SANTA CLARA, Calif. — I’d planned to lead this column with Sunday night’s compelling return to the field of San Francisco all-pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman after 19 months away, and to so much else from the final week of my training camp tour—including how Peyton Manning has no feeling in the fingertips of his throwing hand to this day, after his 2011 surgeries. (Which stunned me.) I’ll get to those stories in a few moments. But Sunday was one of those hurricane-of-news days you don’t get very often in the preseason, so let me get to all things Jordy and Maurkice and Cris Carter and, well, here goes …
• Two Super Bowl contenders lost top-five players, perhaps for the season. The reigning first-team All-Pro center, Pittsburgh's Maurkice Pouncey, broke his ankle in a preseason game against Green Bay; he’ll have surgery, and his timetable to return is uncertain, but he’s gone for a while. And though the Packers weren’t announcing anything, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported the initial diagnosis for Green Bay wideout Jordy Nelson was a torn ACL, after Nelson landed awkwardly Sunday. Last year he set a Packer record with 1,519 receiving yards and is Aaron Rodgers’ favorite target, and his loss would make the Packers significantly less multiple in the deep-receiving game. No wonder Rodgers was downcast after the game. “It’s difficult to lose a guy like that in a meaningless game,” Rodgers said.
• There has to be a common-sense approach to the preseason. It’s easy to say, “Just napalm the damn thing.” After days like Sunday—the two-injury debacle in Pittsburgh, the Cowboys worried about playing on a field with a terrible reputation in Santa Clara, the Giants reeling over losing six of the nine safeties on the roster in the first two preseason weeks—it makes sense to ask this question: When is the NFL going to come to its senses and reduce the preseason from four to two games? “Cut it down, maybe, to a couple of games,” Rodgers concurred. The exhibition games are fan-cheaters; charging full price for the games is robbery, which is the most no-duh statement in the NFL today. The NFL in the 2011 CBA reduced the amount of padded full-contact practices teams can have, and eliminated two-a-days in the summer. They should now follow by cutting out two more chances of injury. Do the math: If Jordy Nelson suits up 17 or 18 times instead of 19 or 20, it follows that he’d have less exposure to the kind of injury that can kill a team’s season in a totally meaningless exercise.
• You are kidding me, Cris Carter—and you are kidding me, NFL. My first reaction to the story of Carter telling NFL rookies at the 2014 Rookie Symposium that they have to find a “fall guy” in a player’s “crew” who will take the blame when the player commits a crime: My jaw dropped. My second reaction mirrored 12-year veteran Osi Umenyiora.
Precisely. Carter apologized, and though the NFL tried to distance itself from Carter’s idiotic remarks, how could the league have placed the offending video of his talk on NFL.com until yanking it Sunday? This is so offensive it boggles the mind that some person with the NFL would say, Let’s show the world this great advice about obstructing justice from a Hall of Fame hero to impressionable rookies. Also: How could NFL VP Troy Vincent, who is in charge of the symposium, have allowed Carter to spew such venom? Carter, by the way, wasin his yellow Pro Football Hall of Fame blazer. In all ways, this is the biggest example of inmates running the NFL asylum that I’ve seen in years.
• Quietly, a message got sentSunday. I found it very interesting Sunday that 49ers CEO Jed York—who has a chance to be a smart future steward of the game—retweeted an Adam Schefter message about Patriots president Jonathan Kraft saying it might be time to reconsider how player discipline is handled by the NFL. This stemmed from Kraft telling The Sports Hub radio station in Boston on Friday, “I think the world has changed and the complexity of some of the situations—things that I don't think we ever thought we would be dealing with, we're dealing with … There probably needs to be a rethinking so that the league office and the commissioner aren’t put in a spotlight in a way that detracts from the league’s image and the game.” York and the younger Kraft are two of the most respected leaders of tomorrow the league has. Interesting that they, like many league followers, seem to want Roger Goodell out of the unending quicksand of problem cases.
• The fallout over Terrell Suggs’ hit on Sam Bradford continued. I side with Suggs, who dived at Bradford because he wasn’t sure if Bradford was going to hand off or keep the ball on a read-option-appearing play in Saturday night’s Ravens-Eagles game. Suggs said if you’re going to call such a play for a quarterback with ACL reconstructions the past two seasons, you do it at your own peril. I absolutely agree with Suggs. Chip Kelly shouldn’t be putting Bradford in such a position to be hit violently anyway—and certainly not in a dumb preseason game.
• Now … was there one piece of good newsSunday? Certainly was. I watched the 49ers practice here Friday, and Aussie Rugby League star Jarryd Hayne, in tight coverage, ran a wheel route and caught a touchdown pass, looking very much like a veteran back—not a man in his third week of his life playing football with pads and a helmet. On Sunday night, against Dallas at Levi’s Stadium, Hayne made a great return, catching a Cowboys punt on his fingertips with his back to the punt team, then wheeling and running 27 yards with it through traffic, having the presence of mind to shift the ball from his right hand to left so he could straight-arm a Dallas defender cleanly in the process. Very rugby-like. Hayne is 6-2 and 220 pounds, and he’ll have to make the 49ers as a returner, backup back and special-teamer. “I always wondered if I’d be able to make it,” he told me. “It got entrenched in my heart maybe two years ago. Being a Christian, having faith, just believing the impossible, I decided to put my faith to the test, pack my bags up, travel to America and give it a crack.” The crack’s been good so far, and he’s got a legitimate chance to make the team after showing well in his first two NFL games. He has five punt returns for a 21.6-yard average, and 13 rushes for 117 yards, a 9.0-yard average. Returning will be a must. “He's making a great case for himself,” coach Jim Tomsula said after Sunday night's game. “He's never played the game and is in the conversation to make the 53-man roster. That's the story.” Listen to my interview with Hayne from Friday, and I think you’ll come away rooting for him.
Now for the other reason I came to Ninerland.
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Lots of reasons to say “Wow” about NaVorro Bowman this morning.
Question to Bowman on Friday: “How long does it take you to get ready to practice or play right now?”
Bowman: “About two hours. The massaging and the bending, the flexing of the knee. Once I do that I have a five-minute period where it just needs to relax and then I’m ready to go.”
Question: “Before the injury, how long would it take you to be ready?”
Bowman: “Nothing. No time.”
What a story. And what a factor he needs to be. You might say it’s almost as important for Bowman to be great for the Niners to win this season as it is for Colin Kaepernick to have a bounce-back year. Look what happened to San Francisco’s D this off-season. No Justin Smith; retired. No Patrick Willis; retired. No Aldon Smith; cut. No Chris Borland to train as the next great inside ’backer; retired, shockingly.
So the heat’s on Bowman, and from watching him at practice Friday (he was a traffic cop at practice, very mobile, and more vocal than I recall) and talking to him afterward, he likes the idea of the pressure.
Bowman sure knows how to make an entrance. Until Sunday night against Dallas, Bowman hadn’t played in a game since shredding multiple left knee ligaments on the ugly goal-line play in the NFC Championship Game in Seattle in January 2014. He played three plays against the Cowboys. From his spot in the nerve center of the Niners defense, Bowman stoned Darren McFadden up the middle for a one-yard gain on first down. He stoned McFadden over right tackle on second down; loss of one. He stopped running back Lance Dunbar on a dumpoff pass from Tony Romo on third down; loss of one. Three plays, three tackles, two of them for losses. That was an impressive three minutes of football right there.
He attributed his strong series to the mental work he did in his year off. “You just try to better yourself,” Bowman told reporters after the game. “I think that’s what the greats do. They find ways to learn in different ways, not just as a player. That’s what the year off gave me. I just want to show that I’m a student of game and not just player.”
On Friday, Bowman didn’t have much trepidation talking about the fateful day, or fateful play, when his left knee got torqued to the side and collapsed by 550 pounds of football player late in the loss at Seattle.
“I thought I ended my career,” Bowman said Friday afternoon in the bowels of Levi’s Stadium. There was no emotion about it. Very clinical. “I knew how my leg was, and how my knee was going off to the side, and you don’t want to see that. Then Dr. [James] Andrews told me there was a possibility I wouldn’t get back to the way I was. So anytime I felt pain going through the rehab, I just thought of that and fought through that.”
Two hours of prep work, daily. Just to be able to practice. Seventeen months of arduous, painful work to try to be NaVorro Bowman, All-Pro linebacker, again … while so much of the team is crashing and burning around him.
Has it been worth it?
Pause. Three, four seconds.
“I don’t play this game for money,” he said. “I play it for respect and ultimately to make it to the Hall of Fame. That’s what drives me. In order to be the best, this work comes with it, and I’m willing to fight through it.”
He said he wants to eventually play pain-free, and he wants to feel like he did two years ago, when he was at the top of his game—and at the top of the game for any inside linebacker playing. He and Willis, together, were state of the art, and no combination was close for second place at inside ’backer among 3-4 teams. He said he doesn’t think he’ll feel that way all season, and he’s not sure exactly how to describe the difference in the knee; he just knows it’s not the same as it was two summers ago.
“I see it coming now,” Bowman said. “I can see the light, and that’s what’s driving me. When camp first started I was able to hit a spin move and that didn’t hurt so now it’s, Can I run through a person? Or get fallen on? Or be able to get up off the ground and not say Ahhhh! [In discomfort.] Those are the things I am still worried about, but it’s going to come one day. But right now, the knee’s on my mind.”
He’s getting used to a lot of new faces. The team’s been blown up, from the coaching staff to the defense, since he last played. Clinical Bowman voice again. “I embrace change,” he said. “We all have to adapt to change. The coaches have jobs, we have jobs. The fact that they need me as a player and as a leader, that’s what drives me also.”
“We are all grown men,” Bowman says of Borland, “and he’s done his research and made his choice so, but … well, for me, you’re going to have to carry me off the field.”
I find one thing about the Niner dynamic fascinating right now. Bowman and Borland, health permitting, were set to be the next great combo platter of inside linebacker for the next three or four years. Bowman’s injury was one of the factors that made Borland play so much last year—and, it turns out, he played very well.
So here’s Bowman, who stones people, playing. And Borland isn’t. Bowman, a Harry Carson block-of-granite type, and Willis keyed a defense that went 14 straight games in 2011 without allowing a rushing touchdown. Three times he was First Team All-Pro, the classic kind of run-stuffer who also had the ability to turn and run with tight ends. Bowman’s fought through it all, and Borland chose another path. Concerned about the impact of football on his long-term health—a rising tide among current players—Borland walked away from the game after one starry season.
“I was shocked,” Bowman said. “I was shocked because he is so young and he’s put so much time into the game and to walk away from it after your first successful year in the NFL, that was mind-boggling to me. We are all grown men, and he’s done his research and made his choice so, but … well, for me, you’re going to have to carry me off the field.”
They’ve already done that once. In Seattle. That’s one of the things that makes this comeback compelling. There’s nothing dramatic about the way Bowman says this. It’s simply his ethos. He’s a man making a choice, the way Borland made his. And the 49ers, in this seismic season, need Bowman desperately, and he knows it.
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Six things you need to know about Peyton Manning, at 39.
1. He still doesn’t have feeling in the fingertips on his right hand. “I can’t feel anything in my fingertips,” Manning said Thursday. “It’s crazy. I’ve talked to a doctor recently who said, Don’t count on the feeling coming back. It was hard for me for about two years, because one doctor told me I could wake up any morning and it might come back. So you wake up every day thinking, Today’s the day! Then it’s not.” I find his production all the more impressive since four neck procedures caused him to miss the 2011 season, and caused him to lose—maybe forever—the comfortable grip on the football. At 36, 37 and 38, his combined completion percentage is 2.8 points higher than in his career before the neck problems; in Indy, he averaged 28.5 touchdown passes per season; in Denver, it’s 43.7. He may play games this year without wearing the glove he used last year, but anytime there’s weather or wind, expect the glove to be worn.
2. He traces the physically crummy end to last season not to age but to a vomitous December night in San Diego. Before the Broncos’ 14th game, in San Diego, Manning says a bug he caught from his sick daughter made him violently ill. “I threw up all night,” he said. “Then, in the game, I moved to the right on a simple scramble and my quad cramped on me. It lingered. I couldn’t shake it the rest of the year. I really studied it hard this off-season, whether it could linger into this year or whether it was isolated. I just think I got dehydrated, and that caused it. I don’t think you can blame it on my age. It was just an isolated thing. I’ve made it through every other season, and this off-season I went through a state of the union physically, if you will, and I started training earlier and made some dietary changes.” He’s confident about his health, to be sure. But he also knows there’s no insurance for 39-year-old quarterbacks.
3. John Elway The Boss feels bad about not being able to be John Elway Of The Fraternity of Quarterbacks. The Broncos were looking for some Manning insurance, in case he came up hobbling again this year, and were looking for some cap savings, too. So Elway, the Broncos’ GM, cut Manning’s salary by $4 million; he can make it up in incentives, but the cut was awkward for both sides. “That was really hard,” Elway said on the side of the practice field at camp. “The conversation was hard. A lot of times, as much as you like to say you want those things to stay business, they always end up being a little personal. That’s the hard part, because I have a great deal of respect for Peyton. I think, hopefully, Peyton will be able to look back in a few years, especially if we have a really good year, and see that, ultimately, the decision was made to give us the best chance to go out and win a Super Bowl this year. That, ultimately, is the best thing for Peyton Manning—even though, of course, it was $4 million.”
4. Manning got advice from Derek Jeter on the contract thing. Manning’s wife, Ashley, weighed in too, importantly. “I talked about it with Ashley, about what I wanted to do, and I wanted to be here,” he said. And Jeter told him: “Do what you want—not what they want.” Basically, with who knows how much time left in his career, he didn’t want to start over, and he knew he had a chance to win a title if he stayed in Denver.
5. There are offensive line concerns in front of Manning—major ones. When has this happened: All three starters on the left side of the line have never played an NFL regular-season or playoff snap. “We’re still working on it,” Elway said. “We’re looking at all options. If we can find a player who can help us there as the season approaches, we’ll look at it.” Rookie left tackle Ty Sambrailo (second round), left guard Max Garcia (fourth round) and center Matt Paradis (sixth round, 2014, practice squad all last year) are the men under the microscope. Expect the Broncos to deal a low-round pick for someone’s line depth, or to pick up a lineman—probably a guard—on waivers.
6. The Broncos will likely do the Romo thing this year, and give Manning every Wednesday off. Just for insurance—and so the Broncos can see a little more of Brock Osweiler getting quality time with the first unit. “I think that’s the plan right now,” Elway said. “I think he’d feel better right now if he takes Wednesday off. His health is not a concern. His freshness is a concern.”
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OXNARD, Calif. — You think this team doesn’t have one foot out the door to L.A.?
What a scene here Monday and Tuesday, when the Rams, after a Friday night preseason game in Oakland, scheduled a couple of days of work against the Cowboys at their training complex here. It was enough to see the Rams fans, who outnumbered the Dallas fans by 2-to-1 (my estimate) Tuesday, be nuts for that team; one even had a huge flat-head cutout of owner Stan Kroenke in the crowd. Imagine fans cheering for Stan Kroenke. Amazing. He’s not exactly a fan favorite in St. Louis.
But there was something else here, and that’s the embrace of the alumni, who were out in force to see the new edition of the team, gone from the market for a generation.
On Monday and Tuesday, the Rams did a morning walk-through practice near their hotel between Los Angeles and Oxnard. In one of those sessions, coach Jeff Fisher stuck his head into the offensive huddle and said, “Guys, I’m putting Eric Dickerson in the backfield, and you’re going to block power for Eric Dickerson.” Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson, he meant. And Dickerson took a handoff in this walkthrough practice, ran through a hole, and folks cheered.
“Then,” said Fisher, “Eric walked over and stood next to [first-round pick] Todd Gurley. The resemblance between the two of them was awesome.”
• THE RAMS ARE READY TO FIGHT: Greg Bishop, reporting from an intense Rams/Cowboys joint practice in Oxnard, Calif., says the St. Louis defensive line is among the best in the league, which leaves playoff hopes on the shoulders of new quarterback Nick Foles
Regarding the NFL’s future in Los Angeles, one of the things several owners are very bullish on is how Rams owner Kroenke is throwing the league a low-cost life preserver for NFL Network, NFL.com and related NFL digital properties. There's an expansive plan for a new facility and multipurpose theater at the stadium complex in Inglewood that Kroenke is planning. NFL Network is currently crammed into its facility in nearby Culver City, and I talked to one owner who believes Kroenke’s multimillion-dollar savior plan for the network and the league’s digital enterprise will be a big factor in what the league decides to do with the Los Angeles market.
If the Rams are the choice of the owners, which is no sure thing but something I’m growing more to see is the preferred route, I could see them playing in Los Angeles next year and 2017 (and maybe ’18) while the stadium is built. As for the other two stadium-seekers in California, there’s growing sentiment that if the Spanos family can’t get the new stadium it badly wants in San Diego, the Chargers could be the second team in Inglewood. In that scenario, the Raiders would have to fend for themselves. But we’re still months away from a resolution, and that could change dramatically.
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RENTON, Wash. — Nothing changes for Russell Wilson.
Ten minutes before the official start of Seahawks practice, on a pristine field a short spiral east of Lake Washington, Russell Wilson is throwing to the tight ends. Fast. Snap, set up, throw, over and over. I’m guessing before practice even started he’s thrown 30 or 40 passes in anger. I’ve seen this movie before: last year, and the year before. Super Bowl win, Super Bowl loss.
I used this quote in my Darrell Bevell story last week, but it’s worth reading again, because it’s the essence of Wilson: “Nothing changes,” Wilson said after practice. “That’s the great thing about our team and the guys we have on our team. I love the game too much, man. Love the game and respect the game too much. You can’t just let the days go by. God only gives you a certain amount of days and you never know how many days that is. I’d be at fault if I let one of the days go by. I can’t and I won’t.”
The quarterback who threw the interception heard ’round the world in the Super Bowl last February and made Malcolm Butler a household name doesn’t seem much worse for wear. In the off-season, he got a new famous girlfriend (singer Ciara), a $21.9-million-a-year contract starting in 2016, and an audience with the president. The interception might be in a place deep inside him, burrowing a hole he’ll always feel. But if it is, Wilson’s doing a good job hiding it. Or pretending it’s not there. He said he’s watched the doomed slant from the 1-yard line “probably a hundred-plus times.”
“Now that you’ve studied it,” I asked, “did you do anything wrong on the play?”
“I think as a quarterback you want to find a way to win, however that may be,” Wilson said. “That’s what I did wrong. If I could have done one thing different, it would have been to score, to find a way to score.”
There’s enough blame to go around on the play: from the play-call, and not using the back with the hot hand, Marshawn Lynch, on a safer second-down call from the one; from the first receiver in the two-man stack to the right, Jermaine Kearse, not getting free of New England cornerback Brandon Browner so he could legally pick Malcolm Butler and leave the second man, Ricardo Lockette, free to catch the Super Bowl-winning touchdown; and to Wilson, because he threw it.
• 'I WOULDN'T CHANGE IT': Darrell Bevell made the Super Bowl play call that’s been second-guessed into oblivion. For the first time in detail, the Seattle coordinator discusses why the Seahawks chose to pass, what went wrong and how he handled the fallout
Wilson said it took about a week before he got over it. Since then, his off-season has been pretty much the same as his others work-wise—just a bit more spotlighted because he’s dating a celebrity. And he said he is convinced his approach wouldn’t have changed this off-season whether he’d completed that pass to his own man on Feb. 1 … or to Butler.
“My ring finger would probably be a little bit heavier,” he said, “but mentally, yeah, my approach would have to be the same.”
He went on. “Once I got back to work, you really realize it’s still no different. Every year the goal is, ‘Can you keep your mentality the same?’ No matter what the circumstances are, can you stay laser focused on the idea of what can you do for the next moment? That’s the trick. If you ask any great players—and I’ve had the fortune to be around a lot of great players—Derek Jeter to Michael Jordan to other quarterbacks who have played the game—one of the common things that I always heard from them is, Can you be consistent? On the field in your play and your approach to the practice and the games, and can you also be consistent in your mind? My mental coach, Trevor Moawad, has this idea: conscious competence. You already know what it takes. Just trust it … If you want to be great at something, yeah you can be talented but if you want to be consistently great at something, consistent to have the opportunity to get there over and over again, you’re going to have some bumps in the road. But there is only one option, and that is to put the work in every day. No matter how great the moment was before or how bad it was before, you can’t let it affect the next moment.
“Losing the Super Bowl is tough. But I have no complaints. I want to win every time I step on the field. I hate losing. But at all costs, if I can keep my mind focused on the good and moving forward, just like I did when we lost in Atlanta my rookie year, and then the next year we go to the Super Bowl, that’s the job.”
Seattle's quarterback coach, Carl Smith, and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell both said Wilson’s the exact same guy this summer, post-contract and post-calamitous interception. Time will tell if it will have any long-term impact on him, but for now, Wilson, 42-14 in his first three remarkable years, walks and talks and practices like the same player he’s been since he walked on campus in May 2012.
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OXNARD, Calif. — The Lasorda Chronicles.
When you go on the road to training camps, there are some days you know fun things might happen. On a trip to Cowboys camp, for instance. Last Tuesday, I walked into Cowboys PR VP Rich Dalrymple’s office at camp—a converted Marriott Residence Inn room, right by the practice fields—and who was sitting there chewing the fat with Dalrymple? Tommy Lasorda. I introduced myself, told him I’d covered some Reds in the early ’80s, knew John McNamara—and we were off to story land. A couple of minutes after I entered, in walked the man Lasorda had come to see: Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. The two struck up a friendship last year when Garrett sat in Lasorda’s box at a Dodgers game.
The conversation was so good I thought the best way to relay it was to give you a seat in one of the chairs in the room, across from Dalrymple’s desk, and let you just listen to Lasorda, 87, tell his tales. I’ve cleaned up some of the language, but to get the full Lasorda treatment, you’ve got to have some of the color and pageantry of his adjectives and nouns.
Lasorda: “When I met this guy [Garrett], I said, ‘What a f---ing nice guy he is. I said one thing, I don’t know anything about professional football, but I know one thing—he was walking that high wire for his job. And I could tell he’s a damn good coach. So I said I gotta go help that guy. I want to make sure that he keeps his job. I wanted to talk to the team, and so last year I did. I want these f---ers to win for him. I gave them a pretty good talk.”
Garrett: “He’s talked to a lot of teams. And every team he talks to wins.”
King: “What’d you tell them?”
Lasorda: “I said, ‘Do you want to win? I’ll tell you how to win. Every one of you guys get on one end of the f---ing rope and pull together. You play for the name on the front of your shirt, not for the name on the back. You’re one team!!’ And I said to ’em: ‘From this day until next year this same day, I will probably speak to a million people. And lemme tell you something. If you don’t get to the Super Bowl I will tell a million people how f---ing horse---- you are!’”
Garrett: “Did you come to the playoff game against Detroit?”
Lasorda: “I was there! And we should have won. What about that catch?”
King: “The Dez Bryant catch that wasn’t a catch?”
Lasorda: “That was the greatest catch I ever saw in my life, and they took it away from them. Otherwise they’d have been playing Seattle.”
King: “For the NFC Championship Game.”
Lasorda: “That’s right, yeah. We had it! The guy caught the ball! He’s got the ball! Wasn’t it the 1-yard line or something? What a f---ing joke that was. I was kicking everything around.”
King: “Wait a minute. You grew up in Norristown, Pa., an Eagles fan. How can you love the Cowboys?”
Lasorda: “You see, I have great friends. Andy Reid is a good friend of mine. The coach from the St. Louis Rams, Dick Vermeil, was a friend of mine. Jeff Fisher, he’s a USC guy, the guy in Nashville, he’s a friend of mine. So Mike Scioscia came to me one day, digging at me, and said, ‘Hey Tommy, you ain’t worth s---. These coaches you say you’re close to, they don’t like you. Andy Reid and Vermeil and Fisher, those coaches don’t like you.’ I said, ‘Scioscia, you SOB, I’ll show you.’ I got Andy Reid on the phone. He was in a meeting, and he said, ‘Hey, I came out of a meeting! What do you want?’ And I said, Scioscia said you pull for the Angels.’ He said, ‘Tell Scioscia he’s full of s---.’ So then I called Fisher up and said, ‘Scioscia is saying you don’t like the Dodgers.’ And he said, ‘Tell him he’s full of s---.’ Scioscia got to me. Anyway, I got to meet this guy right here and then my heart went out to him. I just happened to take a liking to him, I liked the way he talked. And I wanted to try to do something for him. So I said, ‘Let me talk to that f---ing team.’ ”
Garrett: “You gotta tell these guys the Sandy Koufax story.”
Lasorda: “Okay anyway, Koufax. [In 1954 when I was a pitcher] I have a god---- good spring training with the Dodgers, trying to make the ball club. We go into Brooklyn to open the season, and I get a call from Buzzie Bavasi, the general manager, to come to his office. I walk in and he said, ‘Tommy, I’ve got a problem.’ I said, ‘What’s the matter Buzzie? One of your relatives sick?’ He said, ‘No, I have to send somebody out. I have to cut one guy out of this ball club, Tommy.’ I said, ‘You didn’t bring me in here to tell me that! No! I won 17 games in f---ing Triple-A last year! What do I have to do to show you I can pitch here? You’re going to keep Koufax over me? No!! He’s a f---ing guy who can’t throw a ball and hit a f---ing barn door! And you’re going to keep him over me?!’ He said, ‘Look Tommy, you’ve gotta go.’ So, I went. So like I say, it took the greatest left-handed pitcher in baseball to knock me off of that Brooklyn team. That was my claim to fame.”
King: “Seems like the rivalry is missing from baseball now. Football too. Guys are pretty friendly.”
Dalrymple: “Our guys pray with the other team on the field after the game.”
Lasorda: “If I saw my players ever talking to the other players, I would chew their ass out. Get the f--- off the field! Don’t talk to them SOBs! You might have to go break up a double play and knock him off a base, and you’re talking to him? They hug each other and everything now. I would never shake hands with the f---ing other team when they beat us. Why shake hands? We are trying to beat their ass, we ain’t shaking hands with the enemy!”
Club vice president Charlotte Anderson, daughter of Jerry Jones, walks in. Sees Lasorda.
Anderson: “How great for you to be here!”
Lasorda: “I feel like I belong here. I really do. [Looking at Garrett] I did one thing in my life that I am proud of. I got him a long contract.”
Garrett: “It worked. Tommy, compare the great guys. Was Ted Williams really the best?”
Lasorda: “Best hitter I ever saw, without a doubt. I’m pitching for Kansas City. We’re playing the Red Sox in KC, and Alex Kellner, a left-hander, is pitching for us. The count goes to 3-2 on Williams, and there comes a pitch and he takes it. Strike three. You never see that happen to Ted Williams. So we had a coach with us who was a coach for many years with Ted. This guy says, ‘That’s it. He’s finished.’ I said, ‘He probably thought the ball was outside.’ He said, ‘No, no, he would have let that ball go by if it was outside. It wasn’t outside.’ Anyway, same game Williams comes up, Kellner side-armed him again. Out in right field in KC, they had a fence and then a bank and then another high fence, and across the street was a house. Williams hit the f---ing house with that home run! So I guess Williams wasn’t finished after all.”
Then Garrett was off to practice. I was too. But about the time Lasorda tried to pick a fight with ump Harry Wendelstadt and Wendelstadt wouldn’t run Lasorda, well, don’t get Tommy started on that one …
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Welcome, Amy K. Nelson, to our team.
I’m pleased to announce that we’re going to be doing more dedicated video stories at The MMQBthis season, self-contained pieces from all across the spectrum of football. When we decided this was something we wanted to do, I thought, “I wonder if we could get Amy K. Nelson to come work for us.” I really have admired her work, going back to the superb video piece she did for ESPN on baseball umpire Jim Joyce, who blew the Armando Galarraga perfect game in 2009 with a terrible call at first base, humbly admitted his error, and made amends with the forgiving Galarraga. Beautiful story. She was our first-round draft choice, and she has agreed to do some work for us this season. We’re thrilled to have her aboard.
Her first story will be on our site this week, fittingly with a Katrina theme in the 10th-anniversary week of the hurricane striking the Gulf Coast. Nelson, a freelance writer, photographer and video journalist living in New Orleans now, found a perfect story for us. It’s the story of high school football coach Cyril Crutchfield, who nearly drowned in his small-town Louisiana high school gym after misjudging the power of Katrina. In the days and years after the storm, Crutchfield helped rebuild his town and his team; two years after Katrina, Crutchfield and his players won the first of consecutive state championships. He had planned on retiring in the tiny fishing village, his hero status cemented. But a controversy in 2010 resulted in Crutchfield leaving and ended the feel-good story. A decade later, the town he left and the people who need him most are asking whether he can ever come back. I love the story, and when we put it up this week, I think you will too.
“Living in New Orleans the last nine months,” Nelson said Sunday, “the biggest misconception I've understood is that this city has rebounded back. That is so often, and for so many, not true. I've been curious about the space between—that space that exists when the Katrina redemption stories were cycled through, and then what happened in the years since? This story is a perfect example of that: What happened when the Hollywood sports story had a different ending, a second act? Ten years later, I wanted to know more about what happened when life went on after the story suddenly shifted for a coach and this small town he thought he'd spend the rest of his life in.”
I’m so glad Nelson chose to tell some stories for us. She worked for ESPN for seven years and later for SB Nation, where she produced and hosted her own sports documentary series. Please let us know what you think of her first story for us later this week.
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Quotes of the Week
“It’s intoxicating. It’s a drug, a drug that gives you the most incredible feeling there is. Outside of sexual intercourse, there's probably nothing like it. But fun is the wrong word for it. I don't consider football fun. It's not like a water park, or a baseball game.”
—Former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, on football, in a terrific longform story on ESPN.com by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru about the post-football life of Borland
The story is good because it describes the torment Borland feels about walking away from a sport he loves, and the legitimate question about whether people should play tackle football. Well worth your time.
“When you run the read option, you have to know the rules. If you want to run the read option with a starting quarterback that’s had two knee surgeries, that’s on you. It’s not my responsibility to update you on the rule. I could have hit him harder on that. I didn’t.”
—Ravens pass rusher Terrell Suggs, after hitting quarterback Sam Bradford in the left knee in Saturday night’s preseason game against the Eagles. The Eagles were ticked off because Bradford handed off on the play and thought Suggs, who was penalized for a late hit, took a cheap shot.
Whether Suggs had malice on the play, I don’t know. I don’t know why he would. But I don’t know how Suggs said he could have hit him harder. He lunged quite hard into Bradford’s knee.
“L-A-RAMS! L-A-RAMS! L-A-RAMS!”
—Thousands of fans chanting at a practice between the St. Louis Rams and Dallas Cowboys on Tuesday at the Cowboys’ training camp field in Oxnard, Calif.
What made the display interesting was that at least two-thirds of the fans on hand that day identified as Ram fans. You don't often see a road team in a practice or game setting dominate the local crowd, but that’s what the Rams fans did in Oxnard.
—San Francisco GM Trent Baalke, asked how and where he scouted Australian Rugby League star Jarryd Haynes, who now has a legitimate chance to make the team after not playing football until this spring.
“This crew might need eight preseason games to get ready.”
—Arizona coach Bruce Arians, Saturday night, not enamored with the work of Walt Coleman’s eight-official crew at the Chargers-Cardinals game.
Stats of the Week
The Rams host Seattle on opening weekend. In the past three seasons, Seattle is 1-2 at the Edward Jones Dome and 41-12 in all other stadiums.
Perhaps more worrisome for this year’s offensive-line-challenged Seahawks: Russell Wilson’s been sacked at a rate of 2.4 times per game in his career. In his past two games at St. Louis, he’s been sacked 10 times.
In the past 22 months, Carson Palmer is 13-2 as a Cardinals starting quarterback.
In the past 22 years, the Bengals haven’t won a playoff game. They’re 0-6 (two Palmer losses, four Andy Dalton losses).
MLB Payrolls We Have Loved Dept.:
Los Angeles Dodgers (14 games over .500) payroll: $298.5 million.
Combined payroll of Pittsburgh, Houston, Kansas City (61 over .500): $300.6 million.
Scene of the Week
This happened at Dallas camp, with the Cowboys’ first-team offense driving down the field against the St. Louis first-team defense. The two teams had been fighting for much of the past 20 minutes, and when Tony Romo came to the line of scrimmage, the Rams’ 3-yard line, another skirmish broke out on the adjacent field, all the way at the other end.
Ten of the Rams on defense, across from Romo, began running to join the fight. Romo looked around. It was 11 Cowboys against one Ram now. “If they want to fight,” Romo said later, “let ’em fight. We’re gonna score.” He handed the ball to a back (didn’t see which one) and Dallas, indeed, scored an 11-on-1 touchdown.
Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
The Seattle Seahawks’ decidedly non-Legion of Boom-like first-unit nickel secondary in practice last Monday:
Left corner: Tye Smith, rookie fifth-round pick from Towson.
Right corner: Cary Williams, unrestricted free agent, last with Philadelphia.
Slot corner: Marcus Burley, acquired in trade with Indianapolis last year.
Free safety: Ronald Martin Jr., rookie from LSU.
Strong safety: Dion Bailey, undrafted second-year player from USC.
Where Are They Now from Super Bowl:
Left corner Richard Sherman (hip flexor) isn’t seriously hurt and should be fine for the start of the season.
Right corner Byron Maxwell signed a six-year, $63-million free-agent contract with Philadelphia.
Slot corner Jeremy Lane (torn ACL, broken arm) likely won’t play until at least October after his gruesome Super Bowl injuries on the same play.
Free safety Earl Thomas (torn labrum, left shoulder) is hoping to be ready to play opening day, but that’s no sure thing.
Strong safety Kam Chancellor (contract holdout) is nowhere in sight.
“We’ll be fine,” Richard Sherman said the other day.
In case you’re wondering why Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys will always have a training-camp presence in the Los Angeles area (their camp this summer is in Oxnard, an hour west of Hollywood), think of this one word: glitter. Jones loves being around the beautiful people—because they’re beautiful and because their presence shows the overarching popularity of the Cowboys. Here are a few of the bright lights who were around the team:
At Tuesday's practice: Actors Ty Burrell (of “Modern Family”) and Jamie Foxx; former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda; and former NFL great Rosey Grier.
At a Wednesday evening media party at glitzy Nobu, on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu: Vince Vaughn, Cindy Crawford, Al Michaels, Troy Aikman. Just outside the party, at a table eating dinner: John McEnroe and former NHL great Chris Chelios.
This was a couple of days after Denzel Washington watched practice from the sidelines.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Notes of the Week
Two from Friday: I flew from Denver to San Jose early in the morning to see the Niners during the day, then flew later from San Jose to Phoenix.
On the morning flight, I sat next to a 20-ish woman with bright blue long cornrows and the large tattooed word “WATEVER” (spelled exactly that) on her forearm. She slept most of the way, her legs splayed into my space so I had to put my legs in the aisle for much of the flight. That was interesting.
On the later flight, a Japanese boy, about 5 or 6, sat in the middle seat of our row, with me on the aisle. He was exceedingly polite. He had to get up twice to use the restroom, and each time he said he was sorry. While seated, he devoured a large picture book about dinosaurs, and pulled out a folder of dinosaur drawings that I am assuming he made. Busy the entire flight, he nodded off maybe 15 minutes before landing in Phoenix, his sleeping head landing with a thud on my right upper arm. There it stayed until we landed. The kid was out cold. When we got to the gate, he was still on my arm, and I gently got up and lifted the arm rest … and he just lay down on my seat for a couple of minutes until his dad woke him up. Really a cute kid and a cute airplane moment.
Tweets of the Week
I always pictured Philbin as more of an “Amy” guy. No?
Love Andy Benoit’s observational Tweets.
The Astros shortstop was commenting how small he felt (a la 5-7 shortstop Jose Altuve) while visiting the city’s NFL team.
The Baltimore Ravens guard is a mathematician and Penn State adjunct research assistant in math.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think if you wanted to tell me that San Diego pass-rusher Melvin Ingram will lead the NFL in sacks this year, I would not argue with you. What a get-off—as coaches say—Ingram has. He showed it Saturday night with two sacks early against Arizona. Ingram’s had a star-crossed injury history since being the Chargers’ top pick in 2012, missing 19 games, but he looked like Justin Houston around the edge on one sack Saturday night.
2. I think it feels very much like you can see the end for Robert Griffin III in Washington. It started last year, with the blunt criticism of Griffin from his head coach, and it continues with subpar play this summer, and another mini-controversy last week, when he said he thought he was the best quarterback in the NFL. Which would be hilarious if it wasn’t so ridiculous. Then, former Washington return man Brian Mitchell, now with CSN Mid-Atlantic, went off in an epic rant addressed to Griffin. “You need to shut the hell up and start playing football,” Mitchell said on air, via Pro Football Talk. “That will make you important. Win football games in this city, and you would have this city at the palm of your hands. You had it, and you’re starting to lose it because you talk. And there a lot of people that were supporting him that are now starting to turn their back, because they see a guy who seems to be so full of himself and not doing what he’s supposed to be doing. You came here to be a football player, not a damn philosopher.” Mitchell capped it by saying the team has enabled Griffin too much, and not told him the harsh truth when he needs to hear it: “He does a lot of stupid stuff, and it’s about time he hears it instead of people kissing his tail all the damn time.” It’s compounded by the fact that Colt McCoy has had a good camp and is highly respected by the coaching staff. Especially after Griffin was knocked out of the team’s second preseason game. Seems like this has been said a lot, at the beginning of many weeks in the past year, but this is a big week for Griffin’s immediate and long-term future in Washington. (Photo Gallery: RG III's House of Pain.)
3. I think you’re owed an explanation from me, in the wake of Ben Volin of the Boston Globe writing Sunday that it wasn’t just Chris Mortensen who got a bum steer from someone in the NFL about the deflated footballs in the AFC title game. Volin said it was me, too. I reported after Mortensen’s story that 11 of the 12 footballs were at least two pounds per square inch under the minimum limit of 12.5 psi when tested by the league at halftime. I reported that I’d heard “reliably” that the story of the footballs being at least two psi under the minimum limit was correct. As I said on Twitter on Sunday, I believe the person who told me this believed the story was accurate when, obviously, it clearly was not. So, were we used by someone to get a storyline out in public? Maybe … but the reason I’m skeptical about this is because with the knowledge that there would be a full investigation and clearly the air pressure in the footballs would be publicized at some point, the league would look stupid for putting out false information that would eventually come back to embarrass it. Clearly, this story, along with the Ray Rice story from last fall, has made me question sources and sourcing in general, and in a story as inflammatory as this one, you can’t just take the story of a person whose word you trust as gospel. It’s my error. I need to be better than that. Readers, and the Patriots, deserve better than that.
4. I think no player had as disturbing a weekend as kicker Blair Walsh of the Vikings. Walsh, one of the best young kickers in the game, hasn’t had a good summer, but that rose to new heights against the Raiders at home. He missed an extra point and all three field-goal tries he had. So he missed 33-, 35-, 38- and 49-yard kicks (the 33-yarder being the length of the extra point now). Imagine missing three kicks between 30 and 39 yards in a game. That matches Walsh’s total misses between 30 and 39 yards in his three-year career. The Vikings are trying not to show their concern, but the guy has missed five kicks in two preseason games now. Keep an eye on that story.
5. I think Marcell Dareus is a top-10 NFL defensive tackle. Ndamukong Suh he’s not. If the Bills offered Dareus $15 million a year, as was reported over the weekend, and he turned it down because he wants Suh money, my feeling is he’s misreading the market. J.J. Watt, far and away the best defensive player in football (better than Suh), signed for $16.67 million a year last year; Suh signed a deal averaging $19 million this year. It’s fair that Dareus is the third-highest paid defensive lineman, but there’d be no way in a responsible salary structure that I’d pay him more than Watt. Never mind that he’s twice been disciplined for being late to team activities, and was cited for drag-racing in Buffalo and suspended for a game because of it. Dareus has a case for a rich contract, but not richer than Watt’s.
6. I think this is bad news for the future of Chris Cooley in Washington: New tight end Derek Carrier, acquired in trade with San Francisco on Friday, will be wearing number 47. For all either outside the Beltway or just casual fans of tight-end numbers in recent NFL seasons, that was Cooley’s number. He wants to play again, badly, and his old team sent him a message with that news Saturday.
7. I think this was a first: I interviewed Tony Romo the other night at Cowboys camp, and he brought his own soundtrack: a boom box with Bruce Springsteen playing at a moderate volume. During our chat, he interrupted his football chatter when “Wrecking Ball” came on.
Romo: “Do you know this song?”
Me: “Yeah. The old Giants Stadium song. Saw him play this at the Meadowlands.”
Romo: “I love this song.” (Singing) Through the mud and the beer, the blood and the cheers … I’ve seen champions come and go.
Me: “It’s funny—he’s not a sports fan really, but he’s written a lot about the Giants. He kind of likes the Giants.”
Romo: “That’s cool. We’ll forgive him for that.” (More singing)
Me: “How many times have you seen him?”
Romo: (chagrined look) “One.”
Me: “Come on! You gotta go again!”
Romo: “I know, I know.”
8. I think this falls into the category of Far Be It From Me To Tell a Team Its Business, but if I were the 49ers, with all the turf problems they’ve had at Levi’s Stadium, I wouldn’t be having Taylor Swift doing two shows in the preseason (Aug. 14 and 15) at the stadium, necessitating a new turf installation for the first preseason home game Aug. 23, and I wouldn’t have Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line doing a show Aug. 29 inside the stadium, five nights before the second home preseason game Sept. 3. The Niners and the city of Santa Clara have an understanding that revenue-producing events like the mega-popular concerts will be sought for the stadium. That makes business sense. But there ought to be a line of demarcation. Something like: All concerts should be scheduled between March 1 and Aug. 10. After that, it’s got to be all football. Particularly in a year such as this one—with Super Bowl 50 to be played in February—the turf inside Levi’s Stadium should be priority one, two and three when scheduling events at the stadium. The reputation of the turf around the league right now is brutal. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said this three days before Sunday’s game at the stadium between the Cowboys and Niners: “I’m confident that the league will make sure that field is safe for everybody to play or we won’t play the game.” Yikes.
9. I think the Cowboys deserve credit for recruiting La’el Collins hard and signing him as a rookie free-agent after the draft … but 31 other teams deserve blame for not using a sixth- or seventh-round pick to take him on draft day. Pro Football Focusnamed him the top-rated rookie of the first full weekend of the preseason, and people in camp told me last week he’s been terrific in all phases with the second unit. I don’t expect him to stay second-team for the season.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Out here in training-camp land, where I don’t turn on the TV, I noticed the “STOCKS PLUMMET” headline in Saturday’s New York Times, and immediately went to examine the Friday night NFL game summaries. It’s that time of year, the time when real life gets suspended for a while.
b. I think having a The MMQB-stylesite for covering the 2016 election would be an awful lot of fun right now. I think I’d have Klemko writing a daily Trump story, and Vrentas doing a what’s-wrong-with-Hillary’s-campaign takeout right about now.
c. Really good story by Sal Maiorana of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicleabout little-known Bills co-owner Kim Pegula, who was abandoned by her birth parents in Seoul at age 5, adopted by a New York couple and raised in upstate New York.
d. One more year, Vin Scully. Please.
e. In the midst of this bizarro-world bad Red Sox season, I note that, in the span of eight-and-a-third innings last week, Boston got 25 hits and 18 runs off King Felix and Johnny Cueto.
f. You just can’t predict baseball, Suzyn. You really can’t.
g. Not saying Dave Dombrowski wasn’t a good hire by the Red Sox. But just for the record: Boston made a change because the current franchise architect spent huge money on players (Sandoval, Porcello, Hanley) who are not huge-money players. And the franchise now has hired an architect who spent huge money on players (other than Miguel Cabrera and maybe Victor Martinez) who didn’t produce enough to win big. What am I missing? I see the division titles, and it’s important to get in the derby every year, so maybe I’m being too hard on Dombrowski. But the Tigers are 12 over .500 since opening day 2014 (including the playoff three-game sweep last year by the Orioles). Going forward, I’d like Boston to be more of a farm-system team and less of a free-agent team. Too many Crawford/Hanley mistakes in big-money land.
h. Cool story, Tim Rohan, on Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom’s hair. Rohan consistently makes chicken salad from a tough beat to cover.
i. Congrats on the no-hitter, Mike Fiers, and for surviving the long road to get there. Amazing to me that he threw 60 pitches in the first three innings of the game and survived to pitch nine.
j. Coffeenerdness: This was a first, driving from the airport in Denver to the Broncos’ practice facility last Thursday: a standalone drive-through Starbucks. No store. Just a skinny little drive-through, on the southeast side of town. No idea such a place existed. Some of their stores could take a lesson from said drive-through: From time of order (three drinks) to pickup of drinks: less than 90 seconds.
k. Beernerdness: Lucky to take a break Thursday night for a couple of beers at a place near Coors Field. Great Colorado brew selection. Tried tastes of several, and went with my old favorite: Avery White Rascal (Avery Brewing Company, Boulder, Colo.).
l. Took Greg Bishop of SIto Coors Field for his first trip there on a lovely night for baseball (Nats/Scherzer-Rockies) Thursday. Good to be joined by one of America’s bright young sportswriting lights, Tim Rohan of the New York Times. Coors has one of the best concession stands in all of sports: a salad bar on the lower concourse between first base and right field. Romaine, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, red onion, with balsamic vinaigrette, topped with chicken, for about $8.
m. Uh, no line in the sixth inning Thursday night. There should have been.
n. Ed Werder has the best avatar on Twitter.
o. Kudos to the following for recent charitable works:
• Radio station WEEI in Boston, and cable-sports giant NESN, for their Jimmy Fund Radio/TV Telethon to raise money to fight cancer in children. They raised $3,351,928. An excellent cause, of course. Kudos to all thoughtful and generous enough to help.
• To Peyton Manning, for founding the Chattanooga Heroes Fund, to raise money for the children and families of the five murdered soldiers in that Tennessee city. Manning has a home there, and he and his family were there around the time of the shootings of the five enlisted men. The fund has already raised substantial money for the seven children and families, and the work is not done.
• To Steve Gleason and the site Evacuteer, the New Orleans-based group that mobilizes, recruits and trains volunteers to move the populace when the region is threatened by a hurricane. As the Katrina anniversary moves closer, such a body is important, and Gleason, who suffers from ALS, wrote a letter to help Evacuteer raise money. “Like this city’s levees in 2005, my invincible body has failed me, but like the residents of a city built 5 feet below sea level, I choose to be an idealist,” Gleason wrote. “We simply must be steadfast, maniacal idealists. When the world sees tragedy, idealists see opportunity.”
p. Last note, speaking of interesting things for good causes: On Sept. 2 from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the Harpoon Brewery in Boston, I’ll be previewing the NFL season with a panel of NFL authorities: former Patriots tackle and all-around bon vivantMatt Light, Greg Bedard of Sports Illustrated, Ron Borges of the Boston Herald, Albert Breer of NFL Network and NFL.com, and Ben Volin of the Boston Globe. For $50, you’ll be the first to taste Harpoon’s new brew and one very near and dear to me, The MMQB Saison; and you’ll get two glasses of any Harpoon beer, an etched commemorative glass, and a Harpoon pretzel. Our friends at Bose have donated a new sound system that we’ll raffle off, so thanks so much to Bose. The evening will benefit a brain tumor charity, the Center for Neuro-Oncology at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. We’re going to have a great night, and I hope you can join us in Boston. By the way, if you’ve not been to the new Harpoon brew pub, you’ll love it. Great scene and great feel to it. Tickets are limited, so reserve yours now.
The Adieu Haiku
So L.A. beckons.
My best guess: Rams in ’16,
Chargers close behind.
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