More from the road, as I head from Bourbonnais, Ill. to Dearborn, Mich. …
1. Last year the Bears ranked third in total defense, first in scoring defense, first in run defense, and seventh in pass defense—which would be tough to duplicate even if the guys out there weren’t losing their coordinator. But they are, and last night on the campus Olivet Nazarene, new DC Chuck Pagano address that issue with his players. His message: “It’s much harder to manage success than it is failure.” Star defensive lineman Akiem Hicks expounded to me on what he took from that: “It’s on all of us. So after doing something really well and being a part of an NFC North championship team, how do we take that next step forward? How do we win one more game? That’s what we’re focused on.”
2. While we’re there, the kicker situation at Bears camp is unlike anything I’ve seen. Normally when special teams take the stage, fans head for the bathrooms or the concession stands, or just flat-out stop paying attention. Not here. This morning, when Elliott Fry (who’s competing for the job with Eddy Piniero) lined up to take his field goals in a team period, a pretty impressive rainy-day crowd was transfixed, to the point where when Fry slipped and busted his behind, there was audible gasp. When I caught up with coach Matt Nagy after, he told me what I’d just seen was actually toned down, compared to the weekend. “Today was light,” he said. “That was nothing. You should’ve seen the last two days of fans. I keep us to the sidelines, so there’s no one out there. There was, what , 9,000 in one day. And they were dead silent for the whole special teams period, watching the kicks and cheering for every kick. And fortunately, both our kickers had good days. They both ended it well, one with a 60-yarder, the other with a 63-yarder. The way I look at it, for us, we’ve worked our tail off to get to this point, we’ve worked hard, we’ve done a lot of different things to figure out this kicker position. It’s come down to these two guys. But we also know, if they don’t produce, if they don’t show us what they can do, we’re going to find somebody else. That’s what’s real. It’s about the production. And so far in training camp, they’ve done well. Now, we’ll never know with whoever it is until we get into it.” The added attention may actually be good for the Bears, in that it simulates pressure on the kickers in a way you don’t normally see in camp.
3. Since Mike Tomlin’s contract status has been in the news—he’s now inked through 2021 with the Steelers holding an option for ’22—I took the time to ask Pittsburgh owner Art Rooney and GM Kevin Colbert about their coach. “It’s crazy—Bill [Cowher] and I were together for seven years, this is Mike and my 13th year,” Colbert said. “It’s almost twice as long. So it’s great that he got the extension. It’s deserved, no question. Mike’s gone 125-66-1, he’s 1-1 in the Super Bowl and he’s never had a losing season. To be able to work with a man of that caliber, that’s exciting. Last year, not making the playoffs was horrible for both of us. And it’s not outside pressures, we put those pressures on ourselves, because not having the opportunity to win the Super Bowl, that can overwhelm you. It was a very long offseason.” And from Rooney: “I feel great about where Mike is. The true test really is, are your players responding to your coach? And our players love Mike. We go to the combine every year, it’s amazing how the young players come by and they all want to say hello to him and meet him. He’s just that kind of a personality. People want to work with him and want to play for him. And that’s great.” When asked if he and Tomlin have talked about how long Tomlin wants to say, Rooney said, “He certainly hasn’t put any sticker date on himself, and neither have we. He’s still a relatively young guy  in the coaching profession and has certainly as much energy and enthusiasm as he’s ever had. So I don’t think there’s any particular window that he’s going to coach through. He hasn’t given me any indication that he’s got any date in mind.”
4. Fascinating hearing Ravens coach John Harbaugh agree with the notion that his offense will be different from anything we’ve seen in the NFL—and that Lamar Jackson will likely again run the ball more than any quarterback who came before him. (Jackson had a 147 rushing attempts as a rookie, most ever for a QB, despite not starting until Week 11; Cam Newton’s career high for a season is 139.) “The game was probably revolutionized with Bill Walsh and Joe Montana,” Harbaugh said. “What’s the next era going to be? We’re about to find out.” Remember, Baltimore OC Greg Roman brought an innovative Pistol set to the NFL game to try to get the most out of Colin Kaepernick at the beginning of this decade. And it sure looks like he’s intended on finish the decade with a bang, too.
5. Mike Daniels was coy with the Browns staff last week on where his next stop was on his free-agent tour. So most of those guys thought he was headed to visit New England. Which means they were pretty close—in that he signed with Detroit.
6. My understanding is that there wasn’t much change in the Ezekiel Elliott situation over the weekend. So we’ll see what happens.
7. Interesting seeing Dolphins coach Brian Flores’ methods in Miami garnering some buzz. Like Detroit’s Matt Patricia last year, he’s making players run laps for lapses such as jumping offside. Will it take with the players? It can depend. Some see it as demeaning. Others will gladly do it in lieu of incurring fines or other punishment. Of course, New England is where Flores and Patricia learned this stuff. But Bill Belichick is grandfathered in, in a who-are-you-to-question-him kind of way.
8. I haven’t seen the full breakdown of Seahawks LB Bobby Wagner’s new deal, but if the money—$54 million over three years—is real, that bolsters the idea that Jets LB C.J. Mosley’s five-year, $85 million deakl was more than an aberration as the result of a team desperately swinging for the fences. It’d put Wagner at $18 million per, just past Mosley at $17 million per, and well past the previous standard-bearer (Luke Kuechly at $12.36 million per.) Good news for 2020 free agents like Carolina’s Shaq Thompson and Dallas’s Jaylon Smith (who’ll be an RFA).
9. I’ll be honest, I had no idea Alfred Morris was still playing football. (He might not be the worst option to help make up for the loss of Mark Ingram in New Orleans.)
10. Congratulations to Rodney Harrison for his induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame tonight. For what it’s worth, I’m not sure I’ve ever covered a player who better knew how to straddle the line in following Belichick’s rules while also being wildly entertaining (Mike Vrabel was up on that list, too). Harrison is a tough guy’s tough guy, and incredibly well-deserving of the honor he’s getting in Foxborough.
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