After Hard Lesson, Bengals Are Finished ‘Being Stupid’
CINCINNATI — It was Vontaze Burfict’s first day back at practice, and he came flying into the hole during a 9-on-7 drill, going full bore at Bengals teammate Jeremy Hill.
The whistle blew. The two jawed. There was pushing and shoving. And it was over.
In fact, the fight—if you even wanna call it that—was done so quickly that no one outside of the drill even noticed. I was standing 30 yards away, and had to be told about it after practice. And coaches who were there swear that had this played out last year, the two guys, neither known for having the most level disposition, almost certainly would’ve scrapped.
That’s how last year’s playoff loss to the Steelers has lingered here.
“Last year ended, we covered that the first week of the offseason program,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis told me after practice. “And there’s been no mention of how the season ended since then.”
Maybe not, but the marks it left are everywhere. And we’ll explain how that’s a good thing for a Bengals team that’s been stuck on good-not-great for too long.
Later in this week’s Inside The NFL Notebook, we’ll cover Tim Tebow’s pitch for baseball, Robert Griffin III’s surge to the starting job, Drew Brees’ immortality, Jared Goff’s learning curve and much more. But we’ll start with the under-the-radar storyline I found most interesting during my eight-camp swing before breaking off to attend to more important matters. That one is here in Cincinnati, where the Bengals have made the playoffs five straight years, but haven’t won in the postseason since beating the Houston Oilers in 1991.
To be sure, all the one-and-dones were frustrating. But the previous four were nothing compared to how Cincinnati, in its home stadium, handed Pittsburgh a trip to Denver. From the Hill fumble to the Burfict headshot to the Adam Jones meltdown, the Bengals penned an unimaginable new chapter to an old story.
“We gave them the game,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “The big emphasis since then is we’ll lose games if we do stuff like that. We lost a very important game because we made some stupid mistakes. Marvin’s done a good job of stressing that point, we’re playing within the rules, there’s no extracurricular stuff going on. When the whistle blows and the play’s over, don’t worry about anything else.”
So no, they haven’t plastered the final score on the walls or hung pictures of Joey Porter around the office for motivation. Nor have the coaches rehashed the end of the game much with the players of late. Instead, the reminders come in the lessons.
On offense, it’s the coaches incorporating a ball into every drill, and running specific drills like one where backs carry a five-pound football and another where the ball is attached to a rope that a coach is pulling to try and jar it loose.
“It gets addressed real quick, and you say, ‘This is how we’re gonna get over it, this is our process from here on out on how we’re gonna make sure we do everything we can to make sure we’re ready for that situation,’” said recently promoted offensive coordinator Ken Zampese. “How to carry the ball. How to carry your pads. Not being casual at any time with the ball in your hands. All that stuff goes into it.”
Defensively, the fix has to be more abstract, since it isn’t easy to teach hot-headed athletes to keep their cool.
Third-year defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, himself a budding head-coach candidate, has used stories of teams coming undone in other sports through the spring and into summer as they happened. One example that Guenther brought to his guys—Draymond Green’s low blow on LeBron James that turned the NBA Finals.
“That first meeting when we got back here in the spring, for at least my guys, it was one of the most important meetings I’ll ever have here,” he said. “We gotta understand what we did good, understand what we did bad, can’t run from it. Handle it like men. Understand, hey, this is part of our history. We just can’t brush it to the side like it never happened. …
“I told them, ‘we’re gonna continue to put our foot on the gas pedal, we’re gonna play fast and physical.’ But we gotta understand, it ended our season a year ago, being stupid.”
To nail down the point, Guenther has gone to offensive players and asked them to test and push his defensive starters in certain ways during practice, with the overriding message being, “If you lose it here, you’re gonna lose it in a game.” And Guenther’s taken it to another level with Jones and Burfict, because he knows that opponents and officials won’t be cutting them any breaks.
“They’re two very good players, very competitive guys,” Guenther says. “They want to win at everything. Every drill. Everything. They don’t want to lose at anything. That’s how I want them to be. But they have to understand, they’re flagged by other teams. Other teams are going to try to get them out of their game, by doing some other things to them. They have to take the next step as a pro and walk away.”
So far, Lewis, Zampese and Guenther have seen the response they want.
They also know the real test doesn’t come until the season starts, and defenses try to strip Hill, and offenses try to bait Jones and Burfict into reverting to old habits. That’s why, for now, Lewis doesn’t think they need a re-telling of why the coaches are doing things the way they’re doing them.
“Those are the lessons they’ve had all the time, that hasn’t changed,” the 14th-year coach said. “You paid a price and this is why. This is why you have to do it right all the time.”
The players here know the alternative all too well.
* * *
1. Robert Griffin III earned his second chance. Going back to when Robert Griffin III signed in April, Browns coach Hue Jackson was going to make the fifth-year pro earn his snaps. And so Monday’s decision to name Griffin starter was, at the very least, affirmation of the progress the ex-Redskin has made since the beginning of Cleveland’s offseason program—one Browns source termed it “outstanding.” For Jackson and his staff, they felt they owed it to the players to let them know who the starter would be to have time to build chemistry and form an identity. As for Griffin, when I asked him how he’s different than he was in Washington, he was resolute. “I think I’m just grittier,” he said. “All the experiences I had in Washington helped build character, because character isn’t anything that you just show, it’s what happens when no one’s watching. It’s what you do when you have to go through something. I think what happened to me there built that up in me. We want to be a gritty football team here in Cleveland, the ability to play in any kind of weather, to play at any time. Want to play on the blacktop? We’ll play you there. That’s what coach preaches, and that’s what was built up in me through my time in Washington to where I can just come out and play and have fun.” Griffin added that the fit in Cleveland has just felt right from the beginning, and it’s one element of that fit he cited that interested me: offensive creativity. “Hue is extremely creative, Pep (Hamilton) is extremely creative,” Griffin said. That could well be a hint that maybe the Browns do a few more things to take advantage of Griffin’s athletic ability.
2. Redskins camp competition coming in hot. You may have already read about DeSean Jackson and Josh Norman getting after each other in Richmond. Just know this—it’s not just a media creation. The coaches there really believe both players are getting a lot out of what’s become a pretty feisty series of showdowns. And the guys themselves echo that sentiment. “He’s a guy who comes from a winning team, and before I got here, I felt like I came from a winning team,” Jackson told me. “So the mentality, challenging people, the competitiveness that’s built in him is built in me. Having a guy like that coming here, it’s really an intriguing situation, because every time we go against each other, he wants to beat the crap out of me and I want to beat the crap out of him. And that day, whoever brings the best, is gonna win. It’s real good work, getting to compete like that. You get a good look. The reason I say that, it’s training camp. You don’t get many live game situations, and that’s really the best you’re gonna get.” When I talked to Norman about it, he agreed with Jackson, and even added that it’s helped him in that it’s a different look than he’s used to. In Carolina, he was accustomed to battling bigger bodied receivers like Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess and Jerricho Cotchery in practice, so going up against a dynamo like Jackson, Norman thinks, has allowed him to round out his game. One other interesting note: It’s one guy playing for a big contract (Jackson) against another who just got one. I did ask Jackson about his contract situation, and he said, “It’s always there. I don’t stay stuck on it. … Everybody’s playing for a lot—you got Kirk (Cousins), you got Pierre (Garcon), you got myself. We feel like if we all jell together and ball out, at the end of the year, we’ll all be in a good position.”
3. Sam Bradford is responding. The obvious question about Bradford when he staged his brief OTA holdout was: Why won’t he just come in, compete and settle any doubt about who should be starter? That’s exactly what he’s done since. My understanding from those around the Eagles is Bradford has been outstanding—looking healthy and impressing with his accuracy and anticipation. That’s good, of course, because it’s good to have a good quarterback. But it’s also important because it’ll give the Eagles time to work with Carson Wentz away from the bright lights of game day. One thing scouts pointed out about Wentz pre-draft is that it looked like everything came a little slow (release, ability to process, decision-making, etc.) with him on tape—and that was at the FCS level. The ability’s there, but Wentz needs to be sped up, and it’ll be easier to that do that in an environment where he won’t be tempted to revert. It’s an idea that Doug Pederson seemed to confirm when he talked about the rookie after Monday’s practice with the Philly media. “It’s all mechanics,” Pederson said. “It’s all about the mechanics, but it’s also a decision-making process in the information, and seeing what he’s seeing relatively fast. And in this game, lanes are tight. Just being able to get the ball out on time sometimes can affect how a quarterback throws.” So Bradford’s progress, and Chase Daniel’s work staying on his tail, should give the Eagles the type of flexibility they coveted this offseason. If Bradford crushes it? Well, that’s the beauty of the two-year deal the Eagles signed him to. The option would then be there to deal him early next year, and recoup some of the draft capital they lost in trading for Wentz.
4. Jets stocking their middle class. I’ve said several times that Mike Maccagnan and Todd Bowles saw a roster in need of some rebuilding when they arrived in Jersey 18 months ago, and that remains true. And it’s not the top of the roster that needed it, and still needs it, so much as it is the guts of the team, which is where a few years of shaky drafting really did its damage. So you can consider this great news: Third-round OLB Jordan Jenkins, fourth-round CB Juston Burris, fifth-round OT Brandon Shell and undrafted WR Jalin Marshall have all flashed ability. The chance of any one of them becoming a superstar isn’t great. But they don’t have to be. Burris, Shell and Marshall all play positions where aging players are in place and depth is needed. Jenkins could play more immediately (and seems to be earning the chance to), but would be lining up next to one of the best groups of interior defensive linemen in football. Ultimately, the Jets’ draft class will be judged on how good first-rounder Darron Lee becomes, and whether or not second-rounder Christian Hackenberg develops into a viable starting quarterback. But the rest of the group is giving the Jets exactly what they needed to go with a very competitive, edgy veteran core and what should be a nasty defense.
* * *
• There’s a valid reason that eyebrows are arched—including mine—at the Tim Tebow news. But for now, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume his decision to play baseball is pure and not for publicity’s sake. Could he actually play? Well, I asked my buddy and WEEI.com columnist/long-time baseball beat man John Tomase, who knows long-time Angels scout Tom Kotchman, who worked Florida when Tebow was a prep star and a collegian. Kotchman recalled a University of Florida baseball game where Tebow threw out the first pitch. He put it in the dirt. “Immediately, he pointed at the catcher like, ‘Dude, I’m throwing another one,” Kotchman said. “And so now, here are the attributes. The competitor in him, he makes an adjustment and he throws a strike with a little hair on it. I wish I had the gun on him. You’re going, ‘OK, let’s look at this—6-4 lefthander with a good arm. Those guys hang around a long time.’” Kotchman gave a Florida coach an info card to give to Tebow to fill out. The Angels never got a response. And that was that, as far as the idea of drafting and stashing him, as baseball teams sometimes do with football players. You can read more on this in Tomase’s Thursday story.
• Here’s a good example of how going deep into scouting prospects matters. One reason why Saints rookie receiver Mike Thomas wowing early in camp isn’t a complete surprise to some teams can be found on his college practice tape. While at Ohio State, Thomas routinely would shred Eli Apple, who went 10th overall to the Giants, when the Buckeyes would pit their first offense against their first defense. So Thomas’ 4.57 40-yard dash time might not have been a big deal if you knew he was winning against a high first-rounder who ran 4.40.
• Jared Goff is starting to stack strong practices together at UC-Irvine, gaining confidence and command, and being more aggressive with the ball. Now, it’s important to remember that he arrived in Los Angeles with a long way to go, with his background being in a Baylor-like spread system at Cal, and that means progress is relative. But his ability to handle punishment in learning that scheme as a freshman on a 1-11 team gave the Rams a good feeling that he could endure and thrive through a similarly massive transition in coming to the NFL. We’ll get our first look at him in game conditions on Saturday.
* * *
TWO CONTRACT YEAR GUYS TO WATCH DURING PRESEASON WEEK 1
1. Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell (vs. Lions, Friday, 7 p.m. ET): The good news is that Bell looks healthy coming off major knee surgery. The bad news is he’s still waiting to hear back on the appeal of his four-game drug suspension. Assuming he serves it, he’ll have precious few chances to get in game-type situations, and this week will be loaded with them as the Lions and Steelers practice with one another, then play against each other at Heinz Field. Bell’s impending free agency adds another layer to intrigue that surrounds his 2016. If he keeps his nose clean, he could become just the second back (after Adrian Peterson) to crack eight figures on a per-year basis. So there will be plenty of eyes on him, no doubt. But Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley told me that, to this point, the team has been preparing him for the season as they usually would. “We’re just preparing as if everybody’s playing, as of now. And we’ll see how everything falls,” Haley said. “Our job is to get him at his peak position to perform, and DeAngelo (Williams) and Fitz (Toussaint) and all those guys too. I try never to worry about that stuff. You gotta get everybody ready to go and then we’ll see how everything falls. He’s an energy-bringer guy, who’s been nothing but positive around here, that’s how I look at him.” But Bell’s got some work to do to get everyone else to see him that way.
2. Chiefs S Eric Berry (vs. Seahawks, Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET): There’s no question what a great story Berry was last year, coming back from cancer to make first-team All-Pro. As illustrated by the divide between he and the Chiefs in contract negotiations, there is some argument over his value. When he came into the league, in the final year of the old rookie pay system, it was as the highest paid player at his position in league history. He’s remained that for the majority of his six years as a pro. And he has, for the most part, delivered on his considerable potential. Some evaluators love him. “I understand franchising him now and seeing if he gets back to the form he held before,” said one offensive coach for a rival club. “I think he’s still a Top 5 safety in the league and the arrow could be pointing up.” Some are less enamored. “I think, at this point, he’s solid, not spectacular,” said one AFC executive. What’s inarguable is that there’s a lot on the line for Berry over the next few months. It’d cost the Chiefs nearly $13 million to tag him again in 2016. So with Berry remaining unsigned, it’s worth watching his spot in the secondary now. How Daniel Sorensen and Ron Parker look anchoring the back end, and how different the defense looks without Berry, could color the team’s decision-making.
* * *
Peyton Manning broke the single-season record for touchdown passes and went to his third Super Bowl as a 37-year-old. Tom Brady won his fourth Super Bowl at that age, and did it by eviscerating a generational defense in the fourth quarter of the final game.
The math is changing on quarterbacks.
And so when Drew Brees tells you, six months after his 37th birthday, that he has no exit strategy at this point, it’s way more believable than it would be coming from a similar player 20 years ago. Despite dealing with shoulder and foot problems the past couple years, he’s started 158 of his 160 games as a Saint, is coming off a 101.0 passer-rating season, and feels healthier than he has in a few years.
Really, during my conversation with him over the weekend, there were only two areas where he conceded his age was impacting him. The first one was in how he now appreciates each shot he gets at getting back to where he brought the Saints in 2009, because he knows those opportunities won’t be endless.
“I don’t think about the end. I don’t,” he said. “I do have a great sense of urgency for each year, though, because I understand no matter what your contract says, you’re really on a year-to-year basis. That goes for everybody. You gotta prove it every year. So that’s my mentality, I gotta prove it every year. And I’m not thinking about the end, but I’m not taking it for granted either.”
The other area where his age has impacted him is how he prepares for the season, and this goes a long way to explain why quarterbacks of today happen to last longer.
Last week, I touched on how Brees was the first quarterbacking client of Tom House’s. House is now only part of a team that Brees works with to get him ready each offseason. As Brees has aged, as the team has grown, that preparation has evolved, as has its focus.
“I put a premium on recovery, moreso than I did before,” Brees said. “When you’re in your 20s, you can just roll out of bed, you’re like a cheetah. I’ve gotta stretch out, warm the body up now before I do anything crazy.”
And those who have worked with him felt like he had as clean an offseason as he has in recent years.
It was especially apparent in the ramp-up from the end of the offseason program in June to the start of training camp in late July. Coming out of the season healthier than he has in the recent past helped him build momentum to the point where he was able to put a strong foundation in place before the heavy lifting of August started.
“I know my training regimen from late June and July,” Brees said. “It was as good a routine and as good a four weeks as I’ve had over the last five years.”
Will all that carry over? Can he be as good as Manning and Brady were at 37?
As I detailed in my camp report, the Saints are younger and moving into what Brees calls “a new era.” They kicked the tires of first-round prospects Jared Goff and Paxton Lynch before the draft, and Brees’ deal is up after this season and it would cost the Saints $43.2 million to tag him in 2017.
So there’s a fair amount of uncertainty here, but Brees is still very much investing in the team and carrying himself as the face of the franchise. As we talked, he explained the role he’s now carrying in passing down the foundation of what was built in the years leading up to 2009 to the younger guys here, and how proud he is to see those younger guys pass it down to this year’s rookies.
Two summers ago, Brees told me at camp that he wanted to play until he’s 45. Bottom line: I got no indication that his mindset on that has changed.
• Question or comment? Email us at email@example.com.