Training camp tours are full of surprises, and there was a big one in Carolina. Plus, Joe Philbin's knuckles are getting a workout, Devin Hester starts anew in Atlanta and a new NFL practice trend has loudly announced its presence
SPARTANBURG, S.C. — “Can I see you for a couple of minutes before you leave today?"
I looked up, and it was Cam Newton speaking. From my seat in the lobby of the Wofford College student union, just outside the cafeteria that the Carolina Panthers use at training camp here, I was a bit taken aback. It was the first time Newton had spoken to me since Feb. 22, 2011, when he told me in a telephone interview, “I see myself not only as a football player, but an entertainer and icon,” and I reported it. Newton thought it was a cheap shot for me to report it—more about that in a minute—and so we’d gone into radio silence whenever I was around him since, which wasn’t that often.
This item is about the maturation of a person and a player, and about something I don’t recall ever experiencing covering the league.
After detailing the Newton story, I’ll report on other camp stuff from the week that was, and other current events around the NFL and the Hall of Fame ceremonies, as The MMQB’s camp odyssey continues (Skyline Chili today in Cincinnati!) in the midwest. What’s in the column today:
• In Miami, Joe Philbin’s doing bed check. The players actually like it.
• In Atlanta, it’s really strange seeing Devin Hester in number 17, and not in Bear blue.
• I have an item Rolling Stone will dig. (Does that mean I’m Almost Famous?)
• Also: A “Hard Knocks” preview, with stirring words from mentor-y Steven Jackson.
• And the Pro Football Hall of Fame is changing some eligibility rules. I like the change.
• Last note: When I got to 9,200 words Sunday night, I decided to hold off on including my Tennessee, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville items, all of which I like. But I rarely write 9,000 words during the season, never mind in early August. So you’ll have to read my Tuesday column to learn the name of the second-best player I’ve seen on my camp tour. On with today’s show.
Newton finished a press conference with the local media 15 or 20 minutes after he approached me initially, and when he finished, I was waiting outside the room. Steven Drummond of the Carolina PR staff found us a room, an auditorium the team uses for meetings at Wofford. He closed the door, and Newton and I stood there together. I wasn’t taking notes in our 20 minutes together, but I remember a lot of what he said.
I don’t want to walk the other way every time I see you," Newton said. "That’s not what a man does.
He got right to the point. He said most of the people close to him wanted him to never speak to me again. Ignore me. I was one of the haters, so don’t deal with me; just deal with the media who were either fair—in their minds—or consistently supportive. “But I am my own person,” he said. “I think for myself. I make my own decisions. I decided I wanted to talk to you to see if we could work this out. I don’t want to walk the other way every time I see you. That’s not what a man does.”
And I said I wanted to explain to him exactly what happened that day three-and-a-half years ago, when I quoted him accurately after our telephone interview; that way, he could decide for himself if he wanted to ever speak to me again. This was the situation: At the time, two months before the draft, Newton wasn’t doing much press, and I was called by one of his PR people and told that he was going to spend an hour on the phone with selected reporters—four reporters, 15 minutes each. Did I want to be in? Of course, I said. I was the first of the four to talk with him that day, and during the interview, he said the icon and entertainer thing.
I figured there were certain messages about work ethic and image he wanted to get across in the interview, which he did. And I figured I wouldn’t be the only one he said that line to. I just figured if I didn’t use it, and fast, one of the next three interviewers would hear it and use it, somewhere. And so I threw it on Twitter, and said NFL people wouldn’t like to hear it. And it became a cause célèbre when he went to the NFL Scouting Combine a few days later. One quarterback-needy coach high in the draft said the comment totally soured him on Newton, and he caught some crap for it, and I caught some crap for it too, for what some thought was taking a quote out of context.
“I’ve thought about what I’d have done differently,” I told Newton, standing there in the auditorium. But I said we weren’t face-to-face, and maybe if we were I’d have cautioned him about it; I wasn’t sure. But I just figured he’d say it to someone else at some point, and so I used it.
Newton looked me straight in the eye and spoke earnestly, with passion. He told me he had some in his support group wanting him to—and this is my word, not his, because I can't quote exactly what he said—be a brand, a great quarterback with a great image off the field as a multifaceted person. I understood totally. What marketing person or PR person working for a first-round quarterback doesn’t use Peyton Manning as a model? On one hand, Newton said what he said, and I reported it. But in the end, I feel bad that he was branded with those comments because his three years as a player has proven him to be, after some missteps at post-game podiums following losses, a good person and leader.
Then we talked for a few minutes about the perception of African-American quarterbacks. He said he wanted to prove to inner-city kids they can be NFL quarterbacks. Many are very talented at the youth level as quarterbacks, but what hurts are underfunded city football programs and underfunded high school programs with mediocre and undermanned coaching staffs. Equal prospects at a very young age who get great coaching with richer resources end up getting more chances. He said he wanted to be part of changing that.
Spur of the moment thought just then. I said: “Russell Wilson wrote something for The MMQB this summer about the history of race in the NFL, and he wrote a lot about the rise of African-American quarterbacks. I’ll send you the link. If you ever want to do something about what you’re talking about with the young African-American quarterbacks, I would love to see you do it.”
We talked a while longer. We were about to walk out, and he looked at me. “Let’s let bygones be bygones,” Newton said, and he stuck out his right hand. We shook.
A different Joe Philbin
Five minutes into a talk with Miami coach Joe Philbin here at Dolphins camp Friday morning, I hadn’t noticed any nervous tics or 10-year-aging wrinkles from last year’s Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin/Ted Wells season. But this did pique my interest:
“This camp,” Philbin said, “I’m doing every bed check. Every night. I knock on every door.”
How many doors? Sixty. At 10:30 p.m. nightly, Philbin knocks—ranking vets have singles, younger players have roommates—and checks. Some players, like quarterback Ryan Tannehill, are zonked (“I’ve been asleep every time he’s come in the room”), but some, like defensive end Cameron Wake, engage Philbin in a daily Q&A about practice, or a current event. “You guys okay?” Philbin will ask, or “Ready for practice in the morning?” Or “Anything we need to discuss?”
“It’s very welcome,” Wake said.
“That,” said Tannehill, “was a big shock to a lot of guys.”
“I think I’ve been more vigilant,” Philbin told me in his office Friday before the team’s 8 a.m. practice. “I am trying to do a better job communicating with players and staff. Since [the start of the offseason program] April 21, I’ve probably had every player on the team sitting on that couch you’re sitting on right now, and we just talk. About everything. I’ll ask, ‘What do you love most about being a Dolphin?’ Or, ‘Tell me one thing we could do, anything, either on the field or off, that we can do to be better as a team or an organization?’ Or, ‘Tell me one way you think you’ll be a better player this year.’
“Maybe with the players I was a little—I don’t want to say aloof, but maybe not as approachable as I should have been. They looked at this office as the principal’s office. I want them to know they can talk to me anytime, about anything. I want the players to know I have an open-door mentality.”
Philbin’s been called Clueless Joe for not knowing what was going on in his locker room and, in some cases, on the practice field as guard Jonathan Martin was getting hazed into a near-breakdown by a Richie Incognito-led group of tormentors. But the owner, Stephen Ross, didn’t fire him after a disappointing 8-8 season. Disappointing for many reasons. The Incognito scandal, of course. But also the way the team finished. At 8-6 with a shot to earn a wild-card berth, Miami laid two straight eggs, losing by a combined 39-7 to the other Patriot-chasers in the AFC East, the Bills and Jets, to close the season. Philbin (15-17 in two seasons) stayed. His close friend and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman was sacrificed to the football-firing gods, with Bill Lazor coming from Philadelphia to install a new downfield-passing offense that will be a challenge to master, particularly with an offensive line of total newbies.
Philbin told me a coach can’t be expected to know everything that goes on away from the facility. “Some of the smoking guns were way back in March, when the players were away,” he said. But he knows he won’t be the coach of this team for long if he doesn’t corral the locker room and build better relationships with players. That’s what this off-season was about, and what this camp is about too.
With the players I was maybe not as approachable as I should have been," Philbin said. "They looked at this office as the principal’s office. I want them to know they can talk to me anytime, about anything.
But say one thing for Philbin: If he was a terrible coach, with no control of his team, Miami wouldn’t have gone 5-2 in the first seven games after the Martin affair exploded and threatened to rip the team apart. “The general consensus in the media world is that it was much more of an issue, event or distraction than it was among us,” Wake said Friday. “We’re programmed to move on as football players, and that’s pretty much what we did. We played. It was funny kind of hearing months later about it, because it’s like, Oh, you’re still thinking about that? Because we moved on.”
I asked Wake what kind of coach Philbin was to play for and relate to. “He’s probably one of the most interested coaches I’ve had as far as what you think or how you feel about certain things. Some coaches are like, It’s a dictatorship—this is how we’re gonna do things. Take it or leave it. He’s like, Well, we’re thinking about doing this schedule. What do the vets think about it? What would make you feel more prepared for the game or for practice? Having the input from the players to kind of organize or get the logistics to a lot of different things—not only does it actually help us as far as recovery and translating to getting your plays down, it also gives you a different sense of ownership. This is our program. This is our team. All of us are working to keep it together, versus the general standing on top of the steps and barking out orders.”
Example: The players asked Philbin for music during practices, instead of the old white-noise crowd noise that most teams blast when trying to practice communicating in a loud environment. On Friday, the music—a rap/salsa/pop/oldies mixture—played for maybe 70 percent of practice.
Philbin also relaxed the dress code for walkthrough practices, and he’s thinking about doing a more player-friendly practice schedule, according to Wake.
We’ll see if it works—or if it even matters. As with so many teams in this league, it comes down to the quarterback. The Dolphins need Tannehill to digest the offense and make it work behind a bunch of offensive linemen who’ve known each other for about 15 minutes. Left to right, the five starters will be new faces on opening day. “Huge changes on offense, and I love it,” Tannehill said. “We’re going to be pushing the ball downfield, spreading the ball and spreading the field, sideline to sideline, playing fast.”
Speaking of fast, Tannehill said the learning curve “has to be fast for the line. We haven’t found the five that it’s going to be at this point.”
On Saturday, the Dolphins picked up their former center, smallish Samson Satele, off the street, trying to find depth for the interior line, which has struggled in even the basics. The centers in camp have been adventurous, let’s just say, with something as simple as the shotgun snap. One flew over Tannehill’s head in practice Friday.
So there are other problems here. If Philbin can solve them and win more than he loses, he’ll deserve an extension. If he doesn’t, and Miami has its sixth straight non-winning season, Philbin’s job will be very much in danger. Oh, and Miami plays 2013 playoff teams New England, Kansas City and San Diego in the first five weeks. Study hard, Mr. Tannehill.
* * *
Flowery Branch, Ga.
I can’t believe what I am seeing.
Every year when I go on my training-camp trip, there are things I see and players in different uniforms and coaches in odd places that I just didn’t expect. In my first 12 stops I was stopped in my tracks only once: when I saw Devin Hester wearing a strange number, 17, and the red jersey of the Atlanta Falcons.
I always figured that Hester, who played eight years for the Chicago Bears, would one day join Butkus, Luckman, Halas, Sayers and so many legendary Monsters of the Midway, guys who played or coached their entire careers in Chicago and went to Canton with the full-throated support of rabid Bears fans. Now, I am not automatically putting Hester in. He’s 31, and he is tied with Deion for most return touchdowns (19) in NFL history. But I’ve learned never to assume anything in Hall voting. Hester’s an electric ball of fire. But that guarantees nothing. I would just say that if a returner from this era gets in, it’s got to be Hester.
I think I’ve done things that have never been done," Hester said. "I think I’m the best returner who has ever played the game of football.
He may well end up in Canton as the best kick-and-punt returner in history (he’s not there yet, but he’s close), but now he’ll have to have a second act to ensure that. He’ll have to do it in Atlanta, where the return game has stunk and where he has signed a three-year, $9-million contract contract to rejuvenate Falcons special teams (he had a 14.2-yard punt-return average last year, and a 27.6-yard kick-return average, both very good), and to be a field-stretcher as a fourth or fifth receiver for Matt Ryan.
“Are you shocked it came to this?” I asked Hester after practice the other day.
“I am,” he said. “It’s shocking. I still think about it. But I wanted to go somewhere I was wanted. I knew that I was not finished, and Atlanta really wanted me. So even though it feels strange, I’m really happy to be in a place that wants me and that is going to use me.”
It’s understandable that the nine-year vet, a speed player, would be seen as a guy who doesn’t have much left. But if you can stomach paying decent money for a guy who may be only an impact player in the return game, there’s a good chance you’ll get your money’s worth in five or six big plays this year.
“The thing that people don’t understand,” said wide receiver Julio Jones, “is that for us, he’s not just going to be a returner. We’ve seen it out here. He can help us as a receiver, and he is helping us.”
Added the other top Atlanta wideout, Roddy White: “What Devin is going to do for us is exercise the field.” Exercise the field? “Make the defense cover every corner of the field,” White explained.
Hester knows that his role primarily is to be the kick- and punt-returner, and whatever happens in the passing game happens. I was more interested in his future.
“If you don’t play another snap, are you a Hall of Famer?” I asked him.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I think I am. I think I’ve done enough. I’m satisfied with what I’ve done stat-wise. I think I’ve done things that have never been done. I think I’m the best returner who has ever played the game of football. But if I don’t get [into the Hall of Fame], it wouldn’t be disappointing to me. I know, the guys I played against know. The rest is out of my hands.”
I’m a voter. I think Hester, in this era of football, has been a singular returner. In an era of such great athletes who have played this game, I think Hester has a superb case.
Something new about 2014 training camps: Groovy tunes.
One of the new things about camps that I’ve noticed in my 12 stops so far is music. Namely, more play it during practices than I have ever heard. Music has momentum. Players are happy about it. A scorecard:
|Camp||Music||New This Year?||What Kind|
|Buffalo||Yes||No||From rap to “Jump Around” to country|
|N.Y. Giants||No (Are you kidding?)|
|Baltimore||Yes||No||Classic (“Sweet Emotion,” “Hot-Blooded") ruled|
|Philadelphia||Yes||No||Techno house music/rap/pop|
|Jacksonville||Yes||No||Best playlist: From Outkast to U2 to Journey|
|Miami||Yes||Yes||“Baba O’Riley” and rap and country|
So six say yes to music (Washington just a bit), six say no. A tie.
Some music notes: In Buffalo, Doug Marrone started it last year, early in the season. “You have to respect how young people live today,” said GM Doug Whaley. “For so many of them, their motto is, ‘Life’s better with a sound track.'" … The big reason for it, basically, is that lots of teams for years have tried to distract players and imitate stadium noise by playing at loud volume a soundtrack of stadium noise. “Annoying,” said Cameron Wake of the Dolphins. “Music, to me it kind of serves two or three purposes. It is live and upbeat. At the beginning of a period it might be kind of one of your old favorite songs. You get your morale up and your mood up. You feel lively and ready for the drill.” That’s one of the reasons Miami players asked Joe Philbin this year to can the fake stadium noise and add music. He did … The anti-music opinion, from Tennessee coach Ken Whisenhunt: “It’s out of my comfort zone. I don’t like it. We just had the white-noise crowd noise at practice yesterday pumped up loud, and I think that accomplishes what we need to accomplish. But one thing I’ve learned is never say never.”
The way I look at it: If you’ve got to have noise at practice, why not make it noise everyone enjoys, or everyone at least tolerates?
* * *
This is why “Hard Knocks” is like that Cosmo Kramer portrait.
Remember the “Seinfeld” episode when the society lady sees the oil painting of Kramer and says, “He is a loathsome, offensive brute, yet I cannot look away?” Well, the Falcons’ “Hard Knocks” series, five one-hour shows between now and the final cut of the roster, debuts Tuesday night on HBO (10 p.m. Eastern Time), and the producers have more than 400 hours of footage to cull down for the first hour.
One scene very likely to make the final cut is this one:
Running back Steven Jackson, 31, has his running-back/fullback group clustered around him before the first practice of camp. The group finishes a pre-camp prayer, and Jackson indicates to the eight players around him—all of them younger—that he wants to speak.
“Hey man—I just want to say one thing too," he begins, and all eyes go to the 10-year vet.
“It’s a lot of y’all’s first training camp. Nothing different, man. Football’s football. When you get between the lines, your God-given ability’s going to take over. All I do is encourage you to be confident in yourself. Motivate one another. Push and try to be better. Competition’s going to bring the best out of everybody. At the end of the day, only so many men gonna make this team. But at the end of the day we can still be brothers. At the end of the day we can still uplift each other. That’s what life is about. Know what I’m saying? Regardless what your paycheck reflects, you’re cared about amongst your brotherhood here, and not just what you can do for a coach or an organization. Know what I’m saying?
“I made a lot of money in my career. Had a lot of success. But at the end of the day, I appreciated when somebody genuinely cared about me. I will do that for you. I want you to know, whatever you need, whatever you ask me, I will try to make sure you HAVE that information. And if I don’t know, I will try to find a resource to help you with it.
“When we walk on the field, we compete. When we walk OFF the field, we brothers. Know what I’m saying?"
“I take responsibility for being the leader of this room. Can’t nobody relate to us but this circle of people right now. We miss a block, we gonna make it right. We gonna make it right together. There’s no isolation. We gotta make it happen together. All right?"
Hands in the middle of the group now, one on top of another.
“RBs on three. One-two-three …”
Nine voices: “RBs!!!!”
Pretty good TV right there.
* * *
New Hall of Fame hope for the men who helped make the game.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame is changing the bylaws for enshrinement. Starting next year, there will still be a maximum of five modern-era candidate slots for entry each year, but there will be a new category for contributors to the game, and it will impact the senior nominees each year (currently two seniors, or players more than 20 years out of the game, are eligible in each class) of voting. The upshot is there will be a maximum of eight enshrinees each year for the next five years, up from seven. Over the next five years, here is the way the voting will be conducted:
2015—Five modern-era candidates, two contributors, one senior.
2016—Five modern-era candidates, one contributor, two seniors.
2017—Five modern-era candidates, two contributors, one senior.
2018—Five modern-era candidates, one contributor, two seniors.
2019—Five modern-era candidates, two contributors, one senior.
Contributors are owners, general managers, scouts, officials, commissioners and other impactful people in league history (Ed or Steve Sabol of NFL Films, for example). The problem with getting contributors in now is that it’s not a fair process for them. If you favor Ron Wolf, for example (and I do—vociferously), you have to consider him alongside Michael Strahan and Charles Haley and Bill Parcells, and when that happens, history says most of the 46 voters will go the player/coach route. That leaves team-builders like Gil Brandt (who has other important qualities for his candidacy, by the way), Wolf and Bill Polian most often on the outside, in a big backlog, when the voters’ list is pared down to the semifinal list of 25 each winter, then of course off the final list of 15 for debating the enshrinees each year.
Those I feel deserve very strong consideration for the contributor category at the start of the process: Wolf, Brandt, Polian, Eddie DeBartolo Jr., Paul Tagliabue. I hope the new process lets the sun shine on their candidacies.
One other note: The contributors will be chosen the same way seniors are—with a simple yay-or-nay vote after discussion in the voting room by selectors and thus won’t be competing against the 15 modern-era candidates each year. The modern guys compete against each other, with a winnowing-vote from 15 finalists to 10, then from 10 to five, and then yes or no on the final five.
Not everyone on the committee likes it. Rick Gosselin, the highly respected Dallas voter, believes that because of the backlog of valid seniors candidates, it’s counterproductive to consider seven seniors instead of 10 over the next five years. I see his point, because he has a long list of vets who aren’t in and deserve to have their cases heard. But this is a five-year attempted fix to address the problem of contributors not making it. After five years the Hall likely will go back to two seniors per year and one contributor. That is just, in my opinion.
My only objection to the change is I feel it’s pushing the limits of exclusivity to have, potentially, eight-man classes. Let’s see how this goes, but I like it being hard to get into the Hall. It should be hard.
Quotes of the Week
"I'm truly looking forward to celebrating and sharing this special moment with all of the great fans of the Packers."
—Brett Favre, on his website Sunday night, acknowledging that the Packers will induct him into the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame in 2015, ending an icy period that dates to 2008, when he was traded to the New York Jets after retiring/unretiring and bitterly trying to re-take his starting job when the team had given it to Aaron Rodgers.
“Improbability means nothing, because absolutely anything is possible.”
—Michael Strahan, in his Hall of Fame induction speech Saturday night in Canton, Ohio.
“I don’t really get excited about many things, because every day is a continuous cycle of interesting stuff. But this is unlike anything else.”
—Strahan, the TV star, on entering the Hall.
“It’s been long overdue, but the Hall of Fame has a complete team now.”
—Ray Guy, the first punter ever selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in his induction speech Saturday night.
“That night I just replay over and over in my head. My actions were inexcusable, and that’s something I have to live with for the rest of my life.”
—Ray Rice, Thursday, in his first public comments since he was suspended for two games by the NFL for assaulting his fiancée in an elevator in Atlantic City last winter.
“The decision to suspend Mr. Rice for a mere two games sends the inescapable message that the NFL does not take domestic or intimate-partner violence with the seriousness they deserve … Mr. Rice’s suspension reflects a disturbingly lenient, even cavalier attitude towards violence against women.”
—A letter from three senators—Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut) and Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin)—to the Baltimore Ravens and the NFL on Thursday, criticizing the two-game ban for Rice.
“They are cheaters. I give them all the credit in the world, but one fact remains: They haven’t won a Super Bowl since they got caught.”
—Philadelphia cornerback Cary Williams, on his feelings about the New England Patriots, who were punished harshly by commissioner Roger Goodell in the “Spygate” case in 2007.
Those joint practices between the Eagles and Patriots in Foxboro in eight days should be interesting. Williams got in a fight last year when the Patriots came to Philadelphia to practice.
Chip Kelly Wisdom of the Week
(Note: I’ve made an editorial decision about the “Monday Morning Quarterback” column in 2014. I’m going to comb the weekly Chip Kelly press conferences and find a quote I like. There might be some weeks when I cannot find one, and in that case, this note will disappear. But most weeks, I feel sure I’ll have a Kellyism for you. The reason I like to listen to him is that he’s the kind of an outsider who says things that make lots of sense. And I’ll try to pass on some of that comment NFL sense to you each Monday.)
“He asked me what was surprising me and I just think the hype that surrounds the draft in general. The fact that people would watch the Scouting Combine … There's times at the Combine where I fall asleep. So I don't know why people watch it on television. They are running 40-yard dashes.”
—Kelly, to Philadelphia media, referring to my question to him during The MMQB’s training-camp visit to the Eagles, when I wondered what surprised him about his first year in the NFL.
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
When Carolina coach Ron Rivera and wife Stephanie got a golden retriever a few years ago, Stephanie set out to train him well. Lots of dogs can be trained to go out to the driveway to fetch the newspaper in the morning, and Fiyero (named after the prince in the play “Wicked”) can do that. But Stephanie went a step further. She put a little bell by the two doors to the outside in the Rivera home, and trained Fiyero to ring the bell with his paw every time he wanted to go outside. So any time the Riveras hear the little bell, one of them goes to the door and lets Fiyero out.
So The MMQB crew, on an off-night before hitting Bengals camp, went to the Louisville Bats-Rochester Red Wings game Sunday evening. I met the general manager, a genial fellow named Greg Galiette. I complimented him on how beautiful his stadium is, a jewel on the banks of the Ohio River in downtown Louisville. He told me it was 15 years old. It looked five. Terrific venue.
And he asked: “Do you know who scored the first run in the history of this ballpark?”
Well, no. I mean, heck no.
And he told me the answer. “Deion Sanders," he said.
The Reds’ farmhand commuted daily from Cincinnati in 2000 while trying to make it back to the bigs toward the end of his dual-sport career, Galiette said, driving the 78 miles to and fro because he wanted to stay in the big-league town.
That’s the definition of a factoid, isn’t it? The player who scored the first run in Louisville Slugger Park. Who knew?
Stats of the Week
The Bucs have an assistant coach assigned to coach nickel backs. They have separate meetings with the assistant, Larry Marmie, a 71-year-old football lifer. I do believe this is the first time a team has assigned a coach to handle the nickel, or slot, corners. “Why not?” said Tampa Bay GM Jason Licht. “That’s a position where the guy might play 65 percent of your snaps.” The nickel backs meet and talk all about the unique position of slot corner, with its emphasis on physicality and playing in traffic that is separate from the outside corners.
It’s an interesting story. Marmie coached Lovie Smith as a collegian 36 years ago, at Tulsa, and later hired Smith to be on his coaching staff when he was the head coach at Arizona State. Smith felt that the position—with in many cases a more physical player ping-ponging on the slot receiver inside the formation, as opposed to outside corners who can afford to be less physical—had become important and distinct enough to merit its own coach.
“We coach the nickel like he’s one of the 11 starters,” Marmie told me after practice Thursday, “because he’ll play more snaps in a game than some starters. The nickel plays not just on third down now, but on first and second downs if you’re matching up against a team that throws a lot.”
In practice, Marmie said, “I take them every day and do individual drills away from the corners, away from the safeties. In some cases the drills are like linebacker drills. You want a guy who can play the passing game and be strong in coverage, and who can sort the routes out, and who also can play the run because he’s playing inside.”
The Bucs’ nickel back in 2013, Leonard Johnson, played 711 of the team’s defensive snaps, which ranked 10th on the team. Johnson is competing for the spot this year and is favored to keep it. At 5-11 and 202 pounds, he jams and bumps more physically in practice than the outside corners.
Charting the leading nickel backs shows just how much a part of the landscape the nickels are. Here are the total snaps by primary nickel players on each team, with numbers courtesy of Pro Football Focus:
|Player, Team||Snaps||Pct. of team’s total defensive plays|
|1. Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona||803*||72.3%|
|2. Alfonzo Dennard, New England||727||59.9%|
|3. Cortez Allen, Pittsburgh||718||65.7%|
|4. Leonard Johnson, Tampa Bay||711||63.9%|
|5. Corey Graham, Baltimore||705||61.8%|
|6. David Amerson, Washington||694||64.5%|
|7. Tramaine Brock, San Francisco||678||61.5%|
|8. Josh Robinson, Minnesota||664||54.2%|
|9. Marcus Cooper, Kansas City||662||58.1%|
|10.Brondon Boykin, Philadelphia||635||50.9%|
* Mathieu was a safety for the Cardinals in base defense, and moved to nickel whenever that was the defense called. So the numbers for him are skewed.
In summation: The average NFL nickel last season played 577 snaps, or 51.1 percent of the average NFL team’s snaps for the season. I’d have thought it was a little more, but you can see why teams are moving to coach the position differently: 577 snaps for a player is like having a 12th starter.
From ESPN over the weekend on the new Hall of Fame left tackle from the Seahawks:
“In 5,703 passing plays, Walter Jones allowed just 23 sacks. In 12 seasons, he was called for holding nine times.”
Andre Reed’s Hall of Fame speech was 36 minutes long Saturday, the longest induction speech in the 51-year history of the Hall of Fame.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
A bunch of notes from the road:
• The MMQB Tour pulled into Gaffney, S.C., late last Sunday night. The four of us—driver Andy DeGory, me, PFF’s Neil Hornsby, video man John DePetro—hustled into an Olive Garden for dinner before it closed at 10. “Anything to drink for y’all?” the waitress said. I blurted out, “Glass of Chianti, please.” She said she is sorry, but this is a dry county and there is no alcohol served or sold in this county on Sundays. We are crestfallen. DeGory, who has been driving for seven hours since West Virginia, just hoping for one lousy beer when he gets us to the motel in Gaffney, looks like his dog just died. We lived. Unhappily, but we lived.
• Greatest morning of the trip, easy: We worked out for 70 minutes at the LA Fitness in Buford, Ga. Man, was that great, after being blobs for so long. Me: ran three miles in 28:30.
• It is not broiling out here. In Florida, yes. But everywhere else, it’s global cooling. A nice evening in Nashville at Titans practice Saturday night, maybe 74 degrees.
• I missed the “commute” from Davie, Fla., to Nashville (14 hours) for a couple of things in south Florida, including the Marlins game Friday. By missing the RV trip, I did get to fly Delta through Atlanta on Saturday morning, and I do believe Delta set a record on the Atlanta-to-Nashville segment: On a 38-minute flight to Nashville, the flight attendant or pilots said nine times how happy they were to have the passengers aboard.
• The MMQB Team had time Sunday to work out at a Planet Fitness in Louisville. I’ve never been to one. A couple of observations: They spell “judgment” wrong. They insert an “e,” and make it “judgement," as in “No Judgement Here.” They’re trying to say that if you’re overweight, it’s fine—just come in and work out and get started on a healthy path. Cool, other than the spelling. And the scales. I wanted to weigh myself at the end of the workout Sunday. No scales in the men’s locker room. I went to the front desk and asked the fellow where I might find a scale. “We don’t have scales,” he said. “This is a judgment-free zone.” Those were his words: This is a judgment-free zone. Or maybe a “judgement"-free zone.
• Thanks to Shannon Siders of the Louisville Slugger company for the tour of its museum and factory Sunday. For a baseball kid growing up in Connecticut, to be able to hold Carl Yastrzemski’s model bat—that was sweet. Incredibly informative. A great place to visit if you’re traveling and want to hold history in your hand.
• I have resisted the siren song of the 49ers-Ravens scrimmage in Maryland in six days to keep my original schedule, and this is the rest of it:
Today: Bengals practice, Cincinnati.
Tuesday: The MMQB crew sees the Colts. I leave for a day to go to my uncle’s funeral in Enfield, Conn.
Wednesday: Rams practice, St. Louis.
Thursday: Bengals-Chiefs game, Kansas City.
Friday: Eagles-Bears game, Chicago.
Saturday: Browns-Lions game, Detroit.
Sunday: Vikings, Mankato, Minn.
Monday, Aug. 11: Packers, Green Bay
Tuesday, Aug. 12: Browns, Cleveland
Aug. 13-16: Writing days.
Sunday, Aug. 17: Broncos-49ers, Levi’s Stadium opening game, Santa Clara, Calif.
Monday, Aug. 18: Seahawks practice, Renton, Wash.
Tuesday, Aug. 19: Texans-Broncos practice, Englewood, Colo.
Wednesday, Aug. 20: Texans-Broncos practice, Englewood, Colo.
Thursday, Aug. 21: Chargers practice, San Diego.
Friday, Aug. 22: Cardinals practice, Glendale, Ariz.
Saturday, Aug. 23: Cowboys-Dolphins game, Miami.
Thursday, Sept. 4: Green Bay at Seattle, NFL opener
That’s right: A month from tonight, the NFL opens its 95th season.
Tweets of the Week
"Begin with the end in mind and die empty." #PFHOF14
— Aeneas Williams (@aeneas35) August 3, 2014
Pastor Aeneas Williams of The Spirit Church of St. Louis, in his moving Hall of Fame induction speech Saturday night.
Hall of Fame sculptor struggled with Strahan's teeth http://t.co/8itMwjsd6S
— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) August 2, 2014
The link goes to a story about how the man who sculpted Strahan’s bust spent four hours measuring and calibrating Strahan’s gap-toothed smile. Inductees are strongly advised not to smile, because brown/bronze teeth are not becoming on sculpted busts, but Strahan refused, seeing as how he’s rarely seen not smiling or talking (or both simultaneously).
Jimmy Graham just scored and dunked over goal post, drawing a flag from officials. Crowd lustily booed.
— Jeff Duncan (@JeffDuncan_) August 2, 2014
The columnist of the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported from Saints practice Saturday in West Virginia. As part of the league’s annual effort to familiarize players and coaches with new rules, ref Gene Steratore’s crew was on the field for the practice and throwing flags, including on the new penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct for dunking the ball over the goal post in celebration. Such a display has occasionally caused a delay because in the act of dunking, the crossbar gets uneven, and stadium workers have to come out to re-level the goal post.
Well I am awake.
— Sonny Gray (@SonnyGray2) July 31, 2014
The Oakland pitcher tweeted this less than an hour after the A’s traded for Jon Lester on Thursday. Imagine this rotation for an opening playoff series for Oakland:
1. Jon Lester (0.43 World Series ERA lifetime).
2. Jeff Samardzija.
3. Sonny Gray.
4. Scott Kazmir.
A’s fans, this is your best chance at winning the World Series in 25 years. Curious: Which rotation is better—Oakland’s or Detroit’s? It’s close.
Welcome to Kansas City-on-the-Charles http://t.co/isuCNRXL4c
— Dan Shaughnessy (@Dan_Shaughnessy) July 31, 2014
The esteemed columnist for the Boston Globe tweeted this after the Red Sox traded their top two starting pitchers, Jon Lester and John Lackey, on the day of the trading deadline.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think Roger Goodell has had happier anniversaries. Friday is the eight-year anniversary of Goodell’s ascension to the commissioner’s job. I doubt in the wake of the Ray Rice decision he’ll be feted in many corners.
2. I think Goodell erred Friday when addressing the Rice suspension to reporters for the first time. He was fairly dispassionate and clinical, giving a Tagliabue-type, stiff, not too intimately-detailed explanation of how the league arrived at the decision that two games and a $530,000 fine for Rice was appropriate. What was missing was the kind of passion and connection he needed to show with his consumers, particularly but not exclusively with women who are outraged that the sanctions for Rice were not more stringent. Something like this, looking into the cameras:
“I want to talk to our fans right now, particularly women. I know you feel what we’ve done to punish Ray Rice is too light. I have heard from all of you—the columnists, the elected officials, the fans, and people from all over America, women who are our fans and women who are not. I get it. I get the outrage. We take a very dim view of physical aggression against women. We spend time every year educating our players, at our rookie symposium and in preseason meetings with all 32 teams. And though we think missing 13 percent of the season and being fined half a million dollars is a significant punishment, we hear you. I want to tell you why the penalty wasn’t more severe. Ray Rice has been one of the leading players in the league in volunteerism in his six years in the NFL. He led a fight against bullying in the state of Maryland, appearing at countless schools to counsel kids on it. He’s been a tremendous community presence. There is no indication from the investigating we did that Rice had done this before, or has done it since. It’s a terrible mistake. He knows it. We know it. It was my judgment that we should judge Rice the total person in this case and not judge the awful incident in isolation. I know many of you won’t agree with me. But that is the call I made. And now, moving forward, we’re going to redouble our efforts to emphasize to our players the zero-tolerance policy we will continue to have for violence against women. Thank you.”
3. I think the best idea I heard all week on my tour was this, from Tampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown. On Thursday, I asked him about the breakneck pace of the baseball trading deadline that day, and he said he’d not been paying attention because of, you know, his job, and I told him about all the trades, and he said, “Man, that’s exciting. I wish they’d push our trading deadline back.” So does football nation. Football’s trading deadline is after the eighth weekend of the 16-game regular season. Baseball’s happens with a third of the season left. It spurs teams that think they’re out of it to sell off for the future. I like that. In football, even though the deadline moved back two weeks last season, it still prevents all but the 0-7 or 1-7 teams from thinking the season's over, because there are nine games left in the season—plenty of time to salvage it.
4. I think there are some great young receivers about to suit up—Sammy Watkins, Brandin Cooks, Mike Evans, Jordan Matthews are the ones I’ve seen. It’s the best position of newbies I’ve seen out here on the trail.
5. I think the one statement Jon Bon Jovi—one of three bidders to buy the Bills—didn't make in his painfully well-crafted letter to Bills' fans that appeared in the Buffalo News was this: "I will not move the Bills if and when I buy them." Everything else is fluff.
6. I think I would have felt a lot better about the 2014 fortunes of the Bills had E.J.Manuel been better than two-of-seven, and had connected at least once—particularly on the long throw down the left sideline in the first quarter Sunday night—with star rookie wideout Sammy Watkins. Three targets, zero receptions for Watkins. Nothing huge. Just a bummer for the first outing of what's supposed to be a beautiful relationship.
7. I think the failed career of former Chiefs first-round receiver Jonathan Baldwin reached its nadir late Sunday when the Niners released Baldwin in favor of keeping a player the Cowboys dumped on Saturday, wideout L'Damian Washington. Baldwin, the 26th pick in 2011, had 44 catches in 33 games, which does not equate to a first-round pick. To be the first receiver cut in camp, three weeks before the deadline, means the Niners had only marginal interest in having him around, and shows what a disastrous player Baldwin was.
8. I think, after pondering the prospective 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame class, I would predict these five modern-era finalists for entry: Marvin Harrison, Will Shields, Junior Seau, Charles Haley and ... now this is a tough one, because there are so many close calls in the modern-era class, but I'll say Orlando Pace, narrowly, over Jerome Bettis. We shall see. Even though I'm one of the voters, I'm always lousy at predicting the outcome of the vote.
9. I think Jim Harbaugh did a nice thing the other day during a press conference with the locals in Santa Clara. Here's what he said: “You all know [head groundskeeper] Matt Greiner, the phenomenal groundskeeper for the San Francisco 49ers? When you get a chance, take a look at the new goal posts that have been erected there—the goal posts with the five-feet higher uprights. They were delivered in boxes with no directions, and screws and bolts that did not fit the holes. After about 10 hours of work, Matt Greiner and three other guys got it done and they got it up and they accomplished the mission, and you’ll see it. Beautiful field goal posts that are now out there.”
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. I don’t think I have ever seen an injury as gruesome as Paul George’s broken leg in the USA team’s scrimmage Friday night. That tops the Theismann injury in my mind, and I was at RFK Stadium the night the Giants corkscrewed Theismann into the ground and shattered his leg in an ugly way. This was worse.
b. I know nothing about basketball, and it is always dangerous to speak of things you know nothing about, certainly. But if I were an NBA general manager, I might draw up in my contracts that a player can play in the Olympics, but not in any of these other international tournaments. There’s just too much at stake, and basketball is too much of a contact sport, to risk getting hurt severely in a scrimmage between national team members preceding an international tournament that no one really cares much about anyway.
c. Love the baseball trading deadline. What a fun day Thursday was. Many thoughts.
• What on God’s green earth were the Phillies doing, sitting it out? They should have been holding the fire sale of fire sales with so much dumb money spent on that ancient roster.
• The Rays got 18 cents on the dollar for David Price.
• The Red Sox should have made Jon Lester a better offer last February than four years, $70 million. Say, five years, $105 million. But much beyond that, and I have to say it gets too rich for my blood for a pitcher who will be 31 next year. He could be great for the next five years and I’ll be wrong when someone pays him $25 million a year next winter. But it’s more likely he’ll be somewhere between good and overpriced, when the verdict is recorded five years down the road (assuming he gets a five-year deal somewhere, which is obviously not a lock).
• Now about the Boston Massacre Week. It is hard to overstate how much reconstruction went on in Boston. It’s historic. Think of these little factoids:
• The starting rotation for much of the 2013 championship season—poof. Vanished. (Remember Clay Buchholz missed half the season.) Jon Lester (33 starts), Ryan Dempster (29), John Lackey (29), Felix Doubront (27) and Jake Peavy (23) are in Oakland, retirement, St. Louis, Chicago and San Francisco, respectively.
• The winning pitchers in all four Red Sox World Series wins were traded in a 36-hour span: Doubront (Game 4) to the Cubs first, then Lester (Games 1, 5) to the A’s, and finally Lackey (Game 6) to the Cardinals.
• The 1-6-7-8 hitters in Game 2 of the World Series (Jacoby Ellsbury, Jonny Gomes, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Stephen Drew) have vanished since the World Series.
• Eleven of the 24 players on Boston’s World Series roster nine months ago are gone.
• The Red Sox are on the way to a rare baseball team accomplishment: last in the division in 2012, first in the division in 2013, last in the division in 2014.
• As Tyler Kepner of The New York Times points out, pitcher Joe Kelly, who was part of the deal for Lackey with St. Louis, was due to start Game 7 of the World Series had the Red Sox not won the series in six.
• My only problem with the whole thing: The Red Sox got too dug in on a “reasonable” price for Lester last off-season and never got serious about paying market value for a true ace.
d. So good to see Reds radio voice Marty Brennaman—in his 41st year in the Reds on Radio booth—at Reds-Marlins in Miami on Friday night. I hadn’t seen Marty in a hundred years, and the old boy looks darn good, and sounds darn good. I told him my favorite Brennaman story: how as a 26-year-old backup beat guy on the Reds for the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1983, I went missing for a few days when my first daughter, Laura, was born at Christ Hospital in Cincinnati. And much to my surprise and pleasure, Marty announced Laura’s birthday on the 50,000-watt Reds powerhouse station, WLW, so everyone from Keokuk to Hilton Head knew about the birth of the great Laura King. “That was 31 years ago this month, Marty,” I told him. “You told the world!” He looked stunned. “Well, I’ll be,” he said. Great to reconnect with one of the legends of the broadcast booth in any sport.
e. Cool story of the weekend, on a great wedding in New Jersey. Congrats to the Simms family.
f. Coffeenerdness: “This could be what turns it all around,” Miami GM Dennis Hickey said Friday, standing in front of the new Dolphins’ acquisition: a coffee machine that I swear can make anything you can imagine in the coffee and hot chocolate realm. I chose a “Cortadito,” which is half Cuban coffee, half steamed milk. All I can say is, Good to the last drop. Or as I said to Hickey: “This is obviously a more important acquisition than [new tackles] Ja’Wuan James or Branden Albert.”
g. Beernerdness: A rare bad beer Friday night at the Marlins Stadium in downtown Miami: Sofie, the Farmhouse Ale by Goose Island Beer of Chicago. In a word, sour. In two words, really sour. Not my cup of tea, or my kind of ale.
h. My last living uncle, Andy Keir, my late father’s only brother, died Thursday after a long illness in Massachusetts. Uncle Andy was a heck of a guy, not judgmental, always supportive, and an underrated pitcher in his day for Enfield (Conn.) High, the family alma mater. I’ll always remember how important family was to him, and how much he loved our family events over the years. A swell guy.
The Adieu Haiku
Jags coach Gus Bradley
Could sub for Tony Robbins.
The man can inspire.