inside football front offices.
• Behind the Face Mask. Players, or recently retired players, share insights from the inner sanctum of the game. This is where you’d find the inside story of Austen Lane getting cut, for instance … plus free-standing videos with conversations with NFL players.
• Mediaville. Richard Deitsch, SI’s sports media columnist, writes for us once a week, and will also contribute long stories. Look for his piece on Hard Knocks with the Bengals Tuesday.
• Deep Dive. Our analytics man, Andy Benoit, spends 2,500 good words previewing every team in the league this month. During the season, this will be the place for his regular column.
• Going Long. Our weekly long read, posted Friday morning (Chris Kluwe’s opus on a veteran fighting for his job, for instance), on something enlightening about the NFL.
• West Coast State of Mind. SI senior writer Jim Trotter’s weekly column, most often about teams west of the Mississippi.
• The Conscience. SI.com’s Don Banks steps back and opines on what the right thing to do is, from the office of the commissioner to the offices of head coaches.
• The Season. Every Wednesday, I give you short takes on things you don’t know about the NFL and its people. And I’ll give you one starry element (Olivia Munn, John Goodman, Marco Rubio, for example) in the column each week.
• Open Field. Stories from our writers, on the road covering all 32 teams.
• In This Corner. Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman’s regular (but not weekly) column on a player’s life in the NFL.
• Video. We’ll have a video postcard from most training camps up this month. Other videos (such as a talk with Atlanta linebacker Brian Banks in this column) will be embedded in individual stories.
Hope that explains what we’re doing. Please give us feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Quotes of the Week
“I was sitting in the top of the stadium, freezing. This is a lot better.”
—Havard Rugland, the Norwegian kicker trying to make the Lions, recalling his first time at an American football game—late in the 2011 season, when he watched a Jets game from high in the upper deck in New Jersey.
What’s better is what Rugland did Friday night: kick field goals of 49 and 50 yards while missing none, putting himself squarely in competition for the Lions’ kicker job with David Akers. All Akers was two years ago, when Rugland was freezing in the Meadowlands, was the best kicker in football.
“That’s not what we want on the sideline. That’s not who we are or what we want to become.”
—Jacksonville coach Gus Bradley, after troubled receiver Justin Blackmon was removed from the sidelines Friday night when the Jaguars played the Dolphins. Blackmon argued with a Miami cornerback during the first half, then was chastised by a teammate for running his mouth when he wasn’t able to play in the game—and faces a four-game suspension to start the season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.
Bradley met with Blackmon after the game, presumably to tell him to stop being an idiot.
“He had a good offseason. No trouble. My phone didn’t ring at all. That was nice.”
—Tennessee GM Ruston Webster, on having Kenny Britt on the Titans’ roster.
“It’s real simple. We’re going to give him the ball until he throws up.”
—Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, on how busy running back C.J. Spiller will be in the Buffalo offense this season.
—Brett Favre, on the sidelines of the 2009 NFC Championship Game in New Orleans, to Vikings teammate and backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels after Favre threw a senseless interception at the end of the fourth quarter in a tied game. New Orleans won in overtime.
The startling admission is part of Rosenfels’ story about the memorable title game for our site. Stories like this great read, as I’ve said from the start, are what we’re going to be. Read how Rosenfels described the sideline scene:
“I sat on the Gatorade coolers on our sideline, and Brett limped over to sit next to me. I didn’t know what to say to him; I could feel the weight of the world on his shoulders. I could tell he felt the interception cost us the game and season. I could also sense that he envisioned the story of that year—at 40 years, he was having his best season—was going to be summed up by that one play. A play that never really should have happened in the ﬁrst place. He had played almost ﬂawless football, fighting like it was life or death to him, and this is the way it was going to end. We sat there for a few moments in silence. The referees and team captains went out for the coin toss to start overtime, and I got up to see who won possession. Brett didn’t even bother. He didn’t have the energy, and I think he was still in shock from the interception. After the Saints won the toss, I walked back over and sat next to him.
He turned to me and said, ‘I choked.’ I paused for a second and said, ‘Brett, you are the most amazing football player I’ve ever seen. It has been an unreal experience to watch you play this year.’ I can’t really describe the look he gave me, but I can tell those words meant something to him.”
Stat of the Week
Before Bears-Panthers Friday night in Charlotte, rookie Carolina GM David Gettleman said he’d watched all the Panthers’ games from last season on tape when he took the job, just to learn the team. One of the things he learned, as I briefly mentioned above, was the 5-1 finish was no fluke; Cam Newton, playing behind a makeshift offensive line, was a good leader and player, and the Panthers got what they deserved down the stretch. Then we talked about middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who led the NFL in tackles as a rookie. Sometimes, I said, you wonder about the legitimacy of tackle stats. But Kuechly, with his gaudy 16-, 15-, 15-, 13- and 13-tackle games all throughout the year, didn’t give off the whiff of stat-padding, from the times I watched his games. “Nothing phony about it,” Gettleman said.
The amazing thing: Kuechly won the tackles title playing less than his peers. Look at these numbers for the top three tacklers in the league last year:
So I was watching Kuechly early Friday night. Jay Cutler threw a pick on the first play of the game. On the next series:
First down—Cutler threw a short cross to Alshon Jeffery. Gain of 13. Kuechly leveled him as soon as he caught it.
First down—Matt Forte tried to run up the middle. Kuechly stoned him, sharing the tackle with Dwan Edwards.
Second down—Cutler hit Forte with a short pass in the right flat. Kuechly tackled him. Gain of five.
Third down—Kuechly, reading a rolling-out Cutler, faded to the right with him, just close enough to the receiver that Cutler wouldn’t risk the throw. Cutler threw it out of bounds. Time to punt.
With instincts and strength, and the side-to-side movement to back them up, Kuechly is the genuine item, the kind of linebacker you build a defense around.
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
On Thursday, an era ended. Washington’s radio team did not include Sam Huff. After 38 years, the team played a game with another color man in the broadcast booth next to Larry Michael and Sonny Jurgensen: former tight end Chris Cooley.
Ran into Cooley in the bowels of LP Field in Nashville after the game. I’ve always liked Cooley, because he’s a thinker. I could see how pumped he was. “So nervous before the game,” he said. “A new job, and a pretty big deal.”
This is why he’s going to be good at being the third man in the Washington booth: Before the game, he worked the team’s locker room for nuggets. Got invited into Mike Shanahan’s office for a conversation. Ran into players he knew. Wondered if he was really doing the right thing, with his body feeling so perfect and pain-free, getting into this media thing. He found himself with Robert Griffin III, who was not playing in the game after offseason knee surgery, and London Fletcher, who was healthy and suited up, ready to go. Griffin is 23. Fletcher is 38.
“I was able to get a couple of good things on the air tonight,” Cooley said. “When I was with Robert and London, Robert looked at him and said, ‘Why are you playing tonight, dude?’ London said: ‘Because great players play.’ I got that on. I thought that was great.”
Too often, former players believe the fact that they played the game and been behind the magic curtain is enough to merit a lifetime job on TV or radio. It shouldn’t be that way, and in the increasing meritocracy of football in the electronic media, ex-players are being made to bring something to the table. Cooley did exactly that for his audience Thursday night, and I would have expected nothing less from someone so bright and curious.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
Three of them, as our merry band aboard the GoRVing.com RV made the trip over the last week from suburban Baltimore down the East Coast to Atlanta, then through the mid-south and over to the Midwest, finishing last night in Des Moines (the halfway point between Chiefs and Vikes):
1. We like Chattanooga. One of the great things about these trips is discovering places we never knew. I’d driven past Chattanooga on the interstate before, but this time, we stopped there for the night between stops at the Falcons and Titans, staying at The Chattanoogan, having a couple of local beers at The Foundry, chowing down at The City Diner, and watching a few inning of the Chattanooga Lookouts game at the nice downtown ballpark … with my 2005 fantasy baseball third baseman, Sean Burroughs, trying to make a comeback way down here in Double-A.
2. I tried a milk shake with bacon in it. Wait! Don’t blame me! Blame Bedard! We were passing though Newport, Tenn., and I told the group—all but one of whom hadn’t been to a Sonic—that we had to pull in. We did, and Bedard got the peanut butter and bacon shake. “It’s got the salty-and-sweet thing going on,” said the woman at the outdoor table next to us. Greg got it. I sipped … and … well, it wasn’t gross. Let’s just say that. A little salty, and the bacon was so pulverized it was almost like tiny chunks of salt in there. I wouldn’t order one, but it wasn’t bad.
3. I am truly bummed. I had to leave Des Moines early this morning to get on the road, and I’m told I’ll miss the Sheep Show at the Iowa State Fair. Not to mention the deep fried stick of butter everyone told me i just had to try. I’ll be back someday.
Tweets of the Week
“In the Pats locker room, a camera guy has a mishap and yells, ‘Jesus Christ!’ Tebow, in earshot, looks at the guy and says: ‘He loves you.’ “
—@kentbaab, of the Washington Post, reporting from Philadelphia after the Patriots-Eagles game Friday night.
“So Randy Moss is going to be working at the same network as Joe Buck. That’s deliciously funny.”
—@JasonPhilCole, longtime pro football scribe, after Pro Football Talk reported Moss was deep in talks with FOX to be a football analyst of some sort.
IIa (not a tweet, but a quote, and a required interlude)
“That is a DISGUSTING act by Randy Moss.”
—Joe Buck, FOX play-by-play announcer for the Minnesota-Green Bay playoff game in the 2004 postseason, after Moss scored a touchdown, ran to the goal post, and pretended to moon the crowd at Lambeau Field. Then, there may have been a simulation of Moss wiping his rear end on the pads covering the goalpost, but that was unclear.
Miss it? Want to see it again? Here you go.
“A whole year of controlled rage to release tomorrow …”
—@Mathieu_Era, rookie Arizona safety Tyrann Mathieu, who had a very checkered college career and missed the 2012 season at LSU, on Thursday, a day before his first NFL preseason game, at Green Bay.
“Brady v Eagles defense is like Bobby Fisher v me in chess.”
—@pdomo, Philadelphia Daily News football wiseguy Paul Domowitch, on Tom Brady, watching a join practice between New England and Philadelphia last week.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this was the thing that piqued my interest from a couple of weekend conversations with Gil Brandt at the Rams and Chiefs: I asked him what teams surprised him the most, in a good way, on his camp tour across America for Sirius XM NFL Radio. “Arizona,” he said. I’m hearing that out here on the trail. It’s got extra currency when Brandt says it.
2. I think, having visited Carolina Friday night, there’s no question the organization feels its two leaders, and the two best players on the team for the long-term future, are Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly. Who, by the way, are the last two top picks of former general manager Marty Hurney. Hurney was dumped by owner Jerry Richardson mid-season last year, and nowhere was his name mentioned that I heard on my visit. Newton was a gamble for some entering the draft, with his wayward college career. All he’s done in his first two seasons is throw for 7,920 yards—though he has not won enough. All Kuechly did as a rookie is average 10.2 tackles a game, most in the league. Just thought everyone should remember a guy widely panned when he got the gate left the franchise with its two most important players. And Newton’s 24, Kuechly 22.
3. I think the significant thing to remember about Havard Rugland in his battle with David Akers for the Lions’ kicking job is this: Rugland can kick off. Akers wouldn’t. Rugland’s three kickoffs Friday night against the Jets fell at the 1-yard line, two yards deep and five yards deep. It’s still probably Akers’ job. What makes the most sense to me, barring Rugland making three more 50-plus-yard field goals in the next three games, is Akers winning the job and Rugland landing on the practice squad.
4. I think for those of you in the preseason-mining mode, I’ve got a few bits from a fellow accompanying me on the tour this summer, Neil Hornsby of ProFootballFocus.com. You may know the site for its exhaustive work breaking down every player on every play of every game. Now, PFF is breaking down the preseason games. (Go here for a season or monthly subscription.) I asked Neil to cull a few items from the games over the weekend.
a. Although the Arizona first-unit offensive line—horrendous last year—played three short series in Green Bay, the news was positive. Carson Palmer was pressured once and not sacked in the three series.
b. There’s a camp battle in Atlanta worth watching: Who will start at corner opposite Asante Samuel? Our fourth-highest-rated corner this week was the Falcons’ second-round choice, Robert Alford (+2.8). Our third-lowest-rated? The Falcons’ first-rounder, Desmond Trufant (-2.7).
c. In 53 snaps in his pro debut at Carolina, Chicago rookie guard Kyle Long gave up zero sacks and one hurry with no penalties.
d. Green Bay needs to get injured corners Tramon Williams and Casey Hayward back quickly. Devon House started and in just 10 snaps in coverage allowed three of four passes targeted at him to be completed for 92 yards and a touchdown. That’s a QB rating of 156.3.
e. Jedd Fisch Alert: No team had their quarterbacks get rid of the ball as quickly as Jacksonville. The average time to throw for Blaine Gabbert was 2.1 seconds, while Chad Henne’s was 2.2. These were the lowest two of any quarterbacks to take at least 10 dropbacks.
f. We might have gotten a clue of what to expect from Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia offense. Of the Eagles’ 30 designed runs (all runs excluding quarterback scrambles), 27 were from shotgun.
g. With Michael Crabtree out, San Francisco’s first-round pick from 2012, A.J. Jenkins, needs to step up. Jenkins did not do much to help his cause, despite playing 56% of snaps for the 49ers. He ran 26 routes, caught only one ball on three targets and, after picking up a first down on that pass, fumbled.
h. Keep an eye on Baltimore’s new pick-up, Daryl Smith. In just 20 snaps he managed a hit, a hurry, three tackles and an assist.
i. With Tim Tebow in the game at Philadelphia, New England ran the option seven times and averaged 5.4 yards on these runs.
j. No offensive line struggled more over the weekend than the New York Jets, and no lineman epitomized that more than rookie left tackle Oday Aboushi. He gave up a sack, a hurry, three penalties and struggled with his run blocking.
k. San Diego quarterback Charlie Whitehurst was 0 for 10 when pressured by Seattle.
5. I think it won’t show up high on anyone’s radar for big injury losses, but Kelvin Hayden being lost for the year with a torn hamstring is significant because teams play so much nickel now, and slot corners like Hayden are hard to find. “Especially at this point, when every team has 90 guys in camp,” said Bears GM Phil Emery. Hurts that the Bears didn’t re-sign D.J. Moore, who took his game to Carolina. The Bears need second-year corner Isaiah Frey to emerge from a green field of slot candidates.
6. I think the Ravens are grasping, obviously, in signing Dallas Clark, 34, and Brandon Stokley, 37, over the weekend. But this is a time of desperation, with the trade of Anquan Boldin, the injury to Dennis Pitta and with Ed Dickson out for a while also. Both are short-term scotch-tape moves. The most encouraging thing, I’d say, is how Stokley was able to stay healthy all year at 36 in Denver after a string of seasons marred by injury. “I think all of our younger receivers have ability,” Joe Flacco told me the other day, “but we’re going to have to get them in game-time situations, and they’re going to have to build that confidence and say, ‘I do belong here.’ Now we’re going to have to rely on our three-wides package a little more in those situations.” It would really help Flacco if Clark could give the Ravens at least half a season of hold-the-fort football at a suddenly needy position.
7. I think, by the way, Pitta is not assuredly out for the season. Asked a Ravens coach the other day what percentage there was that Pitta—thought to be out for the year after surgery two weeks ago to repair a dislocated hip—would play this year. “Don’t know the percentage,” the coach said, “but it is not zero.”
8. I think if I were Rex Ryan, and my job might depend on competent quarterback play, I’d sure as heck be watching Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith live. Every snap.
9. I think I can’t quite figure it out, but I am hugely sad for Plaxico Burress, whose season and probably his career ended with a torn rotator cuff suffered in practice last week.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Amazon’s honcho buys the Washington Post. Talked to a wealthy Washingtonian the other day, after the sale, who predicted there wouldn’t be a print edition of the Post within two years. I find that shocking, but nothing about the media should shock anyone today.
b. The Angels bought Albert Pujols for $254 million. Jeffrey Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250 million.
c. That says something dire about our society; I’m just not sure how dire.
d. Bernie Kosar, doing color on the Browns preseason game against St. Louis Thursday, had some harsh things to say about the Rams. He called the Rams receivers, including the eighth pick in the 2013 draft, Tavon Austin, “horrible,” said their parents “would be embarrassed” if they were watching the game, and, about backup quarterback Kellen Clemens, said, “Bless me Father for I have sinned. I have to watch him the whole fourth quarter.”
Kosar’s a good guy, and I have always liked him. But I found the comments pretty far over the top and asked rhetorically, on Twitter, whether Kosar had been drinking. Which brought on a raft of criticism from the Twitterverse, saying I’d gone over the top. I don’t think I was over the top, but many of you felt I’d gone too far given the sea of trouble Kosar has had in his personal life. (None of which, from what I can tell, involve treatment for alcohol, or any admission of alcoholism.) My point was, I think there’s a way to be critical of players and teams, and analysts should definitely do that. But Kosar went too far, in my opinion. And not just mine. Kosar called Rams coach Jeff Fisher Sunday to apologize, and Browns CEO Joe Banner said Sunday the Browns “don’t condone the personal and unprofessional approach” Kosar used.
e. Just when you think Miguel Cabrera can’t get any better, he homers in the ninth inning off Mariano Rivera twice in one road series. We’re seeing the prime of one of the great hitters any of us will ever see.
f. John Madden used to say it all the time, and I am merely copycatting him by saying what a beautiful country this is, and I’m lucky over the past two weeks to be driving through it instead of flying over it. Particularly beautiful: the hills and small mountains around Asheville, N.C., with trees so green and countryside so lush.
g. Coffeenerdness: The other day, the Starbucks on Kingston Pike in Knoxville got a gold star from me. I went in there to work with my tour pal Neil Hornsby, struck up a conversation with the two baristas about the area, and went to work. The fellow later brought us over small cups of coffee to try from their Clover brewing process and, when I left, the other barista called us both by name. Not sure, but I don’t think that’d happen at the Starbucks on the corner of 55th and Lex.
h. Beernerdness: One of the great nights on this tour was made possible, in part, by Porter Hardy IV, the president of Smartmouth Brewing Company in Norfolk. On Tuesday in Richmond, after viewing a Redskins practice, Hardy was waiting for me with a growler of beer from his brewery. It was his Alter Ego Saison. Porter, good news: The growler didn’t last until Atlanta. (And no, our drivers/reporters, Andy DeGory and Dan Greene, didn’t dabble on our night drive to the Falcons.) But the Saison was delicious. Thanks, Porter. And sorry about RGIII not signing for little Sarah.
i. Congratulations, Michael Gehlken of UT-San Diego, for writing this memorable piece about the incredible journey to the NFL of Chargers rookie tackle D.J. Fluker.
j. So Larry David told Rich Eisen on Eisen’s podcast that he could be an NFL play-caller. “If they gave me a chance, I could turn the fortunes of an NFL team around,” David said. Only if Jeff Garlin could play right guard.
k. So I’m on the road Wednesday, and my daughter Laura, who lives in San Francisco, texted to say she was going to San Jose with a couple of San Francisco cops. Seems they’d got a lead on her stolen bike. “Nervous,” she texted. “It’s a sting.” A WHAT! Seems she got wind that some guy on Craigslist was trying to sell her bike and lots of other ones.
It’s a cool story, and so I asked her to tell it.
I wasn’t scared until I found myself holding a bike I never thought I’d see again, standing along side a still-running maroon Ford Escort while two undercover cops chased the guy who tried to sell it back to me. It was probably only two or three minutes, but it felt like a good half an hour before Officer Brett Bodisco and Officer Matt Friedman emerged from around the corner of the Chase Bank parking lot in East San Jose. “Is it your bike?” Officer Bodisco called out. We flipped it over and checked the serial number to be sure. It was. Four thousand bicycles were stolen in San Francisco last year, and only 142 were returned to their owners. Aside from cell phone theft, it’s the most common crime in the city. But, like any major metropolis, San Francisco faces many more serious issues. So when I woke up to find my bike missing from my locked entry way, I certainly wasn’t optimistic about recovering it. I dutifully filed a police report, and scoured Craigslist in case it turned up. I also listed my stolen bike on our city’s registry, and followed two Twitter handles—the first, @stolenbikesfo, belonging to Bryan Hance, and the second @SFPDbiketheft, owned by Park Precinct Officer Matt Friedman. When a gray and aqua Specialized Dolce turned up on Craigslist in East San Jose after a week, I was ecstatic. Officer Friedman volunteered to help. Within 4 hours of arranging a meeting, I was riding in the back of an undercover cop car down to East San Jose to meet “Dennis,” whose number, at the time, was linked to 12 different bike listings on Craigslist. Officer Friedman and his partner, Officer Brett Bodisco, told me most bike thieves in San Francisco are looking to score some quick cash.
They’ll sell an $800 bike for, say $50. The person who pays $50 will then take the bike to a flea market (common locations in the Bay Area are the Oakland Coliseum and Capitol Expressway in San Jose) and sell it for about half its value. Then, someone like “Dennis” tries to make the full value back by listing it on Craigslist. Amazing what you learn in the back of a cop car for three hours … and even more amazing to meet two policemen who care so much about their community. Thank you, officers Friedman and Bodisco. I am so grateful.
Once on the freeway, Officer Bodisco turned back to me. “Sure beats an episode of Cops, doesn’t it?” That it does.
The Adieu Haiku
Randy Moss? TV?
I’m in the Doubters Club, but …
I can’t wait to watch.