NFL Training Camp Snaps: Observations from the road as the regular season nears
- From Pittsburgh to Buffalo, the best scenes and insights from our 2016 NFL training camp tour.
Musings, observations and the occasional insight gleaned from my recent, somewhat abbreviated tour of NFL training camps...
• I hadn’t really ever had much of a conversation with new Giants head coach Ben McAdoo before I visited Giants camp in late July. I’ve heard he’s all football, almost all the time, and isn’t really into the trappings and prestige of being an NFL head coach (something former Giants coach Jim Fassel was very well-known for, to his detriment, late in his New York tenure).
So I asked McAdoo what’s the coolest thing he has found about being the Giants head coach that he couldn’t have known about until he actually had the job?
"I like moving around the field," he said, matter-of-factly. "I love fundamentals and that part of the game, so I love being able to move around during individual periods and see different fundamentals being taught by different coaches that I respect."
So, not being able to get the best dinner reservations in Manhattan’s trendiest restaurants?
"Nah, that’s not my gig," McAdoo said, with a smile.
I do, however, have it on good information that on Friday nights during the football season, McAdoo has been known to routinely whip together his favorite dinner of steak, spinach and a Caesar salad.
"Yeah, I don’t know where you got that from, but I do make a mean Caesar salad," McAdoo confirmed, refusing to discuss his track record with steak and spinach.
What else is there to know about the Giants’ 39-year-old rookie coach? Well, he keeps his eyes and ears open to the times.
"He knows more than he lets on," Giants receiver Victor Cruz told me. "He knows about different things that us players are doing, with music or day-to-day style things, with guys like myself or Odell[Beckham Jr.]. He is all football, but he’ll drop a tidbit on you real quick, and you’ll be like, ‘Oh, you wouldn’t think Coach knows about that.’ Even if it’s something you might have said in the media or whatever, he’ll bring it up to you. He keeps current."
• Annie Apple is the refreshingly candid and entertaining mother of Giants first-round pick Eli Apple, and in part due to her strong social media presence before and around the NFL Draft, she’ll be a contributor to the NFL coverage for both Sports Illustrated and ESPN this fall.
I asked Eli Apple for a scouting report on my new colleague: "I’ve read a couple of her blogs, and she’s very insightful," he said. "She’s quirky. And she’s going to add some flavor to her columns. But she’s very honest. She’s not going to sugar-coat anything. She’s going to speak her mind. She’s going to put on paper how she really feels."
Does Eli share her love for communication? “Oh, of course," he said. "We watch ESPN a lot together. We talk football and have debates the dinner table. We go back and forth a lot."
• I had planned to chat up Trent Richardson the day I visited Ravens camp, but the former Alabama running back and No. 3 overall pick in 2012 didn’t even make it to the second week of August before getting released by Baltimore, already his fourth NFL team. Not that Ravens coach John Harbaugh sounds completely done with Richardson, who had a knee injury that lingered throughout the summer, keeping him off the field. Baltimore signed Richardson in mid-April and thought it would be getting a healthy back by the time camp rolled around.
Harbaugh told Richardson that if he gets his knee right, and gets in the best shape of his football career, the Ravens would be interested in re-signing him in early 2017. "I told him he’s young enough (at 26) that he could still play eight years in this league," Harbaugh said. "But he’s got to get that knee fixed and he’s got to get in better shape than he ever knew he could get into. At that point, some team, and it could be us, is going to be interested in him. He’s got talent. He went No. 3 in the draft for a reason. But it’s time to re-dedicate himself to taking his best possible shot at this." Undoubtedly his final shot.
• Eight years into his NFL career, Mike Wallace is finally a Raven. Like he nearly was on draft weekend 2009. Pittsburgh took him in the third round, 84th overall that year. But the Mississippi receiver was ticketed for selection by the Ravens if the arch-rival Steelers hadn’t beaten them to it, with Baltimore taking Nicholls State cornerback Lardarius Webb at No. 88 instead.
"What I’m hoping for here is that people can see the real Mike Wallace again," said Harbaugh, whose Ravens signed Wallace in free agency after his three underachieving seasons in Miami and Minnesota. "The one we hated to cover when he was in Pittsburgh. The one I was so ticked off about that we missed in the draft. You see it out here. The talent’s still there."
Wallace seems rejuvenated in Ravens camp, and is relishing his new connection with big-armed Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, who many believe is the perfect fit for his deep threat, stretch-the-field skill set. And something happens to a former star player once he gets relegated to the remainders bin in free agency, knowing that he might only have one more opportunity to change the narrative and arc of his career.
"I have a lot to prove, and a lot of people wrote me off," Wallace told me. "I don’t care about them, but at the same time, you want to protect your name and reputation. When I leave this game, I’m going out on a high note, and that’s going to be in a Baltimore Ravens uniform. The plan is to be the old Mike Wallace again. And I’m working on it every single day."
• That storyline about it being a throwback to 1999 and the beginning of the Andy Reid era in Philadelphia, well, new Eagles head coach Doug Pederson can only buy into it just so far. I mean, the Eagles went 5-11 that season and finished in last in the NFC East that season, and Pederson isn’t too willing to sign up for that same scenario, even if he essentially was in the role of the Eagles’ Sam Bradford that season, with rookie Donovan McNabb playing the Carson Wentz part.
"I want to win now, and I think this team wants to win now," Pederson said. "That’s why I don’t put this in a transition time [category]. I don’t put a lot of stock into the idea of a transition year with a young quarterback."
"It does give us an eye on the future, but it doesn’t, because my focus is on Sam Bradford being the guy. And as everybody knows, once the season starts, if Carson’s our third quarterback, his reps go extremely low, because we’re getting Sam ready to play."
And that’s seemingly the plan now more than ever with Wentz suffering a hairline fracture in his ribs in the Eagles preseason opener, perhaps keeping him off the field for the rest of the exhibition schedule. A real red-shirt season may indeed be on tap for Wentz.
• The Eagles got a lot of attention early in camp for how much full-pads contact there was in practice, and Pederson said he wanted his team to a tough, physical unit. But then after some of that contact led to some veteran discontent, some injuries and at least one concussion issue for defensive end Marcus Smith, Pederson and the Eagles backed off the live team drills after about a week.
But before that happened, Eagles new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz made sure we all realized everything’s relative when it comes to full contact practices.
"We haven’t gone complete Buddy Ryan on them, because I think Buddy let the quarterbacks be hit," Schwartz said. "With him it was if we’re going live, everybody’s live. But when you’re practicing and somebody says it’s live, it’s a different thing. And it could take an adjustment if you’re not used to that kind of tempo. But when you say you’re going to play football, you’ve got to play it one way."
• I’m pretty sure I know who Eagles football czar Howie Roseman was indirectly referencing when he took time to laud the way Pederson has conducted himself within the organization thus far.
Chip Kelly’s name may never again cross Roseman’s lips, but that doesn’t mean he’s not talking about the ex-Eagles head coach, who became Roseman’s nemesis in Philly.
"Doug’s very consistent, day in and day out you know what you’re getting from him," Roseman told me. "Tremendous energy and communication skills. I would say one thing that has been extremely impressive is he’s a great listener, and not necessarily just to [team owner] Jeffrey [Lurie] or me, but also to his coaches and his players. He listens, he thinks about it, and he’s open to changing his mind and adjusting."
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like the very definition of “emotional intelligence.’’
• Just want to say good luck to veteran Eagles radio announcers Merrill Reese and Mike Quick when it comes time to drop the name of Philly rookie defensive tackle Aziz Shittu into their game call. I would advise rolling that one out slowly, very slowly, at least until it gets a little bit more comfortable tripping off the tongue.
• His failure to make the U.S. Olympic team as a long jumper this summer might wind up being the best thing that ever happened to the NFL career of Bills receiver Marquise Goodwin, who has started to consistently stand out in Buffalo’s camp. Goodwin has flashed often, prompting Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman to gush: "What a weapon he is, huh? World class speed. The guy has got a different attitude about him and a different look in his eye this year and I like it. He’s showing up every single day."
I came away more impressed by Goodwin than any player I spoke to on my camp tour, at least in terms of how he has his Olympic and football dreams in the proper perspective. Goodwin is entering his fourth season in the league, and knows his history of injuries means he has arrived at a crossroads as he begins his contract year. But that doesn’t have to equate to now-or-never pressure, as he made clear.
"I can appreciate the position I’m in, but I don’t want to lose sight of what it’s really all about," he said. "Athletics are short lived in comparison to a whole life of experiences outside of sports. I’m not saying it’s not serious to me, but it’s not everything. Athletics don’t make me who I am. It’s definitely a part of me, but I wouldn’t die if I couldn’t play sports again. Don’t get me wrong: I do love football. I do love track. But it’s definitely not everything." Amen to that.
• Todd Haley had those rocky first two seasons as the Steelers offensive coordinator in 2012 and 2013, after the team jettisoned Bruce Arians, but there’s not much to complain about in regards to his work since then. The games of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell have flourished under Haley, and Pittsburgh’s offense finished second and third overall in yards gained the past two seasons, ranking seventh and fourth in points.
The way the NFL usually works, one more standout season for the Steelers on offense should get Haley some renewed head coaching consideration, especially if its accompanied by some Pittsburgh playoff success. Haley’s first head coaching shot, in Kansas City, yielded a 19-26 record and one postseason berth from 2009-2011, and it was definitely a mixed bag of results. But he has solidified his reputation since then, and his work now can at least stand up to the inevitable comparison with Arians without inviting the scorn and mockery of Steelers fans.
• The Steelers draft receivers these day like the position has slipped to running back-level value. In Pittsburgh, the mantra is never too high for a receiver. And the Steelers have the track record to back it up, taking Sammie Coates in 2015’s third round, Martavis Bryant in 2014’s fourth round, Markus Wheaton in 2013’s third round, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown in 2010’s third and sixth rounds, respectively, and Mike Wallace in 2009’s third round.
And for good measure, Darrius Heyward-Bey is still on the roster, with the former 2009 first-round pick of Oakland’s coming to Pittsburgh via Indianapolis in 2014’s free agency period. If it took the bust second-round selection of Texas’s Limas Sweed in 2008 to scare the Steelers into such a draft mindset at receiver, it was well worth the price of that failure.
"I know Sammie (Coates) was definitely disappointed he got drafted in the third round, and came to a team that was loaded with receivers," Heyward-Bey said. “But I think it was the best thing for him, because he got around guys that work for it. With AB (Brown) going in the sixth round, Markus in the third round, and me, a first-round pick who had to find his way to get back on the field. That’s humbling, but it makes us all work hard every day to make it here with the Pittsburgh Steelers."
Four more quick observations from Bills camp
• Here’s hoping Reggie Bush is still active and playing a role in Buffalo when the Bills play at the Rams in Week 5. The sight of Bush back at the Los Angeles Coliseum, where he starred for USC and won a national championship and the Heisman (both later vacated due to Bush-centric NCAA penalties), would be a very cool throwback Sunday.
• A lot of teams play music for their players through most or all of practice. But nobody plays it a lower volume than the Bills. I was on the sideline and could barely hear the music, so there’s no way the players can hear much. What I did hear was an unconfirmed rumor that Bills owner Terry Pegula visited camp last year and determined that the volume not be set to blasting in deference to fans.
• Buffalo always leads the league in the name game. It’s no surprise to see the Bills again outpace everyone in guys with the last name of Williams (Aaron, Duke, Jonathan, Kyle and Karlos). But there’s also running back/special teamer James Wilder Jr., whose father I grew up watching run the ball for the sad-sack Bucs of the 1980s, and the interesting caseof Nikell Robey-Coleman, the fourth-year Buffalo cornerback who changed his name this offseason. He added Coleman to his last name, as a way to honor his mother, Maxine Coleman, who died of a heart attack at age 44 in 2010.
• If there’s anybody who stands to come out a winner due to the Bills’ early camp roster shortages at linebacker and running back, it could be rookie fullback Glenn Gronkowski, the former Kansas State star and the younger, less-adventurous brother of Rob Gronkowski.
Baby Gronk, as Glenn has been dubbed, is locked into a camp battle with veteran fullback Jerome Felton, who signed a four-year $9.2 contract with Buffalo in 2015, making him the highest-paid fullback in the league. With the Bills having to add veterans like Reggie Bush, Brandon Spikes and Kroy Biermann recently due to injuries or absences—and signed quarterback Tyrod Taylor to a new contract—that could make Felton’s roster spot even more perilous, given that his $2.3 million cap number is high for a guy who only played 26.5 percent of the team’s offensive snaps last season. And remember, the Bills still hope to extend No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore this year.
Buffalo was probably inclined to go younger and cheaper with Gronkowski to begin with, especially if his H-back skills can aid the team’s passing game, but the roster shuffle in Bills camp likely has only strengthened his odds of making the final 53-man roster and adding a second Gronk to the AFC East. Nothing wrong with that.
• It took me a while this summer, but I finally figured out why this year’s Giants squad makes me crave ice cream. It’s because the 2016 club is now Ben and Jerry’s. Rookie head coach Ben McAdoo and 10th-year general manager Jerry Reese are most definitely in business together as partners, with the goal being to avoid a fifth consecutive non-playoff meltdown in New York.
Has anyone else scooped me on the Ben and Jerry’s angle? (See what I did there?) Alas, the Tom and Jerry act in New Jersey finally wore thin after nine years and has been replaced with a tandem a little more up-to-date.
• That new DirecTV ad starring a now-retired-and-shopping-for-groceries-in-his-bathrobe Peyton Manning is pretty clever. But it dawned on me in Giants camp that with both Archie and Peyton no longer active, we’re down to just No. 10 in the nation’s first family of NFL quarterbacking. And that officially makes Eli the last Manning standing.
• Every quality running back who is effective enough to still be in the NFL at 30 scoffs at that age being used as a dividing line to denote his prime is well over and the end of his career is near. The Jets new No. 1 back, Matt Forte, gave me a version of that same dismissive attitude toward his age (30) when I spoke with him on camera on the second day of New York’s camp.
But here’s the thing: Forte was out that day with what was thought to be a somewhat short-term hamstring issue, suffered about a week before camp opened. And he’s still mostly sidelined more than two weeks later, giving the wrong-side-of-30 crowd plenty of ammunition if they’re looking for hints that his body and his game might be in decline. Forte returned to individual drills on Sunday, but still hasn’t taken part in any team drills, and probably won’t play in New York’s second preseason game, Friday night at Washington.
"He needs to practice at some point, obviously," Jets head coach Todd Bowles said this weekend. “He’s going to need to practice. Nobody’s going to stay hurt forever and just come in and play Game 1. But he’s making progress, he’s got time and we’ll just play it day by day."
• Here’s how quickly the NFL head coaching landscape changes these days. Of the six camps I visited, four of them are being led by coaches in either their first or second year on the job: the Jets’ Todd Bowles and the Bills’ Rex Ryan are starting year two, while the Giants’ Ben McAdoo and the Eagles’ Doug Pederson are head coaching rookies. Only ninth-year Ravens boss John Harbaugh and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin bucked that trend. (Can it possibly be a decade for Tomlin in Pittsburgh already?)
I think I was the first one to congratulate Bowles on being the senior most New York-area head coach, now that McAdoo has replaced the departed Tom Coughlin. And with Adam Gase hired in Miami, Bowles and Ryan already are tied for the second-longest tenures in the AFC East, trailing only New England’s Bill Belichick, now the dean of all coaches in his 17th season in Foxboro.
So you want to be an NFL head coach, do you?
• Quote of the tour: From Schwartz, on watching an old NFL Films piece about crusty Eagles fans booing Santa Claus in 1968: "The thing that summed up Philly fans for me perfectly was this one guy they had on talking about that story. He said, ‘Listen, that was one sorry-ass Santa Claus. If you’d have seen that Santa Claus, you’d have booed too.' So they were booing a weak act, not just because they wanted to boo. It wasn’t much of a Santa. It didn’t rate.
"And Philly fans are savvy enough football fans that they know what a good product is. If you don’t give them a good product, you can’t complain that they’re booing. If you embrace that part of it, and know they’re not just assholes that want to boo, that it’s booing a bad performance, then it’s easy to accept."
Okay, got it. I’ll check back with you in November on that one, Jimmy.