Want a feel-good story amid all the misinformation swirling around the NFL? Saints owner Tom Benson is opening his wallet—widely—to help Steve Gleason achieve a dream. And, yes, the latest draft buzz, including a big trade at No. 1
Allow me several paragraphs before we get into draft news (or, at least, draft rumors about Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney) and an interview with high pick Khalil Mack. There’s something else of note, something real … and at this time of year, when so much is smoke and mirrors and disguising real intent in advance of the draft, real sounds good to me right now.
New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson is donating $5 million to help former Saints special-teamer Steve Gleason, who now is wheelchair-bound with ALS, and his Team Gleason foundation build and operate Team Gleason House for Innovative Living. The gift, Gleason said, will be used as an endowment for annual operating expenses for the home. The house, in New Orleans, will allow 18 ALS patients to live fairly close to self-sufficient lives in rooms where the operation of everything will be controlled by patients’ eyes. The home is scheduled to open in June, and Gleason doesn’t want to stop at just one in New Orleans.
“Call me crazy,’’ Gleason said Sunday afternoon, “but I envision a facility like this in every NFL city.”
Gleason actually didn’t “say" this. His ALS has advanced to the point where he cannot move any extremities, and he “types” by focusing his eyes on a computer screen, arduously recording words letter by letter on the laptop.
“This is more than a philanthropic project between Team Gleason and Mr. Benson. This has become a friendship between people—people who are looking creatively at a massive problem and seeking solutions. Let me say that I believe this is an example of how players (ex-players in my case) and NFL organizations can unite to proactively address a problem that has not only affected the NFL, but also tens of thousands of families around the country."
I asked Benson what motivated him to make this gift. “Steve is part of our Saints family,” Benson said. “He suffers from a terrible disease, but yet his focus and resolve is centered around finding a cure for ALS and helping others who suffer from ALS live full and prosperous lives—and he is doing that right here in his adopted hometown of New Orleans. We could not be more proud of him and [wife] Michel and Team Gleason.”
Gleason has never blamed football—high school, college or pro—for his condition, even though his kamikaze style of play might have contributed to his diagnosis of ALS. Rather, he has focused on doing something about a cure, appealing to the United Nations two years ago to raise the profile to fight the disease, and going about his daily life as much as possible without limits. His goal is for each NFL franchise to lead the way to building an ALS home in each market. “This gift from Mr. and Mrs. Benson,’’ he said, “will help ensure that the Team Gleason House for innovative living will fully meet patient needs. Most of what ALS takes away, technology can give back. The Team Gleason House actually allows ALS patients to control their environment—computers, TVs, lights, doors, elevators—using just their eyes. This innovative concept allows patients to live very independently without bankrupting their families. This will allow them to collaborate with peers and colleagues to continue whatever their purpose in life may be.”
I’ll be corny for a moment here. There’s something familial about New Orleans that’s different from most cities—maybe every city. Gleason is from Spokane, Wash. He wasn’t a big football hero in New Orleans—though he did make a signature play, blocking a Falcons punt in the first post-Katrina game, which led to a Saints’ upset of Atlanta—but the city loves him like a son. He has made that happen, through the force of his giving nature and because the city feels for him and his family. And because he refuses to be beaten by a disabling malady for which there is no cure. “New Orleans is a unique city,’’ Benson said. “If you love it, it will love you back more than you know."
Benson has put his wallet behind that love, and he seemed thrilled to do it.
“Steve has this saying: ‘No white flags,’” said Benson. “If someone is going to be behind finding a cure for ALS, it’s going to be Steve Gleason.”
* * *
Ten days and counting, mercifully. Go fast, clock. Scatter-shooting what I know, now that the visitation period between players and teams is over, and the final boards are due to be set league-wide this week—if they’re not set already:
- Momentum is gaining for the Atlanta Falcons to move up for Jadeveon Clowney. Not saying it’s going to happen; I’d list the odds at 40 percent. But if the Texans want to trade the No. 1 pick, the Falcons, as of this morning, are their best option. When Clowney visited Atlanta last week, he left a very positive impression with the Falcons’ coaches and brass. I’d heard before that meeting that the Falcons weren’t inclined to entertain thoughts about making such a bold move, from sixth pick in the first round to No. 1 overall. Now they are thinking of it. Let’s look not only at the favorable view of Clowney now, but also at general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s history. In 2011 he was at No. 27 in the first round and wanted to move up to grab wide receiver Julio Jones. It took first-round picks in 2011 and 2012, a second-round pick in 2011, and fourth-round picks in 2011 and 2012—five picks overall—for Atlanta to go from 27 to six to get Jones. This year? To move from six to one, it would likely take Atlanta’s first-rounder this year and next—at least that would be close if you’re using the draft pick-trade chart. (The first overall pick is worth 3,000 points, the sixth 1,600. For an equal swap, the Texans might ask for more than two first-rounders, figuring there’s no way the Falcons will be drafting in the top 10 next year.) If the Texans would be happy to settle for, say, Blake Bortles or Khalil Mack, this would be a pretty good calculated risk to take, with a guaranteed first-rounder next year as the pot of gold for the risk Houston would be taking.
- There’s a rumor (apparently faulty) making the rounds about the Eagles moving up to try to get Johnny Manziel. I wouldn’t pass it along if the person who told me wasn’t smart and, to this point, reliable. But I just can’t see it, and I have someone who would know better than the rumor source telling me it absolutely won’t happen. Which seems smart to me, seeing that Nick Foles’ 27 touchdowns and two interceptions and 119.2 passer rating would be pretty damned foolish to throw out the window for Manziel. I just put it out there as an example of the kind of stuff that makes the rounds when so much of what happens at this time of year is designed to be a misdirection play. As Bills GM Doug Whaley said Friday, speaking to western New York reporters: “It’s finally one time where we can use you guys [reporters] to our advantage. There are things that you put out there to see if someone bites, and there are some things you put out there that are true. You have people read between the lines and you don’t want to show your hand. I’m sure everyone is doing the same thing.’’
- If Atlanta can’t get one, they can certainly get to No. 2. St. Louis holds two first-round picks—the second and 13th overall choices—and you should put something close to the mortgage down on the prospect of them trading one or both of them. The regime of GM Les Snead, in the two drafts in which he’s been in charge, has never not traded a first-round pick. In 2012 the Rams entered the draft with the second overall pick. They dealt that pick to Washington, acquiring the sixth and other stuff in return. Then they traded the sixth pick to Dallas for the 14th and other picks. In 2013, the Rams entered he draft with the 16th and 22nd picks in the first round. They traded up from 16 to eight to pick Tavon Austin, and traded down from 22 to 30 and picked Alec Ogletree. That means the Rams, under Snead, have traded their three first-round picks a total of four times. Any questions about their intentions with the two first-rounders on May 8?
"If I had the first pick in the draft," said an NFL offensive coordinator, "I'd take Manziel."
- Manziel stuff. Come to find out that one team, at the NFL scouting combine, spent the entire 15-minute individual interview period with Manziel talking only about his personal life and his run-ins with trouble. When the horn blew to signify he had to go to his next speed-date, Manziel asked team officials and coaches in the room, “Any football questions?” There were none … This, by the way, from one NFL offensive coordinator whose team will not be choosing a quarterback high in this draft: “If I had the first pick in the draft, I’d take Manziel.” … I absolutely buy Dallas’ interest in Manziel. One: He is Jerry Jones’s kind of guy, and I believe Jones all along has had half an eye on Manziel, particularly if he could get him at a bargain position—say, the middle of the second round. I don’t believe Manziel will make it out of the first round, of course, but Jones could be sorely tempted at No. 16 overall if Manziel were there. Two: Tony Romo turned 34 last Monday, and his back is balky and twice surgically repaired, and Troy Aikman has been sounding the clarion call about the dangers of fooling with a bad back. Three: See number one.
- The top 10 of one team not in the top 10, though I do not know the order: Two quarterbacks (Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles), four tackles (Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews, Taylor Lewan, Zack Martin), one defensive tackle (Aaron Donald), two pass-rushers (Jadeveon Clowney, Khalil Mack), one wideout (Sammy Watkins).
- Want a darkhorse for Carolina at 28—or, if the Panthers are lucky and he falls to 60? Guard-tackle Joel Bitonio of Nevada. Coach Ron Rivera went to Reno to meet him and came away impressed, I’m told.
Khalil Mack is not interested in being number two.
I spent time on the phone Saturday with the most unknown of the prospective high picks—outside linebacker Khalil Mack, from Buffalo of the Mid-American Conference. You might know some of his story: Started only one year in high school in Fort Pierce, Fla. … Buffalo was the only NCAA Division I school to offer him a scholarship … Liberty University also did, but he went to Buffalo because it was a higher level of football … Put an exclamation point on his first-round status in the 2013 season-opener at Ohio State with nine tackles, 2.5 sacks and an interception (with another sack and forced fumbled called back due to a penalty). “A fantastic football player," Urban Meyer said after the game.
He doesn’t talk about his triumphs with a cocky tone in his voice. It’s more of a knowledgeable one. “Nothing about that game surprised me,’’ Mack said. “I feel like I have played against better players than at Ohio State. I’ve just always had the opinion that with hard work and dedication, anything can happen. I’m proof of that. I’ve been blessed."
Mack’s best fit is as a 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL, though he says he can also play 4-3 end or outside ’backer, and, at 251 pounds, it’s not impossible that he could play inside as well. But his edge-rushing ability would be best employed coming off the edge in the 3-4. That’s what the Texans play. And he’s frothing at the prospect of playing on the same front seven with J.J. Watt. “I met him the other day,’’ said Mack. “It’d be perfect for me. He is one great player.” Mack visited six teams: Jacksonville, St. Louis, Houston, Detroit, Atlanta and Minnesota. All are in the top 10. It’s likely he’ll go in the top five on May 8.
He’d like to go in the top one. He’s not handing the crown of best defensive player in the draft to Jadeveon Clowney.
“I’m so competitive,’’ he said, “that I want to be the best, and I mean better than any rusher in the NFL now, or anyone coming in. I want to be better than Aldon Smith, all those guys. I respect Jadeveon, but I really don’t care what he does. I don’t care about the hoopla, the hype or any of that. I just want to go out on the field and compete and win. When I get out on the field, I turn on a switch and believe I can be the best person out there. Coming from Buffalo, I know I had to work hard to get to this point, and I did."
“Got a gut feel where you’re going in the draft?" I asked.
“Not at all," Mack said. “Wish I knew."
He won’t have a long wait in the green room 10 nights from now. Maybe an hour, maybe less. I’ll be surprised if he gets past the sixth pick, now held (but for who knows how long) by Atlanta.
* * *
Ten things you need to know about Earl Morrall.
- Morrall, who died Friday at 79 in Florida of Parkinson’s Disease, got picked in the 1956 draft second overall by the 49ers. Number 200 overall that year: Bart Starr.
- Morrall quarterbacked Michigan State to the 1956 Rose Bowl title, and he played infield during the Spartans’ only trip to the College World Series.
- In his second year in the NFL, the Steelers traded two first-round picks to obtain him from San Francisco. In his third year in the NFL, the Steelers traded him to Detroit for Bobby Layne.
Two weeks before the regular season started in 1968, Morrall, in his 12th pro season, was traded to the Baltimore Colts to serve as Johnny Unitas’ backup for the season. A week later, Unitas went down with an elbow injury. Morrall stepped in and led the Colts to a 13-1 season, won the NFL MVP award and led the Colts into Super Bowl III against Joe Namath and the Jets. The rest is unpleasant history in the Morrall family. He threw three interceptions in that game before being replaced by the still-recuperating Unitas, and the Colts lost in one of the great upsets in NFL history.
- Two years later, with Unitas hurt again, Morrall stepped into Super Bowl V and orchestrated a 16-13 Baltimore victory over Dallas.
- A year a later, on his 38th birthday, the Dolphins claimed him on waivers from Baltimore for $100.
- In 1972,filling in after Bob Griese broke his ankle in Week 5, Morrall went 9-0 as a starting quarterback in the Dolphins’ perfect season—the only NFL team ever to win every game, regular and postseason, that it played—and was named First Team All-Pro for the second time. But he was replaced by Griese as the starter for the Super Bowl after struggling in the AFC title game at Pittsburgh.
- The Dolphins’ practice facility is in Davie, Fla., near Fort Lauderdale. Morrall was the mayor of Davie in 1992.
- He wore a crew cut for all of his adult life.
- He leaves five children: Matt, Mitch, Mardi, Mindi, Meghan. (GALLERY: Classic photos of Earl Morrall.)
Quotes of the Week
“If I was a GM in the NFL, I would not take him in the first round of the draft … You’ve got to see the quarterbacks throw the ball live. I’ve never seen a top quarterback in the last 10 years have a bad Pro Day until Teddy Bridgewater. He had no accuracy. The ball came out funny. The arm strength wasn’t there, and it made me question everything I saw on tape because this was live.”
—Mike Mayock, on the Petros and Money Show on AM-570 in Los Angeles (via Pro Football Talk)
“Really cool, right? The U.S. rugby team playing the New Zealand All Blacks. It’s on a Saturday. What happens if it pours rain on Saturday and these huge men playing rugby tear up Soldier Field, and we’ve got a Bears game scheduled for Sunday? That would have been a problem.’’
—NFL senior director of broadcasting Michael North, on one of the many roadblocks to making the 2014 NFL schedule—a rugby match at Soldier Field on Nov. 1 forcing the Bears to abandon their home field in Week 9. The league ended up giving the Bears a bye.
You can read my story about the mysterious making of the NFL schedule, from inside the bunker where it was drawn up by four league experts.
“I’m sure you guys are tired of writing about this. We’re tired of thinking about it. We were ready to [draft] yesterday. So the extra time doesn’t help us. I’m a firm believer in the saying, ‘Study long, study wrong.’ ”
—Bills GM Doug Whaley on Friday, on the NFL moving the draft back two weeks this year from its usual late-April spot on the calendar. Friday was 52 weeks to the day that day two of the 2013 draft was held.
“When is the draft now? I think it’s in September.”
“Well, I’m very confident in what I’ve done. The people who are the critics, they look at all of the negatives. They don’t look at all of the stuff I’ve accomplished. They don’t look at that I’m one of three quarterbacks in the history of the NFL to do certain things. They don’t look at that kind of stuff. They want to find ways to tear me down, but I’m not worried about that. They can say whatever they want. All that matters is what everyone believes in this organization and what I believe in myself. That’s how I go about my business.’’
—Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton, reporting to work last week for the Bengals’ offseason program.
Dalton is beginning to chafe at the perception (reality’s more like it) that he’s been good in the regular season and poor in the post-season. The numbers through three seasons:
“There is no room for Donald Sterling in our league. There is no room for him.”
—LeBron James, after L.A. Clippers owner Sterling was allegedly recorded making racist statements to his girlfriend, which were aired by TMZ
Stat of the Week
Regarding the passing of Earl Morrall on Friday:
Morrall should go down in history as one of the best handful (three, four?) of backup quarterbacks in the 94-season history of the NFL. This stat should prove that: Morrall started 35 regular-season games due to injuries to Johnny Unitas and Bob Griese in Baltimore and Miami between 1968 and 1972. His record in those 35 games: 31-3-1.
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
The most amazing factoid I learned Wednesday evening inside the NFL’s “Val Pinchbeck Room,” the secret bunker where four NFL executives make the schedule every year, was not that a game featuring New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team at Soldier Field in November forced the league keep the Bears out of their stadium that weekend. The odd factoid came from a loose-leaf binder that keeps all sorts of scheduling records. One page contains data on the last year in which a team opened with two straight on the road, closed with two straight on the road, or had a three-game road trip.
Here’s the bizarre factoid: The Packers have not opened a season with two straight road games since 1924.
“Just incredible,’’ said the most veteran of the league’s four schedule-makers, Michael North.
It seems natural that the league would schedule Green Bay consciously at home early so the Packers could avoid as many bone-chilling late games as possible. But lately, the league has embraced tundra games. It’s surprisingly coincidental that the league, even by luck, hasn’t front-loaded road games to increase the chances of a weather game in the five post-Thanksgiving regular-season dates of the Packers.
In 1924, Green Bay opened at Duluth (a 6-3 loss) and at the Chicago Cardinals (a 3-0 loss) before playing its next five games at home in a 29-day span. The Packers finished with four straight road games.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
I found myself in a spot in Rhode Island for a few hours last week that I’d never been before—South Kingstown, on the sea, 45 minutes south of Providence—visiting retired New York Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride for a story you’ll be seeing this week. Wooded, quiet, close to beaches, not over-developed. What a great smell, a sea smell, even a half-mile in from the water. I realized how many beautiful places (and this certainly was one, a still fairly unspoiled part of New England, a few long spirals from the ocean) we never see in our lives. Wish I could tell you more, but there’s not much to it. In a week of not much travel, that’s the only travel observation I’ve got for you.
Tweets of the Week
Reports: George Clooney engaged. Whew. My marriage has a chance now.
— Scott Simon (@nprscottsimon) April 27, 2014
.@cjbycookie and I will never go to a Clippers game again as long as Donald Sterling is the owner.
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) April 26, 2014
@cjbycookie is Magic's wife, Cookie.
I couldn't play for him
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) April 26, 2014
I’ve always said everything starts at home….unfortunately, so does hate
— Damien Woody (@damienwoody) April 26, 2014
When I have my own site, we'll do a 2,500-word profile on the lackey who has to keep track of Sterling's girls' Instagram accounts.
— Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko) April 27, 2014
Careful what you wish for.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think I always love getting the Ourlads Guide to the NFL Draft in the mail—you can order it at ourlads.com—and thumbing through to read who Tom Hepler, Dan Shonka and company are high (and low) on. Interesting notes this year: Ourlads has Washington State free safety Deone Bucannon going 13th overall, to the Rams … The quarterback picks are interesting: The first one off the board, Ourlads says, will be Johnny Manziel, 26th to Cleveland; then Blake Bortles 33rd to Houston, Teddy Bridgewater 39th to Jacksonville and Jimmy Garoppolo 40th to Minnesota.
2. I think the one consistent whine about the schedule I heard in the past few days was the Oakland fandom complaining about opening at the Jets, then returning to play at New England in Week 3 and London in Week 4. That’s a tough start for sure. But the Raiders—as most western teams do when they have to play in England—requested a Week 3 East Coast game so the trip to England would be 5.5 hours instead of 10. So the only beef is playing Week 1 on the East Coast. And who cares, really? Oakland has six games two or more time zones away. It’s logical, not onerous, that one could be in Week 1.
3. I think the one thing that surprised me being inside the scheduling process on Wednesday was scheduling czar Howard Katz saying he wouldn’t have had a problem making Seattle play a three-game road swing that seems, on its face, pretty mountainous: at St. Louis, at Washington (on a Monday night), at Kansas City. He’d prefer not to, and the schedule Seattle will play doesn’t have a three-game road trip. But the slate with that three-gamer came in second when the league made its final decision on which schedule to play.
4. I think one of the smartest things I read last week came from John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, about the importance of continuity with the offensive system and how lack of continuity contributes to the failure of so many quarterbacks. McClain talked to David Carr, the first pick of the Texans 12 years ago, and summed up his Houston football life thusly: “In his five seasons, Carr had two head coaches, three offensive coordinators, three different schemes, three quarterback coaches and four offensive line coaches. ‘You can have a talented offensive line that gives up a lot of sacks, and that's the fault of the system,’ Carr said. ‘I think you can have talented coordinators that have bad offensive lines, and that's a fault of that bad offensive line. You have to have a combination of those two things.’"
5. I think if Blake Bortles sat in the front row at a Rays or Marlins game with his girlfriend, no one would say, “Hey, why isn’t Blake Bortles concentrating on football and staying out of the public eye before the draft?” First: it’s possible directors and camera people wouldn’t know what Blake Bortles looks like, so he might not even be noticed. But also, if they did know it was Bortles and put his mug on TV, I can’t imagine anyone questioning his dedication or decision-making because he chose one evening to sit in the stands at a baseball game.
6. I think, also, I’d like to know the difference between J.J. Watt and Russell Wilson being on-site at the NCAA basketball tournament, and Johnny Manziel being there.
7. I think I get the part about folks wondering if Manziel is devoted to his craft when they see him in the bars at 2 a.m. But going to sports events is a different story entirely. If you’re an NFL GM or coach and wonder about Manziel’s dedication, I’m okay with that. But I’m not okay if you say, “What’s Manziel doing at a baseball game at night instead of working out or studying tape?” I mean, how do you know he wasn’t working out as normal during the day? Do you know, for instance, that Manziel, on the day he visited with the Texans in Houston, was in the gym at 6:15 a.m.working out before he had to be in front of the Texans brass? My point about all of this: It’s fair game to doubt Manziel. But I think it is folly to suggest that being at a ballgame or The Masters is a black mark against his dedication to football.
8. I think the Texans are doing a good camouflage job, 10 days out from the draft. Very good, in fact.
9. I think I’d like to congratulate our writers at The MMQB for a fine week. When the NFL pushed the draft back two weeks, I wanted to avoid two extra weeks of nothing but draft coverage, because I think we’re already inundated with it for two full months, starting at the combine. So this week, while not ignoring the draft, our writers wrote solid pieces on other things. Robert Klemko reported from California on the harrowing story of a Jaguars player whose career was ended by a stroke on the field … Jenny Vrentas reported from Harvard, and learned that Richard Sherman is one of Bill Clinton’s favorite players … And from Santa Clara, Calif., Greg Bedard dug into the widely reported fractured relationship between San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke, with an interview with both men … Business of Football columnist Andrew Brandt contributed a smart draft-related column about how agents of marginal players get their clients seen and heard by the NFL powers that be … I threw in the behind-the-scenes story about the NFL schedule. When I walked into Sports Illustrated managing editor Chris Stone’s office Friday, he said, “What a week you guys had!’’ That is my bow for the week. Hope you don’t mind me bragging about our troops.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. The only remaining question about Donald Sterling: When’s he selling the team?
b. I like the two guys at the Clippers-Warriors game in Oakland on Sunday, one white and one black. The white guy held a sign reading: “I brought a black guy 2 the game.” The black guy’s sign: “I’m black.”
c. Brandon Morrow, pitcher of the Blue Jays, faced 14 Red Sox batters Saturday. The 14 results: walk, pop out, walk, double-play groundout; walk, walk, fly out, double-play groundout; strikeout, fly out, walk, walk, walk, walk.
d. He walked eight in less than three innings … and the amazing thing is, when he left the field, he’d only given up one run. Reliever Chad Jenkins took care of that, giving up a grand slam to A.J. Pierzynski on the first pitch he threw.
e. Daniel Murphy stole his 27th straight base Sunday. I dropped my dentures when I heard who held the Mets’ record for consecutive stolen bases: Kevin McReynolds, with 33. How is that possible?
f. Dice-K a closer? A nibbler closing? Impossible. That’s it. I am officially a baseball dunce.
g. I am also officially a TV dope. I have missed “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men.” Totally. Every episode.
h. Apropos of very little: Ansel Adams died on April 22, 1984. Richard Nixon died on April 22, 1994. Pat Tillman died on April 22, 2004.
i. Coffeenerdness: Six shots of espresso Sunday, before 3 p.m. It is officially close to the draft.
j. Beernerdness: Had a swell Bronx Pale Ale the other day. Strongly recommended. Lots of taste, and a great story by brewers who went out on a limb to do what they love to do, which is making beer.
k. If I could print the best lines each week in “Veep,’’ I would. If Elaine Benes were saying them, they’d be printable. But Selena Meyer? Too edgy for a family website.
The Adieu Haiku
So, Donald Sterling:
You had to open your mouth.
Long past time to go.