Perception and Truth in Philly
Prologue to a column, with a point about not taking preseason results seriously:
In the past 11 regular seasons, the Patriots are 136-40.
In the past 11 preseasons, the Patriots are 20-24.
(Iverson voice: “We talkin’ ’bout practice!”)
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PHILADELPHIA — I asked Eagles coach Chip Kelly if he felt frustrated with the perception that he can’t get along with players, and isn’t a good communicator, even though those who’ve been around the Eagles for years will tell you the door to his office is mostly open, while Andy Reid’s office door was mostly closed. He gave me one of those wry smiles, which I took to mean: I wish I could tell you exactly what I think of this, but I’m going to filter it, because nothing good can come of me airing out people.
“Yeah,” Kelly said with that smile the other day, after a training-camp practice in south Philly. “But there’s nothing you can do about it. I think we do a really good job with communicating with our players. You can talk to guys on the team who say it’s the best communication they’ve had since they’ve been in the league. It’s just who do you want to believe? The players who are here understand that. At the end of the day you bring in 90 guys to camp and 53 are going to make it, so 37 people are going to hear something they don’t want to hear, and that’s the hard part.”
Then he quoted two people. He said Phil Jackson once said that if you want to be liked, don’t get into coaching. “Then there’s the Mike Schmidt quote,” Kelly said.
“He said, ‘Philadelphia is the only town where you can experience the thrill of victory, then the agony of reading about it the next day,’” Kelly said. “It’s part of the territory, and rightly so. These people [media people] are awesome. It’s an unbelievably competitive market. New York has two teams so they gotta go to the Giants and the Jets. Here, there’s one team.”
Much to get to this morning around the league, from a New York courtroom to the broken jaw of the broken quarterback in New Jersey to, finally, some fruitful negotiations for the San Diego Chargers … as well as stories from the training camp trail.
My favorite story here? It’s about badminton—Sam Bradford becoming the first quarterback in NFL to rehab a torn ACL by playing badminton. More about that in a few paragraphs.
Today I journey to Renton, Wash., to see my 17th team, the Super Bowl runner-up Seahawks, the first stop on a seven-team trip out west. On Thursday, the east-of-the-Mississippi portion of The MMQB’s 2015 NFL training camp tour concluded—16 camps, 19 days, 5,042 miles in one over-ripe nine-seat van with WiFi and way too many 2 a.m. check-ins at Fairfield Inns—and I’ll bring you tales that piqued our interest with the Jaguars, Bears, Packers, Lions, Browns and Eagles.
There’s where I’ll start—in Philadelphia, the last stop on our East/South/Midwest tour. This stuff about Kelly and his relations with players reminds me of a coach who left Cleveland in 1995. Bill Belichick was a bad communicator. Ran Bernie Kosar out of town. Too dictatorial. Players hated him. Had one winning season and won one playoff game in five years. Finished a lousy tenure eight games below .500. Left Cleveland, and the perception around the league was he’d only be a coordinator the rest of his career. When Robert Kraft hired him in 2000 to coach the Patriots, Kraft got comments like, “Are you nuts? Belichick’s not a head coach.” In 15 seasons with the Patriots, Belichick has averaged 13 wins a year (including the postseason).
Not saying Kelly will be Belichick. The Eagles, under Kelly, have been 10-6 back-to-back, with a muddled quarterback situation, and 0-1 in the playoffs. He’s made hugely controversial moves this off-season, from gambling on the oft-injured Sam Bradford to dealing running-back star LeSean McCoy to Buffalo to signing a pair of backs—DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews—to replace McCoy. When he traded nickel back Brandon Boykin to Pittsburgh last month (for a fifth-round pick in 2016 that becomes a fourth if Boykin plays 60 percent of the defensive snaps for the Steelers in 2015), Boykin decried the lack of communication with Kelly, later saying he did not mean Kelly was racist.
It’s fairly fruitless to ask a man to defend himself against charges that he is racist. And because there is no evidence looking at Kelly’s personnel decisions with the Eagles that he is, I didn’t ask him either. I simply think it’s an unfair question if people might think there’s something to it when there’s no supporting evidence to say there is. Think of it: He traded a white quarterback for a white quarterback in the off-season. He jettisoned two white veteran linemen with big price tags—Todd Herremans and Evan Mathis. He dealt an African-American running back whose running style he didn’t like and who would soon be due a big contract for a white middle linebacker. He signed two African-American running backs in free agency. His first five draft choices were black. His top six imports from other teams in veteran free agency were African-Americans (Byron Maxwell, Mathews and Murray were the big ones, with E.J. Biggers, Brad Jones and Walter Thurmond the complementary ones). In other words, next story please.
The next story here is Bradford. Four notable things as he tries to rebound from an ACL tear of the same left knee in 2013 and again in 2014:
• Bradford tore the ACL for the second time 51 weeks ago in a preseason game against Cleveland, and as a precaution, he sat out Sunday’s preseason opener against the Colts. I’d expect him to play against Baltimore on Saturday night.
• He’s not going to be wearing a knee brace. In practice Thursday, I watched him move without restriction forward and laterally with only a black elastic sleeve around the left knee. “It comes down to this: I’ve torn it both times with a brace on it, and it hasn’t stopped it. What good’s the brace doing? So I’m not going to wear it,” he said.
• He threw the ball well and with accuracy in the two hours I watched him, and those in camp say his arm’s looked very good.
• And the badminton thing. One of Bradford’s big rehab practices was playing badminton without a net, with a doctor and athletic rehab specialist he’d just met, Bill Knowles, from Wayne, Pa.
“I don’t really know how to explain it,” Bradford said, and then paused a few seconds, because what happened in June is not like anything he’d experienced in his rehabs from two ACL tears of the left knee.
“There’s standard rehab, where you have a sheet of what you have to accomplish every day in terms of exercise and rehab. Bill Knowles’ deal is, ‘Let’s play games.’ One day he said, ‘Let’s play badminton.’ We warmed up playing badminton. And then every day we were out here playing badminton. No net. He would hit it high and make me change directions and run. He throws all these PE games at you. You don’t think about it being rehab until you look and see the positions your body’s been in, and you think, That’s pretty close to the positions and movements you’ve got to make as a quarterback. I’m sure people up in the offices are looking out and wondering, what in the world are they doing playing badminton? But, you know, you spend a year and a half doing the same exercises, and you get so tired of doing the same thing over and over, and [Knowles] came in and said, Let’s change it up—let’s play some games. I mean, I loved it. And that’s when I really felt the rehab took a big jump.”
Bradford spoke on the field post-practice. He’s always been a sort of unaffected optimist, a que sera, sera type. Asked about having any fear of it happening a third time, he said, “None. If it happens again, it’s just meant to be. It’s as ready as it can be. I feel great. I am confident in how I feel and how I can move and how the knee is. I’ve done what I needed to do in camp, and I’m ready. I can play. I’ve got a great opportunity in front of me.”
Kelly said the Eagle doctors told him there’s a 10 to 12 percent chance of Bradford tearing the ACL again. It’s a risk he’s willing to take. “What I’ve seen in Sam is what I thought we were going to get when I traded for him,” Kelly said. “Extremely accurate—he makes really good decisions with the football. He has as good an arm as there is in this league. He’s everything you want in a quarterback and he was before he was injured. He just has to stay healthy.”
Finally, an interesting note from Kelly on Murray. He had an almost inconceivable 449 touches last year in Dallas—392 rushing, 57 receiving—and the road is littered with backs who couldn’t follow up a season with such pounding with more great years.
Kelly admitted it worries him.
“I think there is a lot of validity to it,” he said. “But how do you manage him going into a season? Our plan all along was to get another running back with him. I wanted to have two running backs, and that’s why we got Ryan [Mathews]. I don’t think you can have a guy carry it 370 to 400 times per season and be successful. We’re going to run it a lot—we always do—but we’ll have more than one guy doing it.”
So the coach with the most pressure in the NFL this year east of Jim Tomsula seems happy with his team four weeks shy of opening night at Atlanta. The noise is okay too, mostly.
“I love the NFL,” Kelly said. “I think it’s awesome. We have a great bunch of guys here and an outstanding staff. The players want more everyday, they want to be coached, they want more information, they want everything. We have some really great leaders here—Malcolm Jenkins, DeMeco Ryans and now Byron Maxwell, who came over from Seattle; he’s been outstanding. I think everyone was concerned when you add this many people. But the guys we’ve added have been awesome. I like what I see.”
The crowd, and the city, will let him know soon enough if they like it too.
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Jacksonville: The prettiest ball I’ve seen this summer.
“I’ve got to show you something,” said GM David Caldwell, putting practice tape on the screen in his office. It was from a night practice that would get mostly rained out in Jacksonville. “This is the kind of play that makes us feel pretty good about Blake Bortles.”
It was a play from a seven-on-seven practice. Seven defenders trying to stop seven on offense, including Bortles. If you watched the Jags—32nd in scoring last year, 15.5 points per game—you know what the offense produced was abysmal, and you know in camp new offensive coordinator Greg Olson is working overtime to make sure a 249-point season doesn’t happen again.
Split right, free-agent wideout Tony Washington lines up head-up on prize free-agent cornerback Davon House. At the snap, Washington burrows into the inside shoulder of House and runs upfield. At about 13 yards, he pivots and cuts to the post. Just as he cuts, and four strides before he turns to look for the ball, Bortles releases the ball. At the split second Washington turns his head to the quarterback, the ball explodes into his hands. He doesn’t have to move his hands. It’s just there.
It’s the kind of big-league throw Aaron Rodgers would make. You cannot make a better throw of the football, 23 yards in the air, with House in tight coverage, the ball so tightly onto Washington that only he could catch it. Or drop it. But he caught it.
“The ball just hit my hands,” Washington said. “I didn’t do anything but catch it.”
“That throw reminded me of a throw Aaron would make,” said House, the ex-Packer. “I saw that same throw in Green Bay. No defending it.”
“All I’m thinking of as I release that ball,” said Bortles, “is ‘Break, break! Please break!’ And he did. A perfect route.”
Here’s how it happened, via Bortles: “A throw like that just comes with reps. And a lot of routes against air, just me and the receiver. You have to get to know each other in the off-season, and in camp. [2014 rookie] Allen Hurns came out to California in the off-season and I threw with him—I bet I threw 100 passes a day for four days, the same throws, over and over. That's how you get good. Last year, as a rookie, I felt like we were more of a college all-star team, with everybody just getting to know everyone—how they ran routes, how I threw the ball. But a play like that is pretty rewarding. Very rewarding. It’s pretty cool. When I see Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, I see quarterbacks who throw receivers open.”
I asked Bortles what he was thinking when he made the throw on the field. Exhilaration, maybe? Satisfaction? Or maybe that he finally was arriving at the place where good quarterbacks were?
“I thought, Good throw. Onto the next one now.”
Good answer. For a young quarterback, it’s always about the next throw, and building on the good ones.
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Chicago/Green Bay: A quick observation on the storied franchises.
Since the two teams met in that memorable 2010 NFC title game at Soldier Field—Packers 21, Bears 14—the Bears have had three coaches (Lovie Smith, Marc Trestman, John Fox) and three general managers (Jerry Angelo, Phil Emery, Ryan Pace). Green Bay has had one coach, Mike McCarthy, and one GM, Ted Thompson.
Since that game, the Bears have gone 31-33 and failed to make the playoffs four seasons in a row. The Packers have gone 47-17-1 and won one Super Bowl, and played in one other NFC Championship Game.
Since that game, the Bears have finished third, third, second and fourth in the NFC North. Green Bay has finished first, first, first and first.
Since that game, Jay Cutler has been involved in more melodrama than any other quarterback in the NFL. The only drama Aaron Rodgers has been involved in? I can’t think of it, unless appearing on Page Six of the New York Post because he’s been seen canoodling with Olivia Munn around North America counts as drama.
I feel for the Bears, because of the Kevin White news this weekend. White, the Bears’ charismatic first-round receiver, will be out for part or all of 2015 because he needs to get a rod inserted into his leg to correct a painful shin condition. He was going to be the speed weapon Cutler needed opposite Alshon Jeffery. Now the Bears will have Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte to take the pressure off Cutler, who simply has to cut down on the turnovers (24 last year, and it could have been worse; six more fumbles were recovered by Bears).
“We’re going to do things to help the quarterback,” GM Ryan Pace said at Bears camp in Bourbonnais. “We have a major commitment to the run, and that will take pressure off Jay. We have extreme confidence in the coaching staff, and we think Adam Gase can do a lot of things to help Jay. Adam can challenge Jay to be better, and also instill confidence in him. He’s an intelligent guy, and he works hard. We think Jay can be a very good quarterback in this system.”
Look, Pace is doing the right thing for his guy in propping up Cutler when the rest of the city wants him gone. I’d do the exact same thing. Say what you want, but if you were Pace, would you have fired Cutler and gone out and signed, say, Brian Hoyer? Or Ryan Fitzpatrick? No. You’d stick with Cutler and see if a third Chicago coaching staff could right the ship.
Meanwhile, five hours north of the Bears, Rodgers threw five interceptions last year. Four of them were on the hands of his receivers. And he threw 38 touchdown passes.
At Packers camp I became convinced that McCarthy decided to give up play-calling as much because he implicitly trusts Rodgers to be a coach on the field and trusts the knowledge of Tom Clements in the offensive system. “Aaron gives me all the confidence in the world to do this,” McCarthy said on a rainy day in Green Bay. “I know how he thinks. He knows how I think. He can get us out of bad plays consistently. This offense is in great shape. If there was ever a time to get out of the play-calling, this is it.”
Two quarterbacks. Two different worlds.
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Detroit: Better than I thought.
All along, I’ve had this thought that Minnesota would be my surprise team of the NFC. Then I came to Allen Park, Mich., to watch the Lions practice, and saw rookie back Ameer Abdullah run through everyone on defense, and watched one of the two or three most intense practices of our tour, and saw a healthy Calvin Johnson shred the defense like the pre-ankle-injury days. And I imagine that Caraun Reid and others we’ve never heard of can play well enough in the middle of the defensive line to soften the death blow of losing Ndamukong Suh.
Then I thought back to the final game of the 2014 regular season. Twenty minutes left in Green Bay. Detroit 14, Green Bay 14.
Matthew Stafford (217 passing yards, three touchdowns, no picks) versus Aaron Rodgers (226 yards, two touchdowns, no picks) dueling at 10 paces. Rodgers led two touchdown drives down the stretch, Stafford one. And the Packers won the game, 30-20, and the NFC North.
“I don’t accept they’re that much the premier team in the division as everyone says,” Stafford said after practice one morning. “Just look at how we played last year. We split with the Packers and swept the rest of the division. We’re close. We haven’t taken a step back.”
The irony of Suh leaving? And taking his incredible run defense and sacking (a team-high 8.5 sacks) with him to Miami? In the off-season, he tutored Reid, working out with the second-year Princeton kid, and all in Detroit camp say Reid came back this summer a different player. More stout. Stronger, with a better interior rushing presence. At 6-2 and 306 pounds, Reid looks more lithe and penetrating than he did last year. How interesting that Suh, who has expressed nothing but love for the Lions after leaving for Miami’s riches, may have left a gift upon his departure from Michigan. If Reid becomes an impact player, and that’s a very big “if,” Suh would be the former first-round pick that kept on giving.
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Cleveland: Respect for Ray Farmer.
You have a few options when you make a mistake in life. You can own up to it and totally admit it and take your medicine; or you can do something less; or you can lie your way through it. We’ve all made mistakes and made choices about how to respond.
Cleveland GM Ray Farmer wishes he’d never texted an assistant coach in the upstairs coaches' booth with suggestions/prompts/ideas/whatever during games last year. Farmer is a well-respected young GM in the league, a good scout who goes by his opinion, not by which way the wind is blowing. And he knew it was wrong to be in electronic communication with his coaching staff on game day. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and he just thought he should throw in his thoughts about what the Browns were doing on offense during the games. Farmer’s texting was discovered, and the league acted swiftly and fairly decisively: The NFL handed him a four-game suspension to start the 2015 regular season. Once the preseason is over, Farmer cannot be involved in any team-related activities. He can’t go to practices. He can’t go to games. He must disappear until the Monday before week five, Oct. 5.
I expected Farmer to either no-comment this when we spoke at Browns camp last week, or maybe say he stands by whatever vanilla statement he issued when the sanction came down. But he didn’t.
“My mom and dad taught me a long time ago to take responsibility for my actions,” Farmer said, a little uneasy talking about it, on the side of the team’s practice field in Berea, Ohio. “That’s what I have done. As the time gets closer, I continue to reflect on what I did, and the cost of it. I made a mistake, and this is my penalty, and I am going to serve it.”
I wondered if he felt the sanction seemed a little harsh. Instead of texting, Farmer could simply have knocked on the door of the coaches’ booth and thrown his weight around. Or he could have walked to the sidelines to give his message, or sent a missive to do either.
“It doesn’t matter what I think,” Farmer said. “It’s not my job to make up the punishment, or to issue the punishment. My job is the general manager of the Cleveland Browns. And I made a mistake, and I have to live with it.
“I look at it this way: If I’m speeding, and I get caught, depending where it happens, maybe I get a $300 fine, or maybe I get a $1,000 dollar fine. That’s not my job, to decide what the fine is. If I speed and get caught, well, I shouldn’t have been speeding. Someone else determines what the penalty for it is.”
I’m not sure this is the most noteworthy thing coming out of Browns camp. I’ll be writing some about other things I learned there. But Farmer’s standup act impressed me a lot, and I thought you should know about it.
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The Eric Berry Story is having a happy ending.
Last December, Kansas City safety Eric Berry was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a dangerous but treatable form of cancer. He completed his treatment in May, and on Saturday night in Arizona he took the field for a game for the first time in eight months. He didn’t start, and he made no tackles, had no interceptions. But I thought it was an impactful night, from the time he hugged his caretaker and mother before the game, to standing at midfield as a Chiefs captain before the game (eliciting tears from some on the Chiefs’ sideline) to actually playing again.
Some words from Berry that you should hear:
“It was great being back out here. Just the smell of the grass, the crowd, the food; I was just taking everything in, being in the locker room with my teammates and everything from greeting the security at the airport, I missed stuff like that. I broke down on the plane on the way out here, it just all hit me. I don’t think anybody can understand the road I took and the sacrifices I had to make just to be able to experience the things I mentioned to you at the beginning. You take the little things in and appreciate everything about the game and everything that surrounds the game. It is just a blessing to be out here, and I am going to take advantage of it.
“My mom has seen me at my worst, and she saw me at my best. It’s something we talked about when I was laying in the hospital bed or just in the room up at four in the morning, and she was telling me everything would be OK, because I just couldn’t stop crying. She was telling me I would be back and everything would be OK. She comforted me at a time when I needed to be comforted and she was very strong. A lot of people talk about the person going through the situation, but they don’t talk about the caregiver, and I can see how stressful it was for her and how it weighed on her.
“Now, everything is a blessing. I love football.
“Coach said I would be playing [in some sub packages with the first unit], and at this point I am prepared for anything. If it has something to do with football, I am going to be ready for it. If I was coming in with the threes, it doesn’t matter. I will take advantage of every moment I have between the white lines and outside of it.
“I have been running into a lot of people that don’t even know about football telling me that their cousin has been diagnosed with cancer or their mom or their aunt. They just tell me that they have hope because they see me out on the field, and that means a lot to me. I just have to take advantage of this opportunity because it’s bigger than football. As much as I love this game, I will show everybody that through my play and passion. It’s amazing to see everybody else get so much hope just from seeing me strap on the pads.
“This day is what I have been waiting for. You work so hard for something and give it everything you've got for moments like this, and I won’t let it go.”
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The play of the weekend: Jarryd Hayne’s 53-yard run.
Amazing story out of the Niners-Texans game: In his first American football game—after a career as a star rugby player in Australia—the 28-year-old Hayne bounced outside, separated physically from a couple of tacklers, and bounded up the left side of the Houston defense for a 53-yard run. It was really something to see. “I didn’t want to go out there and look like a rugby player," Hayne said. "I wanted to look like an American NFL player, and I felt I did that.”
Pump the brakes on Hayne making the team. But he’s also returning kicks and punts (returning, he said, “is similar to rugby league”), and that could be where he has his best chance to make the team. Observers in camp say he’s a load to bring down—you’d figure that, for a 220-pound rugby player, used to being a load to bring down without pads on—and plays in practice like most players play in games.
Said quarterback Blaine Gabbert: “If you watch his rugby highlight tapes, it is football without pads so, and without a helmet. So you knew he was going to bring kind of that mindset to football.” Now he just has to do that three more times, and he’ll be forcing the Niners to carve out a space for him.
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Philadelphia: The Tebow Watch is happening.
While I watched practice Thursday at the Eagles’ complex, there was this scene: Sam Bradford, his receiver covered in a seven-on-seven drill, tossed a ball harmlessly out of bounds, into the large bushes on the edge of the practice field. A few snaps later, Tim Tebow, the fourth-string quarterback battling Matt Barkley for the number three job, took a shotgun snap, looked at his options, saw none, and threw the ball into the exact same area of bushes.
“There’s Tebow’s intended receiver,” said a fan I was standing next to on the sidelines of practice. “The bushes.” He and his buddies got a good laugh out of that one.
No comment on Bradford’s throwaway, of course. He’s an accurate passer and deserves the benefit of the doubt. But not so Tebow. He has been so inaccurate in his brief career (47.9 percent) that when he makes a throw like that, it’s: same old Tebow.
In fact, it’s not the same Tebow. What remains to be seen is if the mechanically rehabbed Tebow can push Barkley out of a job. On Sunday, in his first preseason test, Tebow was marginally good, completing six of 12 passes for 69 yards while being sacked three times. He was hurried on almost every dropback behind a makeshift—and struggling—offensive line. But the bad thing for Tebow was he showed very happy feet at times, probably because of the intense pressure. He won’t make it, though, unless he can set his feet, look over his options and make a good throw. In the off-season, he got Tom House, noted mechanics-fixer, to help him with his footwork and his arm slot, and both looked better Thursday at practice. But I repeat: If he doesn’t show well in the next three games, I think Kelly will thank him for the effort and keep Barkley. Conversely, if he shows well, Kelly won’t be afraid to keep him, and even put in a package or two the weeks he’s active to throw a scare into the opposition.
“Tim’s sequencing has really improved,” Kelly said. “Not just his throw motion, but how his arm is following his legs in the right order. I’m not too worried about his arm slot; you see a guy like Philip Rivers throw from different angles and be effective. Tim’s better at the overall throw now.”
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After 17 games, the PAT results are exactly what you thought they’d be.
The debut of the new PAT rules—the extra point now is snapped from the 15-yard line, making it a 33-yard attempt; the two-point conversion is attempted from the 2-yard line—has been uneventful. Except for the two-point tries. Last year, 59 two-point conversions were attempted in 256 regular-season games. This preseason, 12 have been attempted in the first 17 games. Too early to sense a trend, but teams have made five of 12 (.417).
Checking out the 33-yard PAT after the Hall of Fame game and the full preseason schedule this weekend:
PATs attempted: 57.
PATs made: 55.
Cody Parkey, who is slumping already in camp, missed one Sunday for Philadelphia, while Tennessee’s Ryan Succop missed Friday night in Atlanta. But the percentage is in line with what the average is for field goals in the low-30-yard-attempt area.
Interesting that coaches through my camp tour have told me they don’t think the new rules will revolutionize the PAT business. “What is it, a 4 percent less chance you’ll make the extra point?’ Chip Kelly said. “That’s not going to be enough to make a huge change, in my opinion, in what coaches do.”
We’ll see. A couple of coaches I’ve spoken with for a story I’m working on concerning the PAT shift think there’s going to be more of a change than Kelly thinks. For now, no big story here.
• Question or comment? Email us at email@example.com.
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Quotes of the Week
“His word is gold. And I think that’s what hurts him so much. He got played for a punk, for lack of a better word, and on top of that, he looked bad to his community—like he didn’t come through with Geno Smith, like it was his fault.”
—Luke Hurtado, a former high school teammate of IK Enemkpali in Texas, to Ben Shpigel of the New York Times, in an excellent profile of Enemkpali, and what made him so upset that he punched Jets quarterback Geno Smith in the jaw, fracturing it. Smith was a no-show for Enemkpali’s football camp fundraiser July 11, and exactly one month later, with Smith reportedly never having apologized for missing the camp and never paying Enemkpali back $600 Enemkpali said he was owed, the jaw-breaking occurred in the Jets’ locker room.
It will be interesting to see in the coming days just which story is accepted as the truth for why Smith no-showed. Shpigel reports it’s because a friend of Smith’s was in a bike accident. On the day of the event, word around the Jets was that Smith canceled because of a death of a friend. But the Shpigel story is interesting because it notes that Smith was featured prominently in publicity materials for the camp, and some people grumbled when the advertised starting NFL quarterback wasn’t there. The story paints a good picture—while not excusing the act—of why Enemkpali was so steamed that Smith didn’t show, and apparently didn’t call either. “He bailed on me,” Enemkpali told a friend on the day of the camp. “I haven’t heard from him.”
“They’ll have to get a tractor to move me outside to tackle. I’d rather get in a fist fight in a phone booth [at guard] any day. Those guys outside, there’s too much space. Too scary out there.”
—Chicago Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long, on off-season talk that the Bears may move him to tackle eventually because of his strength and athleticism.
As you can read, he’s having none of that.
“The interception watch is over.”
—Tennessee coach Ken Whisenhunt, after quarterback Marcus Mariota—who hadn’t thrown an interception in team drills at training camp before the preseason opener Friday night at Atlanta—threw a folly floater to linebacker Justin Durant early in the game. If you read my column last week, you knew Whisenhunt was sick of the Mariota-as-perfect-quarterback storyline circulating out of Titans camp.
“Your heart just stops.”
—Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, upon hearing his manager, John Farrell, would be leaving the team for the rest of the season because of Stage 1 lymphoma.
“Steve Spurrier had the best quote on that. They asked him if he ever had a quarterback punched out and he said, ‘No, I don’t reckon so. But I also have never had a quarterback that owed anybody money either.’ ”
—Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly, on the story of the week: Jets starting quarterback Geno Smith getting punched out by a teammate, allegedly because of an unpaid debt.
“I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I'm sorry I'm not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I'm not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best.”
—Steelers linebacker James Harrison, in an Instagram post next to the two athletic trophies his sons received—and that he sent back.
Stats of the Week
“Duty and honor, mostly.”
Cleveland tackle Joe Thomas is getting into Cal Ripken Jr., territory with his consecutive games played streak. Those are the words he used the other day to describe why he thinks it’s so important to play every game from beginning to end. He knows no other way. Since being drafted in 2007, Thomas has started all 128 Cleveland games. That’s not a big story. This is: He’s played all 7,917 offensive snaps for the Browns in his nine NFL seasons.
This is despite three strained or torn knee ligaments along the way, and two high ankle sprains, and despite the Browns trying to get him a respite a few times when they know he’s ailing a bit. The closest The Streak came to ending was last Oct. 14, midway through the fourth quarter of a surprising 31-10 Browns win over Pittsburgh. Offensive line coach Andy Moeller, who knew nothing about Thomas’ streak, sent backup tackle Vinton Painter on the field to replace Thomas with a couple of series (likely) left to play.
“What are you doing out here? Get back! Get back!” Thomas said to Painter, shooing him off the field. Later, Thomas went to Moeller and to the offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, and told them he had never missed an NFL play and, with all due respect, wasn’t going to start now, particularly not in a very rare moment of triumph against the rival Steelers.
In all, 7,917 straight offensive plays averages out to 989.6 offensive plays per season, 61.9 offensive plays per game, in 44 wins and 84 losses. Twice in eight years the Browns have been in serious contention in December, but no matter. Thomas played every snap in probably 40 games that were borderline or truly meaningless to anything except Thomas’ pride and the streak.
Not your traditional Stat of the Week, but the Ripken of the NFL deserves some credit for it, to be sure.
Now that San Diego has signed Philip Rivers long-term, two of the three franchise quarterbacks from the 2004 draft class are tied up through the 2019 season—when Ben Roethlisberger will be 37 in Pittsburgh and Rivers 38 with the Chargers. Now it’s Eli Manning’s turn. His contract is up at the end of this season, and the ones inked by Roethlisberger and Rivers give a decent road map to the one Manning will get with the Giants, at some point.
It’s fascinating to look at how similar the three quarterbacks have been, for the most part. Rivers’ numbers are down, slightly, because he didn’t start his first two years in San Diego, sitting behind Drew Brees. Manning has started an eye-popping 178 games in a row. Roethlisberger started early in Pittsburgh. But the fact that all three could have such similar numbers—look at the touchdowns here: all are between 251 and 259 in their regular-season careers—is amazing.
That’s why whenever Manning signs with the Giants, we shouldn’t be very surprised at the numbers. They’ve been pretty laid out in front of him by his peers from the 2004 draft.
(Editor's Note: "Wins" includes playoffs and the salary average is beginning in 2016.)
The guess here: Manning ends up very close to Roethlisberger. Super Bowl wins trump all. I’m sure Jerry Reese and the Giants will try to hold the line on anything north of Roethlisberger, because Aaron Rodgers is the gold standard at $22 million per year. But Tom Condon, Manning’s agent, surely will argue that because the Rodgers deal was signed two-and-a-third years ago, and the cap in 2015 has increased $20.8 million over 2013, the Rodgers deal can’t be held up as unbeatable. But I doubt there will be much drama here. There’s no indication Manning won’t be a Giant in 2016, even if the Giants have to franchise him. He’s just not the contentious type to force an issue like this.
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
Pardon the cliché here.
Washington linebacker Keenan Robinson considers himself a proverbial lunchpail type of player. “When I come to work, I come to work like any other person at any other job,” said Robinson, the fourth-year player from Texas. “I work. I work hard.” So earlier this off-season, he went to the store and bought himself a lunchpail He carries it to every practice at Washington’s training camp in Richmond, Va., and carries it to meetings and to his room at night.
“This reminds me,” said Robinson, holding it up after a recent practice, “that football’s all about work.”
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
So … our team at The MMQB had a good and informative trip on the road. We also had some fun. See our selfie-stick photo from the last day on the Eagles’ sideline? Videographer John DePetro (white T-shirt) took it, and you can see, from left, Robert Klemko, Kalyn Kahler, Emily Kaplan (front), me, and Jenny Vrentas.
We had a good drive the final night, from the Bills’ camp in Pittsford, N.Y., after an evening practice, about 330 miles to Philadelphia, to an Eagles practice at 11 the next day. Our crack tour manager, Kalyn Kahler, loaded up the van with Chipotle, and we set off around 8:45 for Philly. One problem: Robert Klemko couldn’t handle the sour cream in his Chipotle something-or-other, and so about a half-hour out of town he started looking for food on his RoadAhead app.
What a country. Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, the famous Syracuse meathouse, was 15 minutes ahead, and Klemko put in an order. We’d swoop in and get it, then eat in the van. I told him to get me a barbecued pork sandwich. We pulled up to the place of Pete Thamel’s youth, went in to pick up the food and use the facilities when …
“There is a town in north Ontario …”
Some terrific warbler was warbling “Helpless,” the Neil Young song, and doing a great job of it. The pork could wait. I walked into the main room. On two TVs was the ninth inning of Cleveland beating the Yankees, and a transfixed crowd was watching and listening as this Young-like fellow sang a great song. Good thing the pork wasn’t quite ready. I listened for 10 minutes and was ticked off we had to get back in the van. A great stop. True Americana in downtown Syracuse—and we never got to what appeared to be a great selection on tap.
Luckily, we had a training-camp tour fan, lead-footed SI managing editor Chris Stone, driving the last five-hour leg, so we could work/eat/search bad videos on YouTube. Klemko got us all addicted to this “Super Troopers” clip with the two staties stopping a speeder and one “Meow”-ing his way through the citation. I must be the only adolescent in America who’d never seen the scene with the cop saying “Meow” 10 times until this trip happened, but we got our fill of it, right up to the “Not so funny meow, is it?”
Anyway, we checked into the Philadelphia Marriott around 2:20 a.m., and when the desk clerk gave me the keys to the room, instead of saying, “Good night, now,” I said: “Good night, Meow.”
Klemko won’t admit it, but he really liked that one.
Tweets of the Week
Blaine Gabbert's passer rating in Preseason Week 1 last year: 1.7. Blaine Gabbert's passer rating tonight: 125.6— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) August 16, 2015
This one is a tough pill to swallow. Finally got the opportunity I always wanted since I entered this league. Took me 4 years to get there.— Niles Paul (@Niles_Paul84) August 14, 2015
A starting tight end for the first time in his career, Paul was lost for the season in the preseason opener with a dislocated ankle.
The Boston Herald columnist, commenting on the grotesque, sketchy sketch-artist’s portrait of Tom Brady in the New York court hearing into the legitimacy of his four-game suspension last week.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think the upshot of the Philip Rivers contract extension—Chris Mortensen reported it as four years and $83.25 million, beginning in 2016; he will play out his final year of the current deal this year at $15 million—is that the Chargers, wherever they play in 2016 and beyond, will be quarterbacked by Rivers. He and his wife, who is pregnant with their eighth child, love San Diego and really don’t want to move anywhere. But apparently there’s no language in the contract that has anything to do with a franchise move. So wherever the Chargers play, that’s where Rivers will play.
2. I think Ray Rice will be in some team’s camp by Sept. 15. Just a hunch. The Browns have some interest, and depending on injuries in the preseason, other teams will too. I heard this in three places along my camp tour so far: Teams are concerned about the fallout for picking up a man who decked his fiancée in an elevator, but are as concerned or more concerned with the fact that the last time he was on the field, in 2013, he was a less-than-mediocre back. Rice says that’s because he played with a painful partially torn hip labrum, and because he’s 28, I believe some team with a big running-back hole late in camp or early in the season (contracts for the year are not guaranteed if a player is signed after Week 1) is likely to take the leap. With thanks to several coaches/GMs on my camp tour, here's my veteran free-agent running back short list in order:
• Ahmad Bradshaw. Suspended for the first game of the season (substance abuse), Bradshaw has recovered from a broken leg and is a good backup insurance policy. Cleared to resume football activity in June, he’d be my number one target in the running back market. On 352 carries in the past three years, he’s averaged 4.6 yards per rush—and he had six receiving touchdowns from Andrew Luck out of the backfield last year in Indianapolis.
• Pierre Thomas. He turns 31 in December and is coming off multiple injuries (ribs, shoulder, foot) that limited him last year in New Orleans. But the Texans made an offer to him for running back depth two weeks ago, and he’s at the top of one other NFC’s team's short list for backs.
• Ray Rice. There’s concern about whether he is the Rice of 2012 (4.4 yards per rush) or 2013 (3.1 yards per rush). One coach on a team with a running back need told me, “I looked at him from 2013, and I just thought he wasn’t very good.”
• Chris Johnson. Turns 30 in September. Brings baggage. The 2,006-yard season seems 16 years away, not six. But the Cardinals may sign him this week. No one says he can't be a weapon with a good line in front of him.
• Shonn Greene and Ben Tate would be next and, when he finishes rehab for a major knee injury by midseason, Knowshon Moreno will be a good candidate to be signed. The Dolphins still have some scant interest in bringing him back.
3. I think if he plays 14 or more games this year, Atlanta linebacker Justin Durant will play well enough to deserve a spot in the Pro Bowl. Notice I didn’t say “make the Pro Bowl,” because voting for the Pro Bowl is unintelligent and most often not reflective of, you know, how guys actually play football. (And I would have written this before Durant picked off Marcus Mariota on Friday night.)
A photo posted by The MMQB (@themmqb) on
4. I think if you want to know what it’s like to travel with me on the road on the training camp tour, just come with me and meet Duane Trautner of Oak Creek, Wis. Duane, a friendly Packer fan, came to my Tweetup in suburban Milwaukee. He came up to me and showed me what he did to prove his fandom: Trautner got a crown of a tooth emblazoned with the Packer logo. See it? “I just said to the dentist, ‘It’d be cool if I could get the Packer logo on it,” Trautner said. “He said he thought he could make it happen. I said, ‘Let’s do it!’ ” And that right there is what it’s like to root for the Packers.
5. I think the best thing written after the ducks-put-in-a-row league meeting about the future of football in Los Angeles last week came from Nick Canepa in U-T San Diego, about the increasing negativity of the Chargers/Raiders proposed site in Carson, and how Cowboys owner Jerry Jones clearly favors owner Stan Kroenke and the Rams in Inglewood. Wrote Canepa: “One thing’s absolutely certain: There will not be three teams up there. And the Rams are going to be one, and if so, Carson is dead, mired in its toxic waste dump. The Chargers can’t go it alone. And if they were to get in bed with Kroenke, they would send ‘hypocritical’ to new heights, because I’m 100 percent sure they don’t like the Inglewood site (not exactly Beverly Hills and with no freeway access). And they know two things: a) dealing with tight-fisted landlord Kroenke won’t be a day at Universal Studios, and b) they eternally will play second fiddle in Stan’s orchestra.” Tough but fair.
6. I think much has been made of Jet-turned-Bill linebacker IK Enemkpali breaking Geno Smith’s jaw Tuesday, and the subsequent fallout. Several points to make:
a. I was amazed, from the four coaches/players and one highly respected retired player I spoke with in the past few days that the blame for the incident in the eyes of the NFLers should be shared. I mean, almost equally shared. As one active quarterback told me, “You just do not go around owing teammates money—especially a teammate who doesn’t make much money.” As Jenny Vrentas reported Thursday, the Bills got the inside info on what exactly happened from a player inside the Jets’ locker room, and you can bet if the story came back that it was all Enemkpali’s fault in the eyes of this player, the Bills would not have signed him.
b. It’s pretty obvious from the words coming out of the Jets’ locker room—good reporting by the New York Post’s Brian Costello on Friday, saying he had two sources advancing the story that Smith “instigated the altercation with Enemkpali”—that there’s not overwhelming respect for Smith in the room.
c. From the respected retired player (not a Jet): “I can tell you there’d have been a huge problem in the locker rooms I was in if guys thought the quarterback owed money to a guy and didn’t pay—even if it was in dispute whether he owed him money or not. It wouldn’t matter what the reality was. Guys would be pissed.”
d. The Jets open against the Browns. And Cleveland isn’t overjoyed that the starting quarterback for the Jets will miss the game for two simple reasons: Smith is feared by no defensive staff in the league, and new Jets starter Ryan Fitzpatrick started 45 games for Gailey when he was head coach of the Bills from 2010 to 2012. Fitzpatrick knows the Gailey offense far better than Smith. Then there’s the touchdown-to-interception differential for both: Smith, minus-9; Fitzpatrick, plus-22.
e. Has there ever been a more transparent slap at a player than Enemkpali’s apology about the incident when he got to Buffalo, when he apologized to everyone in the Jets’ building except for the one whose jaw he broke in two places? Enemkpali: “I want to apologize to the Jets organization, the fans, my teammates and the coaches. I apologize for what happened. It should have never happened. I should have walked away from the situation. It was never my intentions to hurt anybody.” Then he thanked the Bills for picking him up. I would have loved to hear him say: “I wouldn’t apologize to Geno Smith if I lived to be 150.” Because that’s what he meant with that statement.
7. I think you shouldn’t blame me for the football locker-room ethos that shifts the blame from the assaulter to the assaultee. I’m the messenger here. I’m just telling you what five people I respect said about the punching in the wake of it. In my opinion, there’s never a good-enough reason for punching another man in the face.
8. I think if you’re wondering about the sanction awaiting Enemkpali by the NFL, well, I wouldn’t count on him being in a Bills uniform for the first couple of weeks. After the punchout, NFL VP Troy Vincent sent a memo to all coaches and general managers reminding them of the prohibition on fighting on the field and off. “These rules are in place for the protection and safety of our players and to keep them on the field,” said Vincent. “As professionals, no matter how emotional the game becomes, there is nothing that should resort to fighting. Coaches are encouraged to emphasize to players, coaches, and other club personnel who are on the sidelines, that fighting will not be tolerated. We greatly appreciate all of your efforts to advance our great game, keep it competitive and professional, and to ensure that it is played to the highest standards.” So … how much of a suspension can Enemkpali expect? No one knows, because NFL discipline is a moving target. But I’d be surprised if it were fewer than two games.
9. I think two injuries stand above all on the first preseason weekend: to right tackles Demar Dotson (knee) of the Bucs and Phil Loadholt (knee) of the Vikings, in the same game. Loadholt appears to be out for the year, while Dotson is expected to miss about six weeks. Dotson is the Bucs’ highest-performing offensive lineman, and the injury comes at a time when two rookies are already slated to start on the line, and the protection of rookie franchise quarterback Jameis Winston is paramount.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Wow: LeBron James will pay for the four-year college educations of up to 2,300 northeast Ohio children now in school, through the University of Akron and the LeBron James Family Foundation. “College isn’t a realistic future for many,” he said in announcing the program last week. “It means so much because, as a kid growing up in the inner city and a lot of African-American kids, you don’t think past high school.”
b. Brings to mind Bill Gates right there. What a tremendous gesture. I don’t know James, but he sounds like a good person.
c. Sign of the 2015 times: My wife and I were in a cab on our way home from dinner Friday night, on 56th Street in Manhattan. Traffic between Park and Lexington stopped dead. We waited a minute. We saw a guy get out of a car a few cars ahead of us and start walking. I figured if was a garbage truck or small accident—some New York thing. So we got out and started walking home. Turns out it was five young people, standing in the street, chanting, “Black lives matter!” In between chants, they were screaming at the frustrated drivers screaming at them to get out of the road.
d. The protesting is not over.
e. Tiger Woods misses another cut at the PGA. Is it now taken for granted that the new normal for him is mediocrity?
f. Headline of the Week: From the New York Daily News on Saturday, atop a story describing how a Chinese-food delivery man on a motor scooter bizarrely made a wrong turn and tried to go the wrong way through the Holland Tunnel toward New Jersey to delivery his food: “Wonton disregard for Holland traffic.”
g. Coffeenerdness: Twenty-three Starbucks stops in 15 days on the road, as calculated by our videographer, John “Venti Iced Coffee With Skim” DePetro. There might be something wrong with us. (Or just me.)
h. Beernerdness: Championship beer of the camp trip—Sweetwater Blue (Sweetwater Brewing Company, Atlanta). Heaven in a bottle.
i. If you live in New York, and thought a morning jog to Queens and back on the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge on Sunday would be a swell idea just so long as it happened before the temperatures reached the 90s, well, you erred. Even at 7:45 a.m., it was an oven. Glad I did it, but next time it’s a baking weekend I’ll go at 6:30.
j. Thanks, Runners World, for making me seem much more fit than I really am. But I’m trying—which is more than I can say for the vast majority of my adult life.
k. If you are a Red Sox follower of a certain age, the Jackie Bradley Jr., game Saturday reminded you of the Fred Lynn game of 40 years ago. The box score lines of each, in the typical newspaper box score at bats/runs/hits/RBI format:
• Lynn, June 18, 1975, at Detroit: 6 4 5 10 (3 home runs, 1 triple, 1 single)
• Bradley Jr., Aug. 15, 2015, vs. Seattle: 6 5 5 7 (2 home runs, 3 doubles)
l. Many of you have asked about the status of our fan contributors for The MMQB, and we should have answers on that for you within two weeks. Thanks for all of your submissions. We’ve had more than 600 people write in and apply to be contributors for the 32 teams. We are a small operation—hence the “microsite” designation—and much of the crew was away for the past two weeks at training camps. So work on finalizing the group of contributors will continue this week, and we’ll have an answer for you shortly—including what exactly this is about.
m. One of the coolest things the Sports Illustrated franchise does is honor the best people of a year. Last year, SI Kids honored Mo’ne Davis as its Sportskid of the Year. This year, the mag is looking for nominations for the 2015 Sportskid. If you have an idea, go here and submit the nomination.
n. Finally, thanks to Thirsty’s in Pittsford, N.Y., the bar without a sign on it, for hosting The MMQB’s Tweetup last Wednesday. I love that place and the people—so welcoming and knowledgeable. And they do seem to like their Bills.
The Adieu Haiku
Tom Brady in court.
Court. Not a training camp field.
Such a dumb August.
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