GREEN BAY, Wisc. -- The highlight of the week that was, looking at my 19th, 20th, 21st and 22nd NFL teams prepping for the season? Easy. It was the 27-year-old coaching apprentice, talking into a walkie-talkie, communicating with his captain on the field, looking completely in charge.
"Twenty-seven?'' Rams defensive end Chris Long said to me incredulously. "No way. No way he's 27.''
But he is ... and I'll keep you in suspense for a few paragraphs longer before I tell you who this coach and this good story is.
First, the highlights of the second full preseason weekend (and I will spare you, Mike Greenberg and similar Jetoholics, any further mention of the foibles of right tackle Wayne Hunter, because I do not want to ruin your week on Monday):
1. Too bad Andrew Luck will have only one national game this year. In Colts camp Friday, I asked Luck what had surprised him about his first NFL camp and preseason. He paused. "Not much, really. Can't really think of anything.''
Except for one bad interception at Pittsburgh Sunday night, in which Luck either didn't recognize a well-executed zone blitz or saw it too late, he's playing like nothing surprises him. In 11 possessions in his first two games, Luck has led six scoring drives (five touchdowns, one field goal), with three punts and two picks. Looks like Luck's going to be must-see TV all season, but it'll have to be DirecTV must-see with the Sunday Ticket package ... because the Colts are due for one national game, a Thursday nighter in November at the Jags. "We've seen a few misses at the number one spot,'' Mike Tomlin told Michele Tafoya of the NBC crew. "He ain't no miss."
2. Bad weekend for the Cardinals. Kevin Kolb had his manhood questioned by a marauding Raider, Tommy Kelly. That's the headline. More important -- actually much more: left tackle Levi Brown going down with a torn triceps muscle, possibly for the season. This was already a shaky line. Now the protection problem could become a crisis for Arizona.
Amazing, by the way, that Brown's been the whipping boy in Arizona for so long, and now people are pining away at his loss. Next man up could be Boise State rookie Nate Potter. Nothing against Nate, but how many contenders have opened the season with a seventh-round rookie left tackle?
3. Blaine Gabbert's playing like the 10th pick in the draft should play. Two preseason games: 18 of 26, 174 yards, three touchdowns. Your magic spell is working, Mike Mularkey.
4. Ryan Tannehill creeps ahead of Matt Moore in Miami. It's clear Tannehill's going to play, and play early this season. Will that be the opener at pressure-bringing Houston? Tannehill outplayed Moore Friday night in a lackluster game for both in Charlotte, but the man who gets the start in preseason Week 3 against Atlanta is the key to reading coach Joe Philbin's mind about who will start the season opener.
5. The replacement officials continued to be a major black eye for the game. This dispatch from detroitlions.com -- an official team website, part of the league's network of 32 team websites -- was posted Saturday morning, in a column by long-time Lions watcher Mike O'Hara, about the leverage the real officials would have after watching the game in Baltimore:
"The best negotiating leverage any group of workers could hope to have is a game tape of Friday night's game between the Lions and Ravens. The NFL's real referees, who haven't worked in the exhibition season because of stalled contract negotiations with the NFL, could use that tape as a bargaining chip the size of a manhole cover. For the good of the NFL and its image, the league must find a way to replace the replacements with the real guys. The Ravens are one of the NFL's benchmark franchises, and the Lions are a young team on the rise with their own star power. But the third team on the field -- eight men in striped jerseys -- were a disgrace on any level of officiating football.''
Case in point: an 18-yard facemask penalty on Detroit near the end of the first quarter ... after a 2-minute, 50-second delay and series of conferences to figure out how to mark it off. I mean, it's gone too far. Today, for the good of the game, the league negotiators must reach out to representatives for the real officials, including refs Scott Green and Jeff Triplette, and hammer out an agreement.
The officials have to drop their demand to keep a pension that's better than full-time NFL employees have, and the league has to jack up the money it has offered by $10 million or $12 million over the seven-year life of the contract. It's time. I can't say it better than Bears cornerback Charles Tillman did late Saturday night: "Can we get our refs back? ... Replacement refs aren't cutting it.''
6. The NFL's on the offensive. The league is trying to get the public on its side by revealing pieces of the talks -- saying the locked-out officials want a 20 percent increase in year one of the deal, and saying the league's offer includes making seven officials (one from each job on a crew) full-timers and adding three more full crews. The added officials, in theory, would give the NFL a "deeper bench'' and allow the league to sit poorly graded officials for a couple of weeks and use officials from the backup crews.
Interesting concept, but I view it as clouding the real issue, the financial issue. The league could take the money it's thinking of using for the three new crews and plow it into a better offer to the real refs.
7. At least one Ryan is smiling this morning. While Rex Ryan's Jets stunk it up in the Meadowlands Saturday -- did someone say, "Fool's gold?'' -- the Dallas defense, coordinated by Rex's brother, Rob, continued its run through California. In the Cowboys games at Oakland and San Diego, Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers had seven possessions with their first units on offense, threw three interceptions, scored zero points ... and their deepest penetration was to the Dallas 48.
Dallas gave up 68 points to the Giants in two December debacles last year, and 746 passing yards to Eli Manning. That's why Dallas paid the big bucks to Brandon Carr in the offseason. Carr picked off Rivers twice Saturday night. Wonder if Rob is tempted to say: "Hey, save that for Sept. 5 in the swamps of Jersey, kid.''
8. What will Jeff Demps do with New England? Sounds like the Olympic silver medalist sprinter will have a chance to return kicks for a New England team that was horrible in the return game last year -- 29th in the league. Among all players with at least 10 kick returns, the Patriots' Danny Woodhead was 40th, at 21.9 yards per return, with no touchdowns. But Demps has an Achilles heel, according to Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston: Demps fumbled 11 times in 424 career touches playing with Tim Tebow at Florida. Bill Belichick won't stand for that.
9. Drew Brees got walloped into left field Friday night, but he seems to be OK. "We've got to protect Drew better,'' interim coach Joe Vitt said after Saints-Jags. The kind of hit he took from Jags defensive end Jeremy Mincey -- full force on his surgically repaired right shoulder -- is the kind of hit Brees was lucky to walk away from. But he was 6 of 6 after the hit, so the Saints believe he left the game injury-free. Vitt's right. They may not be so lucky next time.
10. The $21,000 fine to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for his hit on Byron Leftwich was incredibly light. I don't care if these players don't get paid for the preseason games the way they do the regular season -- Rodgers-Cromartie, who was unrepentant over the hit (surprise!), launched himself into Leftwich and throttled him in the head. A textbook case of launching and hitting a defenseless quarterback in the helmet during the act of throwing gets $21,000? It's just wrong. That hit needed six figures or a suspension -- or both.
Now for the my trip across the Midwest over the past few days.
Wednesday: Chiefs (Missouri Western State University, St. Joseph, Mo.)
Three football nuggets: Dexter McCluster might be listed as a running back on the roster, but he's not anymore. The Chiefs plan to use him as a slot receiver consistently, with Jonathan Baldwin and Dwayne Bowe on the outside ...
Speaking of Bowe, who just signed his one-year franchise tender and reported Friday, you might look at the calendar and say, "It's Aug. 20, three weeks before the opener. Plenty of time for him to get in the playbook and get ready for opening day.'' Not so fast. The new Brian Daboll offense he hasn't spent five minutes learning yet has far more motions and shifts than the offense Bowe played in last year under coach Todd Haley. To think he'll learn the scheme well in three weeks is not realistic. Not saying he won't be active in Week 1, but he certainly won't know everything he needs to know to flourish in the offense. ...
The Jamaal Charles-Peyton Hillis backfield, if Hillis has his head on straight (which he has so far) and Charles' surgically repaired knee holds up, could be the NFL's best. It's the classic Mr. Inside (Hillis, a sledgehammer, at 250 pounds) and Mr. Outside (the shifty Charles weighs 199).
This team seems happy with the coaching change.
Let's make one thing clear: The Chiefs weren't 7-9 last year because they didn't like their coach. They were 7-9 because they were a M*A*S*H unit by midseason, because Matt Cassel was just OK when he did play, and because Tyler Palko threw a third of the team's 2011 passes. In many way, they're fortunate to have won seven games.
But there's little doubt these players are breathing easier with a coach they like and respect more than Todd Haley. "It had to happen,'' one player said of Haley leaving and Romeo Crennel replacing him. "Players were afraid of speaking up. The environment just wasn't healthy. I think it really wore on Matt.''
Cassel, who missed the final seven games after breaking his hand against Denver, has chosen not to say much about Haley. The ex-coach's father, former Steeler personnel man Dick Haley, told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review that Cassel was "real average'' and "it didn't surprise me what happened in Kansas City.''
Todd Haley and Cassel argued on the sidelines at least twice in view of network cameras, and their relationship always seemed on edge. When I spoke with Cassel, it was as much what he didn't say about Haley as what he said about how he's being coached now by new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.
"I like how he lets me play the quarterback position,'' Cassel said. "I'm not afraid to give my opinion, or to change the play. Some other times, I've been afraid to do that. But [Daboll] says, 'You're the quarterback. If you see something different out there, you've got to act on it.' ''
Cassel spent time working out with throwing-mechanics maestro Tom House, the former major league reliever, in the offseason. For two weeks, he joined Carson Palmer, Alex Smith and Tom Brady at USC, learning the way his body should move to maximize his throwing strength and minimize any discomfort he has throwing. "Just as a golfer has swing thoughts, now I have throwing thoughts,'' Cassel said. "It's nothing really major, but it makes you feel good when you know you've gotten an expert to break down everything about your motion.'' So far, so good. Cassel's completed 75 percent of his throws in the first two Chiefs preseason games.
Thursday: Rams (Rams facility, Earth City, Mo.)
Three football nuggets: Special teams coach John Fassel was given an assignment after kicker Josh Brown was cut: find the kicker you like best in college football. He did -- a kicker named Greg Zuerlein, who started his college career at Nebraska-Omaha and transferred to Missouri Western. Looked like a good choice from the 59-yarder he drilled with 15 feet above the crossbar in practice when I watched ... Jeff Fisher on starting cornerback Janoris Jenkins, the troubled kid from the April draft: "I have never seen that type of ability and instincts on a kid, and the ability to play right away at a high level level.'' ... By my count, 32 of 53 prospective Rams on the opening day roster will be 25 or younger.
A good story brews in St. Louis.
The other day, Chris Long was talking to one of his teammates, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, and said, "You know, I'm the second-longest-tenured Ram.'' A player entering his fifth year, and only one man (nine-year-veteran running back Steven Jackson) has been on the team longer. Even in the transient world of the NFL, that's pretty amazing. It's no surprise, then, that the offensive signal-caller is a 24-year-old: Sam Bradford. And the defensive signal-caller is Laurinaitis, 25.
So if a 27-year-old coach calls the defensive signals anywhere, it would seem to fit here the best. And on this afternoon, inside the team's indoor facility, young Blake Williams -- Princeton-educated son of suspended defensive coordinator Gregg Williams -- constantly has a walkie-talkie to his mouth before plays when the offense squares off against the defense. And Laurinaitis and his backups take the play call and give it to the huddle.
Now, coach Jeff Fisher hasn't said yet who will make the defensive calls. When Williams' father, Gregg, was hired Jan. 16 to be Fisher's defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams installed the defense with the rest of the defensive staff in the room -- including former NFL coordinators Dave McGinnis and Chuck Cecil -- and with linebackers coach Blake Williams on the staff too.
When word came down of the Saints' bounty scandal and Gregg Williams' role in it, he had to leave the staff, and was later suspended by commissioner Roger Goodell for at least the season. Fisher decided to make the defensive duties a team effort and didn't name anyone the play-caller. But in some ways it seems smart to let the person closest to Gregg Williams, the person who's been in training to someday use this attacking defensive system as a coordinator himself, have a chance to call the plays. Which is what Williams was doing throughout this practice.
This is a sensitive topic around the Rams, of course. Fisher has been clear to this point that all three men -- Blake Williams, Cecil and McGinnis, who was coaching Mike Singletary as Bears linebacker coach in 1986 when Laurinaitis was in his mother's womb -- will team up to run the defense. But make no mistake: I watched Blake Williams throughout a lengthy practice, and I didn't see Cecil or McGinnis make a call. It was all Williams, mouth to walkie-talkie before every play, calling the plays and formations for a young defense.
He moved around the place with confidence and intensity, coaching his position group when not calling plays.
"He's extremely smart,'' said Laurinaitis. "He's won everyone here over with his knowledge of the game. The defense has been a little bit of Blake, a little of coach Cecil and a little of coach Mac. The play gets called into my ear and then I call it -- and I really don't know whose call it is.''
Said Long: "He comes from a football background and has done a great job of hitting the ground running following the whole conflict. We've done a great job of keeping that separate from here. It's almost as if it didn't happen. We've got so many good coaches on this staff -- he's one of them -- and it's been a seamless transition. He's doing a great job. It's been a non-issue. We're all adults here. Things happen. He comes from a football background, he's got good football knowledge and he's not one of those guys who rests on his laurels because his Dad was whoever. He's just a good coach. He doesn't make any issue of what happen with his Dad. It's not something that comes up.''
Blake Williams hasn't done any interviews, and other than exchanging pleasantries after practice, he wasn't made available to me to speak. "He's extremely bright, and I can tell he's going to be a good coach,'' Fisher said.
But neither Fisher nor the Rams want to make a big scene over Blake Williams, and the reason is obvious: If we're talking about Blake Williams, we're talking about Gregg Williams, and we're talking about the bounty scandal, and that can't help a fledgling team with its own issues.
I remember Gregg Williams bragging to me a couple of years ago about what a great coach Blake would become, because he loved the game so much and was curious about all facets of the job, and about all different schemes. "I see the way the game is going,'' Williams told me. "Owners love the young coaches today. I'd love to see Blake work his way up and prove to some owner he deserves a chance at a head-coaching job.''
But Gregg Williams couldn't know what lay ahead. Now, the future is fraught with pratfalls. What if Blake Williams turns out to be the wunderkind that an Ivy League special teamer and smart kid might be, and what if the Rams play well on defense this year with Blake Williams handling either a pivotal role or the play-calling role? How could Gregg Williams come back and take the defensive coordinator job back? Never mind the fact that Gregg Williams' reputation among some players would be in tatters based on the damaging recording of him telling his players in New Orleans last January where to target injured and vulnerable 49ers? It's not going to be an easy call for the Rams after this season, if Gregg Williams is cleared to return by the NFL.
For now, the Rams will watch Williams develop as a coach this year, and they'll decide who's best to call the defense with what seems natural and best for the team. It's going to be a great story to watch.
Friday, Colts (Anderson University, Anderson, Ind.)
Three football nuggets: "Who's got more new guys on their roster -- us or St. Louis?'' GM Ryan Grigson asked. "I think they've got 56 new guys in camp, we've got 55." ... Reggie Wayne's moving all over the offensive formation, to give defenses a tougher time recognizing the biggest threat Andrew Luck has at receiver ... Coby Fleener, the rookie tight end from Stanford (and MMQB columnist extraordinaire), is running with the ones, and he looks to have picked up the offense as quickly as Andrew Luck has.
This is one of the oddest rosters I've seen in my years covering the league.
I mean that in a good way -- I think. I stood with Grigson on the sideline watching the Colts' last camp practice, as he pointed to two of his favorites on the roster: outside linebacker Jerry Brown and offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe. "I hope we see them line up against each other,'' Grigson said, smiling. "Two Arena League guys from the same team, the San Antonio Talons, trying to make an NFL roster.''
That's Grigson's deal -- he wants to find players to consistently churn the bottom of the roster. When I told him Bill Parcells once said he spends half his time in camp thinking about the bottom five guys on his roster, Grigson slapped his hands together, "THAT'S what I'm talking about -- that's an inspirational thing for me to hear,'' he said. "That's what I believe. You know how teams sometimes talk about 'camp guys?' Or they say they have to get a body for training camp? I tell our guys, 'We don't have camp guys. And I don't want to hear you say I found a body for camp. No. If they're here, they're here because they've got a chance to make our team and make us better. And I don't want our scouts or coaches just repeating what they've heard about a guy. I want them having opinions on players.''
There's a tight end here, Dominique Jones, who Grigson signed from the Reading (Pa.) Express of the Indoor Football League. That's the league with the Bloomington (Ill.) Edge, Omaha Beef and the Nebraska Danger, which plays in Grand Island, Neb. There are players here from Western Washington, Shepherd, Mary Hardin-Baylor, Carson-Newman, Texas State, Rhode Island, Morehouse and Mount Union. There was a pass rusher with a chance from Endicott (Mass.) College, but he went AWOL and was released.
You know what gets Grigson excited? Going to workout a wide receiver from Texas-El Paso without knowing much about him, watching him barely stretch before he runs his 40, and then clocking him in 4.45 seconds. And here he is, Kris Adams, No. 7 in Colts blue, out there running post routes for Andrew Luck. "You can't teach 6-3 and 4.4 speed,'' he said. "This could be the chance the kid needs. He can play.''
I've always thought if I were a marginal player I'd want to sign with a coach, or a team, with the reputation of meaning it when they say, "The best players will make the team." Tom Coughlin's like that; he pointed to a couple of free agent wideouts at camp two years ago, early in camp, and talked about how impressed he was with them. One was Derek Hagan, who made the team. The other was Victor Cruz, who, well, you've heard of him.
I bet once this year, maybe twice, one of these new longshots makes a play or a block in the fourth quarter of a close game to determine who wins and loses. Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano would be able to point out to the team the lesson of having the best guys make the team, and the best guys play -- no matter how they got on the practice field.
Four Andrew Luck notes from my brief time around the Colts:
1. Nothing looks uncomfortable for him. I don't know any better way to say it. But watching him practice, he looks at ease, like a kid who's spent 10 hours studying for a final exam and is sure he has the answers.
2. What's troubled him, or been difficult for him? I asked. "I was more prepared to learn this offense than I was to learn the offense at Stanford coming out of high school,'' he told me. "At Stanford, I was pretty young, and we had the West Coast with some other things -- the Schembechler influence, and a little bit of the Bear Bryant influence. And as a freshman in college, it was pretty heavy.
"The tough thing here, I'd say, have been the protections. We ran one type of dropback protection at Stanford, but here there's man protection, slide protection, scat protection [no backs kept in, and man blocking by the line]. There's a protection where the TE's staying in, where the RB releases, where the center IDs the MIKE linebacker, when I ID the MIKE linebacker, where this guy's the hot guy, or another receiver's hot ... and I've got to make sure I'm on the same page as the receivers. It's tough.''
3. Think of it: How lucky is Indianapolis, the franchise and the football city? In 1997, Manning, the best NFL prospect in college football, passed on the chance to go No. 1 to the Jets to play one more year at Tennessee; the Colts benefited by earning the first pick in 1998 and drafting him. In 2011, Luck, the best NFL prospect in college football, passed on the chance to go No. 1 to Carolina so he could play one more season at Stanford; the Colts got the first pick in 2012 and Luck in their laps.
Time will tell if Luck's the Hall of Fame shoo-in Manning is, but surely the pedigree and the ability say he has a chance to be an all-timer. I'm getting way ahead of myself, but imagine Luck having a long career for the Colts and playing well. Two quarterbacks in 30 years, with no quarterback controversies, no jobs on the line because the GM failed at finding a quarterback. Amazing thing.
4. Luck says he avoids social media and watching and reading much in the mainstream media, "as somewhat of a tactic to making sure I stay sane ... Ignorance is bliss, right? I've never been one to enjoy listening to myself on TV, or reading about myself. I mean, I have gotten big-headed at times, but it's pretty easy to come back to earth if you ignore all of that stuff.''
I came away liking what I saw out of the Colts, though it probably won't translate to playoff contention this year.
Sunday, Packers (Lambeau Field, Green Bay)
Three football nuggets: Interesting practice Sunday, with running back Cedric Benson working for the first time with the Pack after signing last week, and with wideout Greg Jennings returning after two weeks away with a concussion. Benson gets to play his old friends in Cincinnati Thursday ... Not a lot of job competition here, but the right corner slot with Casey Hayward and the temporarily sidelined Davon House (shoulder) is up for grabs ... Center Jeff Saturday walked into Colts' camp with Peyton Manning in 1998. They left the Colts together too. The Packers wanted Saturday when Scott Wells left for St. Louis in free agency because of Saturday's veteran wiles and because he's been so good at handling the shifts and calls and quick adjustments associated with the no-huddle offense Manning used. Watch the Packers this year. They ran no-huddle on more than a quarter of their offensive snaps -- and I bet it's more this year.
Another pleasant valley Sunday in Green Bay.
This is the way my Sunday morning in Green Bay started: with a run. A five-miler. I wanted to see if I could run it all on streets with Packer connotations, and I found it was much easier than I thought. I started from my hotel on Tony Canadeo Run, running west, curling around Brett Favre Steakhouse, went left on Brett Favre Pass, right on Holmgren Way a short jog up to Lombardi Avenue, turned around, ran two miles or so south down Holmgren Way, then came back up Holmgren Way, took a right onto Brett Favre Pass, curled around Brett Favre Steakhouse on Tony Canadeo Run, and back to the hotel.
Had I wished, I could have jogged a couple minutes further down Tony Canadeo Run and hit Reggie White Way, then Bart Starr Drive. But why use up all the fun on one trip here?
I walked over to watch the morning practice on Ray Nitschke Field, and when coach Mike McCarthy saw lightning, he had the players finish practice inside, in the multi-field Don Hutson Center. Post-practice interviews took place in the locker room and bowels of (Curly) Lambeau Field.
I got my cab to the airport in front of the Lambeau statue. It's called the Austin Straubel Airport, named after a local World War II Army hero. You mean they couldn't have changed the name to Ron Wolf International Airport? What's wrong with this town!
Anyway, good day to catch up with the Packers. Rodgers told me he's got no scars from the stunning loss to the Giants in the playoffs, and, like Eli Manning, he's always done a good job at forgetting bad games quickly after they happen. "The Giants played great and we didn't,'' he said. "It's a surprise because we were 15-1 in the regular season, but they deserved it.''
Clay Matthews, caught up in some not-so-friendly fire with the Giants because he said to Yahoo!, "The Giants didn't beat us; we beat ourselves,'' told me: "If they want to use that as motivation, let 'em. Isn't that what everybody says after they lose?'' And Mike McCarthy told me what he'd tell his team the week before their first game of the season, which is basically this: There's two types of championship teams. One is the one that gets on a run at the end of the season and gets hot and takes it into the playoffs and wins. The other is the one that starts out winning and stays hot the whole season. But either way, you've got to play great at the end. There's no prizes for just being great in the regular season.
I don't know what to think about this team yet. The offense was so intergalactic last year that Rodgers' backup, Matt Flynn, put up 45 points and six touchdown passes in his one start, and not a single key player is missing from the offense. Wideout/returner Randall Cobb, if he conquers his fumbling problem, could be a big key in the offense; Rodgers relies on smart guys conversant with the no-huddle offense, and Cobb, with a year in the system now, will be more comfortable with all the checks. But the offense isn't in question.
The D allowed 4,988 passing yards and didn't sack the quarterback enough. Matthews needs some help, and he'll rely on first-round pick Nick Perry, who will play bookend outside linebacker to Matthews, to help free him up. Perry doesn't have time to be a rookie. If the defense is markedly better, division dominance is possible. If not, Green Bay will be in a dogfight with the improved Bears.
"How about our opening schedule?'' Matthews said. "San Francisco, then Chicago on a short week, then we go to Seattle on a Monday night, then we've got New Orleans on a short week.''
Matthews smiled. "Obviously we're going to go 4-0,'' he said, suppressing a chuckle. And folks, don't go blackboarding his words. This was no prediction, just fun. "I'm just saying that's gonna be tough.''
Well, if these Packers are going to have streets named after them someday, that's the kind of stretch they have to conquer.
Finally, something to make ESPN really happy this morning ...
On HBO's Real Sports this week, Bryant Gumbel interviews Jon Gruden, who was handed the Monday Night Football analyst job solo this offseason and has signed a long-term deal with ESPN. The network has insisted that Gruden is a football analyst retired from coaching. But in the interview with Gumbel, Gruden says: "I'm trying' to figure out where I'm going. If the right opportunity presents itself, I will come back.''
Hardly a surprise. Gruden turned 49 Friday, and I've always thought that no matter what he or ESPN said, he had a minimum of one NFL coaching gig left. This just confirms it.
Offensive Player of the Week
Jacksonville QB Blaine Gabbert. Twenty-four hours after venting to Yahoo!'s Mike Silver about the critics who (justifiably) ripped his 2011 play ("They can't do my job; there are 31 other guys that can do my job, and that's it''), Gabbert continued his ascending preseason at New Orleans with a 13-of-16 night, for 112 yards and two touchdown passes. Gabbert looks night and day from last year, when Curtis (House) Painter had a better passer rating.
Defensive Player of the Week
Minnesota LB Audie Cole. Pretty easy choice, because of one of the craziest 13-second spans of any preseason game ever. Cole, a seventh-round rookie from North Carolina State, picked off a Tyler Thigpen pass late in the fourth quarter against Buffalo Friday night and rumbled 20 yards for a touchdown. On the next play from scrimmage, Cole leaped ahead of a Bills receiver and picked off a Brad Smith throw at the Bills 30 and returned that for an easier score. "I'm just trying to make the team, and I hope this helps my cause,'' said the 6-5 linebacker who, apparently, has a nose for the ball.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Arizona S Justin Bethel, who now has blocked a field goal, extra point and punt this preseason. He blocked a punt Friday night against Oakland and returned it 19 yards for a touchdown, then blocked an extra point a quarter later. I have some late-breaking information for the sixth-round pick who played for the Presbyterian Blue Hose last year: Justin, you are officially permitted to get an apartment in Tempe. You're in.
Coach of the Week
St. Louis offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.When I visited the Rams the other day, Sam Bradford emphasized how Schottenheimer had quickly brought the disparate pieces of a new offense with mostly first- or second-year men (except for Bradford, Steven Jackson and Danny Amendola) together so they could find solutions to any defense quickly. It didn't look like that last week in the debacle at Indy, but in the first five minutes against the Chiefs Saturday night, Bradford took but nine plays collectively to lead 80- and 31-yard touchdown drives. The Rams were a confident offensive team Saturday night, which, with all the newness, is a credit to Schottenheimer.
"The real problem was that no one seemed shocked.''
-- Steve Gleason, the former New Orleans special teamer now suffering from ALS, to HBO "Real Sports'' correspondent Jon Frankel in a story that will air Tuesday night, on his memory of the reaction by those in the room to Gregg Williams' pregame speech before a January playoff game in San Francisco.
The speech, of course, was recorded and released by filmmaker Sean Pamphilon and recorded Williams as graphically identifying potential injury points on the 49ers. In the HBO piece, Gleason, who has been quiet to this point about the events of that night in the hotel in San Francisco, said the speech was fairly run of the mill until Williams mentioned the places they could hurt 49er players. "That, to me, was over the line,'' Gleason said.
"Counting tonight, two."
-- Rookie Minnesota linebacker Audie Cole, with two touchdowns on interception returns Friday night against Buffalo, asked how many times in his football career he has ever returned interceptions for touchdowns.
"We've offered raises of 5 to 11 percent. Just because the owners can afford to pay more doesn't mean you do it. You've never paid for an NFL ticket to watch somebody officiate a game. Nobody has ever paid to watch me be the league supervisor for a game."
-- NFL vice president of football operations Ray Anderson, to Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, on the NFL's negotiating stance with the locked-out game officials.
"It's the single worst-officiated game I have ever been involved in. Talking to them during the game, no question some of them were star-struck.''
-- Anonymous player who played in the New Orleans-Arizona Hall of Fame Game, speaking of the replacement officials.
"Sorry about that!''
-- Bruce Springsteen during his Fenway Park concert last Tuesday, interrupting the song "Wrecking Ball'' with an apology.
"Wrecking Ball'' contains these lyrics:
"Now my home's here in these Meadowlands where mosquitoes grow big as airplanes,
"Here where the blood is spilled, the arena's filled, and Giants played their games ... "
Get it? Springsteen was in the land of the Patriots. When he said these words, the ultimate Jersey guy got booed heavily. Patriots fans don't exactly love the Giants, or anything New York/New Jersey, in fact. Thus the good-hearted apology.
If you watched the Chiefs much last year -- and in the NBC viewing room, we got to see a lot of every team -- you noticed a sloppy team. When I visited the Chiefs last week, I noticed new head coach Romeo Crennel and his staff spending time monitoring the little things -- defensive linemen stepping over bags in side-to-side drills properly, precision of snap counts, quickness in and out of the huddle, etc. Turns out the Chiefs were the league-leaders overall in dead-ball fouls. The Chiefs had:
• Twenty-seven false starts, tied for most in the NFL.
• Four encroachment penalties, tied for most in the NFL.
• Three 12-men-on-the-field penalties, second-most in the NFL.
• Three illegal shifts, two illegal motions and two illegal substitution penalties, all tied for most in the NFL.
Janoris Jenkins, the second-round pick for St. Louis, will start at cornerback for the Rams. He was the 39th overall pick in the draft. The Rams have put a program in place to be sure he can concentrate on football while still taking care of his parental obligations.
It is well-documented that Jenkins has children with three different women. But the amount of work the Rams have done with him to clear his plate and let him focus on football has been quite significant.
The Rams had a consultant to the team manage the child-support payments for the five children. The complicating factor there: Each of the three mothers lives in a different Florida county -- with different child-support laws the consultant had to navigate to put a plan in place so Jenkins would be in compliance monthly. In addition, the consultant arranged for Jenkins' mother to live in a duplex home in her hometown in Florida -- and found a friendly neighbor to live in the other half of the duplex.
I don't know how a team could get a player to concentrate on football better by managing a difficult situation to the benefit of the player and his extended family the way the Rams have with Jenkins.
As the SI-EvoShield NFL Training Camp trip reaches its conclusion this week (I'll see the Texans today and Cowboys Tuesday), I noticed one thing on the driving portion of the trip (Flagstaff to San Diego, then Miami north up the Eastern Seaboard, and across into the Midwest and back): We've got some great high school nicknames in this country. These come from the towns we either drove through or skirted close by over the last three weeks:
1. Yuma (Ariz.) Criminals. Love Yuma High's website: "Proud Home of the Criminals."
2. Effingham (Ill.) Flaming Hearts, so named because a local resident started a campaign to call the town "the heart of America.'' More importantly, Uwe Blab played there.
3. Cairo (Ga.) Syrupmakers. The Roddenberry's Syrup Plant used to be there. I also like the name of the Cairo High yearbook: The Raconteur. (I have to admit we weren't that close to skirting Cairo -- likely about 70 miles. But the nickname was too good to let it pass.)
4. New Berlin (Ill.) Pretzels. Is there a better high school logo in America? Check it out.
5. Speedway (Ind.) Sparkplugs. Well, I may have spoken too soon. Kids in Speedway grow up wanting to be Sparkplugs.
Of course, had we traveled through the rolling hills northwest of Hartford, I would have included the alma mater of Brian Leetch and Juan (No Hit) Nieves: the Avon Old Farms Winged Beavers. But then I would have had to knock out the Sparkplugs, and you wouldn't have wanted that.
"I hope so but I doubt it.''
-- @MikePereira, the FOX officiating czar and former NFL director of officiating, asked by a fan if he thinks the locked-out officials will return for the start of the season.
"When I saw on the crawl that someone is suing Jerry Jones for burning butt cheeks on a bench, my mind went straight to Kevin Ogletree.''
-- @MikeTanier of the new "Sports On Earth'' site, on the suit brought by a fan against the Dallas Cowboys. The fan, Jennelle Carillo, claims she was burned on her buttocks by sitting on a hot bench at a Cowboys scrimmage in 2010.
"Review of press box meat: 'This steak still has marks from where the jockey was hitting it.' ''
-- @IzzyGould, the Dolphins' beat reporter for the Sun-Sentinel in south Florida, apparently not pleased with the quality of the evening meal Friday night in Charlotte prior to the Dolphins-Panthers game.
"I have a good feeling about this year.''
-- @pick_six22, Atlanta cornerback Asante Samuel.
I should hope so. That team's loaded.
"Tim Tebow protects the punter better than Wayne Hunter protects the quarterback #ThingsIveLearnedTonight''
-- @MoveTheSticks, former NFL scout and now NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah, watching the Jets-Giants game Saturday night.
1. I think this is my last word on the officials lockout: Roger Goodell got hired as commissioner, in part, because he was a consensus-finder, a bridge-builder. People who build bridges should be able to find a solution to this stalemate with the real game officials, because there is simply too much at stake not to find one.
The money involved is not a crippling sum. The bridge can be built, I'm told, with $12 million or $15 million over a seven-year period. That's simply not a big enough amount of money to have unqualified officials lord over games that could determine a playoff spot.
On my camp trip this week, one player told me: "Suppose the Cowboys lose a game because of an incompetent call in the first couple of weeks, and suppose that costs them the playoffs. We all know Jerry Jones would write a check tomorrow to end the lockout if he knew it would mean the difference in a win for his team.''
2. I think, now that NFL Network has been cleared to air on Cablevision systems, the big cable outfit in America left that's not showing the channel, or the RedZone channel, is Time Warner Cable. And it appears the standoff between the two sides will continue well into the future. "We are not talking, regrettable, so as a result, we're obviously not close,'' said NFL Media chief operating officer Brian Rolapp.
3. I think it's hard to blame Kevin Kolb for all of Arizona's offensive problems right now, because he's just not getting the protection a quarterback needs to have a chance. But he looks shaky. Very shaky. And deep down, I wouldn't be surprised if Ken Whisenhunt is thinking: What have I done in committing to Kolb?
The Raiders, in the person of defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, questioned Kolb after the game, saying he looked skittish. "That boy's scared,'' Kelly was quoted as saying by the Raiders' TV crew doing the game. Kolb was indignant when Darren Urban of cardinals.com found him Saturday. "Scared of what?" Kolb said. "Taking a hit? I have never been afraid of anyone on the field and that will never change. That includes Number 93 (Kelly). There's a fine line between holding in the pocket and trying to escape to make a play. Tommy Kelly is too clueless to know the difference. I don't mind people criticizing my play. Don't ever question my toughness."
Tell us how you really feel, though.
4. I think one way to look at my camp trip, defensively, is this: 21 camps, zero tackles. I didn't see one live tackling drill, and I doubt I'll see one today in Houston or Tuesday when I see the Cowboys and Chargers practice together. For as much as coaches want to work on tackling fundamentals, they're too scared of injury to do it.
5. I think the other thing I noticed is how many teams are in wide receiver trouble. Miami's in the biggest trouble. Seattle's in trouble. San Diego's thin. The Jets, especially without a banged-up Santonio Holmes being able to get on the field, could use help. The Rams are incredibly green, except for the slot (Danny Amendola) and whatever Steve Smith, formerly of the Giants and Eagles, has left.
6. I think you're not going to win the leverage game, Maurice Jones-Drew.
7. I think if Adrian Peterson plays Friday night against San Diego, eight months after reconstructive knee surgery, it'll be the biggest boost the Vikings have had since the approval of the new stadium by Minnesota voters. But we've come to expect the unexpected from Peterson. The Vikings, though, have to be careful that Peterson's not coming back too soon. They need him for 16 reals games, not one phony one.
8. I think if defensive end Chandler Jones isn't a bona fide star as a rookie in New England, you can shred my scouting card. (If you can find it, that is.) Maybe the most interesting thing out of New England, though, is that Ryan Mallett has had two training camps to beat out Brian Hoyer for the backup quarterback job, and when the Patriots start the season, Hoyer's very likely to be No. 2. If Mallett were a great player, I couldn't see this happening.
9. I think, for those who (rightfully) chided me last week for my nine uses of "EvoShield'' in the column, I accept your criticism of me using EvoShield excessively and promise I won't use EvoShield again except when absolutely necessary to use EvoShield. Kidding, kidding. Seriously -- I was excessive in my mentions of the firm.
Here's what happens at the this time of year: I write the column in chunks during training camp, and when I write something Tuesday night, I often don't recall everything exactly how it's written, so the thing I might write two nights later could include references that will appear redundant when the whole thing is read together. Again, my fault.
Anyway, for those who wondered about whether I get paid per mention of the protective-equipment company, I don't; I'm not paid at all by the company. Sports Illustrated and the company made a business deal to allow me to use their 30-foot van to travel around the country to NFL camps. In exchange for using the van to make the driving portion of my training camp trip, part of the deal was to refer to the trip as the "SI-EvoShield NFL Training Camp trip'' when I wrote about it in this column. Which I have done.
Now, regarding the question I asked Robert Griffin III about wearing the company's gear last week, I'll defend that journalistically, because the padding is a different, lighter, less obtrusive kind of rib padding that I think could be part of his story this year -- simply because if a 217-pound quarterback leaves the pocket a lot (which I believe Griffin will do) then how he is protected when he leaves the pocket, and the fact that this gear is new and different from the NFL norm, could end up being significant. And that's whether he plays out the year uninjured or misses time because of injury. That's probably more than you wanted to know, but in the interest of full disclosure, there it is.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. I plead guilty to being an old man smitten with Bruce Springsteen. Guilty as charged -- plenty.
b. I saw Bruce Tuesday night at Fenway Park on a busman's holiday from visiting camps. Such a different show, and not just because it's the first time I'd heard him do stuff from Wrecking Ball. But he did Rosalita (hadn't heard that in a while live) and killed it with Twist and Shout at the end. Two great touches: the tributes to the late Johnny Pesky, the Red Sox legend who died last week (they shine a solitary light on the Pesky Pole, the right field foul pole), and to Clarence Clemons. The first time I saw Springsteen, on April Fools Day 1976 in Memorial Auditorium in Athens, Ohio, I stood four rows from Clemons and his sax. Now Clarence's nephew, Jake, is the sax man. And he's incredibly and emotionally capable. Really fun 3.5-hour night.
c. And at Gillette Stadium Saturday night, my buddy and Springsteenaholic Brian Hyland, who saw Bruce Tuesday and Saturday (he's been to about 200 Bruce shows), reported from the parking lot at Foxboro: "Tonight was the greatest ever."
d. I'm half-tormented about the televising of children playing baseball, and I'm slightly troubled by exposing kids to the fame that nationally televising the Little League World Series can do. But I have to say those two Friday catches by the Canadian team gave me chills. It's just charming to see kids do great things and to exult the way they do.
e. Kudos to the Indiana Little Leaguers and their parents for mobilizing a clothing, equipment and money drive for the Ugandan Little League team at the Little League World Series. That's a beautiful thing you Hoosiers did.
f. Speaking of charitable Hoosiers, check out the picture of young Eli Six, posing with me and the glove Robert Mathis gave him at the end of Indianapolis Colts practice Friday. The Colts were excellent with their time post-practice; Andrew Luck signed and talked to kids for 25 minutes, one of 25 or so players to interact with fans after practice. That's one of the great benefits of training camps being at camp sites away from the team practice facilities.
g. I'm halfway rooting for the Orioles the rest of the way after that horrendous reversal of a correct call helped Detroit beat Baltimore the other night in Detroit. Brutal call. Mark Reynolds and Buck Showalter deserve to be rip-roaring mad over it.
h. There aren't many more enjoyable and informative voices on the radio than NPR's Sylvia Poggioli.
i. Beernerdness: I think now that I've sampled most of the Kansas City-area barbeque places, I'll take Oklahoma Joe's. Terrific pork barbeque. And what makes it even better is Boulevard Wheat on tap. Throw a lemon in there, and that's one great beer.
j. Coffeenerdness: Never been so happy to see a Starbucks than I was at 5:40 a.m. Friday in Effingham, Ill., after 95 minutes on the early-morning road from St. Louis to Anderson, Ind. And I didn't catch their names, but the Effingham Starbucks has a friendly, welcoming and fast couple of baristas working at that hour. Nice oatmeal too, ladies.
k. The SI college football preview cover (at least one of the regional ones) couldn't belong to a nicer guy. Good luck this year, Matt Barkley. See you at a training camp next summer.
l. Derek Jeter with 250 home runs. Don't know why, but that strikes me as a terrific accomplishment for a guy never known for power. To have more homers than Roberto Clemente (240), Sal Bando (242), Hack Wilson (244) and Don Mattingly (222) -- that's saying something.
m. I might be the lone member of the Frank Herrmann fan club (I coached the daughter of his high school coach in girls softball in New Jersey), but I have to give the Cleveland bullpenner a shoutout for his outing the other night. Got Mike Trout to hit into a double play, and got Albert Pujols to fan looking. How about this Springsteen Memorial Jersey At-Bat: Herrmann (Rutherford) pitching to Trout (Millville), with Phil Cuzzi (Nutley) behind the dish ... in Anaheim. On the Herrmann-Pujols at-bat, Cuzzi rung up Pujols on a 3-2 fastball on the outside corner that Pujols didn't think was a strike. It's Jersey, baby.
n. Good to see you, Kara Henderson. Glad you're so happy.
o. Thinking of you, Paul Needell.