Lost in the hot air surrounding last season’s AFC title game was the fact that the Colts were embarrassed, again, by the Patriots. What did Andrew Luck and company do to get better for 2015? Plus, what to expect when ‘Hard Knocks’ debuts, Aaron Rodgers’ future plans and remembering Frank Gifford
ANDERSON, Ind. — Is it just me, or is there a ridiculous amount of stuff happening in the NFL right now?
We’ll start here, where the Deflategate foes (and believe me, the Indianapolis Colts would love to just let that story die) are not using the air pressure on footballs as anything—motivation, a crutch, anything. Nor should they. The Colts have been steamrolled by New England three times in their past 20 games—by scores of 45-7, 42-20 and 43-22—and they curiously haven’t buttressed their run defense, having fallen out of the bidding for Haloti Ngata and Vince Wilfork in the off-season. Tom Brady could have played with Nerf balls and the Colts wouldn’t have anything to complain about.
“No excuses,” coach Chuck Pagano said late Sunday afternoon after another camp practice at Anderson University. Particularly concerning the game under the Ted Wells microscope, the 38-point embarrassment in the AFC title game, Pagano has no desire to bring up whatever the air pressure was in the New England footballs.
“We got our asses kicked,” Pagano said. “Period. End of story. None of us here will ever forget that day, that final score. We got a damn artery gushing and no sutures to stop the bleeding. You never forget that.”
The Colts could have the greatest pass-catching corps in football this year, accompanying the best young quarterback in the game (and Andrew Luck has gone to school on Andrew Luck’s penchant for the big mistake). Will they be able to stop power teams like New England from breaking their spirit—again? That’s the big question here.
More on that, and the remaking of Luck, in a moment. Lining up what I’ve got for you this morning:
• Frank Gifford, next to Lawrence Taylor the most iconic name in Giants history, died Sunday at 84. He made football cool in New York, and he was the first football star-turned-TV guy. “He was Mickey Mantle,” pal and ex-partner Al Michaels said.
• Three decades of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers? They’re at 23 years of successive Packer seasons, and there will be more than 30, from what Rodgers told me Friday.
• Eight straight practices, eight straight days without an interception for Marcus Mariota, Tennessee wunderkind. You’ll never guess who wants him to throw one.
• The next step in Brady vs. Goodell comes Wednesday in a New York courtroom. Read all about it here. Or not.
• Sydney Seau stole the show at the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremonies—and she didn’t even make a formal speech. “I’m sorry. I’m just emotional,” Junior Seau’s incredibly composed daughter told America. So were we, after listening to her.
• The Bucs followed in Seattle’s footsteps by signing a star linebacker to a $10-million-a-year contract. First Bobby Wagner, now Lavonte David.
• “Hard Knocks” starts Tuesday night, and I can report exclusively that episode number one will feature the first time in NFL history that J.J. Watt does something wrong.
• I played Gerald McCoy of the Bucs in EA Sports’ “Madden 16” game. I am the only male in America who had never played Madden before, and, justifiably, neither McCoy nor teammate Mike Evans, a spectator for the King-McCoy tussle, was impressed with my game. “This is like playing my daughter,’’ said observer Evans. Then, of course, the greatest upset in sports history happened.
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Problem solved in Indy?
The Colts scored 458 points last year, which is a lot. And they went out and signed a workhorse back (Frank Gore) and vet receiver Andre Johnson, who has 306 catches over the past three years, and then drafted another receiver, Phillip Dorsett, in the first round. (The Colts will field three wideouts this year who have recorded 40 times under 4.4 seconds.) In addition, Luck’s big project this off-season was to figure why his interception total rose from nine in 2013 to 16 last year.
“The decision-making process bit me in the butt, which in turn hurt the Colts more than a couple times last year,” Luck admitted here Sunday. “Obviously the Patriots games, and Philadelphia, second week of the season, I throw a bad pick in somewhat of a four-minute situation. I gotta learn, Just eat it, take the sack, throw it at his feet, whatever. That’s what this off-season’s been about. Don’t give them a chance. We watched every interception ad nauseam, and we watched balls that should have been intercepted ad nauseam. We [coaches and mentor QB Matt Hasselbeck] talk about it and say, ‘Why?’ Do you have the awareness to know where the team is in the game? Is it worth trying to fit a ball in there or not? Do you go out of bounds or do you not?”
“We got our asses kicked,” Pagano said. “We got a damn artery gushing and no sutures to stop the bleeding. You never forget that.”
“Some bonehead plays,” said Pagano. “But all great competitors do everything they can to make great plays. The hardest thing for a great competitor is to give up on a play and throw it away. But you gotta know when to say when, when to throw it away, and Andrew’s learning that now. What I like about him is he’s got great amnesia. He’ll throw one [interception], then next series, be back out there, fine.”
Okay. Luck’s going to be fine. The offense should average 30 a game. But who’ll stop the reign?
The Patriot reign (with apologies to Michael Holley, who wrote a book of that title), I mean. New England has rushed for 657 yards against the Colts in their past three meetings, which cries out for a fix. Indy hopes 2014 free-agent 3-4 end Arthur Jones (who was hurt half of last season) and 2015 free-agent end Kendall Langford, 650 pounds of run-stopping on the edge, will be the answer. GM Ryan Grigson didn’t want to pay $6 million a year to the 33-year-old Wilfork, or deal two mid-round picks for Ngata, who might be a one-year Band-aid. “We have enough here,” said Pagano, meaning enough defensive talent. We’ll see, but perhaps not until the Patriots play in Indy in October … or until they meet again in January.
* * *
Frank Gifford: 1930-2015.
Two things I hope Frank Gifford is not remembered for:
As a football player, being KO’d by Eagles middle linebacker Chuck Bednarik in 1960 on one of the most brutal hits in NFL history. Bednarik, in an unforgettable photo, exhilarates in the hit, and Gifford missed all of 1961 with the effects of a concussion and a broken neck vertebra.
As a broadcaster, for Howard Cosell, his “Monday Night Football” partner, calling Gifford “the human mannequin.”
A few things you need to know about Gifford, an athletic, make-’em-miss all-purpose player from USC: He made the Pro Bowl as a defensive back, wide receiver and running back. And he threw 14 touchdown passes in his Giants’ career. He was the NFL’s MVP in 1956, when he led the Giants to a 47-7 rout of the Bears in the NFL Championship Game. “We were an insignificant franchise when we drafted him [in 1952],” Giants president John Mara said Sunday. “By the time he retired, in 1964, we were the toast of the town. It was mostly because of him. He was the face of our franchise. During my youth, I wanted to be like Frank. All of my friends did. He was an icon in New York, a matinee idol.” Gifford’s total of 5,434 receiving yards was a franchise record for 38 years, until Amani Toomer broke it after the turn of the century. Gay Talese, the noted writer, tailed Gifford for a long story in 1956 and wrote he had “a quality of mind that makes him rare for football players.” He wasn’t quite Joe Namath in taking New York by storm, but very close.
Now for the TV side … Football players nimbly traverse the field-to-studio gigs today, dozens a year, seemingly. But they just didn’t do TV in the ’50s and early ’60s, until Gifford did TV. He started on the CBS station in New York while he was still playing, then transitioned to the Monday night booth in 1971. He won an Emmy for his TV work in 1977, and did Olympic TV work and guest-hosted “Good Morning America.”
“He was the guy who set the trend for players working in TV,” said Mara.
Al Michaels worked the football booth with Gifford for 256 games. “No matter how crazy it ever got,” Michaels said Sunday, “Frank was the coolest guy in the room. He was the sea of tranquility. I never saw Frank get upset; that was the amazing thing about him. Even when Howard referred to him as ‘the human mannequin,’ I never saw Frank direct any animus at him. But in football, if you lived in New York, you know how big he made the game—he was Mickey Mantle.”
Few players in any sport have ever been as close to ownership—and ownership’s family—as Gifford was with the Maras. When he retired, he used to drive to Giants games on Sunday with Ann Mara, wife of owner Wellington Mara, and sit in the family box. When Gifford was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977, Wellington Mara introduced him. When Mara made it 20 years later, Gifford was his presenter.
“He was family,” John Mara said Sunday night. “This one hit me like a thunderbolt.”
* * *
This Mariota guy’s pretty precocious.
In Nashville the other day, I watched rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota in a team drill do something veteran quarterbacks do in training camp. Inside the 10-yard line, from the shotgun, he barked out, “Delta! Delta!” He took a snap and looked left, to a crossing Kendall Wright, closely covered by cornerback Perrish Cox, then quickly scanned to the right, holding cornerback Jason McCourty on his man, and keeping the safety in the middle of the field. “A veteran move,” McCourty said. Then Mariota quickly locked back onto Wright and fired a strike to the outside corner—where Wright could catch the ball but Cox couldn’t reach. Touchdown.
I noticed this in my day at the Titans: People are consciously trying not to get too excited about Mariota. But he has been pretty good. Eight practices, no interceptions in team periods or seven-on-seven work. Seriously: Coach Ken Whisenhunt, who doesn’t want the kid fitted for his yellow jacket in Canton just yet, told me: “The hype is getting out of control. I don’t care if he throws an interception out here. Come on—it’s August. It’s camp. I may just have him throw one to get this over with. Just throw one. We gotta get it out of the way.” But I saw the fifth practice. Three more, and no pockmarks.
“He’s got the ‘it’ factor,’’ said defensive coordinator Ray Horton. “He’s got a sort of je ne sais quoi about him.”
Now, I’ve covered football for 31 years. I have never heard a coach, or anyone, use “je ne sais quoi” about a player—the indefinable quality (“I don't know what," in French) used to describe, usually in a very good way, the best of the best. “His poise under pressure looks pretty special,” Horton said.
Fans are coming to practices in Nashville wearing leis, in recognition of Mariota’s Hawaiian heritage. The gentlemanly Mariota threw a line-drive pass perilously close to ESPN.com Titans beat man Paul Kuharsky in practice last week, and apologized to him for almost hitting him afterward.
“The adjustment for me hasn’t been that different,” said Mariota. “The coaches at Oregon really prepared me for this. There’s a lot of similar concepts between Oregon and here. I’m the benefit of so many other people, and that’s helped my transition.”
It helps, too, that a place like Nashville is more nurturing, not the kind of eat-you-alive market that others in the NFL are. “Nashville reminds me of home,” Mariota said. “It’s very hospitable. I’m very comfortable here.” That’s how it looks so far.
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Guess who’s the “Hard Knocks” star?
The five-episode series, this season featuring the Houston Texans, begins Tuesday night at 10 ET (9 p.m., obviously, in Houston) on HBO. A few notes: The first show will have a few good scenes of the brawling from the shared practices with Washington in Richmond, Va., on Saturday; that’s a built-in ratings grab. Patriots fans will see New England South (Wilfork, O’Brien, Crennel, Vrabel, Hoyer, Mallett) in Houston, and should be entertained. And J.J. Watt’s star, of course, should shine bright.
The first show, in fact, will have the rarest of events: a mistake by Watt, highlighted by coach Bill O’Brien in front of the team. Before a practice, Watt, miked, tells a teammate: “Ever since O-B got here, he’s been trying to get me to jump offsides. And I haven’t jumped offsides one time. Not one single time. He talks to me about it all the time.”
So they go out to practice one day, and O’Brien sing-songs to Watt, “We’re gonna get you!” And Watt, too aggressive in anticipating the snap from center, jumps offside. The offense is jubilant. O’Brien tells Watt to take a lap—the customary penalty for jumping offside.
Then, NFL Films cameras show Watt, post-practice, working alone as the sun goes down on his swim moves past the offensive-lineman dummy.
I think we can see where this is headed: J.J. Watt, reality TV star, on “Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Houston Texans.” It’s another world for Watt to conquer.
* * *
In Green Bay on Friday, I took some time to do a little math, trying to answer this question:
What’s the best combo platter of quarterbacks in NFL history?
Or, to give it more clarity: What two quarterbacks, back to back for the same team, are the best in NFL history?
I entered into this thinking it would probably be Joe Montana and Steve Young of the 49ers. And maybe it is. Statistics can be twisted a lot of ways, but how do you beat four Super Bowls for Montana and one for Young, and the two-decade greatness they shared under Bill Walsh and George Seifert? But now I am not so sure. I think it’s Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. In all metrics except Super Bowl victories (Montana/Young 5, Favre/Rodgers 2), the Packers duo looks like the back-to-back champs.
A footnote, first. I said to Rodgers on Friday that if he could play four or five more years, he and Favre would be near 30 years combined, and …
“Eight,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers is 31. If he plays eight more seasons (pushing the Green Bay twosome into three decades), well, it’s likely that no two quarterbacks in history would or could ever rival Favre and Rodgers. In fact, if Rodgers never played another snap, it’d be a great argument between the 49ers and Packers pairs. The numbers:
Montana/Young: 19 seasons, 213 wins, .643 completion percentage, 465-209 TD-INT
Favre/Rodgers: 23 seasons, 248 wins, .631 completion percentage, 668-343 TD-INT
Is eight years really far-fetched? Last week, emails were produced in the ball-deflation case between the league and Tom Brady in which Brady emailed a friend: “I’ve got another seven or eight years.” Brady is 38. He probably doesn’t have that long, obviously. But who would doubt a healthy Rodgers playing until 39?
I’ve found it pretty amazing that if you’re a fan of the Packers, and if you’re, say, 27 right now, you’ve never had a hopeless season, because your Packers have always had a top quarterback. We found a big Packers’ fan who is 27: Kevin Sutter, of Blue Mounds, Wis. “We talk about it, me and my brothers,” Sutter said. “We talk about it a lot—just how incredibly crazy it is that for our entire childhood we saw how great Brett Favre was. He was in the top two or three quarterbacks in the league for like 10 to 12 years, which was our entire childhood. And now my brothers and I sit around and watch Packers games together, and we marvel at how great Aaron Rodgers is. We remember when we were 10 years old and we saw Favre, and now you just appreciate it so much more how good Rodgers is. I can’t even imagine watching a team you love struggle to find a franchise quarterback.”
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Sydney Seau: The best three minutes and 13 seconds of the weekend.
Of any weekend, really. What a beautiful, heartfelt, spine-tingling speech-my-father-would-have-given speech at the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony Saturday night.
“I’m sorry,” the amazingly composed daughter of the late Junior Seau said onstage to the audience in Canton, and to the NFL Network’s Steve Wyche and a live TV audience nationally. “I’m just emotional.”
You’re doing great, kid. Keep going.
Sydney Seau starred into the camera and said: “He would thank every team, teammate, fan, the community of San Diego and the Chargers for the career of a lifetime. You guys are everything to him. Without you, he wouldn’t have become the player that he was. And I thank you as well.”
Deep emotional sigh, collecting herself.
“He is the first Polynesian and Samoan to make it into the Hall of Fame, and that is an accomplishment in itself. I know he’s proved that even a young, small boy from Oceanside can make his dreams a reality. Although he is the first to make it into the Hall, I know for a fact he won’t be the last.
“Dad, you gave us your time, your presence, your love, but most of all you gave us your heart. And I know at times it seemed as if everything you accomplished in your life wasn’t enough, but today and every day since you held me in your arms for the first time, you were more than just enough. You were everything. And I hope this induction can exemplify the fact that you are more than just Junior Seau, number 55 and a buddy. You are a light.
“I want nothing more than to see you come on stage, give the speech you were meant to give, give me a hug and tell me you love me one last time. [Emotional pause.] But that isn’t a reality. I know that his athleticism and talent made him extraordinary enough to make it into the Hall, but it is his passionate heart that make him truly legendary.
“Dad, I love you and I miss you. Congratulations! You made it.”
After the squabbling over whether Sydney Seau should be able to speak directly to the crowd in Canton and across the country—and I believe the Hall of Fame needs to reconsider simply having deceased inductees acknowledged through a video presentation, and then in a TV interview—the words from Sydney Seau softened the controversy. She honored her father’s memory in a way we all wish our children would do for us one day. Just beautiful.
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My favorite words from Saturday night.
Aside from Sydney Seau’s warm words, the best of the rest of the speeches Saturday night:
"At that time there was always a threat to players of other teams that if they didn't shape up, they would be traded to Green Bay. We worked hard to eliminate that stigma. Suddenly players wanted to come and be a part of football's most illustrious franchise and to play in pro football's most storied cathedral, Lambeau Field."
“I have to tell you guys this story because this, I believe, changed my life. I win the Heisman Trophy, and I play my rookie year and make the Pro Bowl. I come home and there is a big banner outside that says ‘Welcome Home Heisman Trophy Winner, Tim Brown.’ Heisman Trophy winner, Pro Bowler Tim Brown. And she said, “Hey, you see the sign? I said, yeah. She said you know why the sign is outside? I said, no. She said because all this is going to stay outside my house, and when you come inside my house, you're not going to be this person. You're going to be Timmy. And for the rest of my career that's who I was. I was Timmy.”
“It’s because of [my father] that I am here. When my father sent me off to college, he told me one thing: ‘Son, I’m sending you off to school. I don’t have much to give you, but I have a good name, so don’t mess it up.’ Well, dad, I hope I made you proud … I want people to remember that greatness is not a sports term. It’s a life term. There are four things you need for greatness: the ability to sacrifice, the ability to endure pain whether it’s physical or mental, the ability to understand that you’re going to fail because that makes you a better person. And finally, loving what you’re doing.”
“Buffalo’s boys of autumn: They brought a team, a town and a dream together like few others in NFL history. To all the players and coaches from all our teams, it has been such a joy to watch you grow and achieve so many great things. It has been a privilege to play a small role in your careers … Coach Marv Levy—four decades ago he took an interest in an obscure scout whose reports impressed him. That was me. If not for Marv, I would not have a career in pro football, let alone be standing here. He is my mentor, my role model, my friend. I have very often failed to live up to his example, but I never fail to continue to try because for me he represents all I ever aspired to be, when I was a young man dreaming impossible dreams.”
“To one of my first coaches, Mr. Ortiz, I'll always remember you. He was one of the guys that actually first provided us with our first jersey that ever had our name on the back, and of course, we had to buy the letters. So I had a paper route, so I could only afford two letters, so I had JR on the back, Jr., but I still have it to this day. It's hanging up on my wall, and I cherish that for all time because it's so special.”
Tingelhoff suffers from memory loss. Fran Tarkenton spoke briefly for him.
“He waited 37 years to get to the Hall of Fame. He just wanted me to tell all of his teammates who are here thank you … our great coach and fellow Hall of Famer, Bud Grant, all of the Viking fans who have come from all over the country, and all the rest of you fans, and even you Steeler fans who beat us in that Super Bowl. Thank you.”
“In 1988, [ex-wife Karen] diagnosed me with manic depression, and I thought she was just like the group of guys that wanted to always put me in this box. So we had problems after that, and I never really listened. Nor did I step to the plate and do something about it. My life spiraled out of control for years—for YEARS—but today I am getting back into the locker room, to my teammates, and telling them the mistakes that I’ve made, and that the only way that you can grow is that you’ve got to ask for help. I walked into the league a 22-year-old man, with a 16-year-old inside of me screaming for help, and I would not ask for it. I would not ask for that help. But today I take my medicine every day, and I try to inspire others to do the same, and that’s because I finally listened.”
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What you need to know about Brady/Goodell this week.
I asked Michael McCann, the Sports Illustrated and SI.com legal analyst, to explain what’s next, and where we stand, in the NFL’s Tom Brady case. McCann, the founding director of the University of New Hampshire’s Sports and Entertainment Law Institute, has been on top of this story from the start. McCann’s report:
If you’re tired of the controversy stemming from Tom Brady’s four-game suspension for alleged involvement in an alleged ball-deflation scheme, the good news is it could all end Wednesday. Brady, Roger Goodell, NFL Players Association leaders and a small army of attorneys will appear before U.S. District Judge Richard Berman for a settlement conference at 11 a.m. in the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse in New York City. It is common for judges to hold settlement conferences, which place everyone in the same courtroom and forces them to engage in constructive dialogue. Judge Berman will pepper both sides with questions and observations. Through the types of questions he poses and how he responds to answers, Judge Berman might also signal whether he favors Brady’s case or that of the NFL.
To be clear, Judge Berman cannot force the NFL and NFLPA to settle and withdraw their lawsuits. He can, however, aggressively suggest ways for them to find common ground. One line of settlement would be a reduced penalty, such as a one-game suspension or a fine without a suspension. Another would be the NFL and NFLPA agreeing to a second appeal and having it heard by someone other than Goodell or a close ally. A person like former U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones, who heard Ray Rice’s appeal and ruled in Rice’s favor, would be a neutral hearing officer. A settlement can essentially take any form so long as everyone is on board.
While a settlement would make common sense, it might not make legal sense. The NFL knows that if the league substantially reduces or eliminates Brady’s suspension, future suspended players would have greater incentive to file lawsuits and seek favorable out-of-court settlements. Brady might also find “cutting a deal” to be unpalatable. If he accepts even a one-game suspension, it would be perceived as an admission of some wrongdoing—a sharp contrast to Brady’s categorical denials during his testimony. Brady might figure that for his legacy, he would be better off losing in court.
If the parties don’t settle, they’ll be back in court Aug. 19 for a far more adversarial hearing. At that time, attorneys for both sides would present formal oral arguments against one another. A final decision by Judge Berman would be expected by Sept. 4—just six days before the Patriots open the regular season against the Steelers.
Keep this in mind: The legal question for Judge Berman is not whether Brady “did it.” It’s whether the NFL lawfully followed Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement and the “law of shop,” which refers to fairness and consistency in arbitration. As a result, Judge Berman could conclude that it is “less likely than not” that Brady broke any rules and yet still rule in the NFL’s favor. The NFLPA is aware of that unwelcome possibility and has highlighted alleged process defects in how the NFL evaluated and punished Brady. Among those arguable defects is the confusing role played by attorney Ted Wells, whom the NFL has repeatedly hailed as “independent” yet who testified that he shared drafts of his report in advance with NFL attorneys and who has invoked the attorney-client privilege as a way of trying to not answer questions. In a filing last Friday night, the NFL now insists that Wells’ independence is legally irrelevant since it is not required by Article 46. As I wrote Friday on SI.com, Judge Berman might stop the NFL from asserting such a defense.
In making a decision, Judge Berman would either confirm Brady’s suspension or vacate it. The latter would constitute a victory for Brady, but not necessarily a lasting one. The NFL would appeal the loss to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which has on occasion reversed NFL district court losses and turned them into wins. Even without an appellate court reversal, Judge Berman’s vacating the suspension would remand the matter to Goodell or his designee for “further proceedings…as permitted by the CBA.” This could set the table for another round of contentious league hearings. Oh, and there’s that lurking possibility that Brady could file a defamation lawsuit in Massachusetts state court at any time.
What does all this mean? If the NFL and Brady can’t strike a deal, it’s going to be a long time before the uncanny legal controversy known as Deflategate runs out of air.
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My latest question on Deflategate...
My one question about the NFL’s stance now: In the Wells Report, Brady was found to be “at least generally aware” of the scheme to deflate footballs below the 12.5-psi minimum. The NFL ruled against Brady without a smoking gun, believing the preponderance of evidence was enough.
But in the NFL’s 15-page brief submitted to the judge in advance of Wednesday’s conference, the NFL writes: “The commissioner suspended Brady for having ‘approved of, consented to, and provided inducements in support of’ a scheme to tamper with the game balls. And for having ‘willfully obstructed the subsequent investigation.’ ” Put the obstruction to the side for a moment; maybe you feel if there was obstruction, he should be suspended regardless of the evidence.
But how did we get from being at least generally aware of a scheme to deflate game balls to having “approved of, consented to, and provided inducements” to aid a scheme to deflate footballs?
If there’s more evidence beyond the Wells Report proving that Brady did what the league is claiming—and I don’t think there is—we need to hear that now.
* * *
Last one out of Santa Clara, turn off the lights.
Lost by the Niners since the end of the 2014 season:
• Jim Harbaugh, the coach who won 49 games in his four San Francisco seasons.
• On offense: a starting running back (Frank Gore) and wideout (Michael Crabtree) and two-fifths of the starting offensive line.
• On defense, it’s an absolute plague: both starting defensive ends (Ray McDonald, Justin Smith), both starting cornerbacks (Perrish Cox, Chris Culliver), and three invaluable linebackers (Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith, Chris Borland).
The 49ers did the right thing, releasing Aldon Smith after his fifth arrest, and coach Jim Tomsula was deep in individual conversations with scores of players Friday and Saturday after it happened. That’s good. Kumbaya is good. But let’s be real. No team has lost so many franchise players in such a short period and continued to win. Gore, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis … franchise guys. A top head coach, gone. We’ve been over this often this off-season, but Tomsula is stepping into one of the toughest spots a rookie coach has ever been in.
And if I’m Aldon Smith—knowing I’m likely to get suspended for part of this season anyway—I am in no hurry to pick a next team. He’s got to fix his life, or try to, before focusing on football.
* * *
And one note about the new PAT rules that could be very interesting.
Sunday night’s Hall of Fame Game marked the first NFL game with the new point-after-touchdown rule. After a touchdown, a team will have the option to place the ball at the 15-yard line for the one-point conversion kick (the equivalent of a 33-yard field goal); or to place the ball at the 2-yard line if the team chooses to go for a two-point conversion.
When I was at Steelers camp in Latrobe, Pa., I ran into long-time special-teams coach Danny Smith, and he asked me a question I hadn’t considered: If you choose to kick the extra point, and the defense jumps offside and gets flagged for an offside penalty, can you change your mind and choose to go for two? With the half-the-distance penalty, that would put the ball at the one, and you might have a lot of teams choosing to go for two if you could snap from the one.
So I checked with the league, and indeed the answer is yes. After an offside call with the ball at the 15-yard line, a coach could take the penalty and put the ball at the 10-yard line for the PAT, or take the half-the-distance penalty and choose to go for two at the one-yard line.
How many times have you seen Tom Brady take a slight leap from the one-yard line and push the ball over the goal line with extended arms? Or Drew Brees? That, to me, is a huge part of this new rule, and could lead to a lot of changed minds after five-yard penalties on PATs.
• Question or comment? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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And now for something completely different.
One of the interesting things about having a staff of young people is the generating of ideas I’d never have thought of. Robert Klemko had one as we headed south in the first couple of days of the training camp trip.
You should play Madden against a player.
I forget how it came up, but Klemko, who is great at the Madden game, was planning to meet an EA Sports executive, Brad Hillebrand, in Tampa to play the new game, “Madden 16,” which isn’t due out for a couple of weeks. So he arranged for a couple of Bucs, Gerald McCoy and Mike Evans, who both play, to meet us before their day would start last Tuesday, and I would play against one of them in the game for a quarter.
Funny thing: Players really care about their rating. Evans was fuming when he saw 20 receivers were rated higher than he was. “The ratings are crazy,” Evans said. “All the years, all the money I’ve been wasting on Madden, the hard work I put in on the field, getting hit in the head, knees hurting, and I still can’t get a 90 rating overall. Twenty other receivers are rated higher than me. It’s crazy, man. It hurts, man. I am a little bitter.”
I am not. I do not play Madden. I do not play video games. I have nothing against them; I just never have gotten into them, and so it’s like golf—if you don’t practice and work on your game, and you go up against good players, it’s not going to be fun. It’s going to be frustrating. Klemko told me he and Hillebrand would teach me what I needed to know to survive, and so the battle was on. Evans and McCoy played a quarter on the TV screen in our van, and then, at the end of the first quarter, score knotted at 7 between McCoy’s Tampa Bay team and my Cleveland team (Jameis Winston versus Johnny Football), Evans moved out of the playing seat and I moved into it. King-McCoy. It’s on.
I didn’t get the toggle bar and the “A” button at first. At one point, I thought Terrance West was Manziel, and I had him fading back to throw—except West was a back and was headed for his own end zone and a safety. “I should have just let you run it back for a safety,” McCoy said. I recovered on the last drive of the half. Still 7-7. But I had fourth-and-28 from my 12-yard line. I was going for it. What’s there to lose? Nothing. What’s there to gain? Fun!
I chose a deep pass. I have no idea what McCoy chose to do. All I know is Klemko told me to wait until the last second to throw. ”Hit the green button, wait a little, and then hit the blue button,” Klemko said.
Manziel was getting rushed. I waited … and just as Manziel as about to get leveled, I hit the blue button. Way down the left side, backup wideout Taylor Gabriel was free, his corner having tripped on the play. And the ball nestled into Gabriel’s hands. “Yes! YES! YES!” I screamed. Easy touchdown. Easy 88-yard touchdown. On fourth-and-29.
King wins! King wins!
“I’m done,” said McCoy, disgusted with this sordid affair. “I’m done with this. This is why I don’t play video games.”
“Nice game, Gerald,” I said.
The Bucs were starting practice in a few minutes. McCoy said: “I’m gonna show you what really would have happened here in about an hour.”
Glad I didn’t get the brunt of that.
Quotes of the Week
“I just think it's bogus, the whole system in how it's set up with Roger and the complete, absolute power he has. He has so much power, and he hires independent investigators who come in and are obviously not independent. They come in with an agenda, and they come in looking to find facts to back up their argument. All the facts are slanted in their favor. Ted Wells came in with a mission against me. Ted Wells came in slanted against me, and everything in his report was slanted against me. There were some things in there that would have helped my cause that were left out."
—Buffalo guard Richie Incognito, to Bob Glauber of Newsday, on the treatment he feels was unfair in the bullying scandal with the Dolphins in 2013. Incognito referred to Roger Goodell, and said he “can’t be judge, jury and executioner” in disciplining players.
“Way to go on that Brady thing.”
—New Hall of Fame member Ron Wolf, passing commissioner Roger Goodell at the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s yellow-jacket ceremony Thursday night in Canton.
Wolf did not appear sarcastic.
“The San Francisco 49ers released Aldon Smith today. It’s a sad day. This is a day that doesn’t have anything to do with football. Although he won’t be playing football for the San Francisco 49ers, he will be supported and helped, and he will not have to walk this path alone. That comes from our ownership down. The other thing I would like to say is there are people who—I understand the platform that we are on, I understand where this goes in the news—if one person out there reads this, and you’re struggling, get help. Go get it. You’re worth it. You’re worth it. There’s value in every human being. Get the help. You don’t have to walk alone. Find it. It’s there. And although Aldon will not be playing football here, we will be supporting him. He will not be alone.’’
—San Francisco coach Jim Tomsula, in an impassioned announcement to the media Friday after the team released linebacker Aldon Smith after his fifth arrest since being drafted in the first round by the 49ers in 2011.
“It’s very important because I got kids … Right now while I’m in this business I have to get everything I can get out of it. That was one thing I had to go through.”
—Carolina receiver Ted Ginn Jr., to the Charlotte Observer’s Jonathan Jones, about how leaving the Panthers for one season in Arizona in 2014 was about “chasing a payday,” a surprising and honest thing to admit by any player.
“Two hands, please. Two hands on the ball.”
—Giants coach Tom Coughlin, admonishing wideout Odell Beckham Jr., he of the famous one-handed catches, to use both hands to catch the ball on Saturday at training camp.
Stats of the Week
In the off-season, the Chicago Bears’ new coach, John Fox, hired former 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio as his defensive coordinator. Fangio, in his four seasons running the San Francisco defense, had some good games against the Packers—and, well, I’ll be—the Bears host the Packers on the first Sunday of the NFL season.
• Aaron Rodgers versus San Francisco with Fangio as defensive coordinator: 0-4.
• Aaron Rodgers versus every other defensive coordinator: 76-34.
It’s not quite so glaring when you look at the numbers, and it’s probably more an indictment of the Packers defense. Green Bay put up 25.3 points per game on offense against Fangio in those four games, and Rodgers’ passer rating was a slightly below-his-norm 96.0. But it’s interesting to note the Packers had an eight-game winning streak against the Niners when Jim Harbaugh and Fangio took over in 2011—and went 0-4 in the next four years.
Rodgers versus Fangio: Opening Day at Soldier Field, at high noon; and Thanksgiving Night at Lambeau, in prime time. Should be fun.
Aaron Rodgers’ TD-to-interception differential in the past four years: plus-114.
John Elway’s TD-to-interception differential in his 16-year career: plus-74.
Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
This fall, Sports Illustrated legal analyst Michael McCann, a law professor at the University of New Hampshire, will teach a “Deflategate” class to underclass students.
The name of the class: “Deflategate: The Intersection of Sports, Law and Journalism.” Register early, kids.
The Bears’ nightly meetings end at 8:35 p.m. in training camp on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill. Seems early, doesn’t it? There’s a reason: The Bears are one of an increasing number of teams placing an emphasis on more sleep for players. They hope that players get a snack after the meetings, then veg out for a while and are in bed by 10 p.m.
And then we went to Green Bay. Last meeting of the night ended at 8:30. This sleep thing is catching on.
The four Titans’ preseason games will be televised live in Hawaii, birthplace and place of residence and schooling for the first 17 years of the life of Marcus Ardel Taulauniu Mariota.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Notes of the Week
Aw-but-ain’t-that-America notes from The MMQB’s 2015 training camp tour:
• Between Tuesday at 2 p.m. Eastern Time and Thursday at 8 p.m. Central Time, with stops in Nashville (Titans) and Bourbonnais, Ill. (Bears), we drove 1,426 miles from Tampa to Green Bay. Four Starbucks stops. I’m surprised it was that few.
• We got gas in south Georgia on I-75 traveling from Tampa to Nashville on Tuesday. Inside the little mini-mart, for sale: mounted alligator heads, cold blueberry wine, Snoop Dogg smoking paraphernalia.
• Left my laptop on the seat in our booth at the Lonestar Steakhouse in Mount Vernon, Ill., Wednesday night, and got 10 minutes up I-57 before realizing my mistake and turning back for it. Meanwhile, our waiter saw it there, figured we must be staying at one of the local hotels, and called them all, asking if I was registered. Now there’s an honorable man.
And this one:
• The newest addition to The MMQB staff, Kalyn Kahler, is a Midwestern gal. Born in Iowa, lived in Illinois and Wisconsin growing up, and matriculated at Northwestern. Her grandparents, from Rockford, Ill., came to see her at Bears camp in central Illinois Thursday. The grandma, Tressa Anderson, made some fantastic oatmeal-raisin-ginger cookies and delivered them to Kalyn. Gary and Tressa Anderson waited patiently after practice while their granddaughter interviewed Bears, just so they could have a couple of minutes with her before Kalyn and the crew went on to the next stop.
“Do you still have your pepper spray?” Grandma asked, quite concerned, when it was time to go.
Grandmas will always be grandmas. Last year, when Kalyn was a spring intern at Sports Illustrated, Grandma Tressa was very concerned that Kalyn would have a safe place to live in New York City. She found her quite a safe place: St. Mary’s Residence, a convent run by the Congregation of the Daughters of Divine Charity. Kalyn spent her internship semi-cloistered with the good nuns of St. Mary’s, thanks to Grandma.
Kalyn, a former Northwestern cheerleader, is cheerleader-peppy. “I hope people know I’m not living with the nuns anymore!” she said. When I texted her the day before we left on this 15-day trip, telling her to be ready to do an awful lot of driving, she texted back this: “BORN READY.”
Tweets of the Week
The trio that hooked me on MNF as a kid was Dandy Don, Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford. Hard to believe all three are now gone— trey wingo (@wingoz) August 9, 2015
DeAndre Levy, you just cashed in. What are you going to do next?!?! "Get two solid gold dog dishes for my dog." http://t.co/OtHK3j9qWC— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) August 6, 2015
To Jon Stewart Jon, listen to me! There's still time to change your mind. Dick Cavett— Dick Cavett (@TheDickCavett) August 6, 2015
Alas, it’s no good. Stewart is gone.
Fox will use the actual shot-clock buzzer used during Cleveland Cavaliers basketball games to silence candidates http://t.co/85Fh0gfqUF— NYT Politics (@nytpolitics) August 6, 2015
Tweeted hours before the Republican debate Thursday night in Cleveland.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think the NFL allowing a concussion-spotter to have the power to stop the game is a tremendous step in the right direction for continued concussion vigilance. This season a certified athletic trainer, independent of either team and with at least 10 years in the field, will be posted in a booth upstairs. If he sees a player appear shaky or woozy on the field but the play is not stopped, the trainer will be able to signal a timeout of unlimited length to make sure the affected player is examined.
2. I think that was a fantastic idea at Falcons camp Sunday, owner Arthur Blank and the Atlanta players walking hand-in-hand to practice with children of American troops killed in action. Touching and meaningful.
THE MMQB PODCAST: The latest from Benoit, Klemko and Peter King
3. I think Seattle safety Kam Chancellor is a heck of a player, obviously. Who doesn’t think so? Likeable guy too. But holding out for a new deal after two years of a five-year contract is simply a non-starter. GM John Schneider cannot start re-doing contracts with three years left on them, regardless of the value of the player. Seattle, as I pointed out last week, has an average of $97 million tied up in 10 players through 2017, and the easiest way to inflate that number through the salary-cap roof is to tear up a contract of any player with three years left on it. For the record, Chancellor signed a four-year contract extension in 2013 when he had a year left on his original contract; that meant his contract went through 2017. In the first two years of the deal, he made $12.55 million, including bonuses. In the last three years, he is slated to make $16.875 million, including bonuses but not including incentives. You might say that $5.6 million a year for a top-five NFL safety is too little, and I might agree … except that the contract, in 2013 dollars, was very much a market-value deal. Chancellor signed it.
Seattle has had a practice of working on players’ contract with a year left, or when they reach free agency. Even if it means sacrificing Chancellor for the season (I don’t think that will happen, but it could), Schneider will do more damage with his roster by giving in than by holding firm. He seemed to be saying he wouldn’t budge the other day on Sirius-XM NFL Radio. “I think it's just a bummer for everybody involved in the situation,” he said. “We've had a plan in place here for several years. Kam was one of the first players that we drafted that we were able to reward with one year left on his contract. At the end of the day you have to stick to your plan and your principle, and that's what has to guide you rather than, 'We all love this guy.' This is about the team. It's the ultimate team sport, and in order for us to be a consistent championship-caliber team that we've been preaching ever since we got here, we have to continue to conduct business the way we always have.”
4. I think this is one good reason why it’s harder to play quarterback in New York than in most markets: Geno Smith was booed at the Jets’ open (free) scrimmage at MetLife Stadium on Saturday night. I mean, booed on Aug. 8, in a practice. I’m all for fan freedom to do whatever the heck they want, but that is just stupid. Boo the guy when he stinks in a game. But in his first fortnight of training camp with a new offense? What is wrong with people?
5. I think, in case you missed Jenny Vrentas story on The MMQB on Friday about the atmosphere around the Patriots right now, it’s well worth your time. You know what I love most about this story? The beginning and the end. Just terrific. And there’s a good journalism lesson in it, one I hope journalism professors around the country will incorporate into a lesson in this school year.
You’ll see that Vrentas led the story with an anecdote about Bill Belichick’s father, Steve. Then an assistant football coach at the Naval Academy, Steve Belichick was trying to keep his players’ focus at least partially on football during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It was going on during the football season. And one week of particularly tense times when it seemed we might go to war, Steve Belichick said, “We’ve got to get ready for Pitt!” Navy was playing Pitt that week. How apt it seemed, of course, when Vrentas was nosing around the Patriots in the first days of training camp—Bill Belichick now has to keep his team focused on “getting ready for Pitt,” except this “Pitt” is the pro team in town, the Steelers, who are the Patriots’ first foe this season.
The lesson is this: Vrentas was assigned a story on the Bill Belichick football library—the largest collection of football books in the world, which is housed at the Naval Academy’s main library on campus—before the Super Bowl last January. While she was there, a couple of people reminded her of where the Belichick football focus comes from: his dad. She was told the Cuban Missile Crisis story. “I really wanted to use it in the Belichick football library story,” Vrentas said over the weekend. “But it just really didn’t fit. It just felt like it would be a distraction to the story about the library. I just remembered it and hoped I’d be able to use it somewhere someday.” The elephant in New England’s locker room, obviously, is the deflated football story that threatens to keep Tom Brady from playing the first quarter of the season, but it’s a story no one will talk about. It’s ignored by everyone but the (justifiably) apoplectic media. And Vrentas found a way to resuscitate a like-father, like-son story that applies perfectly to today. We’re lucky to have it on our site.
6. I think when Bill Polian said in his Hall of Fame speech, “Football is a meritocracy,” I thought of Malcolm Butler … because, of course, Butler made the biggest play in the biggest game of last season, and because the second-most interesting story in the camp of the Super Bowl champions this summer is the absolute openness of the competition to replace championship cornerbacks Darrelle Revis (free agent, Jets) and Brandon Browner (free agent, Saints). And then I read Mike Reiss’ ESPN column Sunday and come to find out that while Browner’s spot is being used as a revolving door of prospective starters (led by Logan Ryan), the left corner consistently through nine practices has been Butler. We’ll see how it works out, but one of the things you know about Bill Belichick over the years is how no coach goes by what he sees more consistently than Belichick.
7. I think the best thing I heard about Jameis Winston in Tampa is this, from a smart guy in the Bucs’ offices: “Have you seen him in the papers one time since the draft? No.” In other words, he gets that the best thing for a rookie quarterback is to work on his craft and not be this year’s Johnny Manziel.
8. I think this has to be the Training Camp Sight of the Week: Chicago tight end Martellus Bennett, sitting on the grass under a tree at Bears camp on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University in central Illinois, writing in a notebook. “I’ve done a couple short stories, and I’m working on my next one right now,” he told The MMQB’s Kalyn Kahler.
9. I think runner-up to Training Camp Sight of the Week was the 32-yard drop-kicked field goal by Marcus Mariota at Titans camp. I mean, a 32-yard drop-kicked field goal is interesting enough, seeing that NFL kickers don’t normally practice drop-kicks, never mind NFL quarterbacks. (Except for Doug Flutie, of course.) But there’s something else that made this a wow: Mariota kicked it with such velocity that it kept flying and flying, and flew up on top of the roof of the Titans’ training facility. This is only an estimate, obviously, but that drop-kick, I’m betting, would have been good from 55 yards away. There’s something you don’t see every day.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Smart column by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Mike Sielski defending Chip Kelly, and with good reason.
b. I see 48,000 or so showed up for a Browns practice/scrimmage at Ohio State. Get ready for the Browns-to-Columbus-for-training-camp stories. I’d be in favor of anything to take another team to a public setting away from its regular facility.
c. Bernie Miklasz’s last column for the St. Louis Post Dispatch on Sunday was in keeping with what Miklasz always does. Which is great work.
d. Loved this part: “I don’t believe sportswriters are important in the grand scheme of things. We save no lives, we protect no one from harm, we aren’t teaching children, we don’t take care of the sick or the aged, we don’t do research to find miracle cures for insidious diseases. On a list of the critical jobs in a city’s culture, we’re probably at the bottom. But when I click open an email and see a message from you telling me that you’ve been reading me since you were 12, or that my work enhanced your enjoyment of sports, or that my columns motivated you to pursue a career in journalism, or that you clipped out a column and read it to a dying parent … my goodness, I’m just blown away. That makes everything worth it. The deadline meltdowns, the long road trips away from home and loved ones, the lonely hotel rooms, the horrendous eating habits, getting mugged after a game in Philadelphia (that happened), being trapped in the upper deck of the ballpark when an earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay Area (that also happened). It wasn’t in vain. Your messages have let me know that there was a purpose to this madness, and that our words had some value. This makes me happy.
e. We had to stop The MMQB van on the side of I-65 in Indiana on Saturday evening. Sometimes you just have to stop and soak in the sights. This was one of the prettiest sunsets I’ve seen, in Battle Ground, Ind.
f. Good work by Ken Belson and The New York Times on the Sydney Seau story.
g. Donald Trump. Filterless.
h. Eleven days on the road and counting. I have not turned the TV on in my room one time. It isn’t that I don’t like TV. I do. But there’s something about getting away from it for a while, immersing oneself in a new season and jumping into football full-go. I stopped multitasking (radio/TV/writing) a few years ago. It’s just too distracting. I have the electronics off, mostly, when writing now.
i. For those who wonder, I was traveling from Chicago to Anderson, Ind., during the Hall of Fame speeches. Watched them on YouTube when I got here.
j. Coffeenerdness: You know, in desperate times, six shots of espresso in a grande macchiato is not so bad. (He said, trying to convince himself that his coffee sickness is really just a temporary thing.)
k. Beernerdness: Have to hand it to the state of Wisconsin. There are about 9,000 good craft beers there. But how do you top Spotted Cow Ale (New Glarus Brewing, New Glarus, Wis.)? That’s one of the smoothest, tastiest ales in America.
l. Thanks to the good people of Greenfield, Wis., a Milwaukee suburb, for coming out to our Tweetup on Friday evening at The Brass Tap. And thanks to Nick Marking, the proprietor, for inviting us, and for being such a welcoming host. We had fun.
m. Tweetup Wednesday evening in Pittsford, N.Y., at Thirsty’s, at 4:45 p.m. Now, if you’re unfamiliar with Thirsty’s, it’s going to take some skill to find. There’s no sign on the place. But if you get to Pittsford, just ask where Thirsty’s is. Everyone knows. The Bills practice Wednesday night, and The MMQB traveling team (me, Jenny Vrentas, Robert Klemko, John DePetro, Emily Kaplan, Kalyn Kahler) will be there to answer anything you want to know about football. Of course, that means we must know everything about football.
n. Mike Napoli, you’ll always have 2013. Thanks for the memories.
o. Bob Cousy, 87. That snuck up on us.
The Adieu Haiku
On the road again
We've got the Lions today
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