Why the NFL’s Best Team Won’t Win the Super Bowl
RENTON, Wash. — One after one, they fell out of the sky, these perfect or near-perfect throws downfield from Russell Wilson, always landing close to, or in the hands of, a sub-4.4 sprinter like Percy Harvin or wispy rookie Paul Richardson. I mean, always on target. Such beautiful deep balls, and isn’t Wilson supposed to be a system quarterback or game manager, or whatever negative connotation you can think of when you don’t want to acknowledge he’s a top 10 quarterback in the league after two seasons and one Lombardi Trophy?
“His ball’s so good it looks like it’s coming out of a JUGS machine," Richard Sherman said.
There’s nothing not to like here. Maybe the offensive line, which worries the smart football people in the building. But nothing else. If the Seahawks stay relatively healthy, they should be favored to be the first team since the Patriots (2003, 2004) to repeat as champs.
But I’m not picking them. History is the reason. Stuff happens. It always does. And the game is justsoclose. Since New England’s second Super Bowl win a decade ago, and not including the ’13 Seahawks, this is the total playoff victories of the eight Super Bowl champions the following year:
Of the 27 teams I witnessed in person this summer, Seattle’s the best I saw. But the reality of repeating is that it’s become the toughest thing to do in sports.
I can’t give away my pick here; it’ll be in Sports Illustrated this week, in the annual pro football preview. I feel good about the pick, but I also feel that, of the 27 teams I witnessed in person this summer (at 22 camps, four games and one joint practice session), Seattle’s the best I saw. Stubbornness is a good reason why one of the other 31 teams will be my call, but the reality of repeating is that it’s become the toughest thing to do in sports. Think of it: For eight straight years, the defending champ has either not made the playoffs or hasn’t gotten past its first playoff game.
By what I saw in camp with the ’Hawks last Monday, I just might be blissfully unaware. This team’s stacked. The biggest thing might be the health of Harvin, who is as dangerous a non-quarterback as there is in football. Watching him run around the field on a pristine August day in Seattle, you almost forget what a mess Harvin was last season, when his year was wrecked by a torn labrum in his hip that required surgery. He was never right until Super Bowl Sunday. Harvin sure looks right now.
“That was the big frustration," Harvin said. “Not practicing one day, trying to practice the next day, not feeling right, sitting out a few days, maybe being 60 percent for a few days. Frustrating. This year, I’m flying all over the place. Totally different world."
“Iron sharpens iron," Richard Sherman said. “Him practicing against our defense, Russell practicing against our defense and working with Percy, I think we’re going to be improved."
Pete Carroll hasn’t focused on the R word. “Teams not repeating—that’s not topical to us," he told me. “I just asked them to have the best offseason of their lives and to come back ready. They have. It’s all about putting your work in to be better. Just get better. Practice better, study better, play better. Do we maintain the same kind of intensity we had last year? I think so. But you’ve got to have the right guys. Like, Russell pulls his receivers together today before a drill and says, ‘Guys, okay, this next drill, full speed, catch every ball, it’s important. Let’s get better.' ’’
More Seahawks: The MMQB’s Seattle training camp page
Hard for any team that won the Super Bowl by 35 points to look better the next year. But if Harvin plays every week—which is no lock, with his recent injury history—I could well be eating my prediction in five months. Which, as you know, will be nothing new.
And now for some stories from the end of my camp trail. My trip ended Saturday night with the completely forgettable Dallas-Miami game.
Sam Bradford’s a very rich man. And right now, he doesn’t care.
EARTH CITY, Mo. — This was 12 days ago, on a bench next to the St. Louis Rams’ practice field, and quarterback Sam Bradford, healed, feeling like a million bucks, was talking about what it felt like to tear the ACL in his left knee last October in Charlotte and adjust to life without football.
“You don’t feel a part of the team," he said. “The first couple weeks, especially, were really tough. It happens out of the blue. You’ve got to wait for the swelling to go down before they can do the surgery, and you’re not rehabbing, you’re not practicing, you’ve got nothing to focus on. You go from life being about football for 14, 16 hours a day to just sitting there, waiting. And in games, you’re not playing—just telling [backup] Kellen Clemens what you see out there. After a while, just to get through it, you act like it’s not really happening. That’s how I tried to deal with it."
I asked him: “Carson Palmer and a few other quarterbacks who’ve come back from an ACL say they feel a little nervous the first few times there’s traffic around their legs. They get nervous they’re going to get hit. How about you?"
“Haven’t felt that at all yet," he said. “Of course, I’ve got the red [non-contact] jersey on, so it hasn’t happened yet. I’ll have to wait for my first couple of games, to see how I feel."
We’ve got to go on," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said, “and that’s basically what I told Shaun Hill: ‘This is why you’re here. Let’s go.’
Game two. Saturday night. Cleveland. Defensive lineman Armonty Bryant comes off the edge, coming at Bradford’s left side, and as Bradford throws, Bryant slams into Bradford; the view is not perfect on tape, but the left knee hyperextends under the weight of Bryant’s hit, and Bradford falls to the ground. Traffic, the kind a red-jersey-wearing quarterback never sees in training camp, and a hit.
“My knee,’’ Bradford said, wincing, when the trainers got out there.
MRI early Sunday morning. A couple hours later, a trainer called Jeff Fisher and said, “Come on down to the trainer’s room.’’ Fisher knew that was bad. If it was good news on Bradford, the trainer would have said, “He’s fine.” And when Fisher got in the room, there was the trainer and Bradford. “I could tell," Fisher said Sunday night from St. Louis. “I could sense it, and feel it in the room." And Fisher said something to Bradford like, You worked so hard. This should not have happened. Bradford left, to spend the day with his parents, to try to come to grips with a second straight year with the same knee ripped up. The only good news: The ACL is torn, but nothing else in the knee, apparently, is damaged. He should be able to return whole in 2015. To where? Who knows.
“We’ve got to go on," Fisher said, “and that’s basically what I told [backup] Shaun Hill. Shaun shifts gears, and we go. I told him, ‘This is why you’re here. Let’s go.’
“But," Fisher said, “obviously I’ve been through this before, and you never get used to it. Never. It’s terrible. I took this job for two reasons: Mr. [Stan] Kroenke, the owner, and Sam, a really good starting quarterback. Now we don’t have him. And he’s facing a grueling rehab. It’s tough."
Hill is 34. He’s started 26 games (13-13) with San Francisco and Detroit—but his last start was four seasons ago. In his last three years backing up Matthew Stafford with the Lions, Hill has thrown 12 passes. His career arc is interesting. An unrecruited quarterback at Parsons (Kans.) High, Hill was offered a scholarship to punt for Pittsburg (Kans.) State. He went to junior college instead, earned a starting quarterback job, and played well enough to get a full ride at Maryland for his last two college seasons. Undrafted, he made the Vikings as a third-stringer, meandered through NFL Europe and played for the Niners and Lions mostly as a backup. His arm is average at best, though Fisher said Sunday night, “We think Shaun can make the throws Sam makes." We’ll see.
I feel sure they won’t pay a ransom for a Mark Sanchez, one of the league’s hottest quarterbacks this summer, even if Philadelphia decided to make him available. (A ransom being a second- or third-round pick. Not smart for a guy you might have only one year.) The Rams will monitor cut quarterbacks and may sign one to back up Hill, or to compete with Hill or backup Austin Davis. But I didn’t get the sense talking to Rams people Sunday that this was a priority, because Hill’s been in the system for five months and a newbie wouldn’t be familiar.
Now the Rams have to confront reality. They will have to send out their college scouts (who already would have watched quarterbacks this fall) to work extra hard on the crop of passers, on Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley and the others, because now quarterback is certainly in play for 2015. By the end of this season, Bradford would have started 49 NFL games and sat for 31 of them, and made $65 million in the process; his was the last silly rookie contract before the new CBA made rookie salaries rich but not kooky. Regardless of the reasons for missing those 31 games, St. Louis will have to look at replacing Bradford. That’s the cruel reality of the game, and Bradford’s just 26 years old. When—if—he takes the first snap for the Rams in the 2015 season, it will be 23 months from the time he last played a football game that counted.
There is a saying on the whiteboard in Rams general manager Les Snead’s office. “Build to dominate using Redskin picks!” it reads. The Rams made the mega-trade with Washington in 2012 that allowed their NFC neighbor to draft Robert Griffin III. The Rams, meanwhile, thought they had their quarterback of the future, and didn’t draft one until the sixth round this year in SMU’s Garrett Gilbert. And now those picks are gone.
MORE RAMS: The MMQB's St. Louis training camp page
Fisher has won with lesser players before. The Titans signed Kerry Collins in 2006 as quarterback insurance, and he ended up winning nine starts in 2008. Hill certainly will have some talent around him on offense, but in the NFC West, St. Louis's road just got loaded with potholes. The Rams hope they’re not drafting in the high franchise-quarterback neighborhood in 2015. But without Bradford, again, a high pick next year is much more likely than a high finish this year.
REVELATIONS FROM THE ROAD
A name to remember … and a trade to remember.
GLENDALE, Ariz. — John Brown this, John Brown that. John Brown out wide, John Brown in the slot, John Brown at the top of bunch formations. Forget Sammy Watkins, we got John Brown! The 91st pick of the 2014 draft, from that big NFL feeder Pittsburg (Kans.) State, is the hit of Cardinals training camp, forcing his way into first-team dialogue (“I’d say we could use him about 60 percent of the offensive snaps,” coach Bruce Arians said), just a few months after he took the gridiron against Emporia State and Nebraska-Kearney.
The Cardinals traded the 20th overall pick to New Orleans for the 27th and 91st picks (first- and third-rounders). The Saints used the 20th pick to take wide receiver Brandin Cooks. The Cards picked safety Deone Bucannon at 27 and wide receiver John Brown at 91.
Now for the rest of the story, from Arizona GM Steve Keim on Friday:
The Cards had their eyes on three players as the first round neared its midpoint: Ryan Shazier, Zack Martin and Calvin Pryor. But Shazier went at 15, Martin at 16, Pryor at 18. Now the Cards had a grading gap in the next set of players they liked, and Keim had an idea. There was this one under-the-radar prospect the Cardinals loved: Brown, a wideout from Pittsburg State. The Cards had him rated their fifth wide receiver in the draft. Early second-round grade. He’d run the second-fastest 40 time at the combine among receivers but had a checkered college career. He started at Mars Hill (N.C.) College, transferred to Coffeyville Junior College in Kansas, actually got cut from Coffeyville’s team, and transferred to Pittsburg State, where he played the last three seasons. A burner, but small (5-9, 179), and it’d take a leap of faith that, given his size and level of competition, he could transition to the NFL. Throughout the organization, though, the opinion was the same: We’ve got to find a way to get John Brown.
The Cards now had four picks in the top 100: 27, 52, 84 and 91. Keim figured the team had several priorities other than wideout, where they were fine (Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Ted Ginn), and he figured if Brown was still around at 91, at the bonus pick, he’d use that pick on Brown. Arizona got the physical safety it wanted at 27, Bucannon, a needed tight end (Troy Niklas) at 52 and a big defensive end to fit their 3-4 scheme (Kareem Martin) at 84. Now they waited. Keim paced. He called around to see which teams between 85 and 90 might take a receiver. He had a scout call Brown in a vague hope to tie up his phone line (as if he wouldn’t have call-waiting) as the picks went by.
With the 86th pick, the Philadelphia Eagles select … Josh Huff, wide receiver, Oregon.
Exhale. The Eagles’ second receiver in three rounds.
More nerves. A corner, defensive end and guard go next. One more pick. The Colts. They need a receiver. Their GM, Ryan Grigson, beats the bushes. He won’t … will he?
With the 90th pick, the Indianapolis Colts select … Donte Moncrief, wide receiver, Mississippi.
“YESSSSS!" was the first sound in the Cards’ draft room.
“Funny how these things work," Keim said Friday. “We’re so excited. Bruce [Arians] is pumped. But of course, you pick a receiver from Pittsburg State and the fans say, ‘What the heck are they doing? Who is John Brown?’ Now look at it—John Brown’s the talk of the town.”
Arians is lining up Brown in the slot, tight to the formation as a faux tight end with blocking responsibilities, and wide on either side. I watched practice Friday, and Brown was in on six early snaps with the first unit, more than Ted Ginn or Juron Brown. John Brown caught one bomb from Palmer, getting behind his cover corner easily. He’s going to be one of the most interesting rookies to watch.
For the rest of his tenure in Arizona, Keim will be measuring Brown thusly: 20 for 27 and 91. Cooks for Bucannon and Brown. If Cooks is significantly better than Brown, but Bucannon plays big for Arizona, Keim will be fine with the deal. That’s how general managers think. “We think they’ll be both be impact players for us,” Keim said.
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'Gotta use your feet more.' Isn’t that how it should be?
BEREA, Ohio — So, the penalties are still high in Week 3 of the preseason, but they’re down from the hair-raising 20.8 per game last weekend. For the 16 games this weekend, the combined accepted penalties were 17.6 per game. Average accepted penalties per regular-season game in 2013: 12.2.
Three good points made by Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden on the tightening of the rules from a conversation we had:
Me: How different is a cornerback’s game with no grabbing/handwork past five yards?
Haden: You gotta use your feet a whole lot more. You gotta make sure that you don’t grab. I’m going to play my game the way I normally play it. I don’t feel like I hold. You just gotta be conscious of it every play.
But don’t you still want to keep contact with the receiver downfield?
Haden: You want to touch them. You want to touch the receivers. I mean, it’s football. That’s going to happen. So you’re going to see what you’re going to get away with. I’m not going to completely put my arms around my back. So I’m going to plan to keep my technique how I think it’s going to be. And the referees, honestly, they do a good job of coming up to you and, "Hey watch your hands." In Detroit [in the first preseason game], I got one official say something to me on one play. I went to go jam and my hand hit him in the face mask. He was like, "23, get your hands lower. Get your hands lower. Keep your hands lower." Once he gave me that one warning, I was just playing my normal technique the way I normally play and I got no flags called. If they obviously see jersey pull, if they see things like that, that is a hold. But if it’s just messing around, bumping, touching, things like that I don’t think they’re going to be too strict on that, because I was playing it in that game in Detroit and it didn’t happen. If it’s pulling and grabbing when the ball is in the air, and all that contact, they’re throwing on that.
How do you practice not grabbing receivers?
Haden: Our coaches actually have us wearing boxing gloves sometimes. You can’t grab anything with those. So you really have to be able to use your feet and be able to just play ball. We still have $800 up for the first person to catch a pick with the gloves on.
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My favorite story of the week.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Sometimes you ask a question, just fishing, and you get an answer that becomes a story. My question, put to Houston GM Rick Smith, in town for joint practices with the Broncos before Saturday night’s preseason game in Denver: “Because you had the worst record in the league last year, you’ve got first priority on released players when teams cut their rosters. Doing anything special to get ready for it?”
A smile from Smith. A pause. A pause, trying to figure out what to say without giving away his strategy.
“We have to take advantage of that situation," he said. “We have put a structure in place to do that. We had to live a nightmare to get this advantage, but we got it, and just like in the draft, we’re going to take full advantage to try to build the best roster we can.”
Our roster is a living, breathing thing," Texans GM Rick Smith said, “and if there’s a player we see out there who is better than what we have, we’re going to act.
NFL rosters have to be cut from 90 to 75 by Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET, and from 75 to 53 by Saturday. The Texans have first crack at the 480 players cut by Tuesday afternoon. Houston also has its pick of 704 more when rosters get trimmed to the limit by Saturday night. Last year, Kansas City, with first waiver priority, plucked seven players who made the Chiefs’ opening-day 53-man roster.
So how does a team analyze 1,184 unemployed players so fast, and pick the four or six or eight or however many the Texans think can make the final roster?
Smith usually does not have his college scouts doing any pro work. But this year he had his six area scouts for college coverage, plus national scouts Jon Carr and Ed Lambert, come to Houston at the start of camp to be briefed on a different plan this year. Those eight scouts were each assigned one NFL team—and a group of 10 to 15 players per team that Houston thought would be on the bubble at final cut-time—and told to write full reports on those players and have them ready when the cuts began this week. The other 24 teams were divided among the Texans’ pro personnel staff, which studies the rosters during the course of the year and would be more fluent in each team’s plans than the college scouts are.
Smith wouldn’t say much about his plans for the pool of 1,184 available players, other than to say it’s hard to find competent defensive linemen and offensive linemen on the street at any time, and they’d be investigating those thoroughly.
“Our roster is a living, breathing thing," Smith said, “and if there’s a player we see out there who is better than what we have, we’re going to act."
Where to start? Houston could grab help at tight end, tackle, guard, defensive line, outside linebacker (Brooks Reed struggled last year) and cornerback, even after going guard-tight end in rounds two and three of the draft. An interesting name surfaced Sunday night: Winston Justice, waived in the cut to 75 by the Broncos. That could be a surprise to Smith.
TEXANS PREVIEW: O’Brien builds without a quarterback
Last year the Chiefs got two major contributors out of the final cut work: cornerback Marcus Cooper and tight end Sean McGrath. In total, the seven players played 1,596 snaps. If Smith can hit the market that solidly this week, he should consider the man-hours spent on the project well worth it.
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I cannot believe Keenan Allen was the 76th pick last year.
SAN DIEGO — Best play I saw in my month on the road: Wideout Keenan Allen of the Chargers ran a post-corner route against air toward the left corner of the end zone right in front of me, and Philip Rivers threw high, and Allen leaped, caught with his left hand and pirouetted to the ground like Lynn Swann. Well, hello.
Sure doesn’t look like just his second training camp. You can see out on the field the way he carries himself. He acts the leader, even at this young age, of the receiving group. Before practice on Thursday, GM Tom Telesco had raved about Allen's separation ability—which is hard to tell in a camp practice, but it was very apparent he could get away from corners last season—and about his feel for space. “Great point guards can feel people around them,’’ Telesco said. “Keenan’s like that. He has a natural feel for space, finding the open area.’’
The Chargers practice wasn’t open to the media for the entire time, because technically they weren’t in training camp when I was there and didn’t have to. But I saw enough. That’s the benefit of being out on the road in the summer, when you can watch players when they’re (mostly) healthy—you can see live what you can’t see as well on TV or on tape. And I’ll remember that beautiful and athletic one-handed catch for a long time.
MORE CHARGERS: The MMQB's San Diego training camp page
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This occurred to me at 6:13 a.m. Sunday.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Delta gate, Fort Lauderdale airport, waiting to board the 7 a.m. flight to LaGuardia.
Reading lots of stuff from overnight on the league—and seeing so much negative on the Bills and the Browns. The Bills got down 24-0 at the half at home, in newly refurbished Ralph Wilson Stadium. E.J. Manuel looked awful. Sammy Watkins sidelined with a rib injury. Boobirds out in force. News breaks that rotational defensive tackle Alan Branch was busted overnight Friday for being so drunk in his car that he had to stop, open the driver’s door and puke. (Branch has since been cut.) Quite a job you inherited, Doug Marrone. And the Browns: Offense looks awful, just like their Erie neighbors to the east. Brian Hoyer’s got no chance. Josh Gordon about to get whacked with a big suspension. Rams, even without Sam Bradford, hand the Browns their lunch. It’s 20-0, Rams, with third-string St. Louis quarterback Austin Davis playing, 28 minutes into the game.
And I think: Cleveland GM Ray Farmer could have two of the top five picks in the draft next April. The Browns have Buffalo’s first-round pick from the Sammy Watkins trade. Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston (if he comes out) or Brett Hundley … plus either a bookend tackle from a reportedly rich tackle crop next year, or another defensive piece. It’s way too early to project things like this, but two picks in the top five of any draft is gold—gold, Jerry, it’s gold!—and Farmer might just have made a golden deal to help the Browns of 2015 and beyond, even as the team faces another apparently lean year now.
Then I think: Manziel versus Mariota in training camp next July. I mean, the national press is going to rent the Courtyard in Berea for a month.
Twenty quick-hitters from preseason Week 3.
1. We all knew the Niners weren’t the Broncos in terms of offensive explosiveness, but San Francisco still was a team that ran for 2,200 yards and scored 25 points per game last year. But there will be alarm bells going off today with offensive coordinator Greg Roman, particularly in protection, as the Niners get ready to go to Dallas in 13 days for the opener. Look at the Niners—what can you have faith in right now on offense?
2. Miami’s best running back is Knowshon Moreno, who looked very good in his first appearance Saturday night. He’s more physical than Lamar Miller, and he makes more people miss.
3. The Browns were led on the field Saturday night by a dog. A real dog. A bull mastiff named Swagger. He’s the new Browns mascot. Hey, anything for positivity. Browns fans are going to need something positive, watching that awful offense.
4. Matt Schaub’s not the answer, Oakland. Unless the question is: “Which player is going to finish the job to get this coaching staff, and maybe Reggie McKenzie, fired?” Schaub’s a fine person and had some very good moments in Houston. But he’s lost his confidence, and the Raiders, very soon, are going to have to admit they see the same thing as the rest of the world.
5. Free Blake Bortles.
6. As with Bortles, some of the shine on rookie Titan Zach Mettenberger comes from his playing in the Land of Mop-up. Judging by Atlanta-Tennessee highlights, Mettenberger seems as confident on the field right now as any rookie quarterback. His 22-yard line drive on a post route to Justin Hunter was a big-league throw. Looks like the Titans got a big bargain, landing Mettenberger with the 178th pick.
7. Looking for a subplot for the big Green Bay-Seattle opener? Check out center, where the Packers might be playing a rookie, Corey Linsley, the fifth-round pick from Ohio State, in the wake of prospective starter J.C. Tretter going down for a few weeks with a knee injury Friday night. Linsley, as of Sunday, had not snapped a ball with the first-team offense since being drafted; all the emphasis had been on getting Tretter, a Cornell kid, ready for his big debut after the Pack let Evan Dietrich-Smith walk in free agency this off-season. I don't expect it'll be the decisive factor by any means, but the last thing Mike McCarty wanted in a game of that magnitude is any uncertainty between Aaron Rodgers and his snapper.
8. You may recall me reporting that, early in training camp, Bills GM Doug Whaley went up to E.J. Manuel at a practice and said to him: “Don’t be perfect. Be a football player.” One view on Manuel is he tries to be too fine, too safe. He was awful Saturday in the loss to Tampa, the Bucs storming out to a 24-0 halftime lead and the crowd at refurbished Ralph Wilson Stadium booing the Bills off the field at the half. After the game coach Doug Marrone said something that I thought was particularly troubling about Manuel. “He tries to pinpoint the ball … and that’s really just difficult to do,’’ Marrone said. “We have all done that when we were kids. You play baseball and you start aiming it. You’ve just got to look at the mitt and throw it.’’ Alarm bells on Manuel.
9. In the first half of the Denver-Houston game Saturday night, you saw why John Elway went hard after Emmanuel Sanders in free agency: five catches for 128 yards and two long touchdowns. He’s got difference-making speed, and with a supremely accurate quarterback, that’s a pretty good new weapon for the Broncos.
10. Have to agree with the mob on this one: If I’m Wes Welker, I am seriously considering retiring after having suffered another concussion. You want to have a good life after football. How many more head hits can one man take? For the Broncos, Jacob Tamme is a Dallas Clark-like insurance policy in the slot.
11. I’ll be surprised if the Ravens don’t deal for a corner this week. So thin and so hurt there.
12. Peyton Manning got 15 yards for taunting Saturday, the first such penalty in his illustrious career. Fifteen for excessive quotability I can understand. Taunting? Another thing entirely.
13. Interesting take from a man inside the Washington building and inside the preseason TV booth watching Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins play football this month. Joe Theismann analyzing the two quarterbacks: “Let’s stop beating around the bush. Kirk Cousins has played much better at the quarterback position than Robert Griffin III has. Now Robert is, basically, learning to work out of a pocket. He doesn’t look as smooth and as comfortable throwing the football. I mean, your eyes will tell you everything you need to know. It’s going to be a decision that Jay Gruden is going to have to make … Right now, Robert Griffin III is his quarterback. Now, if there was a quarterback competition, it wouldn’t be a competition. Kirk Cousins would be the man I believe he would have to go to." Wow.
14. Good for the NFL in expanding the practice squad from eight to 10 men per team. It gives teams more players to develop and more players for practice. It'd be better for the NFL to expand the active roster on game day to include all 53 men.
15. Whoa, Matt Prater: suspended for four games for violating the substance abuse policy. Huge weapon for Denver now missing for a quarter of the season. If I’m Denver, I wait to see if Jay Feely loses the kicking derby in Arizona (he might, to Clemson rookie Chandler Catanzaro), and try to snatch Feely for the first month.
16. Hairline rib fracture for Cam Newton. The Panthers have major protection issues on their totally rebuilt offensive line, and chemistry issues with a brand new receiving corps. Carolina opens at Tampa, which has been terrific on defense this summer. Trap game if there ever was one.
17. San Diego is better than we think on defense. Very dangerous team.
18. Your quarterback is Matt Cassel, Mike Zimmer. We all can see it.
19. This from Ron Jaworski on the first three weeks of the preseason: “Mark Sanchez, to me, has been the most impressive quarterback in the NFL this preseason. His accuracy is astounding [25 of 31, .806], and his comfort level in [Chip Kelly’s] offense is amazing. He’s been just sensational.”
20. You know what I noticed in the defensive-line room of the San Diego Chargers on Thursday? Grinds Coffee Pouches. They’re used by players instead of tobacco, little pouches of coffee that give the same kind of energy jolt that the tobacco does … and they don’t carry the danger of tobacco. “Lots of guys use it. They like it. It’s safer,’’ Dwight Freeney told me.
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Cris Collinsworth buys a chunk of Pro Football Focus.
This is an interesting story. From his home in England, Neil Hornsby, one of the biggest football fans on the planet, and his staff at Pro Football Focus have made a business of analyzing the performance of every player on every snap and grading their performances against every other player at the same position. Born in 2006, Pro Football Focus has done such a thorough job that 13 teams have contracts with the company to provide the kind of data on players and formations they can’t get anywhere else.
So this spring, Collinsworth was looking to improve his data collection and signed up for an annual insider’s subscription to PFF. The free part of the site looked real, but he wanted to know more, and so he filled in the email contact form asking for someone to get back to him. Hornsby, with his thick English accent, phoned up. “I thought I’d been scammed,’’ Collinsworth said. “So I figured I would ask him a bunch of questions, you know, to expose him … and after about five minutes I could tell he was absolutely legit, so I just shut up and listened to Neil talk about football at a very high level.”
At first Collinsworth said he wanted to simply get to know more about all 32 teams without having to do the kind of film study and painstaking research that would take a couple of days at least—in his words, “to be in position Monday morning to know what would normally take me till Tuesday night to know.’’ Collinsworth said he was actually thinking of engaging some people to watch NFL tape and grade it for him until he realized PFF already did it, and did it accurately. So last week he reached an agreement with Horsnby to buy a significant stake in the company. Hornsby and his crew of 12 full-time graders continue, and Collinsworth will use his influence to help grow the company and seek out new business for it.
There was one final test for Collinsworth. He and Hornsby separately graded a game. When they compared notes, their grades were very close. “And when we went back over them,’’ Collinsworth said, “I’d say on 50 percent of the discrepancies, they were right and I was wrong.”
The deal came together in a couple of months this summer, culminating last week. “What really impressed me,’’ said Collinsworth, “is the fact that 13 NFL teams have contracted with Pro Football Focus for their data. I mean, I have been around the NFL for over 30 years, I know how hard it is to get behind the wall of those teams. And they’ve got 13 teams to trust their data. That’s huge.”
“What appealed to me was Cris is interested in football for the right reasons—for pure football reasons,” said Hornsby, who has been a guest on my training camp tour for the past several years. “People like Cris want legitimate content. And I think he’ll help us get in front of other people who realize that legitimate content has an important place with the public today.”
* * *
So Ron Jaworski is an investor in what seems like a nutty scheme with business partner Marty Judge: a professional arena football league of either six or eight teams, to begin play in China in the fall of 2015. A couple of years ago Jaworski was trying to sell Judge, who has business in China, on the virtues of playing football in the country on a lower level, in front of 10,000 or so per game. “So," he said over the phone Sunday, “six weeks later we’re in an office in China, just off Tiananmen Square, and I’m selling the virtues of American football to the Secretary General of China through an interpreter. We’re there for quite a while; finally we shake hands, and the interpreter says, ‘We want football.' ” Jaws and his team engaged six universities in China to begin training players in the game, and he assumes there will be some Arena Football League veterans and young U.S. kids jonesing for a future in football who will make up the teams. Eventually, Jaworski said, he wants to see the game go outdoors, but the indoor stadia in China are plentiful and he thinks perfect to get the locals enthused about the sport. “No doubt there will eventually be outdoor football in China," he said. “I can already see the enthusiasm there. We had an exhibition of football there and drew 9,800 people. People in China will fall in love with it."
Quotes of the Week
"It's as drastic a change as anything I've seen since I've come back to the league. I'm not bellyaching. I'm really not. I just think these points of emphasis are having different consequences than the league thought they would. They are making calls on plays that have nothing to do with the play, sometimes way across the field from where the ball is. It's a nice try, but it's too much. There's going to be a game decided in a crucial situation by one of these calls, and no one wants to see that."
—Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, on the new officiating points the league is telling its officials to call.
“GET YOUR S--- RIGHT!"
—Bills coach Doug Marrone, ripping into his team after player fights marred a second straight day of training camp work on Thursday.
“Where have you gone, Spergon Wynn? A franchise turns its lonely eyes to you.”
—ESPN Cleveland’s Tony Grossi, after Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel took turns playing poorly while auditioning for the starting quarterback job last Monday in Washington. Spergon Wynn is one of the multitudes to have started, and failed, at quarterback for the Browns since their reincarnation in 1999.
“I am most proud of having never missed an assigned game, be it exhibition, regular season or playoffs, throughout my entire career. It really has been a great run.”
—NBA referee Dick Bavetta, who retired last week at 74. He reffed the most games of any official in NBA history—2,635 in the regular season and 270 in the playoffs—and not just by a little bit. He worked 501 more regular-season games than any other ref in league history.
“That kind of creeps me out a little bit."
—Taney Dragons pitcher Mo’ne Davis, the first girl in Little League World Series history to throw a shutout, on adults asking her for her autograph. She graced the cover of Sports Illustrated last week.
“This is so stupid it’s appalling, and I hope that owner keeps fighting for it and never changes it, because the Redskins are part of an American football history, and it should never be anything but the Washington Redskins. That’s the way it is. It’s all the political correct idiots in America, that’s all it is. It’s got nothing to do with anything else.’’
—ESPN analyst and Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, on the controversy over the Washington team name, to the Redskins Historian website.
“The league respectfully honored my request to not officiate Washington. I have quite a few friends who are Native Americans. And even if I didn’t have Native American friends, the name of the team is disrespectful.”
—Recently retired NFL referee Mike Carey, who revealed to the Washington Post that he requested in 2007 to be kept off Washington games because he opposed the team’s name. For the final seven years of his career, which ended after the 2013 season, he did not officiate a game involving the team.
Pretty extraordinary revelation. There are 17 crews, and I’ll be interested to see if any current referees will now make the same request that Carey did. My bet is that the league won’t allow an official, going forward, to dictate any terms about his assignments.
Stat of the Week
The Cardinals have to pay linebacker Daryl Washington $7 million of a $10 million option bonus the club exercised in March. Two months after the Cards exercised the option, Washington got suspended for the season for substance abuse.
Talk about an unfair part of the 2011 CBA. The bonus was deferred, but the team will end up paying 70 percent of it—and for a player they are likely never to employ again. Should the Cardinals have had suspicions about Washington? Yes. They should have, and did. But why should they pay $7 million to a player who isn’t playing—and he isn’t playing because he made a personal decision to use some substance he knew was banned by the league?
Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
On consecutive snaps Saturday, Buffalo had a first-and-20, second-and-35, and third-and-40.
Patrick Peterson signed a five-year, $70 million contract extension on July 29, with a signing bonus of $15,361,000. The bonus came in a lump-sum check, not direct-deposited.
He has not cashed the bonus check yet.
He told me, “I just haven’t gotten around to it.”
Peyton Manning has averaged one intentional-grounding penalty for every two years he’s played in the NFL.
In August 1966, 24-year-old Paul McCartney and the Beatles played their last concert as a group at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, an 11-song show.
In August 2014, 72-year-old Paul McCartney played the last concert and last event ever at Candlestick Park in Francisco, a 40-song show.
With age comes endurance, I guess.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Notes of the Week
How did I miss the fact that Frontier Airlines charges $35 to bring a small carry-on suitcase onto the airplane? Happened to me the other day, Denver to San Diego. Frontier did tell me I could check the same bag for $25. Let’s see: $35 to schlep the bag myself and put it in the overhead, $25 to check it and pick it up in San Diego. Because I was in a rush once I landed, I paid the $35. I understand baggage fees, and I understand the concept of unbundling and paying for exactly what you use. But making travelers pay $35 to carry their own bags is a curious way to get repeat customers.
I noticed the drought in California. Hard not to. I had to do my laundry the other day in San Diego, and stopped by a Laundromat not far from the Chargers facility. Costs for a wash: $4.50. “It’s all water,” the caretaker of the place said. “It was $3.50 earlier this year.”
As the camp trip ends, I am pleased to report that my favorite hotel in the United States, the Arizona Biltmore, has trouble filling the place in August, when it’s regularly 105 degrees or so during the day. (This year it rained hard Thursday night and cooled off the Valley, and it was only about 85 on Friday morning.) The favorable rate allowed me to, in good conscience, stay at the Biltmore knowing I was being a good company traveler. Comparing rates in some of the other hotels on the trail with the groovy Biltmore:
|Spring Hill Suites, Renton, Wash.||$179|
|Westin, San Diego||$179|
|Spring Hill Suites, Buford, Ga.||$139|
|Towne Place Suites, Newark, Del.||$139|
|Hampton Inn, Lewisburg, W.Va.||$129|
|Arizona Biltmore, Phoenix||$109|
|Howard Johnson Motor Lodge, Cleveland||$80|
Tweets of the Week
You can't just give Sanchez away. 17 of last 23 years, the Eagles' #2 QB has started at least 2 games. Crucial position.
— Reuben Frank (@RoobCSN) August 24, 2014
Longtime Eagles beat man Reuben Frank, as Twitter speculation swirled that the Rams should trade for Philadelphia’s number two quarterback, Mark Sanchez, in the wake of Sam Bradford’s torn ACL.
Manning deadpanned he couldn't say what he said to Swearinger, said Swearinger said 'thanks, appreciate it, good luck to you as well'
— Jeff Legwold (@Jeff_Legwold) August 24, 2014
The ESPN.com Broncos reporter, on the confrontation between Denver quarterback Peyton Manning and Houston safety D.J. Swearinger after Swearinger concussed Wes Welker with a rough hit. Manning got 15 yards for taunting Swearinger.
After the game, Swearinger was asked what Manning said to him that prompted the 15-yard flag. According to the Denver Post's Mike Klis, Swearinger testified, “He said, ‘F me.’ ”
Doug Marrone and Jerry Hughes exchanged words. The defensive end didn't back down when challenged by the coach about fighting.
— Mike Rodak (@mikerodak) August 21, 2014
The ESPN.com Bills writer, during a Thursday camp practice. That portends trouble.
Steelers unveil their Cheech & Chong backfield!
— Ed Bouchette (@EdBouchette) August 21, 2014
The Steelers beat man for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a few hours after Pittsburgh running backs LeGarrette Blount and Le’Veon Bell were arrested and cited for marijuana possession; Bell was also charged with driving under the influence of marijuana.
Johnny Manziel started losing this job right after the draft when he partied his brains out. Continued losing it right through middle finger
— Mary Kay Cabot (@MaryKayCabot) August 20, 2014
The Cleveland Plain Dealer Browns writer, after Hoyer got the starting job.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I admire about Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy: He uses preseason games for things other than just getting his players sharp and trimming the roster. He also uses it for strategic experimentation. Take Friday night against Oakland. The Packers went for two after each of their four touchdowns. (Two made, two failed. Even Steven.) The Packers also went for it on fourth down twice with the first offensive unit in the game. As McCarthy told the press afterward: “It's about taking advantage of situational football in preseason. We made a conscious decision going into preseason that we wanted to work more on two-point plays and fourth-down calls." Question: If you’ve got a terrific spread scheme (Green Bay does) and one of the most accurate quarterbacks in football history (Green Bay does) and a quarterback with mobility (Green Bay does), why wouldn’t you go for two after every touchdown? (Other than when a single point is the obvious play late in games.) Green Bay scored 46 touchdowns last year. Say they score 50 this year, assuming Aaron Rodgers plays a full season; he missed seven games last year. Isn’t it realistic to think if the Packers spent a few more practice plays each week on the two-pointer that they could go 30 of 50, meaning 10 more points over the course of the season?
2. I think every team with a quarterback the coach trusts should go for two after every touchdown—except, of course, in cases where one point is strategically smarter in the last 15 or 20 minutes of a game.
3. I think if you read this space last week you know I support ex-Vikings center Mick Tingelhoff’s case for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and so I was pleased to see the Seniors Committee nominate him for the Class of 2015. That's the first step. Now Tingelhoff’s case will be heard and debated by the 46 Hall of Fame voters when the next selection meeting is held on Jan. 31, 2015, in Phoenix, the day before Super Bowl 49. If at least 80 percent of the voters present vote yes on Tingelhoff, he’ll be enshrined next August in Canton.
4. I think every year at this time, when the Seniors Committee announces its decision on a nominee or nominees, the Jerry Kramer fans start hollering for their guy. I wrote about this two years ago, but because Kramer’s case inflames the passions like no other (now that Ray Guy is in), I will sum up again why Kramer hasn’t been a Senior candidate—not that he never will be, but just that he hasn’t been to this point.
Kramer retired after the 1968 season, and he was a Hall of Fame finalist nine times in his 15 seasons as a modern-era candidate: 1974 through 1981, 1984 and 1987. He was also a Seniors Committee nominee once, in 1997. Thus, Kramer’s case was heard by the Hall of Fame selectors 10 times in 24 years. The Seniors Committee tries to nominate some of the players who, for one reason or another, have been overlooked. Tingelhoff is a perfect example. His case has never been heard by the board of selectors—pretty remarkable, I think, for a center who made first-team NFL All-Pro (on various teams such as AP and the Pro Football Writers) more than any other NFL center, and who started 358 consecutive preseason, regular-season and post-season games. “Mick Tingelhoff is the reason we have a Seniors Committee,’’ said Dallas writer Rick Gosselin, a member of the panel. “He was an oversight that needed to be addressed.” I've always thought we should hear the cases of seniors whose candidacies fell through the cracks. Kramer never fell through the cracks. Tingelhoff did. I can’t explain why Kramer was voted to the NFL’s 50th anniversary team in 1969 and then not selected by many of the same voters to the Hall.
I also find it interesting that, two years ago, when I asked Bart Starr about any other candidates he felt strongly about on his team who deserved to be in Canton, he mentioned one offensive lineman, and it wasn’t Kramer. "Bob Skoronski,'' he said. "Bob protected my blind side at left tackle, and you know how important the blind side is for protection to a quarterback. You'd look at their grades when the coaches graded the film after the game, and their grades were virtually the same, game after game. I am so disappointed he hasn't gotten in the Hall." I asked Starr if there were other players he wanted to recommend, and he said no. So that pretty much sums up why I believe other long-retired players are ahead of Kramer in line for Canton.
5. I think this speech wasn’t made by a football coach, but it should be required viewing for everyone who coaches any youth sport in America—football very much included—after coach Dave Belisle’s Cumberland, R.I., Little League team lost a heartbreaker to bow out of the Little League World Series. The best from Belisle, after he calmed his sobbing kids:
“You are going to take back for the rest of your life what you provided for a town like Cumberland. You had the whole place jumpin’, right? You had the whole state jumpin’. You had New England jumpin’. You had ESPN jumpin’, OK? And you want to know why? They like fighters. They like sportsmen. They like guys who don’t quit. They like guys who play the game the right way. We got down to the nitty gritty. We’re one of the best teams in the world. Think about that for a second. In the world!”
What a great job by Belisle, and a great job by ESPN capturing it.
6. I think the Rams deserve tremendous credit for their attention to the schools and football teams in Ferguson, Mo., during the unrest there. The team invited players from the schools that service students in Ferguson—McCluer (the school Robert Klemko wrote about for The MMQB last week), McCluer North and McCluer South-Berkeley—to their game nine days ago, and then had them attend practice last Wednesday. They watched drills, provided faux crowd noise when coach Jeff Fisher asked for it (to help the offense deal with crowd noise during the season), and then practiced in the team’s indoor facility afterward. A class move by a team trying to put some salve on an open wound in the community.
7. I think you’d be surprised by the laissez-faire attitude of corners I’ve spoken to in the past week about the points of emphasis intended to cut down on hand-fighting downfield between corners and receivers. “That’s the least of my worries, man,” Aqib Talib said in Denver. “There’s so many big-time receivers, big-time quarterbacks out here. We got educated about it, and now I can’t worry about the referees. I’ve got to just play. If I get a call, it’s on to the next play. I’m not gonna worry about it, not at all.”
8. I think the 49ers have to stop worrying about being such good corporate neighbors—and about scheduling so many non-NFL events in their new stadium during the football season—and worry about getting their field right. You saw, I’m sure, that the Niners had to rip up the grass field late in the week (a new thicker grass was imported and installed Friday, two days before Sunday’s preseason game against the Chargers) and postpone the two high school games to prevent damage to the field in advance of the Sept. 14 home opener. So the Niners told the four schools scheduled to play a high school football doubleheader this Friday that they could all play a game on the weekend of Oct. 10 and 11. Now, instead of two high school games this week, there will be four in two days in midseason. I get it: There’s a three-week gap between Oct. 11 and the Niners’ next home game. So they can get the field ready or install new turf if need be. But with a Mexico-Chile soccer match and four high school football games in the place over a five-week period, if I’m Jim Harbaugh, I’m wondering: What’s the priority here? It should be to have the best field for the 49ers. The rest of the stuff can happen in the offseason.
9. I think it’s going to be hard to stash Michael Sam on the practice squad. Hard, but not impossible. With two sacks this month and more quickness than he showed late in his college season (he’s 13 pounds lighter, at 257, than his college playing weight), Sam is pushing hard for a spot on the Rams’ 53-man roster. If not that, certainly the 10-man practice squad. But the Rams know they risk losing him if they do the latter. NFL rules allow for players to be exposed to other teams before they can be put on the practice squad. I’m sure some teams wouldn’t want to deal with a perceived sideshow with Sam and wouldn’t put in a claim. But where exactly has the sideshow been? Sam’s been the anti-distraction since turning down the Oprah reality show in the spring.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. I wish I’d known Jim Foley. What a sad, scary story.
b. The story of the week comes from ESPN’s Tommy Tomlinson, a terrific inside-the-guy’s-head piece on former University of Kentucky and NFL quarterback Jared Lorenzen’s weight problems.
c. One of the best leads I’ve read in a while comes from the story, and from a man, Tomlinson, who has battled his own weight issues: “Jared Lorenzen and I are in love with the same woman. Her name is Little Debbie, and she makes delicious snack cakes.”
d. It’s the carbs, Jared. Attack the carbs.
e. I’m no wise man about that stuff (you couldn't tell?), but it’s the truth.
f. So Kevin Durant has been offered more money, per year, to push Under Armour shoes and clothes, $25 million annually, on average, than any NFL player will make in salary this year to play football. Funny world.
g. Funnier world: The Red Sox gave a Cuban outfielder, Rusney Castillo, a contract worth $72 million over seven years Friday. They have never scouted him in a game. He has not played in a game since 2012. As one source told ESPNBoston’s Gordon Edes, the Red Sox saw him in maybe 30 live at-bats in a couple of workouts. Sports is risky, but this seems almost a desperate investment.
h. Has any baseball player been back and forth to the penthouse and the outhouse more times than Tim Lincecum?
i. Coffeenerdness: Oh, and that vow to keep it to three macchiatos a week? That’s by the boards, unless the week starts on Monday and ends on Tuesday.
j. Beernerdness: Had a gem Friday night in Phoenix: Fretzy’s Hefeweizen, a delicious wheat beer, one of the lighter and spicier Hefeweizens I’ve tried, from the Phoenix Ale Brewery. A perfect summer beer. Congratulations on one of the best new beers I’ve tried this year, Phoenix Ale.
k. Good luck in the new gig with NBC, Paul Burmeister. You’re a good man.
The Adieu Haiku
I know Bradford some.
I’m quite sure he’d trade millions