When I think about what to lead the column with, I often think: What did I see or experience in the last few days that interested me the most? Sometimes it's obvious, sometimes not. This week, I thought of my conversation with Mike McCarthy on a bench next to the Packers' practice field Tuesday night in Green Bay. It was around 9:45. The players were gone, the fans were gone, and now it was just me and McCarthy, with a couple of PR people in the wings, on a chilly night that felt more like Oct. 9 than Aug. 9.
McCarthy was telling me a story about the Super Bowl championship banner the Packers had installed at the Hutson Center indoor practice facility, across from Lambeau Field, when no one was looking. The players were back at practice on an inclement day, working indoors at the Hutson Center, when McCarthy elbowed a couple and said, "Hey, look.'' And there it was.
Maybe it's not a big deal that the Packers didn't have a big ceremony to raise the banner or a ceremony when the fourth Lombardi Trophy was put in a case outside the locker room. And when the Packers play the opener Sept. 8 against New Orleans, there will be a simple "2010'' unveiled near the other 12 years the team won a championship. No flags, no banners. Just a year, with, as GM Ted Thompson told me, "sort of a tablecloth over it, and we'll pull that off, and then we'll play football. That's what we're supposed to do.''
The celebrations are Ted Thompson's responsibility. And so banners are going to be put up when no one is looking -- in this case, by stadium workers on a quiet day in June with no attention -- and there won't be any pomp, because in Thompson's world, this is the Packer Way. Act like you've been there before. This is what the Packers are supposed to do.
"It's funny,'' Aaron Rodgers told me. "When I was sitting in that Green Room at the draft in New York, and I was dropping, and no one would pick me, the last thing I was thinking was it was a good thing. But I'm glad I got to fall way down. I should be here. It's the place for me. The game is bigger than us. The team is more than us. It's a community team, blue-collar and understated and not at all about self-glorification. Vince Lombardi put it that way: Winning is the only thing that matters. It's about the team.''
We're in a me-first era. In most places maybe, but not in Green Bay. Not with Thompson and McCarthy and Rodgers, the leaders of this group. I have no idea if they'll repeat (a dirty word to McCarthy, who thinks every year is a new year with new players), but I do know they've created a model that every youth coach, every high school coach, every college coach and, yes, a whole lot of pro coaches would be smart to emulate. It's not just something they say in front of the minicams, and then sneak off to New York to make a commercial for Visa. It's who they are.
There's such a head-scratching lack of look-at-me in this organization. Then you see where it came from. Thompson, from the bedrock roots of Texas high school and college football. McCarthy, who learned the Pittsburgh way, who got his start in the coaching business by working at Pitt for nothing and collecting tolls at night on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to pay his rent. And Rodgers, who rose from no scholarship offers out of high school to a hardscrabble junior college to Cal to Brett Favre's caddie to the Super Bowl. I told Rodgers I remembered the Dallas Morning News story about his roots during Super Bowl week in February, and his dad, a chiropractor in California, having no shred of evidence in his office -- not a photo, trophy or framed ticket stub -- that his son was an athlete of any sort.
"We're not big public-eye people,'' Rodgers said.
When he came to Green Bay and sat for three years, he was even less of a public-eye person. Favre was The Man. And when Favre continued to waffle about whether he wanted to play or not, Rodgers said nothing. When the Packers stood behind Rodgers, he said little. When Favre came back to try to regain his job, Rodgers said nothing.
And when it was the biggest story in sports back in 2008 -- pick a side: you're for Favre or for Rodgers, and there's no middle ground -- Rodgers said precious little. Rodgers knew Thompson and McCarthy had his back, and though it was going to be tough, he could trust them to keep their word. Which they did. And in the last three years, despite the mud that landed on all of them after the Favre debacle, every one of them today looks like a genius.
Thompson for sticking to his guns, McCarthy for believing in Rodgers, and Rodgers for shutting up and just playing football. Rodgers' average season since 2008: 4,130 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, 10 interceptions. And a Super Bowl win.
Thompson, in a conference room in the team's refurbished Lambeau Field office, sipped a Diet Coke out of one of those cute tiny bottles and considered what his regime had done. It's not something he likes to do, because any time you take time to consider the past is time you spend not working on the future.
I thought back to the time I sat with Thompson in the middle of the Favre mayhem. Same voice. I thought back to Super Bowl Sunday night in Dallas, when he could have crowed but didn't. Same voice. And now. Same voice.
"Honestly,'' Thompson said, "it takes your breath away sometimes. When you win a championship in Green Bay, you're part of a very special fraternity. You're part of the men from the teams in the '20s, '30s, '40s, '60s and '90s, the men who won a title. These players now can stand alongside the great ones. When you win in this town, you become a little bit immortal. Just like those before us. That's the beauty of this place: We didn't invent it. We're just continuing it.''
Somewhere in Green Bay, maybe in the house across from Lambeau Field with the fence painted with IN COACH McCARTHY WE TRUST, pride in this franchise is at a level not seen since Vince Lombardi coached. It's a beautiful thing, a town one-80th the size of New York on top of the football world, with a chance to stay there.
Headlines of the weekend:
• One of the Starcaps Four prepares to take his medicine. The league hasn't announced how it will adjudicate the case, which has been mired in legal dispute since the NFL suspended four players for testing positive for a diuretic, but the most prominent of the group, star Minnesota defensive tackle Kevin Williams, is preparing for a four-game suspension to start the 2011 season. "In my mind, I'm preparing to miss the four games,'' Williams told me at training camp. "It'd be a huge surprise if we got it 'buddied' out of the CBA, but that's what I'm hoping.''
• There's a touchback controversy. Let's start with what happened in the first 15 games of the preseason, with the kickoff moved to the 35-yard-line from the 30-, which league teams voted to do for safety reasons after last spring:
Touchback percentage, 2010 regular season: 16.4 percent (416 touchbacks, 2,539 kickoffs).
Touchback percentage, 2011 preseason: 33.9 percent (43 touchbacks, 127 kickoffs in 15 games).
But the touchbacks easily could have been higher. Given that some teams wanted to see how their rookies and other young players covered kicks, not every kicker tried to boot the ball through the end zone. (In contrast to Washington's Graham Gano, 5-for-5 in touchbacks against Pittsburgh.) And the Bears teed up their first two kicks of the night at the 30, which was last year's line, thinking perhaps that the new standard wasn't a rule but merely a gentle suggestion.
League VP of officiating Carl Johnson told me he got a call from his officiating observer at Soldier Field a few minutes before the Buffalo-Chicago kickoff Saturday night, saying the Bears planned to kick off from the 30. Johnson told his man on site to tell the Bears they had to kick off from the 35. But the communication to the Chicago sideline wasn't working, Johnson said, and so the Bears weren't notified until after their second kickoff from the 30.
As Johnson told me, there is a way for teams to not kick the ball into the end zone if they choose. They can simply have their kicker boot it higher or kick it so the ball doesn't go past the goal line. But they can't choose the yard line they kick from. As Competition Committee chair Rich McKay told me: "Membership didn't vote on this because it was a game enhancement. They voted for it because of player safety.''
It'll be interesting to see if the league comes down hard on the Bears for choosing to interpret a playing rule they way they wanted to, not the way the rule is written. As far as how the rule will play when the season begins: History shows when weather gets bad late in the season, kickoffs don't travel as far. My guess is touchbacks will happen on around 40 percent of the kickoffs this year
• The league uses an eighth official to try to see pass interference more clearly. Last summer, the NFL used an eighth official, the Deep Judge, in eight preseason games to cover downfield passing lanes better. This summer it's 12 games. Johnson said he hasn't made any judgments on the three games the experimental official did this weekend, but it stands to reason they're getting a better view of the jostling downfield. "We're not looking necessarily to call more penalties in the secondary,'' Johnson told me. "We're just looking to get the most accurate calls made that we can.''
It's been 33 years since the NFL added a seventh official, and when that happened, in 1978, the league was passing on about 42 percent of the offensive snaps. Now passing is about 52 percent of the game. So you could see the Competition Committee recommend the adoption of a permanent eighth official in the next couple of years. The Deep Judge now becomes one of two officials playing basically a Cover-2 behind the secondary, cutting the field in half and trying to see contact as well as they can.
• Best performance by a quarterback, West Coast division: Colt McCoy. "I'll be the first to tell you we're nowhere near where we need to be,'' McCoy said. He's right, of course, because he's been in a new offense with his teammates in practice for two weeks, and two of Green Bay's top three corners had the night off for the preseason game. But new Browns coach Pat Shurmur dialed it up pretty well for three McCoy-led series. His line: 9-of-10, 135 yards, one touchdown pass, no picks, two touchdown drives.
• Best performance by a quarterback, Rehab division: Matthew Stafford. In camp the other day (see below, in Detroit section), Stafford didn't throw a wobbler in two hours, and his accuracy was superb. Practice makes perfect, evidently. He was 6-of-7 for 71 yards and two touchdowns in the Lions' rout of Cincinnati at Ford Field, and you know what this means, don't you? It's Super Bowl or bust for the Leos.
• Best performance by quarterbacks, rookie division (tie): Ryan Mallett, Cam Newton. It wasn't the numbers so much as the confidence each showed. Newton (8-of-19, 134 yards, no touchdowns or picks) was supposed to struggle in offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski's tough playbook, but he looked confident and threw the ball like he'd been there before in the Panthers' win over the Giants. Mallett (12-of-19, 164, one touchdown, no interceptions for New England) was better than that -- though you've got to be careful because he played against the Jacksonville bench. But on the five or six throws I saw, confidence and preparedness oozed, as well as his terrific arm.
• Buffalo trades for the future, Baltimore for the present. Surprise! This can't be encouraging for the emotionally ravaged Bills fan, watching his team trade its most accomplished player for a 2012 fourth-round draft pick. "They'll be about half of them that like it and half that won't. That's the way most of all the decisions are,'' Buffalo GM Buddy Nix said of the Bills fan base.
I don't think half of them will like it, honestly. But they should. Lee Evans is 30, caught 81 balls over the last two seasons combined for Buffalo, and the Bills have a young receiver named Donald Jones (undrafted free agent, 2010, Youngstown State) who's loved by the coaching staff and is building good chemistry with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The Bills could, at some point early this season, have a four-receiver set with 25-year-old Stevie Johnson and Jones, 23, on the outside, and two 24-year-olds in the slots -- wideout David Nelson and running back C.J. Spiller, who they'd like to work more into the receiving game.
For Baltimore, it's a great deal, particularly after failing to land a big target in Malcom Floyd in free agency. The Ravens have a physical downfield receiver in Anquan Boldin, which mean Evans, who still has 4.45 speed, will be a good change-of-pace guy on the other side.
• Other notable events. For Buffalo, Shawne Merriman had two sacks and drew attention to lead to a third by rookie Marcell Dareus in a huge first quarter for his confidence ... Saints rookie Mark Ingram had a 14-yard touchdown run, bouncing off two tackles and spinning for the score against San Francisco ... Mark Herzlich, the Giants popular free-agent linebacker, forced a Carolina fumble with a jarring hit ...
Tarvaris Jackson was shaky and took two sacks for Seattle, and Seahawks tackle Russell Okung, who missed half the season with ankle injuries in 2010, sprained his ankle in the win over San Diego ... Chicago's line gave up nine sacks, though several were let in by guys who won't make the team ... Len Pasquarelli of SportsXchange reported Darren Sharper will work out for the Patriots, which says something about either the Patriots' homework or their dissatisfaction at free safety ... Jason Pierre-Paul had two sacks and a pressure that led to an interception for the Giants.
• Want a corner? Sniff around Philadelphia. "There are going to be some good players we're going to have to let go,'' Andy Reid said Saturday. And not necessarily on waivers. If your team wants Joselio Hanson and has a spare third- or fourth-rounder, the Eagles are probably in a dealing mood.
• Corwin Brown has a standoff with a SWAT team, then shoots himself. In a 2007 interview with the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune, Brown, who grew up on the tough streets of Chicago, said: "It wasn't a big deal to be shot and killed, it just wasn't. I want kids to at least see what else there is to life. It's one thing if you have an opportunity and you don't seize it, but it's another thing when you just don't know what's out there.''
Brown's career was on a downward spiral Friday when he holed himself up in his northern Indiana home for seven hours, surrounded by police, and then shot himself. He was taken to an Indiana hospital to be treated.
As Charlie Weis' defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, Brown had his authority stripped in 2009, got let go with the Weis staff after the 2009 season, took a job coaching defensive backs with New England, and then lost that job last winter. Three years, three slaps in the face.
I'm told Brown has some deep-rooted psychological issues, and his friends were very worried about him after he lost the New England job.
Training camps in the can after 17 days: Atlanta, Carolina, Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, New England, New York Jets, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Green Bay, Chicago, Minnesota.
Snapshots from where I've been recently:
Detroit, Allen Park, Mich.
I want to get excited about the Lions, but ... If you'd seen what I saw with Matthew Stafford throwing bombs all over the practice field last week -- and completing them -- you'd be on the way to Vegas, putting $100 down on the Lions for the Super Bowl. But if you stayed a little longer and watched the secondary, you'd have put your money back in your wallet.
Clearly, the Lions are counting on quarterbacks getting chased all over the place and not having time to pick apart the secondary. Look at the top four in the back end: Chris Houston, a former first-rounder the Falcons gave up on; Alphonso Smith, a former second-rounder the Broncos gave up on; Eric Wright, signed in free agency this year to a one-year contract after the corner-starved Browns benched him last December; Nathan Vasher, released by the Bears and Chargers in 2010 before catching on with Detroit.
I'm still deciding on my order of finish in the NFC North, and for every division for the SI NFL preview. I've been bullish on the Lions through the offseason, and I've thought of them as a playoff team for a couple of months, ever since they drafted Nick Fairley. And I think it's possible to be so good on the front end that you mask your weaknesses in the secondary. But look at how strong this conference is. It's loaded.
Let's say, for fun, that Green Bay, New Orleans and Philly win their divisions, to go along with the West winner. So which two of the following six teams will be the wild cards: Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, the Giants, Tampa Bay or Atlanta? It's easy to say Detroit's going to the playoffs. Now tell me which team isn't?
The one thing I'll say about Detroit is this: The Lions had the same secondary problems last year -- worse, maybe -- and they were playing Shaun Hill and entered the last quarter of the season 2-10. They swept their final four games. "It takes a lot of toughness to stick with a plan when you're not winning,'' said coach Jim Schwartz. "And we stuck with it.''
Chicago, Bourbonnais, Ill.
The Cutler fallout. Interesting watching Jay Cutler on the practice field. He's skinny. Listed at 233 last year, he's on the roster at 220 now, and looks even lighter. Not that Cutler was fat before, but he looked like he had a good 10 extra pounds he could lose, and in the offseason he worked to lose the weight. "He's quicker,'' said offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
The arm hasn't suffered. And Cutler, on the practice field, is as commanding a presence as he's ever been. I asked Martz if there's been any carryover from the knee injury that knocked Cutler out of the NFC title game and led to the tweets from several former and current players questioning his toughness.
"I was dumbfounded by it,'' said Martz. "I just went home after the game, and I don't pay attention to the media or TV after the game, so the next day when I came in, Lovie [Smith] told me about it. I was shocked. Shocked. But I can tell you from that day to now, it hasn't been a problem on this team. Never. I promise you that.''
What could be a problem, of course, is the offensive line protecting Cutler. He is probably wise to be quicker and more mobile, because he's going to be chased around behind a group that didn't given Bears fans any reason to be confident last year or in the preseason opener Saturday against Buffalo.
Minnesota, Mankato, Minn.
Brother act. There's a very good chance E.J. Henderson, a lock to start at middle linebacker for the Vikings, will have his brother, Erin, alongside him at outside linebacker when the season starts Sept. 11. Amazing, considering a few things.
Growing up in Aberdeen, Md., E.J. had six years on Erin, and they were never on any sports teams together. E.J. was a second-round pick of the Vikings in 2003, Erin a free-agent signee in 2008. "I didn't sign because my brother was here,'' said E.J. "I signed because I thought this gave me my best shot to make the NFL.''
After playing mostly special teams for three years, Erin's game is on the rise, thanks in part to his work with new linebacker coach Mike Singletary. "I think my range, my instincts and athleticism are strong,'' he said. "Coach Singletary's instincts at linebacker were so good, and I'm trying to learn from him.''
Erin and rising star Chad Greenway started in the preseason opener Saturday on either side of E.J., but Erin's not counting on anything yet. That's wise because coach Leslie Frazier's not going to make an emotional, feel-good decision. Said E.J.: "I'm proud of him, as proud as a big brother can be. I guess I'm the grizzly vet now. Erin's a little more explosive, a little rangier right now. If he keeps playing the way he is, I could see him winning the spot.''
Today, Kansas City Chiefs (St. Joseph, Mo.). Losing 25-0 to Tampa Bay at home Friday night will make for an uncomfortable practice day, I would imagine.
Tuesday, St. Louis Rams (Earth City, Mo.). Interested in seeing the impact of whatever new wrinkles Josh McDaniels has put in the offense for Sam Bradford.
Wednesday, Indianapolis Colts (Anderson, Ind.). Peyton Manning's neck, Austin Collie's head, prospective new left tackle Anthony Castonzo's wheels ... there's a lot to see here.
Thursday, Tennessee Titans (Nashville). I do not know new coach Mike Munchak well at all. Looking forward to talking with him about his philosophy and his team. Never met Jake Locker either. Looking forward to that ... and to see Matt Hasselbeck's adjustment to a new offense too.
Friday, Jacksonville Jaguars (Falcons at Jaguars preseason game). I've got a lot of respect for GM Gene Smith's team-building, and there's much I need to learn about some of the young Jag prospects. As a side benefit, it should be great to see explosive rookies Julio Jones and Jacquizz Rodgers in action for the Falcons.
Saturday, Tampa Bay Bucs (Tampa). Hope to see a bit of the Thursday night preseason game against New England somewhere on TV, so I'll have a good handle on how the Bucs are playing by the time I arrive -- particularly with so many good young players on defense.
Sunday, New York City (NBC preseason game). Me and my buddy Mike Florio doing some pro football talk at halftime of the Cowboys and Chargers. Punny, eh?
The week beyond (tentatively): Houston, Dallas, New Orleans (in Oxnard, Calif., where Sean Payton will travel next week to get out of the Louisiana heat for a week), Oakland (in Napa, Calif.), and Phoenix -- for one day with the Cards, and then the Chargers-Cards preseason game Saturday the 27th. Excited to see Kevin Kolb run the Arizona offense for two-plus quarters.
"If I'm part-owner, I think ... we should initiate a trade to send Rodgers down to the Bears.''
-- President Obama, nudging Ted Thompson to deal a certain young quarterback within the division to his beloved hometown Bears, this after being handed a share of Green Bay Packers stock (value: approximately $200) by Charles Woodson Friday on the team's trip to the White House. Not sure Jay Cutler would welcome Aaron Rodgers, though.
"It's good to have football right around the corner. Like every football fan, I was thrilled to have the lockout ended. Nobody likes long, frustrating negotiations with a rigid opposition, taking it to the brink.''
-- President Obama, who knows something about long, frustrating negotiations.
"He said, 'Mayor Bloomberg just went on TV, said you should be, you know, punished to the full extent of the law.' And you know what I said after that? I said, 'Who is Mayor Bloomberg?' ''
-- Plaxico Burress, in an interview with Bryant Gumbel of HBO Real Sports, airing Tuesday night. Burress was referring to a conversation he had with defense attorney Benjamin Braffman after the shooting incident in a Manhattan nightclub.
It's Michael Bloomberg, Plax. The mayor of New York City.
Don Chandler died of cancer at 76 in Tulsa on Thursday. You may have heard of him. He kicked, punted and played fullback for the Giants and Packers in the '50s and '60s.
I always think it's great when a good player, in any sport, plays his best when the games are the biggest. Certainly, two of the biggest games of Chandler's life came in the 1958 NFL Championship Game, when he punted for the Giants, and in Super Bowl II in January 1968, when he kicked field goals for the Packers.
How he did on those two Sundays:
Dec. 28, 1958 Colts 23, Giants 17Six punts, 274 yards, 45.7 yards average
Jan. 14, 1968 Packers 33, Raiders 14 Made all four* field goal attempts (39, 20, 43, 31 yards)
* Still a Super Bowl record.
Chandler retired after that last game, Super Bowl II.
One other note, speaking of how clutch Chandler was: In 1965, his first year in Green Bay, he kicked the tying field goal in the fourth quarter of the Western Conference title game against Baltimore, and the winning field goal in overtime. In the NFL Championship Game against Cleveland a week later, he hit three field goals in three tries as the Packers won.
Five good ones from the chock-full-and-a-little-crazy database of ProFootballFocus.com and crack researcher and writer Khalid Elsayed:
• OAKLAND: The Raiders last year used 5.88 men per pass play to block. That means they were the heaviest keep-a-tight-end-in-to-block team in the league. My guess is Chicago gives the Raiders a run for their money this year.
• ARIZONA: Larry Fitzgerald Warning Dept.: Kevin Kolb, playing for Philadelphia last year, completed 30.8 percent of his throws that traveled at least 20 yards downfield ... compared to 40.4 percent for the run-out-of-town Derek Anderson.
• ST. LOUIS: No quarterback threw deep less than Sam Bradford last season -- 6.8 percent of his 590 throws went longer than 20 yards. I knew Bradford was, relatively, a dink-and-dunker last year with no wideout he trusted downfield, but that number is a stark one.
• MIAMI: No player has been more productive rushing the passer on third down than Cameron Wake recently. Over the last three years, he's had 52 combined sacks/hits/hurries in 220 third-down pass-rush opportunities.
• CHICAGO: The Bears should be worried about their starting left tackle, J'Marcus Webb, if last year's performance is any indication. Webb got flagged for 15 penalties (four were declined), gave up 12 sacks, one quarterback hit and 48 quarterback pressures. Ouch, Jay Cutler. And you saw what happened Saturday night: Webb got turnstiled by Shawne Merriman of the Bills.
Passcode for the wireless network at Bears training camp in Bourbonnais, Ill.: Sweetness34
Minnesota defensive tackle Remi Ayodele has added the face of another star to the growing tattoo collection of yesterday's starlets on his body. Before this year he had Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Dandridge, Audrey Hepburn, Bettie Page, Lucille Ball (?!), Jayne Mansfield and, as a nod to a crush of today, the late R&B singer Aaliyah.
The newest tattoo: "Elizabeth Taylor,'' he said. "Man, she was beautiful.''
1. It'd be tough for me to be a student at Olivet Nazarene University, a religious school 70 miles south of Chicago and summer home of the Bears. No swearing, drinking, smoking on campus. Or dancing.
2. As I tweeted the other morning around 4, I'd like to personally thank the deer straddling the white line between the passing lane and berm on I-90 near Wisconsin Dells. It was my turn to drive while my USO and ProFootballFocus.com passengers slept, and, in the middle of a 490-mile drive from Bears camp to the Vikings, that split-second shocker was as good as a triple espresso for staying awake.
3. One of my favorite spots on the camp tour has become Jake's Stadium Pizza, across the street from the complex of fields where the Vikings practice. I made it there Thursday between practices with Viking PR aces Bob Hagan and Tom West and Neil Hornsby of ProFootballFocus.com. You can eat a lot of it -- I think because it's made with lowfat mozzarella from a farm in Grantsburg, Wis. (Jake's goes through two tons of it per month).
Wally Boyer, one of the bosses at Jake's, regaled us with stories about the Vikings past and present. In the '70s, he said, Jake's would get calls after curfew from inside the players' dorm at Mankato State (now Minnesota State); when the delivery vehicle arrived, the money would be lowered down by makeshift pulley and bed sheet, and the pizzas sent back up.
The place spans the generations. Chuck Foreman used to be in the place three times a week. Now Adrian Peterson is. "The relationships are what makes being here so great,'' Boyer said. "I remember in the '70s once, Bud Grant found out the pizzas were coming in after curfew and he had them intercepted. The next day, guys came in and paid for them -- even though they never got 'em.''
I asked him if Brett Favre had ever been in. "Nope,'' Boyer said. "He never made it to training camp as a Viking.''
4. And for those who missed The Stadium View Incident in Green Bay, here's a post about it from my camp blog.
"The last proclamation out of Philly that meant anything was a Declaration in 1776.''
-- @giantspathanlon, veteran Giants PR man Pat Hanlon, upon hearing the division rival Eagles referred to as a "Dream Team.'' He also tweeted: "There is nothing more invigorating than reading your obituary while you're alive and kicking.''
"Is it just me, or does it seem like there's more excitement over preseason games than ever?''
-- @scottfujita99, the Cleveland linebacker, on Saturday, before taking the field for the Browns' first preseason game of the year.
I would agree -- with an asterisk. Fans are thrilled for football to be back and happy to see preseason games. But the thrill is gone around the middle of the second quarter, with a few exceptions (Panther fans waiting to see Cam Newton, for instance).
1. I think if I'm a Patriots season-ticket holder, I'm steamed at paying full price for my ticket to the exhibition opener against Jacksonville, $40 to park my car, $8 for my beer ... and then seeing 14 starter-type players, including Tom Brady, Jerod Mayo and Wes Welker not play. Bill Belichick has a right to prepare his team the way he sees fit, but this is something the owners and players should have addressed in the recently concluded collective bargaining negotiations -- the ridiculous inequity of charging regular season prices for JV football. It's like going to Broadway and seeing eight stand-ins for the stars of the show. It's just wrong.
2. I think the Raiders might want to practice their coin toss procedure. Did you hear what happened in their opener against Arizona Thursday night? Raiders won the toss. One captain told the ref after the coin toss he wanted to defer. Another captain said he wanted to kick off. The ref heard the "we want to kick off'' more prominently, and so he said the Raiders have chosen to kick off. That meant at the start of the second half, Arizona would get the choice.
Of course, Arizona chose to receive to start the second half. That meant Oakland kicked off to start the first half and the second half in Game 1 of the Hue Jackson era. Of all the things Jackson figured could go wrong in his first game as an NFL coach, I bet his players botching the coin toss would be pretty much near the bottom.
3. I think this is my Twitter advice of the week, to all good beat men and women around the NFL. And I give this advice humbly, with the clear understanding that covering a team is hard, and you want to get an edge on the competition. I've done it, and I have been quite competitive at it, and the world has changed now, and when you're up against people who are aggressive, you have to compete. But tweeting play-by-play of practice is not good. Unless it deals with a player getting hurt or some guy making a spectacular play or something wowzy like Nnamdi Asomugha intercepting Vince Young in the first 15 minutes of them practicing against each other with the Eagles.
Reading that John Doe just beat Joe Blow in one-on-one O-line vs. D-line drills is tedious ... particularly when you do it 25 times in a practice. Just one man's opinion. Maybe others feel differently. But it's not my thing to read 25 tweets from a 90-minute practice -- and certainly not my thing when I follow multiple writers per team who do it.
4. I think it was great to have founder and owner Neil Hornsby of ProFootballFocus.com on the four-team swing through the NFC North. Neil's from Britain, and he fell in love with Dan Marino's Dolphins somehow, and now his passion -- along with his crew of tape-watchers -- is to analyze what every player does on every play in every game. This trip was his first up-close exposure to the players and coaches he sees on the tape every week. I asked him for a few observations on the trip, and here's what he gave me:
a. "Brian Urlacher is one very cool dude. There may be players who love football as much but, well, you get the drift. Nonchalantly munching on his ice cream as we stood chatting with him on the Olivet Nazarene campus, I thought this is someone completely at ease in his own skin.''
b. "Watch out for Detroit defensive end Cliff Avril. We at ProFootballFocus.com like him a lot. No one generated as much pressure on third down as he did last year. This from Urlacher. 'Yeah, he's a real player. I know when we played them last year he gave our offense as many problems as anyone.' ''
c. "I told Peter [King] before he interviewed Jim Schwartz that Ndamukong Suh had played 997 snaps (including penalties) last year, most among interior defensive linemen in the NFL, and I expressed the view this was too many. Schwartz, during his conversation with Peter, told him they would try to reduce his snaps this year. We had a view that Suh initially had trouble playing the run early in the year, but he improved as the season wore on.
"Chatting with (in our opinion) the most underrated guard in the NFL, Josh Sitton, and the player who played as many snaps against him as anyone, he backed this up. While quick to praise the phenom [Suh] and making no bones about who he thinks will be his most challenging opponent over the coming years, Sitton told us while immediately a superb pass rusher, the rookie had a few problems with the run in their first meeting but had improved hugely the second time they met.''
d. "As someone who sees these guys play in massive detail from afar it was a little uncomfortable at times to meet them close up. I constantly remind all the analysts to treat the players as numbers when we grade them as it helps to take any emotion out of the work. But here I was chatting with Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, a guy we thought blocked very poorly last year, and I found myself, when face to face with him, really, really liking him. He's an enormously charming guy with a huge smile, and as he started having a little fun at Peter's expense, I couldn't help feeling I'd love him to block better in 2011.''
Postscript: I have one major question with ProFootballFocus.com. It's one that some of his fellow analytical types have criticized the site for, and one I spoke with Hornsby about during our trip. The tape-graders judge each player on his performance on every play. When I introduced Viking outside linebacker Chad Greenway to Neil the other day in Mankato and explained what ProFootballFocus.com does, Greenway's first question was: "But how do you know what our assignment was on every play?'' Good question.
Neil explained that he doesn't. PFF grades the players on what they are attempting to do. If a right tackle attempts to block a blitzer and fails and the blitzer sacks the quarterback, the right tackle gets the blame, even though it's possible that the sack was the blitz-pick-up running back's fault. So you have to take the PFF grades with a grain of salt ... but I've seen the work and the spreadsheets, and the work is legit. It's about as close as you can come to accuracy for what the site attempts, without knowing every player's assignment on every play.
5. I think if you're depressed about the current state of athletes -- their greed, their ego, their selfishness -- spend some time around Aaron Rodgers. He's what's right about sports.
6. I think it'd be ridiculous to dismiss the Giants' inactivity in free agency, while their main rivals down the Jersey turnpike in Philadelphia have stocked up. At the same time, I think GM Jerry Reese has built up enough currency with the job he's done over the past four seasons to see how this season plays out before throwing him out the door.
What's Reese's biggest crime? Not bringing wide receiver Steve Smith back? Let's see how Smith plays. For those who aren't familiar with the surgery Smith had, microfracture surgery on his left knee, this is not a garden-variety ACL repair. When a player has microfracture surgery, it involves trying to regenerate blood flow and cartilage growth in knees, poking holes into bones to stimulate blood flow.
This is not a simple surgery, although by all indications Smith's procedure was not as serious as some. He is feeling good, from what he says, and will be able to run without restriction sometime soon. But how long will the freedom of movement last? He might be back to his old self, he might not. We'll see.
My point is, when a player has microfracture surgery, it is an illustration of severe dissolution of cartilage in a knee. And that is not good. Think back on Reese's tenure. In 2007, his rookie year, every player he drafted played in the playoffs for a Giant team that won the Super Bowl. The Giants have won one more Super Bowl than the Colts, Patriots, Eagles and Cowboys since he took office. Again, I'm not saying you should build a statue for the guy. I'm saying you should let the season take shape and see if the defensive front and running game he's helped build can lift the Giants into the playoffs and beyond. Nothing's won on Aug. 15.
7. I think I'm not questioning Jerry Jones' belief that Nnamdi Asomugha wanted to be a Cowboy (he told the Dallas Morning News he thought for an hour on July 29 that Asomugha would be a Cowboy), but when I spoke to Asomugha about where he wanted to be, he told me the top two teams on his list were the Eagles and Jets. The plot thickens.
8. I think I almost buy that Chad Ochocinco or Albert Haynesworth might not make the Patriots, a possibility longtime football writer Dan Pompei wrote Sunday on National Football Post. Pompei has a good relationship with Bill Belichick, so when he writes something Patriot-related, it's worth a close read. But unless they're either hurt (Haynesworth has presumably been hurt because he hasn't practiced for over a week) or troublemakers (hard to believe in either case because each knows he's at the Last Chance Saloon), I think it's likely they make it.
9. I think no matter what Jim Harbaugh says -- and I am sure he's serious when he says there's an open competition at quarterback between Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick -- that Smith's going to win the job. He's so much more of a sure thing right now, and he'd be devastated to not win the job.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Very strange to be around so many of our troops in the last couple of weeks, knowing many of them may be put at risk overseas soon. The loss of 30 in the downing of the Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan nine days ago resonates with many of them, obviously. I asked the leader of our tour across America with the USO, Leigh Edmonds of the USO, to try to put into words the juxtaposition of having these fun days at NFL training camps with the knowledge that life in the military can be so dangerous. Here's what she wrote:
"As the Peter King Mobile USO Tour made its way to Detroit and Green Bay early last week and laid plans to bring smiles to the faces of our troops, another USO team was making its way from Virginia Beach to Dover Air Force Base to assist our USO of Delaware staff and up to 30 families of our nation's fallen as they welcomed home the 30 service members killed in that tragic helicopter crash in Afghanistan.
"Our mission during those two days was to work with the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers to make sure that regionally-based service members had an unforgettable experience with each team; the mission for my co-workers from Virginia and Dover was to deliver comfort and a steady presence for the wives, mothers, fathers, children, etc. of the Navy SEAL community, some of which we have served in much happier times.
"The only way that I can explain this is to say that it brought the USO mission full circle. Our ultimate job at the USO is to bring smiles to the faces of our military and their families. It's the fun times that we have with troops that the public is most familiar with (concerts, large homecoming celebrations, family events, etc.), as that is generally what the media covers. It's the tough times, however, sometimes the absolute toughest, when smiles are hardest to muster, that the USO is needed the most and where the USO is at its very best.''
b. Thanks to every team in the past week -- the Lions offensive linemen for stopping practice to shake hands with some Marines, Jim Schwartz spending 45 minutes with them, talking in their language about the similarities of their lives, Mike McCarthy letting some Wisconsin troops (so excited a couple were shaking) into the middle of a post-practice huddle to break the team down, the Bears letting troops on the sidelines of practice -- for their hospitality to the USO and the people who serve us. Looking forward to seeing what this week brings. Teaming with USO people has been a great reward for me, and I'm lucky to be in their midst.
c. Still shaking from the viewing of There's Something Wrong With Aunt Diane, the HBO documentary about the rock-solid Long Island woman (or so her family thought) who inexplicably got drunk and high in 2008 and drove the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway in New York and killed eight people -- including her daughter and three nieces. An incredible nightmare. It's the kind of documentary -- though it has too many holes I wish were filled in by those who made it -- that has you talking about it two days after you've seen it. So many unanswered questions.
d. The E Street Channel on Sirius/XM is saving me on some very late-night drives.
e. Why no U2 channel, Sirius/XM? Are you sure you have more Buffett fans than Bono?
f. Save for last night, I'm caught up on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Couldn't you just feel Susie's Pinkberry rage rising? The angrier she gets, the better it is for the show. By the way, have I said "More Funkhauser'' lately? More Funkhauser.
g. Guilty pleasure upcoming: watching the Little League World Series. As much as I hate the pressure these 11- and 12-year-old kids are under, I love watching them play baseball. They want a championship so bad. So great to see.
h. Tremendous job on the Dustin Pedroia story in this week's SI by Tom Verducci. A great sentence: "If you think of the Red Sox clubhouse as a cattle farm, Pedroia would be the little herding dog, a Corgi, that by nature must run and bark and nip at heels to make everyone function with some order.''
i. Just a gut feeling, but unless the Red Sox are scoring seven runs a game, they won't beat Texas in the playoffs, and I can't imagine them beating Philly in the World Series. Their starters, after Beckett and Lester, are very tough to watch. I know you might get by in one series by beating up on a bad staff, but three series? I can't see it.
j. Ian Kennedy, 15-3. There's one the Yankees would like to have back.
k. Trevor Cahill for Cy Young, 9-11. There's one I'd like to have back.
l. What a cool hitting streak by Dan Uggla, the 33-gamer. Cool because he was batting .173 when it began. Sorry to see it end Sunday.
m. I pity the Pirates. A couple weeks ago -- maybe three -- they were tied for the NL Central lead. Today they're 13 games out.
n. I'd love to know what Carlos Zambrano's shrink bills have been over the last four or five years.
o. Good to see you, Matt Rubel. And a lovely family you have there.
p. Good luck, Evan King, as you depart for the next adventure in your life. You'll love college life in Maryland.
q. And congrats, Liz Whiteley! We are so pleased for your engagement!
r. There was a heavy-metal death the other day -- Jani Lane, the lead singer of Warrant, which had the hit "Cherry Pie.'' He was 47. What interested me about his New York Times obit was the fact that his parents, whose last name was Oswald, gave him the first and middle names "John'' and "Kennedy.'' So his name growing up was John Kennedy Oswald. I bet he is the only person in history with the first and middle names of the president and the last name of the man who assassinated him. Unless someone 140 years ago named a son Abraham Lincoln Booth.
s. I'm pretty dangerous when you give me an hour to read the New York Times. No telling what I'll find.
t. One more remembrance of New Haven Register columnist and former Giants beat man Dave Solomon from Chris Mara, the longtime Giants' personnel man: "I became friends with Dave when he was covering the Giants and in subsequent years UConn. In 1992 I was scouting a game at the University of New Hampshire against UConn. I was sitting in the stands watching warmups and Dave came over and sat next to me. We were talking about the players I was looking at and after I went through the guys he had this perplexed look on his face and said to me, 'You're not looking at Connecticut's best player.'' I said to him in a this-reporter-thinks-he-knows-more-than-me tone, 'Who might that be?' He said, 'Brian Kozlowski, the tight end for UConn. I signed Brian to a college free agent deal after he was not drafted and he went on to play for 14 years with the Giants, Falcons and Redskins. Not a Hall of Famer, but 14 years in the league is not too shabby. All because Dave Solomon gave his name.''
u. Coffeenerdness: For mass produced coffee, Delta, yours is not bad. Ten percent bolder and I might rave about it ... Almost forgot this one: Woman in my Boston Starbucks over the weekend ordered a "135-degree tall skim latte with seven Splenda.'' A lukewarm latte overwhelmed with phony sugar. Mmmmm-mmm!
v. Beernerdness: With my pizza in Mankato the other day, I tried one of St. Paul's finest, Summit Extra Pale Ale. Excellent. Good bite to it, with a strong flavor that was surprisingly light, and a hint of citrus.
w. Beernerdness II: By the way, a few of you have asked if I've tried Leinenkugel's Summer Shandy. I have. I love a lemon in some of my beers, but I'm not a big fan of alcoholic lemonade, which is what this Shandy thing tastes like.
x. People who live in Wisconsin and Minnesota must have a mandatory high school class in Pleasantness.