NFL life in earnest begins today for Manti Te'o in San Diego
So the early reviews on Manti Te'o are positive in San Diego, but what would they be, really, when the players aren't in pads and it's only the rookies out there? Today, when the veterans report and the full squad begins offseason training activities, is when he and his fellow Chargers rookies really start to be measured.
San Diego coach Mike McCoy told me Sunday, after the rookie minicamp, that the staff expects Te'o to be an every-down linebacker. He said Te'o will take his place as the starting Mike linebacker -- the strongside 'backer in San Diego's 3-4 defense, alongside veteran Donald Butler -- in team drills when OTAs begin. "Our plan is for him to play three downs, and when we scouted him, we believed that's what he'd be,'' McCoy said. "But he'll have to earn that, obviously. We're going to play the best guys, and if he's the best guy on all three downs, he'll be in there.''
This was a strange draft, a draft with three tackles among the top four picks, two guards in the top 10 and one skill player in the top 15. No running back was taken until the 37th pick; the presumptive top quarterback, Geno Smith, went 39th. The most famous pick in the draft, Te'o, went 38th, and he doesn't have a lot of rookie peers around the league to take the media pressure off him. For now, anyway. He knows he'll have to live with the specter of the girlfriend hoax as well as becoming a defensive leader in real time.
What he told reporters last week won't surprise those who knew him well at Notre Dame when the subject of dealing with the veterans came up. It was the right answer. "You've just got to keep your head down,'' Te'o said. "Know you're a rookie. Keep your head down, keep your head in the playbook. Work hard. Obviously, you've got to earn the respect of the veterans. That will come in time. But with what I'm going to do with my work ethic, that will come soon."
"He hasn't been around the vets yet,'' McCoy said. "Players will be players. They'll have their fun. I'm not worried about it. Manti's one of ours, and we're going to have a strong team that way. He's going to fit in well."
I've thought all along that whatever happens with the fraternal hazing Te'o gets, he'll be measured among his teammates by performance. If the guy can play and is an earnest worker, he'll get respect in time. It's naïve to think the phony girlfriend won't come up, and I'm sure Te'o knows it's coming, and he just has to take whatever comes his way. But then it'll be over. Then the questions will be about his play. Will he hold the point of attack when big and fast Oakland back Darren McFadden lowers his head up the gut on 3rd-and-2? Will he be able to pivot and cover Denver tight end Jacob Tamme, and hold his own when he's caught in a mismatch against versatile Chiefs back Dexter McCluster? He'll be tested by good weapons in the AFC West.
And -- will his mates have his back when the road crowds get tough? Te'o's first road game comes in Week 2, at Philadelphia. That'll be a treat. That'll be an earplug game for him.
I'm most interested in seeing Te'o against Peyton Manning. Luckily for the Chargers, their new defensive centerpiece will learn a lot before he sees Manning in Weeks 10 and 15. McCoy was Manning's offensive coordinator last year, and he'll have some simple advice for Te'o -- and for the rest of the Chargers defense. "He's going to make lots of plays, and he's going to fool you,'' McCoy said. "Don't get caught up in all of that. Peyton's going to embarrass you and expose you. He does it to everyone. You've just got to hang in there, play your assignment. You'll make plays. Don't make it more than it is."
Two other Chargers points:
? First-round pick D.J. Fluker, the Alabama tackle, is the only one of six rookies who hasn't signed yet. Te'o's four-year deal is worth an estimated $5.1 million. Fluker came in with the Alabama pedigree visible for all to see. "He was the leader of the offense from the start,'' McCoy said. "All business, all positive, all energy. He'll be a big part of recreating the ID of our line being big and strong and physical.'' Fluker will play right tackle. For now, Eagles refugee King Dunlap is at left tackle, but the Chargers are open for business there -- either a free agent or backup could emerge by August.
? McCoy said he thinks Philip Rivers, who has never completed more than 66 percent of his throws in seven starting seasons, can be a 70-percent passer in his new offense. 'I've been blown away by his anticipation and willingness to learn,'' McCoy said. That Rivers has 35 interceptions in the last two years is an indication to many who watch the Chargers that he can get too confident in his ability to fit balls downfield into small holes. McCoy will harp on trusting the system that has a myriad of answers, always including one short one -- thus his belief the completion percentage can improve.
Jack Butler and George Sauer died in the past week, and you should know them both.
Butler, elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year, had a remarkable career as a cornerback, with 52 interceptions in 103 career games as a Steeler in the '50s -- one of the best interception ratios a defender's ever had. He picked off one pass, roughly, every two games. Rod Woodson, third in picks all time, had one interception per 3.3 games. Butler intercepted John Unitas and Otto Graham. He once picked off Washington quarterback Eddie LeBaron four times in a game.
More important to his legacy, though, is that Butler was one of the fathers of modern scouting. In 1963, he formed the first scouting organization, called BLESTO (Bears, Lions, Eagles, Steelers Talent Organization). This allowed teams to compile more reports on players, because the four teams pooled their reports. In time, another scouting organization surfaced, and a generation later the combine began. The pooling of data all began with Butler.
Ironically, Butler died of the same staph infection in his knee that caused him to retire early, in 1959. The knee was never totally right, and the staph infection resurfaced last year in the area around his knee replacement, and it ended up killing him at 85.
Sauer, a wide receiver, died in Ohio last week at 69 of heart failure. He'd also had Alzheimer's. He quit the game at 27 in 1970, at his peak as a player, in the same year in which he starred in the first nationally televised Monday night game, at Cleveland. That night, Joe Namath found Sauer for 10 catches and 172 yards. But at the time, he was already thinking of quitting. He couldn't justify the damage to his body; he hated the regimentation of the game too.
Years later, he told the
The biggest day of Sauer's football life came in the biggest day in the history of the Jets. On Super Sunday 1969, the Jets faced the heavily favored Colts. Namath, of course, had guaranteed a win in the game. That was folly enough, but throw in that his favorite receiver, Don Maynard, was hobbled with a pulled hamstring and you see how much tougher beating the big, bad Colts was going to be. Namath completed 17 passes that day, eight to the wide receiver position. Sauer caught all eight. Though Namath threw five times to Maynard, all were incomplete. Sauer's eight catches produced 133 yards; three of New York's scoring drives were keyed by Sauer catches.
No one could find Sauer much in recent years, and he didn't much enjoy reliving his days as a ballplayer. "He was given skills he didn't want,'' teammate John Dockery once told the
To me, Ronde Barber is football's Carl Yastrzemski. Always there, always playing well, a fixture. One superb year (Yaz, the Triple Crown year in 1967; Barber, the 10-interception All-Pro season in 2001), lots of clutch moments, played through pain. In 2002, seven days after shattering his thumb and six days after eight pins knitted the thumb together, Barber had it casted -- and went out and intercepted Brett Favre to help the Bucs beat Green Bay. There is something to be said in sports for being available, and playing at a high level week after week. And Barber was there, every week, for 15 straight years.
Last week Barber, 38, retired after starting 215 straight games in the defensive backfield for Tampa Bay, a record for consecutive starts by an NFL defensive back. He played right corner, left corner, slot corner and free safety. We spoke about why, and why so long.
"It was time. It was right for me, it was right for them. It had to be done. You never really want to retire. I kind of needed to. If I stayed the year, I'd have had to change my role, and that didn't resonate with me.
"I always strived to be the most consistent player I could be. To be like [Yastrzemski] is what I strived for. A good year every year, and then maybe one meteoric year. I always wanted my teammates to be able to rely on me, and I knew one way to do that was to be out there every week playing at a high level.
"I think I was smart in how I hit people. I absorbed tackles. I wasn't like a missile out there. I absorbed the tackles, kept my head out of there, wrapped up the ballcarrier, then just got 'em on the ground. I was a smart player. I didn't dive at guys very often. I didn't hang around piles; that's where a lot of guys get hurt, just hanging around piles and somebody caves in your knee. Some of it is good fortune. The only thing I couldn't play through was a broken forearm, but that came in the last game of a season, so I was ready the next year.
"I think the play I will always remember came in Philadelphia [in the 2002 NFC Championship Game]. That's the year we went to the Super Bowl. But it was the fourth quarter, and we'd been showing blitz a lot that day. I had a sack earlier in the game. So I came into a gap when Donovan was getting ready to get the snap. He saw me, and the ball got snapped, then I was back [into coverage]. I thought he'd throw hot to Antonio Freeman, and quick, that's what he did. I saw him throw, I cut in front of Freeman and just said to myself, 'Don't drop it!' And then, all that space in front of me [92 yards), and I scored. Just surreal. Two weeks later, we're in the Super Bowl. My wife still cries when she sees that play. And I saw Donovan's mom after the game. I had three touchdowns against him over the years, and she said to me, 'Why do you keep doing this to my boy?'
"I played a lot of great players. The receiver position today ... so hard to match up now. Megatron [Calvin Johnson] was impossible to cover. Randy Moss in his prime: nothing you can do. But to me, Steve Smith was the toughest guy I faced. When I played him, he was just like me. He chose to outwork everyone else out there every day. That was me.
"I'll miss Sunday. I'll miss walking into the locker room, taking off my suit and tie and my shirt and getting dressed to play. I'll miss walking out with the guys. The feeling's indescribable as you get ready to take the field. It's hard to measure, hard to describe. It's the greatest team sport, and so much of what you do and how well you do it depends on the other guys in there. I like that. I'll really miss that."
I'll never understand what the big secret is about letting people see what really happens in a draft room. It's one of the last big mysteries in the league, and it's one of the things big football fans desperately want to experience. Within reason, I think a team opening its draft room for journalistic interest is a win-win for everyone ... unless the team absolutely blows it and misses out on a player or players it wants, and then has either no plan or a poor plan in reserve.
I mention this because I got to read Chuck Klosterman's piece in Grantland about a frustrating few days in Berea, Ohio, covering the Browns' draft. Klosterman was some combination of bemused, angry and throwing his hands in the air. He admits he's not sure if there was some sort of misunderstanding about being allowed in the draft room to watch the proceedings in Round 1, but in any case, he came away thinking how ridiculous it is that teams guard their draft secrets like Washington guards nuclear codes.
"I don't think they're building chemical weapons in Berea,'' he wrote. "But they might be. I can't say for sure. The Browns live in a state of perpetual war, endlessly convincing themselves that every scrap of information they possess is some kind of game-changing superweapon that will alter lives and transmogrify the culture. They behave like members of a corporate cult. Yet what do these cultists watch on the day of the draft? They watch ESPN. They log on to the Internet and scan ProFootballTalk. The comments they make about college prospects are roughly identical to whatever your smarter friends might glean from the
I don't really care who is right and wrong in this case, and who made what promises that were or weren't kept, because Klosterman could have been referring to about 26 teams in the league. I've always thought draft secrecy was overblown. Not that teams should be telling reporters and other teams what they're planning to do. But why don't more teams do what the Rams did with me in Round 1 of the draft? The Rams had two picks in the round, 16 and 22, at the start of the night, and I thought with GM Les Snead's fledgling rep for action, there was a good chance the Rams would be active on draft night and it would make a good story.
I asked for some exclusive access, and the team thought it over. I spoke to COO Kevin Demoff and coach Jeff Fisher about it. The team had some concern what might happen if their plans -- unspoken to me at the time, a few days before the draft -- failed and they didn't get the players they wanted. My point is what I said a couple of paragraphs ago: If the team had a plan that was well-conceived, regardless what happened, why be concerned about having someone write about it?
There were some other concessions I made. I'd check, after the draft with the teams they were having serious discussions with, to make sure they knew I wasn't blindsiding them. And if someone inside the draft room maligned a player or a team (as in: "Boy, those guys on Team X are worthless foofs'') I wouldn't use the chance to take a cheap shot. I was in there to tell the story of the Rams' draft, and in my opinion, if a team is confident in its plan, the story is going to be a good one for the team.
Of course, it could have all blown up, and the Rams could have run out of trading partners and looked bad. But what chance did that have of happening, really? Not much -- when you have two first-round picks.
What happened, of course, was the Rams moved from 16 to eight and picked the one player in the draft they wanted the most, wideout Tavon Austin. And they moved from 22 to 30 and still got the other guy they really wanted, linebacker Alec Ogletree. Along the way, there was some suspense that I was able to capture -- and that made the Rams look like brilliant gamblers.
The Rams traded down to 30.
The Rams got Ogletree.
I maintain even if Ogletree had been picked before 30, the Rams would have found a partner to move down once or twice, then taken Kentucky guard Larry Warford, their fallback guy. And they would have looked fine, because they had a plan, and because they still got the guy they wanted the most, Austin.
One thing I didn't write that night. Well after the round ended: Snead's mentor, Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff, called Snead and said, "You've got big balls."
"I got 'em from you,'' Snead said.
Quote of the Week I
"Welcome to the Field of Jeans."
Quote of the Week II
"He's good at kicking the ball into cars that are driving down the road and helicopters and boats and stuff like that, but I don't think you get any more points for doing that. You've got to kick it between the goal posts. It's all new to him, obviously."
Quote of the Week III
"He has really classy hands."
I really need to study football more. I need to know what classless, bush-league hands look like.
Stat of the Week
The Lions, because of injuries and ineffectiveness, have had receiver and running back needs for the last three years. In the 2011 draft, they chose Titus Young in the second round, 44th overall. In the last year, Young:
? Got into a fight with teammate and safety Louis Delmas.
? In at least one game, lined up wrong on purpose multiple times because he wasn't happy with his role in the Detroit offense.
? Shouted at receivers coach Shawn Jefferson on the sidelines.
? Was sent home during the regular season for insubordination.
? Was cut by the Lions.
? Was stopped in California for making an illegal left turn, charged on suspicion of DUI, and arrested hours later for attempting to steal his own car from a police impounding lot.
? Was arrested for suspected burglary, and charged with resisting arrest and assault on a peace officer.
So you're saying there's still a chance he turns his career around.
The players the Lions bypassed 25 months ago to take Young, who finished his aborted Detroit career with 81 catches (12.2 yards per catch) and 10 touchdowns:
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
Midway through the current roster of the Dallas Cowboys is this free-agent candidate:
Darrell Green's son. That Darrell Green. From Washington. Hated rival of the Cowboys.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
I'm late on this one, but I thought of my play-by-play announcer friend Howie Rose this week as the Mets (he does their games on radio) and the Islanders (he's their TV voice) had their schedules collide in games against the Pittsburghers in Pittsburgh, in Queens, and in the heart of Long Island. He ended up doing the Isles-Penguins game Thursday night in Pittsburgh, Mets-Bucs Friday night at Citi Field, the final game of the Isles-Pens Saturday night in Uniondale, N.Y., on Long Island, then the Mets-Bucs series finale Sunday afternoon back in Queens.
"But that's not such a tough schedule,'' Rose said Sunday night. "The second week of April, I drove [from New York] to Philadelphia to do a Mets-Phils Monday night game. I drove home after the game. Then I did the Islanders against the Flyers on the island Tuesday night. Then I drove back to Philadelphia Wednesday to do the Mets again. I don't know why -- sleeping in my own bed, I guess -- but I drove home after the game. Then Thursday morning, I flew to Boston to do the Islanders and Bruins Thursday night. Friday morning, I went to the airport in Boston to fly to Minnesota, where the Mets played the Twins Friday night. The flight was delayed five hours. I ended up getting into the broadcast booth in Minneapolis 25 minutes before the first pitch. There was some travel tension I didn't need."
I didn't listen to much of the Mets over the weekend, but I did see much of the last two hockey games in a thrilling series. I kept wondering, particularly when Rose was having to yell over one of the loudest arena crowds you'll ever hear in the third period Saturday night, whether his voice was about to go, with the rising tones and the drama of an elimination game never separated by more than a goal. "Nothing is harder on the voice than a hockey game,'' he said.
No rest for the scratchy-throated, however. Rose boards a flight to St. Louis today, the first of 10 games in three cities in 10 days.
Tweet of the Week I
"The second Jeff Fisher decided Titus Young wasn't worth it we all should've known something was very wrong."
Tweet of the Week II
"Scout to me before Titus Young was drafted, 'I don't know if he'll ever be in trouble, but he's just not a good person.' ''
Tweet of the Week III
"18 of the Caps' 20 playoff games in the past 2 seasons have been 1-goal games. That's practically impossible. #NHL #WhiteKnuckleWonders"
Ten Things I Think I Think
Now, if you want to question the Rams for taking Janoris Jenkins in the second round last year and the Cards for taking Tyrann Mathieu in the third a few weeks ago, those are valid questions. Jenkins already missed a game for violating team rules last year, and Mathieu is no lock to stay on the straight and narrow. But the Rams had multiple high picks last year and have said openly that they are willing to take chances on players because they think Jeff Fisher can handle risky guys. Time will tell if they're right on the Jenkinses and the Alec Ogletrees, and I could be throwing stones at them in coming years. The Cardinals don't have a track record for taking questionable character guys. They thought the talent of Mathieu was worth the risk. That's one I think the team will end up regretting.
As someone who's been around the family a lot, I can tell you there's going to be more than enough love to help raise two kids, regardless of Steve's physical condition.
a. I've seen lots of good interviews over the years on
b. Had a great treat the other night: Got to watch Washington pitcher Jordan Zimmerman duel with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. How Fielder will have a long career with that physique, I have no idea. And to see Cabrera catch up to a 96-mph fastball effortlessly was pretty cool.
c. Bryce Harper and Dustin Pedroia have the hardest swings I see in baseball.
d. Why it's impossible to predict baseball: Jason Grilli, Manny Machado.
e. Grilli's 15-for-15 in save opportunities for the Pirates through six weeks.
f. Machado, an Oriole, has more hits than any third baseman but Cabrera, and more RBIs than David Wright and Adrian Beltre.
g. The Red Sox have fallen to earth faster than Manti Te'o's January reputation.
h. My question after the umps at Astros-Angels allowed Houston manager Bo Porter to change pitchers, then change again without the first reliever facing a batter: Of course the umps screwed up. But how can a manager walk to the mound to pull a pitcher when the pitcher out there hasn't faced anyone? Does Bo Porter know the rules of baseball? I'm sure he does; that's a wiseacre question. But what kind of brain freeze does a manager have when he pulls an uninjured pitcher who hasn't faced a batter yet? Glad to see Porter apologized for his role in it, at least.
i. How cool is the image of Maple Leaf fans going bonkers after Toronto beat Boston Sunday night to force a game seven? The scene.
j. You may not have won the series, Islanders, but you are one of the most fun teams to watch in the NHL. We'll be watching next year. Especially you, John Tavares. "A hockey savant,'' Howie Rose calls him.
k. I know this makes me sound like a NBC Sports Network homer, but there is nothing like playoff hockey, and nothing like the end-of-series handshake line. Classiest drill in sports.
l. Playoff Hockey Is Good Dept.: In the East, 8-seed (Isles) won two from 1-seed (Penguins) and outplayed Pittsburgh in the final game; 7 (Ottawa) beat 2 (Montreal) in five. And 3-6 and 4-5 are both going to seventh games tonight. Toronto-Boston on CNBC, Rangers-Caps on NBC SportsNet. (Other than local telecasts.) That is, if Boston gets home in time. The Bruins' plane malfunctioned and the team had to stay over in Toronto Sunday night while the Leafs flew to Boston. How about that: Toronto sleeps in Boston, Boston sleeps in Toronto, and the game tonight is in Boston.
m. Playoff Hockey Is Really Good Dept.: In the West, the top seed, Chicago, won easily. But 5, 6 and 7 beat 2, 3 and 4 by a combined 12 games to 5. To recap: Of the eight playoff series overall, it's still possible that six could be won by lower seeds with no home-ice advantage.
n. Knowledgeless NBA Dept.: (Just owning up to my hoops weakness) Knicks are a painful watch ... If Tony Parker wasn't a guard, he could be great at ballet ... Steph Curry can pass too. And shoot one-handed, left-handed, from 14 feet, apparently. What a fun guy to watch ... Gregg Popovich doesn't take any crap, does he? ... Break up the Celtics. It's time.
o. Coffeenerdness: Terrific espresso, Gregorys Coffee. My first trip to the Manhattan coffeemaker the other day, and the brew reminded me of the black gold at the Buttery in Boston's South End, where I used to live.
p. Beernerdness: Wish I had a fresh beer tidbit for you. (Actually, right about now, I wish I had a fresh beer.) Winenerdness will have to suffice. A very good Cask cabernet (Rubicon, Napa Valley) from Sunday night's Mother's Day dinner highlighted the week.
q. Hearty congrats to SI's (and FOX's, and MLB Network's) ace reporter and commentator Tom Verducci for his Sports Emmy. I love the way Tom transitions so effortlessly from one medium to another. It's something for all of us who do more than one thing in this business to strive for.
The Adieu Haiku
Meet the vets, Manti. Bolts' full squad reports today. Local forecast: haze.