weekend notes
The Strength of Birds
weekend notes

The Strength of Birds

The Cardinals shook up their strength and conditioning staff in the offseason, bringing in a mad scientist and an Olympic gold medalist hurdler to recondition the team. Plus, Johnny Manziel, San Francisco suspension chatter and more

When Cardinals players report Monday for the beginning of offseason workouts, they’re going to be entering into a new era. The NFL might be as well.

The previous seven years, John Lott ruled Arizona’s strength and conditioning program and was popular with many players. He was also a bit of a cult figure for his active spotting of the bench press during the combine. Lott was let go after the season by coach Bruce Arians, who decided to go back to the future for the Cardinals’ strength and conditioning. Arians hired 56-year-old Buddy Morris, a legendary figure known in strength circles for being a bit of a mad scientist. Morris last was on an NFL staff in 2005 when he and Arians crossed paths with the Browns.

One of Morris’ first decisions after joining the Cardinals, and the suggestion actually originated with Arians, was to hire two-time Olympic gold medalist hurdler Roger Kingdom to a full-time position as assistant strength and conditioning coach. It’s believed to be the first time an NFL team has named a world-class sprinter to a coaching staff. Pete Alosi was held over from Lott’s staff as another assistant.

“We have three guys that are really trying to move us ahead of everybody on a daily basis trying to get better,” Morris said this week. “I’ve got good friends throughout the league as head strength and conditioning coaches. I'm trying to stay ahead of these guys now so we view it every day as a competition. We’re trying to do our part to win games. Speed is the name of the game, and if I can get an edge from an expert like Roger, I'm going to do it.”

Buddy Morris at Pittsburgh in 2009 (George Gojkovich/AP) Buddy Morris at Pittsburgh in 2009 (George Gojkovich/AP)

Kingdom, 51, won the 110 meter hurdles at both the 1984 and ’88 Olympics. Morris was Kingdom’s strength coach at the University of Pittsburgh, where he initially arrived on a football scholarship. Track became Kingdom’s focus when he won the NCAA title as a sophomore. But football has always been Kingdom’s love.

“Football has been my life,” Kingdom said. “Everybody saw that track was so natural for me but I still wanted to play football. It left a void, I was so happy when I had an opportunity to intern a couple of times with Coach Morris at Pitt, and I was ecstatic to intern with the Browns.”

As a track star, Kingdom was known for his stoic presence. Nothing flustered him. Kingdom said there have been five times that he knowingly showed joyous emotion: both times he won the gold, when he set the world record in 1989, when he won the U.S. title in 1995 after coming back from two knee surgeries, and when Morris called and asked, “Are you ready to go to work?”

“I was jumping around all over the place, which I don’t normally do,” Kingdom said. “To me, this is a dream come true. It was something that I always wanted. I never saw myself being here, but it's something I always aspired to do.”

Kingdom has a very clear vision for why he is with the Cardinals.

“My role is to make sure we find a balance between strength and conditioning, and speed training. There has to be a balance,” he said. “As we strengthen these athletes here they can continue to get faster and be able to apply that on the field. The bottom line is to be more efficient as an athlete. If I can train an athlete to be consistent and more efficient in every movement that he makes on the field, then he's going to get more work done instead of wearing down.”

Before winning gold in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, Roger Kingdom attended Pitt on a football scholarship. (Doug Mills/AP) Before winning gold in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, Roger Kingdom attended Pitt on a football scholarship. (Doug Mills/AP)

One can definitely appreciate that a world-class sprinter can help Cardinals players like wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, running back Andre Ellington and defensive back Patrick Peterson—guys who play positions where speed is a big asset. But what about the big uglies inside, like right tackle Bobby Massie or nose tackle Dan Williams?

“The goal is consistency through improved mechanics,” Kingdom said. “If you get somebody like a Larry Fitzgerald and you work on their improved mechanics, next thing you know you're going to slowly see improvements in their time, improvement in their effort and also their endurance to be able to last throughout the season. That's our most important point. We want to make sure they run just as well in game 12 or 14 as they are in game 1 or 2. Same thing with the linemen. If they’re efficient then they have endurance. If they have that, they continue to have that explosion throughout the game to drive guys off the ball.”

Outside the box thinking is what you get with Morris, who had three different tours of duty at Pittsburgh, his alma mater. The first time he left was to stay home when his daughter was ill while waiting on the liver transplant list. Morris went to work in a hospital doing physical therapy, and that might have been a blessing in disguise. Morris learned to look at the human body differently and what it really means to rehab from injury, and the importance of prehab—working to prevent injuries. The players who have worked out in the Cardinals’ facility during the offseason—the strength coaches are allowed to be there for safety and technique—have noticed a difference.

“Our guys say our warmup is everybody else's workout,” said Morris, who trained Jim Covert, Bill Fralic, Russ Grimm, Dan Marino, Mark Stepnoski, Ruben Brown and Curtis Martin at Pittsburgh. “Our warmup is pretty extensive, and now we are programming by position. We're not going to run a cookie cutter program where everybody comes in and does the same thing. We're not just about lifting weights. That's only one component but that's the component everybody thinks about. It's much more than that. It's about dynamic movement, it's about activations, it's about prehab and rehab, it's about making sure our guys are perfect biomechanically, more efficient so they don't waste energy.”

Yup, it’s a new era in the Cardinals’ strength and conditioning department. The rest of the league will be watching to see the results.

GOOD DEED OF THE WEEK

Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is a fairly good football player considering his two All-Pro nods and 2012 Defensive Player of the Year trophy. He might be better off the field, as this video attests. You can support his good deeds and Watt’s foundation here.  

NICKEL PACKAGE

Johnny Manziel's lady friend took a playful bite out of the NFL prospect's finger at a recent Mariners-Rangers game, but did he do more damage to his draft stock by showing up? (LM Otero/AP) Johnny Manziel's lady friend took a playful bite out of the NFL prospect's finger at a recent Mariners-Rangers game, but did he do more damage to his draft stock by showing up? (LM Otero/AP)

1. I am on record as a Johnny Manziel fan. I believe he will be the best quarterback out of this class. But he is not doing himself any favors in the eyes of NFL decision makers by continuing to be visible off the field, with his latest outing in the front row of a Rangers game with a model. And he didn’t “just go to a baseball game.” Manziel also has been spotted at the Final Four and The Masters just in the past couple of weeks. Wouldn’t be surprised if the Kentucky Derby is next. For most players, no one would care. But after his Summer of Johnny last year, Manziel isn’t just any player. If you think this isn’t being talked about and dissected in NFL front offices, you’re being idealistically naïve. At quarterback, more than any other position because of its importance, teams want a player who lives and breathes football, and one who doesn’t have being a celebrity on his priority list. Manziel had a turbulent offseason last year. He rebounded very nicely during the season, toned it down, skipped the Super Bowl festivities to prepare for the draft, and was extremely quiet. That also was noticed by the NFL, and it was warmly received. Like Manziel told ESPN’s Jon Gruden, he seemed to learn from how he “didn’t say no enough and should have said no (more). I should have stayed in my realm and stayed in College Station and hung out.” Now Manziel is bringing all that back into the equation with his recent visibility.

2. In a way, the Manziel situation is similar to the prospects who test positive for marijuana before the draft. If they can’t stay away from the stuff in months before they determine their income level for the next five years, then how bright can they be? Manziel’s biggest question mark is whether or not he will be appropriately dedicated to his craft. And if he can’t stay in the shadows for another month before the draft, what’s he going to be doing after he gets picked? People can complain all they want about how this is unfair, he’s just enjoying his life and blah, blah, blah. The indisputable fact is this is a part of the draft evaluation process, especially for Manziel because of his past, and it’s not going to help him.

3. The decision by NFLPA arbitrator Roger Kaplan to award agent Drew Rosenhaus over $500,000 in unpaid loans and agent fees from Redskins receiver DeSean Jackson could rock the agent world. Basically, Rosenhaus gave Jackson a $375,000 “loan” on the night that he hired Rosenhaus after firing DeBartolo Sports in 2009. Jackson didn’t think he had to pay up because he alleged Rosenhaus used the “loan” to induce him to sign with Rosenhaus, which is against NFLPA rules. The NFLPA ruled Rosenhaus did not induce Jackson to sign (eye roll). So in the wake of this decision, what’s to stop any agent from poaching clients by writing a check? If the player stays with the agent (funny how this grievance came up after Jackson fired Rosenhaus and hired Joel Segal), no one needs to know about the loan. But if the player bolts like Jackson did, now it’s OK for the agents to come looking for some of their money. It’s win-win for the agents to engage in shady activity. It’s going to be the wild west in the player agent business.

4. Liked the move by the Jets to sign former Titans running back Chris Johnson this week. Johnson still has plenty of game left. He should do well with a change of scenery and an offensive line that is further along than the one he left in Tennessee. Even more impressive has been the discipline of general manager John Idzik to stay methodical in his approach to free agency while all the back pages and sports talk shows are screaming for the Jets to do something. Getting WR Eric Decker at $7.5 million per year, adding potential starters like QB Michael Vick ($4 million), Johnson ($4 million) and RT Breno Giacomini ($4.5 million—a little rich), and re-signing veterans Calvin Pace, Willie Colon and Jeff Cumberland for less than $2.5 million each is good, solid work by Idzik and his staff. And with 12 draft choices this year, the Jets are finally doing a slow build toward sustained success. Quite a departure from the previous regime, which did get the Jets to climb quickly, but it faded just as fast.

5. Suspension in San Francisco? Commissioner Roger Goodell usually waits until cases are adjudicated before he dishes out punishment under the personal conduct policy. He has discretion to act before then, and he might just be forced to in regards to 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith. Smith had three possible cases pending—two DUIs and illegal possession of three assault rifles—when he was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport on charges of making a false bomb threat. An NFL suspension with specific terms for reinstatement might be the best course of action for all involved, especially Smith.

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