INDIANAPOLIS — The Most Scrutinized Draft Pick of All Time was on the phone Sunday, a day after the poking and prodding of the NFL combine here, and I asked The Most Scrutinized Draft Pick of All Time if he was ready for the private detectives from multiple teams and intrusive questions and the 30 hours of one-on-one time with one team alone (Tampa Bay GM Jason Licht’s estimate) that he faces in the next 66 days, between now and the first round of the NFL draft.
"I love it," Jameis Winston said. “I welcome it. They’re really going to find out the type of person I am. Character is not about what you do when you’re around people. Character is what you show when no one is looking. I believe if they do a hard, hard investigation into Jameis the person, they will find out that I’m a good guy."
They’d better, or they won’t pick him. Not in this environment.
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In the hotel Starbucks lines in the morning, in the indoor walkways that connect downtown to Lucas Oil Stadium, in St. Elmo’s at dinner, in the postgaming near midnight in the bars that coaches and scouts and agents packed all weekend, everyone looked for clues about what Tampa Bay will do with the first overall pick on April 30. The answer came back thusly from I’d say about 80 percent of the NFL cognoscenti who had an opinion or some insight on the subject: Tampa's taking Jameis.
It’s too early to be so definitive, of course. And I don’t believe the Bucs have a final answer, because they have not come close to finishing their due diligence on Winston, and they intend to spend 30 hours of alone time with both Winston and Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota before the draft. But a Saturday breakfast with the formerly invisible Licht, the most influential football man in the league for the next two months, didn’t do anything to disabuse me of the idea.
Winston over Mariota? Don't Buy It Just Yet
Lovie Smith says the Buccaneers are ‘OK' with Jameis Winston’s character issues, but Greg Bedard doesn’t believe him. Besides, Marcus Mariota could be a better fit for Tampa Bay’s offensive plans.
The biggest question, obviously, in the decision between Mariota and the more NFL-ready Winston is whether all the off-field incidents—Winston was investigated for, but never charged with, sexual assault, and was disciplined for shoplifting crab legs and shouting an obscenity in the Florida State student union—will steer the Bucs away from Winston, especially given the NFL's image crisis. But last week coach Lovie Smith spoke positively of Winston. And at one point Saturday morning Licht mused about the two possibilities of Winston the person. “Bad guy or immaturity?" Licht said. “I’m leaning toward the latter.”
You can deal with some immaturity. But seven months of off-field mayhem and bitter consequences for the NFL have put an even bigger spotlight on the risks of taking players with pockmarked résumés. That’s why what Licht said there is significant. The preliminary workups on Winston must not have found any sort of further smoking gun. (I stress preliminary.) Tampa Bay has to be doubly certain of the character of the number one overall pick, as one opposing NFC executive said Saturday. As this exec said, if the Bucs err on Winston, for example, and he has a major problem off the field in the next few years, the screams will be loud and justified. How could you take a guy with so many issues as your franchise centerpiece—when you know the storms the NFL has endured for so long with player behavior?
Really, this pick is a perfect storm in so many ways. The Bucs are entering their 40th season as an NFL team in 2015, and as Licht said, “This is the most important pick, potentially, in the history of the franchise.” Just how bad has it been at quarterback for the Bucs? In their 39 seasons, they’ve never had a quarterback last longer than five seasons as the team’s leading passer. Doug Williams, Vinny Testaverde and Trent Dilfer all spent five years as the starter. Amazing to think the Bucs have never had a true, long-term franchise quarterback in four decades.
"I feel more privilege than pressure," Licht said. He and coach Lovie Smith, in concert, will make the choice of Winston, Mariota or a trade—and a trade seems highly unlikely because Licht and his scouting staff have seen enough of the two quarterbacks to know at least one of them has the right stuff to be a franchise guy.
The Bucs Start Here
Faces of the 2015 Draft: A peek at the lighter side of some of the top prospects, starting with Nebraska defensive lineman Randy Gregory. (Todd Rosenberg for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
West Virginia wide receiver Kevin White (Todd Rosenberg for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
Florida defensive lineman Dante Fowler (Todd Rosenberg for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston (Todd Rosenberg for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
Iowa offensive lineman Brandon Scherff (Todd Rosenberg for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah (Todd Rosenberg for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon (Todd Rosenberg for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
Florida State tight end Nick O’Leary (Todd Rosenberg for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota (Todd Rosenberg for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
Auburn wide receiver Sammie Coates (Todd Rosenberg for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams (Todd Rosenberg for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper (Todd Rosenberg for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
Ohio State defensive lineman Michael Bennett (Todd Rosenberg for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
Georgia running back Todd Gurley (Todd Rosenberg for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
Missouri defensive lineman Shane Ray (Todd Rosenberg for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson (Todd Rosenberg for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
Licht said he has scouted Mariota four times over the past two seasons. Ditto Winston. He said he has seen every college game of each player on tape now. I asked Licht if he could pick out a play from both players that he felt typifies them. He said he couldn’t think of just one for Mariota, because there were many that highlighted his athleticism and passing ability. But then he pulled out his smart phone and said, “If I see a good play I want to keep, I put it on my phone," he said. “Look at this one from Jameis. I was actually at this game.” With that he touched the screen a few times and called up a play from the 2013 Syracuse-Florida State game, and held the phone out for me to see.
"Just watch Jameis here, not the running back," Licht said. (Here's a shaky YouTube clip of the same play.)
With FSU at its 26-yard line, Winston handed the ball to running back Levonte Whitfield, and as Whitfield looked for a hole inside, Winston circled back out of the play. Then Whitfield broke through the line to the right, and cut back left, running against the grain, out-running the competition. But there was one cornerback left to beat, Syracuse’s Julian Whigham.
I’m just watching Winston. When he sees Whitfield break through the line, Winston’s at about the 20-yard line, and he starts sprinting as fast as he can up the field. You can see that Winston, once he gets about 30 yards into the sprint, is aiming solely for Whigham. At about the Syracuse 37, Whigham is in position to tackle Whitfield, but here comes Winston, 43 yards into a dead sprint, lunging at Whigham and blocking him out of the play. An amazing effort play by Winston.
"You’d think I’d show you a pass play, right?’’ said Licht. “That was a competitive play—it shows you so much about the player.
"I’d be lying if I said I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the off-field stuff," Licht says. "This decision is going to affect so many people and their families. We’ve got to get it right."
"I’ve been lucky in this league in my 20 years. I’ve seen some great ones. I was in Miami starting out when Dan Marino was there. I worked for New England and watched Tom Brady grow. And I’ve been around Donovan McNabb and Kurt Warner. I’ve seen the common threads. And now in these two quarterbacks, I see an amazing amount in common. They both had great success in college. Both won a Heisman. Both winners. Both tape junkies. Both coaches’ dreams. Both mentally can handle the pressure of what they’re about to face.
"But I’d be lying if I said I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the off-field stuff. It’s always in the back of your mind. We’re people too. We have wives and daughters and bosses to answer to. And at the end of the day we will do the kind of due diligence the likes of which I don’t believe the Bucs will have ever done. This decision is going to affect so many people and their families. We’ve got to get it right."
* * *
A year ago Johnny Manziel came to the combine and was quite well-rehearsed. He had off-field issues—nightlife stuff mostly, and being sent home ignominiously from the Manning Passing Academy. Manziel had all the answers down pat, explaining how he was a good person and had reasons (maturity ones) for his mess-ups.
Winston didn’t do much of the mea culpa in front of the press in Indianapolis, and he concentrated mostly on football in his 15-minute meetings with multiple teams in the evenings. “He killed it with us," said one club executive of a quarterback-needy team who sat in on his team’s meeting with Winston. “You don’t have much time with him, and he was able to dissect a few plays pretty precisely. You heard a lot about his football IQ going in, and he didn’t disappoint."
He didn’t try to hide his confidence. As he told the press on Friday: “This is no competition between just me and Mariota, because one thing about me, I plan on winning the Super Bowl next year so it’s going to be me versus Peyton Manning and Jameis versus Tom Brady. I want to be viewed like that." In other words: Don’t compare me to the college guy. Compare me to the best of the best.
Winston had a 1.08 ERA and held opponents to a .154 batting average as a relief pitcher for the Noles last year. (Stephen M. Dowell/Getty Images)
On Sunday he clarified what he meant. “I’m not trying to compare myself to college competition, to another guy I’m against in the draft," Winston said. “Marcus is a great guy, a great quarterback. He has so many skills. But I am trying to be a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. I’m trying to be a Hall of Famer one day. This isn’t about some competition on draft day. It’s about being the face of a franchise and getting a team to play in the Super Bowl, soon."
The combine, Winston said, was a chance to tell teams about him as a player and a person. “I think I did good at everything," he said. “The interviews were the part that I really loved. I had a chance to sit down with the teams. I had a chance to be a man about what I did at school. I was able to tell them, ‘Look, that was just a mistake. That was me being stupid.’ But you can’t really gain someone’s trust on your first time meeting them. It’s going to be a process. I believe they understood. They listened. I wanted to go in and tell my story. You know, perception is reality. Don’t judge me on this. Let me show you by my actions."
Winston’s side of the sexual-assault allegation will be that it was investigated three times, the third time by a Florida state Supreme Court justice, and never was he found culpable. That’s on the public record. Now it’ll be up to investigators hired by teams, such as Tampa Bay, to see if there’s anything else, with this story or any others, that would dissuade them from taking him.
There could be one other sticky thing Winston will have to address with teams. He also was Florida State’s baseball closer, and his two agents, Greg Genske and Kenny Felder, primarily represent baseball players. Genske repped Manny Ramirez for five years. While Winston said often over the weekend he is now a full-time football player, he did equivocate when we spoke Sunday. “Right now I am focusing on football," Winston said. “This is the first offseason I’ve ever had where I can focus totally on football. I am loving this, being a quarterback every day … Anything that keeps me busy helps me. I love baseball. I love football. Playing both was the best of both worlds."
Asked if he would ever want to play both sports as a pro, he said: “I can’t speak on that. It always has been my dream, but I’m just playing football right now."
I see a couple of problems that would preclude this. Tampa Bay is not taking Winston number one if he says, “I’d like to play baseball for three months every year.” Or one month, because of the training time it would take away from football. Deion Sanders did it because he was a cornerback, not a quarterback. It’s just too hard to stay on top of being an NFL quarterback to think he could double-dip. Secondly: What team would go down the baseball road—even a team in need of a 95-mph-throwing closer—if the player had to leave the team every year just as the pennant races were heating up?
"I believe if they do a hard investigation into Jameis the person," Winston says, "they will find out that I’m a good guy."
His comments are interesting, and beg for more questioning by NFL suitors. If I thought there was much of a chance of it being a roadblock, or even a factor, in the way of Winston being picked number one, I’d have led the column with it. But I don’t see it. Not saying it’s impossible, but I am saying it’s highly unlikely he could, or would, try to play both sports at the same time.
The next two months will be filled with questions for Winston. You can tell he wants to be picked number one overall by the Bucs. He knows that for that to happen, the inquiries into his background are going to be intense, and he can’t have any skeletons in his closet. The pressure is just beginning.
“This is what I live for," Winston said. “As a quarterback, the position is the most criticized and scrutinized position in all sports. I accept that role. I am ready to show you what I’m capable of, ready to gain that trust a quarterback has to have from his team."
They’ve left the starting gate, and Winston’s got a couple of lengths on Mariota. Winston got used to playing from behind last year at Florida State. Now he’s got to handle prosperity—and be sure the private eyes don’t find anything.
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The Chargers and Raiders have been in the same division since the AFL Western Division was formed in 1960. (Gregg Trott/AP)
On Los Angeles and potential division realignment.
The announcement that the Raiders and Chargers have bonded to fact-find about a new stadium project in the Los Angeles suburb of Carson is odd enough. But it is driven by the fact that there is a very dangerous game of musical chairs playing in L.A. right now. Three teams for two spots, max. And because the independently wealthy owner of the Rams, Stan Kroenke, already has his own stadium planned in nearby Inglewood, there was pressure on the Chargers and the Raiders to get in the L.A. game, and get in fast.
We’re only two minutes into a 60-minute football game right now, so nothing should be taken as life or death yet. But maybe this is the spur that San Diego needed to convince its electorate that the Chargers really might move. The city task force’s announcement Sunday that it would make its decision on whether to move ahead with a new stadium within three months was the most encouraging thing to come out of local government for the Chargers in years.
But there’s one other question that had a lot of people at the combine buzzing. And that’s the question about two teams from one division partnering on a stadium project—and everything that goes along with that. Three notes on this:
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1. If the Raiders and Chargers join forces on this stadium, there would have to be a realignment involving at least two teams. Because Los Angeles is America’s No. 2 television market, it would be impossible for both L.A. teams to be in the same conference. One of these teams would have to move to the NFC so that both Fox and CBS could each have an L.A. franchise in its lineup.
2. So who would move? This is all speculation, but I could see Oakland staying in the AFC West and San Diego moving to the NFC West to join a more geographically aligned division. It would be easy for the St. Louis Rams to move to the AFC West because it would mean the Rams and Chiefs would be able to form the kind of cross-state rivalry that could be excellent for both teams, and especially the occasionally attendance-strapped Rams. So that would leave Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis and the L.A. Raiders as the new AFC West; Seattle, San Francisco, Arizona and the L.A. Chargers would make up the more geographically smart NFC West. It really wouldn’t be a very difficult solve, assuming the Chargers, who have always been an AFL or AFC team (they played their first season, 1960, in Los Angeles), wouldn’t make too big of a stink about moving to the NFC.
3. All that said, the Rams certainly will be the most aggressive team trying to move to the L.A. market. Kroenke seems determined to do it. He has the money to do it. And he was first in line. But it does make for some interesting offseason fodder in the race for Los Angeles.
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The Browns and Sam Bradford: Is there a chance?
Sam Bradford has missed 25 games the past two seasons with two ACL injuries. (Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Could the Rams actually trade star-crossed quarterback Sam Bradford to the desperate Browns? It’s unlikely, and the biggest reason is that Cleveland would almost certainly not want to trade something significant for a quarterback, pay him $14 million in the last year of his rookie contract, and face the prospect of him being a free agent after just one season. But everything besides that in this story does make sense.
The trade could look something like this: The Browns send St. Louis a 2016 draft choice or choices that would be based on how durable Bradford is or how well he plays in 2015, or both. For example, the Browns could trade a third-round pick that would become a second-round pick if Bradford had 14 starts or more, and would become a first-round pick if Bradford reached certain performance benchmarks. The Rams are almost certainly taking a quarterback high in this draft anyway and could be looking at the last year of Bradford as a Ram. Given all that, however, Bradford does represent St. Louis’ best chance to win in 2015, so Cleveland would have to pony up a very serious offer for the Rams to even think of it.
But I can tell you that the Rams would listen if the Browns were serious. I just don’t think the Browns would be unless they had some assurance about Bradford being in Cleveland well into the future if he does play well in 2015.
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In 27 games over the past two seasons with Peyton Manning as his quarterback, Julius Thomas has 108 catches for 1,277 yards and 24 touchdowns. (Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Peyton Manning would really miss Julius Thomas.
The most interesting development recently concerning the 2015 free-agency class is the acknowledgment in Denver that there’s a legitimate chance the Broncos don’t want to pay tight end Julius Thomas fair market value for his services. Thomas’ agent, veteran contract negotiator Frank Bauer, told the Denver Post on Friday that he felt the Broncos were “pushing him away” after Thomas declined the team’s offer of five years and $40 million. I’m not eager to defend or attack the offer, but want to address the effect of what this will mean if the Broncos choose to let Thomas walk.
Peyton Manning loves Julius Thomas. I thought that Thomas’ high-ankle sprain midway through the season really helped doom the Denver offensive attack because it took away Manning’s most significant weapon in the intermediate part of the field. Thomas had 24 touchdown catches over the past two seasons. Losing that kind of security blanket for a quarterback, especially one with an arm showing signs of decline, would be a huge blow. And because Denver also has to pony up big money for another Manning target, wideout Demaryius Thomas, I don’t think football czar John Elway will go much higher for Julius Thomas.
Just think: Two of the most important people over Manning’s past two prolific seasons have been offensive coordinator Adam Gase and Julius Thomas. Now both could be gone. Manning hates change. And if Julius Thomas does not return, I can tell you Manning is going to hate that.
The Broncos have been very quiet about whatever negotiations are happening to try to convince Manning to take a little less than the $19 million he is scheduled to earn in 2015. I wonder if part of Elway’s sales pitch to Manning will be that if Manning took a little less, then Elway could offer Julius Thomas a little more. This is a situation that bears watching over the next two weeks as the league prepares for free agency.
* * *
Three questions with a player.
Hobart (N.Y.) offensive lineman Ali Marpet, aiming to be the first player from his school to be drafted, impressed in interviews and on-field work at the combine. He solidified his stock as a third-round prospect.
Offensive line prospect Ali Marpet (Julio Cortez/AP)
How much have you grown since entering college?
Marpet: "I came into camp in my freshman year at 255 pounds. I just weighed in at 307 pounds. It's always been a struggle to try and gain weight. Each meal is a battle, and it's part of my job. 255 is definitely too small, even for a Division III school. My senior year, I played at around 300 pounds, and it felt good. I take eating pretty seriously."
What is your eating day like?
Marpet: "Usually during the season I lose seven pounds [at practice]. We did a BodPod test, which is a body fat test, and it showed that if I just laid in bed for 24 hours, I'd be wasting 3,500 calories. So, just sitting around, I need to eat 3,500 calories a day to maintain my body weight. When I'm exercising, I need 7,000-plus to maintain, and if I want to gain weight, I need 8,000 to 9,000 calories. That's not easy."
So eating’s a pretty big part of your job then?
Marpet: "It is a job. It's something I take really seriously. I know there are some guys down here who have to stay away from the desserts, but I don't have to worry about that. I'm the opposite. I was just pounding pasta a little while ago, before I got up here."
* * *
Three questions with a coach.
Jeff Fisher of the Rams is the co-chairman of the league’s competition committee, which has several major rules issues to take up this winter.
How do you stand on moving the PAT way back from the two-yard line?
Fisher: “Personally I don’t want to kick a 19-yard field goal to win a game, and then miss a 35-yard extra point in Green Bay when it’s 20 degrees to lose a game. So that’s my position. I think it would be too drastic of a change, me personally.”
Rams coach Jeff Fisher (Tom Gannan/AP)
What is the best argument against coaches being able to use replay on every type of play, as some coaches, including Bill Belichick, have suggested?
Fisher: “Well, we have a lot of work to do to evaluate that. For the whole game?
Fisher: “So if someone throws a touchdown pass against us to win the game, I’m going to throw the challenge flag. Somebody [committed a holding penalty] out there. Somebody did something. You start there and then go … I mean, I don’t know. Replay was designed to overturn obvious errors. It was never designed to include penalties. The game is fast. The game is hard to officiate. We’re making strides in that area. If I challenged a holding call and a false start in the first half, I’ve used all my challenges.”
Regarding the discussion of what is a catch, could you see that being amended this year, or is it too much of a rabbit hole to go down?
Fisher: “There will be a discussion. It’s going to be difficult to change it—particularly because of the standard and replay. It’s one of those areas where I think we have two standards. The bang-bang on-the-field call and then the replay standard, where it’s frame-by-frame-by-frame. I just think that we have to have a rule that is defined—that’s a bright line—so it can be officiated. And I think we have that with the catch now."
So the co-chair of the rules committee sounds like he thinks it will be tough to make a change in what everyone was screaming about after the Dez Bryant non-catch in the playoffs. I asked Fisher about the chance of calling a catch a catch as soon as the player possesses the ball with two feet on the ground—without the so-called “making a football move” to finish the process of a catch. “Then," he said, “you’d be eliminating the defenseless player aspect of the whole thing.”
Cowboy fans, get your outrage ready. The league meetings are four weeks away.
Quotes of the Week
“I don't feel that any receiver can do what I can do. Whether it's blocking, creating space, taking a tunnel screen to the house. I do it all. Don't feel like guys can do what I can do. Not saying that to be cocky, just confident. I feel like I'm one of a kind."
—West Virginia receiver Kevin White, who performed like it in Indianapolis, running a 4.35-second 40-yard dash and looking as polished as any receiver at the combine.
"You are on a roll! You should buy a lottery ticket today!”
—Dallas tight end coach Mike Pope, putting the tight ends through catching drills Friday at the combine, and watching one of the players shine.
"We’ll try not to put him on the onside kick team.”
—Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer, after the Vikings claimed tight end Brandon Bostick on waivers from Green Bay. Bostick is the Packer who failed to catch the onside kick late in the NFC Championship Game at Seattle, helping the Seahawks overcome a 19-7 fourth-quarter deficit and win the conference title game.
"You look at our roster. Mike’s the quarterback on our roster.”
—Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith, saying nothing and yet saying a lot about his incumbent (until draft day) quarterback, Mike Glennon.
“We are not into this world of blaming and fixing blame and trying to figure out what went wrong. That’s already been dealt with and now it’s time to move, so we are moving. We are working on continuing to make this the most competitive roster in the NFL and we are continuing to do that and whether we do that we’ll wait and see, but that’s what’s at hand right now moving forward. It’s a very competitive opportunity for our club in the future and we feel like we are just in the middle of everything and this is not a station in our life, this is just a moment that we have gone through and it’s time to keep moving and move forward.’’
—Seattle coach Pete Carroll, on continuing to deal with the nightmare that was losing the Super Bowl on a goal-line interception in the final minute.
Stat of the Week
Jameis Winston was a better quarterback in the second half of games than the first in 2014 at Florida State. You knew that. But although he told me Sunday, "All my interceptions came in the first half of games," (he was exaggerating, but you get his point) it's not quite as stark as I'd thought.
2014: First and Second Quarters
2014: After Halftime
Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
This Week’s Sign That The Footballpocalypse Is Upon Us:
The number of media members covering the combine has risen 5,300% in the past 15 years.
The math: Approximately 15 to 20 reporters covered the combine in 2000. This weekend, the NFL credentialed 1,071 media members—and turned away quite a few (mostly college media people, who formerly were credentialed) because of space restrictions. Meaning this: For every one reporter who covered the combine in 2000, there were 53 this year.
Iowa tackle Brandon Scherff, expected to be the first offensive lineman picked in the draft, was a 290-pound high school quarterback. He weighed 100 pounds more than his center.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
My friend Jack Bowers had a bout with the same cancer that killed Stuart Scott, cancer of the appendix, a few years back. After several surgeries, Jack is in a good place and on track to live a long time. But a byproduct of having a brush with a very serious illness was he stopped putting off things he loved to do. He just started doing them. I have been a partner in crime with Jack for a couple of them, including a World Series trip to San Francisco, and he told me a few months ago he wanted to go back to Duke, where he attended school in the ’70s, and see this year’s Duke-North Carolina basketball game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. So we procured a couple of nosebleed seats and I put off the combine for one day, and we went to Durham last Wednesday for the game.
I now can strongly recommend adding this to a big sports fan’s bucket list. (A wealthy sports fan, or one with a kind friend who has Duke season tickets and is particularly generous.) Part of it, I’m sure, was the thrilling game—Duke came back from 10 points down with four minutes left to force overtime, then won 92-90 in overtime—and part was the overall experience. Lunch on the Carolina campus nearby, working out in the student gym next to Cameron in the afternoon (running on a treadmill, feeling totally inadequate, between two women’s track team members who idly chose iTunes selections while motoring along at 8.0), shooting baskets in the gym, seeing K-ville (more about that in a second), watching the face-painting and pre-gaming, walking the Duke campus, and seeing a great game at a CenturyLink Field-decibel level. A pretty cool day.
It was snowing hard as I walked through Krzyzewskiville, the tent city outside Cameron where students camp out for the privilege of going to this game.
For a month. Four weeks and three days, to be precise.
Students camping in Krzyzewskiville endure the elements, including snow, for weeks at a time trying to secure basketball tickets. (Gerry Broome/AP)
Cameron seats 9,314. The students are allotted 1,200 of the seats. (Only they don’t sit. They stand all game.) So to attend this game, they began camping out the night of the AFC and NFC championship games, Jan. 18. I met Zach Fuchs, a sophomore from Bethesda, Md., at his tent the afternoon of the game. He and nine friends had the third spot in line, a beige tent he let me see (and smell) situated on pallets and plywood, directly behind the “KRZYZEWSKIVILLE” sign. Tent three is on a lot of the TV live shots from K-ville, so there’s that. There are byzantine rules about how many people need to stay in the tent, and for how long, and for how many overnights, to keep one’s place in line, and for all 10 people in Tent Three to qualify to get into the game. Suffice to say Fuchs had to sleep outside for 15 overnights in order to get a good standing-room position for a two-hour basketball game.
“Why do you do this?” I asked.
“The short answer is to get into the games," Fuchs said. “This is one of the most unique traditions in all of sports. People tend to look at it and hyperbolize it, like what a dumb thing it is to do to sleep outside for five weeks in order to just go to a basketball game. But to me it’s an expression of what makes Duke special. It’s kind of a paradox, to have such a great academic school with students who would devote all this time during the school year to a basketball game. But we can use our computers out here. There’s WiFi. It’s not that much different than being in the library, really, except you have to have another layer on. And I also think another good part of it is being out here so close to so many people kind of forces you to get off your phone and actually talk to other people."
I talked to Fuchs after the game. He and his friends, upon being admitted to the arena an hour or so before tipoff, chose the front row of the student section across from the North Carolina bench. It was a thriller, and he said he felt like he was in a mosh pit after the game, when the Duke players came over and slapped hands and hugged with all the students. But there were some real-world issues now. The next day he had a midterm in his political science class. Somehow, less than nine hours after getting in from celebrating the win, Fuchs had to write at length about how ethnic conflicts relate to nationalism around the world. The next day was his astrophysics midterm.
“Does it bother you at all that you might have done better on these tests if you’d been in the library those nights you were sleeping outside?" I asked.
His answer was perfect, I thought.
Said Fuchs: “It doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it would have if being in the library would have made me miss the game."
Tweets of the Week
The TCU linebacker, after his mediocre combine performance, including a 4.93-second 40-yard dash.
The national baseball reporter, on the hand-written Alex Rodriguez apology for his PED use. Which, it seems, no one was buying.
Thank you, Michael. Thank you.
Georgia's Todd Gurley was one of the country's best running backs before a knee injury ended his season. (Mike Zurilli/Getty Images)
Ten Things I Think I Think
The MMQB ICYMI
Forget about the Underwear Olympics. The real value of the combine is what you don't see: individual interviews with teams (and they get weirder every year). Plus, Jameis Winston's latest meeting is among the five things you need to know about the draft, and a loyal Penn Stater is a prospect you better know. FULL STORY His court case ultimately dismissed, Greg Hardy must now face NFL justice for a domestic violence conviction that the North Carolina legal system overturned. How will he be punished? And who’s making that decision? FULL STORY Over the past 12 months Michael Sam has been called by some a distraction, by others a hero, but he's still working to earn the label that matters to him most: football player. FULL STORY If you created a left tackle in a laboratory, he would look a lot like T.J. Clemmings. It’s been a little more than two years since a coach asked him to switch from defense to offense. The decision to try something new has put the Pitt product on a path to become one of a rare breed: a blindside protector in the NFL. FULL STORY Throughout draft season, our NFL film-study maven Andy Benoit and college football know-it-all Andy Staples will break down the needs of all 32 teams and suggest which prospects would be the best fit. This week, we focus on a division in which three of the four quarterbacks are being scrutinzed about their long-term viability. (Rest easy, Flacco) FULL STORY
1. I think the most compelling player at the combine, for me, was Georgia running back Todd Gurley. The consensus on him is he won’t be fully healed from his ACL surgery until October or November, so we may not get to see the real Gurley until 2016. But as one club architect told me, “The question is whether you’re willing to get not much out of him this year and then maybe have an Adrian Peterson-type talent on opening day [in 2016]." Interesting tradeoff.
2. I think the most important workout on the horizon is an early one. Marcus Mariota’s pro day is March 12 in Eugene, and I talked to a couple of teams at the combine who will be watching to see how he does the kind of mundane things he didn’t do much in college. Notably, dropping back, staying in the pocket and throwing from a stationary position. One of the other things Mariota’s been working on is the simple calling of plays in the huddle. In college Mariota didn’t huddle much, didn’t take the snap under center much and didn’t have a lot of power to change things at the line. All that is about to change, and how quickly he adapts will be vital to his early success as a pro.
3. I think I can’t see Marcus Mariota getting past the Jets at six in the first round.
4. I think teams that pick after six in the first round but like Mariota could finally give Washington a lucky personnel break. Washington, of course, traded half the western world to move up four spots in 2011 to get Robert Griffin III, and its roster-restocking efforts have been crippled by that deal. But now Washington picks five, and if Mariota generates the kind of interest he should, maybe St. Louis (picking 10th), Cleveland (12th) or even Chip Kelly’s Eagles (20th) would move up for him. God knows Kelly would want the quarterback he recruited to Oregon. If Washington could recoup an extra first-round pick, or a high two at least, new GM Scot McCloughan would be smart to consider moving down five spots or so.
5. I think the Pro Football Hall of Fame is not inclined to rewrite its bylaws to include a morals clause, which could get some attention this year with Darren Sharper (accused of being a serial rapist) being eligible for the Hall for the first time. As I suspected, the Hall thinks the slope is too slippery to begin judging players on acts that happened off the field, and after their careers ended.
6. I think it’s interesting but neither surprising nor draft-impacting that a 6-5, 302-pound defensive lineman, Leonard Williams, the odds-on favorite to be the first non-quarterback picked, ran a tick faster than 230-pound Jameis Winston. Jacksonville, at number three, has to be hoping the Bucs and Titans, picking 1-2, have other ideas. If the Jags are trumped for Williams, pass rusher Dante Fowler would be a great option.
7. I think hearts had to sink among the Falcons brass and coach Dan Quinn when pass rusher Vic Beasley had the best day of anyone on day three at the combine Sunday. Beasley would be a perfect rush outside ’backer, and the Falcons pick eighth. But quick edge guys are always in demand, and Beasley’s eye-popping performance will just increase the attention on him—and maybe draw a mid-round team to move ahead of the Falcons to get him.
8. I think I love Dorial Green-Beckham or Todd Gurley to Seattle at number 31 in the first round. Green-Beckham’s the receiver who got kicked off Missouri’s team for marijuana violations, and Gurley is coming back from the ACL tear. Seattle can afford to take chances because of the bedrock of talent on the roster.
9. I think we’ve got some things at the site that you’ll enjoy this week, including Emily Kaplan’s visit to Vicksburg, Miss., to write about the life and times of Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler, whose late interception sealed the New England win. Emily got terrific access and has a rags-to-riches story that not even Butler could have imagined. Greg Bedard checks in on the NFL chances of Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, who’s trying to buck the running back-devaluation trend. And we borrowed Andy Staples from the magazine and SI.com to write our third in a series of profiles of compelling draft prospects, Norfolk State defensive lineman Lynden Trail, who has overcome epilepsy to be a likely day-two draft pick. It’ll be an educational week at The MMQB.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Thanks to Sun King Brewing of Indianapolis and Thrive 360, a local agency fighting hunger in central Indiana, for partnering with me for the annual Combine Tweetup, at Sun King's lovely brewery on Friday night. We had about 110 people and raised nearly $2,000 for Thrive 360—all thanks to the generosity of Hoosiers. A great night. Thanks also to the media people who contributed their knowledge and time by helping entertain the crowd for two hours. Finally, thanks to Angie Six for so selflessly setting up the show. The Combine Tweetup is a highlight of my year. Thanks for coming. See you next year.
b. Tremendous job by Academy Award winner Julianne Moore (as the victim) and Kristen Stewart (as her wiseass daughter and, ultimately, savior) in “Still Alice,” the movie about a brilliant college professor and early-onset Alzheimer’s patient. So many beautifully acted scenes—about fighting sisters, about the slow but relentless pace of Alzheimer’s, about the brutality it visits on a family, about a husband who has to make a mentally debilitating choice. I loved this film. I never saw any of those vampire movies that Stewart was in, but she is one great performer. And I haven’t seen enough of the nominated movies to know if Moore deserved the Oscar for best actress, but if someone beats her it’ll have to be with the acting job of a lifetime.
c. Coffeenerdness: Too many Starbucks are careless with the milk in the Flat White, I’m finding. It’s whole milk, not 2 percent. Only a true coffeenerd would understand the difference.
d. Beernerdness: While in Durham, we dined at a local place with only one beer: Torch Pilsner, of Foothills Brewing in Winston-Salem. What a terrific beer. Much more bite and flavor than a usual pilsner. Highly recommended.
Have a question or comment for Peter King? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and it might be included in Tuesday’s mailbag.
e. By the way, Durham’s a great town.
f. Haven’t been as cold as I was Friday and Saturday mornings at the combine. It was so cold that you didn’t stop and talk to anyone on the street. Just exchanged quick hellos.
g. Stopped in the Nike Suite at the combine. Big companies that serve players and agents and coaches have these big areas with food and drink and perks for Combinees. Now here’s something I never saw before: The Nike Suite had two barbers cutting hair (not mine) and pampering people. That was cool.
Combine ends today.
Indy’s pub owners are sad.
Football folks can drink.
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