Vick smitten with Kelly's offense and more training camp notes
As the NFL preseason wanes, a collection of some notable tidbits from my two-week training camp tour. If you're scoring at home, it went Eagles, Redskins, Ravens, Steelers, Packers, Vikings, Saints, Bucs, Dolphins and Jaguars ...
• Newly named Philadelphia starting quarterback Michael Vick says he "fell in love with the game again'' this year, but I think it's a bit more specific than that. He's over-the-top smitten with Chip Kelly's offense, and how it makes him feel. And he swears it's not just another summer romance.
"I'll never forget when I was first watching film of [Kelly's offense this offseason, and former Eagles quarterback turned ESPN analyst] Ron Jaworski texted me and said 'You're going to love this offense because there are guys running wide open all over the place,''' Vick said early in camp. "It's been different, but it's been really fun. It just feels like you're at an advantage out there.''
Talking with Vick about Kelly's up-tempo, spread offense, it looks as if he has to fight back a Cheshire-cat smile at times, as if he knows something the rest of us don't know yet, but would love to spill it.
"It's not just our passing game that can be explosive,'' Vick said. "We have a running game that's extraordinary, and that's what everybody has failed to understand. When you're running the ball with the type of pace we play at, you can do almost anything in the passing game. It opens it up.''
Vick has looked supremely comfortable in Kelly's offense through two preseason games, but his big test will be ball security, an area in which he was abysmal at times over the past two disappointing seasons in Philadelphia. Kelly has re-made that part of Vick's game, too, the quarterback said.
"Chip Kelly taught me how to run with the ball,'' Vick said. "People thought that was absurd when I told them that, and I even thought it was too late to learn something like that. But it's never too late. I thought I was carrying the ball the right way, but I showed coach Kelly one day how I carry the ball and he knocked it right out. Then he showed me how to hold it correctly.''
Uh, what about Andy Reid, a coach with a pretty good pedigree on offense, you say? Why didn't Reid get Vick's grip fixed? Good question.
"I heard somebody question, 'Well, he had the great Andy Reid,''' Vick said. "Andy wasn't thinking about that [how Vick holds the ball when he runs]. It never came up. Andy trusted me.''
Apparently to a fault.
• Mike Shanahan seems to find 1,000-yard running backs the way other people come across loose change on the street, so we're declaring him the winner in the "How early did you know Alfred Morris was this good'' mini-poll I conducted at Redskins camp.
"After the first game, against Buffalo in the preseason, there was no question in my mind he was going to be a star runner,'' Washington's head coach told me. "All you have to do is look at the film, and if you can't see that he's a great running back, then you have no idea what running backs do.''
OK, but what about the film of Morris from his days at Florida Atlantic? How did he last until the sixth round in 2012 if his greatness was so apparent? That should have been my follow-up question -- but I dropped the ball.
Finishing second in my poll was Redskins fullback Darrel Young. He said he knew Morris was a legit starter during Washington's second preseason game last year, at Chicago. "When he ran over Lance Briggs,'' Young said. "And Lance Briggs is a hell of a linebacker. I said then, 'This kid is special.' By the next preseason game, against the Colts, I knew this kid was going to be the starter.''
• I decided this camp tour that I really like talking to Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew. He makes a lot of sense. Especially when I asked him about third-year Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who has been accused of getting happy feet in the pocket and hearing footsteps behind a shaky Jacksonville offensive line the past two seasons.
"Listen, Blaine, even when he was getting hit, he was still trying to stand in there and throw the ball,'' Jones-Drew said. "People make assumptions that he was seeing this, or hearing that. I've seen Tom Brady fall when he feels the pressure coming. They don't say anything about him. I've seen Peyton Manning literally tuck and drop so he doesn't take a hit. Why doesn't anyone talk about them like that?
"The only guy in the league who stands in the pocket and takes every hit is [Ben] Roethlisberger. You can't tell me anyone else does. Eli [Manning] doesn't do it. Aaron [Rodgers] doesn't do it. [Philip] Rivers doesn't do it, and he can't even run."
Upon further review, I think MJD is exactly right about that. There are different sets of rules for different quarterbacks. Glad he named names and pointed it out.
• On the good interview front, no one else in the NFL talks quite like Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. He often doesn't divulge much of real value, but he comes out with lines that sound so silky smooth he must have practiced them in the mirror that morning. He just has a flair for the spoken word.
For instance, I asked Tomlin if the Steelers got a steal with Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones at No. 17, due to his slow 40 time this spring and his 2009 diagnosis of cervical spinal stenosis.
"You know I'm done with trying to evaluate other people's evaluation process,'' Tomlin said, getting the echo of evaluate and evaluation process just right.
On the chances that both Jones and Pittsburgh's second-round pick, running back Le'Veon Bell, make an early impact, Tomlin was succinct: "Both guys will be given the opportunity to show us out here [at camp],'' he said. "My thing is, I'm legitimately committed to it, but I'm not going to tell the story for myself.''
• After years of playing Will Smith predominantly as a 4-3 defensive end, the Saints have moved him to outside linebacker in their new 3-4 formation. How's that going, Rob Ryan? Can Smith still rush the passer without lining up with his hand on the ground?
"Oh, yeah, no question,'' said Ryan, the Saints' new defensive coordinator and implementer of the 3-4. "Will just has an aura about him. He's been in this league a long time. He's learning a new position, but he's getting comfortable with uncomfortable, and that's what we need. There's not a better bull rusher in football than Will Smith. And if a back ever goes out there [to block him], he's going to get his head dented, so I'm fine with that.''
I'm pretty sure the NFL has been working to limit head denting in recent years, but I take Ryan's point.
• I think I ticked off Bucs cornerback Darrelle Revis when I asked him if he was thankful for Washington's Robert Griffin III this preseason, because Revis' rehab from ACL surgery would be only the league's second most scrutinized recovery program thanks to RGIII. I meant it in a less-is-more kind of way, but Revis just stared at me for a few uncomfortable seconds.
"Nah, I'm not worried about that,'' he said, finally. "But it is crazy lately. Me, RGIII, Derek Rose, [Rajon] Rondo. So many guys, so many top athletes, elite players going down with ACLs. It's like a run on that injury.''
• Lord knows Vikings receiver Greg Jennings has talked plenty about his former quarterback this summer. But enough about Aaron Rodgers. I was eager to know what Jennings thinks of his new quarterback, Minnesota's third-year starter Christian Ponder?
After all, Ponder played well in -- and won -- the biggest game of his NFL career against Jennings and the Packers in Week 17 last December, wrapping up a wild-card playoff berth.
"I've told this to him and I was as honest as I could be,'' Jennings said. "I said, 'You have all the tools to be an elite quarterback. I've played with Brett [Favre] and I've played with Aaron, and you have what you need to be elite.' The one thing I've noticed and it stands out, is trust. I tell him to trust your gut, trust your judgment, trust what you see. Once he really understands that he can trust, he's going to take off.''
Good advice, but Jennings holding court on the topic of trust and quarterbacks sounds more than a little ironic. Anyone care to get a comment from Rodgers on that?
• Days before his devastating season-ending knee injury against Houston in the second week of the preseason, I had talked with new Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller about the strong rapport already forming between him and second-year Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The smart money said the ex-Jet was going to wind up being Tannehill's best friend, and favorite target, this season.
Keller's gone, but there has been a bright spot in camp among Dolphins pass-catchers, and, if can you believe it, his first name is Chad and he hasn't even changed his last name. Undrafted rookie Chad Bumphis has stood out all month, and he's got to be in the lead to win the team's No. 4 receiver slot, behind regulars Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson.
Bumphis is playing mostly in the slot, and the Mississippi State career receiving yardage leader is leading Miami this preseason with seven catches for 111 yards. Wallace was still sidelined with a groin injury the day I visited Fish camp, but Bumphis was everywhere, catching everything thrown in his area code.
• But Bumphis wasn't close to the best receiver I saw on the three-team Florida portion of my camp swing. I've watched my share of football practices in 24 seasons of covering the NFL, and I've never seen anyone have a better day than Bucs receiver Vincent Jackson on the Monday morning I was in Tampa. The Bucs' defensive backs simply could not cover him, and no matter where Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman threw the ball, Jackson came down with it.
Must have had something to do with the natural adrenaline high of Jackson and his wife having a child two days before, with VJ returning to the field for the first time after the birth of their son. Jackson looked like one of those robots that play football on the FOX NFL promos, a machine among boys.
"I was thinking the same thing,'' Freeman said. "He's unbelievable. He did anything he wanted out there today. We've never had anybody as explosive as he is.''
• Several quick-hitters from Jaguars camp:
-- Calling ex-Michigan star Denard Robinson an OW (offensive weapon) and moving him around from receiver to running back to Wildcat quarterback is all well and good, and could really prove challenging for defenses. But Robinson's hands need serious work, and he's nowhere near as versatile if Jacksonville really can't risk throwing him the ball.
-- Wouldn't be surprised at all if up to a half dozen undrafted rookies make the Jags' final roster. It's the kind of re-building program coach Gus Bradley and GM Dave Caldwell are undertaking. Look for Jacksonville to be very active after the final cuts, cherry-picking useful players off the waiver wire to improve its roster. Roughly half of the 90-man roster the Jaguars brought to camp was made up of new players, and that included about 35 rookies.
-- The Jaguars' early schedule is brutal in terms of travel. After opening at home against Kansas City, Jacksonville will play at Oakland in Week 2 and at Seattle in Week 3, with the team opting to stay and practice in San Jose (Calif.) all week rather than return home. Weeks 5-6 send the Jaguars back west, to St. Louis and then Denver. With the Week 8 "home'' game in London against the 49ers, the Jaguars will have played in every time zone but Australian Daylight Central Time -- it's called hyperbole -- before Halloween.
• For the first time I can ever remember in Green Bay, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy sounds excited about his running game. Mostly because of rookie second-round pick Eddie Lacy, but also because the team finally has some depth there with DuJuan Harris, James Starks, Alex Green and fellow rookie Jonathan Franklin, a fourth-round pick. Everyone in Green Bay is beginning to realize Lacy is the real deal.
"There's going to be a good back we have to let go, and we've never had that kind of depth since I've been here,'' McCarthy said.
But McCarthy doesn't like to talk too much about what the Packers running game has lacked in recent years. It's a bit of a sore topic, I gather.
"We're aware of our running game, but we're fifth in the league in scoring and all everyone wants to talk about on offense is what we don't do in our running game,'' he said. "It sounds like I'm trying to avoid the question, but frankly I'm kind of tired of answering it. We haven't done well at putting games away with our running game, and we need to better at that. I think we'll do that this year.
"But we need our backs to have the ability to make the cut, break the tackle and get to the second level. And when we do get there, we've got to cash in sometimes on a 20-yard run. It can't all be five yards and under.''
• The rest of the NFL didn't get excited when the Ravens signed free-agent veteran inside linebacker Daryl Smith to help replace Ray Lewis, but Baltimore defensive coordinator Dean Pees did. Smith spent the past nine seasons in Jacksonville and is the team's all-time leading tackler, and Pees thinks he has plenty of football left at age 31. Smith has never made a Pro Bowl, probably because he played with a losing franchise in a small market. But he made plays in the middle for Baltimore this month, and could wind up being the Ravens' No. 1 tackler.
"Daryl Smith is a proven starter in this league, and he's very intelligent, very reliable and he's our type of guy,'' Pees said early in camp. "He's everything we want. People don't realize how big of a move that was for us to get him.''
Said it before and I'll say it again: The Ravens didn't get decimated on defense this offseason. They got better. Younger, faster and more athletic, the way you need to play defense in today's era of mobile quarterbacks and speedy receivers. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed departing Baltimore were not death knells on defense for the Ravens.
• Chip Kelly says when his quarterbacks run, he wants them thinking: "Touchdown, first down, get down, in that order.'' I like that. Never really heard it put that way before, but maybe guys like Vick and RGIII should have that tattooed on them somewhere.
• Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said he hasn't seen any signs that his surprise 10-6 playoff team of 2012 has grown complacent. But, just in case, Frazier said at the start of camp he made sure his team knew there are only four clubs in the NFL that have made the playoffs in each of the past three seasons. Can you name them?
If you had Baltimore (five straight trips), Green Bay and New England (four in a row) and Atlanta (three in a row), give yourself a high five.